The terms “less-active” and “inactive” are slowly being dropped from church vocabulary, but you won’t hear it announced from the stand.  Earlier this year in a training led by the Area Presidency, UK stake public relations committees were informed that the church no longer classifies people as less-active or inactive; everyone is simply just members of the church.  What is the significance of this change?  And why is it not being made public?  Today’s guest post is by Jake.

What is a Mormon?

Online forums have recently had a wave of discussion regarding what constitutes a Mormon. Calls have been made from blogs and podcasts to include all groups such as New Order Mormons, Uncorrelated Mormons, Liberal Mormons, Cultural Mormons, etc., under the banner of Mormonism. In short, the calls have been for the use of a more inclusive definition of Mormonism. As J. Stapley at By Common Consent said regarding this:

I am a Mormon and I reject all adjectives and sub-categorizations. I have no respect for attempts to conventionalize them. Regardless of what individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, how they approach scripture, history or politics, they are my people, my fellow-citizens and my kin.

Even here at Wheat & Tares, there was an excellent post on what makes someone a Mormon. That concluded:  “I would consider ANYONE who felt ANY connection with Mormonism to be Mormon.  I would welcome them into the tribe.”

Changing Attitudes in the Church

These posts are reflective of the changing attitudes in the church as well.   The ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign is another current approach to breaking down Mormon stereotypes.  In the aforementioned PR training, committees were taught that in conjunction with the ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign, church attendance would no longer be used to infer faithfulness and activity because:

  1. Many good faithful people are unable to attend church on a regular basis. The stake PR representatives were told a story about a couple who had several disabled and severely ill children. Caring for them meant they could not attend church for long periods of time. If someone was to visit their house, however, one could instantly feel the love of the Saviour and the love that permeated their home. The family’s inability to attend to church classified them by definition as less active, yet the stigma that was attached to this designation missed the truth of the family’s real relationship with God. Removing the definition of less-active made things easier for them and for others to obtain temple recommends from zealous bishops who previously saw attendance as essential for temple worthiness.
  2. Many attend church but are spiritually struggling. Stevie Smith described this in a wonderful poem called Not waving but drowning:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Often we mistake a cry for help or struggle for a wave.  The smile of members as they shake our hands may hide the deepest of sorrow, pain, and struggles they have with their faith.  As the hymn Lord, I Would Follow Thee so wonderfully puts it:  “in the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can’t see.”  Classifications based on activity result in less personalization.  The active are viewed as being fine and in no need of help and the less-actives are seen as projects.  Without a classification system, we can take individual cases into account and embrace the wonderful diversity of faith that is found within the church. (Ed: See additionally Apame’s insightful post at Zelophehad’s Daughters about her talk that explores the way that many members hide their doubts in order to show a more faithful front in church.)

What Does This Mean?

This change is evidence of the church becoming more in line with mainstream Christianity. It is a step by the leadership towards accepting the diversity of faith and the expression of that faith that resides under the umbrella of Mormonism. It is a move towards greater tolerance to fulfill a greater need of looking at the individual needs of those around us. It is a move towards being less prescriptive as to what constitutes faithfulness, towards breaking down the idealised Mormon templates that often serve as the judgment paradigms to which others have to match.  It is a move towards realising that there is more to the gospel than simply attending church. Yes, church attendance is useful; if someone really believes, then it is likely they will try and be at church, but the gospel is not only church attendance. And yes, if someone suddenly fails to attend for a long time, it is a sign that one should probably look at what has caused this, but the absence doesn’t automatically make that person any less of a member than those who diligently attend every week. After all, faithfulness should not be measured by the physical distance between us and the church building, but by the spiritual distance between us and God.

Why Has the Change Not Been Made Public?

It is only possible to speculate as to why the church has not made this an announcement via an official letter.  Perhaps some would use the change to justify failing to attend church. If it makes no difference to one’s church standing how often you attend church, then why bother going at all? If I am just as faithful if I go once every two months as when I go every week, then where is the incentive to attend church? It is cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if some attend just to avoid the stigma of being called a less-active, or if some attend because attending church is what it means to them to be faithful. Similarly, if the church moved to a more open interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, the number of members who drank coffee, tea, and alcohol would likely increase as the institutional incentive to comply with the Word of Wisdom decreased.  Greater tolerance can be construed as a relaxation of standards.

Secondly, the vocabulary of activity and less activity is culturally ingrained in our discourse. Such a radical change will take time. Many manuals, talks, handbooks and programmes revolve around these concepts, so to change overnight would therefore be difficult. Any form of change will always come against some form of resistance. So whilst the church has made a dramatic move with this change, the likelihood is that it will make little or no difference for the next 5-10 years. People will still use labels like “less-active,” even if this concept has been retired.

Still, that such a move is being made by the church gives me hope.  What do you think of this change?