General Conference hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s still a marathon of four or five two-hour sessions in two days. It’s still a parade of old and older senior leaders walking up to a pulpit and delivering a talk. There are very few graphics, videos, or other visual aids. We see a few women and a bit of diversity in the speakers now. I’ve read more than a few posts offering suggestions and proposals to spice up the presentation or tailor it to a 21st-century audience. Let’s just go all the way and talk about reasons to end it entirely (as has been done with LDS pageants and the Scouting program) and do something else. Let’s just abolish General Conference.
Some Reasons to End It
First, it’s too long. By Sunday afternoon, most listeners (for those still listening) are thinking, “Let’s just get this over with.” Oddly, recent moves made Conference longer, not shorter. The Saturday evening session, previously Priesthood then something else, is now just another general session, making five of them in two days. Things need to move in the other direction.
Second, it has displaced traditional sacrament meeting topics at the local level. Only in the last ten years or so has it become routine to assign a Conference talk as the topic for an adult sacrament meeting speaker and often also for a non-Sunday School second-hour lesson. We really need to get back to a topic-focused Sunday — teach the gospel, one topic at a time, rather than a series of regurgitated Conference talks. Another problem with this system is that the inclusive, progressive talks that do make it into Conference are often overlooked by ever-more-conservative local leadership, who select primarily the most conservative talks for local assignments. I imagine most Utah local leaders are just drooling over Kevin W. Pearson’s talk but are likely to simply ignore Elder Christofferson’s talk.
Third, the Church really needs to keep the attention of the younger cohorts, those coming of age and eligible to serve missions as well as the 20-to-40 demographic. The 19th-century format of General Conference is just Way. Too. Slow. for that group. At times, Conference seems more performative than substantive. The choir doing their thing with a jazzed up Mormon hymn. Sonorous prayers. Predictable talks on predictable topics. The sustaining of LDS leaders. The announcement of new temples. The closing address of the President proclaiming some variation on “this has been a wonderful Conference.” Two speakers could drop dead with heart attacks and it would still be pronounced a wonderful Conference.
Let’s shake things up and just get rid of Conference.
Instead, have a weekly fireside-like presentation streamed every Sunday at 6 pm Mountain Time. Sometimes an apostle, sometimes a couple of Seventies, sometimes an auxiliary presidency. Throw in a non-leadership speaker from time to time, even a non-LDS speaker. I think we the listeners would be more awake and focused. Instead of speaker 17 of 30, the featured speaker would be just that, the one featured speaker, and would get more attention from listeners. And it would give active LDS something to do on Sunday evening that was churchy and sabbath-compliant.
Once a month, maybe make it focused toward youth or young adults. Once in a while you could make it a first showing of this or that 30-minute video put out by the Church. Mix it up a bit. Over the course of a year, you can still give every one of the Big 15 two talks per year and half the Seventies and auxiliary leaders a talk each. And the attention of those listening would have to be higher than we’re getting with the current set up.
Another advantage: the presentations would be more topic-focused and productive. Something I’ve noticed in General Conference over the last few years is that too many senior leaders end up telling stories about the grandkids and stories about their ancestors and stories about this or that random encounter, then trying to somehow tie the story to the gospel through a stretched analogy. I think that correlates with the aging of our senior leadership, now in their 80s and 90s as opposed to (two generations ago) their 60s and 70s. Really old people think and talk a lot more about the grandkids and great-grandkids (who are young and energetic and fun) and their dear departed ancestors (who they will shortly be joining). Is that really what we need to hear twice a year in Conference? Maybe a focused fireside system would cut out some of the personal reminiscing and focus more on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Less Is More
There have been some “less is more” moves in the last few years. Two-hour church. Getting rid of Scouting. No more pageants. Obviously, I doubt the leadership could or would totally jettison General Conference as I suggest above. Alternatively, how about making one of the two annual Conferences a leadership training weekend, inviting bishops and stake presidents only, for one day of talks and one day of training seminars or breakout sessions? Local leadership really needs some serious training. Everybody else, you and me, we get a church holiday to go visit family or just take a hike in the hills. Use some of that Hundred Billion Dollar Fund to buy those local leaders a plane ticket or two plus meals and lodging for some serious training once a year, and sort of a paid vacation at the same time. Cut the other semi-annual Conference down to one day, two sessions. Less is more.
I think General Conference has lost a lot of its effectiveness and even relevance. Some members listen (out of a sense of duty) and other just blow it off entirely. We need to shake things up a bit. Change is good. Maybe you can come up with some other alternatives.