The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued a new, official Gospel Topics essay on the question of the geographical setting for events in the Book of Mormon:
It’s very welcome.
Not infrequently, I read comments from purportedly liberated ex-Mormons about the glories of churchless Sundays. Instead of attending mind-numbingly dull and repetitious meetings, they claim to spend most of their Sundays skiing, golfing, biking, reading classic books, listening to superb music, perfecting their highly toned bodies through exercise, enjoying the beach, and sipping fine imported wines.
And perhaps they do.
Would I gain by skipping out on Sunday meetings and spending the day as if God didn’t exist? Yes. In some ways, quite undeniably so. I’m not a big fan of meetings myself. I love forests and oceans. And quietly reading.
But I think that my life would also be seriously impoverished.
Bracketing the truth-claims of my faith, I simply want to jot down, in no particular order, some of the things that I would be missing if I were to drop out of participation in my ward on Sundays.
I would lose a great deal of social contact, and other types of socializing probably wouldn’t fully (or even significantly) compensate me for that loss. I think of people who lack the kind of close society that the Church provides — and not merely of young people who need to cruise singles bars in the hopes of picking somebody up with whom they can have a long-term (or even short-term) relationship. I’ve often noticed boastful entries on a couple of message boards where apostates want to know what everybody else on their board is doing that Sunday morning instead of attending Latter-day Saint services; the obvious answer, at least at the time people are writing there, is that they’re sitting alone in front of their computers, typing comments into cyberspace directed to strangers, to people whom, overwhelmingly, they’ve never met and probably won’t ever meet.
Virtual community isn’t entirely the same thing as real community. It’s a well-publicized fact that study after study has demonstrated significant health benefits for religious believers. Some opponents have dismissed those benefits as coming not from religious belief itself, but from being participants in a strongly supportive community. Fine. I’m not sure that that’s all it is, but let’s grant that claim for purposes of the argument. The fact remains that religious believers have pretty easy and regular access to such supportive communities; the irreligious, on the whole, suffer by comparison.
Sometimes, when my wife has been out of town, members of our ward have called me and invited me out to a restaurant. More often, I’ve enjoyed dinner at the home of neighbors in our ward.
On other, quite different occasions, funerals are well-attended and grieving families are lovingly supported. (I’ve been to some funerals, outside of Mormonism, where the non-family mourners could easily be counted on one hand.) Mine is a community of people who “are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45).
Weddings and wedding receptions draw large, supportive crowds. Wedding and baby showers attract eager helpers and enthusiastic participation. The community rallies around its members at the crucial pivot-points of their lives. We aren’t social atoms. A while back, my wife and her sister were in Hawaii for several days. By coincidence, so were several members of our ward, in the same area of Maui. They spent a lot of time together. By contrast, my parents spent their last three decades in an upscale California neighborhood where there was seldom any contact of any kind with the people who lived on either side of them or across the street. They were all past the age when they had kids in school and ran into each other at PTA meetings, so they had virtually nothing in common, nothing to bring them together. They sometimes waved at each other across the street, but that was essentially it. When my parents died, nobody from their neighborhood attended the services. I doubt that any of the neighbors even knew that they had died.
Some years ago, Hillary Clinton made an African proverb famous: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Latter-day Saint wards supply such “villages.” They supplement the efforts of parents and extended families, providing teachers, youth leaders and activities, scouting programs, youth service projects, and the like. Parents aren’t left on their own for the moral and social formation of their children.
I’m put in mind of Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book surveys the decline of “social capital” in the United States since 1950, describing what Putnam holds to be a marked reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans once founded and enriched the fabric of their social lives. A distinguished political scientist, he believes that this trend undermines the active civil engagement on which a strong democracy depends. If the earlier Harvard sociologist David Riesman hadn’t already used the phrase in rather a different sense as the title of a famous book of his own, Putnam could easily have described America as, more and more, a “lonely crowd.” And I doubt very much that Putnam regards internet message boards as an adequate replacement for genuine community.
There are many other values to be found in participation in Latter-day Saint Sunday meetings, or, anyway, in something very like them. They may not be as hedonistically satisfying as snowboarding or mountain biking on the Sabbath, but they’re probably more important, and perhaps even more satisfying, in the long term.
Take singing, for example. Some have noticed that, once Americans are out of high school and into their mid-twenties, most never sing much any more. A small thing, you might think. But not, perhaps, completely unimportant. Church, however, offers not only congregational singing, but the chance to participate in a choir. And, for some, the opportunity to play the piano and the organ on a regular basis. Good things. They keep music alive among ordinary people who aren’t professionals at it. We who participate in church have other sources of music beyond iPods. We’re not just passive consumers of it.
