Mormonism 101: Mormon Meetings
Whew. It's been another light blogging week, I guess, thanks largely to (what may be) my incipient acting career. (With regards to which, however, I should own up to a misunderstanding with regard to what I posted here. When the casting company called and said I "got the part"; I assumed they meant the lead role in the commercial, which is the part I had auditioned for; as it turns out, I'd been given a lesser role. Well, I still got a part in the commercial, which is certainly something, especially considering it was my first ever audition for a commercial part.)
But anyway, I said a ways back that, given the interest people seem to have in the workings of the Mormon church (as evidenced in part by the response to my post on Mormon missionary methods, and given how surprisingly little outsiders seem to know about it and how many misconceptions there are (I mean, I'm far from the first Mormon to have left the church; you'd think things would have gotten around more than they have apparently had), I was going to do a series of "Mormonism 101" posts, explaining the methods and practices of the LDS church. And I guess this is as good a time as any to start.
This post's subject: Mormon church meetings.
First of all, to clear up one common misconception, Mormons do not go to the temple for church meetings every Sunday. The temple is for certain special ceremonies, including (but not limited to) weddings and baptisms for the dead, and is visited (by most members) much more infrequently. I'm not going to go further into what goes on in the temple in this post, because there's enough to that to merit a post (or several posts) of its own, but suffice to say for now that Mormons meet on Sundays at church buildings which are much less large and ornate than the temples, but much more numerous. Density of church buildings depends on density of membership; in Los Angeles there aren't that many of them--the church building where the congregation that I'm a member of meets is about two and a half miles from my apartment, and the nearest other building that I know of is about four miles away. In Utah, of course, LDS churches are substantially more common, and except in spread-out rural areas few Mormons don't live within walking distance of their church. Furthermore, often more than one ward (congregation) shares the same building, meeting at different times (though the times may overlap if not all the rooms are needed by each ward at once).
There are two kinds of LDS members: "active" and "less active". The "active" members go to church nearly every week and participate in church activities. "Less active" is a bit of a euphemism, since most "less active" members don't go to church at all, and many of them want nothing to do with the church but are still officially on the church records. (In fact, formerly the term "inactive" was used, but this has been denigrated, presumably as insufficiently optimistic.) The line isn't as fuzzy as one may think; while there are some Mormons who only show up to church occasionally, there aren't really all that many. Most Mormons either attend church regularly or seldom attend at all, with very few in between.
Sunday church attendance in the LDS church actually comprises three separate meetings. These used to be at different times, with some gaps between them, so that members would go home between meetings, but in 1980 (long enough ago that I don't really remember the old meeting schedules myself), they were consolidated into a three-hour block meeting schedule. The order of the meetings varies, but the middle of the three is always Sunday School.
There are two main adult Sunday School meetings going on simultaneously. (This is not counting the children, who have their own classes, divided up by age group.) Most members attend "Gospel Doctrine", which covers the LDS scriptures and related topics. Which scriptures are covered rotates on a quadrennial basis: one year the lessons focus on the Old Testament (plus the Pearl of Great Price, a few additional chapters purportedly by Moses and Abraham and "translated" by Joseph Smith), the next (including this year) on the New Testament, the next on the Book of Mormon, and the next on the book of Doctrine & Covenants, a book of "revelations" of this "dispensation" (i.e. since Joseph Smith--actually, almost entirely by Joseph Smith; only three of the 138 sections aren't written by him. Although it's often said in the LDS church that the words of all modern prophets have the force of scripture, the vast majority of these words have not been formally compiled into a book of scripture). New members and "investigators" (non-members) attend "Gospel Essentials", instead, which goes over more basic doctrinal materials. Sometimes there are also other classes going on during this time (and/or during the Priesthood/Relief Society meeting time, described below), such as temple preparation classes or genealogy classes, but these are intermittent and involve much fewer people.
Before or after Sunday School, depending on the particular ward's schedule, is the priesthood meeting for the men, or Relief Society for the women. (The youth, again, have their own meetings during this time--children younger than twelve are lumped together in "Primary" (which also extends during Sunday School), while older boys and girls have their own classes separated by age--though the boys twelve and older do have priesthood classes, they're separate from the adult men's.) What goes on in Relief Society, of course, I can't say from personal experience, but it's my understanding they generally cover more or less the same topics as the men do in priesthood, though usually with more visual aids. The Priesthood meeting (and presumably the Relief Society meeting as well), aside from whatever priesthood business may be briefly taken care of in the beginning, really isn't too different from the Sunday School meeting in format, though it differs somewhat in subject matter: instead of concentrating on books of scripture, the lessons in these meetings focus on particular topics within the gospel. In recent years, they've given the Priesthood and Relief Society lessons more of a theme, by focusing each year on the teachings of a particular modern prophet (though of course they omit all the objectionable or controversial things these "prophets" have said, often editing their words to render them more palatable).
