Instruction as Worship

August 7, 2010 | 24 comments
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300px-Lactarius_indigo_48568_editIt’s no secret that we Mormons aren’t big on praise worship in our meetings. You won’t hear any “hallelujahs” or “amens” in our sacrament meetings. And that’s fine for us. I think that members of our church tend to believe that worship is best accomplished through living in accordance to God’s commandments — that obedience expresses reverence. And since “righteous living” is difficult to perform in a Sunday meeting (as opposed to, say, praise), we settle for the next best thing: instructing each other toward righteous living.

Now the fact that we spend our church meetings in preaching rather than praising isn’t news, but I’ve just come to realize how pervasive instruction-as-worship is our church. In all the places traditionally associated with worship-through-praise, we instead tend to worship through instruction. This is obvious in our Sunday meetings, general conferences, and temples, but it’s also true of our less formal religious gatherings — in our home and visiting teaching, in our family home evenings, and in our youth programs.

Back in high school I spent an evening at the home of a Christian friend. After dinner, the father gathered the family together for a family worship service. It was different from the family home evenings I was used to. What I remember most was the father singing “Dust in the Wind” and talking about the greatness of God. I contrast that with the family nights in my home, where we learned how to budget, plan a fire escape plan, and consider how to apply the lessons of the scriptures.

I’m not suggesting that instruction is an inferior form of worship, or that we need more shouting in our meetings (the practicality of the family home evenings of my youth appeals to me — however, I wouldn’t complain if we could get a little more “oomph” in our Sunday worship). I’m just pointing out that our tendency towards instruction as praise is, perhaps, a distinctive marker of the Latter-Day Saint faith. Does it explain our reputation for being a “works-based” faith? Or does our focus on merit lead to instruction as our primary form of worship? That’s probably a chicken and egg question. So let me ask those of you more familiar with worship in other faiths — is our almost-exclusively instructive worship distinctive to our church, or am I just showing my ignorance of the wider Christian world by posting this?

24 Responses to Instruction as Worship

  1. Paradox on August 7, 2010 at 6:24 am

    I see your point. Teaching is certainly an act of worship. I don’t think I’ve ever made that connection before, though. It’s worth remembering :)

    But I have to wonder–are a lot of these meetings and gatherings we have supposed to be primarily about instruction? Or bearing testimony? I think if our people learned to bear testimony the way we’re supposed to, we wouldn’t be lacking praise in any setting we’re ever in.

  2. Cameron Nielsen on August 7, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I think sometimes we could do better as far as praise and testimony go, but I feel on the whole, we do pretty well.

    Teaching about Christ is definitely a form of praise, especially when combined with testimony. There are always some talks and lessons that forget to tie into Christ at the end, but I find that about 80% of the time, the speaker/teacher does in fact bring the principle back to Christ and the Atonement.

    I guess sometimes the more vocal kinds of worship appeal to us because they are easier to discern in others and validate our decision to attend church and worship.

    If other members of the congregation recieve meaningful revelation in the same contexts I do (while holding fussy kids, on the cusp of not paying attention, etc), then I can understand that most everyone else in the congregation is recieving meaningful revelation as well. It’s easy to ignore that sometimes during the meeting, however.

  3. DavidH on August 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

    “I think if our people learned to bear testimony the way we’re supposed to, we wouldn’t be lacking praise in any setting we’re ever in.”

    I agree and disagree.

    I agree, in that I believe testimony (or witnessing) should be, and sometimes is, about acknowledgement, praise and honor and gratitude and hope in God. In my opinion, it should be, and often is, about sharing experiences and rejoicing in having God in our lives and seeing God in the lives of others.

    However, I think when some refer to “pure testimony”, they mean statements of knowledge or belief in truth claims–claims that God exists, that Jesus is God’s Son, that Joseph was/is God’s prophet, that the Book of Mormon is authentic and inspired, that the LDS Church is God’s Church today, that the FP and 12 are prophets, seers and revelators.

