Transcript from a portion of my most recent podcast episode on the First Vision:
This idea of LDS exclusivity and the idea that we are, God’s only true church. Jana Reese in her book, The Next Mormons, a brilliant book. I highly recommend it. It shares a lot of insights into kind of what’s going on in the church right now with people leaving and especially with millennials and why they’re leaving and why many of them are not finding the same meaning in the church that their parents had or that they had when they were younger.
A lot of good insights. And in her research, she found that the number two reason for millennials leaving the church is that they stopped to believing it was the one true church. When I interact with others in this world, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and have interacted with a lot of people that have left the church or struggling with a deep night of the soul faith crisis.
The church says, it’s the one true church. And now I stopped believing that it’s the one true church. Does that mean I need to leave the church? I still think it’s good. I still love the church, but I no longer believe it’s the one true church. Can I stay? That is a real relevant question. I hope the answer to that is yes, you can stay. We want you, and we’re even going to go maybe out of our way, way to make you feel more comfortable. I hope that’s the answer because I see this happening a lot. It’s a real tough question.
I’m not telling the church what to do in this podcast. I hope that we can retain both the people that think it’s the one true church and people that don’t believe that it’s the one true church, but still believe it’s a very good church and the church that they want to belong to.
I really hope that these two groups can coexist. And I really hope at a macro, organizational level that we can do things to help both groups thrive in both groups, coexist in both groups, find meaning and find authenticity within the church.
And you don’t even need to have a faith crisis to wander or start to doubt if this is the one true church. As you age, and as you come to terms with the world and as you interact with other people in other faiths and you see the world better, the idea that we’re the one true church does become a little bit more difficult.
You see that we’re about 15 million members. About 5 million active members. And that’s great. That’s a nice, strong core that we can do a lot with, but you look at where we are in the rest of the world. We’re a very small percentage of the world. In the eighties, we were growing a lot, like 5%.
And we had this idea that by 2030, 2040, 2050, we’d be like 200 million, 300 million church. Well, the, the growth rate really fell off. And now our growth in active members is maybe about 1%, which is less than the world’s growth rate of 1.1%. So every week, the percentage of active LDS in a sacrament meeting as the percentage of total people in the world is actually declining. It’s actually becoming smaller. And that really makes you wonder, if we’re the true church, what’s the point? And you look at what we teach and we have beautiful teachings, but is it so unique that it justifies that belief that we’re the one true church?
These are some of the things that a lot of people grapple with. You don’t even need to have a faith crisis. You don’t even need to wonder about multiple first vision accounts or Book of Mormon historicity, or some of these other faith crisis issues. Just seeing our place in the world and how the world works and that there’s very good people in other religions.
It does make a lot of people wonder. And I think a lot of people move to a place that they don’t really take that hard stance. That we’re the one true church, but they still believe we’re a good church and they love it and they’re continuing to engage in it. It doesn’t bother them. But that really strong rhetoric of “we’re the only true church” really does turn off some people. And that’s the reason a lot of people are leaving the church and some millennials.
And I don’t think we need to stop saying that we’re the one true church, but maybe instead of focusing on we’re the one true church and patting ourselves on the back constantly, because we’re the one true church or we’re trying to prove that we’re the one true church because of this and because of that, Let’s focus on what that means that we’re the one true church. What are we going to do? What is the one true church going to do? What does that actually mean in our lives on a daily, weekly basis? Those are the messages that I think can provide meaning to people after they stop believing that it’s the one true church.
Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, Richard Bushman, Adam Miller. These scholars are kind of trying to shift how we view exclusivity and what it means to be the one and only true church. And here’s some of the arguments that they’re using. First of all, D&C section one, verse 30 says we are the only “true and living church”.
I’ve heard this kind of logic. The focus back then probably was on the living aspect of that phrase “true and living church”. It wasn’t necessarily understood that all the churches weren’t true, but we were the only living church. So it might’ve been understood as we’re true just like all the other good Christian Protestant churches are true.
