Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Dull Mormon Sacrament Meetings Revisited: Guest Blogger Lisa Tait Takes Me to Task

Last month I posted what proved to be a controversial opinion piece about five reasons I feel that Mormon sacrament meetings are not spiritually engaging. Thank you to everyone who read the piece and took the time to offer feedback. Also, my thanks go to Glenn Ostlund and Bridget Jeffries for inviting me to discuss my views on each point in more depth on the July 28 Mormon Expression podcast.

One blog reader, Lisa Tait, contacted me privately and said she had some thoughts on the subject, so I invited her to write a guest post. She’s interested in exploring in greater depth what “worship” might mean in an LDS context, and she makes her points very well, disagreeing without being accusatory or personal.


I appreciate many of her points, but I don’t necessarily agree with the overall definition of worship here. My advocacy in the original post was never for improved “performance” but for a more worshipful sacrament meeting that focuses on God. There’s a whole lot of joy mentioned in conjunction with worship in the Bible, as becomes apparent in Psalms 92, 95, and 149. I simply don’t see that joy in many of our sacrament meetings, at least on a corporate level, which is not to diminish what an individual may be experiencing as he or she sits quietly in the pews.

In the end, worship is described in the Bible as being about what God wants, beyond what will help us to grow spiritually. Worship is not a self-improvement exercise so that people can become better speakers, or develop the virtue of patience, or even acquire more knowledge about what we believe. (It’s also certainly not about entertaining ourselves, which I worry some readers took away from the original post.) Worship is about God. How do we live that principle?


Let the discussion begin! –Jana


Reexamining Mormon Worship
By Lisa Tait

In her blog post on the shortcomings of Mormon meetings, Jana Riess argues that “we simply must change” the pattern of tedious, “stultifying” meetings that bore us to death and drive away new converts. Today’s sacrament meetings–“an exercise in routinized tedium”–are “decidedly different” than worship practices in the early years of Mormonism, and leaders need to make improving the level of worship a higher priority. Ultimately, I am going to agree on the last point, but I want to examine the concept of worship that I think ought to underlie those efforts.


The concept of “worship” is not articulated very self-consciously in Mormondom, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have one. In LDS scriptures, there is little mention of church meetings other than the injunction to partake of the sacrament. The most detailed description we have is from Moroni 6:5-6: “And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls. And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus.” The point of these meetings, as verse 4 expresses it, is to see that the members of the church are “remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ….” To me, this is a recognizable description of the pattern that modern LDS meetings follow.


In this view, the Mormon theory of worship is an active, participatory, process-oriented concept. “Worship,” in the sense of experiencing feelings of awe, praise, and gratitude, is an individual experience and responsibility. By this definition, the ten minutes or so during which the sacrament is administered is the “worshipful” part of the meeting in the strictest sense. During the rest of the meetings, we worship by doing. It is a concept that accepts a lot of imperfection. The person giving that stultifying talk may be a fragile new member or someone who can’t read well, but the process of giving those talks and lessons is part of the unfolding process of sanctification that we understand to be at the core of the gospel. We are active participants in that process, both by putting forth our own efforts and by supporting others as they put forth theirs.


Moroni 4:6 gives what I think is the key word for our church meetings–“nourish.” We meet to nourish and be nourished. Moroni describes the key elements of this process: fasting, prayer, speaking together, receiving “the good word of God.” Speaking for myself, I go to church each week for two primary reasons: to take the sacrament and to serve. The sacrament, to me, is the most direct spiritual nourishment I receive all week. I spend the (relatively) quiet time praying, meditating, and drawing out my soul. At their best, these moments give me experiences with the Spirit that are much more than “warm, fuzzy, and nonthreatening.” And then throughout the rest of the meetings, I try to serve my fellow Saints by speaking with them, listening to them, offering words of encouragement, participating in class discussions, and simply smiling or offering a friendly greeting. 


