Jennifer C. Lane is Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University–Hawaii.
As a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I had attended three-hour Sunday Church meetings for most of my life (a year ago these became two-hour meetings). As an adult, I had worshiped in and officiated in nearby temples almost weekly. Then the prophet asked me to stop.
In March 2020 around the world, our centralized Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City sent out the word that no one was to attend Sunday meetings, temple service, or any in-person Church activities. And we all stopped. Many are commenting on the degree of centralization that characterizes our faith. We meet together in geographically organized “wards” and those who have attended our Sunday meetings in different countries are struck by the shared structure and curriculum of the meetings.
In a sense, we’re already used to remote church. The first weekend of April and October are designated as General Conferences when the worldwide Church “gathers” remotely to watch and hear talks from general leaders in five different two-hour sessions over the weekend, streamed live in 33 languages. Having a remote conference was completely routine for all but the few who can attend live, but the experience this April was far from ordinary. The conference center in Salt Lake City holds up to 21,000, but this time speakers spoke to cameras in a small room nearby. The timing of this year’s General Conference in April fell on Palm Sunday, and it was a very emotional experience to all be “together” during such a trying time. Listening to talks, participating in a Solemn Assembly with a Hosanna Shout, hearing announcements of temples to be built in Dubai and Shanghai, and hearing prerecorded performances by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as well as choirs from around the world was all very moving in a time we can’t gather to worship together.
As Church members, we believe the President of the Church is a prophet, seer, and revelator, along with his counselors which compose the First Presidency along with the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are the two governing bodies of the global Church and are understood to hold all priesthood keys that were restored in these latter-days to direct Christ’s Church. These bodies are comprised of men who are called to serve as apostles after a life in a professional field. In a time of pandemic, it is an additional comfort that President Russel M. Nelson is an M.D. Ph.D. and was a world-renown heart surgeon.
So the prophet wanted us to be safe and we were asked to all stay home and not attend meetings in our Church buildings. But, here is where another dimension of Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice comes out. Other than General Conference, we haven’t had online Sunday services that people watched from home. One of our most important reasons for gathering each week is to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which can’t be experienced remotely because physically partaking of the emblems of Christ’s death is a key part of the ordinance.
Having a lay ministry doesn’t just mean that local bishops are not paid, it means that we can have home church. It means that all worthy men and boys of 16 and older are ordained as priests and elders and so rather than having sacrament services in over 30,000 Church meetings every Sunday, all of a sudden, under the direction of each local bishop, we had services in hundreds of thousands or millions of homes throughout the world. I don’t know if anyone knows the number. In a Church famous for record-keeping, no one has been keeping track.
So, I have been going to church every Sunday since that day in mid-March, but my church is my home. My husband and I have our Sacrament meeting at our dining room table. We pull up our chairs to the green tablecloth-draped table, have a prayer, sing a hymn, have the breaking and blessing of the bread on a white plate and the blessing of the water in two small juice glasses in remembrance of the broken body and spilled blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who suffered and died for us. We have taken turns each week giving a few-minutes-long talk, sharing our testimonies, whatever has been in our heart, with each other. We have never been this actively engaged in Sacrament Meeting, even when my husband served as a bishop. And the meetings have never been this short.
The prophet and First Presidency continue to guide worship at home and the administration of local Church units throughout the world with directions given to help members and local leaders know the proper process for ordinances, interviews, and other practical issues of church administration with all of the limitations in place because of the pandemic.
Here in Laie, Hawaii, our ward congregations that meet in our building rotate each year between meeting times, starting as early as 8 am. Rather than waking up to be at the chapel at a certain time, now we take each Sunday at our own leisurely pace. We sleep, read our scriptures, eat breakfast, shower, and dress up, a little bit at least. I wear a skirt and my husband still puts on a white shirt, but I have to admit that he hasn’t worn a tie. Our Sundays are peaceful days for connecting with family on email and phone, gospel study, family history efforts, and going for walks in the evenings.
A year and a half ago we moved to a new scripture study program called “Come, Follow Me” (Luke 18:22) which was designed to shift Church to being home-centered, Church-supported. Last year was the New Testament. This year was The Book of Mormon. Families and individuals have scripture readings for each week with the idea that rather than coming home from Church and reporting on what we learned in Church today that we could go to our lessons after Sacrament meeting and share what we had learned in our personal and family study during the week. So we have this interesting blend of all studying the same scripture texts week by week throughout the world while having Church in our homes.
Another dimension of worship is how we serve each other and most have formal “callings” in the Church. (These “callings” are calls to serve in our wards made by our local bishop and are part of our stewardship as disciples that we now try to fulfill remotely.) In the age of COVID-19, I have participated in remote devotionals and Zoom activities for the youth. In addition to callings to teach and lead in our ward congregation, we are all called by our local church leaders to care for each other, person-to-person, callings known as being a ministering brother or sister. Those assigned to care for us, our next-door neighbors, have checked with us when they went to Costco and brought things back for us. I know that ward leaders are quietly making sure that many people without incomes are getting food supplies and other support as needed. Where possible, ministering brothers have helped others to receive the Sacrament on Sundays.
A very visible dimension of Church callings is the calling to serve as a full-time missionary and these changes have also changed in the wake of COVID-19. Tens of thousands of missionaries were moved and reassigned quickly, including being quarantined after their transfers. Others were able to continue to serve in their locations but their outreach is now primarily digital rather than talking to people in the streets or knocking on doors. Teaching remotely has brought out creativity, with remote choirs, sharing music, and other innovations. My husband and I have had visits via Facebook Messenger video chat with the sister missionaries assigned to our ward here in Laie, Hawaii. These digital innovations will likely significantly change missionary work in the future.
We look forward to meeting together again in our ward congregations on Sunday and enjoying the fellowship and learning from and with each other. In some areas, Sunday meetings in chapels are beginning with provisions for physical distancing. But, the focus on a home-centered, Church-supported life of discipleship began before the pandemic and this focus on Church as integrated into our lives rather than something we experience at a certain time or place will continue even when we return to chapels for weekly Sunday meetings. In this season, I think that we have all learned something about the prophets’ teaching that the home is second only to the temple in holiness (see Isaiah 4:5-6).
Indeed the gradual opening of the temples is what we are all looking forward to more than anything, but know that it will take time because of the proximity needed for all the ordinances and covenants that are part of our worship in the temples. While we seek to worship the Lord in our homes and to elevate the level of holiness in our daily lives, the 167 temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are seen as the House of the Lord and that sacred space cannot be experienced remotely. In temple worship, we find our highest unity as a Church as we covenant to serve God and each other, more fully committing ourselves to Christ. Worship in the time of COVID-19 has in some ways been more personal and flexible, but the most important worship in the temples will have to wait for significant medical progress, something for which we pray every day.