People are leaving my church. Good people. People I know. People I like. In response to this modern exodus, I have heard three explanations from within my church community. The first two are rationalization narratives. They attempt to put the community at ease. First, there is the narrative that we are destined to be a small group of believers. The Bible never suggests “the believers” are going to be popular. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi has a vision of the modern-day church and he notes that “its numbers [are] few.” And so declining membership actually seems in line with revelation. Believers are supposed to be a small, peculiar group of persecuted faithful. This is problematic.
The problem with this first narrative is not that it’s necessarily false but that it’s being used as a palliative. And as a palliative it has created a dangerous delusion of invincibility. If Christ’s first coming is any evidence, prophecies can be tragically misunderstood. While I certainly cannot say for certain, I personally believe that the sort of hubris involved in an invincibility narrative could very well lead to the extinction of our faith. Regardless, there’s no doubt that we are supposed to be spreading the gospel and gathering members. If we’re losing members, we can and should spend time thinking about how we can keep more of God’s children attending church. Saying “God’s plans cannot be frustrated” is productive if it lowers anxiety but if it is used as a smokescreen to avoid facing the facts, we are using the Lord’s name in vain.
The second narrative is that the church is not shrinking. That there is no mass exodus at all. That the church is stronger than ever. And that we have a growing membership to prove it. The growing membership is certainly true, but worldwide growth is not the only indicator of health. Just because the world population is growing, that doesn’t mean your city isn’t shrinking. Simply because Facebook users continue to grow worldwide, that doesn’t mean the tech giant isn’t in trouble at home, in America, where usership continues to decline.
The third narrative is admittance. There is an exodus and it’s a problem that we should try to address quickly, decisively, urgently. What is persuasive about this narrative is that it requires something of us. It asks us to look at ourselves, our stakes, our wards, our branches and say, “here am I. Is there something I can do?” It is that questions that has led me to write this essay.
I have no control over the leadership of the church. I don’t desire their position. I don’t feel entitled to their revelation. And I don’t seek to council the brethren. They lead the church and I will sustain their position. But the most fundamental aspects of our church are not and have never been dictated to us. We live it. We build it in our wards, homes, and families. It’s local and dynamic. Always changing. Because for a religion to survive it must be continually reborn in the hearts of each generation. If any one generation holds on too rigidly to the religion as they know it, they may end up killing the very thing they hope to protect. This is a serious task. We are playing with the future of the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s a task with ambiguous instructions, minimal certainty, and dire consequences. So Godspeed. And I believe he will.
Finding solutions that work not solutions that we want to work
In trying to address the problem we could easily introduce solutions that aren’t solutions at all. And in so doing, we might accidentally make the problem worse. This happens all the time. The classic example is Britain’s attempt to eliminate venomous cobra snakes from Deli. The government offered a bounty for dead snakes, and so enterprising citizens began breeding snakes to collect the money. And as a result, the snake problem got worse. In our case, we are in danger of the opposite problem: introducing changes that only drive people away, are seen as too little too late, feel like tokenism, or just add insult to injury.
I believe we have been guilty of this. In response to the loss of members, and with a real desire to secure what we have—to not allow anyone else to fall—we have often emphasized the doctrines that unify us. The binding agents. Securing the fortress. Things like follow the prophet, divine leadership, importance of rituals (scripture reading, prayers, temple attendance). The tendency is natural but it can be like trying to grip sand. What can happen, and at least in some cases has happened, is that our classes have become more homogeneous. Our discussions stilted. We want to walk the line, to keep true to the doctrine, because we don’t want to lose anyone else. But this might only exacerbate the problem.
Other groups have erred in the opposite direction. Vatican II, for the Catholic church, was an attempt at reversing a declining membership. In an attempt to appeal to the masses, they made their doctrine more ecumenical and liberal. For example, they gave up the claim to being the one-true church. But these changes did not result in more growth, as hoped. Quite the opposite.
