Several months ago our bishop started off a combined 5th Sunday (3rd hour) meeting showing a PowerPoint of data his counselor had crunched. Sacrament meeting attendance (along with home teaching and other statistics) has been trending down ever since our ward was created over a year ago.
The bishop, who isn't known for his sense of humor (or warmth, for that matter), asked: "What does this mean?" I quietly leaned towards my wife and jokingly said: "Time to fire the bishopric". Thankfully only the couple in front of me heard, and I'm glad they laughed because it truly was a joke--obviously it's not all the bishops fault. Yet at the same time, while sacrament meeting "worship" is largely a personal experience, I do feel more can be done to improve the quality of the group "worship" experience during our sacrament meetings (and consequently improve the attendance at those meetings).
The bishop then asked us all why we thought this downward trend was happening. A few answers were given, none of which seemed to resonate with anyone, including the bishop. He went on to speak about "rescuing" and how we need to "rescue" others so that they come to church--which struck me as the wrong answer simply because they're not falling overboard--they're jumping ship. People have come to expect lifeless and sub-par sacrament meetings and don't seem to miss much of a spiritual experience when they're not present. As the bishop continued, he mentioned that it's his responsibility to oversee gospel teaching in the ward, and I agreed and raised my hand. Here was my chance to say what I was thinking by piggybacking on his comment. I said:
"I think you've hit the nail on the head with the importance of teaching. Too often we content ourselves with boring and lifeless meetings rather than fill them with meaning and making them truly edifying. I'm reminded of the quote by President Kimball where he said that "We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come".
I recited it by heart because I had just barely looked it up on my smart phone to make sure I got it right. But the full quote would have been great too:
"Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. The Savior has told us to feed his sheep (see John 21:15-17). I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed [Elder Holland uses the word uninspired]. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come." ~ Spencer W. Kimball, "Ministering to the Needs of Members," Ensign, Nov 1980, 45.
In response to my comment, the ward clerk (who admits to being a grumpy kind of guy--"I don't smile") states from his seat up on the stand a familiar platitude, something like: "It's our fault if the meeting is boring, because it's an individual responsibility to get something out of the meeting".
I secretly roll my eyes and wait for him to finish before offering a rejoinder: "I agree with you but only up to a point. I do believe I have a personal responsibility to worship and get the most out of a meeting--yes. But if I were sick and go to a doctor, the doctor isn't going to tell me 'well, it's your responsibility to get well. Come on--what's wrong with you?!' There is a TWO way relationship and responsibility there. And sometimes I think the sentiment you expressed is used as a cop out to go ahead and be content with boring meetings."
Thankfully another sister, whose husband is not a member but attends sacrament meeting with her, spoke up and agreed with me (although she put things much nicer and far less bluntly)--mentioning that her husband can't possibly be expected to know how to "get something out" of a sub-par meeting by himself and feel the spirit on his own.
Apparently it took my speaking out to break the ice. A friend and former counselor in the pre-ward-split bishopric then spoke out and shared something with the large group he had shared with me before privately. "I personally feel, Bishop, that I'm getting that spiritual nourishment in our Sunday school class. [He's told this to my wife before too because she was the teacher of the class]. But I've been struggling with our sacrament meetings".
Felt good that I wasn't alone. Another stalwart sister in the ward, who also happens to teach some popular institute classes in our stake, chimed in to say probably the one positive thing she could: "I do feel that this ward does an excellent job, better than any ward I've ever been a part of, of having a very reverent passing of the sacrament. It's always so quiet and reverent during that special time". (What she didn't say is that it often feels like a funeral the rest of the time.) But after the meeting she quickly came up to me, shook my hand, and simply said "THANK YOU". It felt good to have her validate my comment.
My point in sharing all this is that I sense there is much room for improvement in our sacrament meetings. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, for in that very discussion...well, out of the mouths of two or three witnesses.
And just this past Sunday during a dinner conversation with some new members in our ward, they began talking about the great Sunday School class they had attended, which up through that very day was taught by my wife (she was a magnificent gospel doctrine teacher for all the right reasons but after church on that particular Sunday accepted another calling), and how the atmosphere was exactly what teaching improvement coordinators had aspired to. I decided to ask the question: "How can we get our sacrament meetings to be more like that?"
I was thrilled to hear this new ward member (who had served in a bishopric in Louisiana prior to moving to Texas) tell me that in his previous stake, the stake presidency and bishoprics had begun receiving training from their area presidency on how to improve the talks in sacrament meeting. Apparently they were using Gene R. Cook's excellent book/CD "Teaching by the Spirit" and focusing on changing the culture of sacrament meeting talks so that people more often share how a particular gospel principle has affected their life rather than just present some research compiled on the particular topic (and which is quite impersonal and boring).
I thought this sounded like a step in the right direction, and was glad that any area presidency would be trying to emphasize this important approach in the stakes and wards throughout the church. I'd like to know if that was just a local area emphasis or if it might also be receiving more widespread attention throughout the Church. While it's a good start to emphasize this first to stake presidencies and bishoprics, I'm not quite clear on how bishoprics are to then transfer that perspective and train the members in the ward who'll be speaking. Perhaps a sacrament meeting improvement class could serve a need similar to the "teaching improvement coordinator" concept of yesteryear. Whatever the case, I'm sure smart people can think of something. Obviously this isn't a "new" idea, but about now I'm open to ANY ideas and approaches that might make our meetings more edifying, nourishing, vibrant, and worthwhile--as they should be.
Jesuit priest Tom Reese joins Religion News Service
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