Every Monday evening, Mormons around the world pause, as families. Together they pray, sing, play games, eat snacks. This is all standard fare for many American households, but the difference is that for Mormons, it’s built into every Monday night (or sometimes another night) and it has an official, deceptively generic-sounding name: family home evening.
The weekly gathering is far more than a family game night. Vern Bengtson, a sociologist who ran a major study of at-home religious practices that spanned nearly four decades, called family home evening one of “the most successful [religious] programs fostering intergenerational connections and the nurturing of families.” This, at least, is the ideal. Among some seasoned practitioners, family home evening has been called “the family fight that begins and ends with prayer.” The Mormon humorist Robert Kirby has referred to it as “family home screaming.”
But back to the ideal. In 1915, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recommended that church members arrange monthly (and later, weekly) “home evenings” to strengthen family ties—a goal that many present-day Mormons consider to have been prescient, given the dramatic changes to family life that have come in the intervening century. The leaders outlined a window of time “devoted to prayer, singing hymns, songs, instrumental music, scripture reading, family topics, and specific instruction on the principles of the gospel and on the ethical problems of life, as well as the duties and obligations of children to parents, the home, the Church, society, and the nation.” As their vision suggests, family home evening wasn’t ever intended to be strictly religious. There is hymn singing and scripture reading, but there is also game playing and ethics discussing.
More than 100 years after family home evening was conceived, it has taken on new relevance in a modern, fast-paced culture. (Other religions’ rituals play a similar role in setting aside dedicated, special family time—the Jewish sabbath, in particular, stands out as a strong example.) As scholars of family life studying religious rituals, we have interviewed dozens of Mormon families about their daily practices, and they routinely brought up the difficulties of maintaining familial closeness as technology and media have hastened the pace of life.
Just as routinely, they talked about how useful family home evening is in pushing back on this speeding-up of the everyday. One parent we interviewed said that one of his kids finds the ritual boring, and while he says his child is not always wrong, he notes “every once in a while it just clicks. … It’s a real feeling of oneness as a family.” One young teen we talked to felt similarly. She said family home evening “brings you away from all of the stuff of the world” and “gives you a chance to realize that they’re your family.” (As is standard in scholarly research, our interviewees were promised confidentiality.)
Not all children are immediately onboard. Another parent described her children’s apathy toward family home evening when they were young. But she went on to say that as adults, they recall the time fondly. “You don’t realize the impact a lot of things have when you are doing them,” she told us. Indeed, as another mother told us, “Whether or not it’s always a complete success … I think it’s important just that they know that it’s going to happen every week.”
One of family home evening’s best qualities is its ability to get each generation of a family involved, as one of us, David, can attest. His late father lived with his family for 17 years and participated in more than 800 family evenings. David’s father said that what he most enjoyed were the “performances” of his seven grandchildren, in which they played musical instruments, recited poems, told jokes, demonstrated martial-arts moves, or made dessert to cap off the night. It was a meaningful intergenerational exchange that was much rarer at other times in the week.
It was also one that wasn’t necessarily premised on religion. (In fact, David’s father was Baptist, then Episcopalian, and then—by the time he lived with David—an atheist.) The central features of the family home evening are transferrable to families of other faiths or no faith at all. Most of its typical components (conversations, games, activities, treats) are not essentially religious. And even the parts that are (prayer, religious music, reading sacred texts) can be adapted for nonreligious families, perhaps with a moment of silence, a meditation, or the reading of a poem.
Of course, even the most committed and family-focused Latter-day Saints struggle to make time each week for such a family devotional. Challenges to consistent practice of family home evening include busy schedules, the apathy of teenagers, and the siren call of social media and other entertainment. On the other hand, the stability the practice brings can be just what’s needed to counteract those impediments; one mother we interviewed emphasized that it is when life is “craziest” that people need the organizing, calming predictability of family ritual most.
Ultimately, what seems to matter most about family home evening is not the specific rituals, but that there are rituals at all—that a family decides to set aside a specific time of the week to gather and have a meaningful experience together. Is there perfection in such a family ritual? Never. Is there some effort, hassle, friction, and chaos? Almost always. But is there sometimes a spark of transcendent magic? In truth, it’s rare. But the next family home evening might just be one of those nights.