To introduce meaningful and effective change we can start by moderating our expectations. We will certainly not be able to appeal to everyone. And it does not shock me that some people would choose to leave the church. Community is messy, like a marriage. It exists and grows in our tenderest places. It plays with our identity, adjusts our manner of being, disrupts our individual existence, and places us in a network of others. As a result, we may feel more connected but less ourselves, less intentional but more happy, more accomplished but less fulfilled, more authentic but less empowered. Or we could feel more connected, happy, accomplished, empowered, and fulfilled. Wouldn’t that be nice. While that’s the goal, it’s not always the reality.
And so it is not surprising that some people leave the church. The coming and going of members to our community is expected, unavoidable, even desirable. Like the give and take of any system. Knowing that we are not looking for one-size-fits-all solutions, I believe there are some things we can do and should do to push the odds in our favor. And it begins with reconceptualizing how we talk about and think about the people who are leaving/have left the church.
Focus on our sorrow and loss, not theirs
If it is your daughter or a son, a father, a friend, a mother, a sibling that has left the church, it will likely cause deep disappointment and concern—concern that they will live to regret this decision. You may believe there was some personal failure on their part—that it was made hastily, pridefully, unjustly. But more than anything else, their departure will hurt you. And not primarily because of some doctrinal belief but because of something more personal, more primal. You wish they were with you because you love them. Much of your relationship was moderated, built, sutured, and sustained by the church. They are unable to leave the church without also, in a way, leaving you.
They will also have to deal with their own sorrows, maybe anger. But it’s wise to focus on our end of the tragedy. Let’s not assume all the sorrow and tragedy is what they have lost. Because the tragedy is ours as much as it is theirs. We are losing some of the most interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, good people the church has been given. They are people I relate to. People I respect. People I want to be like. People I want to have sitting next to me in Gospel Doctrine class. The tragedy is my own. And because the tragedy is my own, the possible solutions also shift in my mind.
Diversity within Unity
The way any person fits or doesn’t fit into a community is complicated—involves personality, family, genealogy, genetics, etc. We will never be able to tease out the full depth of even our own ties to our own church community. Another person is even further beyond our grasp. Though we are united through our faith, and though we may affirm the same doctrine, even our most basic beliefs are bound to differ. Our very conception of God could never be the same. Because the God I imagine has my grandfather’s figure, my grandmother’s hug, my father’s passion, my mother’s love. How could that ever be passed cleanly from one person to another?
Instead, it’s as messy as eating chocolate cake without hands. That is why Community or Culture, when used as a noun, must not be conceptualized as a homogeneous blob. It is unifying, it is collaborative, it is even shareable in many ways, but it is not synonymous from one member to another. Aspects of community exist and “communal” and “cultural” remain descriptive and useful adjectives, but we should stop thinking that what I have is the same thing he has and the same thing she has. That is not and could not be true. And that’s okay. Like a stain glass window, meaningful unity can only be built out of fragments of diversity.
Comfortable disagreement dissipates contention
To allow for diversity within unity I have a few suggestions. First, disagreement is not a bad thing, contention is. To me, this sounds cliché, and perhaps it is. But I believe it is also helpful in this context. In the church, with necessarily different perceptions of something as rudimentary as God, we are bound to see things differently. And that’s okay because church is a place where we go not to reaffirm what we believe, but to worship God and fellowship with others.
But isn’t religion where like minded people share testimony about like minded conclusions? Not at all. What is so vital and interesting about testimony is that we hear witnesses from people whose life experiences are alien, even incomprehensible to our own. When we learn that Brother Smith is going through chemo, Sister Stacy just had a miscarriage, and Muhammad is from Saudi Arabia, we are pushed beyond ourselves. Even if my wife and I just had our own miscarriage, it is not the familiarity that is so alluring, but the fact that it has happened to someone else. It is that fact of difference that pulls us out and makes us feel larger, purer, more christian.
And because the church is built, experienced, and maintained off of difference, there’s no doubt there will be disagreements. But there need not be contention. Contention is usually nothing more than an unnecessary anxiety around disagreement. This is the salvation, exaltation; the stakes seem so high. As a result, people tend to over-commit themselves to their beliefs. The same phenomena happens to new mothers and fathers. Parents often over-commit themselves to their parenting strategies.
