This article has many words that may be new to you. Please click here to go to the Dictionary that describes many of the words you will encounter in this article. I have underlined words you may not be familiar with. Anything I underline is in the Dictionary. If you find there are words I have not yet put into the Dictionary, please let me know by leaving a comment and I will add those words to the Dictionary.
The main worship service of the week is our Sacrament meeting. This is a 70 minute meeting usually held at the beginning of the block of meetings we attend each Sunday. The three meetings we attend, one after the other, are Sacrament meeting, Sunday School, then for the women it is attending the Relief Society, and the men attend their Priesthood meetings. These three meetings take up a total of three hours each Sunday. We call it the three-hour block. We make great use of our buildings by putting multiple congregations, called wards, into each building. These blocks of time allow us to have up to four congregations in a single building each Sunday, though most buildings only have up to three wards in them.
Normally the Sacrament meeting is the first of the three meetings. Sometimes it is last, but never in the middle. At least I have never seen it in that position. It is called a Sacrament service because the main reason for the meeting is to participate in the Lord’s sacrament (think communion). I’ll tell you more about that in a moment. For now, let’s look at the agenda for a sacrament meeting so you know what to expect from a typical meeting.
Prelude music generally begins anywhere from 10-20 minutes before the meeting starts. The organist quietly plays hymns from the hymnal to encourage reverence. Mormons (Latter-day Saints) are notorious for not being as reverent in the chapel as they should be. We tend to be a very social lot, and forget to stop using our street voices once we enter the chapel. Like any group of people, some congregations are better at reverence than others.
While the prelude is playing, you will probably notice that the young men are preparing the sacrament at the sacrament table, which is normally built into the Stand or raised area where the leaders, music conductor, and organist sit. If you have seen one Latter-day Saint chapel, you have pretty much seen them all. The setup is mostly the same in every building. At any rate, the young men will be carrying the trays of bread and water to the sacrament table. When the table is full, they place a white cloth over the whole table to cover it until the sacrament is blessed and passed to the congregation.
In some wards people come early and sit to listen to the music and think about their week quietly in their seats. Others come in at the last minute with a lot of hustle and bustle, especially when they have a number of children and they are running late that day. Most Bishops (think Pastor), will sit on the stand with his two counselors. One of the three will conduct the meeting, but the Bishop always presides over the meeting. To preside means that no matter what happens, the one presiding calls the shots. If there is a sudden change in the program or a decision to be made, the presiding authority, generally the Bishop, makes the decision as to what will happen and how. The Bishop and his two counselors are called a Bishopric. Most Bishoprics like to start the meeting on time, even if some of the members are still coming in late.
The Bishop or counselor who is conducting the meeting begins by welcoming everyone and then gives a few general announcements about upcoming events. This is followed by the announcement of what the opening hymn will be, and who will be giving the opening prayer. Prayers can be given by any adult member of the ward, and we are often asked to give the prayer just before the meeting. In some rare cases the giving the prayer is announced from the pulpit. Most of us are so accustomed to praying in front of people that we just get up and do it. They don’t surprise new members like this, only ones they feel comfortable will not mind being asked on the spur of the moment. Since Latter-day Saints don’t have a paid clergy, we all take on assignments in the ward, some teaching classes, some leading music, some heading various organizations, some acting as greeters, etc. We periodically are released from one position, referred to as a calling, and are called or asked to serve in a different position. We are used to it, and expect it to happen every few years.
After the opening hymn and prayer, any new callings, baptisms, or other ward business are announced. At the end of the ward business we prepare ourselves to take the sacrament, after all, that is why we are at this particular meeting. We sing a sacrament hymn, which focuses our attention on Christ’s sacrifice for us, and our covenants with God. Then we have the sacrament itself.
The sacrament is blessed by the Priests of the ward. The Priests are 16-18 year-olds, and Priest is the office they hold in the Priesthood. See my article on offices of the priesthood for further explanations. One Priest will bless the bread then all the priests will hand the trays of broken bread to the Deacons to pass to the members of the ward. The Deacons are 12-13 year olds, and the name of their priesthood office is that of Deacon. They are the youngest priesthood holders. After the Deacons pass the sacramental bread to the members of the ward they bring their trays up and give them back to the Priests, who place them back on the table. The Priests then cover the bread and uncover the water, bless it, then hand the trays of water to the Deacons to pass to the members. The bread is broken into small bite-sized pieces, and the water is served in small cups that hold only about a couple of teaspoons of water. I’ve never actually tried to measure it before. We use water instead of wine.
Once the sacrament has been served, the man conducting announces the rest of the program. A sacrament program generally has anywhere from two to four speakers, possibly a rest hymn or a special musical number, and sometimes the ward choir sings a special number. When they are finished, someone who has been asked ahead of time gives the closing prayer, and the organist plays postlude music while we get up and move on to the next meeting.
Sacrament talks are assigned to members of the ward, and are generally following a theme for that particular meeting. Sometimes the member has a week to prepare, and sometimes several weeks to prepare their remarks. Though some are more comfortable about it than others, most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have given talks to whole congregations many times in their lives. Talks are not reserved for just men or just women. Sacrament talks are open to any member 12 years of age and up. We often will have a couple of youth speakers who give a talk up to five minutes long before we get to the main speakers who speak up to 20 minutes. If it is a family presentation, the talks may involve even the very youngest of children. On the first Sunday of the month there are no assigned talks. The time is left open for members of the congregation to come to the pulpit to express their personal testimonies and witnesses of Christ. This particular kind of meeting is called a Fast and Testimony meeting, because we are fasting when we hold this meeting. Again, with no paid clergy, we do everything ourselves.
Though this is unusual, I have been in occasional situations where there were not very many long-time members of the church on hand, so I played the music, said a prayer, and conducted the meeting. I was a little self-conscious about it, but when the need is there, you do what you must. Fortunately, there are normally many people who can pitch in and help, so those have been rare circumstances.
Latter-day Saint church services are a community affair. Our friends and neighbors are saying prayers, teaching lessons, conducting meetings, ushering, playing music, etc. Since our assignments rotate periodically, we learn to do most things eventually. We also learn to be pretty tolerant about the mistakes we all make when learning a new calling or position in the ward. We have all been the new kid, and we all understand there is a learning curve. The idea is to enjoy the opportunities to serve one another.
Here is a link that will take you to a video about a Mormon worship service. Click and enjoy!