The Standard Christmas Sacrament Meeting

My sister recently sent the planned text for the sacrament meeting program in her ward (she is involved in the planning) to me and the rest of our siblings for our suggestions. It was fine, lovely even. It was full of Christmas hymns with brief introductory and concluding texts. Sound familiar?

Other than this type of sacrament meeting dominated by Christmas hymns, the only other format I’ve seen is one or two Christmas talks supported by a few hymns — basically a normal Sacrament Meeting where the content is focused on Christmas.

Is there room for something else?

One of the most impactful Sacrament Meetings I ever attended was about 35 years ago. It consisted of one ward member after another getting up and reading the text of “I am a Child of God” in their mission language. It was simple, emphasized a clear gospel doctrine, and I think left ward members spiritually nourished. And chief among its virtues is that it was so different that no one tuned out.

One of the early focuses of the restoration was a reaction to creeds. The christian churches that Mormon converts came from generally had a “creed” that defined their beliefs. In the Catholic and Anglican Churches, their creeds were translated into written liturgies that covered the year and determined the content of the weekly services. From what I can tell, Jewish services also have a liturgical calendar that determines what happens in weekly worship.

With our rejection of creeds we also have rejected the idea of having a liturgical calendar for Sacrament Meeting. [Ironically, the correlation efforts of the last century (yes, correlation started over 100 years ago) have resulted in a calendar for the rest of our meetings.] This means that we have a rough outline of services that local leaders fill in with content, which is supposed to fit local needs.

Repetition like this has its benefits and drawbacks, of course. We feel comfortable and attracted to the familiar. And the rhythms of our worship can also teach us in ways that can’t easily be replicated otherwise.

But, repetition also makes it easy to “tune out,” to not pay attention to the details that we have heard over and over and over again. So when something breaks the pattern, we pay attention.

Years ago I read a book on graphic design by Roger Black. In the book he said something like, “The secret of good design is knowing all the rules of good design, and breaking at least one.” I suspect our liturgy—how we worship—is like this. The patterns are great and important. But from time to time they need to be broken.

So with Christmas approaching (and recognizing that this is probably too late for most wards this year), I want to ask whether and how we can change our worship at Christmas.

What would you like to see?

11 comments for “The Standard Christmas Sacrament Meeting

  1. Lisa G
    December 6, 2019 at 10:51 am

    As a trained organist, the topic of Christmas sacrament meeting is one that I feel very strongly about, especially when it comes to the music. When it comes to Christmas, I tend to feel that tradition is important–it creates a sense of timelessness and connection to all who have celebrated before and will celebrate after. I would feel a sense of loss if I came to sacrament meeting on that particular Sunday and found that things were totally shaken up, particularly if my favorite things were not there. With that said, I think that incorporating some new elements into the service can be energizing–but do it within a more traditional format. I agree that the typical structure of going through the Christmas story from the scriptures line by line and interspersing related hymns can get stale. But then you look at something like the traditional lessons and carols services done in many churches, Kings College at Cambridge, England, for example (which I listen to every Christmas Eve day–it’s my gift to myself), and there’s nothing stale about it. The repetitiveness is part of the appeal. I tune into that program every year knowing that the service will start with a specific hymn and in a specific way–a single child singing, a capella, “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed”. It’s magical!

    You could keep the same basic format, but instead of going through the Christmas story, the scripture readings could be prophecies of Christ’s coming. Or, instead of reading scriptures, people could share their most meaningful Christmas experiences related to coming to know the Savior. You could keep the same format, but rather than having all congregational hymns, intersperse choir selections and solos as well. We are new in our ward, and the choir does the program on this Sunday. It’s a very good choir, so it should be beautiful.
    In my opinion, the amount and quality of the music is more important than any other aspect of this service, and I think it should be a mostly musical service. with more than the usual amount of congregational singing. My “element of surprise” would be not a radical change to the service itself, but a particularly beautiful musical selection that no one has ever heard before, or something like that. I’m a traditionalist even down to feeling that my two favorite Christmas hymns simply must be sung that day–O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night. Unfortunately I’m rarely the one who gets to decide these things.

  2. R
    December 6, 2019 at 7:14 pm

    Our ward once invited anyone to go to the pulpit and tell us their favorite Christmas hymn and the the congregation sang the first verse. Some would just give the title and hymn number and some would add a memory or testimony. This has since become a favorite Sunday during the season. There is still a more formal Christmas program with the choir, talks and solo numbers. I have to say I feel more a sense of community when we do our “open mic sing a long”.

