Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormonism and the persistent dream of 2-hour church meetings (oh please can we?)

LDS President Russell M. Nelson (center), with First Counselor Dallin H. Oaks (L) and Second Counselor Henry B. Eyring (R). Screen shot of LDS First Presidency News Conference, January 16, 2018.

It’s happening again, the rumors about an imminent two-hour block.

Someone’s cousin in Arizona belongs to a Mormon congregation that has reportedly started consolidating its meetings to two hours each Sunday instead of the requisite three. Or your sister-in-law’s parents heard about a stake in New England that is piloting a two-hour church program so church members can more faithfully observe a quieter Sabbath.

Actually, that second rumor was true. In 2015 the Boston stake did apparently pilot such a program for exactly that reason. But the part of the story that the rumor mill neglects to mention is that the institutional church quickly put the kibosh on those enterprising New Englanders, with the Newsroom issuing the following statement about it in November 2015:

After recognizing it was not within Church guidelines, local Church leadership in the Boston Massachusetts Stake decided to drop plans to shorten the standard Sunday worship meeting schedule. The two-month experiment set to begin in the stake in January was planned locally with good intentions to better observe the Sabbath Day.

And who knows? The cousin-in-Arizona rumor may be partly true as well. There are some Mormon congregations that only meet for two hours. But on closer examination these generally turn out to be branches, not wards.

(Just by way of explanation for non-Mormon readers: when the LDS Church isn’t well-established in an area and doesn’t yet have enough members to form a ward, it makes a branch, and the rules are a little different. Two-hour Sunday church is normal for many branches because they don’t have enough members to run all the programs of a fully functioning ward. Only in Mormonism is your reward for congregational growth going to be . . . more and longer meetings.)

Despite the fact that the Church rejected the Boston attempt, and despite the fact that we’ve all had our hopes raised and dashed many times before on the subject of shorter church meetings . . . nevertheless we persist. The rumors have started again, as Mormons are by nature an optimistic people. A couple of readers have asked me recently if I’ve got any corroboration that a two-hour block is going to go into effect in January.

So I contacted an official from the Church, fully expecting to be told that the rumors were the usual twaddle. Instead I received a “no comment” by email, which is not unusual, with a puzzling added layer of see-sawing over the phone, which was. It was a somewhat bewildering conversation: I had contacted the Church to obtain disconfirmation of a rumor, and was told simultaneously that 1) the Church could not confirm or deny the rumor, and 2) I should not go around spreading rumors, but try to learn the facts about whether such rumors are true. Um . . . .

The spokesperson also encouraged me to ask journalists and scholars who might have information about pilot programs that were implementing changes to church meetings, and specifically mentioned Claremont Mormon Studies chair Patrick Mason as one such person.

Patrick, however, knew nothing beyond the usual rumors and said he didn’t know why the Church had referred me to him. But as usual, he had a very thoughtful take on the question in general, including ruminations about how Mormons’ longer meetings help contribute to our shared identity as a people:

I would see it [a shorter block] as just one more step in the direction of Mormonism being something less than an all-encompassing religion — another step away from the Mormon village that we’ve mostly lost. (Plus, I’m still in the demographic that benefits from two hours of free babysitting per week.)

I mean, if you’re going to church for two hours, does one more hour really hurt? Are there droves of people out there who are staying away but would crowd the chapels if only it were a two-hour block? I’d much rather have church HQ and local stakes and wards do the hard work of thinking how to make those three hours more productive than to simply punt and say we’ll have two mediocre hours rather than three.

Patrick always makes me think more deeply about a question. In this case, he makes me suspicious of my own default assumption that a two-hour block would be, without question, an improvement. I’ve long been a fan of the idea of shorter church meetings, especially since as things stand now, many Mormons have additional meetings before or after the three-hour block. So when we’re adding things like ward council or choir practice to the mix, various stalwarts are routinely in the building for four or five hours of a Sunday. Having a two-hour block could help those folks spend more time with their families and also force wards to evaluate what actually helps people feel the Spirit on Sundays, so we’re not just filling time or going through the motions.

