Jana Riess: Ah, General Conference — Remind me why we do this?

The twice-yearly gatherings are touted as being prophetic and revelatory — must-see TV for Latter-day Saints the world over. So why does the format feel so stale?

In a moment of welcome levity in Saturday’s General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, apostle Jeffrey Holland shared a letter from a child who leveled a criticism — and raised a question.

“Dear Bishop,” the crayon-penned letter read, “general confrins was Boring why Do we half to Do it? tell me why.”

The audience laughed, and so did Elder Holland. So did I, for that matter. But by the end of the first four of the 10 hours I spent watching conference this weekend, I had the same question.

Why, exactly, do we keep doing this? This is our 192nd conference, to be precise. The first weekend of every April and every October, the church puts on a show of sorts.

It has elements of a worship service, with prayers and hymns and a focus on faith.

It has elements of a seasonal corporate sales conference, including an “audit” that’s read aloud but conveys no real information whatsoever, and a recounting of new products and new hires.

And it has elements of a fan convention, in which members are encouraged in the days leading up to conference to “come listen to a prophet’s voice,” and engage in speculation about what the denomination’s celebrities might do or say.

But, at the end of the day, I think the child who wrote that letter is onto something. The format of General Conference feels like a relic from a bygone era, and I too wonder “why . . . we half to do it.”

Some Latter-day Saint parents who want to emphasize the importance of conference try to make the weekend special with treats, baptizing the event as only members can: in a cascade of sugar. I know one family that allows candy in their home only on Halloween and the two weekends of conference. They also treat their little ones to the famous cinnamon rolls that many people have come to associate with conference. (FYI, there are many variations of the basic recipe, but as long as you bury the rolls in a generous mass of icing, you may rest assured they are fully canonical.)

Parents also try to keep their children’s wandering minds engaged with games. Like, “recognize that general authority from the flashcards we studied” or “put a marker on your bingo card for every time someone utters the buzz phrase ‘covenant path.’”

I admire this effort a great deal. In our hurried and media-saturated culture, it’s not easy to get kids to sit for 10 hours of much of anything, except perhaps a Marvel marathon.

But why, exactly, do we keep doing this? What are Latter-day Saints getting out of the experience of conference that we couldn’t receive by hearing our leaders convey messages in other, less scripted, ways? Or, even better, balance what leaders are saying with an emphasis on the exciting things that members are doing, such as we see in the interstitial “world report” that airs between the sessions of conference but is often far more inspiring than conference itself?

This is an honest question. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with conference in the nearly 30 years that I’ve been a member of the church. In the early 1990s, I attended reasonably faithfully. This was back in the days when each ward had a satellite dish and you had to dress up and haul your family over to the chapel to watch conference in the company of others. Some families who had to travel a distance would make a day of it, packing a meal to enjoy between sessions or eating at the home of another family who lived closer. There was an element of community to conference-going that made it more worthwhile.

That’s not to say I didn’t prefer watching it at home in my sweatpants when the early 2000s brought satellite TV into our very own home. That felt like a freaking miracle in terms of convenience, but I would not say it made me more regular in my attendance. Between the change in format and the fact that I was by then a parent, I attended conference less and less.

And a funny thing happened: I became more devoted to the church. I received my endowment in the temple, became a Gospel Doctrine teacher and felt more at peace with the church in general. Those were good years for me spiritually.

For the past decade or so, however, covering conference has been part of my job with Religion News Service. I don’t have the luxury of skipping it, even now when I’m sick with COVID. (Ugh. Short version: It is possible to still get knockdown sick with this virus even after three shots. Be careful out there, friends.)

Covering conference is easily my least favorite thing about this job. My stomach tightens even at the opening visuals, seeing that sea of businessmen in dark suits and the few spots of pastels or bright colors that mark where the women leaders are sitting. To my ears, some of the talks sound reactionary, as though leaders have spent the past six months thinking over which particular aspect of the declining state of the world or the family they should next bemoan.

Since so many of the speakers are octogenarians or even older, the tone and format can feel like a relic from another era. There is a comfort in the predictable sameness of the experience, like every song being preceded by the archaic phrase “the choir will now favor us with.” I find that quaint and sweetly earnest. What is far less palatable is the insular and obsequious way church leaders use conference talks to parrot one another, quoting one another almost more than they expound on Scripture.

In this self-referential quality, conference has changed, and not necessarily for the better. Part of its apotheosis has involved the 21st-century “Teachings for Our Time” initiative, which debuted in 2005. At first, the program required that the adult curriculum devote one Sunday each month to using a recent General Conference talk as the basis for the lesson. As the church’s schedule changed, that grew to two Sundays a month, so that conference talks now form the entire curriculum used for priesthood and Relief Society.

General Conference has seen some short-lived efforts in recent years to improve the experience, like allowing international leaders to give talks in their native languages or presenting part of conference from a location other than Salt Lake City. None of these efforts has had much staying power, and none has challenged the basic we-speak-you-listen structure of conference.

That’s not to say that individual talks today weren’t powerful (e.g., both Reyna Aburto and Patrick Kearon — wow), or that there wasn’t good news (including the calling of Tracy Browning, the first-ever Black woman to serve in a general presidency). But it was striking to me how several speakers alluded in various ways to young people who are failing to connect with conference and/or the church … all while doubling down on the same format and messages that young people are apparently not connecting with.