Church is not boring

To correct one misconception, our Sunday meetings are not boring.

From where I sit, more towards the front than the back of the chapel, and without craning my neck, I can see multiple cancer survivors, cases of chronic illness, people with relationships or finances in distress, families who have lost children, and too many past or ongoing career crises to count. A paper airplane takes flight a few rows ahead of me that one distracted parent fails to notice; the other parent is at a distant medical clinic with a child who is undergoing treatment for a grave illness. As I count off the rows more methodically, it’s difficult to find anyone untouched by recent hardship or tragedy.

There are other details worth noting. One brother sports an American flag lapel pin, and another sports a peace sign. Both are troubled by the direction our country has taken. Three people I don’t recognize are sitting next to people I know.

There are gaps where people are missing. Some people have come without their spouses. Parents have come without children. Not all the young men administering the sacrament are brought to church by their parents. Some rows are empty where a family once sat who have now relocated out of economic necessity.

Experience and the law of averages suggest they will eventually be replaced by someone who will introduce themselves by saying, “We never planned to come here, but here we are,” and people in the audience will exchange faint smiles and knowing looks. We all have a story like that. No one ends up or passes through this smallish city in an underpopulated and ruthlessly flat state known for its horrific weather without the thought crossing your mind that somehow, somewhere, you have made a terrible mistake. This is not even an irregular stop on any lecture circuit. There are no masters of the universe here.

Every sustaining to a calling and every young person advancing to a new class or Aaronic priesthood office moves the plot forward in an ongoing story whose outcome is still unknown. Everyone who speaks from the pulpit reveals a bit more of the back story and hints at plot developments to come. A few mumbled verses from a teenager with a terror of public speaking, or the first talk from the pulpit by a new member, are moments of triumph. One of the most memorable talks I have ever heard was in this ward, given by a brother who used to rob banks. I’m fortunate to be permitted to enjoy the companionship of these people.

This is not a good place to stage a protest or scripted media event or make a statement. If you aim for subtlety, you probably won’t be noticed, as people have a lot on their minds. If you choose a noisier approach because your concerns take precedence over the solace-seeking of a hundred anguished or grieving people, you really need to rethink your priorities. But if you’re burdened with care, you could take a seat. You might be surprised by how well the people around you understand your situation. Just in the last month, and without craning my neck, I’ve seen my neighbors in the pews reaching out and ministering to people of all kinds.

A hundred people seeking solace is not boring, any more than Puccini is boring. It is overpoweringly beautiful. As there are no subtitles, however, it may require some time to familiarize yourself with the characters and plot arcs. When Mimi can’t stop coughing in the back row, it means something.

20 comments for “Church is not boring

  1. I have often been in the “church is boring” camp, but this has changed my perspective. So glad I came across this first thing this morning.

  2. Beautiful and wise. Sincere thanks. Imagine how this congregation looks to the bishop,who knows 100X more stories, more joys, more sorrows, more open questions.

  3. This is a good post. Thanks. It reminds me of the following:

    “What do you do if you find yourself caught in a boring sacrament meeting?” President Kimball thought a moment, then replied, “I don’t know; I’ve never been in one.”

  4. Long time reader, but very few comments maker here. Dang, this is a good post! The longer I’m in my current ward (27 years now) the more I appreciate my ward members faith and example in times of adversity. The handcart pioneers have nuthin’ on my bros and sisters!

  5. True and beautiful, much how I experience church in my once little ward where I have been resident for 35 years now, a great privilege. And an enormous challenge, trying to to sing from the same hymn sheet when we are constantly singing just a little flat next to each other, trying to hold our kids who find it all just dismally boring.
    Your post expresses some of the real drama behind this, but your title,I guess deliberately, doesn’t. ‘The Sunday Drama’ might.

  6. One of the things I enjoy the most about being organist is that I get to watch the whole congregation, including those on the stand, from off to the side. I am often overwhelmed by the feeling that I am in a room full of people who are doing their best. Sometimes, that “best” is hidden because it may not seem like much if you don’t know that person’s story. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. Two quick comments. First, when someone with expertise or experience in a subject tells you that you do not know what you’re talking about, it is likely true. Humility is a good thing. It’s good to ask people about their experiences, and if they want to share. And, when we sit down for our final three-hour block tomorrow, remember that although we may be able to go through like Jonathan and list the difficulties in the lives of some of the people sitting in the chapel with us, we really don’t know much. Even the bishop doesn’t know much, despite how much people tell him. So, be kind. People are usually doing the best they can. It means something if they’re there; it means something if they’re not there.