But maybe Patrick is right that our shared religious identity is eroding in important ways, and we should be wary of it chipping away still further.

It’s probably an academic question. Last week, the Church announced it would be expanding its Sunday School resources for 2019, releasing new study guides to enhance its planned curriculum on the New Testament.

It sounds like the Church wants to equip members to study the scriptures at home—but my read is that this is being positioned as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, having Sunday School for all ages during the three-hour block.

If I’m wrong, I’ll gladly eat my hat. Or at least a cake I have baked in the shape of a hat during the extra hour when I would otherwise have been at church.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

20 Comments

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  • Prior to the 3 hour consolidated meeting schedule, all the meetings which now take place on Sunday, were scattered throughout the week, Tuesday through Friday, with Priesthood Meeting, Sunday school and Sacrament Meeting on Sunday and Mondays reserved solely for Family Home Evening. Except for those of us who lived in the urban sprawl of certain Utah valleys, who walked to meetings, that was a lot of driving from home, to the wardhouse and back, throughout the week.

    MIA on one weeknight, Primary on a weekday afternoon and Relief Society on some weekday morning or afternoon. Sundays were 3 roundtrips for meetings; one for Priesthood Meeting, one for Sunday school and one for Sacrament Meeting. When gas was 25¢ a gallon in the US, that didn’t cost too terribly much.

    However, in OCT 1973, the OPEC nations decided to punish the countries that were viewed as pro-Israel during the Yom Kippur War and declared an embargo. Gasoline jumped overnight in the US from 25¢ a gallon to 99¢ a gallon. It now cost an LDS family 4 times as much to pay for all those round trips to meetings. Which became very expensive if your were rural members of a ward or branch. Hence, the Brethren’s response to the oil embargo was the 3 hour consolidated meeting schedule, one roundtrip for the entire family, bing, bang, boom, all meetings attended on Sunday.

    Back in the 70s & 80s, those 3 hours were chock full of everything LDS, with only a few minutes between meetings to get from one room to the next. Speaking as one who was kicked out of the Church, how has that changed today? Have the LDS folk’s lives become so busy with all the free time during the week for secular activities, that 3 hours devoted to various Gospel lessons and activities on Sunday is too much? Isn’t the time before or after the meeting block sufficient for developing spirituality? What would people actually do if they had one less hour of meetings on Sunday? Sleep in another hour? What benefit would be derived if 50 minute Priesthood, Relief Society, Young Men & Women, Primary and Sunday School lessons became 35 minutes? What would be derived from 45 minute Sacrament Meetings?

  • Let me respectfully offer that if a church’s “shared religious identity” can be eroded by reducing its meeting times from three hours to two, especially when at least some of its members would welcome such a change, then there are far deeper issues with which to deal.

    From a long-time observer of Mormonism, I think this is simple: The Brethren are simply reluctant to relinquish any control over the members.

  • When my oldest son was serving in Chile on a mission Oct 2005 – Oct 2007, they only had 2 hour church. There was no way the local people would go to a 3 hours meeting. He loved it and so did the congregation. I don’t know if they still they have that same schedule. Since that time, he and I have left the church for greener fields and shorter Sunday meetings.

  • Jesus predicted this, in Matthew 24:6, “And ye shall hear of shorter church meetings and rumours of shorter church meetings: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end of the church meeting is not yet.”

  • Three is great. I’d prefer meetings in the afternoon though so I could sleep in on Sunday morning.

  • I’m with Patrick. I like 3 hour church. I too benefit from the “free babysitting”. 🙂 I enjoy my time in Sunday School. I used to dread it, but once I started reading the lessons and doing my own study at home I became excited to learn and participate. I also enjoy the community aspect of church and the opportunity to hear from and learn from my friends and neighbors. Before we remove 1 hour let’s get good at optimizing all 3.

