Krister Stendahl, the noted Swedish theologian who was unusually considerate of the LDS Church, listed “holy envy” as one of his three rules of religious understanding. Let’s see if comparing Mormon talks with Christian sermons doesn’t create for us a bit of holy envy. I think there might be something we can learn from how other Christian denominations preach from the pulpit on Sunday.
One hears from time to time the complaint that the three-hour block of LDS Sunday meetings is too long and that talks in LDS sacrament meetings are somehow deficient, although there are various views on how exactly the typical LDS talk is falling short. Until an LDS President gets a revelation ending Sunday School, we’re stuck with the three-hour block, but we don’t need a revelation to do a better job from the pulpit. It’s worth reflecting on the strange fact that the youth talks are often the most rewarding five minutes of the meeting: they generally quote three or four scriptures in a five minute talk (which is often more than adults include in a ten or fifteen minute talk) and usually stay close to their topic. Plainly, adults ought to be able to do at least as well as the teenagers, and probably better. We’re missing something. Are things any better across the street?
The standard Christian sermon typically focuses on a text, not a topic. Those with more direct experience in other denominations can add their observations, but my sense is that the traditional sermon is one part close reading of a biblical text, one part scriptural context, commentary, and exposition related to that text, and one part application and exhortation to the congregation. It’s the close reading and exposition that gives me a case of holy envy. We’ve got plenty of exhortation. We could use more close reading.
I know, easier said than done. It would be easy to argue that because we have opted out of a professional clergy we simply lack the skills and education to do scriptural analysis and exposition from the pulpit. But there are places, such as BYU, where those skills are available in abundance, yet analysis and exposition are not pursued. (I’m thinking of Religious Education, which, like sacrament meeting, devotes most of its work to exhortation rather than education, despite having PhD level faculty with all the tools to bring analysis and exposition into the undergraduate curriculum.) General Conference is another example, where speakers have months to prepare and can draw on the considerable scholarly resources of the Church (CES, BYU, or really anyone in the Church they want to consult with), yet there is little exposition but lots of exhortation and storytelling. And the Ensign — which once offered multi-part features by LDS scholars, content by LDS professionals in various fields, and interesting speeches by apostles at BYU forums or other public events — has been correlated to death. Just kill the thing and start sending out BYU Studies instead, bundled with the New Era.
So I have two questions. First, is anyone else surprised there is so little institutional interest in this issue? The few times it does come up, the message is always that the problem is with the listeners, not the speakers or the meeting or the format. It’s like the simple question “Can we do a better job preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ from the pulpit on Sundays?” is not on anyone’s agenda. Inactivity is certainly an item of interest, and it’s hard to deny that whatever is missing from LDS meetings is part of that problem, at least for some people. A lot of institutional energy goes into designing and regularly updating a curriculum for LDS missionaries to learn and to teach. Why no similar concern for preaching the gospel from the pulpit on Sunday?
Second, can holy envy help us out at all? Would assigning texts work better than assigning topics? Sometimes close reading of a text and careful contextual analysis will conflict with traditional LDS readings, but that’s what happens when you start paying close attention to the scriptures: you learn something. As Elder Christofferson recently stated in General Conference:
We have seen of late a growing public interest in the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is something we welcome because, after all, our fundamental commission is to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, His doctrine, in all the world. But we must admit there has been and still persists some confusion about our doctrine and how it is established.
What better place than sacrament meeting to teach the doctrine and remove doctrinal confusion?
Any other suggestions for improvement? And I’m not foreclosing opposing viewpoints. Anyone who thinks there is no problem is welcome to weigh in as well.