What if no one showed up?

A good friend of mine is an elders quorum president here in Utah, and he was talking to me about an idea he had for an “object” lesson in church: have people arrive for sacrament meeting to find that nothing is prepared; no speakers, no sacrament prepared, no chorister or organist. Nothing. Then he said he would let people sit awkwardly for 15 minutes or so and then talk about how the ward requires the participation of its members to function.

What spurred this lesson idea? My friend is frustrated at the lack of commitment and participation among members of his ward. Roughly ten years ago when I was in his shoes as a young elders quorum president, I noticed that the same small group of people were doing everything in the ward. If I asked for help in a service project, the same people always showed up. We used to joke that ward council was just musical chairs because the same people traded callings every few years.

To me, this problem is a sign of waning commitment and faith within Mormonism. I suspect that the experience of these two elders quorum presidents is pretty standard. As my friend put it, “Too many people are sitting in the foyer.” They are in the church but not of it. They attend their meetings and go to the activities, but they aren’t dedicated enough to sacrifice for their religion.

Of course, there are millions of dedicated and faithful Mormons around the world, but if our experience is at all representative, they are in the minority. And if the trend is toward less commitment, the future doesn’t look good for Mormonism, a religion that demands commitment if there ever were one. Oddly enough, many of the former Mormons I know are the type of people who were extremely dedicated (I know I was), whereas a lot of the active Mormons I know are the ones telling me that they don’t take their religion seriously and neither should I.

So, how is the church going to increase dedication and participation? I would submit that their current efforts aren’t working very well. What they seem to be doing is having more meetings and more guilt-tripping. If you are or ever were actively involved in Mormonism, you have sat through countless priesthood, leadership, and training meetings designed to help you be more effective and committed in your church work. The problem is that these meetings are by and large mind-numbingly boring and devoid of anything that would help you commit more of yourself.

I think this lack of dedication is what’s behind the current fad of “pioneer trek re-enactments” wherein teenagers spend a few days discovering just how miserable the handcart experience was for our pioneer ancestors. My two oldest children spent four days in Oklahoma for their trek, and both came home exhausted, sick, and sunburned. Neither described it as a faith-promoting experience, and in fact my son came home feeling like “miracles” are based on deception.

I don’t know what the church can do to fix things, but my guess is that if they keep on doing what they’re doing, more people will be in the foyers, and more will be gone entirely.

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8 Responses to What if no one showed up?

  1. MikeP says:

    Hello again Runtu. I noticed this same observation way back when I used to run around trying to keep up with my religious duties and always wondered the same thing. It dawned on me a couple of years after I left that maybe people think that a lot of things in the church are weird as heck/or not worth their time; sure, they’ll come to parties and activities that they don’t have to plan, but the run of the mill member either doesn’t give a hoot about the cannery, home/visiting teachers and many of them think the temple is actually too weird to go on their own, let alone on ward temple nights; the last thing they want to do is sit for 2-3 hours with their neighbors dressed in weird clothes and chanting. They can always have a luau and do the same things, but have some fun instead!

  2. K*tty says:

    I can guarantee that while I was a member, I worked my fool head off. I was the kind of Primary teacher and Mutual leader that I wanted for my kids. Unfortunately between all four of them, they probably had only one or two teachers that even stood out. My self diagnosed therapy says that, I was over compensating because I was not married in the temple. So, I can not blame the church for that. But the higher standard that I had set for myself caused a literal burn-out. There was even a teacher at that time, who took his class home on Sunday to watch a ball game, when he came back to the church, they all had doughnuts that were purchased at a shop near by. But he had the priesthood, paid lots and lots of tithing, so it seemed to me, the leaders just looked the other way. I think sometimes the thought was, if there is a live breathing body in the room with the kids, don’t ask, don’t tell, who cares.

  3. Ray A says:

    In all the time I’ve been active in the Church this problem has existed. A handful of zealous believers doing all the work, pretty much dragging spiritually dead bodies along the way. One stake president, in 1975, came to our ward and blasted everyone, and threatened to close the ward if it didn’t start performing. Made no difference, but the threat was an idle one. The wards in this area did eventually reverted to a district, but somehow the tale went abroad that this was really “progress”. Perhaps something like losing weight.

    During my last bout of activity, I was in a ward with 700 members, and about 100 active, and of the active about 20 people who were the backbone of the ward. What’s amazing to me is that the leaders see the problem, but no solutions. Some solutions would be to lower dress standards, drop the guilt-ridden “100% home-teaching”, stop interviews where bishops inquire into private and personal morality (none of this occurs in Catholicism, and “confession” is encouraged but not essential, and not guilt-ridden by endless talks about morality). To give you an idea, when I was a bishop, there were about 300 inactive members, about 100 active. Ten-fifteen years later that inactive figure doubled. IOW: retention was a huge problem, so naturally somewhere in the pipeline there has to be a blockage. Baptism procedures should also be revised. How many of these converts later discover things they weren’t taught? That’s why I’ve been critical of the “milking process”. In plain terms, Church activity is burdensome and guilt-ridden, so only “the Elect” remain. I’ve seen so many members suffer activity burn-out it isn’t funny.

    The problem will continue, and I suspect that in the next few years the ward I belonged to will have 1,000 members of record, and 100 active. The grand vision of a stake in my local area was put forward in the late 1970s. But I think the Saints will return to Missouri before that happens.

  4. sideon says:

    I always had more fun in the foyer, personally.

  5. Interestingly enough, I had more problems when I lived in Utah with parents who were willing to commit than I have since we moved to NC. When I was the Stake Camp Director in Orem, Utah, I had a terrible time getting parents who were willing to simply transport their daughters to camp clinics, etc. I was a young mother with two children under the age of 3 at the time. We also didn’t have much money since we were both in school. I remember that the YW leaders would think nothing of expecting me to initially pick up the tab for groceries for activities, etc. The Ward would reimburse, but the process was slow, and we were cash poor for weeks at a time. So much for being closer to the Lord’s Church. LOL

    Ironically, in NC, whenever I have been in charge of an activity for youth or primary, parents are more than willing to go the extra mile to help.

  6. zackc says:

    This isn’t unique to LDS. When I was attending a mainstream church it was the same few people passing the plate and the sacrements and giving the prayers. I think alot of people go to Church because it gives moral credibilty and is percieved at the “right” thing to do.

  7. zackc says:

    It also shows how easily it is to get people to do anything. Write up a list of songs, insert where prayers should be, choose a few verses to talk about, and print it in on a sheet of paper and people will do it.

  8. jr says:

    I had made the same observation, that a few members are doing most of the work. It makes me wonder if the majority of active mormons are actually closet doubters but stay active for a variety of reasons.
    I was recently ‘called’ to be responsible for the cleaning of the church building. I went to a meeting where I was to learn what needed to be done in order to clean the building.
    After an hour and a half of hearing, in several different ways, that “this is the work of the lord”, I left without ever learning what exactly was expected of us in cleaning the church. I had kids who needed help with homework and being put to bed.
    They could have given us the information and discussed what was expected within 20 to 30 minutes then all of us could have gone home. Instead, after 90 minutes of wanna-be General Authorities giving us the business, I gave up on them and went home to the wife and kids.
    They truly miss the point more often than they ever hit the target.

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