If you’ve been on the Mormon corner of the internet this week, you must’ve seen the various articles drilling down on disaffection and defection from the church — as droves out our windows. If you haven’t heard the story, then you can check this page from Mormon Chronicles to get a succinct, yet complete summary of the saga. Notwithstanding its mostly complete account, the one thing that Mormon Chronicles has not chronicled as of the writing of this article here that directly relates to this saga is the January 31st ABC New article sensationally titled, “Number of faithful Mormons rapidly declining.” The ABC News article gives me the impression that this news bit has become a game of Telephone for the media, and just like the 3rd grade variety, the message will simply get more distorted and more exaggerated as time progresses. Who knows what grossly inaccurate message will take in the hearts of the non-Mormon public?
There is a wide variety of angles to approach this news story. At the boring surface level, we could talk about disaffection in the church. (But wouldn’t we talk about that without being prompted by Reuters articles?) Perhaps we could talk about the fact that Elder Jensen was candid about the church leaders’ knowledge of the situation. (But Elder Jensen has said candid things in private before…in fact, a previous Jensen controversy is why we are all here at W&T.) Maybe we could talk about the fact that these news articles coincide with Open Stories Foundation’s preliminary release of survey results on why Mormons leave the church? (Ah, our very own Jake has already covered this point.)
While all of these are options, I instead thought: what will people do to respond to these phenomena? Will they do anything? Will it be effective?
See, it seems like the church’s ability to retain members is of keen interest to certain non-Mormons…as I’ve written a little bit on my personal blog, evangelical Christians want to reach out to Mormons, and if Mormons are already having issues with various aspects relating to the church, then why can’t evangelical Christians scavenge after the fallout?
A Kinder, Gentler Approach
The one major thing I note from Tim’s post at LDS & Evangelical Conversations is the call to his Evangelical brethren to be more positive. From his post:
The heart of your message is not the bad fruit of Joseph Smith, the heart of your message is the hope that lives within you. Stick to your message. Instead of making you and your ministry the place Mormons become disenfranchised with their faith become the place where they can safely ask “what’s next”. Become a recovery center for the spiritually wounded rather than an artillery range against Joseph Smith. Though some are still converted to Mormonism, the LDS church is not the threat it once was and mostly likely never will be again. I wouldn’t want even a single Evangelical converted into Mormonism but I don’t believe guarding our sheep needs to be our chief focus any longer.
The takeaway I get from this post? So much of the Evangelical approach to this point has been to try to tear down faith in Mormon concepts and ideas…but this has been ineffective because it hasn’t shown Mormons the value in evangelical concepts and ideas, and in fact, the tone and approach has alienated Mormons, turning them away from evangelicalism…perhaps for good.
If the church is going through anything like a crisis, then this approach should not be necessary. Evangelicals have the opportunity to comfort Mormons who are disoriented from faith crises, rather than be the instigators of those faith crises.
In my own post on the topic, I reiterated that I do think that a lot of the evangelical failure with disaffecting Mormons has been because of the attitudes that many evangelicals take with Mormons. At least when it comes to theology (and at least in places like Oklahoma and Texas, where I grew up), I find that many evangelicals are jerks. Blame me for “being offended” if you want, but ultimately, I’m not interested in their religion when I’ve experienced how they treat people who believe and practice differently. For all the bad fruits they speak of for Mormonism, the evangelical ones seem more immediate.
What I’ve found that is so off-putting is that in some cases, our friendship becomes contingent on theological positions. God and church become wedges between us.
The Mormon Plan
So far, I’ve described the evangelical interest in disaffected or disaffecting Mormons…but naturally, that’s not the only group that’s interested in reaching out. Of course, the church itself has plans to reach out to Mormons at risk of leaving the church.
Several articles quote Elder Jensen describing a novel effort to pull inactive members back into the fold: The Rescue. The Reuters article describes the basic gist of The Rescue:
With defections rising, the church has launched a program to stanch its losses. The head of the church, President Thomas Monson, who is considered a living prophet, has called the campaign “The Rescue” and made it his signature initiative, according to Jensen. The effort includes a new package of materials for pastors and for teaching Mormon youth that address some of the more sensitive aspects of church doctrine. “If they are not revolutionary, they are at least going to be a breath of fresh air across the church,” Jensen told the Utah class.