For Latter-day Saints, Sunday worship offers a weekly opportunity to renew covenants. Even if critics recognize no transcendent significance in the sacrament service, surely they might be able to see that taking weekly stock of where one stands, and forming weekly resolutions to improve, can have real value.
Sunday services provide a chance for reflection on the biggest of big issues, an opportunity to pause and take stock of oneself and one’s life. And not just during the administration of the sacrament. Otherwise, the pressures to careen thoughtlessly through life — “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot puts it in the first of his Four Quartets — are intense.
At church, we think about the meaning of life. We become part of a community of Saints that reaches back not only into the early nineteenth century but beyond, into biblical times. And, even beyond that, into an eternity before this world that extends into an eternity ahead, beyond it. Especially for Americans, who tend to live in an ahistorical Now, this provides a deeply rich ground for our daily lives and decisions and pursuits. We’re part of a communion of Saints, of those who’ve gone before and those who will follow after us. And I haven’t even mentioned family history research, so much encouraged and supported by the Church.) On an even grander scale, too, the Plan of Salvation, the Great Plan of Happiness, endows every day with potentially cosmic meaning.
I’m currently a Gospel Doctrine teacher in Sunday school. It’s my favorite Church calling, bar none. This year, of course, we’re focused on the New Testament — which, even if you deny its inspiration or religious authority, must surely be ranked as one of the greatest of the “Great Books.” From one perspective, church is a kind of continuing adult education seminar. It’s fabulous to be able to come together each week in order to discuss some of the greatest and most influential texts in human history. For those of us who believe that, in doing so, we’re hearing the word of God, it’s an inestimable treasure.
There are even benefits to be gained from simply dressing up. I’m not someone who loves suits and ties; I prefer, indeed, not to wear shoes. But I feel sorry for those whose days and weeks are casual all the time, without variation, without certain times and places being demarcated as special, as worthy of somewhat greater formality. This adds richness to life.
Participating in a community of discipleship offers enormous scope for service — which, as many studies have shown, is a major source of human happiness. It’s not only the children and the youth who benefit from programs for young people. The adults who’re involved in them also benefit. And this extends beyond youth programs. Teaching, heading up activities, participating in organized efforts to fix up widows’ homes and to shovel snow for the elderly, serving in welfare canneries, volunteering at Church employment centers, and a host of other, similar efforts, can provide deep satisfaction. I think, in this context, particularly of my service as a bishop, which exposed me to people and situations and experiences I would never otherwise have encountered. They tested me, and sometimes they worked me to the bone, and I didn’t always handle them as effectively and competently as I wished, but I grew from them in a manner that few other assignments could have matched.
I appreciate a community in which elderly people can still contribute, and in which they’re valued. Not merely within a family, but publicly. And not merely for their monetary value, or their productivity as employees, which largely ends when they retire. In my ward, older men and women serve in multiple capacities, including the temple and various leadership roles. They aren’t marginalized into irrelevancy.
It’s true that the preaching in our congregations isn’t done by polished professionals. It can be uneven. Sometimes it can be a bit pedestrian. But it’s often quite personal and heartfelt, and, through it, we learn to know about, and to know, our neighbors in remarkable ways.
Our monthly day for fasting and for expressing testimonies in sacrament meeting is, when we approach it in the proper spirit, a feast. And not merely in terms of the comments made in the meeting by members of our ward. The opportunity to abstain from food for two meals, and then to donate at least the amount of money saved thereby for assistance to the (mostly local) poor, is a wonderful one. The money doesn’t go to fundraising campaigns, or to expensive overhead, but directly to people who need it.
Our discussions in priesthood quorums and Relief Society can also be deeply meaningful, and serve to bind us to each other.
These are just a few hasty thoughts. If I were to forego gathering with the Saints on Sundays, I would miss out on all or most of what I’ve mentioned above, and probably on much else besides. Would there be some gains? Yes. I might get more writing done. I could, very conceivably, spend more time in the mountains. I would have more time for television and, even better, for reading. And so forth. But, in the long term, even (for now) bracketing the eternal benefits that I foresee, my life would, in several important respects, be measurably less than it now is.
Do you have anything to add? (Confession: I’m more interested in comments from believing Latter-day Saints here than I am in hearing from sneering and alienated former believers. I already know pretty much what they think. That’s what led me to write this.)