I’ve been giving some thought to the different reasons people go to church, and while I think individuals’ reasons vary greatly and can be influenced by external or familial pressures, I think there are three broad categories for why people go to a church:
- Moral Improvement
There are some similarities in my thinking to a post Andrew did a year ago that you can read here, although his categories differed slightly from mine, as did his underlying premise. He talked about physical infrastructure, intellectual infrastructure and relationship cultivation. He talked about each of these groupings creating a culture within Mormonism of like-minded people for whom that was the most important aspect of the church. My initial prompt was different in that I was curious about why people select a church.
I’d like to unbox each of these a little bit to better understand what each of them means to those who prioritize them, and which approach is most likely to create long term staying power.
By salvation, I mean a belief that it’s necessary to be saved and that there is a church that has sole access to the saving ordinances (e.g. one true church, only one baptism is acceptable, but can also apply to the concept of living prophets). These guys will stay in because otherwise they believe they will be damned. They will also (in many cases) trash the people who leave.
A scripture that might speak to this mindset is John 6: 67-68:
67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? 68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
Folks who primarily see the church as the only organization with saving ordinances like an efficacious baptism, temple sealing, priesthood blessings, etc. could paraphrase that scripture to be “Where else can we go to be saved? No other church has the saving ordinances.”
There are certainly many church leaders who emphasize this approach, but not all of them. This also seems to be Joseph Smith’s original question as described in Joseph Smith–History 1: 10:
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
He was trying to ascertain which church God approved, which one had the right authority, not which place felt like home or which place would help him be a better person. For these individuals, there is no other substitute for Mormonism because other denominations lack authority.
And yet, Mormonism is also a very universalist church for such claims. For example, we don’t believe that only Mormons will inherit the Celestial Kingdom. There are caveats for those who weren’t Mormon in this life, necessary because so few humans will have even encountered Mormonism during their mortal life, but these caveats extend to those whose lives were problematic such as King David or other criminals.
These caveats also make room for doubt about just how necessary the saving ordinances are. While we perform ordinances for the dead, we also have no way to find information on all the dead people who’ve ever lived, so this work will be necessarily incomplete. This is explained away by the potential for post-mortal work to be done as well as the Millenium as a time between mortality and eternal reward, a time to perform work like this.
In a recent post, Bishop Bill talked about “Salvation Theater,” musing about whether ordinances as actions are literally (e.g. “magically”) salvific or if they are symbolic enactments and our commitment that they embody is what is salvific. At least that’s one of the many underlying questions he posed. If the former, then only one church holds the ability to do them. If the latter, it’s possible to interpret that a little more universally.
This group or mindset is probably the least flexible of the three because those who rely on it may leave if they feel that the church is not what it seems (e.g. they question the church’s divine authority). They are prone to more profound disappointment when things like prophets, scriptures or ordinances are brought into question. There are some in this category who ultimately leave the LDS church to join the Community of Christ because the ordinances are still handed down through Joseph Smith, but this is (thus far) not a substantial number of defections.
This category represents a lot of the people who are seeking a new church. They already have a set of internal values and beliefs, but they haven’t found a congregation that suits them or where they feel welcome. Maybe they just moved to a new city, or two people raised in different faith traditions want to find a new spiritual home together. They want to be a part of a community of believers for social & spiritual reasons; they see the social structure of a church having value to those trying to live a good life.
These are the people who want church to be a way to do service opportunities, to have a community of support of “good people” for themselves, their kids, and their families. They see their spirituality as mostly individual, up to them, working out one’s own salvation with fear & trembling, but the ward is a positive social atmosphere for reflection, service, and friendships.
We often refer to our spiritual community in Mormonism is our “ward family,” for good reason. Just like our real families, we didn’t get to choose these people; they just showed up. But for better or worse, we know they have our backs and vice-versa. We’ve seen them at their best and their worst. We’ve served with them, listened to their complaints, praised their good deeds, and sung hymns next to them, even if they can’t carry a tune. We’ve listened to their boring or entertaining talks and lessons and comments in others’ lessons. We’ve gotten to know them over time; we’ve invested in the relationship.
Many years ago, when I was moving from Salt Lake to Arizona, I was having lunch with one of our senior executives from American Express, an Indian man named Ash. He asked about my upcoming move and whether I had family in Arizona. I didn’t at the time, which he said sounded very stressful, but then I explained that we had already talked with neighbors who attended our church. He realized I was Mormon and said, “You Mormons really do have a wonderful built in community wherever you go. It takes the stress out of moving from city to city. Your kids instantly have new friends, and you have people to help you get settled as a family.” He went on to explain that it was often similar in the Indian communities in different cities in the US.
Later, when we moved to Singapore, we had the same experience, but on steroids. As part of an expat ward, everyone there was temporary, and everyone reached out immediately to new people often before they even moved there. The ward Facebook page was a great way to sell or buy items you needed in Asia but not in the US (or Europe or Australia). We shared travel tips, watched each others’ kids or houses while traveling, and are still in touch with most people. The ward gave people callings within 1-2 weeks of arriving, and those callings rotated frequently as people came and went. Often, locals would ask if I was in the American club (a club for Expats with a $20K annual fee), and I would laugh and say that we belonged to a different organization that functioned similarly but was a tighter knit group .
