I enjoy listening to the Straight, White American Jesus podcast with Dan Miller and Bradley Onishi. On a podcast several months ago, one of them said something that I’ve thought about a lot since then; it perfectly encapsulates church experience to me. He said that church was a place people went to be made uncomfortable, but in a comfortable way. In 1902, Finley Peter Dunne, through his Irish cartoon character Mr. Dooley, famously said that the newspaper
“does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands, the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.”https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/02/01/comfort/
This phrase became a staple of discussion about the duty of newspapers in the ensuing decades. Good newspapers were there to unsettle or expose those who were comfortable and otherwise protected in their corruption, and to provide succor to those who were disenfranchized, to see and acknowledge the things society normally ignored. This idea has also been applied to churches generally, and even more since the internet has connected churchgoers who want to navel gaze about their experiences in (or out) of their churches. It’s a great turn of phrase. Is it an accurate depiction of church experience and the desired role the Church plays in our lives? As the SWJC podcasters put it, is the Church’s ability and willingness to challenge church members tempered by its unwillingness to cross the comfortable boundaries it has traditionally upheld? For example, is the Church as willing to address…
- the evils of patriarchy as it is modesty for women?
- problematic parenting as it is not having enough children?
- abusive local leaders as it is doubting congregants?
- judgmentalism as it is unorthopraxy?
- systemic racism as it is property damage?
What does it mean to be comfortable at Church as an individual? What things make a person uncomfortable vs. comfortable? There is a story told in Mormon circles about a temple session in which the temple worker stands up and says that the session cannot continue until the unworthy patrons leave. He waits until finally four individuals, two men and two women, all of whom were committing adultery apparently, stand and leave the session. This is a faith promoting story to illustrate that if you aren’t worthy, you won’t be comfortable in a place where only worthy people should be. There’s a contrasting story I read in an online forum in which a former Church member and some friends used forged temple recommends to attend the temple to see if they would be found out by the octogenarian gatekeepers; they were not. Rather than experiencing discomfort, they just went in, did a session, and left.
Both of these stories raise a lot of questions for me: 1) why would any of these individuals even want to go to the temple? It’s not like it’s some excellent form of entertainment, even for those who are “allowed” to go, much less for people who presumably have better options now that they aren’t living the commandments, 2) are all four of the temple patrons in the faith-affirming story in a polyamorous relationship or are both spouses in both marriages just coincidentally having an affair with the other spouse? How does that actually work?, 3) if you can deceive your spouse and presumably a good friend for however long this affair has been running, why can’t you brazen it out when some rando you don’t even know issues a challenge for you to leave the temple?, 4) is this an urban myth because it kind of sounds like B.S.
What are some of the things that make people uncomfortable at Church? That differs from person to person, and of course, there are things that make some comfortable that make others uncomfortable. Church can’t make everyone comfortable, and if it makes too many too uncomfortable, they will leave rather than conform or change. Here are a few reasons people might feel uncomfortable at Church:
- They feel like an outsider, or they are treated like an outsider.
- Their loved ones are maligned by the community.
- They have different values.
- They don’t have friends there or don’t want to be friends with the people who are there.
- They don’t believe in what’s being taught, whether that is accurate or not.
- They have experienced abuse by leaders or others in good standing in the organization.
- They expect the Church to be something different than it is.
- They aren’t living up to the standards or their best potential.
Here are some reasons people might feel comfortable at Church:
- It is familiar: the songs, the rituals, the talks, the people.
- It confirms their worldview.
- The community makes them feel welcome and valued.
- They share enemies with the other Church goers.
- They have had more positive interactions than negative ones in the ward. (A ratio of 1 negative to 5 positive is usually needed for someone to feel that a community is a good place to be.)
- They have social capital in the group.
Someone once said that you can’t have a group with both white supremacists and black people in it because ultimately, most of the black people will leave. One group’s comfort makes the group intolerable for the other group. The same could likely be said for sexists and women, for homophobes and LGBT allies, for those advocating violence and pacifists, for anti-intellectuals and academics. You can have a fairly big tent, but you can’t have a civil war inside of that tent in which one group’s comfort depends on the other group’s discomfort. Eventually, you have to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate antagonism or you will lose those individuals who are antagonized and their allies. The Church is wise to try to keep the script on the gospel only, but when it strays into politics or is ineffective at controlling those impulses in Mormon culture, it loses not only many people, but its moral superiority, its entire reason to exist, its ability to afflict those whose comfort relies on harming others.