    The affirmation of essential truth claims are, in a sense, indirect praise of God–(1) praise that God has witnessed those truth claims to us and (2) praise because the awesomeness of God and Jesus are implied in testifying of their status. But “stripped down,” as “pure” testimony, to me, they can seem more like instruction than joyous praise.

    I would note that I struggle with the notion sometimes taught that a testimony should not be a “thank-imony”, or that testimony should be about “knowledge” rather than “gratitude” (or even “love”). I personally think that among the greatest ways to testify of God is to express gratitude to God–which is an acknowledgement of the source of blessings and to express love for God (and for God’s family and all God’s creations).

  4. Jonathan Green on August 7, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Dane, I’d never thought of it this way before, but now you mention it, I think it makes a great deal of sense. To what extent do you think we can connect worship-as-instruction with the founding moments of Mormonism (First Vision, translation of the Book of Mormon, etc.), many of which are also about instruction?

  5. Jim Donaldson on August 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    I don’t think that there is all that much instruction going on at all. Our sacrament meeting talks consist of a fairly tight rotation of topics, repeated roughly annually. That is in effect a kind of Mormon liturgy, much looser and unpredictable, but functionally similar to a liturgical calendar. I don’t recall the last time I actually heard something new in sacrament meeting, other than somebody’s personal story I hadn’t heard before. Those can be inspiring which may be the ideal. Same way with the bearing of testimonies. Being reminded of gospel principles once a week is valuable and a suitable accompaniment to some hymn singing and the renewing and contemplating of our covenants and relationship with the Lord. But instruction? eh, not so much. I’ve often said that no one rarely remembers anything said in sacrament meeting, but most of us who attend regularly remember how we feel. That’s why we go.

    I also think I read here someone quoting Richard Bushman to the effect that Sunday School wasn’t really an educational (read: ‘instructional’) model, but call and response worship. I think that is also true for most Priesthood and Relief Society lessons as well. It’s not like we go out and find someone who knows more about the subject than the rest of us and have them teach it. In fact, the opposite: teachers are urged to limit themselves to the correlated materials, which have pretty much been used, with only slight variation, for the last 50 years. Occasionally something interesting slips out, but that is certainly not the plan—particularly true this next couple of years with the Gospel Principles manual as the text. At least in our ward. I think the purpose and value of our meetings, aside from the sacrament itself, is in building relationships. It is one of the ways we turn a bunch of unrelated people, often having little in common except geography, into a community to serve each other, stretch each other, and bear one another’s burdens.

    I think the potential for actual instruction is there (wouldn’t that be great?), but it isn’t really the purpose of the meetings. Repeating the same topics, approaches, and scriptures, like the traditional Christian liturgies, combined with an actual worship ritual, also meets the need for and feels like worship, even if we try to disguise it. That’s what I think is going on.

  6. Clair on August 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    We could ask, which form of worship is of more lasting effect during the following week?

  7. Adam B on August 7, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I converted from a high church Protestant tradition that used a traditional liturgy each and every Sunday. Recently when visiting family I had the opportunity to attend my old church, and it really hit me how much I miss the worship service present there in comparison to our sacrament meeting. At the center of what made my heart ache when I was in that church was that my soul yearned for worship, and I realized how much I missed the opportunity to truly worship God in a church setting on a Sunday morning.
    For me, the worship in the sacrament service is limited to the sacrament itself. In it, the Atonement is in center-focus, as we renew our covenants, remind ourselves of what Christ has done with His body and blood, and pledge to act accordingly. While there is certainly a subjective element involved (i.e. I make the covenants and pledge to live a Christian life), the focus of the sacrament isn’t me – it’s Christ.
    During the rest of the sacrament meeting (in the wards I’ve attended – I don’t want to make a blanket generalization), the focus is on me. Oftentimes the talks follow a particular formula: You should do such-and-such because blessings will follow, because God has promised to bless you if you live righteously. In other words (and perhaps this is due to my theological background), I hear that I should act righteously because it is in my best interest – a quid pro quo. I don’t hear that Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross for my sins and because He loved me so much, I should love Him and live accordingly. Many of the talks that I hear on a Sunday morning are based more on a Word-Faith gospel of personal interest than in the gospel of the Atonement and God’s love.
    I do not see much instruction-as-worship in sacrament meetings. Praise can be the utmost form of instruction. Words of praise (which I find in a LDS setting to be found mainly in our hymns) remind me why I should live a holy life. The traditional liturgy does a wonderful job of this (but so could the LDS sacrament meeting with God-centered talks), and so most traditional (Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, etc.) don’t necessarily see a dichotomy between the two. If we praise God in our talks, it should not take much imagination to the see the practical aspects of the doctrine(especially with two more hours of classes that inevitably – and rightfully – focus more so on practicality). Worship is pointed to God – not to me or mere men. I feel that our talks – perhaps because they focus more so on practicality instead of doctrine – too often are pointed towards men, and so don’t really work well as instruction-as-worship.

