SALT LAKE CITY — On the same day divided senators voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., unified Latter-day Saint leaders in the shadow of Utah's mountains announced a major adjustment designed to create a more "home-centered church."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will reduce its traditional three hours of Sunday meetings to two beginning in January 2019 to strengthen members' committment to Jesus Christ through home gospel study and service, according to leaders who spoke at the start of Saturday's first session of the faith's 188th Semiannual General Conference.
The news bookended a stunning six-month stretch that one apostle on Saturday characterized as a "remarkable and revelatory season." In half a year, President Russell M. Nelson and the Council of The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have remade the church's Sabbath practices, reemphasized its official name, revamped its ministering program and overhauled priesthood quorums in all 30,500 congregations around the world.
The day's juxtaposition was stark.
While protesters pressed police outside the Supreme Court, about 60,000 people gathered in three peaceful sessions at the Conference Center across from Temple Square and then went home to ponder a remade church.
"As Latter-day Saints we have become accustomed to thinking of 'church' as something that happens in our meetinghouses, supported by what happens at home. We need an adjustment to this pattern," President Nelson said. "It is time for a home-centered church, supported by what takes place inside our branch, ward and stake buildings."
The weekly sacrament meeting will be reduced from 70 minutes to 60 minutes beginning in January. The second hour of church services will also change. The traditional third hour of church services will be eliminated, replaced by flexible, individual- and family-oriented learning and worship, said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
"Our purpose is to balance the church and the home experience in a way that will greatly increase faith, spirituality and deepen conversion to Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," he said.
President Nelson, Elder Cook and other church leaders said the announcement was divinely inspired and that the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles unitedly endorsed the change.
"We live in a remarkable and revelatory season of the restored Church of Jesus Christ," said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. "The historic adjustments announced today have only one overarching purpose: to strengthen faith in Heavenly Father and his plan and in his son Jesus Christ and his Atonement."
The changes include a new "integrated curriculum" to strengthen members both through home study and focused worship at church. Since 1980, the church's Sunday services have included weekly Sunday School classes and a third hour of instruction separately for both men and women.
Now the second and final hour of the new schedule will vary from week to week, with Sunday School classes conducted on the first and third Sundays, and the priesthood quorum, Relief Society and Young Women meetings conducted on the second and fourth Sundays. When there is a fifth Sunday of the month, instruction will be under the direction of each congregation's bishop or branch president, church leaders said.
Instruction for young children in the Primary program will be held every week during the second hour.
President Nelson called the adjustment divinely inspired and necessary in a complex world.
"The adversary is increasing his attack on faith and on families at an exponential rate," he said. "To survive spiritually, we need counter-strategies and proactive plans. Accordingly, we now want to put in place organizational adjustments that will further fortify our members and their families."
Elder Cook echoed that concern.
"World conditions increasingly require deepening individual conversion to and strengthening faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and his Atonement," he said.
The church had been testing the new curriculum in congregations around the world with success, Elder Cook said. One pilot program was in Brazil.
Leaders also considered a study that found that individual scripture study and prayer did the most to help young Latter-day Saints feel the influence of the Holy Ghost, Elder Cook said.
"As leaders have sought revelation, the guidance received over the past few years is to strengthen the sacrament meeting, honor the Sabbath day and encourage and assist parents and individuals to make their homes a source of spiritual strength and increased faith — a place of joy and happiness."
The church had been preparing for the announcement for some time.
"For many years," President Nelson said, "church leaders have been working on an integrated curriculum to strengthen families and individuals through a home-centered and church-supported plan to learn doctrine, strengthen faith and foster greater personal worship. Our efforts over these recent years to hallow the Sabbath — to make it a delight and a personal sign to God of our love for him — will be augmented by the adjustments we will now introduce."
The new Sunday schedule provides more time for families to have a home evening and study the gospel at home. Family activity night can still be held on Mondays, but it is up to each individual or family to determine what works best for them.
Gospel learning at home will be enhanced by a harmonized curriculum with "Come, Follow Me" manuals for home — organized for a weekly schedule —adult classes, Aaronic Priesthood, Young Women and Primary. The manual for home, "Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families" will be provided to every member home.
The new plan begins January to give the church time to distribute the manual and allow local leaders to change meetinghouse schedules. One goal is to have more wards begin services earlier in the day, church leaders said.
Elder Cook said leaders should consider how to emphasize spiritual priorities over administrative function during the condensed Sunday meetings.
As they considered the change, he also said church leaders were mindful that the three-hour block of services now in place can be difficult for elderly members, parents with small children, Primary children, new converts and others.
Elder Bednar quoted Handbook 2, a policy manual for church leaders that says, "Church organizations and programs exist to bless individuals and families and are not ends in themselves."
The move had been long-rumored due to years of pilot programs.
"I think a lot of us saw this coming," said Terryl Givens, co-author with his wife Fiona Givens of "The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us."
He said it felt inevitable given the emphasis on Sabbath observance, the change from home and visiting teaching to ministering and regular teaching about spiritual self-reliance.
"Sabbath observance has become the temporal locus and home the physical locus and this change facilitates that synthesis," Givens said.
It also is a sign that church leaders, as they did with ministering, are placing more trust in members to, as Givens said, "step up to this challenge. Some will, and some won't."
Reaction on Saturday was widely positive.
"To be honest, who is going to complain about two-hour church?" said Christopher Schuman of West Jordan. He attended the morning session at the Conference Center with his wife, Rebecca.
She felt the change was inspired because "it works for all families." The Schumans are unable to have children.
"For me it's been a struggle because I was trying to find my place and if I'm not able to have children, what does that look like?" she said. "Just because my husband and I can't (have children) doesn't mean we can't have a family and help inspire those around us that have children and be an example."
Some single church members took to social media to say they will miss the longer church meetings for social reasons. But that was addressed by Elder Cook in his talk:
"It would be completely appropriate for young singles, single adults, single parents, part-member families, new members and others to gather in groups outside the normal Sunday worship services to enjoy gospel sociality and be strengthened by studying together the home-centered, church-supported resource," Elder Cook said.
"Having more time to be with our families and strengthen each other will be nice," said Carlos Anugulo, who serves in a bishopric in Venezuela and is a husband and father of two children.
He said it was nice to know that President Russell M. Nelson is thinking about families and homes as holy places.
"I think it's inspired and I'm really thankful," he said.
Royce Rhead, the father of a family of six from Boise, Idaho, said that while he won't miss afternoon church meetings, he plans to make a new effort in holding family home evening.
"I think this will give everyone more of an opportunity to fit family home evening in," Rhead said. "With everyone's busy schedule, it's been (a) hard time fitting that in."
Latter-day Saint worship has evolved over the years.
Since 1980, Sunday meetings have been organized in the current three-hour block, with Sacrament meeting, Sunday School and a third hour for priesthood, Relief Society and Young Women meetings.
In the decades before the three-hour schedule, church meetings were spread out between Sundays and various days of the week. Primary, Young Women and Relief Society meetings all occurred during the week. Priesthood and Sunday School were held on Sunday mornings, with Sacrament meeting held on Sunday evening.8 comments on this story
By 1960, the church had implemented a weekly Family Home Evening program. Then it coordinated all its auxiliaries, manuals and publications.
The late President Boyd K. Packer often reflected church leadership's belief and teaching that the church supports the home. In his final conference talk before his death three years ago, President Packer said the church's role was to strengthen the home.
"We do not build the church out of wards and branches and stakes and districts," he said. "We build the church out of families and individuals."