I recently went to Church for the first time in many months (due to the pandemic), and my experience was neutral at the best moments, but there were a few things that really did make me uncomfortable. The biggest one was that nearly every talk seem to be about obeying leaders. Obeying leaders is not only something I think is questionable advice at the best of times; it’s something I think is an actual evil in most cases, outsourcing one’s morality to someone else rather than attempting to be a good person with a well-developed conscience. Leaders’ instructions are always about things that aren’t just the broader moral good; they are also about things like maintaining the leader’s power, authority and influence; aside from that, like all humans, leaders have blind spots. Follow the leader is never a good substitute for a moral compass.
A friend of mine suggested that a good way to think about building a good Church community is the mental practice of being an avid sports fan and going to lunch with the fan of an opposing sports team, forcing yourself to listen and develop a relationship with someone whose ideas have evolved in good faith in a different direction than your own. This would be a great skill to develop indeed. It can happen on its own, or it can be an outcome sought in our congregations. When our Church discussions are all built around the same questions with only one acceptable answer, we fail to build these skills. The more open and honest we allow people to be at Church, the more we build these skills. And without these skills, we are just comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.
While it’s a great thought experiment, I feel as though I’ve spent a lot of time listening to less reasoned arguments that are made from a position of unquestioned comfort, and “comfort” is seen as rightness through the lens of confirmation bias. Perhaps this is a way to help others to rethink their own comfort zones, but I suspect not. Perhaps empathy for the follies of others is the best outcome, and yet, like Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, I’d like a little more variety in the follies that surround me; it’s hard to find blind obedience and poor reasoning perpetually hilarious.
I read a story about an interaction between two Church members in an online forum. A woman approached another woman who was wearing a rainbow shirt that said “Love Wins.” As the woman had two gay sons, she was excited to find another LGBT ally, and she thanked her for wearing the shirt. The woman in the rainbow shirt was confused. She thought the shirt said “Jesus Loves Wins,” and she was appalled that she was tricked into showing support for what she saw as a “disgusting gay agenda.” Can both of these individuals be comfortable in today’s Church? I don’t see how. One of them is antagonistic and self-centered in a way that harms the other’s loved ones. She can forgive. She can humor her. But this isn’t even a productive discomfort that leads to personal growth.
Last Sunday there was a lengthy discussion in Gospel Doctrine class that was amusing, but so so familiar. The question was “What’s the difference between obedience and blind obedience?” Class members then listed off things that leaders had done or said that they deemed prophetic, even if others, those bad outsiders, initially didn’t understand or like them. Here’s the thing. Unless you can list (and be allowed to list) the things leaders got wrong, you haven’t really proved any point about blind obedience. All roads lead to Rome; no matter what, the leaders’ “rightness” is the only acceptable outcome. That’s still blind obedience, just with pauses. If blind obedience is required for people to feel comfortable, no thanks, and why is spending two hours a week reinforcing this dunderheaded thinking worth our time? What are we even learning? As every personal trainer says, no pain (or discomfort), no gain.
- When have you felt comfortable at Church? When have you felt uncomfortable?
- In what ways is the Church as an organization too comfortable, needing to be challenged?
- What can you do to make yourself more comfortable at Church? To make others more comfortable?
- How can you make others and yourself uncomfortable in the right ways, the ways that lead to growth and self-improvement?
For me, the tension is comfortable. I’d rather feel like going to church challenges me than to have it be a snooze fest. I don’t believe in the dominant narrative of the church and have only a metaphorical belief in some key aspects of it, such as the BoM. So the challenge sometimes is just keeping my mouth shut when everyone is gushing about following the prophet, or at other times to explain my perspective in a helpful, diplomatic way that doesn’t discredit what others believe.
I’ve become very satisfied and comfortable in my unorthodox beliefs though, so that’s where having the tension is a catalyst for growth. If I was still in the early stages of a shelf crashing I wouldn’t look forward to the discomfort.
I love the list of factors leading to comfort/discomfort. I think this would be an excellent activity for a ward council or other leadership body to address. I’m thinking of a mind-map exercise or fishbone analysis addressing your question “why are people uncomfortable in church?”. It would be very healthy to see what we have and to start actions to address those items.
We did a similar activity in our ward council several years back focusing on reverence. It was really nice to have that activity because actual solutions could be generated rather than just passing the buck on to the congregation to “just be reverent”. I’d like to address a few “discomfort” items that aren’t on your list. I’d start with things that are easily fixed. Here are some items on my list:
1) Meetings are too boring. I’ve fallen asleep in church about 50% of the time for my entire adult life. I think a substantial portion of the boringness is the meeting structure. What could be done to change that to make meetings more engaging. I have some ideas, but that’s another can of worms.