We need to be careful about assuming that worship services in the early days of the church were better than they are now. The charismatic gifts of the spirit that some feel are lacking were often a source of chaos and confusion. Meetings consisted largely of interminable sermons in which men (always men) spoke for hours, largely to other men. Women and children often did not attend. The members were largely passive. The structure and expectations of church meetings in the early days were definitely different–but not in ways that we would all agree were superior. Over time we have learned, with Elijah, that the voice of God is heard most reliably in the “still, small voice.” I don’t agree that Mormons go to sacrament meeting without expecting God to show up. The simple but powerful nourishment we receive from the sacrament and, yes, even from some of the talks and lessons, is real.


I agree that we could raise the standards of performance in our meetings, and we do need vision and leadership to “raise the bar.” As much as Mormons are mediocre at speaking in church, they are equally accomplished at obedience. Specific, pointed emphasis from the top could effect real change.

But frustrations aside, I find the participatory, process-oriented model of worship we practice as Latter-day Saints to be one of the strongest evidences of the truthfulness of the gospel. It is empowering and validating to individuals, regardless of their abilities or talents. It helps to forge us into a community of believers who focus our efforts on remembering the Lord and strengthening each other. There are times when the level of nourishment in our meetings falls short of what I would like, but those times are just as likely to be a result of my own attitude or choices as of anyone else’s failure to meet an objective standard of adequacy.


Lisa Olsen Tait recently completed a PhD in English at the University of Houston, with a dissertation on Susa Young Gates, the Young Woman’s Journal, and transitional Mormonism in the 1890s. Her research focuses on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature and culture, with a special interest in women writers, popular fiction, and Mormon magazines.

