Children at the Pulpit?

Yesterday was testimony meeting (for some of you, fast and testimony meeting). By good fortune, I have never had much anxiety about the “ward crazies” who say such interesting things on open mic Sunday — by good fortune, the wards I have attended have not had this challenge. But I do see the standard mix of young children, probably three or four per testimony meeting, some who manage on their own, some who manage with parental prompts, some who require a word-for-word script whispered into their ear. It’s cute if it’s your own kid; it’s not a big deal if it’s someone else’s; it must be a bizarre experience for non-LDS visitors. Why do we do this?

Lest you think I am just having a get-off-my-lawn moment, let me remind you that official counsel discourages the bearing of testimonies by young children in testimony meeting. Here is part of a First Presidency Letter dated Feb. 14, 2013, posted at LDS.org (emphasis added):

Parents and teachers should help children learn what a testimony is and when it is appropriate for them to express it. It may be best to have younger children learn to share their testimonies at such times as family home evening or when giving talks in Primary until they are old enough to do so in fast and testimony meeting.

We encourage bishoprics to teach these important principles to priesthood and auxiliary leaders and to all ward members.

Here is from Handbook 2, section 11.8.3 (emphasis added):

Testimony meetings are discouraged in Primary. However, parents, Primary leaders, and teachers may provide other opportunities for testimony bearing. For example, children may share their testimonies when they give lessons in family home evening and when they give talks in sharing time. Such opportunities help children prepare to share their testimonies in fast and testimony meeting when they are old enough to do so without assistance from a parent, sibling, or other person.

It’s clear that official guidance strongly discourages having children bear “parent-assisted testimonies” at testimony meeting. Yet this happens all the time, and I have not seen any local leaders attempt to (even gently) discourage the practice. It is just one aspect of the more general infantilization of LDS Church culture: having LDS youth give prayers in sacrament meeting, singing Primary songs in sacrament meeting, Young Adult activities that seem more appropriate for tweens, sending missionaries out younger and younger.

The contrast between worship services at any other denomination and what one sees at an LDS service has grown sharper over the last two generations. Where other churches draw a clear distinction between adult services and those directed at children or youth, the LDS Church now seems to blend it all together, at least in practice (as noted above, official guidance does attempt to make sacrament meeting an adult meeting).

What do you think, reader? What is your experience at LDS testimony meetings? Is this an LDS problem, or does the rest of the world just not get it? Are we practicing a proper form of “let the little children come unto me” or have local leaders effectively subverted the counsel of senior LDS leaders by simply ignoring it?

28 comments for “Children at the Pulpit?

  1. Clark Goble
    March 6, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    We don’t have a lot in our ward and those kids that come up are doing it on their own. Whether it’s sincere or just aping their parents isn’t clear. I certainly think I knew what I thought at that age. So I don’t want to dismiss all kids out of hand. But I definitely think it completely inappropriate if parents pressure them.

  2. Jared vdH
    March 6, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    “singing Primary songs in sacrament meeting” – What do you mean by this? Is this singing Primary songs (that aren’t in the standard hymnal) as congregational hymns? Or is this an objection to the Primary songs that are in the adult hymnal? Or something else entirely?

  3. John Mansfield
    March 6, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    “What is your experience at LDS testimony meetings?”

    My experience is that a dozen years ago, the bishopric of my ward read at the start of every testimony meeting a similar letter to the one quoted above. It was read month after month for most of a year. Younger children no longer came to the pulpit, and for the most part teen-aged youth also stopped sharing testimonies with the ward. Eight years ago, I moved to a different ward fourteen miles from the previous one. In this ward, testimonies to the ward from those younger than eighteen number perhaps a dozen a year, none from anyone younger than nine.