2) Talks and Lessons are too often not engaging and don’t interest me. Since we are a lay church, we’re going to get a wide variety of speaking styles and skills. I think we would be well served to get some of those “high-skill” teachers and speakers to give training on how to prepare a talk and how to give a talk. I think a great youth SS lesson would be devoted to “Let’s write a talk in one hour” and have all students walk out with a talk ready to go and get coached on it.
3) Physical comfort in our buildings is a crapshoot. I miss my branch in China where we had SS on the couch in the rented apartment. Metal chairs in the gym don’t cut it.
4) Meeting structure and Ward size don’t encourage a community. I’d love to see an initiative to drastically shrink the size of the typical congregation to about 50 people so I could have a legitimate chance of knowing everyone there and being closer to them than a wave in the hall once a week.
Many of the items listed in the original post don’t have easy solutions or solutions we could all agree on. The exercise is still worthwhile though. Thanks for the thought-provoking questions.
Where’s the post from Mr. Charity that condemns us for being lazy and wanting to be comfortable and that Church should be harder than watching hot dog eating contests on TV?
What a thought-provoking post. Most of the time at church, I don’t feel discomfort, just irritation and impatience at how dull and uninspiring it is. I occasionally feel anger and often feel frustration about the church’s stance on things or the way meetings are conducted. I’ve been an outsider for so long, I don’t really experience any discomfort per se. I think one of the really important questions you ask is the one about how we can make ourselves and others uncomfortable in the right way. Honestly, the way things are at church now, I don’t think that’s possible.
When I think of the kind of healthy discomfort that you’re talking about, that has always felt to me to be more of an internal, self-reflective thing. I’ll hear a talk, or read a passage of scripture or just reflect on my behavior for the week and I think about changes I need to make, behaviors or habits I need to work on, etc. It’s been my experience that other people trying even to gently remind us of our flaws or correct our behavior doesn’t really go well. There really has to be a close-knit, loving community at church to even begin to pull this off and I’ve felt a distinct and growing lack of community over the past ten years, at least in my ward. There are a few cliques here and there, and I’ve a couple of what I would consider good friends in the ward, but aside from those few folks, it would never occur to me to take seriously anyone else’s advice about how to better myself. That’s less to do with my own ego (though it’s much bigger than it should be) and more to do with the fact that I don’t really have many relationships at church based on trust and true friendship. And while I’m friends with a few folks in stake leadership, my bishop is a person with whom I would never share any kind of personal problem or struggle. I just think it’s really difficult to have the kind of important and personal conversations at church that involve the kind of healthy discomfort you talk about. And let’s be frank; as much as we are supposed to use time during sacrament meeting or in our individual prayers (or in the temple, for those who attend) to reflect on and change our behaviors, Mormonism simply doesn’t have a tradition of contemplative inquiry or mindfulness. In fact, it seems suspicious of those traditions, so I don’t really see intentional, rigorous self-reflection being encouraged either, meaning that we’re all pretty much on our own.
I’d go into the ways in which the church is too comfortable, but I don’t have ten years to write everything down. Suffice it to say that I think the church’s level of comfort with its own institutional hubris is really hurting it and a lot of its members.
There was an article on Religion Dispatches noting to churches that if they aren’t LGBTQ-affirming, then they should not do something seemingly neutral/positive like passing out water.
That article drew me because initially I was thinking about all the individual efforts by certain Mormons to create LGBT-friendly associations even as the church…isn’t (e.g., Mormons Building Bridges, etc.,)
This article didn’t talk about that (what a surprise the religious world doesn’t center around mormons, right?), but there was a link to a tweet thread from a Jesuit about providing water at a booth at pride. This tweet thread (quite predictably) generated a LOT of backlash from people about whether non-affirming churches should be at Pride (even if their members attend with no interest in preaching about those subjects), but what I found very interesting was at some point, someone accuses the guy of trying to “bait and switch” LGBT people into joining a church under the pretense of love, but where that church would actually challenge them, their identity, their sexuality, etc.,
And the guy replies (I’m definitely paraphrasing…the tweet thread has since been nuked from orbit) something to the extent of, “but I go to the church to be challenged. That’s what the love of the church means to me. I think we all have areas to be challenged on and I think that we shouldn’t exclude some people from having an environment for that.”