  8. Marcus on August 7, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    I’m really surprised that this post has not unleashed a flood of replies. I have been musing for many months about LDS worship having but one primary facet: prescriptive instruction about what we should do in life. In my view, if we ever read the Psalms, we or the Song of Nephi, or the conclusion of 2 Nephi … as praise texts … we might well learn that we have lost the ability to exult, to implore, and to sing in public worship settings within the LDS culture. A recent post bemoaned the loss of umph and vigor in congregational singing. This post seems to hint that we have some other (better?) way of worshiping than the open-hearted expressions of the soul that sometimes people of other faiths are comfortable with, but which make most LDS congregations very uncomfortable. But I LOVE to read as simple phrase such as this: “I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.” (2 Nephi 33:6). The only prescriptiveness or instruction in this scripture is implicit. Meanwhile, we Latter-day Saints usually feel like we haven’t done the job of worship right until the prescriptions and instruction are absolutely explicit.

  9. Jim Donaldson on August 8, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I think there is lots of exhorting, not much instruction.

  10. Alison Moore Smith on August 8, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Jim Donaldson #5:

    …teachers are urged to limit themselves to the correlated materials, which have pretty much been used, with only slight variation, for the last 50 years. Occasionally something interesting slips out, but that is certainly not the plan…

    That was comic genius, Jim.

  11. jean on August 8, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Well, we could bump it up a notch if we just had a standing rest hymn mid way through Sacrament Meeting. If you are up at the pulpit and witness how many people worship with their eyes closed we perhaps could use some hallelujahs indeed. Our meetings can sometimes be in need of some level of attention to worship and less attention of kids eating snacks and coloring. Don’t get me wrong, I did that with my 5 and now my grand kids do. Heck, I’d settle for people saying amen in a audible fashion and singing the hymns with more gusto. We can tend to be more instruction oriented and less praise and honor of Jesus Christ whose name our church bears. Just my opinion.

  12. Dane Laverty on August 9, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I apologize for my absence from this conversation. I’ve been away from computers over the weekend, and it’s going to be a couple more days before I’ll have enough access to start participating regularly in the dialogue here.

    Jim (#9), you may be right — that’s not a distinction I had considered.

    Adam B (#7), thanks for sharing from your own experience.

    Paradox (#1), I share the concerns of DavidH (#3). Testimony is great, but as a series of affirmations, it’s not praise.

  13. Michael on August 9, 2010 at 9:36 am

    This is a good post as have been the other recent posts which touch upon the same subject; namely, why are we so confined in our meetings as to what form of worship and praise we find acceptable. I was raised in a high church tradition and converted to the Church at age 19. As with Adam B, I can definitely relate to a longing for more ritual and liturgy. I can also understand those that enjoy a more lively low church tradition. However, I don’t think we have either.

    We do not worship through adoration or emulation of the Saviour as much as we worship the “certainty” we have received from the Holy Ghost that the Restored Gospel is true. This creates a vacuum in our meetings where neither the Saviour nor His Atonement is celebrated as it should be. We also do not allow for an in-depth study of our theology because of a fear(?) that it will lead to an unwelcome diversity in thought and action. If the prescribed way is necessary to ascertain one’s Gospel worthiness then adherence to the outward cultural exhibits become the identifying markers of faith. While many will disagree, I think that LDS culture has replaced LDS theology as the identifying mark of a Mormon.

