Sunday, March 13, 2011

What To Do When Church is Boring: 3 Truths and 5 Tips to Make Church More Fulfilling.



Q:  I feel frustrated because my church meetings often seem boring and unfulfilling.  What can I do to make church more exciting or at least enjoyable?

A:  You find church to be boring on occasion?  Congratulations!  That means that you are normal!  My first piece of advice would be to relax about it and understand that it is OK to feel restless in church from time to time.  I used to complain about boring church meetings all of the time, because I have had my own share of troubles when it comes to feeling engaged and fulfilled by my meetings. Then one day I noticed that I had stopped complaining.  I was puzzled enough at this discovery that I paused to examine exactly what had changed to cause such a shift in my habits.  As I reflected, I decided that I don’t think that my church meetings have changed all that much, but I am fairly sure that a vital change has happened in me to help me to overcome my boredom and appreciate my time in church.  In this post I have tried to distill what helped me to resolve this problem in my own mind and heart, and to that end, I have divided my response into two parts:

First, it will help you to consider three important truths when you feel frustrated with boring meetings and whenever you are tempted to complain:

1)   Life is rough all over.
The first thing to keep in mind when attending church is that boring meetings are an unfortunate side effect that accompanies one’s belonging to a church in which the lay membership does all of the teaching, preaching, and officiating on any given Sunday. That said I feel compelled to point out that dull meetings are hardly the exclusive province of the LDS church. I personally have been to many services held by other faiths (most of whom employ paid clergy) that were just as dull as anything I have experienced in my time attending meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The good news is that you are not alone, and you are not a bad person, for feeling bored in church from time to time.  Moreover, just because you are not 100% engaged, 100% of the time, does not mean than you cannot still gain great benefit from your meetings.

2)   We are not at church to be entertained.
“Consider the response of President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) when someone once asked him, “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.” With his long years of Church experience, President Kimball had undoubtedly been to many meetings where people had read their talks, spoken in a monotone, or given travelogues instead of teaching doctrine. But most likely, President Kimball was teaching that he did not go to sacrament meeting to be entertained; he went to worship the Lord, renew his covenants, and be taught from on high. If he attended with an open heart, a desire to be “nourished by the good word of God” (Moroni 6:4), and a prayer—rather than judgment—for the speakers, the Spirit would teach him what he needed to do to be a more effective and faithful disciple. President Kimball was teaching the principle of learning by the Spirit.”  (A. Roger Merrill, “To Be Edified and Rejoice Together,” Ensign, Jan 2007, 64–69)

Learning by the Spirit requires a lot of practice and personal growth before you can start to recognize its effects on your life and your experience at church. Do not become discouraged just because you are not yet at President Kimball's level.  I don't think that there are very many of us who are.  The trick is to learn to shed the need for constant stimulation, and immediate gratification.  Your church meetings may seem less immediately rewarding or satisfying than winning at 'Angry Birds,' or watching that all important sports event, but in the long run those things are nothing more than distractions from what is truly important in life and eternity.  If you will learn to quiet your mind and your appetites long enough to listen for the still, small voice of the Spirit, you will find yourself developing the ability to commune with the divine.

President David O. McKay once said, "Spirituality, our true aim, is the consciousness of victory over self, and of communion with the infinite."  If you want to have any kind of spiritual experience, if you truly want to commune with the infinite, you must defeat the self.  You will have to quiet your own fleeting and transitory desires long enough to be taught and directed from on high.  As you consciously rid yourself of unnecessary distractions (you can't help the screaming babies and the howling pew monkeys) you will gradually discover that sublime and essential (and seemingly elusive) relationship with the infinite that can only come through a dedicated process of spiritual growth and discipline.  As you grow and develop in this discipline you will discover that your mind and heart have been expanded, and that your ability to perceive and enjoy the true purpose and worth of your meetings has been expanded.  Moreover, you will find yourself less prone to distraction and less compelled to seek immediate stimulation.  McKay goes on to say:

"Spirituality impels one to conquer difficulties and acquire more and more strength. To feel one's faculties unfolding and truth expanding the soul is one of life's sublimest experiences. Would that all might so live as to experience that ecstasy! (Conference Report, October 1956, First Day—p.6)

3)   You can only get out what you are willing to put in.
“Now I would ask you to think about the implications of this principle in terms of your own ability to have great spiritual experiences as you attend a class or a sacrament meeting on Sunday. What is your role in creating the environment in which the Spirit can teach you the things you need to know? If you find a Church class or a sacrament meeting boring, does that say more about the teacher—or about you?” (A. Roger Merrill, “To Be Edified and Rejoice Together,” Ensign, Jan 2007, 64–69)

This is a principle that applies to many things in life that are worth doing.  I can tell you from my own experience that I was never more bored in school than I was in a class in which I had neglected to complete the required course work.  It was hard to feel engaged during class since I had not taken even the basic steps necessary to prepare myself to learn.

Let me emphasize that Elder Merrill is not saying that we are bad people because we occasionally get bored in church.  What He IS saying is that no teacher or speaker, no matter how scintillating his sermons or lessons may be, can ever be as powerful a teacher as the Holy Ghost.  Because each person's experience and relationship with the Holy Ghost is highly unique and individualized, it falls to us to create for ourselves "[an] environment in which the Spirit can teach [us] the things [we] need to know."  We each have a great deal of individual control over the quality and character of our experience at church, and when we come to understand and apply that principle our experience at church will improve dramatically.

And now here are some concrete actions you can take, and habits you can develop, that will have a direct effect on the enjoyment and benefit you derive from your church meetings.