  • Chris

    For me, worship starts with God the Father, and his son Jesus Christ, who received all his power and glory from the Father. Worshiping God is best done through emulating his son Jesus Christ, to the degree that we are able to. We’ll fail every day, but we’ll have our moments. The atonement plays a vital and daily aspect in this – see the bible dictionary’s reference of grace – one aspect is it’s “enabling power” of the atonement that strengthens us and allows us to do works we were otherwise unable to sustain. We will grow from grace to grace, just as Jesus did until he received all of his Father’s glory (although that happened in this life for him, it won’t for us)
    My thought is sacrament meeting is where we receive power through renewing our covenant, which can sanctify us and allow us to have the holy ghost dwell with us, as we are worthy. Having the holy ghost dwell with us is much more significant and difficult to do, and differs from simply being prompted, having moments of clarity, etc. from the holy ghost. Those kind of things I think everyone of any faith, regardless of baptism can have. For me, the times the holy ghost has dwelled with me, was when I was faithfully keeping the commandments in a way that I was focused on loving, helping, serving others (christ like love, charity) and was virtuous in my thoughts. Not just sexual virtue, but that is obviously an important aspect. And the holy ghost would literally help me to discern things, direct my thoughts and actions in a small way (not robot like, but I could feel a quiet, peaceful comfort in knowing I was doing the Lord’s will).
    This fulfills the promise of having our souls purified through God’s power, and we have the promise of the Holy Ghost as a constant companion, and in turn the ultimate promise of having everlasting glory, which is eternal life. (DC 121:45-46)
    So what does this have to do with worship? Everything. What I’m trying to say is we worship through emulation, striving to live like the Savior. This makes every minute of every day worship. Everyday is worship for me. I enjoy this paradigm much more than worshiping for 1-3 hours on Sunday and spending the rest of the other 100 hours in the week doing something else.
    Sunday is where I receive power, renewed strength, and can also help others, receive instructions and a realignment of my perspective to continue my worship during the week. And ultimately, we believe that as Jesus Christ received a fullness of God the Father’s glory, we can too, but only as we are perfected by the grace, enabling power of Christ. And that perfection, as was taught by Joseph Smith, will not come until beyond the veil, and our works and learning and perfection will continue there for a time before the final judgment.
    And for all of this, we sing praises to God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, for the divine plan to make our perfection possible, and for the constant assistance, love, and hope available for each one of us. That is why I praise them. And my life is how I worship them – God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, 3 distinct personages fully united in the Godhead and desiring me to become one in purpose and likeness through becoming a joint heir with Jesus Christ.
    Here’s a practical example of worship in my daily life just 4 hours ago. I was struggling with some contentious issue that was really poisoning my mind. Nothing terrible, but I was replaying a relatively mild disagreement in my head, as I’m sure we have all done. I realized these strong feelings were driving out the spirit from me, and I kept trying to stop them, and prayed and pleaded for Christ grace to help me forgive myself as well as the other person in the disagreement and to ignore the faults I perceived in them. As I walked into grocery store to buy some groceries a familiar, mentally handicapped, beggar approached me asking for spare change. I’ve given this man money before… he’s a local, seemingly well dressed… and ironically he was actually departing the store with a bag of groceries. I smiled at the fact that he had a bag of food and was asking for more money, as he half halfheartedly concealed the bag behind his back. Seeing his needs were obviously taken care of (as I supposed), I patted him on the shoulder, smiled, and said not now I was in a hurry.
    I exited the store 10 minutes later and he was waiting for me. I immediately stopped, asked him to walk with me for awhile, and we chatted for 5 minutes. I asked if he had enough food for his needs, he said yes, but he wanted a little extra spending money (again, he appears mildly, mentally handicapped, and on his own). I told him, he needs a friend and I need one too. I got his name, which I never had before, gave him mine, and told him I loved him, but also that God loves him and as brothers we should care for each other. I told him he also he should be willing to help others too, that we were friends now and should say “hi” to each other when we see one another. I then grabbed some change from my pocket, felt impressed to give him a bit more than that… the number isn’t important to this story or significant. His look of surprise, love, absolutely child like glee was wonderful. I made sure he remembered my name as we parted, and next time we see each other (which is about once a week) I said we should converse as friends.
    There’s the story. The point? It’s not to shame people to giving to beggars. Or to pat myself on the back. I would hope no one would try to draw a broad binding principle like that based on this story. But rather to show love and consideration for God’s children. And in this case, the contentious feelings I had in my mind evaporated immediately. Even now typing this, I first worried they might come back up, but I seriously can’t remember the feeling or even specific arguments in my head (and I won’t try to re-dwell on it!). All is well. And it would not have happened had I not taken the time to demonstrate in actual deed, not word, that a man, and it could be any man, not just a beggar, is actually my brother and worthy of my consideration and attention.
    That to me is a pure form or worship. Focusing on how we can show Christ-like love unto others, exactly as he would have done, or at least as well as we are able. And relying on the grace of his atoning sacrifice to strengthen us and enable us to get past the natural man in all of us. That is my worship. What happens on Sunday is an intricate part of it. But heaven help me if it’s the only part.

  • Chris

    oh wow…sorry for the monster post, I’d be surprised if anyone reads it!

  • Jana Riess

    I read it, and I thank you. I like the idea of service as a form of worship. King Benjamin would approve.

  • E.J.

    Hi, Jana. I agree with you and understand. I think if Joseph Smith were to come back today, he would have us dancing and singing with spirit much more often (not dancing in Sacrament of course). My granddaughter, who is 15, complains about not “feeling anything” in Sacrament meeting. And she is a temple-going teen. I try to explain that the Sacrament Meeting is like our own little temple service. It’s supposed to be sacred and reverent. Yet I really do feel her frustration. The boredom, as I see it, is partly the product of an unecessarily-simplified environment (no pictures in the chapel, for instance), and an overly-regulated format (too many rules about exactly what music we can use, etc.) There is just too much fear of being “different from the norm” in our church. I’m certain there are Mormon congregations led by bishoprics who are more innovative than the norm, and less fearful of offending higher authorities, that break these traditions to introduce or allow these things in worship. We don’t make the effort to engage the emotions in worship for fear, I assume, that the emotions will be prey to Satan. Yet Satan is the author of fear. We are definitely a church of knowledge, and so not too concerned with emotion in worship. If anyone out there has experienced a more open and moving environment in Sacrament Meeting, let’s hear from you.