  8. What I’m trying to tell you – and as the title suggests – is that church is not boring. Especially not priesthood meeting, which is the one place where no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled theological sparring occasionally breaks out. Or Sunday School, where doctrinal questions of long standing are occasionally answered by someone who has paid closer attention to the scriptures than I have. And above all, not hymn singing, which is only as boring as a pleasant stroll through a minefield. I might start the song thinking I will just repeat the well-known words to a familiar tune, only to fall silent when some line catches me off guard. If any of these are boring, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not people-watching. It’s communal worship.

    Wondering: Those are nice thoughts, but until you apologize to Clark, that comment is gigantically hypocritical. Do not insult Clark or assume he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, here or on any of my threads, or anywhere else for that matter. This is also not the place to relitigate your last outburst.

  9. Sorry, Jonathan for intruding on your post. I suspect you wouldn’t feel so harsh if you knew how my family has suffered.

  10. Wondering: It’s understandable if personal experience leads one to type things that one later regrets. We’ve probably all done that. I’ve done it too many times. Important conversations are usually difficult and frustrating and most of us aren’t very good at it. The thing is, your personal experience should be part of your recognizing how you went too far, not a reason to expect others to come around to your view. I can certainly understand losing your patience with some people, but Clark? He’s as patient and fair as it gets. You don’t have to agree with him, but his ability to continue a respectful conversation despite disagreement is awe-inspiring. The humility and recognition of others’ experiences you cite are important, but it cuts both ways. It’s probably not safe to assume that others would agree with you if they only shared your experience; you just don’t know what experiences people have had before reaching their current views. Try to do better.

  11. Excellent post Jonathan Green- I agree that the drama of the lives of the parishioners is nothing short of epic. I appreciate the fact that you drew attention to the dramatic needs and fascinating stories of the members in the pews. Yes- that’s interesting. I also agree that watching us grow and struggle is not only interesting, but of utmost importance and relevance.

    However, I can’t go with you or John W all the way to make the connection that church *is* people and vice versa. Sadly, church is often disconnected and mechanical- emotionally and intellectually removed from those epic human struggles and therefore unable to truly nourish the diversity of persons and depths of their spiritual desires and needs. I believe it can, and has, and will rise to be the “living well” I know it to be, but that it far too often falls short – especially when we turn church into our own correlated “Rameumptons”. When we regurgitate the out-of-the-box content from SLC obediently, but thoughtlessly and without passion, relevance, application, reflection or spirit, then, it’s hollow, and yes- extremely boring. And even the truly interesting people, when they turn themselves “off” to conform, present to us their worst side- their false and ‘boring’ selves. I’m not talking about people who simply come to quietly pray and get respite from life’s storms- I’m talking about a numbing effect that occurs when obedience to the ritual of modern mormon motions and (yes- I’ll say it- CORRELATION) dulls our emotion and intellect while simultaneously distracting us from our real selves and needs.

    So, I suppose that the only way to agree with you about church not being boring is to say that it, like La Boheme, is a tragedy. Not just because Mimi keeps coughing, but because people become too apathetic, ignorant or for whatever reason are not able to bring her medicine, food or warmth. Our “Mimi” doesn’t sing what’s in her heart, neither do any of the other characters. Instead- their performance is replaced by a masked character cranking-up a one-note music box that repeats the same two simplistic bars. Puccini- the master of heart-plucking, drug out an opera for three (endless) hours by juxtoposing love and apathy, closeness and loss, creating waves of dissonance and resolution. While that may be our life struggle, it isn’t the experience we portray at church. Additionally- I think many obedient members are blinded to their own epic struggle- somehow convinced that their uneventful repetitive motions are scoring points for the Celestial Kingdom while they avoid the actual struggles and situations needed for true spiritual growth. Our boredom comes from an unwillingness to acknowledge our human dissonance as we pretend to be who we are not in rituals that allow us to mask our real questions and solutions.

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