Let's face it. Sometimes our church meetings are great; sometimes they're not. In a church without formally trained pulpit orators, things are bound to be a bit uneven. (In my judgment, professional preachers pose their own substantial problems, but that's another topic.)
And we have lots of meetings. Accordingly, people sometimes fail to embrace the gospel or remain active in the church because, they say, they haven't found our meetings sufficiently nourishing or stimulating.
There is plenty of room for improvement. Our sacrament meetings are our principal weekly worship service, and they should offer rich food for reflection and recommitment. Obviously, those of us who speak and teach in church — and, sooner or later, that's all of us — should prayerfully seek to ensure that what we present is worth presenting and to present it as well as we can. The effort is worthwhile: Any given lesson or talk may affect somebody's eternity.
We must also, though, try to get as much as we can from what is presented.
More than a few times in my life I've emerged from what I thought a fairly lackluster meeting, only to have a friend whose judgment I respect comment, "Wasn't that wonderful?" Or to hear, regarding a sermon that I could already scarcely remember, "Didn't you just love Sister So-and-So's talk?"
I'm convinced that, to coin an absolutely original phrase, we get out of our meetings largely what we put into them. If we go spiritually prepared, we will probably be spiritually fed. We might also be spiritually nourished without such preparation, but the odds are considerably reduced.
Once, many years ago, I found myself sitting in the office of a university colleague just after general conference. She had permitted me to use it for an hour or so while she was gone. Although I wasn't trying to poke around inappropriately, I couldn't help but notice a list of conference speakers hanging just above her desk. Next to each name, she had formulated a specific resolution for herself, drawn from that speaker's conference address, that she apparently wanted to put into practice during the next six months. I'm a faithful conference listener, but my passive listening seemed weak and shabby compared to her obviously much more active engagement. I was nibbling at the words of the prophets and apostles. She was feasting.
I'm firmly convinced that, if we all attended our sacrament meetings and our classes with her active and eager discipleship, if we arrived earnestly seeking to learn what the Lord wanted us to know that week, perhaps even with pen and notebook in hand, we would seldom if ever find them dull.
Many years ago, I read an interview with a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School who was a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The interviewer asked him what it felt like, with his training, to be so devoted to the writings of a man who had received no formal divinity school training. "Oh," he replied, feigning perplexity. "Are you referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Peter?"
I'm by no means a member or advocate of the Unification Church. But it seemed to me an excellent answer, and it still appears to me relevant to our own church participation.
Even more years back, I read a sneering article in another denomination's newspaper about an open house for a recently completed LDS temple. The new temple president had been an executive with a sewing machine company, and the author contemptuously described shaking his hand — a hand that, the author said, had undoubtedly sold a great many sewing machines in its time. I wondered whether the writer would have been more impressed to have shaken a hand that had mended a lot of fishing nets or, even, as our Savior's probably had, sawed lots of wood — and, if so, why.
The speaker at our pulpit may be a farmer, a housewife, an accountant or a dentist, but he or she probably has no formal training in systematic theology, scriptural interpretation, pastoral counseling or preaching. Still, much wisdom is gained through a lifetime of obedience, faith, reflection and covenant-keeping, and there is much wisdom to be had in our meetings. As the mortal Savior often said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.