One of the interesting insights one obtains in talking with non-LDS folks who have looked into our faith is just how difficult we members can make it for others to have any interest in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. The people who walk through our chapel doors for the first time to attend sacrament meeting may come with heightened expectations about the joys of worshiping with "the real" Church of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, for at least a few, what they find may disappoint or upset them - especially if they've been to a "real" church before, one like the Lutheran Church or the Roman Catholic Church where meetings are generally conducted professionally and where the congregation tends to be quiet and reverent.
Yes, of course, we Latter-day Saints are proud that we emphasize families and that we encourage whole families to attend our main worship service, Sacrament meeting, where children are welcome (for the most part). Many of our congregations and perhaps a majority of parents do a great job when it comes to reverence. But there are far too many problems. I would encourage all of us to step back and look at what's happening. Chances are we could do much better in many of our wards and branches. Apathy about reverence is not just making it hard for our fellow members to enjoy the meeting. It's keeping people away who could accept the blessings of the Gospel if only we weren't so inconsiderate. It's not just kids, of course, but adults as well who can talk and be sources of distraction in meetings. We need to be more sensitive to those around us and make sure we aren't creating barriers to the workings of the Spirit.
Here's email I received yesterday which reminded me that it's time to raise this issue again:
In our ward in [an East Coast city] it could only be described as somewhere between a picnic and chaotic event. Most families with children dump out their "activity bag" as soon as they claim a bench (which usually happens between when the Bishop starts and the Sacrament ends) and the snack fest ensues. It is becoming the trend for some children to wander from family to family to see what everybody else has. The loud voices, wandering, crunching and talking is killing me. The leaderships families are counted with the offenders, so approaching them, I fear, would be a direct offense.First, let me say that we all need to be compassionate and tolerant of families with kids and especially the challenges of being a parent of young children. We want our families to feel welcome and our young mothers and fathers to be part of our worship. Kids will make noise, and we need to recognize that. Newcomers should be warned that it may be noisier than they are used to because we encourage whole families to attend and often have a lot of small children. But welcoming families and being understanding of parents with young children is not the same as embracing systematic chaos. We can do much better. Not only must we be understanding toward parents with energetic kids, but toward those who have come to sacrament meeting to learn and to worship.
Brothers and sisters, all the efforts our missionaries go through to get someone to walk through the door can be wasted if we neglect reverence. They can be wasted if you keep your screaming child in the chapel instead of immediately retreating elsewhere to be considerate to the rest of the congregation. They can be wasted if your idea of worship is to have a bench of children playing with electronic games and munching from three bags of snacks throughout the meeting, never attempting to pay attention to the messages from the pulpit. Yes, kids will be kids, but kids can be trained and might not always need a massive bag of toys and vast collection of snacks to sit quietly for an hour (but I know from experience that they can really help at times - but there are some poor choices to avoid here). One thing that helped with our four boys was preparing them during the week, teaching them how to sit quietly and providing instructions on what is appropriate and not in the chapel.
I suggest we all step back and consider what impact our family's behavior and our personal actions are having on people, including those who might be visiting for the first time.
Bishops, your own families face the special disadvantage of not having a father. At least not one there on the bench to help kids be reverent. As a result, your young family (if this fits) may well be one of the most challenging examples of poor reverence, even if your wife is a true supermom. You may need to get some help for your family or take special steps to prepare (I think most already do this). The example of reverence or chaos that your family sets will have an effect on the whole ward. You must be the driver for enhanced reverence. Your example, your instructions, and your inspired direction to the ward can help tame the chaos and create an atmosphere more conducive to the Spirit, one that will give visitors a chance at becoming members. How to improve reverence is worth prayerful consideration and periodic discussion in your ward council meetings. It affects some of the most fundamental aspects of the Church: our ability to worship meaningfully, and our ability to attract and retain members.
One hour of reverent worship, where members and visitors can feel the Spirit of the Lord, can be more influential than a thousand books and websites. Let's give people a chance!