There’s a bunch of churches that have pretty true doctrine, but we’re the only living church. That’s a little bit different emphasis. The emphasis is on living, not on true.
Patrick Mason in a recent faith matters podcast. I highly recommend that Faith Matters podcasts, they are interviewing some really good people. Terryl Givens is on there a lot. And it’s always great to hear Terryl Givens.
Patrick Mason says that on exclusivity, the real thing that we have exclusivity on are the ordinances. We believe that the ordinances are special and that they’re required for all humans, but everyone has access to them.
We’re not like some religions where if you’re chosen, if you’re part of this church, you’re going to go to heaven and everybody else is going to burn in hell, no matter what, we don’t have anything like that. We believe that if someone else is living a good life in China or Pakistan and has no idea about the Mormon church and they die, that they’re going to take their goodness into the next life and likely accept the ordinances and be exalted the same as us, or maybe higher than us, if we don’t live as true or as honorable as they do. Even though we believe in exclusivity, we’re not necessarily referring to ourselves, we’re referring to the authority, but that authority is offering these things to everyone.
Richard Bushman has an interesting take on this. He is asked what it means that we’re the only true church and here’s the quote from him.
I think the most fundamental meaning is that God is in this work. And he’s helping us when we try to serve in the church and try to bless our brothers and sisters. That he’s helping the leaders of the church guide the church along and in general we’re on the side of our Heavenly Father when we’re part of the church and what I think it doesn’t mean is that no one else in the world can come to God without the church. I mean we’re really only a fraction of one percent of the world’s population, and I can’t imagine a God who wouldn’t have any interest in other people or that they would be living vain lives until they run into Mormonism. I have evangelical friends who are probably stronger followers of Christ than I am and I would think when they went to heaven God would certainly welcome them and that people all over the world can be uplifted spiritually that God is working with them and answering their prayers, so it isn’t really a matter of salvation, I don’t think. It’s ostensibly that we have God with us in our work. I would add one other thing. When I hear the statement that the church is true we normally put the emphasis on the word true but I would put the emphasis on the word church because I think what we do have is we have particular missions that we can do as a church that may be distinctive or that we may be particularly good at and ours is producing people of good will. People that grow up as Mormons learn to be generous with their time. They learn to sacrifice, they learn to get along with other people, to respect other people’s feelings, to avoid competition in striving to get ahead and I think those are wonderful gifts that come to us through our church experience, and I do think we have a mission to carry out that goodwill into every area of our lives. Into board rooms and playing fields and stages and classrooms wherever we go. We should be the people of good will.
He also gave a presentation where he talks about radiant Mormonism, where we are known as being competent people. We’re disproportionately represented in a lot of high professions, doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers.
We’re competent people. And we also are known as being willing to serve. And so you take our competency and are willing to serve, and you have a people who can really get something done if they put their minds together and want to serve mankind. And Richard Bushman’s take kind of reminds me of how the South park episode and the Camara musical made fun of Mormons is kind of portraying us as these squeaky clean people that are just kind of naive, but super nice to everybody.
And that the focus of our teachings and our doctrine is to be super nice to everybody. And I think that’s fine. Let’s own it. We are the people of good will. We’re always going to seem a little bit backwards and we’re focused on family values and we’re focused on being nice to people. And that’s a wonderful thing. Let’s embrace it. Let’s own it. That’s a reputation we can build around.
Adam Miller said
Don’t ask the thing question is the church true? Ask the question, is this the body of Christ? Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does his spirit breathe in these lungs? Does forgiveness flourish here? Is faith strengthened? Is hope alive and his charity practiced? Can I see here the body of Christ?
Don’t obsess about if the church is true, make it true. Don’t worry if the Book of Mormon is true, make it true, make it true lives of anything we’ll talk about today. That is the best message I think, make it true. Let’s make this true. All of this past history doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who said we’re the only true church and when. What matters is, are we going to act like we’re the true church individually and collectively, are we going to act like this is the true church? What are we going to do to prove that this church is true?