A Crisis in the Church

No, this post is not about low baptism numbers, low retention numbers, or low commandment observance. Rather, I see a major crisis of a different kind, a crisis of rhetoric.

Once upon a time, Mormons used to preach. The talks that were delivered had content and spunk. Sadly, I don’t think that I have been alive to ever have seen this past tradition, but it is long dead. Now, talks consist mostly of quotes from general authroities and banal observations about whatever the topic happens to be. I think that some of the responsibility for this comes from the models of the general authorities, very few of whom know how to really preach. I am sure that these well-rehearsed talks that are given in front of millions of people somehow get transformed into dull, monotone speeches upon delivery, so I don’t fault them. You have to work hard to listen to them. They rarely captivate. Like the GA’s, no one who speaks in church wants to stand out, so we just get a whole lot of mediocrity. It’s not that we don’t know how to give talks, it is just that we don’t know how to give sermons, something which really inspires, motivates, teaches, and exhorts.

Contrast this to a former generation of real orators in the church. Apostles like Matthew Cowley, and even Bruce R. McConkie knew how to give a talk. You couldn’t help to listen to them. Even casually leafing through the Journal of Discourses reveals a whole range of Mormon speech that is now lost.

Now, I don’t think that we should follow some stereotype of preaching, like pounding on the pulpit or mimiking televangelists, but we should definitely do more than bore each other. Sacrament meeting should be interesting.

15 Replies to “A Crisis in the Church”

  1. I lament this as well. I wonder when the terminological shift from “preach” and “sermon” to “giving a talk” took place? I think early members tended to know the Bible very well, and this lent itself well to discoursing upon scriptural principles. Given that lack coupled with the rhetoric of giving a talk instead of preaching a sermon, it’s easy to understand our current state.

  2. I think it all coincided with the rise of the “scriptorian” as the highest degree of intellectual achievement in the church. “Giving a talk” and running through the requisite proof-texts is not conducive to promoting fervour or energy in our homiletic.BTW, TT, nice blog.

  3. I think Elder Holland is a pretty good preacher. Elder Eyring delivers sermons very well, but I wouldn’t put him with Elder Holland. Most of the others give talks that I like better on paper, Elder Wirthlin especially.In a singles ward I was in a few years back there was a recently returned missionary that would get a bit riled up all preacher-like during talks and testimonies. A lot of people were uncomfortable with it but I found it a welcome change of pace.I don’t have it in my to be preacherly. I’m a mellow, soft-spoken guy and when I give talks it’s a mellow affair. I try to deliver talks in an engaging style, but the tone is more conversational than preachy. I would welcome more energy from others who have it, though.

  4. I agree w/ Tom, I think Elder Holland does a remarkable job at preaching an inspiring sermon. I look forward to his talks the most, and thought that he did an amazing job this past conference.

  5. I was thinking about this as well over GC weekend. I have to agree with others, Elder Holland really stood out. If want to hear some good, fiery preaching, download some Hugh B. Brown.

  6. Holland, Eyring, and even Monson are the best speakers today. You get the occassional 70 that does a good job. The content of Holland and Eyring is usually better too, but compared to some of the earlier guys, they still have some work to do. Incidentally, I have been thinking about asking a local, famous preacher who teaches homiletics to come and give some tips to my stake leaders (who, are pretty good as it goes). How do you think this will go over?

  7. Granted, the English language and its (ab)use has changed since 1830. We are not likely to witness a renaissance of Gettysburg Address-style public speaking anytime soon and there will always be a faction of logophiles who bemoan this state of affairs (and who base their arguments on questionable comparisons, such as GAs vs. average members). I bet you a nickel, however, that Mormon preaching was never that good to begin with, or at least that good Mormon preaching was never widespread enough to say “Once upon a time, Mormons used to preach” and mean anyone besides a few talented leaders. I have a hard time believing the unwashed masses back then were any more skilled in the rhetorical arts than the current membership–they certainly weren’t better educated and there’s no reason to assume they were smarter. The 19th century analogues for “The bishop asked me to talk last week on ‘___’. Anyway, I’m really grateful for this opportunity” and other staples of the modern Mormon talk might be interesting to a modern audience, but I tend to disagree that there’s been a net loss in the quality of discourse since Brigham Young roamed the earth. And if I’m wrong, I’d like to know what caused the shift from great to mediocre across a large population.

  8. peter, You have a good point. However, I am speaking largely at the level of the GA’s, where I think that one can demonstrate a decline in preaching and the rhetorical arts. How that translates into the everyday member is certainly highly speculative, but I suggest that the models one has for rhetoric have a lot to do with what rhetoric looks like in the local congregation. There probably wasn’t some golden age, but I think that when there was more of a preaching tradition among the GA’s, there was more for the members to imitate as good examples. Another thing that might have contributed to the decline in rhetoric at the local level may be the easy accessibility to GA talks online. Rather than having to rely on one’s own interpretations of texts and use of one’s own experience, members can just past together GA quotes and then explain why they agree.

