Winning the Pews

The church attendance rate among Latter-day Saints is anywhere from 10 to 90 percent, depending on whom you ask and whether they like Mormons. The anti-Mormons tend to put the number pretty low, although I don’t know why they’d bother attacking the church if no one’s attending it anyway.

In all fairness, it’s a difficult thing to measure. There are too many variables. Do we count people who are present in body but who sleep through the whole meeting? If so, then I know of several bishops who are inactive.

However you look at it, not everyone who’s supposed to be going to church is actually going, and the problem isn’t just among Mormons. Everyone’s slacking off. Why, I know some Catholics who only go on Christmas now and are neglecting Easter altogether!

But this column is about how Mormons specifically can increase church attendance. I’m not talking about changing doctrines around, like lowering tithing to 8 percent or having a smoking section at Relief Society luncheons. I’m talking about things we can do within the existing system that will make church attendance more appealing.

My first suggestion should already be in place, and it should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: If you can’t sing, don’t join the choir. I suspect hideous choir numbers is the main reason people leave the church. I cannot cite statistics on that, but my suspicions are not usually wrong, as my friends Fred and Daphne will attest.

Next, I think something has to be done about the way we give talks in sacrament meeting. Specifically, I don’t think they should be boring. (Pardon me if I am contradicting scripture here.) The gospel is exciting and has many interesting facets. So quit mumbling and say something interesting, for crying out loud! My goodness, you’d think some of these people had been asked to speak at their own funerals, the way they talk in low tones and stare at the podium. If I wanted to hear people talk about nothing, I’d go back and get my master’s degree.

Of course, not everyone is adept at public speaking, which is why I propose we add some enhancements to spice things up. For instance, if you’ve ever watched a musical, you’ve noticed that no matter how time-worn or obvious the dialogue is, it can easily be punched up with a little choreography. Now, I’m not suggesting we start dancing in church. Well, OK, I am suggesting that. With better costumes, too.

I would also like to declare a moratorium on a particular genre of sacrament meeting story. It’s the kind of story where the speaker tells it in the third person — “there was a guy who did this and that” — and then reveals, in a shocking conclusion, that HE is the guy the story is about! It was him the whole time!

I don’t know what we’re going for here. Do we want a huge “Sixth Sense”-style twist, where the audience goes, “Holy crap, he TOTALLY had me fooled!,” and they spill their Tupperware containers of Cheerios? If so, I have no problem with that. Anything to keep us awake. The trouble is, we’ve heard too many of these stories to be fooled by them. Whenever I hear a story told in the third person in which the main character is not named, I assume the speaker himself is the main character, unless I recognize the story from another source (e.g., if it begins with “In the beginning” or “Once upon a midnight dreary”).

Another thing that would bring people back week after week is cliffhangers. Rather than ending each talk with everything wrapped up neatly, speakers should leave off at some dramatic point with a promise to finish it next week. People would walk out of church just itching to return. “Why was there only one set of footprints?!” people would say. “And what happened to that train on the bridge?!!” And the next Sunday, church would be packed to the rafters.

Are my suggestions irreverent or disrespectful? Possibly. But they said the same thing about other men with strong ideas, men such as Galileo and Hitler. And I’ll keep going to church regardless of whether any of my ideas are implemented. Just don’t be surprised if I bring earplugs when the choir’s performing.

Anyone trying to figure out what I'm "really saying" in this column will go nowhere fast. It's pure goofiness, born of a particularly dull sacrament meeting followed by too much time chatting with Luscious Malone and Tanny Tantan.

This column is exactly one newspaper inch longer than usual. The third paragraph could have been cut, making it the proper length, but I liked the Catholic joke too much. I figured if the rest of the column made fun of Mormons, I could probably get away with one joke about Catholics.

This column prompted a lot of positive responses on the Herald Web site, as well many negative ones. (Actually, most of the negative ones were posted by the same person, whose IP address comes from BYU. She used to post often, and she usually posted several times, to make it look like a lot of people agreed with her.) I also got this e-mail, from one "Alanna Wilson":

I want you to know that I find you to be extremely disrespectful to the gospel, the people who belong to the church, and most importantly the Lord. So what if some talks in church are boring, at least they are up there trying. The speakers have put in a lot of time and thought into giving a talk so the least you could do is show some respect. I guarantee you that there is something important to take from every talk whether it is boring or not.

Church is not meant to dance and play around (some churches think so). We are to be reverant, prayerful, and listen to the spirit which is there. If you find church to be boring than I promise you this, it is not because of the person(s) giving the talks but rather yourself. Maybe you should look inside yourself and find out why you feel the need to disrespect the church so much and what it represents on Sundays.

The most important thing is that the speakers are trying and if you would just stop complaining about it being boring you would probably start to enjoy Sacrament. I can't believe you call yourself mormon and then write such an awful article about your own church. It seems to me like you are just trying to get ratings [for my TV show?] rather than speaking tastefully and respectfully about the Lord's church. I thought I was back in California after reading your article. I never thought anyone in Utah would speak so terribly about church on Sundays.

For your information, since you seem to have been asleep when this was said by many church officials, church on Sundays is conducted in a manner that the Lord has said so why don't you show some faith, trust and respect. Also, if someone is called as a chorister that has no idea what they are doing maybe that's why the LORD called that person, to give them experience and teach them. I'm proud to be a member of the true church but you sure have not realized how truly blessed you are to be a member.

Because for sure when I ripped on bad choirs what I was saying was that I didn't want to be a member of the church anymore.