    Unfortunately, none of this will change without two things occurring:

    1) More diversity of thought, ethnicity, background and nationality must come about at the higher levels of Church leadership.
    2) Fixation on cultural identifiers as markers of faith must be shattered and replaced with Gospel identifiers such as scriptural study and knowledge, humility, meekness, prayer, adoration, true worship of the Saviour and other such items. Cultural prohibitions on what is deemed “acceptable” music, politics, holidays, lifestyle, hair length, careers, etc. must be discarded and a diversity of celebration must be allowed to find its way into our services.

    I am hoping that as the Church continues to grow internationally such changes will find a home in the Lord’s Kingdom.

  14. Dave on August 9, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Nice post, Dane. I guess I’m with Jim (#5, #9) in seeing what goes on in LDS Sunday meetings as having the form but not the substance of instruction — lips are moving and there is discussion, but I have a hard time applying the term “instruction” to the activities that take place. So if we’re not praising and we’re not really instructing, what is it that we’re doing on Sunday?

    It’s not just curriculum materials that undercut the instruction claim, it’s also the teachers. Local leaders call teachers for a variety of reasons, but having knowledge to impart to the class members is only one of many factors. I recall seeing a Gospel Doctrine teacher (a BYU prof) who actually had knowledge to share released because class members were unhappy being taught new material.

  15. harpchil on August 9, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I wonder if the focus on instruction comes from an interpretation of the idea that if someone is speaking with the spirit, some principle will be communicated. Originally, the principle may have included testimony, praise, or instruction, but maybe as time went on, “principles” simply became synonymous with “instruction.” (I think this was originally about speaking in tongues, but I can’t find the quote right now. Does anyone else know what I’m referring to?)

  16. James Olsen on August 9, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Great post Dane, and lots of good comments. I think you may have hit on a Mormon ideal, but as others have pointed out, it’s an ideal we fall short in. I do think we get the temple right on this issue. I think that active temple worship (especially if we could reinsert more music into our temple worship) and perhaps participation in a good ward/stake choir (which I find to be the more difficult of the two) fills the worship void admirably. But to be honest, my family’s own traditions on the Lord’s Day and various devotionals are the high point of praise in our family’s life.

    This is one area for which I have a healthy amount of “holy envy” for Muslims. In all honesty, most Christian forms of praise and worship (which I’ve participated in frequently – attended one such service just last week) do very little for my soul. But I long for the full-bodied praise and worship practiced daily by devout Muslim friends and family members I’ve associated with.

    And while I’m on an “holy envy” kick, I’ll throw in my jealousy of Catholic and Orthodox churches – i.e., the buildings. It’s amazing what architecture can do for the soul (which cognitive scientists are starting to take note of). It would be nice if we had an antechamber to each temple, where members or nonmembers could gather, and where the architecture, like that of a cathedral, lifted the soul to God. A place where we could go simply for meditation and musical performances.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 9, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    I find it a bit ironic that, on Evangelical web pages, the concern is that many of their churches have nothing BUT worship, praising God for saving them, but not much instruction on how they are to live their lives as Christians. It has been identified as a major source of long term disatisfaction with many megachurches.

  18. Idahospud on August 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

    While I haven’t made the instruction-as-praise connection before, I have wondered about the lack of praise in our services. If the Lord’s Prayer is a template rather than a prescription for our prayers, we are too often missing out on the “hallowed be thy name” aspect (and I don’t think that “we thank thee . . .” quite fits the bill). I don’t advocate our (public or private) prayers becoming a high-falutin’ sounding list of praises, but we could certainly use more reminders.

  19. Erik Champenois on August 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Do we need another balance? As RTS noted (#17), many Evangelicals are dissatisfied by their churches focusing so much on worship that there is little instruction on living life as a long-term, mature Christian. On the other hand, I do agree LDS church life could benefit from being more lively, from some more alleluias. Perhaps LDS church growth itself would benefit from a stronger emphasis on praise worship? After all, Evangelical and Pentastocal churches (who focus much more on praise worship than do we) are growing, on average, much better than the LDS Church on a global scale. Both members and guests would become more excited and enthusiastic about the Church if our services were less quiet, conservative and boring. A good Christian infusion of “revival” might help the Church on a global scale and might help us be better able to communicate with and reach out to those other evangelical Christians also.