  3. Gramps
    December 7, 2019 at 1:14 am

    I agree with Lisa G. — Christmas is one of those times that tried and true Tradition is greatly comforting and greatly appreciated. But, sometimes a variation can be a beautiful thing. One year Easter fell on the first Sunday — Fast Sunday. The bishop announced that we would hold Testimony Meeting for Easter. There was a great outpouring of the Spirit as members bore sacred testimonies about Christ and the Atonement. Although it is reasonably impossible for Christmas to ever fall on a Fast Sunday, perhaps having a Testimony Meeting on a Sunday that is also Christmas Day would be a wonderful variation to the “standard” Christmas Sacrament Meeting.

  4. Cam N
    December 9, 2019 at 1:25 am

    Great topic. Most of these traditions and policies are motivated by fear and laziness TBH and not by faith. I have never been in a bishopric other than exec sec but I feel like so often they are an excuse to not pursue something greater and more potent. The Spirit is always there but it could turn a normal meeting into a ‘unspeakable experience I’ll remember forever’ type meeting.

  5. ReTx
    December 10, 2019 at 12:32 am

    I’d love to see a super simplified version of Handel’s Messiah. Perhaps with much of the solos turned into individual readings (or how about a group/congregation recitation…), a choir singing some parts, and the most commonly known choruses sung by the congregation.

  6. Wondering
    December 10, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    I have fought and lost the battle to make sacrament meeting (Christmas-related or not) an inspiring worship service so many times over the last 50 years that I prefer to simply look for something to be pleasantly surprised with in others’ offerings — or to withdraw into my private thoughts in connection with the sacrament. When possible I find opportunities to attend other churches’ worshipful Christmas Eve or Carols & Lessons services where I can worship through music and the spoken word — whether scriptures, stories, poetry, or other readings. We continue to rely on volunteer musicians from a geographically determined congregation even decades after it ceased to be common for children and youth to learn to play the piano, let alone the organ, or to sing in a way that makes the great Christmas music traditions possible. We have smaller wards, smaller budgets (while printed choral music has become much more expensive), and over-scheduled buildings leaving no sensible time and no energy for serious, regular choir rehearsals in many wards. Where other church-going Christians treat Christmas as a time to go to church and worship more, our people are excited to be able to go to church and endure it less. Sometimes I think we’ve turned congregational Christmas worship into a spectator sport — watch the First Presidency Christmas broadcast and/or the TabCats’ broadcast and you’re done! Where is there time, motivation, budget, space, schedule, or group of persons with sufficient talent and training to rehearse any worship music of consequence at a ward level?

  7. Lisa
    December 10, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    Wondering, it is there, in pockets. I’m currently living in a ward and stake where music has strong support. Our ward choir generally has close to 30 people singing each time we perform. Our director has professional training, and the musical selections are engaging. We replaced the 3rd hour of church with choir practice and have at least twenty people at rehearsal most weeks. We have musical numbers performed in Sacrament meeting every week. Our stake is full of trained pianists and string players, including many youth. We have three organists in the stake with university training. The key is that our stake president loves music and incorporates it as much as possible, although he himself is not a musician. It is a priority to him.

    In contrast, the other day I received an email from someone in my former branch in a different area, asking if I knew who had written the Christmas program from two years ago when I lived there, because they don’t have anything planned for Christmas this year and are hoping to use the same program. Yes, this program is supposed to take place in two weeks and this is the first they have done anything with it! Clearly there is work to be done and we have far to go as a church! But there is hope. I do, however, really wish the Q15 would come out and say something to all these leaders that are cutting music from our church services using the reduced Sacrament meeting length as an excuse. I have heard SO many sad stories! I know they want to give bishops and stake presidents some autonomy, but something really needs to be said before this lack of music becomes a pattern from which we never recover.

  8. Wondering
    December 10, 2019 at 11:03 pm

    Lisa, Happy for you, but already too late to avoid the pattern. Many leaders, at all levels, were convinced long ago that the important part of sacrament meeting was their talking at us about all the things we should be doing that we don’t have time, energy, or means to do. They use the word “worship” but seem to have no concept of what it might be. Worship is not preaching at people their failures, real or imagined. I think isolated pockets like yours now are remnants of a vibrant past and not seeds of a future. The most vibrant sacrament meetings my ward has are a couple times each year when people are invited to come to the pulpit to choose a hymn for us to sing (a stanza or two) and tell us why it is particularly meaningful to them. It works better for many than fast & testimony meeting and far better than most talks on assigned topics and always better than dry council Sunday. Unfortunately, in a ward with 6 “organists” and more pianists, there is only one who can deal with being asked to play any hymn in the book without a practice opportunity. Other wards in the stake have none, though one comes close. The pattern could change if people generally wanted to sing together and to learn at a young age to play the piano seriously. That isn’t going to happen in contemporary American culture. To observe a desire to sing together, it seems one must go to Africa or the Pacific islands. Please prove me wrong.

