Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Finding Worship in LDS Services

I was reading Andrew Ainsworth's post on Mormon Matters (worth a read, for certain) and began to feel as if it were indirectly hitting on something that currently lies on my heart. I am addressing this subject because I want help to overcome it, not because I want to vent or complain or disparage anyone involved. I feel it must be a problem in my own heart which I want to resolve, if possible.

I have attended many LDS wards in my life, some of which were vibrantly spiritual. As much as some people ridicule singles' wards (and I had one or two not far from the stereotype) some of my most deeply spiritual in-church experiences were when I was single. In my singles' wards and from what I remember of the many wards I grew up in, Sacrament Meeting would often have a topic like "faith" or "repentance" which was discussed in all the talks that day. Sometimes there would be a combination, such as baptism and the Holy Ghost, but there was almost always some spiritual topic which was addressed.

My current ward is full of good, well-meaning people, and I don't want to disparage them. I have found myself, however, literally starving for spiritual nourishment at Church. I have felt the Spirit through personal scripture study, and when studying to write on topics, or when speaking with individuals or pondering gospel topics. I have occasionally felt the Spirit in Sunday School. I don't think I have felt the Spirit in Sacrament Meeting since coming to this area. Sacrament Meeting talks are composed of 1) Recaps of some activity or project done in the ward, like Girls' Camp, Scout Camp or Daily Dose efforts; 2) Family introductions from new move-ins, who are mostly the children of some established ward family and therefore grew up in the ward; or 3) Young Women's/Primary/thematic "programs" of some sort, like Christmas or Easter, in which stories or articles are read out loud by the speakers.

While I can certainly understand that the Spirit can be present in such sacrament presentations, and I have at times felt the Spirit in my life during such things, I find myself unable to find the communal spiritual nourishment I crave. I have tried. I have fasted and prayed, and pondered and focused, and all the things that one does to try to feel the Spirit. I have heard ward members testify of the Spirit felt in the meetings, which I simply have not felt.

Often, Sunday School and Relief Society meetings are even drier. The teachers generally focus on events and not on the ramifications of those events. History, "weren't their lives hard?", and commonly-recited answers to carefully-pre-posed questions tend to be the flavor. I have tried to comment, to share how things have affected me, to help the teacher bring the Spirit into the lesson, but my efforts, despite being appreciated by some, are largely perceived as hostile or reactionary, and have caused me some amount of trouble, so I have ceased them.

In short, I long for and desire to participate in the community of Christ, but find myself an outsider, and no part of the community I am in. At the same time, my experiences in life are teaching me that becoming frustrated with the lack of spiritual nourishment does nothing to help bring the Spirit to fruition. It seems that the choice is to simply not expect spiritual nourishment in Church, and pray for the Spirit to come somehow and in some way to my life.

Have any of you struggled with this? What have you done to bring the Spirit back into Sunday services?

I am beginning to suspect that part of the problem is my traditional view of worship services. I tend to think of Sunday church as a time to discuss gospel principles, learn from the discussion, and try to apply them to my life during the week. While this can be right, it isn't working for me right now. So, I sat down and tried to really think about how to worship God. He said His work is to "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." To me, it seems that the best way to worship Him would be to help Him in His work. Therefore, I think I am going to try to get to know people in my ward by simply listening to comments, talks, and teaching style, since I no longer comment. I need to stop expecting to be nourished by the Spirit in church, and just listen to other people for a time. Perhaps I can sift through the everyday answers to find someone who needs me. Perhaps I can reach out to just one person.

Perhaps then, I can worship God in His Church even without the slightest grain of gospel discussion or Spiritual nourishment.


  1. SilverRain--

    I believe that most people go through this at some point in their lives. I have certainly been there. It is a common problem, whether one chooses to address it or not. Thank you for sharing and for letting the rest of us know that we are not alone.

    You are correct in saying that "Sunday church as a time to discuss gospel principles, learn from the discussion, and try to apply them to my life during the week." We go, partially, to get our spiritual oil lamps refilled. We go, partially, to learn gospel truths. And we go, partially, to see gospel principles in ways that we hadn't before.

    It is challenging to hear messages in "Storymonies." That is one of the reasons that we are counceled by the general authorities not to give them. yes, our testimonies (and examples for talks/lessons) come from our experiences, but our testimonies (and examples) should not be our experiences. Everything needs to be tied back. It is difficult to do, but required for teaching gospel principles with the Spirit.

    As a RS teacher, I feel a certain amount of responsibility in this sense. I personally try to think out of the typical gospel box. I attempt to ask questions which require thought for answers, not just the typical read your scriptures and pray. I will literally spend the whole month reading, pondering, and preparing a lesson. But as a teacher, there is only so much that I can do. Some of the responsibility also lies on the students.