1)   Always remember to bring your scriptures and the necessary manuals to class. This may seem too simple and obvious on its face, but it is certainly true that is it is difficult to fully enjoy (much less participate in) a lesson when you cannot refer to the texts that the rest of the group has in front of them. Often, while glancing at the texts during the lesson, I will read something in the manual or in the scriptures that the teacher didn’t even touch on which I find to be of deep personal value in my life.  Also, from the another point of view, I HATE it when nobody brings their scriptures to a lesson (especially when I have to teach.)  In my opinion this sends a message to the teacher, and to God for that matter, that you don't place too much importance on what is being taught in class.  Don't complain that your teachers come to class unprepared to teach if you yourself are not willing to show up to class prepared to be taught.  Furthermore, why should God grant you the satisfying spiritual experience of being taught by and through the spirit, when you have made it abundantly clear that you do not care greatly about the subject matter.

2)   Actively participate in the lesson, and be as supportive of the teacher and your classmates as possible during the lesson. Teaching is hard and, for some people, intimidating. Teaching a lesson to an unresponsive (or even hostile) class makes it even harder. Throw your teacher a bone and speak up. Their lesson will improve vastly with a little input from the class. On the other hand, I have friends who view the prospect of answering questions or making comments in front of the whole Sunday School class with trepidation. It is normal to be nervous about speaking in public, but let me assure you that there should be no reason to be afraid to speak up in church. I insist that it is a privilege. In my opinion, one of the great blessings of membership in this church is the chance to take an active part in classes and meetings as opposed to being relegated to a passive place in the audience while someone else does all of the religion for you. Besides, you never know, something you say in passing may have a profound effect on someone else in the room.

3)   Avoid contention and confrontation during class.  Many of my friends have complained about doctrinal inaccuracies (or just plain stupid statements) made during Sunday School. I have certainly experienced this firsthand. Such instances are a natural but unfortunate side effect of attending a church whose teachers are fallible human beings. Occasionally people unwittingly perpetuate false doctrine in Sunday School, but more often, people simply misspeak. If you disagree with someone during the course of the lesson, DO NOT argue in front of the class. As a former missionary I can tell you that it turns off investigators, and rightly so. If it offends investigators, you can bet it offends the Spirit. If you have a concern or an objection that can be addressed in class and resolved in a polite way, then feel free to speak your mind, but if it goes beyond that to a strong difference of opinion, you should approach the teacher or your classmate after class and address your concern between the two of you. That said you shouldn’t be afraid to say something in class if you find something truly objectionable, but there are constructive ways to handle such instances. Any objection should be made in a spirit of love and genuine concern for the good and enlightenment of others.

4)   Seek the good of others, or, the church does not revolve around you. We tend to think about church in terms of “what did I get out of it?” However, attending church is much like almost everything else in the Gospel, in the sense that we are meant to focus less on our own selfish interests and more on serving those around us. I believe that one of the most important reasons that we as individuals are placed in a ward or stake organization is that we are meant to love and teach and care for our neighbors as if they are truly our brothers and sisters. I deliberately selected the word “neighbors” because I maintain that this principle holds just as true for our geographical neighbors who may or may not share our faith as it is for the people who we may see at church every Sunday. So when you go to church stop worrying about what YOU are getting out of it, and start the habit of thinking “who can I serve/love today?” Look for someone you do not know, and introduce yourself. Remember their name (write it down if you have to), and go out of your way to at least greet them when you see them during the week, and especially when you see them again at church. Pay attention to what they tell you in conversation, no matter how casual. If you are perceptive, you will pick up on opportunities to help and serve your brothers and sisters in (and out of) the church.

5)   Make a point to thank your teacher and/or the speakers.  As mentioned above, teaching a class, or speaking in sacrament isn’t easy. Even if someone’s talk was little dry, thank him or her for being brave enough to share his or her testimony in front of the whole ward. As you develop a spirit and a habit of gratitude, you will find that the Lord will bless you with an increased understanding and appreciation of the things that you learn at church. You will begin to receive insights and inspiration that were not open to you before, because your perception was clouded by ingratitude.

I have not shared these truths and principles with you in order to lay a guilt trip on you.  I wrote (or compiled) these points based on my own experiences as I grew spiritually and matured imperceptibly over time.  Only recently have I begun to truly comprehend and appreciate what a gift and a blessing it is to be able to attend church; to renew my covenants, and also to be taught by the Spirit as I listen and contribute to the lessons and talks that are offered at church.  In order for me to reach this point I had to learn to humble myself, and to approach my time at church as an opportunity to learn through the Spirit.  During a time of profound personal crisis, I found that my church attendance, and (more to the point) my experiences of being taught by the Spirit and by my fellow saints while at church, became a bulwark of peace, serenity, and even joy and comfort to which I could cling during the storms of trial and grief that are a natural part of life.  I speak from my own recent experience when I declare that as you actively seek to employ the principles contained within these points, the Lord will bless you to overcome the occasional dullness of a given lesson or Sacrament meeting talk.

In order to gain this ability to look past the shortcomings of your normal, fallible, neighbors to recognize the (less apparent) treasure and opportunity that your church meetings represent, you will need to actively cultivate an “open heart, a desire to be “nourished by the good word of God” (Moroni 6:4), "and a prayer—rather than judgment—for the speakers."   If you will strive to apply these principles (I have learned firsthand that) the Spirit of the Lord will open up the eyes of your understanding and tell you what you need to do to become “a more effective and faithful disciple.”  All that basically means is that you will be placed on the path towards developing a true and meaningful relationship with God.  As you follow this path you will find that you are more satisfied in your worship, and that you have become a happier person in every aspect of your life.

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