One of my favorite quotes of all time about Mormonism focuses on the concept of Zion. “Zion-building is not preparation for heaven. It is heaven, in embryo. The process of sanctifying disciples of Christ, constituting them into a community of love and harmony, does not qualify individuals for heaven; sanctification and celestial relationality are the essence of heaven. Zion, in this conception, is both an ideal and a transitional stage into the salvation toward which all Christians strive.” Fiona and Terryl Givens have captured here what I find to be one of the most essential parts of my religion—the development of a community based on love and discipleship to Christ. That, to me, is one of the core reasons for the Church—to provide a place where we can begin to learn and practice the things that are necessary for us to live in a heavenly community, even though the lived experience often falls short of that goal.
Now, there was something profoundly ironic about studying the founding of the Nephite Christian church during a time that we are unable to attend worship services in the modern Church in last week’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. I was grateful for the chance to do so, however, since there will come a time, sooner or later, that the current situation stabilizes enough to return to regular Church meetings and each of us will need to make the decision about returning to those meetings. Beyond health considerations related to the virus’s ongoing presence in our lives, there are individual considerations about how attending church benefits us vs. the home-based worship we’ve been practicing. As I have been thinking about this for myself, I’ve been pondering on things along the lines of: “What are we supposed to get out of church meetings?” “What do I actually get out of Church meetings?” “How do I want to refocus my efforts to improve/change what I get out of church meetings when they start again?” As is often the case when I start pondering on something, a blog post is born.
Part of why this is on my mind is that there has been some online chatter in the bloggernacle about the possibility of lower attendance when Church starts back up. For example, Bishop Bill over at Wheat and Tares posed the interesting question: “What if they opened church back up and nobody came?” He observed that he’s seen discussions online lately where lot of people agreed that while home church is tough, going back will be harder, with some people expressing that they don’t miss hearing false doctrine, getting children ready, fulfilling demanding callings, etc. The main exceptions he observed, were those who were single and missed the companionship they gained when attending church. In another example, Ziff over at Zelophehad’s Daughters recently looked into Google Trends to try and glean information about change in interest in the Church during the pandemic in order to see if there were indications that less people would be attending once Church opens back up and found that there were less searches about the Church in general in 2020, which could indicate less interest in the future. And, of course, there are individuals who are at high risk from the virus that will likely need to stay away from Church, as has been discussed in some of the comments related to these and similar posts. Time and the actual process of starting up Church again will tell.
These discussions have caught my attention because I can relate to them. At church prior to COVID-19, I spent most of my time wrestling with a very cute one-year-old adventurer who made it hard for me (or anyone around us) to focus on the actual churchy things going on. Since the churches were shut down, we’ve settled into a routine that works well for us and overall, I’ve enjoyed having church at home more than I did having church at, well, church. Yet, time passing and reflection over this last week has reminded me that there are things that I do miss. I miss the music most of all—singing congregational hymns, participating in the ward choir, and my time with the Bells at Temple Square. I also miss seeing my friends in our ward and catching up with them. And there were times that I felt the Spirit and was uplifted by sacrament meeting or the discussions we had in elders’ quorum. It’s the opportunity for community—gathering together as disciples of Christ to practice Zion-building, strengthening and helping each other along the way—that I feel much less chance to practice while sheltering in place.
Now, as I mentioned up front, I have been pondering on what church is supposed to be about, partly through the lens of last week’s readings in the Book of Mormon. After Alma’s life-changing encounter with Abinadi, he began to “teach the words of Abinadi” among the people in private. Those who believed what he was teaching met at a place called Mormon, were baptized, and then began to be “called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward.” After fleeing political persecution, they established a community in the wilderness with Alma as “their high priest, he being the founder of their church.” Now, while Nephi and Jacob both mention the ideas of churches and had some sort of priesthood organization with teachers and priests that seemed to have continued on through Alma’s time, there seems to be something new and significant about this church that Alma founded and continued to develop in King Mosiah’s realm. It is unclear whether it was merely the idea of multiple congregations, each with their own priests and teachers, rather than one national congregation or assembly under the king and his priests that was the innovation or something else entirely, but it seems that Alma had started something new in Nephite religion—something that Mormon found important enough to spend a relatively large amount of time and effort on discussing a failed Nephite colony to document.
I bring this up because Alma’s Church of God gives a glimpse into the heart of what church is about. At the waters of Mormon, Alma asked his audience the following:
As ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people,
and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort,
and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death,
that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
It seems that the baptism Alma offered focused on twin commitments to discipleship to God (“be called his people,” “stand as a witness of God,” and “serve him and keep his commandments”) and to the community (“bear one another’s burdens,” “mourn with those that mourn,” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort”).
This twin set of commitments to God and to fellow humans is, of course, not a feature of Alma’s teachings alone. During Jesus’s mortal ministry, when asked which commandment in the law is the greatest, he replied using quotations from the Torah: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” Perhaps less well-known along these lines are the things Joseph Smith identified as fundamental principles of our religion. In all my reading, I’ve only noticed him referring to three things as fundamental principles of Mormonism. The first was in 1838, when he wrote that the “the fundamental principles of our religion” were focused on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and “all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.” The second occasion was in 1843, when he declared that, “the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth [sic] let it come from where it may.” The third occasion was also in 1843, when the Prophet stated that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.” Friendship and the Atonement of Jesus Christ map well with Alma’s commitment to community and God. The two great commandments should stand at the core of our religion, and also our activities at church.
