When a parent is considering visiting a Mormon Church with a friend or at the invitation of missionaries, or when a child is invited to Primary (the Mormon auxiliary for children), parents sometimes wonder what their child might be experiencing there. This article will introduce you to what to expect when you’re attending a Mormon Church with children younger than twelve years old. Mormon is a nickname for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons tend to refer to themselves as LDS (short for Latter-day Saints.)
There are three meetings held each Sunday and the total time is three hours. Each segment is called a block. This seems like a long time, but once your child goes to classes, he or she will be kept very busy and won’t have too much trouble managing the time.
In most congregations, called wards, the three-hour block begins with Sacrament Meeting. However, some will begin with classes. Sacrament Meeting is the traditional worship service. What you will find that is different in our church is that there is no nursery or children’s class during this service. Babies and children attend the service with their families. This means a Mormon meeting will be noisier and busier than you might be used to, but Mormons believe it is important for even the youngest child to have an opportunity to worship with his family. Parents work on gradually helping their children learn to sit quietly during the service, but it is acceptable for young children to play or read quietly in the pew. Toddlers are often found standing and using the pew as a table for a quiet toy. Many children bring a doll or book for entertainment. Some parents find religious pictures and put them into a small photo album for the child to look at during the service. School age children can be encouraged to sit quietly and begin to listen. Many parents make this transition gradually. At age three, I stopped allowing the toys to come out until after the sacrament (communion) was passed, which is near the beginning of the service. Then I had them wait until the first speaker was finished. Eventually, they could make it through the entire service. You’ll find, though, that Mormons are pretty tolerant of children who are having a hard time learning as long as the parents are making an effort to help the children whisper and to stay in their own pew. However, you’ll see the occasional toddler escape and race toward the speaker’s stand.
The service is conducted by the bishop (a lay pastor) or one of his two counselors (similar to assistant pastors). The Mormon Church does not have a professional clergy, so everyone you see in church is a volunteer serving in addition to holding regular employment. He will make any announcements necessary and will oversee any church business that must be handled. Once that is done, there will be an opening hymn. You’ll find hymnbooks in your pew and at the front of the church there is usually a wooden rack with numbers. Those are the hymn numbers and correspond to the numbers in your hymnal.
Next, a prayer will be given by a member of the church. Any Mormon can be asked to do this. If there is no further business to be done, such as blessing a new baby, the Sacrament portion begins. There will be another hymn, focused on the atonement of Jesus Christ. Then two priesthood holders, usually teens ages sixteen or seventeen, pray over the bread. This is called blessing it. Even younger teens, ages twelve and older, pass it to the membership. Everyone stays in his or her seat and it is brought on trays. It’s held by the priesthood holder while the member takes the bread with his right hand and eats it. (It is a small piece.) Then the member takes the tray in his right hand and holds it for the next person. The last person hands it to a waiting priesthood holder. This is meant for members, but no one will stop you if you’d like to take it. If you do not wish to do so simply take the tray and hold it for the next person without taking any yourself. If your family takes an entire pew, shake your head to indicate you don’t want it and they will move on. The process is repeated with water (replacing the wine used in most churches.) The communion is considered symbolic, not an actual taking of the body and blood.
This is followed by the speakers. Again, since there is no professional clergy, the bishop doesn’t give the sermon each week. Any member of the church twelve or older can be invited to do this. If there are many teens in the ward, one or two will speak each week. They are followed by two adults. The teens speak for about ten minutes each and the adults for ten to twenty, depending on the number of speakers that day. They are assigned a topic and write their own sermons, which they call talks. There is sometimes a rest hymn between the two adult speakers. Following the speakers there is another hymn and a closing prayer.
Everyone then divides into classes. Missionaries or members will be happy to help you get your family to the right place. The first class for adults and teens is Sunday School. Teenagers have their own classes, usually divided by age if there are enough teens. Two ages are placed in each class. Teens attend these classes whether or not they are Mormon. Adults who are not Mormons or who have been Mormons less than one year attend Gospel Essentials. This is an introductory class that helps Mormons learn the basic doctrines of the church. When they have completed that class, they attend Gospel Doctrine, which is a four year course of study of the scriptures. Two years are devoted to the Bible, one to the Book of Mormon, and the final year to the Doctrine and Covenants (modern revelations) and church history. At the end of the cycle, it begins again.
