No Place for Fellowship: LDS Sabbath Worship

There is no place for fellowship in the LDS Sabbath worship.  There is no theological ban on fellowship on Sundays. In fact, Mormons greatly value fellowship. There is just no place for it on Sundays. Literally. The schedule is full of teaching, with a little singing thrown in.

It wasn’t always so. Just recently, it seemed we might be taking a turn back away from a full teaching schedule on the Sabbath.  Salt Lake leadership this past year kicked off what was billed as a major initiative to bring about better observance of the Sabbath day.  It seemed like major change might be in store–there was an emphasis on making the Sabbath a “delight”. For local church leaders and primary workers, Sunday is often one of the toughest days of the week.  One stake in Boston rose to the challenge and prepared to cut Sunday services to 2 hours and 15 minutes–until they were told by Salt Lake they would do no such thing. It appears that the Sabbath initiative is to be one of emphasis in our teaching, with no structural changes.

Our current 3-hour block system has only been in place for 35 years—we didn’t always do it this way. Prior to 1980, there were two separate Sunday meetings—Sunday school in the morning and Sacrament meeting in the evening (with a priesthood meeting before Sunday School).  The total meeting time under the old schedule as 4.5 hours, versus 3 hours for the consolidated schedule. Cutting the meeting schedule by 33% was designed to give families more time for their own Sabbath activities, and to cut down on the back and forth travel time. The intentions for this change were obviously laudable.

The problem now is that we have a single stretch of 180 minutes of meeting time, whereas before 90 minutes was the longest single stretch. That is more than a little difference! Imagine that you are a young mother with children, with a Primary calling. At the end of three hours, you are done for. You are ready to pack it in and head for home, with no lingering in the halls. Your energy is shot.

Forty years ago it was a different story. We would come back in the evenings for Sacrament meeting fully rested. There was no headlong rush out the door at the end of the meeting. In our chapel today, I see very few folks in the hallways just 15 minutes after the close of meeting, and virtually no one not waiting for an appointment just 30 minutes after the last meeting. In contrast, I can remember as a young married adult, serving in a Spanish branch on the south plains of Texas, frequently lingering an hour or more after the evening Sacrament meeting service. We knew people quite well, and made fast friendships that way.

Now I don’t think that church leadership doesn’t value fellowship. They just don’t have the experience of not having fellowship as an integral part of their church experience. Most high church leaders are called into leadership positions at a relatively young age. They get plenty of fellowship through the constant interaction that occurs in presidencies and leadership meetings. While church business certainly occupies most of these meetings, there is also ample opportunity for friendly human interaction, including good-humored banter. The young mother teaching primary experiences none of this. Her experience is likely completely unknown to most church leaders. Is it important that she have significant fellowship during church services?  Or is the fellowship that leadership amply experiences just a relatively low-value side effect?

If we look at the time we spend in various activities during Sunday services, then teaching is at the top of the list. Most of Sacrament meeting is taken up by talks, and then the 2nd and 3rd hours are completely taken up by teaching.  At best we might get 4 hymns during sacrament meeting-so perhaps 12-15 minutes devoted to singing. The Sacrament itself might take up 10-15 minutes.  The remaining 90 minutes will usually include a hymn at the start of the 3rd hour. There is also time for shuttling back and forth between classes—2 ten-minute breaks to move around.  For the full 180 minutes, then, at best 35 minutes, or just under 20% of the time, is devoted to lyrical or meditative worship. With no space for fellowship.  Church leaders are usually present during the two breaks to help move folks along quickly to the next class, so not much chance there.

I met with my ward council this week. Given the start of a new year, we counseled on how to reinvigorate our ward, which seems to be languishing on several levels. Rather than dwell on the usual metrics of home and visiting teaching, I was drawn to consider just what it is that we might want out of our church experience, particularly on Sundays. The following are probably dominantly my ideas, but members of the council contributed.

First and foremost, I want a sense of community, a sense of belonging. A community that meets Robert Frost’s defintion: Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. They have to take me in because I am a fellow member. But it is also a community where I love and where I am loved, regardless of political differences, differences in class, race, and all the rest. I want to be defined by this community. This requires of course significant opportunities for serious fellowship.

Secondly, I want to be inspired. I want to feel moved to love my neighbor. I want opportunities to serve. Part of that inspiration can come through teaching and through preaching. But I need to feel transcendence, I need to feel the quiet presence of the Spirit. The Sacrament is of course an important time where that can take place, but we tend to be very efficient about this. If there are few people present for the sacrament meeting, then time for thoughtful meditation will be very limited.

How could church services change to accommodate these needs?  A solid three-hour stretch is just way too long. We are not likely going to see that change. We could add some break time to the shuttling between classes—stake leaders would soon likely be on that and would quash it in place at the first chance. The teachers in primary of course would not benefit by that extra time anyway.

I don’t think we want to go back to the split schedule with its double dose of travel. That only works for solid Mormon communities where there is a chapel every 3-4 blocks of so. We need to get away from the idea that teaching is the main form of worship. We descend, in church practice, in large part from the Puritans, the inveterate low-churchers (I think they in fact invented the low church). The Puritans were not about fancy liturgy. They banned Christmas after all. But some high and holy hymning from the high church could add some inspiration to our meetings. Perhaps just a touch of liturgy could add some formality and elegance to our meetings. Not suggesting we need the censers and smoke. Maybe the choir could wear the table runners?  You know–around the neck.

Sermons for the Puritans were an art form. Think of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. We are not going to do away with talks. And I am totally in favor of talks by all, not just the instructed and erudite.  But could we perhaps shorten them?  And perhaps we should make better use of our best speakers for special occasions.

In the end, it is hard to see how we can really bring back joy in the Sabbath without cutting down our marathon schedule. That can only happen if fellowship is accorded the same status as teaching, as part of worship. What greater gift, what greater goodness can we know, than Christ-like friends,whose gentle ways strengthen our faith (Hymn 293).


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