Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sacramental Reverence

The other night my wife and I attended a(n LDS Church) meeting where the main topic of discussion was reverence (or the lack thereof) in our Sacrament meetings. In most of the wards I have attended over the last couple of decades, it essentially doesn’t exist prior to the opening prayer and after the closing prayer. It exists sporadically throughout the time in between depending on a number of variables.

The leaders who ran the meeting were looking for input from those in attendance as to how to address the problem. Some decent suggestions were made, but most of them only addressed symptoms rather than the root of the issue. I believe that it is important to understand the root of an issue when possible, in order to address it properly.

I perceive several roots to the problem of Sacramental reverence:
  • There has been a significant cultural shift over the last 3-4 decades (at least in North America) so that as a society we no longer hold many things in sacred respect. There has been a homogenization of values, so that every ideal is considered pretty much of equal value to all other ideals. No value or moral is superior to any other. Many people wonder why a chapel is more special than, say a library (until something like 9/11 happens). This philosophy is being institutionalized through multicultural education and policies. Members of the Church, as part of the larger society, accept and adopt this culturalization, even if they lag somewhat behind the main body in doing so.

  • We arrive at Sacrament meeting from disparate locations and at disparate times. People used to come to congregational meetings as families. This was particularly true in the days when Sacrament meeting was a separate meeting held later in the day. (Not that I advocate returning to that schedule). In my current ward, Sacrament meeting is the final meeting of the three-hour block (as mandated by stake leaders), so me, my wife, and each of our children bound into the chapel from varying entry points over a 10-minute period. Of course, leaders have also discovered that when Sacrament meeting is first, it starts with half the congregation present and with latecomers causing plenty of disruption.

  • We are a social people, but we have no place to socialize. We have reduced the footprint of our meetinghouses to make them more efficient and less costly. But in doing so we have minimized spaces where people can socialize outside of the chapel. In our building portions of the cultural hall are used as part of the chapel while remaining portions are used for classes or other meetings. As multitudes move through the narrow hallways, it is impossible to stop for a chat due to traffic flow. Foyers have been reduced so that they comfortably fit maybe 10 people at best. Sometimes the chapel is the only place you see some people in a setting where you can be stationary and hold a conversation.

  • Though we are a social people, we rarely meet in a setting where we can socialize with everyone in the ward. When I was a kid we constantly held ward gatherings. Church leaders have recognized that people are far busier today than they were three decades ago. We spend more overall time working (including the commute), attending school (including homework and activities), and engaged in sports and cultural activities (the options for these have exploded since I was a kid) than we did 3-4 decades ago. We also have a much broader variation in individual schedules. The Church no longer needs to provide activities to fulfill every aspect of life, nor do we have time for it. But the result is that Sacrament meeting is one of the few places we see everyone in the ward. Otherwise we rarely see some people since we are involved in various callings and are doing different things during the time we spend at church. When else would we talk with them?
Most of these are systemic problems that defy easy resolution. We’re not about to change the whole culture. We’re not going away from our compressed meeting schedule, nor are we going to increase activities substantially (if we did attendance would be poor). We’re not going to make our buildings larger. Not only would it cost more, it would require substantial reconstruction of existing facilities.

So what can we do?
  • Leaders (especially high level leaders) can repeatedly and bluntly emphasize the importance of Sacramental reverence. I’ve noticed that when leaders strongly and repeatedly emphasize something in an unambiguous manner the people generally get behind it and find ways to make it work.

  • Leaders (local) can demonstrate reverence themselves. Perhaps I and others that sit on the stand every week could make a point of entering reverently, getting in our seats early, and being personally reverent before, during and after the meeting. Perhaps we could set an example by socializing and taking care of church business outside of the chapel.
  • As an individual I can resolve to be personally reverent in my mind and heart when in the chapel, especially during Sacrament meeting.

  • As a parent I can host a family council (or perhaps a series of them over time) on reverence in the chapel. I can elicit help from my family members. We can teach each other about it in our family home evening lessons.
I’m sure that if we put our minds to it we can come up with some creative ways to deal with the issue given the parameters we are saddled with.


Anonymous said...

You make a good point about the drawback to having sacrament meeting first, but the alternative is to have it after all the kids (and, let's be honest, the adults) are tired after two hours of meetings. The third hour of the block is the time when attention spans will be at their worst.

Your suggested solutions will likely help. Another possible idea would be to have an informal, unscheduled "social period" in the cultural hall either before or after the block (the catch being that we frequently have multiple wards sharing a building, and when one ward is done with the room, the next ward needs it right away for their meetings).

Scott Hinrichs said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comments.

I received an alternative point of view from a leader in another ward that meets in our building. His take is that the socializing before and after Sacrament meeting is a barometer of the health of his ward. He said, "If people came into the chapel silently and left without talking to anyone else, it would be indicative of some serious problems in my ward." He said that if people are generally reverent during the meeting, that's probably good enough. I think my friend makes an interesting point.

Anonymous said...

I was asked by my bishop once what we he thought could be done to encourage reverence(quiet) in sacrement meeting. I'm not always a (in a mormon way) politically correct sort of person. So I told him that in my opinion that they needed to split the ward. I explained my opinion of critical mass. Basically we had too many people, in particular children under the age of five for the meeting to ever be very quiet. At some point it starts to feed on itself.

To be honest, often I feel when this is pushed hard, that I'm not welcome. I have small children, and in the past I've heard the reverence lectures all the time, and at some point it just starts to get to where, I feel like not going to church.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I too have small children. I often watch helplessly from my vantage point as they pester each other, make plenty of noise, do acrobatics, and even gleefully yell, "Hi, Daddy!" My dedicated wife does her best, and the older ones sometimes respond to my "evil eye" routine, but the whole point is to try to get some church into them, so we live with it.

In a community of imperfect saints, we are called upon to bear one anothers' burdens, and I'm grateful for the other ward members who help bear our family's burdens -- especially the empty nester couple that regularly let our 8-year-old sit by them, thereby, taking him out of the "feeding off each other" equation.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the other ward leader you mentioned -- I don't see this as such a negative. We NEED a chance to talk to our ward neighbors, and if we can't do it at church, where are we going to do it? It's a sign of a friendly, welcoming ward. I've noticed that too many LDS leaders think reverence means quietness. We over-simplify things in the church by teaching kids that they're reverent if they're just quiet. But if they're ignoring us quietly, that's still not reverence. Reverence is much more active than just shutting up! It's the act of revering something, right? I revere the brotherhood and sisterhood that exists in a friendly ward, and I like to celebrate it by sharing a little joy with my neighbors at church.