  • Todd

    Interesting thoughts, everyone. My experience is when I was once lazy in my personal worship, the meetings WERE dull and tedious, almost on a regular basis. However, since I have become “on fire” (as Protestants term it) over the past few years, my heart absorbs the Spirit like a sponge from all of our meetings, even when the mood or tone of others may be considered “dull”. Though we do have a responsibility to strive to help others in the meeting to feel the same way, ultimately it is up to their own attitude and perspective. We do not attend church to be entertained, but to collectively commune with God.

  • BrentW

    I say start with the “Dry Council” who are *expected* to speak in Sacrament every month. Do they *ever* provide training to these brethren on how to present a talk ?

  • Anne


  • Minnesota

    Todd, you hit the nail on the head. Thank you!

  • Murray

    Ultimately the responisbility of worship is on the individual regardless of what else occurs in the meeting. I am sure many Bishoprics spend much time and seek inspiration on what and who should present; we did in our bishopric. We did not correlate very well with the music and talk themes but it was amazing how often they ended up on the same topic. Come with a spirit of worship and the dullness may disappear. Of course I could be completely off base.

  • Gerald Cluff

    I find nothing boring about meeting to partake of the Sacrament. So I don’t need to be entertained by the “speakers” or inspired by a “motivational” gospel speaker. Guess I attend for the wrong reason. Maybe we should invite Joel Osteen to be a guest speaker for those who are bored. Or maybe we should just remember why we attend (other than it being a commandment.)

  • Chris

    Am I the only one that does not like attempting to correlate the music and talks themes? I get that it could be done well if someone has a good mastery of the hymns. But even for someone with a good knowledge of the hymns, I think it is still a stretch.
    When do you sing the Spirit of God? Well, when the theme is the Holy Ghost. When do you sing Come Come Ye Saints? Well when there is a talk on sacrifice. That’s just silly. Those hymns work any day, when we get too aggressive in picking the hymns based on meaning related to talks, it just feels off (to me)
    The fact is so many aspects of the gospel are interconnected you don’t need to do this. If the hymn is good, sung in unity in the congregation the spirit will be there pretty strong and there people will feel closer to God and desire to improve themselves.
    Obviously random Pioneer day songs or Star Spangled banner would be a bit odd. But any of the 70 strong hymns could work on almost any day.
    Somethings I wouldn’t mind… letting speakers submit hymns in advance, with bishopric rights to change them of course. Also having a committee in the ward identify X number of hymns the congregation does well, or enjoys and then just cycling through them, updating the list of X hymns periodically so none of the ones that particular congregation is good at or enjoys gets left out.

  • icedlattee

    You would have to be conscious to be bored. Most men in these meetings are asleep accept for the moment of swallowing the bread and the water. The mothers are busy running in and out of the room with their children and slamming the door behind them.

  • Mark d

    What a wonderful exchange this has been! Just to turn our attention to HOW we worship and to consider thoughtfully what is going on in our hearts and minds during this special time is, I think, a profitable exercise. Thank you both for bringing these ideas to us in such candor!

  • Joseph Smith

    LDS worship is bland due to the different God being worshiped as compared to the God of Christendom.

