Here is a blend of 18 things The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints absolutely nails in its General Conferences and things it could do to punch them up, to make them more memorable for the fervent and those barely hanging on:
1. In a faith that requires a lot from its members, there are few traditions better than two weekends a year being able to worship in your pajamas — if you so choose — gathering with family or friends in your den, watching the proceedings on TV or the internet while scarfing hubcap-size homemade cinnamon rolls, burping and napping and scratching at your pleasure, feasting on the good word as the kids play conference bingo.
2. Make all that feasting — the sessions — shorter.
3. Feature more songs from The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. When you have one of the greatest musical forces on God’s green earth, why not use that group to the fullest? As it is now, it’s like having the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and filling most of the time with comedians, dancers and performers spinning plates on tables and bowls on sticks. No disrespect intended. Let the choir be heard as much as possible.
4. Some of these are related, but are only partially or seemingly contradictory. Conference speakers are about as resolute as anyone anywhere. They talk with such authority and conviction when they testify that they are either fantastic purveyors of truth or the best salespeople around.
5. Invite speakers who are not general authorities. The church has many notable members and friends who not only have made meaningful marks in their respective fields but who also could captivate a churchwide audience with their spiritual experiences. The faithful would benefit from hearing, say, Andy Reid or Gladys Knight or Bryce Harper or Brandon Flowers. And isn’t it past time for Genesis Group co-founder Darius Gray, perhaps the most beloved living Black Latter-day Saint, to be heard from the conference pulpit? The speakers wouldn’t have to be anyone famous or noteworthy, of course, just regular folks who have compelling stories to tell. That would be enlightening, inspiring and just plain cool. And the global audience would provide more exposure than, say, a church fireside.
6. Speaking of cool, conference speakers are remarkably composed, especially given the task at hand and the vastness of the viewership. They rarely look or sound nervous.
7. Involve more female speakers from all walks of life, not just the ones who whisper in hushed reverential tones, but women who are out there on the front lines of all kinds of pursuits, from the professional to the personal.
8. Give the membership a voice in which leaders speak at each conference. I don’t know; let believers vote. All in favor, manifest it. Some speakers flat-out connect with listeners with more passion and power than others. Dieter Uchtdorf is a fine example. Every Latter-day Saint wants to hear from the appealing apostle. He heals and helps. And in a world that can beat down Latter-day Saints, with doctrines and policies that sometimes comfort and sometimes concern, that’s what conference should be about, helping ordinary folks feel better after the meetings than they did before them.
9. It’s impressive to see such a large congregation of believers worshipping in one place together — with millions more watching online — according to teachings that are important to them.
10. Ease off so much quoting of one another in talks. Church leaders seem to quote current prophets and apostles more than they do biblical ones. It tends to come across as lower-ranking authorities not just acquiescing to the big dogs but also lathering them up with deference. Quote the Son of Man more and the son of a man sitting next to you less.
11. Limit all talks to no more than 15 minutes. Didn’t there used to be a red light on the lectern that lit up if time was dragging on? Don’t think that happens so much anymore because conference is so tightly scripted. The suggestion here is simply to shorten the speeches to make them more impactful and, in some cases, less snoozy.
12. Sometimes critics rip church leaders for being too old and dusty in age and attitude, but there’s something refreshing about sitting and listening to septuagenarians and octogenarians (even nonagenarians) who have been around the track thousands of times and can share their wisdom. You may not agree with everything they say, but they frequently deliver pearls worth a great price.
13. Allow speakers to show more personality. I’ve known a handful of these leaders through the years, and they’re much less button-down than they often come across at conference. They are not spiritual machines, not automatons. Rather, they are interesting people with interesting perspectives who normally do not talk the way they do from the pulpit. They need not speak the same, use the same tone and cadence, the same terminology, the same phrases. Let leaders be what they are — humans. Where is it written that these general authorities must be stripped of all individuality? They can be united in their noble journeys back to God without transforming into ecclesiastical robots. The Almighty gave us personalities for a reason.
14. Curtail the floral arrangements behind the podium. I love flowers as much as the next person. Love the azaleas at Augusta National, the dogwoods, the pine straw, all of God’s natural flora. But sometimes when I’m watching conference, the speakers look like George of the Jungle addressing the crowd from the depths of the Amazon. Some of those arrangements might cost more than some members make in a year. It’s too much, too showy.
15. Address real issues more often. Love and charity are mentioned again and again, but how can that be manifested in people’s day-to-day lives? How can Latter-day Saints who have LGBTQ children, family members and friends better connect. How can parents touch the lives and hearts of loved ones who choose a different religious road, off the prescribed “covenant path”? How can that be respected and accepted, since agency is a part of God’s plan? Discuss why so many young people appear to be leaving the church or looking for something someplace that doesn’t shame them. Dive into ways everybody can feel God’s goodness and mercy. How the faithful, to whatever degree, can be helped to feel like they belong, regardless of their circumstances. How they can feel that they — all in the human family — are quite literally God’s children. What’s the best way, specifically, to embrace all people, to reach out to and love our neighbors?
16. Encourage ward leaders, through examples set from the podium at conference, to generate interesting weekly Sunday services, filled with speakers and talks and lessons that are honest and invigorating and useful and enlightening and vulnerable, stirring an authentic feeling of sisterhood and brotherhood. That can be achieved by prompting speakers to be prepared and real in their presentations. Image in the church is too big of a thing, putting on righteousness, in contrast to tackling the genuine struggle of being and battling in the slop of this earthly existence.
17. Don’t hesitate to make changes for the better. When an announcement that Sunday meetings were to be shortened from three hours to two seems revolutionary, your organization might be a bit archaic.
18. A church that preaches the greatness of Christ, celebrating his life, his mission, his resurrection, his atonement to the world is good by me, and Latter-day Saint leaders do that at conference about as well as anyone, anywhere.
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