We are nearly to the end of another year. 2016 has been particularly difficult in terms of how divided our nation is and our congregations are. As I think ahead to the coming year, aside from personal New Year’s Resolutions, I think there are a few things we need to work on collectively as a church. These are traits that require balance. Right now, we’re a little off balance on these things–not completely toppling over–but just leaning a little too far to one side.
Finding a balanced approach would go a long way toward accomplishing the mission of the church and inviting more people to come to Christ. One aspect to the threefold mission of the church (OK, technically 4 now, but still) is that it requires balance between impulses. Without missionary focus, the mission to perfect the saints would ultimately lead to our extinction as our purity filters continue to ratchet upward. Without our mission to perfect the saints, we would cease to have a unique “value prop” as a church, to be distinguished from other sects in a way that is productive and changes lives. We would add members by diluting what it means to be a Mormon. As for redeeming the dead, I guess we’d forget about the afterlife and the rich legacy of generations that came before us, our role in the ongoing saga of humanity. I mean basically since genealogy isn’t my jam I have kind of done that already. I too lack balance.
For each item I’ve been thinking about, I’ve phrased it in terms of where the trait has become excessive, the way we tend to lean right now. A little bit of course correction could mean the difference between landing on the moon or spinning into the cold darkness of outer space. Balance is always hard to maintain, but systems like to return to the median.
Things we could do with less of:
1) Wars on political correctness.
Being too blunt and unfiltered isn’t a virtue. Deliberately giving offense is bad manners. In Luke 17:1 Jesus says “Wo” unto those by whom offenses come. Being tone deaf or making racist remarks doesn’t make you Christlike. If you think you are just saying what everyone is thinking, maybe a higher virtue is not to think it. You might want to check that impulse. That’s not to say that we haven’t erred as a society at times by making others “an offender for a word,” or making things increasingly difficult to say without offending others. Terminology does change with generations. This is particularly difficult for older generations who have progressed through many different socially-acceptable terms for the same groups of people; terms that were once the “enlightened” thing to call a group are now considered negatively charged. We should have a little more patience for terms, which do come and go in and out of fashion, but also quit dealing in harmful stereotypes and ask that others do the same. It’s time for us to become more educated than stereotypes, to know more people of other races, religions, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and cultures, to care about their concerns, and to use terms–with respect and inclusiveness–that those being referenced prefer rather than making up our own terms for them. The “war against political correctness” is often just self-justification for bad behavior.
2) Blaming the victim. Attacking the people we’ve offended as being thin-skinned isn’t valuable. Telling people that they could have prevented the bad things that happened to them isn’t always true, and it’s not empathetic. We should be mourning with those that mourn, not heaping more trouble on them with our disapproval or morality lessons that are really just designed to make us feel better. Telling yourself that others’ misfortunes are deserved may make you feel better and more in control of your own success (which is often just luck), but it won’t make you a better Christian, and to someone experiencing hardship, it can be downright painful as well as untrue. Job illustrates the human obsession with assigning blame when bad things happen to good people. The fact of the matter is that bad things happen to all people. And good things happen to all people.
3) Prizing intuition more than information. Following the spirit is great. It’s wonderful to have spiritual insight and faith, and even to rely on those things. But we also believe that the glory of God is intelligence, and that we should be educating ourselves and gaining in knowledge and intelligence. We wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who had no medical degree or successful track record of experience but rather relied on hunches and theories. Why do we sometimes seem to prize whatever people claim as spiritual intuition so highly that we don’t temper that with actual knowledge or research or experience? The spirit, personal revelation, intuition–these are the things that should fill the gap once we obtain knowledge and information. Otherwise, we run into a situation where people try to force stupid, unworkable ideas simply because they didn’t ask any questions, read a book, talk to other people to get input, take a class, etc. Sometimes people “rely on the spirit” to avoid doing the heavy lifting. When Joseph Smith wanted to tackle his own translation of the Bible, he first attempted to learn Hebrew. He may not have achieved scholarly levels of learning, but he valued the principle that first you become educated, then you intuit. And when Oliver Cowdery tried and failed to translate, he was told it was because he didn’t first study it out in his mind. When we don’t use our brains, we tend to get crummy revelations. We don’t ask great questions until we know to ask them.
4) Authority fallacies. Romans 2:11 and Acts 10:34 both talk about God not being partial or playing favorites. We should have basic respect for all people, not just those in positions of authority. Special respect for those in authority is a privilege that is earned, not a right. We can respect the mantle while recognizing that the individual is never going to be able to fill those shoes. Respect for authority shouldn’t come at the expense of basic respect for everyone, nor should it come at the expense of one’s conscience or our ability to reason morally. We’ve created a church culture in which the merit of an idea takes a backseat to which general authority said it. General authorities and apostles and high ranking church officers have said contradictory things, wrong things, and downright stupid things from time to time. They are the arm of flesh; they are not God. Part of respecting the mantle is recognizing the difference between God’s authority and man’s.
5) Mistaking one’s relationship with the church for relationship with God. Relationship with the church is easier to measure in a lot of ways, and also easier for other people to judge. But that’s exactly why it’s a distraction and something we need to get past to be able to have an actual relationship with God. Relationship with the church is fraught with the same things all human relationships are: competition, score-keeping, human errors in judgment, hurt feelings, misunderstood motives, bad advice, and so on. This is why Jesus cautioned that when we do our alms to be seen of men, we have our reward. Instead he taught that we should do good in secret so that God (only) could see. And yet, that doesn’t mean that churches have no value–they are a great way to find opportunities to serve others and to work together in good causes. It’s another way to find people who are supportive, who want to help you and who need (sometimes) to be helped. But we often forget that the church isn’t the moon; it’s the finger pointing to the moon.