    Students, unfortunately, often come to church classes unprepared. They have not read their lessons (or even know the topic). They are distracted by differing aspects of life. Personal feelings are talking so loud that the Spirit's quiet voice cannot break through. In general, they are not ready to recieve teaching by the spirit. When this happens, the job of the teacher becomes infinately more difficult.

    There is a great book called "Teaching by the Spirit" by Gene R. Cook. It is a guide about how to teach the words of the Lord with the influence of the Spirit. I recommend it as it has drastically changed the manner in which I teach and learn. Everything that is required of a good teacher (being prepared, having asked the Lord for guidance, being willing to hear and heed the Spirit, etc) is also required of a good student. It is a great read for anyone in any gospel learning situation.

    I guess what i am trying to say, SilverRain, is that what we learn and take from our meetings lies on us. We can preach the gospel with all of the fervency we can possess, but if others are unwilling to hear or heed those words, there is nothing we can do. Even people who heard Jesus himself speak denied him.

    If we as listeners/learners are prepared, our eyes will be opened, regardless of what the teacher actually says. The true power of a lesson comes in the preparing of it. If you, as a student, come prepared, the Lord will bless you. It may not come as an eye opening experience on the topic at hand. There might not be a light bulb moment. But in preparing to be taught, we show the Lord that we are willing to do the work he requires of us. And, he in turn, will bless us for those efforts.

  2. Move to our ward! I have never been in such a...doctrinally correct one. Does that make sense? They do exactly as you desire and I find myself desperate for Church by the end of the week.
    We're not free of weakness, though --in fact, after one particularly painful testimony meeting (thank-a-monies and storymonies that went on for almost 15 minutes at times!), our Bishopric, the next month, re-read the 1st Presidency letter about testimonies being brief and about Heavenly Father/Christ. It was awkward, because we all knew it was directed to about 3 or 4 members of our ward, but they got the message and didn't seem to be offended --one even got up and did exactly as asked! Now testimony meetings are delightful.

    Sunday School is my favorite class because the teachers are well-prepared and we study the doctrine hard-core. We have several "seasoned" members who have served missions, as mission presidents, and many teach at BYU. Nobody is rude or arrogant --they are all humble and learn from each other. I just sit and listen because there's so much to absorb!

    Relief Society tends to be the same way. Women who learn from each other but talk about doctrine and never let the conversation steer too far from topic.

    I'm saying it's perfect at all times, but it sure is close. And maybe it's because God knew I needed this? Desperately? If I found myself in a ward like yours, I would probably choose to stay home more often than go, and what would that accomplish in my life? Perhaps you have been given this challenge because of exactly what you said -- you need to find someone who needs you. Or perphaps, through a talk you give, or a lesson you give, it might touch the right person and maybe things will change. Change is always slow in coming, but sometimes all it takes is a Presidency change (or Bishopric) and the changes that come rock the ward (in good ways and bad).

    In short, though, I'm sad that Church is so bland (Spiritually) for you. It's not really fair.

  3. Oops! It should read:
    "I'm NOT saying it's perfect"

  4. I read your essays and usually don’t respond. But when you ask for help in resolving a problem, well, you just said the magic words to a man. Men love to think they can fix things and even if they can’t, they like the challenge. So I offer the following in that spirit. I hope it is helpful.

    I currently serve as the Ward Clerk for a young singles ward. I can relate to what you expressed about some of your most deeply spiritual in-church experiences occurring there. I have been amazed as I watch the young singles respond to assignments from Bishopric members to prepare and present a spiritually nourishing twelve to fifteen minute talk on a gospel theme each week.

    As I sit on the stand and watch the congregation, I note with interest the response to those talks. Remember, there are no distractions of crying babies, toddlers wandering in the isles, or old people snoring in the pews. Yet, I still notice that some of the young people do not seem to be getting anything out of the talk. They seem distracted as if their minds and hearts are elsewhere.

    Perhaps they have heard this subject presented before, and in our church, there can be no doubt that we are going to hear the same subjects from the pulpit over and over, year after year. I wonder if they are thinking to themselves, “I have heard this all before. This is boring.” Then they subconsciously decide to tune out and miss the unique aspects of the speaker’s efforts.

    This doesn’t apply to you because you write that you have done everything within your power to make it work for you – fasting, praying, pondering and remaining focused – and yet, you don’t feel the spirit. Having served in a Bishopric and being in charge of Sacrament meetings, I can tell you that this would concern me if I knew that a member of the ward felt undernourished.