Beyond these foundational commitments, how did Alma’s church function on the ground? We only get a limited view, but we see Alma focusing on teaching “repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people,” and to have priests and teachers focus on the same as they “did watch over their people, and did nourish them with things pertaining to righteousness.” Further, Alma “commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” This included that act of sharing “of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God … to every needy, naked soul.” The Sabbath day was observed, with “one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God.” Once again, the two commitments to God and neighbor stand out in the functioning of the church that Alma founded.
This brings me to my next question on which I’ve been musing: How do I want to approach church meetings differently to make them more meaningful for me? While this will vary for each individual, bear with me as I share some of my own thoughts (or, if you would prefer to not bear with me–for which I wouldn’t blame you–you can just skip to the end for a few closing thoughts and questions for discussion). First, the idea of working towards a community, particularly a Zion community with “hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another,” is something that I would like to put a greater focus on in my life. Prior to the shutdown, I think my focus had been on surviving meetings, praising God in song, contributing to discussions, and looking for some sort of spiritual high along the way (all of which was less than perfect). With the shutdown, I think one thing that has stood out is that I miss the social aspects of the ward and need to pay more attention to them—getting to know more people and build friendships during church meetings (and outside of church meetings too), participating more in the service opportunities that are organized at church, and (as is often necessary for me) improving my efforts to truly minister to my ward members. As Joseph Smith said, “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism,” not just spiritual highs and doctrinal discussions.
I do expect that even that my experiences and efforts will fall short of perfection or perfect enjoyment (both because of me and my fellow ward members), but that’s part of the process. That’s a lot what Eugene England was getting at in his famous essay “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” As he wrote: “I believe that any good church is a school of love and that the LDS church, for most people, perhaps all, is the best one. … In the life of the true Church, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve—or possibly even associate with—and thus opportunities to learn to love unconditionally.” Even though we may not always enjoy the experience, “it stretches and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be— and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be.” Achieving a community where “hearts [are] knit together in unity and in love one towards another” in a ward is process that can be frustrating and difficult, but both helps to purify us as individual and builds a better community that can function as “heaven, in embryo.”
The other thing that I haven’t dwelled on as much so far is the commitment to God and Christ that is the basis of the community and the expression of which that was the other central concern of Alma’s church. We enter the community of the Church through the ordinance of baptism “as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve [the Almighty God] until you are dead as to the mortal body” and meet on the Lord’s Day to “worship the Lord [our] God.” This is another thing that I think I lost track of in the weekly grind of surviving church—an example of missing the forest for the trees. I went to Church primarily because it’s what I was expected to do as a member of the Church and experienced survival more than edification as a result. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught, however, “we do not strive for conversion to the Church but to Christ and His gospel, a conversion that is facilitated by the Church.” Church meetings are an opportunity to gather and, “joined in faith, we teach and edify one another and strive to approach the full measure of discipleship.” Going back, I think greater effort will be required on my part to both seek edification and strength from other people’s testimonies and experiences as an aid to my personal, ongoing process of conversion to the Christ and His gospel.
As I am writing this post and trying to bring it to a close, I just received the email of the church leaders announcing that they have authorized a phased return to some weekly worship services and activities, following local government regulations. While we likely still have a long road ahead of us to return to normal church meetings, it is definitely a good time to reflect on each of our experiences with church meetings. Here are some potential ideas for discussion in the comments below:
- What do you miss and hope to experience again once you return to church meetings?
- After having this time away from regular church meetings to reflect and explore worship in different ways, how will you approach things differently?
- What has changed in how you understand the Church as a whole?
 Terryl and Fiona Givens, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 78
 Mosiah 18:1,17.
 Mosiah 23:16.
 See, for example, 1 Nephi 14:10 and 2 Nephi 9:2; 2 Nephi 5:26; and Mosiah 11:5.
 Mosiah 25:18-19.
 Mosiah 18:8-10.
 Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV. See also Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18.
 Elder’s Journal, Vol.1, No.3 (July 1838): 42-44.
 Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition
 Joseph Smith sermon, 23 July 1843, in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition
 Mosiah 18:7
 Mosiah 18:7, 19-20; 23:18.
 Mosiah 18:21-29.
 England, “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel,” Sunstone 22, nos. 3/4 (June 1999), 61–69, https://www.eugeneengland.org/why-the-church-is-as-true-as-the-gospel. Elder D. Todd Christofferson gave some similar thoughts about why the Church exists and what we are intended to get out of the experience. He taught: “It is important to recognize that God’s ultimate purpose is our progress. … One cannot fully achieve this in isolation, so a major reason the Lord has a church is to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another in the ‘strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.’” He added that: “As a body of Christ, the members of the Church minister to one another in the reality of day-to-day life. All of us are imperfect; we may offend and be offended. We often test one another with our personal idiosyncrasies. In the body of Christ, we have to go beyond concepts and exalted words and have real ‘hands-on’ experiences as we learn to ‘live together in love.’” (D. Todd Christofferson, “Why the Church,” CR October 2015, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/10/why-the-church?lang=eng.)
 Mosiah 18:13, 25.
 D. Todd Christofferson, “Why the Church,” CR October 2015, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/10/why-the-church?lang=eng.
 See https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/safe-return-church-meetings-activities and https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/multimedia/file/safely-return-to-church-meetings-activities-guidelines-2020.pdf.