Latter-day Saints worldwide flocked to church last Sunday, greeted by a new year, a new curriculum and, for the first time in nearly 40 years, a new worship routine.
The result: new energy, a new vibe and some new challenges and new kinks.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in October that starting in 2019 it was shortening its three-hour block of Sunday services — in place since 1980 — to two hours. No longer would there be a 70-minute sacrament meeting, followed by Primary for children, Sunday school for adults and youths and then, in the last hour, priesthood (for men and teenage boys) and Relief Society and Young Women (for women and teen girls).
The new two-hour pattern features a 60-minute sacrament meeting followed by a 50-minute class alternating each week between Sunday School and Priesthood quorums, Relief Society and Young Women meetings, with Primary each week for children.
So, after Week One under the new lineup, folks in many wards, or congregations, across the globe reported unusually high numbers attending adult Sunday school, in some places filling every seat in the room or doubling and tripling the normal class size.
“There was a level of excitement that I have not seen for a while,” said David Cook in Rochester, N.Y. “The engagement in the Sunday school discussion was outstanding. A lot of people visiting afterward. Seemed like members are really taking this seriously with obvious preparation. … I’m a fan.”
Taylor Mefford said his New York ward had “more people attend Sunday School than ever before — probably about three times our usual number.”
Mefford, writing on Facebook, said, “I attribute the change to people being willing to stick it out for another hour (rather than ditch after sacrament meeting), but we’ll see if that holds true later on in the year.”
Bigger, though, isn’t always better.
One Bountiful attendee said her Sunday school class was so large it had to meet in the gym, with some members standing on the sides.
“It was miserable,” she said.
An extremely large adult gospel doctrine class “does not lend itself to vulnerability or intimacy,” said Lacey Jones. “My understanding is that ‘Come, Follow Me’ [the new instruction manual] is supposed to be a discussion more than a lecture. You can't do that very well with so many people in a room.”
Midway resident Scott Cannon observed another drawback of the reduced schedule: tight space.
“We overlap with the next ward and they’re halfway through sacrament meeting when we dismiss,” Cannon said. “With the extra time, no one in my ward was in a hurry to leave, so [members] stayed and chatted — very loudly — in the foyers for at least 20 minutes.”
Those trying “to have a reverent testimony meeting,” he said, “must have been very annoyed.”
Young and the restless
Most agree, though, that less church can mean more engagement, especially for young children.
A three-hour block was “not organized with kids in mind,” said Mindy May Farmer, who attends a small congregation, called a branch, in Iowa. “The timing for the second hour is much more kid-friendly.”
For starters, the weekly Primary gathering is half as long — still with singing and classes — but less time for youngsters to get tired, hungry, cranky or bored.
Chelan Hunt and her husband teach 6-year-olds in Fresno, Calif.
The new plan was “so much better,” Hunt wrote. “It didn’t feel like we were torturing kids to sit through another lesson [sharing time] but instead just did the singing, which they all like! Then a little walk to the drinking fountain and the perfect amount of class time to play a game, color a picture and discuss a theme instead of teaching a whole lesson. I LOVE the change!”
What about that extra hour?
To Nathan McCluskey in Christchurch, New Zealand, the block was “noticeably short,” and he felt “a little cheated.”
But McCluskey enjoyed “the ‘fellowship’ time that took place around the block, which seemed more relaxed than before,” he said. “I spent most of the third hour chatting at the meetinghouse. … It seemed to go down a treat with the people I talked to. There weren’t any complaints.”
Getting to church in England is the real time suck, not the meetings, said Diane Tueller Pritchett, but the “extra hour [not in meetings] made a huge difference.”
“I made a list of a few people I had noticed missing from church, took some time to text or call, wrote a letter to missionaries in the family and had time to cook Indian food from scratch for guests coming for dinner,” Pritchett wrote on Facebook. “And I had time to take a brief Sunday nap! That extra hour turned out to be like the [biblical] loaves and fishes expanding miraculously to [fill a] need.”
Church President Russell M. Nelson said the shortened meeting schedule was intended to strike a “new balance and connection between gospel instruction in the home and in the church.” So families, friends and individuals are expected to engage in more religious study — with new church-provided instruction materials — away from the meetinghouse.
Brian Davis and his wife in Seattle have six kids covering a range of ages, he said, “so I was a little worried about focusing on one age range and losing the attention of another, but the lesson material was flexible enough that it worked well for everyone.”
Davis especially appreciated the directive “to keep an eternal perspective,” he said, “which came in handy as I faced my audience of sarcastic teenagers and impatient little ones.”
Any downside to the two-hour block?
Possibly the loss of some music, said Janet Brigham, given the elimination of most hymns in meetings outside of sacrament meeting.
“I will miss the … intermediate hymns or special music in sacrament meeting, [with] no music in other meetings,” Brigham wrote. “Our sacrament meeting is supposed to have four speakers each week.”
Brigham, who leads her ward choir, has been told the group will now sing only for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.
“I expect music to get shortchanged further (truncated hymns when we are running short on time, perhaps no closing hymn when the speakers go long),” she said. “I will miss having intermediate hymns and special music in sacrament meeting, as well as music in other meetings. If some people come to church for spiritual sustenance, I don't know if they will feel it.”
What Brigham’s ward apparently has chosen to do for now — keep that many speakers, for example — is not necessarily how other congregations are responding to the abbreviated time.
Latter-day Saint leaders have emphasized that they expect adult hymns and children’s songs to continue to play vital roles in the new curriculum — a new hymnbook is being developed — though they have offered no specific mandates about it.
Work in progress
Several members noted that it will likely take time for the faithful to settle into comfortable patterns with the new schedule.
“Our bishop was very clear that it’s going to take awhile to iron out the wrinkles, figure out what will work best for our particular ward, and get things up and running smoothly,” said Susan Meredith Hinckley of Fountain Hills, Ariz. “He asked for our patience, acknowledging that the chances were very slim we’d get it right the first time. It’ll be a process of trial and error.”
That first attempt, she said, “pointed to a lot of things that will need to be improved to make the change beneficial for as many ward members as possible.”
That was OK with Hinckley, who was happy to see “some flexibility in implementation for a change.”