  4. Vanessa
    March 6, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    We don’t have issues with any of those things in our ward (Colorado.) We have a one or two freestanding children bear testimony each month, which I think is lovely and usually interesting. We’ve never sung a primary song in place of a hymn, nor had a teen give a prayer (though we do have weekly youth speakers.). Most of our boys seem to leave within a few months of the traditional 19yo mission departure, some later.

  5. Ryan Swapp
    March 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Our bishop in Arizona (Kingman) read the FP message some time ago. It cut down on the children for open mike Sunday for a time. But we only have 10 or less in an entire year probably. Parents are never whispering in the ear. We never have teens give prayers and we never sing childrens’ songs in Sacrament meeting. Our childrens’ testimonies are probably preferable to some of the monthly regulars.

  6. Jones
    March 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Over 30 years in our Central Texas Stake we have been in wards where many children bear their testimony and wards where no children bear their testimony. I’m pretty sure our last ward (we recently were put in a newly created ward with the creation of a new stake) had many children bearing their testimony and the bishopric read or quoted from the handbook/letter from the First Presidency at the opening of every Testimony meeting. I have memories that my childhood included testimony time during Junior Primary in the 50s, but that could just be my bad memory.
    I think the phenomenon of children bearing testimony happens for 4 main reasons: precocious children who really want to stand at (and usually touch) that microphone, have everyone look at and listen to them and then hear their parents praise what they did; parents who feel their child is so amazing and cute and their child-like pronunciation is so endearing that they feel the least they can do is share that preciousness with the ward; often piggy-backed on to this mind set is the thinking that they give their child the words to say as the child learns to pray and so whispering well-known phrases for their child to repeat as a testimony is how their child will learn to bear a testimony; and lastly, children who are products of Family Home Evenings and talks with their parents about the gospel and what it means to have a testimony and they do have one, and almost without exception what they say matches their age/developmental level and others are able to discern what the child does believe versus what the child has heard the parent say. No fault can be found with any of these reasons and the well-meaning parents behind them except to recognize that most of that witnessing is not in keeping with the counsel we’ve been given.
    I would imagine some of the brethren recognize and feel concern for testimonies that are not born in sincerity, because the modeling of sincerity is not something we consistently provide. Saying “I know this to be true. . .” may or may not reflect the personal wrestle that seems to be required for conviction that reflects conversion. I know I’ve had to work and struggle to know what I do and do not know “to be true” or believe to be true and I work hard to avoid saying anything in a testimony that has not been tested in my mind and heart and through prayer. Anyone listening to my testimonies would, over time figure out what I leave out and where my current testing is happening.
    Bearing sincere and deep testimony is something most (but not all!) adults in the church could be more thoughtful and careful about. Sometimes it does seem the testimonies reflect those of children who bear witness that they “Know Joseph Smith was a man” and “know that the Book of Mormon is blue”.

  7. N. W. Clerk
    March 6, 2017 at 4:24 pm

    Parent-assisted testimonies don’t happen all the time in my stake. I’m not sure that I’ve seen one since the new Handbooks came out.

  8. JR
    March 6, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    We regularly have children as young as 4, sometimes 3, “bearing testimony” usually without assistance at the pulpit, but I don’t know with what coaching elsewhere. Some are little more than “I know the Church is true” delivered in a sing-song voice that seems to evidence coaching to make a statement they likely don’t understand. (Of course, that also seems to be said by a lot of adults without any apparent thought about what they mean by it.) Yesterday’s best from a 4 year old was “Jesus loves everybody. Jesus loves my dad and my mom. Amen.” I wondered if he’d been angry at his parents or thought it unusual that anyone would love them. Some of the children seem to enjoy basking in being the center of attention. Others seem to be making it a matter of competition with their peers. Some may actually be expressing a spiritual experience, but it rarely if ever seems so. I enjoy the crazies somewhat more than the little children, but I’m often glad I did not have any non-member friends present by my invitation. I remember once learning of a parent in our ward curbing her 3 year old daughter’s desire to be the center of attention in sacrament meeting by “bearing testimony.” I wish more would do so. I am able to perceive/receive inspiration much better from young men and young women or new converts or thoughtful adults expressing their own experience of the spirit. Another ward I know of has a bishopric that regularly begins testimony meeting by inviting the young men, young women, and adults to come to the pulpit to bear testimony. That seems a fairly gentle way of implementing the direction the OP refers to.