And you know…I thought about that a lot.
To me, “love” is the most ambiguous and disputed term between people in these sorts of debates. For some people, being “loved” means being accepted, validated, affirmed. For other people, being “loved” means being challenged, stretched. (I get that I’m creating a bit of a strawman and that many people would think that love involves a combination. An acceptance that *opens the way* for being challenged.) And I think there’s a lot of miscommunication because when you hear that word, you don’t know what you’re going to get from it.
I keep thinking about the implications of these. To me, it feels like the LDS church leans hard on the side that “love = challenge.” But I also wonder how much of that is because church was uncomfortable for ~me~ and didn’t cater to ~me~, so I assume that’s how churches must be. It is utterly bizarre to think of church as a place of comfort because that’s never been the case for me — even though I know intellectually that that is the foundation of many people’s testimonies. “Balm in Gilead”? “Comfort those in need of comfort?” I didn’t have that experience.
So, I look at that and say, “But I am challenged and stretched everywhere else in my life, so why would I want to add more of that drama and stress to my life?”
to me then, if some people just happen to be lacking much challenge in their every day lives and they need church to add that, then I guess that’s fine. but for me…I am OK without adding “comfortable discomfort”
To make myself more comfortable at church I drastically lower my expectations. If they pass me the bread, mission accomplished.
To make others more comfortable, I talk and engage with them. I say yes to bringing meals and things like that. It’s the only thing I have to offer anymore (since I’m not a literal believer), and I hope it helps.
Andrew S: There’s a lot to think about in what you’ve written, and I’m going to have to sleep on it a few days before I can say anything truly cogent. I do wonder how much the personal desire for either comfort or discomfort is based on personality, upbringing or (as you point out) privilege. I suspect the privilege argument is closest to what the SWJC podcast was pointing out, that Evangelicals were choosing their congregation because they were challenged to do a food drive or volunteer in a soup kitchen while still being able to sit back and congratulate themselves on their own success and possessions. So to your example, handing out water to those at Pride still allows a person to remain comfortable in their religion that privileges their heterosexuality while demonizing LGBT people, and they can assuage their guilt without actually having to do anything super tough like repudiating the harm being done to others.
In my own experience at Church, my discomfort is mostly with the sexism, racism, homophobia and authoritarianism in the culture, doctrine and coming from my fellow congregants. I wouldn’t enjoy going to a Trump rally either. If my discomfort was with my need to speak up while terrible things are being said or taught, that might be somewhat productive discomfort. As someone else mentioned it’s the boredom of hearing the exact same things for 53 years over and over and over. My discomfort feels unproductive, meaning, it’s not improving me. It’s pointless. I’m occasionally comfortable, but less and less as the Church gets more and more authoritarian and GOP-heavy with the dumbest of dumbed down lessons. I got called to Primary, though, and that’s probably the optimal place to be right now. The adult classes are just too watered down and repetitive.
Two things. First, the rise of Correlation has increasingly narrowed the scope of discussion in LDS curriculum materials and classes. Sure, a good teacher can buck the system and encourage wider and more challenging discussion — but there aren’t many good teachers, and even a good teacher fails if the class won’t follow the teacher’s lead. The now-standard practice of assigned not topics or scriptural passages as what a Sacrament Meeting speaker should address but, instead, a Conference talk has likewise narrowed things in adult talks. Most folks just rehash what’s in the talk.
Second … oh geez, I can’t even remember. It’s just so depressing to think about all of it or talk about what happens on Sunday (basically, nothing). You know it has reached crisis level when the one thing everyone across the whole LDS spectrum is thrilled about is when they eliminated third-hour meetings. Now they just eliminated Saturday night sessions of Conference (another dull roar of approval bubbles up from the Mormon crowd). I like the new Less Is More approach.
Oh, now I remember. Second, to the extent one is made uncomfortable in LDS meetings, it’s usually about not meeting institutional goals (did you do your home teaching? have you paid a full tithe?) rather than about moral norms or standards. Again, a few hardy souls swim against the institutional current, but not many and not for very long. “Mormon morality” doesn’t really have much to do with morality, although darn few Mormons have any clue that’s the case.
Hawk girl has made a fantastic point here. Far too many these days seek to be comfortable at church by attempting to shift responsibility for their actions on to others.