Next, I received an e-mail from the queen of mediocre Mormon art herself, Janice Kapp Perry.
Dear Eric:

I've enjoyed reading some of your columns through the past year, and I definitely can enjoy a good joke about the church. I even didn't mind once years ago when i was the brunt of one of your interesting phrases knocking "In the Hollow of Thy Hand". But I can't help feeling sad when you joke about the church services themselves and particularly about the folks who take part. Your latest--Bag the Choir, up Church Attendance--was one of those times when I felt sad enough to even have a tear roll down my cheek as I read my early morning paper all alone at 5:30 a.m. For some non-members and less actives, your voice may be the only one they hear describing our Sacrament meeting, and if it is, they will have a very different impression than I have from attending. I know as well as you do about the stereotypes, the less-than-perfect choirs, the cheerios, etc. But to trivialize it with what I onsider poor sarcasm, is no substitute for substantive writing. Week by week I see normal imperfect people at church striving to improve and grow through speaking, singing, bearing testimony, etc. and I feel none of that reflected in your writing.

One writer that always has substance and holds my interest is Jerry Johnston from the Deseret News. His articles are heart-touching little slices of life that build people and inform. With your talent, you could do that too. Maybe the sadness over making light of things that are so important only comes with age--and that could be true in my case--but I would be so pleased if you took a better direction in your writing that might even entice someone to be attracted to our church.

I loved the movie "Brigham City" because I felt like our members had been accurately portrayed. They showed our warts, but with dignity and accuracy. Compared to how Mormons are portrayed in old movies, it was a breath of fresh air to see our Sacrament meeting portrayed exactly as it is. That will educate people about our beliefs in a positive way. Please, please, let the tone of your writing do likewise.

I realize that by writing to you I am leaving myself open to being the subject of your next sarcasm. I hope not, but if so, sobeit. I thought I would rather write directly to you rather than a general letter to the editor that would be read by others.

Thanks for listening and, I hope, considering my point of view.


Janice Kapp Perry

I don't remember making a crack about "In the Hollow of Thy Hand" anywhere except in a song I sang for The Garrens Comedy Troupe. Did I ever do it in a column? I can't remember. I need an archivist.

I got a lot of mileage out of Janice Kapp Perry's letter, particularly with its melodramatic flourishes like when a tear rolled down her cheek at 5:30 a.m. I used to read the letter sometimes in my live shows. It was usually a big hit.

Next up: We published the following letter to the editor about two weeks after the column ran. I have cast the writer's bold and inaccurate assumptions in the appropriate type.
As a writer, Mr. Snider flunked.

If he thinks his article regarding sacrament meetings was funny, he missed the beat. Not only had it no humor in it, but was one of the rudest articles I've ever read.

He criticized everyone from bishops on down. [Utah County Trait #509: Mentioning someone is the same as criticizing them. There is no such thing as good-natured ribbing.] It is so boring, I can tell he's never prepared himself to even be in a sacrament meeting.

To criticize a meeting as sacred as they are, I can see he has no respect for the church, which he's probably a member and I use the word "member" very loosely. [Loose member! Tee-hee!]

If he's such a good judge of music, why doesn't he join the choir -- I can almost see a bit of his sour grapes in his column. [This just doesn't make any sense. Is he saying I'm such a bad singer, I wasn't allowed in the choir, and now I'm jealous? But wasn't my point that ANYONE can be in the choir, no matter how bad they are? Anyway, to answer his question: because I can't sing.]

Maybe it's because he hasn't been called to the position he's wanted. Perhaps if he'd ask Heavenly Father for the proper spirit he just might enjoy it.

May I ask why does he go, besides to find fault?

Bill Levingston

As long as we're making unfair assumptions, I'll assume this guy goes to church just to find new ways of judging people, and also to look for young ladies to kill. As long as we're making assumptions.

One of the stories referred to in the column is an allegory in which a man must choose between saving his son's life and saving the lives of a bunch of people on a train. It's been popular among Mormons for a few years, but it doesn't seem to be an LDS-written story. It's all over the Internet, on more evangelical Christian sites than anywhere else. Most of them don't credit any author. (One says it was written by Stacy Marie Mooney, but since that one page is the only place I can find her name anywhere on the Internet, I'm disregarding it.)

The other one referenced, "Footprints in the Sand," is a popular story among many Christian religions, though I know a lot of Mormons who think it's ours. It was written in 1936 by Mary Stevenson, though her authorship has been questioned by some (see below). An interesting article on the subject, with the links to the three different versions (each of which varies only slightly from the others), can be found at

In 2004, I received an e-mail from one Carolyn Joyce Carty, who claimed SHE was the author of "Footprints." I don't see how this is possible, given that "Footprints" is well-written -- or at least coherent -- and the e-mail she sent is ... well, it is what it is:
In May of 2003 I found out that others were claiming my Anonymous Authorship and Contribution to Society. Many have stories of what they think they would like Footprints to represent. However all of this has gone too far. Where are peoples dignity? So proud to talk about something they know litte about. And others falsely taking claim to some elses work. Public awareness only does good when it reveals truth. So many gain an altered destiny by weaving information thats only intent is to gain recognition as in the example of the Mary Stevensons story about Footprints in the Sand. Marys ample years certainly gave her lawful
opportunity providing they she may have actually been the authoress she tries to claim herself to have been. I am copyright owner, authoress of the popular Footprints and it is beyond me to witness these uncontrollable acts and perceptions that other have. Do people genuinely care anything about what I feel?

Wow. It is difficult to believe the same woman could have written the simple, understated "Footprints" AND that garbled, bizarre e-mail. On the afore-linked page is another e-mail from Carty, one she sent to them making most of the same points as in the e-mail she sent me. I am amused by this portion, however:

"Footprints was my Contribution to Society. My authorship was and is anonymous. I have been trying to give people the opportunity to correct the discrepancies by making them aware of this."

Doesn't making people aware of her authorship defeat the purpose of being anonymous? Indeed, isn't telling people you wrote something the very definition of non-anonymity? Just asking.