  9. Moss
    March 6, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    We rarely have children bearing testimony so it isn’t a big deal. As someone who has to keep 2 children quiet for the entire 70 minutes of sacrament meeting let me tell you that in no way, shape or form does this meeting remotely resemble a “children’s meeting”. There is nothing about this meeting that appeals to children.

  10. JR
    March 6, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    Moss, thanks, your comment has suggested another reason for the eagerness of some young children to trot to the pulpit and “bear testimony”. They are otherwise bored out of their little minds with lack of movement and lack of stories directed to them from the pulpit. I can’t blame them. I am often bored out of my little mind, unless I occupy it with something other than what is being said from pulpit!

  11. mel
    March 6, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    I was just thinking about this yesterday when about a dozen children (without parents) went up to bear their testimony. Each of them started with “I’d like to bear my testimony, I know the church is true ….” What bothered me most was how creepy and brainwashed it sounded to have them all start with the exact same phrase in the same tone. I don’t think I will encourage my son to bear his testimony unless he can say something from the heart.

  12. Chet
    March 7, 2017 at 12:28 am

    Yesterday the outgoing EQP got up and started with a wisecrack about Testimony Bingo; it sort of devalued everything else he said. The meeting ran late but one of the best moments was when a Mia Maid shared a scripture and her thoughts about it; simple and impactful.

  13. Ondi
    March 7, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Is it possible the leaders ignore it as well?

    Surely, there are people who attend wards with General Authorities in them. Do the GAs try to put a stop behind the scenes of the typical pack of little kids bearing testimony?

  14. M Buxton
    March 7, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Our East Coast ward has very few child testimonies and almost no parent-prompted testimonies (which I agree are problematic)–so it is definitely not a big issue. We had one precocious 6-year-old this past week, who was quite cute but who veered into open speculation God creating us because he was lonely (curiously, an adult got up after and said she agreed with the child’s speculation). I think the parents were a little embarrassed, but I’m sure it was an issue of them not wanting to discourage her interest in “bearing testimony” rather than pressuring her to do so. I can sympathize with that approach. Once when there was a rash of child testimonies, I discovered it was a result of a well-meaning (but in my view misguided) primary teacher who had challenged all the kids her class to bear their testimonies in sacrament meeting.

    But I will push back a bit from the notion that sacrament meeting must be “adult focused.” If the church expects little children to be in the meeting (and not being cared for elsewhere, as many churches do), then I think it is perfectly appropriate for at least some of the meeting to be directed at them. I appreciate when speakers attempt to engage my kids (so very few do) and I like an occasionally song from the Primary Song Book. Heck, if they can sing songs from the Primary Song Book in General Conference, I don’t see why it is inappropriate in sacrament meeting once in a while. A sizable portion of the congregation in many wards is children. Why wouldn’t we want to engage them to the extent we can?

  15. adano
    March 7, 2017 at 11:37 am

    mel: It’s not just the kids who give the brainwashed-sounding rote testimonies. I hear it from plenty of adults, and I just tune it out.

    If I ask for help with a math problem, I don’t want you to just tell me “I know the answer is 7.” I want you to explain how you got to that answer, so that maybe I can get there too. And yet, so many LDS think bearing a testimony is just saying “I know the answer is 7.”

  16. Clark Goble
    March 7, 2017 at 11:48 am

    Adano, to defend those who just bear a short testimony, if accompanied by the spirit that’s all I need. I prefer that to travelogues. But I do agree some people seem to be going through the motions.

