Thursday, September 26, 2013

LDS General Conference in a globalizing world

Both critics and supporters of the LDS church recognize its ability to adapt and change to a globalizing world.  Bending to social pressures for one or modern revelation for the other, the end result is a large hierarchal worldwide church that is surprisingly nimble.  The church’s softened stance towards gays being the case in point.  Recent changes have been made to general conference as well.  These have been small but significant.  The first woman gave a prayer in general conference just 6 months ago.  Next weekend the priesthood session (for men only) will be broadcast live on television and over the internet (in theory allowing for de facto participation for women) but more importantly making it more accessible for all members worldwide. 

The overall general conference format is a good one that has not been significantly changed for years.  Members come to receive instruction from inspired leaders.  As the urban legend goes, anyone in the world can receive a personal message just for them if they prayerfully watch general conference.  Indeed conference can be a wonderful time for personal learning and reflection.  Today the LDS church does not focus on changing church doctrines or revealing new beliefs as earlier times when Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were leaders.  Rather the focus is on inspiring members to make changes in their lives to become closer to Christ. 

Within the framework of keeping the purpose of general conference the same, is there room to improve the general conference format?  What changes might we expect to see in the future given the social and international changes going on in the world?  Below are four suggestions that could enrich the general conference experience for members in the coming years. 
  • Replace one of the talks with a skit performed by local members.  The standard format of having only talks for general conference can be repetitive and tiring for children and adults alike.  Replacing one talk with a spiritually themed skit by local members would be a great way of gaining attention, while providing a new way for members to learn and reflect on their lives.  The church has a great history of pageants (think of those old road shows stakes used to do in the 1970’s and 1980’s as well as more professional pageants at Hill Cumorah or Manti).  To make things really exciting the church could have a competition among stakes performing the skits, with the winner to be used during general conference.  The logistics would be difficult to perform the skit live, so a video presentation of the skit would be more likely.  This would be a boon for those who are visual learners.  Participation and anticipation would both increase among members as well.  
  • Have a normal member be one of the speakers.  The church believes that the Lord uses the weak and unlearned to carry on his work by the spirit.  This is one of the reasons the church feels confident in using 18 and 19 year olds to bear the primary burden of missionary work.  Having a normal member of the church (perhaps a Sunday school teacher, or a counselor in the Bishopric) speak at conference would allow members to learn together by the spirit.  It would highlight the importance of the spirit as a teacher and not the official calling that someone holds.  It would also give members more ownership in general conference as they would know that in theory, they could be a participant not just an observer. 
  • Have a woman speak in the Priesthood session.  Recently a Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women tried to get 150 tickets to the priesthood session; they were rebuffed but were happy with the announcement of the live broadcast of the Priesthood session.  Why are they setting their goal so low?  Why not advocate having a woman speak during the priesthood session?  Having a sister speak would offer a different perspective on priesthood service that could be very beneficial for priesthood holders.  This could be especially powerful on certain topics such as fatherhood, serving in the home, being good husbands, fidelity and other chastity related topics.  If the goal of the priesthood session is to help priesthood holders be more dedicated to serving in their priesthood this could be a good idea.  
  • Having a session of general conference in Spanish.  The church is growing worldwide, especially among Spanish speaking countries.  Every six months at conference we see brethren from Latin American countries speaking in English (some do better than others), which is then to be translated back into Spanish for a large number of saints.  In a Spanish session all the speakers would speak in Spanish and all those in attendance at the conference center would also speak Spanish.  An English translation could be provided via headset for the general authorities who do not speak Spanish and an English translation would be dubbed for the television and internet broadcast.  This would be a small but significant experience for the millions of Spanish speaking members.  There are plenty of Spanish speaking general authorities who could be speakers, including Elder Richard Scott of the quorum of the 12 apostles.  

While some of these changes might seem strange for those who are so used to the standard format of general conference, we all can realize that the strength of the church is its ability to change and adapt to the times of the day.  The world is changing and the church is changing as well.  The day when the LDS church could be considered just a Utah, or just a US church is long gone.  Church leaders often cite the statistic that there are more members outside of the US than from the US.  However, it will be a challenge to maintain both a global and hierarchal church structure. There is the potential for a disconnect between the members and the leadership of the church who are still based in Utah and still for the most part from the Western US. One way the church can address this challenge is through changes to general conference.  The above mentioned changes would give the members greater participation, ownership, and better opportunities for personal reflection and growth.  Many members will be happy that they can now watch the priesthood session live on TV, but they can be happier yet by knowing that it won’t be the last positive change to general conference. 

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