Lessons in all these meetings are taught by ward members who are asked to do it by ward leaders--either called directly to the position by the bishopric, or asked to fill in by the Sunday School, Relief Society, or Priesthood presidency if the regular teachers are unavailable or felt to deserve a break. I've taught many lessons myself, including, as I mentioned some time ago, one even since my deconversion. There is even (on an intermittent schedule like the aforementioned temple preparation and genealogy classes) a class on teaching that the bishop often requests members recently called to teaching callings to take.
The final meeting--which depending on the schedule can in fact be the first meeting of the block--is the sacrament meeting. This is the longest of the three meetings, at around seventy minutes, and is considered the most important; if a member for some reason can't make it for the entire three hour block, it's the sacrament meeting he does his best to make sure he attends. After the opening hymn and prayer, and whatever ward business there might be to address (announcing new callings and releases, etc.), the first main order of business is the passing of the sacrament. This post is getting long enough without going into detail about that, so maybe I'll make it the topic of a separate post, but at any rate after the passing of the sacrament the bulk of the meeting is devoted to talks by the members, which may or may not have a hymn or a musical number between them. Members are generally asked by the bishopric several weeks in advance to give a talk on a particular day (and are usually given a specific topic to speak about), but it often happens that the request doesn't come till the week previous. In any case, while the bishopric (that is to say, the bishop--who presides over the ward--and his two counselors) conducts the meeting, as far as announcing what's going to come next and trying to ensure that everyone keeps to their alloted time, most of it's done by the general membership at the bishopric's prior request: the talks, special musical numbers, even the opening and closing prayers. A bishopric member may give a spontaneous talk if the assigned speakers run short, but this rarely happens; more often, the assigned speakers run long, and the next meeting, if there is one, starts a bit late (to the endless frustration of the Sunday School teacher in the local ward).
There are a few exceptions to the regular schedule. One is conference meetings. Twice a year is a "general conference", where the church leadership speaks to the church as a whole, most of whom tune in either by satellite broadcast or, more recently, by the internet. (In the old days, of course, church members who wanted to hear general conference had to physically attend--nowadays, though that's no longer necessary, pilgrimages to Salt Lake City to attend general conference are not uncommon.) Another few times a year is "stake conference", where a stake--a collection of nearby wards--meets together, under the direction of the stake presidency.
Furthermore, once a month--usually the first Sunday of the month, though it may be shifted because of conference meetings--is "fast Sunday", when the church members are supposed to fast for a day--abstaining from two meals, generally breakfast and lunch of that Sunday. On fast Sunday, the regular sacrament meeting becomes "fast and testimony meeting"--the ordinance of the sacrament still takes place, but instead of talks the rest of the sacrament meeting is left open for members to "bear their testimonies", coming up to the stand and proclaiming their belief in the church. Matt of Pooflingers Anonymous mentioned something that occurs during fast and testimony meeting as having been the "final point" that turned him away from possibly joining the LDS church: children "bearing their testimony" at their parents' insistence. Matt says it was obvious that the child he saw had been "taught what to say", but it can be much more blatant than that: very often, the parent is actually up there on the stand with the child, openly whispering in his ear. (Almost invariably, in addition to saying that he knows the church is true, the prompted child also adds that he loves his mommy and daddy. The fact that it's his "mommy" or "daddy" who's telling him to say this is...well, kind of off-putting.)
I have to admit I always thought this rigmarole of the child bearing a "testimony" fed to him by his parents was hollow and meaningless--even when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, it was pretty obvious that the parent was just putting words in the child's mouth--, but I saw it as a failing of the individual members involved, not of the church. Still, Matt saw this as a species of brainwashing--"if this kid repeats this every month until he's in high school, he'll believe it"--and actually, he's right. It's not only for the children, either; older members are encouraged to bear their testimonies often even if they don't have a firm conviction of the church's truth, because if they bear their testimony and say they believe in the church, the Spirit will witness to its truth and they'll gain a testimony. Given the human mind's tendency to change its memories and feelings to fit circumstances, the fact that such a person will over time convince himself that he's had the witness of the Spirit shouldn't be surprising.
Anyway, I could go on, but I'm short on time today, so I think that'll suffice. So, now maybe you know a little more about what goes on at Mormon church meetings. If there's anything in particular about the LDS church that you'd like me to cover in future "Mormonism 101" posts, please feel free to say so in the comments.