Mothers, in particular, tend to feel anxiety around their children’s future. This anxiety can lead to “Mommy Wars.” The phrase describes the passionate intensity often exhibited in discussions/arguments about sleep strategies, skin to skin, breast feeding, social skills, solid foods, day care, and virtually every other possible parenting decision available. Because the stakes are high, parents come to believe in their chosen strategies with a religious fervor often in excess of the evidence.
The best antidote to this contention is lowering the stakes. What we do matters, but we do not determine our children’s future. They have agency. And God has grace. With our minds open to the agency of others and the Grace of God, there’s less room for anxiety. It won’t go away, but we can bristle less and shrug more. We can become less furious and more curious. Greater comfort among difference would go a long way in decreasing contention while at the same time liberating difference. Both are crucial.
The main problem I see with our current anxiety levels around difference is that if people actually believe or feel something, not feeling comfortable to talk about it at church does not bring them in line. Rather, the result of an overly stringent orthodoxy is often radicalization. People who feel marginalized feel more marginalized. People who feel they cannot share their actual beliefs at church or amongst members will often simply take themselves out of our congregations and communities.
Share doubt to overcome doubt
Perhaps the hardest diversity to negotiate is the diversity of faith. Some believe purely. Others believe partially. Some hardly believe at all. There is no requirement of belief to attend our church, and very little required to obtain a temple recommend. The questions are as basic as having faith in God and Jesus and Joseph Smith as a prophet. Those are useful givens. Most of the time, we can operate as if these are accepted truths. But our goal is not to repeat them ad nauseam. Rather, we are supposed to build people’s faith in these truths.
Perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to be open about our doubts. If you are certain about Joseph Smith and yet you struggle to understand polygamy, that is a useful comment. Someone who is struggling with both polygamy and Joseph Smith will find comfort in your faith. They will want to know how you have negotiated that cognitive dissonance. If you struggle with depression but believe in the grace of God, that is a useful perspective. Someone who is depressed and struggling to have faith in God will want to learn more. Having acknowledged and validated the contrary evidence, the mind is more free to turn back to the wealth of affirmative evidence.
What makes faith and testimony vital is the way it interchanges, dialogues, and engages with our doubts. And so for those of us strong in faith, we should also be willing to engage our doubts. Talk about them. Show how faith and doubt can, do, and must coexist. Of course I am not suggesting someone should get up during testimony meeting and air all their doubts and grievances. That’s selfish. Testimony meeting is an opportunity to have our convictions set bare. It’s vulnerable and can easily be derailed. The key to understanding when to express faith or doubt is humility. It is just as easy to have pride in our beliefs as it is to have pride in our doubts. We should all strive to be humble enough to hear another’s testimony and believe it, to hear another’s doubt and believe it, to bear our own testimony and believe it, and admit our own doubts, and believe it. Let the spirit of humility be your guide.
Testify instead of ossify
A few practical skills for encouraging open conversation and honest discussions begin with talking as individuals. One of the quickest ways people feel unable to speak is when we use “group speak.” When we speak as if everyone in the room is on the same page. This is often done with phrases like, “We all know…” or “As members…” or “The church says…” or “the prophets have said…”
Of course there are times when it may be appropriate to speak as a community leader, to incorporate a “we” or an “us” or an “our” into my sentences, but there is certainly a lot more room for individuality. Because if there is room for different conceptions of God, there ought to be room for different ideas about the sabbath, the sacrament, the temple, scriptures and prayer, and family home evening. Allowing for individuality is most simply done by speaking for ourselves.
I was recently attending a bishopric meeting and we were discussing our goal to have everyone find a name to bring to the temple. I expressed that for me there is a marginal difference between a name I bring and a name I get at the temple. It’s a distant relative either way. The response I received was that the prophet had asked us to do this and who knows the reason, but we all know there must be a reason. The problem with this response is that it ended the conversation. “We all know” and “the prophet had asked us” are conversation killers.
If someone is struggling to feel the spirit of the request, telling them that everyone else is feeling it will probably not help. Perhaps you are feeling it, and that’s interesting, worth mentioning. But avoiding the next step of speaking for the room as a whole goes a long way in opening up conversation rather than closing it down. And it’s a lot more than the words you speak. Someone can end a conversation just as easily speaking with an “I” instead of a “we.” What’s important is the attitude behind the words. If you believe the way you feel is the one right way, then there’s no conversation to be had. To allow for learning, we have to open our minds to possibility and allow for ambiguity.