  • susana

    oh…that was sooooo boring! She certainly underscored the case Jana made by Jana.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    It seems to me that worship in a church gathering is specifically the participation of the members of the congregation, whether in singing, in prayer, in participating in the ordinance of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and in voluntarily standing up to bear testimony during a fast and testimony meeting. One of the ways we are supposed to mark our participation in both prayer led by the one at the microphone and by the talks given by the one at the lectern is to say “Amen!” with audible feeling. In congregations in Hawaii, and often in Japan, there is congregational participation at the beginning of each talk when the speaker says “Brothers and sisters, Aloha”, to which the congregation responds with a collective “Aloha” (or “Konnichiwa” in Japan, where I think the tradition started with the many Japanese-Hawaiians and other Hawaiians who served as missionaries in Japan).
    I think there is a direct correlation between the members’ participation and their feelings of worshipping God together. So the things that will improve worship are those things that will increase congregational participation. That would include emphasizing the saying of “Amen”, and of participating in the singing.
    One simple thing would be to get more songbooks out in the congregation, especially in the back rows of folding chairs that are set up in large wards like mine. Having a specific campaign to expand the number of hymns the congregation knows would be nice. A way to increase participation in singing would be to assign specific groups–High Priests, Elders, Relief Society, Young Women, Arronic Priesthood–to sing the musical number in the middle of the service, no just the ward choir. I don’t think it would hurt to have the person conducting the meeting make a half minute of concluding remarks just before the closing hymn, and referring to the message of the hymn we are about to sing.
    Another thing to increase participation would be to have shorten the length of the adult talks to 10 to 12 minutes (instead of the 15 to 20 now) and add another speaker. The pressure to get a message out in shorter time would help people to keep the better part of their talks and discard the less interesting parts. And the sheer variety and greater participation would increase the worship quotient. It would increase the pace, the rhythm of the meeting.
    Now I am going to suggest something a bit more unusual. It is not unusual in stake conferences for the presiding authority to call someone out of the congregation with little warning to bear his or her testimony, based largely on the conductor’s knowledge of something that has transpired in the person’s life recently. In sacrament meetings this is done when an assigned speaker has become ill at the last minute. These spontaneously assigned talks strip away pretense and force people to speak from their hearts. They are short (usually 5 minutes) and personal. I think that if calling a couple of people out of the congregation to speak on short notice could be made a recurring practice, maybe monthly on the Sunday two weeks after Fast Sunday, the participation level would increase, and the worship level along with it.
    I think another part of Sunday worship takes place in the give-and-take of Sunday School classes and the even less formal atmosphere of Priesthood Quorum and Relief Society meetings. In my ward in Idaho Falls, where the High Priests were a mix of engineers and farmers, our High Priest Group Leader was a regular Mormon Don Rickles, who could make personal jests because he knew each of us intimately. He was also one of the most spiritual members of our group, who sincerely loved each of us. The distance from laughter to tears is not far in that kind of environment, and we truly experienced worship and felt the Spirit. True religion is to care for widows, orphans and others in need, and the simple process of learning of such needs and volunteering to care for them was part of our worship as well.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Re: “Joseph Smith” above–Frankly, I have a hard time conceiving of how any Christian worships a God that is “without body, parts or passions”, one which is, as Brigham Young said, as close to a definition of nothing as you can have. It seems to me that the image of God that most Christians have in their minds when they worship is of Jesus Christ, either performing the Atonement on the cross or performing the miracles in which he demonstrated God’s love for broken and failed mankind. That is certainly then image of God that is spoken of most often in formal hymns as well as in more contemporary religious music. Active worship by most Christians is of a personal God, who knows us, loves us, and suffers with and for us. And that is precisely the God that Mormons believe in, a God who is touched by our infirmities, who has empathy for our difficulties, who forgives us out of love and not through our own earned merit.
    To the extent that Christians actually think of God as something that is Totally Other, unlike them, inconceivable, a mystery that can never be solved, then they are, to that extent, denied the ability to approach God in heartfelt worship. For most Christians, worship depends on a more personal concept of God. The Evangelical theologians who advocate the Openness of God specifically indict the traditional creeds of Christendom for denying to Christians the ability to conceive of a God who has any reason to care for them.