  17. Anna
    March 7, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    We have a real problem with it in my ward. As far as visitors go, I would never bring a nonMormon to witness the long string of two to five year olds who get up or their parents carry them up to the stand. First of all, if the child has to be carried up there, he is not up there on his own. He just wants to do what the other kids are doing. Seriously, after 20 kids who want to “bury their tettimousy,” it stops being cute. Some are too little and shy to even repeat what their parents whisper. After the long string of kids saying the exact same three sentences, it really does look like brainwashing. Encouraging kids to say they “know” when they don’t know, but just know what others have said ….well, there is a name for the psychology behind that trick of the mind that if you repeat something often enough, you come to believe it is true. But most lay people just call it brainwashing. A whole long string of 20 children is boring. It is not reverent when the kid gets up and giggles because it is fun to be at the mike.

    The eight to twelve year olds follow after the littlest kids, and maybe or maybe not an adult will get up before the meeting ends. But when there are ten kids waiting in line, the adults often will not even get up so the whole meeting can be children.

    Now, I appreciate that when children see other children doing something they want to join, and I appreciate that parents think it is cute, and I even appreciate that people want their children to learn to talk in front of a group and that learning what to say in a testimony is important. But sacrament meeting is not the place for children to copy other children or for parents to show off their cute child. It is not even the place to learn to speak in front of a group. And it is not the place for children to recite the five sentences of the testimony glove like it is a catechism. Sacrament meeting is supposed to be for worship, reverence, and partaking of the sacrament.

    I hate to sound like a crotchety old lady, but it feel like I am in primary when the whole meeting is nothing but children. And truthfully, it makes me feel crotchety.

  18. Moss
    March 7, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    Ha! I just caught my typo. Maybe if there were actual “Testimony Bears” the meeting would be more tolerable for everyone.

  19. Mortimer
    March 7, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    It happens.
    It is multi-generational.
    It’s culturally embedded.

    You can pry this bit of folk religion from our COLD DEAD Hands.

    Sure, it’s annoying. Sure it’s against the handbook and the doctrine of the age of accountability and makes no sense.
    But, gosh, kids are soo cute. Who are you to look at the most adorable bambi eyes and tell them to STOP it? You are all a bunch of politically correct humbugs.

    Perhaps you haven’t considered the “pluses” yet.

    1) You get to show the world that you are raising your children to do churchy things, without needing to say “hey! Aren’t I a righteous parent in Zion???? Look at MEEEE and my cute kid!”

    2) You might be a weekend parent who does precious little with your little kiddos during the week, but you will feel like you are dad or mom of the year when you make, er, um, “see” your kid do something so righteous.

    3) You get to show off your little rug rat.

    4) You get extra points in heaven for each member of your family that bears their testimony. (Take THAT sisters with less children or the childless godless people out there!)

    5) You are training your little boy- your little angel to be the next Prophet, the next GA, the next Bishop. (Can’t you see we’ve also dressed little Joseph up in a charcoal suit and tie even though he is just three?)

    6) You are training your little girl to be the next Molly Mormon and righteous wife. Besides you spent a month sewing her a little conference dress to match your own. It’s time to show it off little Eliza.)

    7) Grandparents love it!

    8) It burns up time that you don’t have to speak.

    9) You have an excuse to stay up there (while your kid squirms) and bear your testimony.

    10) You can show the Primary Presidency that your little darling should be star of the next Primary Program.

    See, it’s wonderful. Hush bitter and angry bloggernacle. Hush.

  20. March 8, 2017 at 10:07 pm

    Mortimer: I get that satire can be an effective teaching method, but you strike me as irreverent. It tastes of a spirit of “better than these”, which is unbecoming of a saint of God.

    We all have our gospel hobbies and little things that peeve us (mine is bowties passing the sacrament) but I’ve never felt the spirit while being all “tight” about some point or another of the cultural process. Kind of a Romans 14 thing here. There’s no need to rain on someone’s parade when they’re not actively following a path that leads away from salvation. A gentle notice at some points, maybe, but there are bigger deals to focus on like pornography and the atonement, which we do spend proper time focusing on.