    Why? Because we are specifically charged with ensuring that Sacrament meetings are the most spiritual meetings in the church. From the Church Handbook, page 64: “Each Sacrament meeting should be a spiritual experience…to worship, receive gospel instruction…and strengthen members spiritually.” If that is not happening, then something needs to change.

    That’s the ideal. Now back to reality. What you described is not unique. There are many times I have sat in a Sacrament meeting where I was not spiritually nourished, and I was the one conducting the meeting. Why? Because I did a poor job in orienting the speakers and they did not focus on teaching the doctrine, relating faith-promoting experiences and using the scriptures.

    I had a sister come up to me one time and tell me that she was deeply disappointed in the spirit of our sacrament meetings. That hurt. But you know what? I was very careful from then on to remind the speakers of their responsibility to bring the spirit into the meetings through their preparation and presentation, especially in bearing witness of the restored truths of the gospel.

    So am I suggesting that you do the same – speak to the Bishop or a counselor about your concern? Yes, I am. Will it take courage? Yes it will. Why? Because then you might be misunderstood and fear being labeled a gadfly or a troublemaker. So what? Approach it with prayer. Counsel with the Lord. Tell Him what you are going to do and then do it.

    I have additional thoughts that I would be happy to share about the problem where you feel that you can’t contribute to the discussion in Sunday school or Relief Society. That is a real problem. That should never happen. But I don’t want this comment to go way long, so I’ll stop here. Let me know if you are interested in continuing the dialog on that very important subject.

  5. Ignore Cheryl; move to our ward. I promise you would LOVE it. *grin*

    My advice:

    Often, wards and branches take on the personality of the Bishop or Branch President. Auxiliaries often do the same thing in modeling their individual presidents. This can be alleviated by a visible counselor who has a different personality, but leadership style and personality are strong indicators of the type of vibe within a ward. That cuts both ways, unfortunately.

    Having said this, I have witnessed one ward where an out-going, loving, smiling sister with no major calling almost single-handedly changed the spirit in her ward. It was impossible to be anything but happy around her - and she was "around" everyone all the time. It is hard to describe how her spirit of joy and love affected the other members of that ward; it's hard to understand how pervasively her influence was felt.

    So, I agree with your conclusion. Be the change you want to see and pray that others will follow your lead. (Just don't get judgmental about it. See my most recent post, "Communal At-One-Ment".) Oh, and smile as you put yourself around people as much as possible.

    Remember, they will love us if we first love them - and many people need a role model in this regard.

  6. I know where you're coming from. Two things I remind myself when feeling this way (which has happened frequently as of late)- that depression can get in the way of the spirit and that my heart is hardened.

    If I can work on my mental well-being by loving myself, doing mentally healthy things, getting away from my children a few hours a week, being realistic about my personal expectations and, yes, even diligent about scripture study and prayer then I find it more easy to accept what is being offered at church, no matter how meager the offering.

    As for my hardened heart- it gets in the way of receiving the message because I see flaws in the messengers. She is my VT partner and hasn't gone with me in 2 years. I know he wouldn't accept a calling to primary. She gets up to bear her testimony every fast Sunday even though she's breaking her covenants by living with her boyfriend. Yes, I'm judgemental. I need to do what you've decided- look for opportunities to serve instead of look for what is being given to me.

    I know from past experiences that what is important about church service is not just that we build our relationship with the Savior but that we build a web of love and support with others who also love the Savior, as imperfect as we all may be.

  7. SilverRain, I can relate to your experience- not necessarily pertaining to church meetings, but more regarding expectations not being fulfilled despite doing what you believe is necessary to achieve a certain result.

    I agree with Tim that if you haven't already, find a bishopric member that you can confide in and let him know of your general lack of nourishment from sacrament meeting. See if they can raise the spiritual bar for this meeting. Perhaps others feel the same as you do, and without any feedback, they have continued to assume that all is well.

    I wonder too if this might have become a sort of "rut" for you due to a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. It could be that after a few disappointing meetings, you almost subconciously expected the meetings to be disappointing. With this thought in mind, disappointing elements become more obvious than perhaps the few hidden nuggets (or more) that are there. If you think this might be contributing to the situation, pray to have an open mind and heart and that you will find whatever good that is presented. Then when you do find that which is good, know that your prayer was answered. Just an idea....

    Finally, perhaps like you, I generally do not reach out to others. I tend to think a lot but say and do little. When I do reach out and feel like I can add a few "drops" to someone else's "cup," I feel like my cup simultaneously is more full. It's like the paradox of losing your life to find yourself. So I think your conclusion is a good one.


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