People who leave the church often lament the loss of friendship they perceive in the process, either because they feel outright rejected by those who remain active in the church, or they question whether the friendships were real or just forced, or they simply don’t have the ongoing touch points that we get through church activity.
While it’s easy for people in the first group to consider “community” a weak reason to choose to be in a church, consider that the entire sealing of the human family, one of Joseph Smith’s key religious innovations, is essentially the same thing on a theological level. Joseph considered the sealing of the human race and the relationships we enjoy (that can carry into the eternities) to be a spiritual feature. Doctrine & Covenants 130: 2 says:
2 And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.
What is “sociality” but community and relationships? 
This group is very subject to local issues, for better or worse. If the local ward is great, supportive, and accepting, an overall positive experience, the person is likely to stay to make it work. If not, they will leave.
These individuals seek a church as a moral supplement for themselves, a way to better themselves and/or their families. They find value in listening to sermons, hearing lessons, discussing scriptures, and associating with other people whose experiences differ to hear new ways and ideas to be a good person. They want to become someone better, or they may wish to domesticate a spouse or family members through the social pressures of a church.
For some, this can be a tricky endeavor since not all church members or even church teachings are morally equal, and people differ greatly in their understanding and how they interpret gospel principles. For example, let’s say you held no racist ideas and attended an average church meeting in 1960 where justifications for the priesthood ban included racist comments. Would you feel that church was making you a more moral person or pressuring you to be a less moral person? Likewise, if you were in a lesson in which the teacher justified not helping the poor because they didn’t deserve it or it was a “handout,” would you feel that this was pressuring you to be more moral or less moral? Or consider a lesson in which several class members made sexist comments that you felt were demeaning to women, and nobody opposed the comments and the majority of the class laughed at the remarks. Would you feel that church was an uplifting space that made you want to be a better person or a place where you felt surrounded by values you oppose?
Because values are tied to our political views, those who hold minority political views in a given ward (or in the church at large) often feel that their values clash with the church, whether that assessment is accurate or not, or whether differences are perceived to be more stark than they are.
I suspect these tensions exist in every church and every human organization, but some are more problematic than others. For example, someone who is from the ACLU is not going to join the KKK. The head of planned parenthood isn’t going to join an anti-abortion group.
Personally, the most important thing to me in my spiritual life is the kind of person I am becoming, and purifying my motives for doing the things I do. I should be constantly striving to avoid the types of things that Jesus warned against: hypocrisy, judgmental behaviors, scrupulosity, pride, ostracizing outsiders, adhering to the letter of the law while misunderstanding the spirit of the law. But too often those are the things that are actually rewarded in churches (certainly not just ours).
And yet, I don’t feel like I’m getting sucked into that. For me, I wouldn’t want to stay or leave for reasons that are an indictment of my character because my character is more important than any church. Being a Christian disciple is always about who we are becoming, not whether we check the boxes for religious behaviors. If we “stay” out of fear or pride or whatever, that’s just as bad as if we leave for those reasons because the person we are becoming is a prideful or fearful one. Leaving to avoid these kinds of tensions is probably a growth-stunter, although at some point, it may be wise depending on how wide the rift is, how toxic the local church culture is, and how skilled at navigating that gap the individual is.
But many people in this group may simply feel that the repetition and the same messages from childhood (the milk with no meat) is not enriching their lives or teaching them anything new that’s of value. They value the lessons they’ve received, but they don’t feel compelled to continue to hear the same things.  Once they know right from wrong, why stick around?
This group of people may be more prone to leave because they feel they’ve “outgrown church.” In a Maxwell Institute podcast with Elizabeth Drescher about her book Choosing our Religion. The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones, she talks about why people leave their churches and become unaffiliated “the rise of the nones”):
So there was just a lot of remembered enthusiasm for the church. But Mainline Protestants—I talk about—just sort of got bored with it. They really outgrow it. They graduate from church. So it seems like, for many Mainline Protestants who become unaffiliated, they had a warm and loving experience in their church. They learned that they had to be thoughtful, loving, and ethical people. They’re down with the golden rule. They don’t need to hear it every week now. “Got it, check, I’m done.”
Some people feel they’ve “graduated” once they’ve met their need or once they feel they quit learning new things. One thing Mormonism does better than most is that we have callings, so even if you feel the topic is not something you still need, your role is not passive. You may be in a position to “mentor” others through teaching classes, and doing so keeps you engaged. And yet, we certainly do lose people who were looking for more robust spiritual content.
What about you?
- If you still go to church, which of these three reasons is most appealing to you? If you’ve stopped attending, was your reason related to one or more of these? Which one(s)?
- Has your attraction to these reasons changed over time for you?
- Has your preference caused miscommunications with others in your life?
- Do you find inherent tension between these three groups? For example, I see that people who are in the first group will overlook the shortcomings of #2 and #3, and often consider reason 1 to be the only valid one, whereas groups 2 and 3 have a lot more flexibility.
 Fees were even similar.
 What is hamburger? Chopped ham?
 Vain repetitions?