A month or so ago, I posted on the UVU Science and Faith Conference. The keynote speaker was Molly Worthen, a history prof at UNC Chapel Hill. I got a copy of her book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (OUP, 2014). In the middle section of the book, chapters 5 through 7, she recounts Evangelical success or failure in three cultural or institutional areas: (1) establishing a university, (2) running proselyting missions, and (3) doing ecumenical outreach via liturgical renewal (as in, what do you do in church on Sunday?). I think the LDS Church does well with universities, does okay with missionizing, but is losing badly at liturgical renewal. I’ll touch briefly on the first two, then discuss the biggest opportunities for improvement a bit more for the third. We gotta have more fun on Sunday or at some point no one will show up.
Getting Out of Tatooine and Seeing the World: Education and Missions
Building and supporting a university isn’t as easy as it looks. Fundamentalism supported bible colleges, which offered a fixed liberal arts curriculum heavy on Bible studies. “Though Bible colleges were small institutions with modest enrollment, they formed a core axis of American fundamentalism” (p. 103). Full-fledged universities on the German model became the defining institution for post-secondary education in the 20th century: large institutions with specialized courses of study, including the sciences and engineering, and highly educated faculty. Evangelicals never really caught the university wave like Mormons (with BYU) and Catholics (with Notre Dame, Gonzaga, and other schools) did. There is no flagship Evangelical university.
Evangelicals train and support overseas missionaries; they use crusade events (think Billy Graham) to engage thousands of people; they attempt to bridge cultural barriers to better share the Christian message. “Visiting missionaries should focus on evangelism — which means translating the gospel into cultural norms that their audience could understand and aiming to convert entire peoples” (p. 129). In a sense, they do religious R&D, critiquing traditional methods and crafting a more effective approach. I give the LDS Church a a mild thumbs-up here just because you can’t really say it has failed in missionizing when it has like 80,000 young proselyting missionaries serving around the world and a dozen or more Missionary Training Centers to prepare them. But the model for Mormon missionizing hasn’t changed much in almost 200 years. It’s like the program is frozen in carbonite. There is very little willingness or effort to adapt the Americanized gospel (think white shirts and ties, the LDS hymnbook, and the three-hour block, for example) to other cultural environments. Missionary service, at this point, is more about converting and socializing the young missionaries than about converting anyone. When was the last time a young family joined the Church in your ward?
On Sundays: The Boredom Menace
Ecumenical outreach goes beyond having a bishop join the local ministers club or getting invited to the National Prayer Breakfast (check out this Facebook post by Elder Christofferson, who attended one). The point here is a willingness to broaden the reach and appeal of your Christian message and your Sunday services to a wider audience, both within the particular tradition but also beyond it. The Catholic renewal of Vatican II is an example. The emergence of Evangelical megachurches (which almost completely ignore denominational identity) and seeker churches (which focus their outreach to those who don’t attend church and have little interest in traditional religious services) is another. I have never attended or visited a megachurch, but it sure sounds like fun:
The growth of evangelical megachurches and seeker-sensitive services represented an indigenous strain of evangelical liturgical renewal. … The sprawling, mall-like complex in the suburbs featuring a coffee bar and cafe, an auditorium equipped with movie theater seats and massive video screens, all surrounded by acres of smooth blacktop to accommodate hundreds of minivans and SUVs …. [T]hese pastors applied Church Growth principles and modern marketing insights to build churches nearly as big as the shopping malls, community colleges, and office parks that now dotted the landscape. They did it by reeling in those passersby who felt alienated or bored by more traditional worship. (p. 155.)
Well, at least we build pretty good parking lots. Mormon liturgy and worship (i.e., what we do in church on Sunday) is way overdue for an overhaul, or at least a renewal. Talks on recycled topics, lessons that you have literally heard three times before, hitting the same topic once a month for six months on the fourth Sunday … people are just bored! Don’t blame it on Millennials or cell phones or inactive Mormons or Satan. Just look at what everyone else is doing better and adopt some improvements. I’d love to hear from readers who have actually attended a Pentecostal service or a megachurch service. I think we’re missing the boat here. LDS services don’t appeal to seekers. LDS services don’t appeal to visitors. LDS services don’t even appeal to most Mormons.
A New Hope?
The changes introduced in the recent General Conference, with suggestions that more changes are to follow soon, offer some hope for liturgical renewal. Actually killing a program that was no longer achieving intended goals — wow. Let’s not forget how hard it is to kill a program or a project in any bureaucratic institution that isn’t a tightly run business (so: schools, government, the military, churches). A few simple changes could make people a lot happier about attending Mormon church on Sunday. Business casual. Two-hour block (let Sunday School die a quiet death). Coffee and donuts. How about some live Jesus rock to get the crowd warmed up on Fast Sunday?
Help us, Obi Wan Uchtdorf! Save us from boredom and irrelevance!