Growing up, my favorite church service of the entire year was the Christmas Eve service. Our minister would tell the story of Christ’s birth and we’d sing all of the carols. When the service was nearly over, we’d sing “Silent Night” and the lights would go dim as we lit our candles from the light of the person standing next to us. Afterwards, there would be lots of hugging and exchanges of “Merry Christmas” among old friends.
The really great thing about the Christmas Eve service was that so many people showed up, that the minister had to do the whole thing twice– once for young families at seven, and once for everyone else at eleven. There were no greetings of “long time, no see,” or guilty looks given to people who made a point to come for Christmas Eve but who didn’t often come on Sunday. There was no shame in being a “Christmas and Easter Congregationalist.”
It surprised me when my family became Mormon that weekly attendance (even on vacation?!!!) was considered compulsory. What if we didn’t feel like going one Sunday? What if we had something else we wanted to do? We quickly learned that boredom, bad talks, even worse lessons, distance and bad weather were not considered good enough excuses for the Mormons. My parents were quickly given responsibilities in Young Women and Sunday School that necessitated their attendance every Sunday. We fell in line, and even though I grumble about 1pm church every time it’s our assigned year to have it, I’ve been an all-in, active participant (except on vacation, because I still think that’s weird) practically every Sunday for almost thirty years.
I feel nourished by the ritual of taking the sacrament. I respect the fact that going to church forces me to do something that isn’t always comfortable but is usually good for me in one way or another. I love being part of a strong community, and weekly attendance reinforces that community for me. Being fully invested works for me, and if you’re reading this blog, it probably works for you too.
But it doesn’t work for everyone. I have a friend who loves baptisms and missionary farewells and the rituals she grew up with, but who has serious issues with some Mormon doctrines and weekly attendance feels disingenuous. I know someone else whose guilt over having to occasionally work on Sundays sometimes makes her not want to go to church on the Sundays when she doesn’t have to work. I know lots of parents of young kids who duck out of church early to give their kids naps, and even more who wish they had the guts to follow them out the door. There are so many Mormons for whom weekly activity is an impossibility or a burden, and sometimes I wonder if our “all or nothing” attitude makes more people chose nothing. Isn’t there a way that we can help the people who would be “Christmas and Easter Mormons” or “Baptisms and Farewells Mormons” feel like they belong among the community of Mormons and not inactive pariahs? Or better yet, can we get rid of the qualifiers altogether? Can’t we get rid of the titles of “less active” or “nonpracticing” and just be Mormons?
I’m the Primary President in my ward right now, and we spent the first six months we were in the calling dutifully taking attendance every Sunday until the clerk asked us why. “As long as a kid is here once each quarter, it counts,” he said. This makes me feel like the institutional church gets something that the rest of us might not: sometimes good enough really is good enough. Coming sometimes is better than not coming at all.
And while we’re at it, can’t we give callings to people based on how active they want to be? If someone finds it difficult to come to church each Sunday, a calling leading the Activity Day girls once or twice a month might make a lot more sense than teaching Primary every Sunday. I know this is a lot easier in the big Utah ward I live in now than it is in other places, and I recognize that giving people a calling that’s a stretch for them is really motivating sometimes, but I think that more often it’s best to meet people where they are and use their talents in a way that they feel comfortable sharing them.
I know this is a touchy subject. As active Mormons, we feel that two parts of the three-fold mission of the church is tied up in concerning ourselves with the level of activity of our fellow ward members, and honestly I think this is usually motivated much more out of love and concern than it is out of trying to keep tabs or outdo the neighbors, but it often doesn’t feel that way to the people who are on the receiving end of outreach.
On the one hand, there are things I really miss about my old church. In the summer, Sunday School was cancelled and attendance dwindled to a trickle, which made sleeping in feel like a good alternative to showing up on Sunday. But then, once a summer, we’d have church on the beach, with chairs set up on the bluff overlooking the ocean. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt closer to God. On the other hand, I loved the strength of the community when I became a Mormon. I knew who I was, where I’d come from, and where I was expected to be on Sunday. And I know it’s hard to have both flexibility and strength, but we come from a people who know to do hard things. Why can’t the Mormon chapel be a place of genuine welcome for all Mormons, not just for those who wear calf-length floral skirts and come to church every Sunday but also those who wear tank tops and tats and who really dig coming once a year for the Primary Program?