Some sacrament meeting talks are more meaningful, insightful, and applicable than others. Certainly natural ability comes into play, but one of the biggest problems, from my experience, is that most speakers follow a “same old” generic pattern. There is nothing inspired or authoritative for this pattern, and in fact in many cases it can dull or deaden what could otherwise be enriching and inspiring sacrament meetings.
I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s efforts, faith, or testimony. Rather, I bring good news. It’s not hard, if one is willing, to raise the standard of sacrament meeting talks. It requires (a) recognizing the “same old” pattern as simply one way of giving a talk (and probably not the best way) and (b) being willing to try something new. I think you’ll like it.
So, I will first describe the “same old” pattern and then describe what is, in my opinion, “a more excellent way” of giving sacrament meeting talks. I hope that some of my tips can be worthwhile for all Latter-day Saints, however refined their talk-giving abilities may be.
THE “SAME OLD” PATTERN
When people use the “same old” pattern for talking, they probably don’t think, “Hey, I think I’ll use that ‘same old’ pattern that everyone else uses.” Rather, it is probably commonly thought that this pattern is simply THE way of giving a talk.
These “same old” talks often begin with an unnecessarily elaborate introduction. Such introductions might involve (a) discussing how and when the bishop asked you to give the talk, (b) giving some kind of joke, often unrelated to the topic, (c) providing a disclaimer about how you don’t really want to give a talk, or at least not a very long one, or (d) some or all of the above.
These introductions are not simply unnecessary because they waste time. Time filling is a very minor problem here. The major problem, from my estimation, is that these kinds of introductions set the talk up to be mundane or trivial, as well as perpetuate the myth that this is the way sacrament meeting talks must or ought to be. In this way, the “same old” speaker gives a silent disclaimer:
Don’t expect anything great from this talk. In fact, because this talk is mediocre, I’m going to attract undue attention to myself and to a bland pattern of talk giving. By doing so, I will perpetuate the myth that sacrament meeting talks are simply something that we have to do and that have little practical value, at least beyond the things that I might have learned in preparing and giving the talk. You laugh or smile at these efforts not because they are funny or enlightening, but rather because you sympathize with me in my tedious chore of talk giving.
Once a person has given this necessary disclaimer, she can proceed to introduce the topic. This is usually done in a very generic way (e.g., “my talk is on faith”). In this way, one can send the message to the congregation that one is giving a standard repetitive talk.
If a person wants to accentuate this generic message, this can be done by providing a dictionary definition. The speaker knows that the congregation does not need this definition, and he’s not planning on drawing on it in any particular way, but none of this matters for the “same old” pattern. All that matters is to not introduce the topic in a meaningful, applicable, or inspiring way.
From this point, the “same old” pattern might take a variety of turns, some of which are better than others, but in general adheres to at least one of the following guidelines:
1. An excessive amount of long general authority quotes.
2. Use of published inspirational stories (often without much attribution) or, alternatively, an unnecessarily long description of a personal story.
3. Simple recipes for acquiring blessings (do x, get y), often in conjunction with worn-out non-scriptural platitudes that either have no explicit relationship to the Savior (“say your prayers, read your scriptures, go to church”) or imply that He is an instrumental blessing machine (“take advantage of the Atonement”).
4. The use of various scriptural passages, but without context, exploration, or elaboration. Such passages are often used for the purpose of supporting a blessing recipe or generic platitude (#3).
5. Subtle political commentary.
6. A brief standard testimony, of various levels of sincerity and always reserved for the end, followed by a possible violation of the third commandment (see my future post).
Now, please understand that I’m giving a caricature here. I’ve heard many wonderful sacrament meeting talks and even in talks that are perhaps not so wonderful I’ve been uplifted and inspired. Still, I think that far too many of us do some of these things simply because we’ve learned some mediocre habits about what giving a talk should be. I’m sensitive also to the fact that giving sacrament meeting talks is not easy for many people. That’s why this post brings such good news — the “more excellent” talk is actually often easier to prepare, and much more satisfying.
A MORE EXCELLENT WAY
In contrast to the “same old” pattern talks, excellent sacrament meeting talks have a purpose of strengthening, enlightening, and inspiring the congregation. Speakers don’t have to be especially talented or experienced — they have a variety of experiences, public speaking skill, and experience in the church. But what they have in common is that they know their audience somewhat well and they speak sincerely from their hearts. There’s no need for gimmicks (jokes, apologies) or formalizations (definitions) — although there’s nothing inherently wrong with perhaps telling a joke or giving a definition.
These speakers also recognize that they are not simply giving a talk “on faith” (whatever topic they were assigned). Rather, they are talking about faith in a personal and inspiring way, and in a way that might be most relevant for the congregation right here and right now. There’s no formula for this kind of talk, but here are a few things I’ve noticed, in contrast with “same old” talks:
1. These speakers stick closely to the standard works and use the scriptures well. This doesn’t mean they have to be a scriptorian, it simply means they’re willing to turn to the stories and lessons of the scriptures first and foremost, and see general authority quotes as supplementary. When general authority quotes are used, they are more likely to be recent ones (perhaps from the last General Conference).
2. These speakers almost always avoid published inspirational stories. If stories are told, they are almost always their stories (either about them or people close to them). In this way, they portray the gospel in the real world, not the canned sensational one. However, these speakers also recognize the need to avoid lengthy travelogues. They tell the part of the story that is relevant and then move on.
3. They are sensitive to the struggles and needs of others, and for this reason avoid making the gospel too formulaic. They think twice before saying things like “Being happy is a simple choice” or “If you pay your tithing, the Lord will bless you financially.” If they do want to say things along these lines, they might instead portray their own story — how they chose to be happy in the midst of affliction, rather than offering canned platitudes that perhaps hurt as many people as they help.
4. Along the lines of #3, these speakers recognize that living the gospel is more complicated than “reading your scriptures, saying your prayers, and going to church.” Rather, the gospel is about coming to Christ — and He plays a central role in these talks (whether explicit or implicit).These speakers wisely recognize that people come to church not to learn a few facts or be reminded of some vague platitudes, rather they come to church to worship Christ and to seek healing through Him.
5. These speakers recognize that the gospel is not synonymous with a particular political platform or to American democracy, and they are also aware of sensitive familial, gender, racial, international and other circumstances.
6. Finally, these speakers bear their testimony whenever prompted by the Holy Ghost — whether this is planned or extemporaneous. Testimonies are not simply saved for the end. Indeed, the line between “talk” and “testimony” is blurred in many of the best talks.
Well, I hope these suggestions might be helpful for a few people. Please recognize that this post is simply my opinion. I also understand that we need to be concerned about how we receive the talks of others. Here I’m simply focusing on the giving of talks. I would love to hear what others have to say.
Filed under: Religious Experience Tagged: | Atonement of Christ, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, general authority quotes, Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints, LDS, Mormon Church, Mormons, sacrament meeting talks, scriptures, testimony, worship