  • Grandmaof2

    I find Sacrament Meeting to be very uplifting and yes Spiritual. The taking of the Sacrament and time to reflecting and recommitting myself to live out my covenants a beautiful and at time moving thing. Listening to talks prepared by fellow members is interesting and most of the time very instructive. Preparing and delivering a talk is one of the best experiences that we as members can have. I enjoy singing the hymns with the congregation and listening to special musical performances.
    I don’t desire the flashy entertainment that so many in the Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations do every Sunday. I do not go to church to be entertained, I go to partake of the reverent spirit and to be instructed about my religion and Savior.

  • fishiefishies

    I completely agree that a worshipful, positive experience is ultimately up to individual members. Those who are spiritually mature can, like President Henry B. Eyring’s father, listen to the speaker and give themselves an internal talk if necessary (story from Henry B. Eyring’s book _To Draw Closer to God_, cited at I certainly don’t think it’s the speaker’s responsibility to entertain me. I don’t think that’s what any of us are saying.
    But I’m concerned about investigators and new members. Are the missionaries to tell them “So, if church seems really boring, you need to write your own internal talk” – especially given that some of these don’t have the gospel background to do so, and the reason they’re at church is to learn?
    I think there’s a balance. The onus is on the listener to receive, yes, but the speaker has an equal responsibility to give the best talk he or she can – not prepare as little as possible and “rely on the Spirit” to carry the message. (That’s OK for last-minute talks, of course, but most speakers have plenty of lead time.) I understand some people are not gifted speakers (myself included), so in my case “preparation” may involve writing the talk out fully and even practicing, so the audience doesn’t sit in awkward silence while I fumble through my scriptures and mutter apologies into the microphone. This may seem heavy-handed, but consider: the opportunity to speak in Sacrament Meeting is the opportunity to teach children of God, in the Kingdom of God, and in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s not meant to scare or overwhelm anyone, but to inspire. What would talks be like if everyone focused on teaching in the name of Jesus Christ during Sacrament Meeting – and if leadership encouraged them to do so?
    Finally, I understand that people are busy. That’s why I said the speaker should give the best talk he or she can. Generally people can find the time for the things they want to do, even if that means making sacrifices during the week leading up to the talk. And if someone legitimately doesn’t have time to prepare, that person can by all means “rely on the Spirit” (which, of course, is what ultimately teaches anyway). I just think that a lot of us could make more of an effort to bring the Spirit into meetings through giving well-prepared, engaging talks.

  • cindy

    The best sacrament meetings/talks I have ever heard were always personal. Personal triumphs/challenges, etc. Last week we heard the personal story of a Cambodian woman who fled her country during the Khmer Ruge Regime and walked to Thailand.
    Not everyone has a story that compelling and unusual, but everyone has a story: A family member they’ve finally forgiven; a child who gave up drugs and returned to church; a spiritual battle at last overcome.
    Yet too often the talks tend to be impersonal, preachy, with an occasional story from the Ensign thrown in for good measure. I’ve often left wondering that if this gospel is as life-altering as it’s supposed to be, why are we always relaying OTHER people’s stories and experiences?
    I think that Sacrament Meetings will be far less boring and much more edifying as we ask God for the courage to share our own struggles and triumphs in our talks. Those are the ones I carry with me in my heart.

  • chris

    cindy, I have a lot of miracles in my life. With tithing, helping strangers or the poor, etc. Really amazing and sacred things. And I know as soon as I tell them, people will either view me as trying to puff myself up or will dismiss something which is very sacred and special to me, or deride and mock it and accuse God of not loving them (or someone else) because a different miracle never happened for them.
    So I don’t share these stories. Well, I’ve told my wife, and on occasion I’ve told individuals privately if I know they would be of the right mindset to hear it. But my personal stories are my own. Maybe some day, 20 years from now, I’ll recount them and change some names places. But that doesn’t change the fact of how I know people will critique things as they sit in the audience/classroom.

  • tyler

    church is a time to worship with others. it is up to the individual though to get something from the sacrament meeting. i have been a member all my life and have enjoyed going to the meetings. one must be receptive to spiritual feelings because a lot of the time they don’t smack you in the face with a two by four. those who are in tune will be uplifted.

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