General conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take place every six months, originating in the 21,000-seat Conference Center in Salt Lake City and reaching a global audience estimated to be in the millions. But for Mormons, the grand scope and scale of the event is merely backdrop to the real drama taking place in the individual life of each participant.
As an example of this personal touch, the general conference that was held in April 2008 marked the first time that the Church provided real-time interpretation for people who speak Apache. Apache is one of the 92 languages available for attendees to participate in general conference. The message this sends to Apache speakers and to others is this: if there is someone who wishes to view or listen to conference, and the Church can find an interpreter for that person’s language, then it will happen. Such is the desire to bring the messages of general conference to individuals. Nearly 800 interpreters, located in Salt Lake City and in other countries, help Latter-day Saints benefit from the messages during the five conference sessions.
When the Conference Center was dedicated nearly 10 years ago, the late Gordon B. Hinckley (president of the Church at the time) said that notwithstanding the auditorium’s size, it was designed to meet the needs of individuals. “It is a unique and remarkable building,” he said. “When it was first envisioned and planned, we were not concerned with building the largest house of worship to be found anywhere. We were concerned with a plan to accommodate the needs of our people.”
Speaking of the Conference Center’s acoustics, President Hinckley explained, “The challenge was to provide a system that delivered the same sound to listeners wherever they might be in the room.” The highest priority was to enable all who attend to hear the spoken word as clearly as possible. But these gatherings are much more than an event for those attending in the Conference Center or watching on television in North America. “We reach beyond the confines of the United States and Canada,” President Hinckley said. “We essentially reach across the world.”
General conference combines the intimacy of the personal and the fellowship of the communal. There is a power for Mormons watching general conference in London, England, or listening to it in Chandler, Arizona, even if they watch or listen alone. That power comes from a sense of gathering with millions of others who share the same faith in Christ and who are experiencing the event together.
Many of the Church leaders who speak at general conference, such as President Thomas S. Monson, travel the world in their respective ministries. As they do so, they meet members of the Church from Accra to Anchorage and learn of their challenges. As they prepare to speak at conference, they take into account the circumstances and difficulties of individual members and seek inspiration to deliver messages that will be relevant and uplifting.
Church members find that the same address can be understood in different ways. Mormons ascribe this to a desire on the part of each person to receive uniquely relevant and applicable instruction and inspiration from sermons, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. This form of tailor-made learning — experienced by people of all faith traditions who sincerely engage with sacred texts or in religious services — is something that must be experienced to be truly comprehended.
For Mormons, general conference is an exciting time when large numbers gather to hear sermons, sacred music and news. But the most satisfying, profound and exhilarating thoughts and feelings of inspiration come when one person receives an answer to a personal question or is reassured by a connectedness to God and others.