The following is the second part of the series written for us by David Stout, Disciples of Christ minister, about his perception of LDS worship. The first post can be read here. Again, thank you, David.
The second reason (I am interested in the possibility of returning a bit of the former fire of earlier Mormonism to the current church) lifts the service I attended from the background of Mormon history and sets it against the backdrop of the LDS future. As I mentioned parenthetically in my previous post, one of the talks used in the Sacrament Meeting I attended was one given originally by David McKay. As I understand it, President McKay was the prophet who set the LDS on its modern missionary explosion. Prior to his time Mormonism was largely confined to the mountain west. McKay, however, had a vision of a broader reach and that was the impetus for the current status of the LDS as a nascent worldwide religious community.
This in turn raises the issue of missionary activity. The talk which McKay had given perceptively realized that sending out missionaries would not, by itself, achieve the desired ends. Every Saint needed to see him or herself as a missionary, bearing witness and providing contacts for the “tie guys” to follow up on. Keep this thought on the back burner for a minute.
Just long enough ago for me to forget the source, I read an article which addressed some of the difficulties LDS missionaries abroad were facing. One was the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, another was the lack of well formed LDS communities, a third was the disadvantage of missionary “roll over” especially when contrasted with the long term work of Protestant and Catholic missionaries, and the last was the lack of indigenous expression in Mormon worship. One former African Mormon convert said that the reason he gave up on the LDS was that it just wasn’t African.
Now add in the words of Gladys Knight to Gordon Hinkley, “I like everything about the Mormon Church except the music.” Knight has since developed a Latter Day Saint gospel choir which, significantly, has been very effective at getting contacts for missionaries. Let that sink in a minute: a black gospel style choir is proving very effective in getting a hearing for the gospel message as understood by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Bring McKay’s vision back into the mix. I would suggest (and here my outsider standing might be of particular import since it is non Mormons that you wish to attract) that if the LDS is going to successfully jump to the next level of its growth then two related things might need to happen. One is a greater sensitivity and openness to the process of inculturation. The other is a greater emphasis (or rediscovery) of the power of spiritual encounter and ongoing revelation. The two are obviously related. It isn’t likely that many people are going to have a spiritual encounter if they find the delivery and expression of the gospel excessively foreign. Going the other way, spiritual encounter is most easily encouraged, nurtured, and spread when it incorporates as much as possible of the individual’s culture.
These two principles are at the heart of the modern missionary movement which has seen the dramatic growth of Christianity throughout the non western world. Once missionaries started concentrating on making disciples of Christ instead of exporting English or American or Italian culture they started doing very well. Indeed, the core of Christianity now lies south of the equator in Asia, Africa, and South America rather than in its old bastions of Europe and the United States.
From talking with a local ward leader, I know that maintaining sound doctrine is of paramount importance in the LDS. This makes the prospect of inculturation and greater freedom of expression in worship and witness a bit threatening. One does not wish to lose control of what is said and done in the name of the LDS and/or watering down the restored gospel. Having both evangelical and Roman Catholic roots, I understand the concern and (especially as a guest in this venue) I do not want to make light of it.
Nevertheless, I would point out that the Roman Catholic Church with 1.2 billion very diverse people has still managed to maintain its historic teaching and practice while allowing for considerable local color and expression. The Mass has proven flexible enough to keep its basic structure very much intact and yet still accommodate a plethora of indigenous customs and music. The music of Bach or Brubeck are both entirely capable of conveying the ancient mystery of Christ’s body and blood. So are the genres of soul, black gospel, and bluegrass.
Evangelicals have likewise managed to keep to a pretty rigid orthodoxy while allowing for all sorts of worship expression. Curiously, I have personally found that the more creative the worship, the more traditional the teaching. What makes this particularly interesting is the fact that evangelicalism is a broad based movement with no central authority.
I should think that if a church the size of the Roman Catholic communion and a movement as decentralized as Evangelicalism can keep their doctrinal commitments while allowing freedom for local expression, then surely the LDS with its off the charts organizational genius could do the same.
I would also suggest that by reclaiming some of its early heritage, the LDS could speak more powerfully to the post modern world where heart tends to trump head and where music often speaks most powerfully than sermon. (As a preacher I mourn this development, but I do not dispute its veracity.)
To put it another way, I found the service that morning to be very similar to a Unitarian Universalist service. Given that the UU is over the top rationalistic with a very strong secularist element, this is really saying something. I would think that the LDS, a movement rooted in prophecy and revelation, would offer a very different kind of service from the UU, a movement rooted in rationalism.
Now again I want to underscore the fact that I write as a non Mormon and I recognize the fact that there must be something about the sacrament meeting that does work and that the current missionary strategy has proven quite effective. Consequently it could be very well argued that there is no point messing with success and I would not object in the least if you, the reader, took that position.
But I would humbly suggest that maybe the broader vision of David McKay, the insights and success of Gladys Knight and her gospel choir, and the early roots of the LDS Church itself might raise some heretofore unconsidered possibilities for reaching more people from different backgrounds. I would also suggest that these same possibilities for more effective mission might also bring the sacrament meeting and the principle of ongoing revelation into greater practical coherence.