I met up with a friend a few months ago, and he shared some thoughts about two different narratives we often hear in the church that are truly at odds. It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time, too, but perhaps not to this extent.

Narrative 1

In one narrative, the gospel will roll forth like a stone that fills the whole earth. This narrative is usually interpreted to mean that the church will continue to grow every year with little to no stalling, picking up steam as we go, and that new areas of the mission field will continue to open. We’ve flooded the earth with missionaries, and we will continue to see growth. This narrative implies that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, that the work is hastening with even more people flocking to the message, and that there will be a larger church before the second coming. The church is filling the earth. The church will grow.

This narrative has a fundamentally optimistic view of the world; the field is white already to harvest. People are longing for the gospel message. The earth is waiting to fill the measure of its creation. All we have to do is send missionaries out, and we will reap growth. The more we flood the earth, the more the church grows. The message we are bringing is compelling and people recognizing it immediately as truth.

This narrative implies that the church is true because it’s growing and fulfilling prophecy. If this narrative does not hold true, critics could claim that the church is insignificant, that the legacy of the work we’ve done to this point is to end in obscurity, an eventual footnote of the second great awakening.

Given that the growth rates are slowing, this could mean that this narrative is losing steam. But if China opens up to missionary work, suddenly there’s a lot more open field to work with.

Narrative 2

The second narrative is that the world is becoming increasingly wickeder, and even the very elect will be deceived and fall away. Eventually, before the second coming, only a smaller, distilled, more-valiant group of Saints will still belong to the church, and the rest will . . . I dunno, burn as stubble or something like that. I remember hearing this one at BYU in a religion class years ago. The teacher stated that in the last days (that we were presumably in already or just about to be) the church would be divided into three groups: the really valiant ones who would make it to the celestial kingdom, an apathetic middle group who needed to tinkle or get off the potty, and a third who would actively fight against the church. My fellow Cougars looked around in disbelief at one another at the prospect of this third assertion. We knew we would never be part of that bad third, so who among our classmates were the baddies in hiding? He said that eventually the apathetic ones would have to choose either to become uber-valiant or fight against the church from the outside. This narrative implies that before the second coming there will be a weeding out of the unfaithful, a purification before the great and last day. The church will shrink.

This narrative has a fundamentally pessimistic view of the world; the world is wicked, and the church is elite–a peculiar and righteous people in a sea of sin. This works well as a fallback narrative when growth doesn’t happen. Any persecution means we are successful. Rejection of our message means we are on the right track. People leaving the church is a sign of fulfillment of prophecy; being accepted by the world would mean we aren’t pure enough, we are pandering to wickedness.

The second narrative seems to go hand in hand with the idea of perfecting the Saints, although rather than helping individuals to improve, it focuses on purging the bad ones out of our midst, through self-selection or voting them off the celestial kingdom island. If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, even if that means cutting it off of the body of Christ.

If we win, we win, but if we lose, we also win. It’s like when someone is insulted and says “Coming from you, I take it as a compliment.”

Comparison: What’s Going on Here?

Both these narratives have scriptural precedent, and both have high ranking leaders on record stating this is how it will go down. And yet, both can’t be simultaneously true unless we convert a bunch of people who then fall away, which obviously can and does happen, but the falling away negates the first narrative.

My friend’s view was that these two narratives mean that no matter whether the church grows or shrinks, the church can claim it predicted it correctly. As I think about it, that view is probably one of a few possible ways of looking at these two competing narratives:

  • The House Always Wins. My friend’s assessment is that the church has its bases covered so that no matter whether it grows or shrinks, that movement is “proof” of the church’s rightness.
  • Plan A, Plan B. This is perhaps my alternate version of the first theory. In this version, our obvious Plan A is that we grow. But if that doesn’t work out, Plan B is that we blame those who reject this glad message. As a small business owner trying to grow to the point of profitability, I can attest that this is a time-honored strategy.
  • Glass is Half Empty / Half Full. Another possibility is simply that some individuals have a more optimistic view of the world and others have a more pessimistic view. Some view the world as future church members, seekers of truth who haven’t yet found it, while others see the world as full of temptations, snares, and lacking moral values. Some are universalists while others are elitists.
  • Statistics differ depending on time frames and comparison points. Either narrative can be accurate if you run the stats that way. Don’t like the growth trend? Go back further in time, starting with 6 members in 1830. Don’t feel we are adding enough convert baptisms each year? Instead show the number of missionaries serving!

What do you think?

  • Which of these narratives do you hear more often? Which do you think is the current approach?
  • Why do you think we sometimes hear both these narratives?
  • Which do you see actually happening or do you see neither? What’s your prediction?