Mormons are known for their close community bonds, secured by the ties of common church activities. How are such connections forged? Can Catholics learn anything valuable from Mormon practices?
One means of strengthening members’ ties with the Mormon Church is the Sunday meeting. Active Mormons—children, teenagers, and adults—spend three hours each week at Sunday church meetings. These meetings, planned and conducted by the members, encourage a wide degree of individual and group participation.
The most important of the three meetings is the sacrament meeting. This is a seventy-minute-long worship service that takes place at either the beginning or the end of the block schedule. All Mormons are required to attend the weekly sacrament meeting. It is the closest the Mormons come to the Catholic Mass or Protestant Lord’s Supper. Though every sacrament meeting follows a predetermined pattern, the contents of each meeting are less predictable.
The meeting opens with the congregation assembled in the building’s chapel, an absolutely unadorned worship space with pews and a raised stage with lectern and seats facing the congregation. A table off to the side, holding plates of bread and small cups of water, together with an organ and piano, completes the picture. The men and boys wear jackets and ties, the women and girls wear skirts or dresses. An opening hymn is sung, taken from the hymnal. This book contains some songs familiar to all Christians, along with “songs of the Restoration,” hymns composed specifically by and for Latter-Day Saints, celebrating the so-called return of the gospel to the earth. After the hymn, a member, male or female, offers a spontaneous prayer.
There follows ward business, conducted by either the bishop (similar to a pastor) or one of his two counselors. After this, the “sacrament” is blessed and passed. Faithful Mormon boys sixteen and over recite a prayer over the bread (commercial sliced bread broken into small pieces). This prayer must be said word-perfect; if not, the bishop will tell the young “priest” to say it again. The plates of bread are then handed to the “deacons,” boys twelve and thirteen, who pass the plates along the rows. By eating a piece of the bread, the members are told that they are remembering and renewing the covenants or promises they made when they were first baptized. Small individual cups of water are next blessed with a fixed prayer, then passed to the congregants.
The rest of the meeting is devoted to talks. Three or four speakers address a topic requested by the bishopric. They may have been given a week or so to prepare. Anyone—man, woman, or child—may be asked to speak on such topics as “Preparing to Go on a Mission,” “Friendship,” “Jesus Christ, My Elder Brother,” “Tithing,” “Families Are Forever.” The effectiveness of the presentation varies, of course. The Mormon is told that the Holy Spirit is ready to assist each hearer in taking to heart the message of each talk. To be bored or unaffected by a talk is to have failed to heed the Spirit’s urgings.
A concluding hymn is sung, followed by the closing benediction, also offered by a member of the congregation.
In contrast to our Catholic Mass, the Mormon sacrament meeting is remarkably devoid of worship as we understand it. The opening and closing spontaneous prayers, together with the two sacramental prayers, are addressed to God the Father, concluding in the name of Jesus Christ. Aside from these prayers and whatever references may be made during the hymns, there is no necessity for addressing deity. Indeed, some talks rarely even acknowledge the Lord, except for the required closing phrase, “I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” Often, the addresses seem more like business reports, self-help lessons, or pep talks.
The congregation’s role is that of listeners. There is no communal offering of prayer. Aside from the hymns, participants do not raise their voices to God in praise and adoration. No prayer is ever addressed to Jesus Christ. Even spontaneous prayers must be made in the format approved by the Mormon authorities. Except for possibly being mentioned in an individual’s talk, there are no Scripture readings. Because there is no sacrifice, there is neither offering nor offeror. The Mormon congregation is a group of individuals, who are expected to listen to other individuals speaking about their individual experiences, feelings, and insights.
This is all the more the case on “Fast and Testimony Sunday,” usually the first Sunday of each month. Mormons are expected to fast from two meals that day, donating the saved money to the church welfare program. The sacrament meeting on that Sunday replaces the assigned talks with individuals’ “testimonies.” Anyone who feels moved may address the congregation about his beliefs on various Mormon tenets or his feelings of gratitude for blessings received.
It has been said that Catholic worship is inherently more satisfying than any other. Even should the “Liturgy of the Word” go poorly, because of the celebrant’s or the participants’ limitations, there is always the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” to look forward to, the coming of Christ in the flesh, into the heart. Not so the Mormon sacrament meeting. The blessing and passing of the sacrament, though imputed to be the central act of the meeting, occupies much less time and seems to receive much less attention than do the talks. Moreover, the sacrament, in Mormon theology, is merely a memory jog, reminding the participant of promises he has already made at baptism. (The common use of holy water upon entering a Catholic church serves this function.)
Mormons attend two other meetings on Sunday. All attend age-appropriate Sunday school classes for about forty-five minutes. In general, the Mormon “standard works” are read and taught by members who have been assigned the task of Sunday school teachers. One year each is spent on the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. At the end of four years, the cycle begins again.
While there are manuals for each age group, individual teachers are free to construct and present their lessons within boundaries set by a general church committee. They generally take care to make the lessons appealing and relevant to the members. Class participation is encouraged, particularly since it is a Mormon belief that members should both teach and learn from one another. The high degree of involvement, especially in the adult classes, is impressive.
The third meeting is segregated by both gender and age. Children under twelve continue in their Sunday school classes. Adolescent girls, grouped by age, are taught by women in the “Young Women’s” program, a mixture of religion, self-help, and social interaction. Adult women attend “Relief Society,” which usually focuses on scriptural lessons or other spiritual themes.
All males twelve and older gather for a “priesthood” meeting, consisting of a hymn and prayer and business announcements. The teenagers then break into “priesthood quorums” “deacons” are twelve and thirteen, “teachers” are fourteen and fifteen, and “priests” are sixteen and seventeen. They receive lessons that combine religion, citizenship, and missionary preparation.
The men of the ward are divided into two groups. “High priests” are generally men who have held positions of responsibility in the church or who have reached a mature age. “Elders” are the rest of the men over age eighteen. These two groups, with their leaders, study handbooks produced by the church. The lessons are meant to deepen their faith and strengthen their obedience.
The clerk takes a count of those attending the sacrament meeting. Attendance is taken at the other two meetings. Absent members often find that another member will contact them, to ensure that everything is all right.
It should be clear that the Mormon Sunday block meeting is devoted almost exclusively to words (one could not even say “the Word,” since the Scriptures are usually used only as proof texts). This is a grueling experience, asking the member to be alert, attentive, and involved for a long period of time. Mormon bishops and other leaders do not receive any formal training in theology, liturgy, preaching, or pastoral care. It is a source of perhaps justifiable pride for them that their church uses the abilities of each of its members in many ways, including conducting worship and teaching doctrine.
The trade-off may come in the form of bored or even absent members, even though regular attendance at church meetings is a requirement for a temple recommend.
The Mormon Church is to be commended for its vigorous program of religious education made available to members at all levels. There is no doubt that the church publishes high-quality teaching texts and tools, nor is there any question that the men and women who volunteer to teach are sincere and, generally, capable. Catholics may take a page from the Mormons when it comes to continuing religious study.
More important, faithful Mormons are at least willing to devote several hours each Sunday to the service of God and their church—though it consists mostly in participating in talk after talk. How different for the Catholic, who, in an hour’s time, may encounter Christ in the gathered community, in praise and adoration, in the Word preached and taught, and in the Sacrifice offered and partaken!