Even if you are positive you are right, there is still something to be said for allowing the person you are talking with to feel another way. Feelings are feelings and few of us have the power to command them. If you feel one way and want me to feel the same way, there’s work involved. Conversations to be had. Testimonies to be gathered. We should all be involved transforming bad/unproductive/critical feelings into good/productive/faithful feelings. And that transformation is what our conversations should be about. These are conversations that matter. This is the work we are here to do. Ending these conversations short circuits the gospel.
In short: Testify instead of ossify. Assume less, allow more. Tell your experience. Bear testimony. But leave the window open for someone else who is having a different experience. They are the people who are most likely able to help you and whom you are most likely able to help. By speaking as individuals, we allow for other individuals to think differently, even if just slightly differently. Perhaps the greatest danger of speaking for the group is that we close ourselves off from other angles of understanding. We think we have arrived at an answer. Learning has stopped and the moment learning has stopped, teaching has also stopped.
General Conference addresses as pictures not blue prints
Of course there are many blessings of learning from modern prophets but there is also one glaring issue. When we study the words of modern prophets, their experiences, observations, exhortations are privileged. It may not be the mind and the will of the lord, but it’s pretty close. And so rather than being a pinterest board from which we begin to explore the possibilities of our own house—our own desires, our own hopes and fears, our own beliefs, our own attempts to approach God—it is too often seen as a blueprint.
The difference is that a blueprint is something that is supposed to be executed. It’s something we follow. A pinterest board is something that inspires us, engages our minds and hearts. It’s a starting place, not and ending point. The main problem with blueprints is that they’re boring. They do not contain the intimate details of a home. Which colors to paint the wall. Where Sally and Julie will sleep. Where Joseph lost his tooth. For someone who has just set up Christmas lights in their family room, they don’t need instructions, they just want someone to come and sit with them and say, “how festive!” A home goes far beyond the architecture. And it’s these intimate details that we often sacrifice in our classes to talk about blueprints. Perhaps the church is full of architects with a passion for blueprints, but I know a lot of people who want to spend more time talking about paint.
I like to think of these people as interior decorators. And I fear they have begun to feel they don’t belong in our church. They want to approach a conference talk like a pinterest board. It’s inspiration, ideas the spark conversation, creativity, invention. Ideas to build off of, to make their own. But when everyone seems so excited about blue prints, these people have stopped talking, stopped coming, and now stay at home where they practice their own private religion and explore the variability of color. And while they gain freedom, they lose the support and benefit of the community and the diverse experiences contained within the church. We need them. I hope they need us. And I think we’re all a little less excited about blueprints than we let on.
Gospel teaching is gospel learning
The key to gospel teaching is gospel learning. This is not just a nice aphorism. And it’s not saying that you have to learn before you can teach. It’s that you have to learn while you teach. Teaching the gospel is not like teaching the laws of physics. It’s like teaching a child to walk. You can’t lecture at the child. You cannot blame the child for failure. You cannot even create the rules and expect the child to understand let alone follow. Instead you must engage with the child. Get his attention. Understand his emotion. Rejoice in his success. It feels slow, sometimes almost pointless. But you’re compelled to continue because you love the child.
And you are connected with that child intimately, deeply, personally. You soon realize you are not just teaching the child. Something else is happening. Some primal machinations, is it animal? is it God? Something is knitting your hearts together. Neurons are firing. You are bringing the child into the world, or is the child bringing you? And when the child takes his first few steps, there is nothing feigned in the joy you feel. You did not bring that to the lesson. You were given that moment of grace. And you realize there was never a differentiation between teacher and pupil.
The analogy is fresh in my mind as I have just seen my own child take his first few steps. We are all students. We are all learning. Even the brethren. Let us engage in the process. Know we have not arrived. None of us. It is often said that we are learning heaven. I believe this is true. Particularly when we realize that heaven is just a bigger bunch of us: people trying to create unity among difference. Trying to bless and be blessed by one another. By learning heaven, I think we should mean that we are trying to learn how to live together in love. We’re not just trying to be good individuals, but a good people. A group, a family.