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.

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