6) Same old answers. We need some fresh answers that are based on lived experience, not just repeating the same old stuff we hear over and over. Too often, our lesson manuals consist of asking the same exact questions and repeating the same answers, like a formula for success: pray, read your scriptures, go to church, like it’s some endless loop. We’ve correlated the manuals, but we don’t have to correlate the discussions, too! We need more thoughtful answers, and ideally some teachers who are willing to ask more thoughtful questions, to engage with doctrine in careful, provocative ways that actually change our thinking. We go to church to wake ourselves spiritually, but too often the repetition in our discussions makes the experience deadening rather than enlivening.
7) Worshiping the ideal. This is about lacking diversity by giving privilege to married, straight families with many kids and a SAHM but still plenty of money rather than including diverse people into our idea of our congregation and what being a true disciple of Christ looks like. We too often see the divorced or single or gay people as broken and flawed or partial people, but that’s just because we haven’t envisioned how to include them as they are without forcing them to fit the only mold we preach. It seems that sometimes we don’t want them to be visible because they remind us that our doctrine doesn’t really work for them. Their mere existence points out where we as a people fail, where our worldview fails. It’s like how people are not comfortable talking to the bereaved at a funeral. It’s not because we don’t care, just that we lack the skills to know what to do or say, especially if we haven’t been in the same situation. It’s time we stop seeing the differences (which are based on the false idol of an ideal that nobody really lives anyway) and start finding the common ground we all have, our desire to learn to be better, to learn to serve others, to be part of the congregation.
8) Perfectionism. This tendency is related to the last one, but it isn’t exactly the same. This is more about admitting fault and being authentic with each other vs. hiding our flaws. Church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints. When we go to church and nobody is ever vulnerable but they all appear to be perfect, smiling, happy people, we know we aren’t really getting the whole picture. That’s not to say church needs to be an AA meeting either, but perhaps a place where it can be a mix–where we can talk about real things like making mistakes as parents or children or having a setback at work, or being depressed, or getting divorced, or having doubts. Sometimes people don’t want to reveal their imperfections because they aspire to callings, they want to be seen as leadership material or as one of “the good ones,” or they simply don’t want to be the subject of gossip or to become a ward project. If everyone were a little more honest about their flaws, I suspect it wouldn’t be a drawback because we’d see that everyone is lacking and that every “perfect” family or person we see is no such thing. Perfectionism isn’t the same as striving to be perfect, something we are admonished to do in Matthew 5:48. Perfectionism is about fear of failure, fear of being viewed negatively, and a desire to avoid making mistakes that can lead to accomplishing less.
9) Revering age. Wisdom doesn’t always come with age. Sometimes age arrives all by itself. Even without wisdom, listening to old people can be valuable because it should cause us to question our own cultural assumptions by seeing their cultural assumptions that feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar to us. We are steeped in our own assumptions, too, just as old people are a sort of time capsule of their era. But let’s not fool ourselves–just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s more valuable than something new. Young people are the future (and present) of the church, just as old people are its past (and present). We also need to listen to those younger generations. There are some anti-youth sentiments in addition to some pro-elderly sentiments at times. We tend to think children should be taught but not to teach, that they should behave the way older generations did even though the world is a very different place in many ways. Sometimes our advice to rising generations assumes that the way things used to be is always better when it’s often not. Younger generations can also teach older generations about things like consent, technology, anti-bullying, taking responsibility for the environment, living below our means, gender equality, etc. Each generation is in part a reaction to the generation that preceded it, a correction of that generation’s excesses. If we don’t listen to the rising generation, we venerate the bad things that are simply familiar about our own generation.
10) Valuing “hard things” for their own sake. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got. Instead, we should seek ways of working smarter, not harder. It seems that our go-to solution is always more meetings that are often dull and administrative, asking people to give more time. We believe that the more we double down on difficult things, the more committed people will be to the church, but we overlook the energy drain that constant volunteerism creates. Everything we say yes to means we have to say no to something else. In a lay clergy church, we need to be wise about how we exploit those human resources. We need to deploy resources that are underutilized and not overwork the same ten people. We need to find solutions that boost energy rather than draining it. One gap is that we continually ratchet up the requirements for callings. When we require a priesthood holder, we’ve eliminated over 50% of the possible labor force. When we require a temple recommend holder, we’ve eliminated another large population. When we require an adult, we overlook the possibility of assigning one of the youth. Other hard things we seem to prize for their sheer difficulty: the 3 hour block, early morning seminary, trek reenactments and 24 month missions as the norm for men. We seem to believe that dialing down any of these is going to result in a huge loss of character. Maybe it will lead to saying yes to even better things!
Status quo is always preferred by those whom the status quo benefits. There is always a group of people privileged by keeping things the same. But church should be for afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, not just comforting the comfortable and telling the afflicted to hit the road if they don’t like it. Some status quo and stability is important to keep an institution afloat. You can’t have so much radical change that you lose your core constituency. But that doesn’t mean your core constituency is your only constituency nor that they are so inflexible and brittle that they will depart due to progress; thanks to a tendency toward authority fallacy, we have a remarkably flexible core constituency when change is signaled from above.
If we want to grow as a church (add people) we need to grow as church members (afflict the comfortable). Status quo is the path to death by attrition (or in a church’s case, attrition by death–as older generations die off, so do membership numbers).
- What traits do you think we need more or less of in the church right now in order to strike the right balance?
- Do you think the tri-fold mission of the church keeps us balanced? Why or why not?