  • Proper Mormonism is ALL encompassing. Nary a thought should go through your mind that hasn’t been filtered for the Mormoness of it. What’s an extra hour each week to perfect that skill?

  • A shameful and flagrant violation of the Bible’s clear instructions! “Three shall be the hours of thy meeting, and the number of hours shall be three: no more, no less. Four hours shalt thou not meet; nor shalt thou meet two hours, unless thou shouldst then proceed to three. Five is right out.”

  • “One more step away from the Mormon village”. Holey Moley! Where is the sense of perspective and history here?? David Allen gave us the relevant history here. But if you weren’t there, you might not remember some special things. When we didnt have that 3 hour block, when we came back rested for the evening service, which was maybe an hour and a half at most, people would actually linger and talk after the meeting. You dont see much lingering any more, at least not like it was way back then. The other thing at issue here is the purpose of church. Currently, the ONLY purpose is for learning, with a little time for ritual (the sacrament) and a few hymns. But the majority of the three hours are taken up with doctrinal instruction. What happened to fellowship? It went the way of that long lost Mormon village. Fellowship is a real and fundamental part of what a church service should be about. After 3 hours, you are ready to go home. And lets think of that young mother with kids and with a primary calling. Where is her fellowship? She spends those last 2 hours couped up with even more kids. Come the final bell, she is ready to go. It is my observation that very many church leaders are completely blind to the need members have for real fellowship. Most leaders are called fairly young into bishoprics etc where they do experience some serious fellowship all the time. They can quite see whats missing for most of us. Two hours wont change everything, but it could help reinstate elements of the Mormon village that have disappeared.

  • Is it three hours straight?

    Sexual orientation is usually not discussed during this time.

  • The Sabbath has never and will never be on Sunday by definition !! The Bible and Christianity never Changed it, just use Sunday alternatively but not as the Sabbath, its the “Lord’s day”.

  • Well the block came along in 1980. And guess what? Weekday meetings still happen in addition to those three hours. YM/YW meet weekly one evening. Cub Scouts meet weekly and 8 – 11 year old girls meet twice a month so the Primary still has weekly happenings. Relief Society still has evening meetings – how often depends upon your ward. If all the weekday stuff had gone away the whole driving thing might carry some weight, but given that it mostly remained while adding one long stretch on Sunday it’s hard. And it’s darn hard for kids.

  • You are correct, the consolidated meeting schedule was initiated in 1980. I had remembered it incorrectly, because I thought that it had started soon after the oil embargo in late 1972.

    However if you read the Church leadership’s vision, it was to be a 3 hour block on Sunday and only one additional day of the week for ward activities, on any day but Sunday or Monday. And if you check objectives 4 & 5, they say;

    4. Reduce the amount of travel by Church members and provide opportunities for family members to travel together and participate in Church activities.
    5. Conserve energy resources and reduce the nonessential costs required for members to participate in Church activities.

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1980/03/news-of-the-church/church-consolidates-meeting-schedules?lang=eng&_r=1

    If it has now deviated from that original plan, I wouldn’t know, the Church kicks those of us who are LGBTQ out when we are discovered.

  • Sorry that you didn’t get the memo like all of the other Christian Churches did. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go BBQ a steak…

  • Ask any non commoner, ask a well studied Christian, the sabbath is by definition, sunset Friday through sunset Saturday.

  • Yeah, by the Old Testament definition. Ever wonder why EVERY Christian religion but one celebrates it on Sunday? In the end, it’s the Lord’s day, and he can make it any day that he sees fit, regardless of one definition of the word Sabbath. Maybe you missed the part where he met with the Apostles on the first day of the week after his resurrection, and broke bread and blessed it, etc.? Maybe that’s where all Christian religions picked up on the whole Sunday thing? Maybe you missed that in your well studied Christian class?

  • Agree with everything you said, however it changes nothing about the Sabbath. Even Jesus kept the Sabbath. None of those days is the Sabbath except Saturday.

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