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April 3, 2008
In The Village
Sacrament standards exist for a reason
by Orson Scott Card

I remember, decades ago and in a stake far far away, we had a sacrament meeting speaker who had just returned from visiting Hawaii.

He talked about how surprised and moved he had been when, attending sacrament meeting in Hawaii, he heard each speaker greet the congregation with a loud "Aloha!" which was then answered with a loud "Aloha!" from the members.

Then he insisted that we adopt the same custom and shout "Aloha!" back to him when he greeted us that way.

I hated it. We weren't in Hawaii. It wasn't our custom. And it wasn't his place to decide that we should do such a thing. He had been called upon to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to us, not transform the way we conducted our sacrament meetings!

Like many aspects of our shared life in the Church, sacrament meetings as we now know them evolved gradually over time.

Many of us remember well how it was before the consolidated schedule, when Sunday morning began with priesthood meeting, followed by Sunday school.

Then we'd return in the afternoon or evening for the official sacrament meeting, which lasted a full hour and a half. The sacrament itself was served not only at sacrament meeting, but also in Sunday school -- and, separately, in junior Sunday school. (Primary was in the afternoon on a weekday.)

The consolidated schedule we have now was first tried out in a few stakes and then, when it was found that the new schedule worked quite well, saving money and travel time, and resulting in higher attendance, it was adopted churchwide.

What we don't often realize is that having sacrament meeting as the core of our worship service was not obvious in the early days of the Church. In Nauvoo, for instance, we did not have a multitude of meeting houses.

Preaching was done in large outdoor meetings, where it would have been impossible to serve the sacrament. Instead, the Saints received the sacrament in small gatherings in the homes of various members of the Church.

Only as the city divisions called "wards" evolved into divisions of the stakes, with each ward presided over by a bishop, did sacrament services and preaching sessions combine into the regular Sunday pattern that we are familiar with.

Once that pattern was set, however, it was found to be highly successful, and under the direction of the prophets was standardized throughout the Church.

Even when an aspect of our Church life evolves over time, once it has been tested and approved, we mess with it at our peril.

The Church must be able to change in response to real and important problems that need to be solved -- but never just because somebody thought it would be nice to change things around a bit. Above all, the changes should be done with the approval of those in authority.

Why? Because the Church's structure and activities are carefully designed to meet the needs of the Saints and accomplish the Church's purpose in the world. Most of the time, when somebody has a "great idea" to "improve" things, they aren't aware of what the cost of the change would be -- what we would lose, compared to what we would gain.

Back on February 28, 2008, I wrote a column that was about the importance of hymns in our worship. At least that's what I thought I was writing about. But some readers thought I was writing about what a cool idea it was to devote an entire sacrament meeting to having members come up and tell why a certain hymn was important in their lives, followed by the congregation singing it.

Our ward did that twice (for reasons explained in that column), but there were no plans to do it again.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who had enjoyed those meeting as much as I did. "I wish we could do that again," she said.

But my response wasn't so positive. "How often?" I asked. "Every year? How long before we got sick of hearing the same people say the same things about the same hymns?"

She immediately got my point. Even though there are only 52 Sundays most years, when we spend a lifetime in the Church, anything we do one Sunday a year begins to feel like we're doing it over and over again.

How many Primary programs do we have? I love hearing our children sing, even though we have only the normal percentage of tuneful singers among them, because I know and love the children of our ward. But devoting one entire sacrament meeting a year to listening to them perform is quite enough, thank you!

Missionary farewells were a custom that had spread through the Church, but they had gotten completely out of hand when the Brethren put a stop to them. I remember being appalled by "farewells" that sounded like eulogies, with emotional, weepy praise from parents and friends being heaped upon a young missionary-to-be who had not done anything yet.

Unlike a funeral, however, at the farewell the subject of the eulogy would then have to stand up and deliver a talk, which too often had little to do with the gospel and did not inspire much confidence in his probable effectiveness in the mission field.

I don't miss those farewells, or the fancy programs that were printed up -- I don't even miss the refreshments at the receptions afterward. I was grateful when the Brethren stopped them -- sacrament meetings are too precious to waste them that way.

Sacrament meeting has certain purposes to accomplish. The center of it is the sacrament itself; only four Sundays a year do we forgo it for stake and general conferences.

We sing hymns together. We pray together.

Twelve times a year, we bear our testimonies to each other. The rest of the time we listen to speakers chosen by the bishopric -- or, in the case of high council Sundays, by the stake presidency.

We also, occasionally and always by assignment, have performances of sacred music by our choirs or by talented individuals, using approved instruments in a style conducive to the dignity and, yes, stodgy conservatism that is a hallmark of Mormon worship services.

We don't come to sacrament meeting to be impressed, or to do "cool" new things, or to be surprised at all. We come to share a sacred time of repentance, atonement, instruction, and worship with our families and neighbors in this village that we call a "ward."

Within that framework there is room for enormous variety -- after all, every speaker, every musical performance, every prayer is different, or takes place in a different context, so that meanings are endlessly changing. And yet the core of it never changes.

Come, be at one and at peace with the Lord: That's what we are invited to do at sacrament meeting.

Unfortunately, there are innovations that can quickly become fads, spreading through the church and interfering with, even wrecking our meetings.

Recently an out-of-town visitor got up in testimony meeting and, instead of offering a spoken testimony, sang a hymn.

I was horrified. I was even angry.

1. This was not a time or place where anyone expected or wanted a musical number.

2. The words came from the lyricist, not the singer, so it was not that person's personal testimony.

3. It was presumptuous in the extreme for a visitor in the ward to impose an innovation like this.

4. In my opinion the singer's skill was not up to the minimum standard that gets invited to sing in sacrament meeting, except in the case of young people whose talent we are nurturing.

Not only that, but a friend of ours told us afterward that she had been present in another ward -- in another state -- when this same visitor did exactly the same thing.

Was this "hymnomony" a spontaneous action, prompted by the Spirit? I don't know about you, but to me it looks like a singer on tour!

When we speak of "bearing testimony in song" we are speaking metaphorically. Songs are written in advance, usually by somebody other than the singer. They are not your words. It is not your testimony -- not for the purposes of testimony meeting, which is intended for members to bear personal witness of Christ and his gospel and Church.

How can I put this kindly? Testimony meeting is not the time for a talent show. It should not become an episode of "Mormon Idol." If you want to sing in church, talk to the ward music leader and you will be invited, at an appropriate time, to sing an appropriate song.

Yet I hear rumors that this kind of thing has been spreading. Apparently some people were fooled: "Oh, what a lovely, spontaneous, spiritual thing to do!" they said.

No, my friends, it is neither lovely nor spontaneous nor spiritual. It is a vain and selfish thing to depart from the customary pattern of a sacrament or testimony meeting and hijack it to your own purposes.

The hymn-centered sacrament meeting I wrote about a month ago was a once-in-a-lifetime thing; it was done under the direction of the authorities in charge of the meeting, and it was repeated only at the request of a beloved music leader in our ward, who had missed it.

The circumstances would never be duplicated. It happened, it accomplished its purpose, and then we returned gratefully to our regular pattern of worship.

There are plenty of opportunities for spontaneity and originality in the Church. Road shows. Athletics. Activities. The lively conversations that can arise in our less-formal classes and quorum meetings.

Sacrament meeting should be like coming back to the warm and familiar home of a beloved family member. Our Elder Brother, to be precise. We come to be with him, and while we rejoice in each other's company there, we do not want the pattern to vary except within certain bounds, and under the direction of those the Lord has chosen to preside.

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