"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
April 15, 2010
Help preserve the lousy talk tradition
by Orson Scott Card

It has come to my attention recently that the quality of talks given in sacrament meeting has been improving, and this worries me.

After all, the LDS Church has a long tradition of lousy sacrament meeting talks. It took years to build up this tradition, and it would be a shame for us to carelessly throw away such a vital part of our cultural heritage.

There is a theory that lousy talks are a natural result of having a clergy that consists of unpaid amateurs.

Instead of hiring preachers who, if we don't like their sermons, can be fired, we are all expected to give 10- to 20-minute sermons with an average of seven days' notice. (Even credit card companies give us more prep time than that.)

Think about the demographics of our unpaid, amateur clergy. Let's assume an average ward to have 100 active adult members. (This will enable me to handle the arithmetic with reasonable accuracy.)

Most years have 52 Sundays. Twelve of those are testimony meetings. In addition, two Sundays are taken up by general conference; two more by stake conference; and another by the third stake conference, which we call, for reasons passing understanding, "ward conference." Yet another sacrament meeting is turned over to the Primary.

Twelve times a year, the main speaker is a high councilor, with a topic assigned by the stake presidency. This means that the main speakers (or the entire program) of sacrament meeting are taken out of the bishopric's hands for 30 of those 52 Sundays.

Let's assume that bishoprics will invite two adults to speak on each of the remaining 22 Sundays. It will take nearly two years to work through all 100 adult members.

By that time, half of them will have moved, died, gone on missions, gone inactive, or been called to the high council so they are off speaking in some other ward.

On average, each member of the church will give a talk every two years. But you know most members get called on far less than that, because of speakers imported from outside the ward and the tendency of the bishopric to call on certain reliable speakers more than others.

Moving into a ward is the surest way to get called on to speak. Once.

If you figure your life as a Mormon adult begins when you turn 21, then it may take until you're 50 to give your 10th sacrament meeting talk. Or longer.

About 20 formal sermons in your whole life. Two and a half years in between. It's a recipe for incompetence!

Almost everyone is capable of speaking for hours at a time with friends or family members. Most folks are actually rather witty and entertaining in conversation.

If we just got up and spoke as ourselves, telling what we know about a particular gospel subject and how it has affected our lives and the lives of people we know, there's no reason why our talks shouldn't be perfectly delightful — full of spirituality, wisdom, wit and ever-increasing experience.

I suspect that this is exactly the sort of speaker who is ruining the traditional lousy talk. It's time for a refresher course in just how we traditional Saints used to make our talks so tedious.

1. "I was just (getting the kids ready for school/bed/dinner/a birthday party) when (member of bishopric) called me and ruined my day by asking me to give this talk! This is actually part of the "humility pose" that speakers traditionally assume. "Who, me? I can't give a talk! It scares me! I hate it! I don't have time! I'm not smart about the gospel! No, no, don't throw me in the briar patch!"

Or if the call came at the last minute, it also serves as the traditional "Here's why my talk will be lousy: I didn't have time to prepare." This is the usual opening for elders quorum lessons by substitute teachers. Or the regular teachers, for that matter, since no man can admit to having had adequate time to prepare.

What makes "how I got the call to speak" so effective as the opening for a lousy talk is that you actually postpone the beginning of the sermon for as long as it takes to tell the story. Meanwhile, the congregation has to listen to a story that is exactly like every other story of being asked to speak in church:

Here you were, not knowing you were going to give a talk, and then zap! Just like a miracle, after a single phone call, now you did know you were going to give a talk! What a shocker!

2. (Speaker tells lame joke; people laugh politely.) "I was told that to get the audience's attention, you're supposed to begin with a joke."

The fact is, that "rule" was developed for after-dinner speakers. They are usually competing with busboys, dessert, liquor and table conversation for the attention of the audience.

Sacrament meeting speakers, on the other hand, stand up in front of a congregation (not an audience) who are offering their full attention to you. Even the people feeding Cheerios to their children or giving them noisy car keys to jangle are half-listening in the hope that you will reward them for getting the kids all dressed up and dragging them to church.

3. "Webster defines (topic word) as …" Why is this part of the opening of a lousy talk?

First, because looking up key words is part of your preparation for the talk. It is not part of the talk itself. Unless the information you found is shocking ("Did you know that the word 'authority' actually means 'kidney infection'?"), you can safely assume that most of the congregation knows the meaning of the word, and the rest of them will learn its meaning only if you give an interesting talk that explains it thoroughly.

Second, because dictionaries report only how the outside world defines the word. Sure, the dictionary will tell you that when John Wycliffe coined the word "atonement," he did it by combining the words "at" and "one."

You could even give a fascinating talk about Wycliffe and the Lollard movement in England, and how they thrived only as long as John of Gaunt supported this proto-Protestant movement, and how after both John of Gaunt and Wycliffe were dead, Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and his bones were dug up and burned; in fact, there is so much interesting information that you could give full Sunday School lessons on it.

But it will not advance you a single step toward explaining what Mormons mean when we say the particular gospel word you were assigned to talk about. The dictionary isn't going to have a clue about what Mormons mean by, say, "scripture," "priesthood," "spirit," "soul," "God," "Christ," "atonement," "pre-existence," "heaven," "hell," "eternal," "good," "evil," "life" or other such seemingly ordinary words.

I realize that I've run out of space and I've barely begun. Unlike lousy sacrament meeting talks, this column can't go over its time.

Still, if you follow these three rules — tell all about how you were called to speak; tell a lame, irrelevant joke; read the dictionary definition of the topic word — you will be well on the way toward giving a good old-fashioned lousy sacrament meeting talk.

It's our heritage, our right as Latter-day Saints to listen to lousy talks on as many Sundays as possible. It's a tradition of our fathers, and as the Book of Mormon so often affirms, that's something you have to fight to preserve.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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