Here’s a simple question: What does the Church stand for these days? Another way to ask that question might be: What defines the LDS Church in 2020? Yet another approach to the question might be: What would a non-LDS person reply in 2020 if asked to say something about the LDS Church? From an insider’s perspective rather than an external perspective, we might ask: What is the mission of the Church now, in 2020? My sense is that the Church more or less redefines itself every generation or two and that, presently, we are in a lull between an outdated “mission” that is fading and a newer and maybe as-yet undefined “mission” that is slowly taking shape.
Let’s take a quick view of LDS history with an eye to this generational mission idea. The first generation, the Joseph Smith era, was preoccupied with simply getting the Church up and running and establishing leadership structure: new scripture, a President, some apostles, and priesthood authority. The balance of the 19th century was about gathering to Utah, defending the Church from government interference, and trying to make polygamy work in America. The first half of the 20th century was about normalization (assimilation, in the terminology of Armand Mauss) with Mormons quite successfully becoming patriotic and monogamous Americans. The next generation was all about missionary work, “every member a missionary” (from Pres. David O. McKay) and “every young man should serve a mission” (from Pres. Kimball). In the last two decades of the 20th century, as missionary success declined, we became The Family Church, which sort of morphed into the Anti-Gay Church. And now it’s 2020.
I think that fight (against gay marriage) is over and the Church lost, although many in leadership are still fighting that battle. But from an identity perspective, it’s clear the Church is not just in retreat from that battle, it is intentionally pulling back. Which brings us back to my initial question: What’s next? What will Mormon identity be by 2030 or 2035?
This “Covid lull” is a good time to kick this question around, given disruptions to the standard LDS missionary program, to temple activities, and to congregational meetings on Sunday. It’s not like the Church is starting from scratch as things start to resume, but having some distance from Mormon life as usual probably helps one think about the larger issue of what it is that the Church is about, going forward.
Let me throw out some ideas. The easiest “new mission” for the Church might be called “temples, temples, and more temples.” The Church has the money to do it, and real estate development is certainly an organizational skill the Church has perfected. But that’s not terribly new and I’m not sure it still has that much attraction for the average member. “Church at home” might be an emerging theme and is certainly adapted to the difficult circumstances we are in at the moment, but I’m not sure there’s enough substance there to provide identity, something an average Mormon might be proud of.
Honestly, I’m at a bit of a loss to suggest a persuasive answer to the question. It’s sort of like when a first-term US President is running for a second term and wants to get re-elected, but when asked what they plan to achieve or what their vision is for their second term, they don’t have an answer. They’ve accomplished a thing or two during the first term, fulfilled a promise or two from the first campaign, and they are now busy with the daily and weekly things that a President does. They want to get re-elected, but … they don’t really have any big plans or ideas for the second term. They are more or less out of ideas and are just waiting for the next crisis so they have something to respond to. That sounds like the Church in 2020. Is there a mission or vision for the Church for the next decade? Or is the plan just to do the daily and weekly things we have always done: church on Sunday, build some temples, get those kids out on missions then get them married in the temple. Wait for a hurricane, then send in the trucks with water, blankets, and generators. Rinse and repeat.
I expect there will be some new ideas or views in the comments. Maybe things look different for new converts than for “lifers.” Maybe things look different in Asia or Africa or Europe. Maybe things look different for younger Mormons. Or maybe I’m wrong on this and some of you think Mormon identity is as clear as ever and all is well in Zion. What do you think?