  9. I think a large part of this trend has to do with the fact that rhetoric is no longer emphasized as it once was in education. It’s not just Mormons who don’t preach anymore–look at politics. Unless you’re thinking of Bill Clinton, there are no good political orators anymore–at least not on the national scene. But if you look at the good speakers, there are a lot of lawyers–I think that’s because law school is one of the few places where some semblance of a classical rhetorical education still exists.So why are preachers in other churches so good? They studied it. They have a form of a rhetorical education.Amen to the Hugh B Brown comment–that guy (a lawyer) had style.One more thing–Monson? Monson??? Are you kidding? Prophet, seer, revelator, yes; but not speaker. Anyone can string together stories and platitudes. Whe he starts talking about “the pioneer ward in the blah blah blah part of salt lake” I’m always like “Dude, nobody outside of Salt Lake cares where that is.” And then there’s the lists of passive verbs: “hearts were warmed, smiles were exchanged, friends were missed, a blessing was given,” usually taking place in a hospital room. So predicatable. And his stories? He runs through the cycle about every 3-5 years. To be fair, the one thing that he does well that nobody else does anymore is to quote non-canonical sources, that gives him some depth that others lack. BTW, what was the deal with him quoting Robert E Lee and Shenandoah in the same talk? A little confederate sympathy?A disclaimer: I have no problem with the content of Monson’s talks; it’s just the style that rubs me the wrong way.

  10. While our lay clergy excels in some areas (community building, service, etc.), sacrament meeting talks are not usually one of those things. Many sacrament meeting talks are pretty much the reading of a conference talk or scriptures verbatim to the congregation. There’s not much sharing of personal doctrinal insights, etc. (with of course the exception of the obligatory story about praying to find a lost set of keys). Anyway, I’m probably expecting too much of sacrament meeting, but I would appreciate hearing more interesting talks.

  11. TT: I read this as being largely about our local speakers, ie. members who need to improve instead of trying to emulate GC, which is a vastly different beast. Most of the GA’s I’ve heard in smaller settings are wonderful. But given 10 minutes to address millions of people with varying cultural and spiritual backgrounds is a different thing. All my favorite talks from GA’s come from speeches.byu.edu, where it’s largely BYU devotionals- smaller group, 45 minutes. Some really excellent stuff from Elder Holland.

  12. I remember watching this tape that had audio and video recordings of prophets since I think John Taylor or something giving their testitmony. I noticed something funny. Before microphones were introduced, the testimonies were firey and full of good old time preachin’. After the microphone was introduced, testimonies started turning into the “speak soft so people can hear the Spirit” technique that we’ve become acustomed to in the modern Church. I think earlier prophets spoke lound and firey and use body language because they had to or else no one would hear them.I think the microphone has made us lazy in our rhetorical skills.That’s my theory at least.

  13. The microphone thing is a good point. Let’s do Sacrament Meeting “unplugged” for a month and see how things might improve….One thing I fear is at the root of watered-down discourses are watered-down testimonies due to lack of personal spiritual experiences. How do you preach a fiery sermon when your pilot light is barely burning ?From time to time I read about discourses that have completely changed the lives of some who were present, yet in the actual written text there is nothing extraordinary. The speaker has to be committed to living worthy of the Spirit and not get in the way of the Spirit during preparation and/or delivery of the “sermon”.I also have noted that certain listeners connect better with certain speakers..so it’s not all about delivery.

  14. Perssonally, I’m less interested in a possible historical shift and more interested in the disconnect that it seems that many of us feel. Let’s face it, this wouldn’t be an issue if the type of deliverty used somehow engaged us on levels that we feel our religion should. Sermon, talk, firey condemnation, song and dance, etc. To me it could be any of those as long as I felt that it added to my spiritual being.The standarded rebuttal to this position is to assert that it’s somehow “me” who is not paying enough humble attention, or that I lack faith in the Prophets who have chosen an “obviously” inspired style of delievery. If I could but do these things I would see that the talks actually do add to my spirituality.But I’m really not trying to make such a pernicious critique. I actually do find many of the talks spiritualy uplifting. My call, however, is for some variety. We’re a world-wide church with an international membership. There are over 40 talks given at each conference, why couldn’t some of them be delivered in a different way or geared toward an audience other than the youth, the fathers, mothers, et al.? For instance, even having a talk given in Spainish would be great.I think much of this discussion heads in the direction of the tension between unity and diversity. But perhaps that could eventually be spelled out in another thread.

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