What will The Rescue entail? One person via a private Mormon Facebook group claimed that he learned per his stake being part of the pilot for this program that The Rescue would involve the following steps:
1. The Ward Council nominates 15 names of less-active/inactive members. These names come from the various quorums and auxiliaries
2. Those 15 names go onto a Rescue list
3. Each of those 15 people are assigned an active member, usually from the Ward Council, but not necessarily
4. The assigned member contacts the inactive member and asks if they are open to a visit
5. The assigned member visits the inactive member.
6. Depending on how the mood is, the assigned member will either a) just have a pleasant visit and ask to return or b) invite the inactive member to meet with the missionaries to re-take the discussions.
7. The assigned member returns and reports to the Ward Council. If everything went swimmingly (that is, the inactive member has agreed to take the discussions or has invited the active member for another visit) then that inactive member will stay on the Rescue list
8. If things did not go swimmingly, that is, the inactive member said get lost or said they would not take the missionary discussions, they are dropped from the Rescue list and replaced with a fresh inactive member.
If the inactive member progresses to the missionary discussions, the missionaries visit and challenge the member to do all the stuff they’d normally challenge investigators to do, minus baptism.
In some cases, the bishop may visit the inactive member instead of the missionaries and challenge the inactive member to live their covenants and return to the temple.
If the inactive says no, they are taken off the Rescue list, but they are not free and clear. Eventually, they will end up back on the Rescue list, and the cycle will continue.
Does any of this sound familiar?
From the same private Facebook group, many of the comments expressed doubts as to the efficacy of such a program. Isn’t this supposed to be home teaching? Is this home teaching with the missionaries involved? Is this a way to rebrand home teaching to make it more *urgent*?
If this is something like how the program will actually run (unfortunately, I have no confirmation either way), then one thing that is intriguing is the extent to which assigned members are to check the mood from the inactive member. Presumably if the inactive member is not receptive, then the assigned member will just have a pleasant visit and ask to return later.
…Just a pleasant visit?
It seems that what lies at the foundation of The Rescue’s approach is an idea that many inactive members are inactive because they weren’t properly socialized or integrated into the ward, or because they didn’t make enough friends in the church. And who knows..? Maybe that is the case and the online disaffected Mormon community is horribly unrepresentative. Or maybe, even of those for whom historical issues are something of a problem, what is the real final straw is the fact that the social connections aren’t satisfactory as well.
But here’s the thing…many inactive and disaffected Mormons both have reservations against this method of resolving these social problems…and it’s quite frankly the same reason I’m “put off” by evangelical Christianity for the most part, and the same reason why so many disaffected Mormons become estranged from family and friends: friendship becomes contingent on theological positions.
The disaffected Mormon often finds out that God and church becomes a wedge in his/her marriage and relationship (although both sides of the couple will see things differently: for the still believing spouse, the disaffected spouse’s change in beliefs is like a breach in the contract). The inactive Mormon subtly discerns that the attempts to re-fellowship have the same sort of inauthenticity behind them.
So, let’s suppose, for one moment, that the reason people disaffect is not necessarily because of any substantial theological or historical point (or that those points aren’t decisive). Let’s suppose that it primarily has to do with how one has been treated. And let’s suppose further that maybe “poor treatment” is not so simple as finding people who were slighted or maligned or insulted…that alternatively, one may feel bad about a religion simply because they feel relationships formed in a particular faith community — even if not overtly negative — are shallow, limited, or reserved.
How can the LDS church reach people who feel that relationships based with a particular religious outcome in mind are shallow?
Can evangelical Christians do better by performing effectively the same role, just with a different denomination?
How can evangelicals or faithful Mormons be true, good friends to disaffecting members while being true to their ultimate evangelical, missionary, or fellowship goals?