Following this, men go to Priesthood, even if they are not Mormon and do not have the priesthood. Here they study how to live the doctrines of the church in everyday life, focusing especially on the roles of men. Women go to Relief Society, even if they are not Mormon. They also learn how to live the teachings of the church, but with an emphasis on women’s roles.
Teens attend either Priesthood (for boys) or Young Women’s (for girls.) They are with their peers, not the adult classes, except for a possible opening exercises.
Your younger children will go to Primary as soon as Sacrament Meeting ends, where they will stay the remainder of the church time. There is a toddler nursery for children who are eighteen months old (no exceptions) to those who will not turn three before January 1 of the following year. This is an actual class, not babysitting. The children will have a ten-minute lesson on a very basic gospel principle. You can read the lesson manual the teacher uses online.
The children will also have a ten-minute singing time. Most of the songs will be what we call Wiggle Songs (songs with actions, including some your child probably already knows.) A few will be religious children’s songs.
There is usually a craft or coloring page, some group play, and free play with toys. There are always at least two adults in the room at all times. If your child needs a diaper change or to be taken to the restroom, the parents will bring him to you—they are not allowed to do this themselves—so make sure they know where which classes you are attending. Each nursery has its own rules about children who don’t stop crying after a short time. Some return the children after ten minutes or so—or you can stay with your child a few weeks while he adjusts, but if you’re visiting, that won’t give you a chance to learn on your own what the church is about. Some are willing to let him cry if you’re okay with that. There are always adults willing to cuddle your child if he wants to be held until he feels safe.
Children ages three to twelve go to the regular Primary. Twelve-year-olds are in transition. On their birthdays, they start to attend Priesthood or Young Women’s class, but they stay in Primary until the end of the calendar year for Sunday School. This allows them to meet the teens in their new group while maintaining friendships with their usual class.
Primary is divided into two portions. In most wards, the younger children follow one schedule and the older children follow a reversed schedule. Sharing Time, usually held first for younger children, is held in a large Primary room with all the children or the children in their half of the Primary. They have opening exercises, which consist of an opening song led by a music leader, a prayer given by a child, a scripture reading done by a child, and announcements. Then a child gives a two and a half minute talk (a mini-sermon) on the theme for the month. This prepares children for their future roles as speakers and leaders. Small children are usually assisted by a parent or adult leader if needed. (Non-readers repeat sentences after their parents, often while holding up a picture. Sometimes the parent winds up giving the talk for a shy child, but that is fine.)
Next, the children normally have singing time. For about fifteen minutes, they sing religious children’s songs and learn how they apply to the gospel. This is followed by Sharing Time. A member of the Primary presidency presents this. Each Primary is led by three adult women—a president and two counselors. Men may serve as teachers and Cub Scout leaders in the Primary but they may not be in the presidency or serve as the secretary. Sharing Time is an interactive lesson on one aspect of the annual theme. Each year the children focus on one topic and each month they learn about one part of it. In the fall, they present a program in Sacrament Meeting to share with the adults what they’ve learned and the songs they’ve been singing.
The other portion of the Primary is the class. Children attend a class with other children their age. In smaller wards, two or three age groups are sometimes combined. There are lesson manuals the teachers follow. One is for three-year-olds. One is for children ages four to seven and the final one is for ages eight to twelve. The three-year-olds have only one manual, since they are only in the class for a year. The next oldest group has two manuals, one used each year. Then they repeat, since they are now older and the teacher will present it in a more grown-up way. Each manual has suggestions for making it appropriate for older or younger children. One manual is about the Bible. They first learn a few Old Testament stories. The rest of the year is spent on the New Testament, and largely on the Savior’s ministry. The second covers Mormon history and the Book of Mormon. Although they are learning the Bible stories, most lessons are designed to teach a practical gospel principle that can applied in everyday life, such as showing respect for parents or showing love for the Savior.
The older children follow the same four year rotation as their parents and teen siblings. This allows the family to discuss the lessons together at home, since they follow the same schedule. The lessons, of course, are taught at an age-appropriate level.
You can see all the materials used to teach children online, which means you can monitor what your children will be taught.
There are also weekday programs for children eight and older. The boys join Cub Scouts and the girls have a similar program of their own. These are achievement-based programs that help children learn to live what they learn on Sundays.