    On the other hand, there is an understandable suspicion from many LDS members towards focusing on praise as worship. That suspicion often arises from confrontations with born again Christians who believe that all you have to do is confess Christ and praise him and then you are saved. This is typically viewed as psychological brainwash that is Christian on the surface, but anti-Christian within because it does not beckon us so much to follow the commandments of Jesus Christ. Any former missionary who has experienced the frustration of trying to communicate with a born-again will be hesitant about praising and singing alleluias the way they do.

    After all, if the church was to escalate its growth due to a stronger emphasis on praise worship, perhaps growth would be more a product of psychology than of true testimony by the Holy Spirit. Maybe, then, we need our more bland type of service to ensure people are coming because they have a strong testimony and not because they want to join in on the hype of worshiping with alleluias and praise the Lords.

  20. Marcus on August 10, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Today this post is making me wonder: Are many readers thinking that the absence or attenuation of “instruction as worship” leaves only one alternative, namely the shouting of alleluias and verbal exclamations and song. I think that’s too simplistic. There are modes of praise that are not visible externally. “Being in the presence of” does not necessarily default into speaking alleluias, into verbal or musical expression. One can be in the chapel in the presence of God, maybe of angels, maybe even in the presence of fellow Saints, and that can be a good experience without some mandate of “Please get to the point” or “What’s the moral of the story?” i.e. instruction in doctrine and principle.

  21. Aaron R. on August 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Sometime ago I explored this dynamic as well. In that post I distinguish between three types of worship which you also allude to; emulation, adoration and education (or instruction).

    http://mormonmatters.org/2009/12/08/really-elder-mcconkie-you-think-education-is-worship/

    It is clear that education or instruction has always played a central place in most LDS theophanies and it is perhaps part of the reason that Bloom associates us with the gnostic tradition. Moreover, I suspect that instruction is at root a source of apotheosis in LDS theology. However, it is also clear that the sacred distance implied in adoration-worship is part of what makes divine instruction so different from the mundane instructat our schools. Adoration-worship seems to lead to education-worship and yet if we focus solely upon the end product we will end up with a profane or mundane view of revelation or divine-education (which it is very possible we already have).

  22. Bill of Wasilla on August 16, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Hallejuah, Dane! Amen.

  23. grego on August 16, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Hmmm…

    My co-worker went to Hallelujah services, then the preacher taught the scriptures in Sunday School (much more than I’ve usually ever gotten from SS or priesthood meetings).

    I think there is an emphasis on instruction for many reasons.

    Pres. Packer has said that teaching principles leads to people living the principles–which is the desired outcome–not to feel good, to feel in the presence of God, etc.

    Compare that, still, to sacred experiences (such as Elder Haight’s vision, etc.) where the overwhelming part of the experience was emotional understanding.

    Joseph Smith taught a lot of “new things” but many of the people were prepared for them; he also talked about “shattering” people with one “wrong” instruction, and how he wished he could share so much more, but was basically bound by the Saints’ lack of faith.

    What about “feel-good” feelings and “loud laughter” (chemicals in the brain, amygdalae clicked forward, brainwashing (read “The Battle for Your Mind” for Christian churches using minor brainwashing, etc.) vs. feeling and discerning the Spirit? Could that be a reason for the difference? Whether it is or not, I believe it is beneficial for LDS services to generally lack “noise”.

    From what I’m remembering from the Book of Mormon, praise comes after the spiritual experiences. Perhaps, unfortunately, that’s a small reason for it, too. Not to mention that praise is, well, so un-scientific and illogical.. isn’t it? ;)

  24. bryanp on August 17, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I joined the church in 1981. Prior to that I had been a part of the Baptist church and then another. Both were also instructional. I’m thinking it has to do a lot with culture. South of us here in Ohio you have those who handle snakes. Hmmmmm. What about snakes Dane?