SALT LAKE CITY — Saying "it is time for a home-centered church," leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will reduce Sunday worship services for members from three hours to two in a major organizational change announced Saturday morning during the first session of the faith’s international general conference.
"As Latter-day Saints we have become accustomed to thinking of 'church' as something that happens in our meetinghouses, supported by what happens at home. We need an adjustment to this pattern," the church's leader, President Russell M. Nelson, said.
"It is time for a home-centered church, supported by what takes place inside our branch, ward and stake buildings."
The weekly sacrament meeting will be reduced from 70 minutes to 60 beginning in January 2019. The second hour of church services will also change. The traditional third hour of church services will be eliminated, replaced by flexible, individual- and family oriented learning and worship, said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who followed President Nelson's remarks.
"The long-standing objective of the church is to assist all members to increase their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His atonement, to assist them in making and keeping their covenants with God and to strengthen and seal their families," President Nelson said.
The changes are designed to meet that goal and will include a new "integrated curriculum" to strengthen families and individuals both through home study and focused worship at church. Since 1980, the church's Sunday services have included weekly Sunday School classes and a third hour of instruction separately for both men and women.
Now the second and final hour of the new schedule will vary from week to week, with Sunday School classes conducted on the first and third Sundays, and the priesthood quorum meetings and Relief Society and Young Women meetings conducted on the second and fourth Sundays. When there is a fifth Sunday of the month, instruction will be under the direction of each congregation's bishop or branch president, church leaders said.
Instruction for young children in the Primary program will be held every week in the second hour of worship services.
LDS.org has published a "sneak peek" at the new church curriculum.
President Nelson said the adjustment was divinely inspired and necessary in a complex world.
"The adversary is increasing his attack on faith and on families at an exponential rate," he said. "To survive spiritually, we need counter-strategies and proactive plans. Accordingly, we now want to put in place organizational adjustments that will further fortify our members and their families."
Elder Cook echoed that concern.
"World conditions increasingly require deepening individual conversion to and strengthening faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and his Atonement," he said.
President Nelson and Elder Cook were the opening speakers of the morning session, the first of three on the initial day of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often called the Mormon church.
The church had been testing the new curriculum in congregations around the world with success, Elder Cook said. One pilot program was in Brazil and others were reported in Iowa and Tooele.
Leaders also considered a study that found that individual scripture study and prayer did the most to help young Latter-day Saints feel the influence of the Holy Ghost, Elder Cook said.
"Our purpose is to balance the church and the home experience in a way that will greatly increase faith, spirituality and deepen conversion to Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," he said.
"As leaders have sought revelation, the guidance received over the past few years is to strengthen the sacrament meeting, honor the Sabbath day and encourage and assist parents and individuals to make their homes a source of spiritual strength and increased faith — a place of joy and happiness."
The church had been preparing for the announcement for some time.
"For many years," President Nelson said, "church leaders have been working on an integrated curriculum to strengthen families and individuals through a home-centered and church-supported plan to learn doctrine, strengthen faith and foster greater personal worship. Our efforts over these recent years hallow the Sabbath — to make it a delight and a personal sign to God of our love for him — will be augmented by the adjustments we will now introduce."
The new Sunday schedule provides more time for families to have a home evening and study the gospel at home. Family activity night can still be held on Mondays.
Gospel learning at home will be enhanced by a harmonized curriculum with "Come, Follow Me" manuals forhome — organized for a weekly schedule —adult classes, Aaronic Priesthood, Young Women and Primary. The manual for home, "Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families" will be provided to every member home.
The new plan will begin in January to give the church time to distribute the manual and allow local leaders to change meetinghouse schedules. One goal is to have more wards begin earlier in the day.
Elder Cook said leaders should consider how to emphasize spiritual priorities over administrative function during the condensed Sunday meetings.
As they considered the change, he also said church leaders were mindful that the three-hour block of services now in place can be difficult for elderly members, parents with small children, Primary children, new converts and others.
The announced revelation about a "home-centered church" was bolstered by strong words of testimony and support from those who followed Saturday morning, including President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency who noted that, "modern revelation defines truth as a 'knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come.'"
He spoke about divine truths and said that while the church is properly known as a family-centered church, family-centeredness "is focused on more than mortal relationships. Eternal relationships are also fundamental to our theology."
He then reiterated some of those divine truths: that there is a God, who is the loving Father of all; that gender is eternal and "an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity"; and that God's love is so great that "he has provided a destiny of glory for all his children."
Elders David A. Bednar and Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles confirmed the statements made by both President Nelson and Elder Cook that the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles unitedly endorsed the change.
"We live in a remarkable and revelatory season of the restored Church of Jesus Christ," Elder Bednar said. "The historic adjustments announced today have only one overarching purpose: to strengthen faith in Heavenly Father and his plan and in his son Jesus Christ and his Atonement."
He quoted Handbook 2, a policy manual for church leaders: "God has revealed a pattern of spiritual progress for individuals and families through ordinances, teaching, programs and activities that are home centered and church supported. Church organizations and programs exist to bless individuals and families and are not ends in themselves."
Elder Rasband also emphasized following the Lord's path.
He encouraged conferencegoers to put aside worldly influences and "love what the Lord loves."
He said love can conquer all fears: "When we are tentative in our commitments to the Lord, when we stray from his path leading to life eternal, when we question or doubt our significance in his divine design, when we allow fear to open the door to all its companions — discouragement, anger, frustration, disappointment; the Spirit leaves us, and we are without the Lord."
The conference began one day after the church changed the name of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to "The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square."
President Nelson became the faith's 17th president and prophet in January. Saturday's announcement came six weeks after he announced in a brief statement that the church will drop the nicknames "Mormon" and "LDS."
Another historic change will take place tonight. For the first time, the women's session will be held at 6 p.m. on the main weekend of conference. For 53 years, the priesthood session held that slot.
The church announced a year ago that it would trim conference from six sessions to five and equalize the priesthood and women's sessions.
The priesthood session now is held on the Saturday night of conference in the spring, and the women's session, which traditionally was held a week before conference, is held on the Saturday night of conference in the fall.
In April, Latter-day Saints sustained President Nelson in a solemn assembly at the start of conference, then watched him alter the face of the church's senior leadership, calling the first Asian-American apostle, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, and the first Latin American apostle, Elder Ulisses Soares.
He also announced the restructuring of the Melchizedek priesthood quorums in all 30,500 congregations around the world, changed home and visiting teaching to ministering and announced seven new temples, including the first for India, Russia and Nicaragua.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland termed the conference a rush of revelation. Many Latter-day Saints expected a similar conference of announcements and change this weekend.
Read a full profile of President Nelson here.