    Should parents force their kids to bear testimony? Nah. Is it wrong for the kid to be like “Can I do it too?” and the parent to help them? Nah. I don’t really care to get all frustrated at kids trying to follow a positive or semi-positive example. This is probably why leaders don’t do much to stop it. The “brainwashed” kid can learn to think later, and its not like anyone gets through the teenage years without some serious testimony-adversity anyway.

    For my experience: I see little children bear testimony once every few months. Usually its cute. Its Mormon-y, even, what with our love of families.

  21. JR
    March 8, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    Bobdaduck, once every few months and I might also think it “cute”; 25-55% of the meeting every month and I don’t. Mortimer’s comment was hilarious, it did not taste anything at all like a spirit of “better than these.” Read the last line and you will find he was exaggerating complaints like mine and suggesting that I stop complaining — probably a good idea. I guess taste is in the mouth of the taster; your first two sentences taste to me like judgment unbecoming a saint of God.

  22. whizzbang
    March 8, 2017 at 11:46 pm

    I can’t recall the last time a child even shared a testimony. We seem to get the Patriarch all the time reminding us he’s the Patriarch like 5 times. In my Mom’s ward they have the Stake RS President telling them she’s on a “Higher Level” now that she has that calling and she’s a Temple worker, besides of which her revelations she gets for people and she tells them what God told her to tell them. I live in Central Canada, not Ontario

  23. Alan
    March 9, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    In my Orem ward, we generally have several young children bear testimony each month, but we almost never have parent help, or the old sing-songey scripted testimonies that we used to have 20 or even 10 years ago. In fact, I have often been impressed and even moved by the thoughtful, well-spoken testimonies given by many of our younger children.

  24. Felix
    March 9, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    The letter has seemed to have had an effect. In my experience, ventriloquist testimonies are now less common than they used to be.

  25. Senalishia
    March 10, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Cynically, my first thought on why we have kids “bear testimony” is “to publicly signal that you have properly indoctrinated them”. It seems I’m not the only one to have that thought.

    On the subject of of youth praying in sacrament meeting, it’s never happened in my ward to the best of my knowledge. However, as I have commented to my husband after some over-long prayers in church, a prayer is /not a talk/, so I think inviting a youth member to give one would be a great way to involve them in the meeting and would not lower the level of discourse at all.

  26. Joshua Smith
    March 13, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    We have a ton of it, no matter that the Bishop began testimony meeting last week with an admonition to curb this behavior….we still had it. We get the standard group of folks doing their standard travelogue along with kids propped up by parents. It’s a difficult meeting, but it can also be the most inspirational meeting which is what helps me endure the crazy ones.

    I’ve had crazies calling the sitting Bishop a fallen man and described how the Government was out to get him….for 45 MINUTES…..compared to that, I guess a couple kiddos is better. Shouldn’t have to have that false choice, but in my experience silent reverence of no one getting up freaks out the masses….so we end up with craziness in all it’s forms.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    March 13, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    I don’t see a child’s testimony as being any less valuable than the testimony of many a new convert to the Church. New members have rarely had enough time to form a vocabulary of testimony bearing, to use the dialect of seasoned Mormons. Yet we encourage them to express their feelings, because it is important to recognize the “still, small voice” in our lives and get affirmation from the rest of the ward that, yes, such gentle things are real and valuable. It’s not like a young child is going to burn up 15 minutes with a travelogue. We want a low threshold to bearing testimonies.

  28. Felix
    March 13, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Raymond, I don’t think the author of this post has a problem with children bearing their testimonies. The concern is that people are ignoring the Brethren’s counsel that children who are too young to bear their testimonies without an adult whispering in their ear should not bear their testimonies in Fast and Testimony Meeting.

Charitable Comments Welcome