  9. December 11, 2019 at 10:38 am

    R and Wondering, I’ve also been in a ward where we had a sacrament meeting where people went up to the pulpit and talked about a hymn they liked and then we sung a verse of it. I loved it! I’ve never been in a ward that did this at Christmas time, though, like R has, but I think I would really enjoy it. It would be even better if we could allow the possibility of including Christmas hymns beyond the few in our hymnbook.

    I do realize, though, that such a meeting asks a lot of the organist/pianist and chorister.

  10. Lisa
    December 11, 2019 at 7:52 pm

    Wondering, I’ve shared your same thoughts about being preached/lectured at for years. It’s not worship, and it’s so tiring!

    I do think that one reason why music is being embraced so successfully in our stake is that there still remains a strong culture of young people taking music lessons. I don’t know why that is the case in our stake compared to others–we’re not in a large city like New York or Los Angeles where there might be plenty of highbrow musical parents with their offspring. We’re in a suburban community in the Pacific Northwest. Just last Sunday in our ward four 12-13 year old kids played their violins while another YW accompanied them on the piano, playing an arrangement she wrote herself–and it was very well done. There are at least three young women and as many young men who are quite good pianists, and even more who can play passably.

    I don’t love the “hymn-a-mony” sacrament meetings as much as so many others seem to. I can handle them about once a year, but when I once had a bishop who scheduled them 2-3 times a year, I felt it got old. I think there are several reasons why they are not my favorite. Most people choose hymns I don’t especially care for, so I have to sit through all the ones I wouldn’t choose all in one Sunday–all the tired old favorites. I always debate about whether or not to go up to the pulpit and share one of my own favorites, knowing that likely most of the congregation won’t know it and the singing will be less than enthusiastic. Or, whether “I love this hymn because the poetry is sublime and the music is stellar” is a spiritual enough reason to share at the pulpit. As an organist, I can play any hymn in the book at sight–but I can’t truly *prepare* that hymn on the spot in the way I’d prefer to do, and singing only one verse (as is usually done in these sorts of meetings) is unsatisfactory.

    My mother is ward music chair person in her ward, and I like the way she approached this. Rather than inviting random members of the congregation to share their favorites, she asked her four organists and herself, the music director, to each choose one not-so-common hymn to introduce to the congregation. They have time to prepare both the hymn and the words to introduce it.

    In response once again to the original question, I think the biggest way we can change our worship at Christmas time is to plan it well ahead of time (several months in advance) and give the responsibility to the musicians of the ward.

  11. Wondering
    December 12, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Back to the original question and responding to Ziff, there are carols and Christmas hymns outside our hymnal that our congregations can and like to sing, e.g. What Child Is This? or He Is Born (Il est ne’). Our ward has sometimes prepared handout sheets with such texts (and often the melody line) and used such congregational singing in a December sacrament meeting. It was refreshing, participatory, interesting and reduced the load on an already over-stretched ward choir. We have occasionally done the same to cure the paucity of Easter hymns in our hymnal. There are a good number of great Easter and Holy Week hymns, carols and spirituals, some of which can be sung to tunes the congregation already knows. This takes some leadership from a music leader who knows or will learn such material and a cooperative bishop. Many of our music leaders lack the imagination or willingness or knowledge or time to effectively propose such a thing.

    Lisa, you point out legitimate issues with what you call “hymn-a-mony” meetings, but that doesn’t prevent them from being more vibrant than other sacrament meetings in some wards — and essentially the same arguments are applicable to monthly fast and testimony meetings — tired, old favorite phrases; sappy stories badly told; truncated stories or testimonies; etc. Yes, those “hymn-a-mony” meetings mean I have to play and put up with some hymns that are not inspiring to me (I used to schedule the sunshine songs that inspire some others but put me off for Sundays I would be out of town!), but I regularly prime some others to choose some hymns that will be inspiring to them and me. Why should any in our congregations of mixed cultural backgrounds and tastes expect to be pleased with or inspired by everything in a meeting? “I love this hymn because the poetry is sublime and the music is stellar” is a spiritual enough reason to share at the pulpit, but don’t stop there. Instead, connect it to what the poetry is about and modify “the music is stellar” to “its stellar music touches my heart and expresses my joy in the gospel of Christ” or whatever. Then you’re bearing testimony, speaking of its effect on you, and not merely giving a lecture on your (my!) high-falutin’ taste in music and poetry. Most of my ward doesn’t know or care whether poetry is sublime or music is stellar, but they can respond to it and may learn when they are shown how that connects to worship or inspiration for another. p.s. I like your mother’s approach. I may suggest it to our new bishop.

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