Take Hawk’s point about modesty for example. I absolutely agree that many have an incorrect position on modesty. Too many teach that young women must dress modestly because they are responsible if they don’t and young men engage in impure thoughts and actions as a result. Obviously, young women should not dress like a bunch of Russian Princesses who wait at the dock for the whaling ship to come in. But that does not make them responsible for the thoughts and actions of young men. Everyone is responsible for their own thoughts and actions, and should not attempt to be comfortable by shifting blame to others.
Hawk is also right about the modern-day misunderstanding of parenting. Too many parents these days feel that as far as the church is concerned, they have done their duty if they have produced a large number of children. The fathers then “comfortably” spend their time playing violent video games while the mothers “comfortably” fritter away their time on Facebook–both ignoring the children. Or at least they think they are comfortable. They expect primary teachers and youth leaders to make up for the lack of attention at home.
As for the story about adulterers not wanting to feel discomfort by having attention drawn to their actions, that raises a crucial point as well. Sadly, far too many want to behave with all the restraint of demented stoats, but have their conduct ignored so they can sit in “comfort” in church. They seek to justify their licentiousness by criticizing others as being judgmental.
The irrefutable fact is that immorality, sloth, and blame-shifting never can lead to comfort. Those things never have, and they never will.
JCS: “Russian Princesses who wait at the dock for the whaling ship to come in” [s l o w c l a p]
Also, “They expect primary teachers and youth leaders to make up for the lack of attention at home.” Joke’s on them. I just got called to Primary, and I’m incredibly inattentive and neglectful. Considering buying some crocs, video games, and hot dogs to keep the little monsters in line.
Love this post.
When I feel uncomfortable at church I try to ask myself if I’m being called upon to do something I don’t want to, but should, do – a good kind of discomfort – or if I’m experiencing or witnessing sexism / homophobia / racism / authoritarianism / totally false things being taught – not a great kind of discomfort.
The beyond the block podcast often says that the purpose of scripture should be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I think that’s so true, and we (myself included) often have it backwards.
These are all great comments. Thanks! Too bad this discussion can’t continue in Church
Randy Jones, Suggest it to your bishop for a 5th Sunday adult second hour meeting. 🙂 Maybe it could continue in church.
Part of the tricky thing for me is that so much of the spiritual growth that I find at church feels like it comes from Opposite Land. An example:
A few years ago during stake conference, the area authority gave a talk about how it wasn’t enough to have faith, we needed to have *exceeding* faith. This caused me discomfort because I’d never even thought to want exceeding faith. Then a few people were invited to give impromptu testimonies. They all talked about how they were so grateful that they had exceeding faith. So now I felt alienated because it sounded like everyone already had something that I hadn’t even thought to want, and didn’t feel inspired to want anyway. The whole thing felt so rameumptom-like.
My discomfort with the whole situation made me think about what word I would use to describe my faith. I have occasionally felt that my faith was sufficient. There’s only one verse in the scriptures that talks about sufficient faith, and it’s in 3rd Nephi. Christ visited the people in the Americas and was about to leave when he looked around and saw that the multitude did not want him to go. He said that he could see that the people had sufficient faith to be healed. So he stayed and healed their sick. He prayed with them, and the words were so marvelous that they could not be written. He took each child one by one and blessed them. Christ’s joy was so full that he cried. And then he gave them the sacrament. There are wonderful experiences for people who have merely sufficient faith, and one of them was doing the work to tease out the difference between exceeding faith and sufficient faith.
In terms of your post: that conference caused all sorts of discomfort. I felt like an outsider. I didn’t believe what was taught. I didn’t feel like I had the same values as others in the congregation. Taking that church talk at face value taught spiritually damaging pride. BUT, because I worked through my discomfort with what was taught, I was able to use it to grow spiritually. Which is good long term, I guess. It’s emotionally exhausting to work through all that cognitive dissonance though.
When have you felt comfortable at Church? When have you felt uncomfortable?
I’d say I felt the most comfortable when I was in my 20s and had a fresh black and white mindset. The church is the perfect vivarium for people with a black and white mindset.
I’ve felt uncomfortable at every other age.
In what ways is the Church as an organization too comfortable, needing to be challenged?
Reading between the lines of what’s said at church, I think the majority of those in attendance go specifically because church has become their safe place. A place where they know (read: assume) that everyone believes exactly as they do. A place where their mindset will not be challenged like it might be challenged out in the wild. A place of refuge from the assaults on their beliefs that they experience in the world.
Regarding challenging, I’m on a different page in an entirely different book. I mostly land on letting people enjoy their safe place, despite their safe place often creating unsafe places for others that are also in the group.
What can you do to make yourself more comfortable at Church? To make others more comfortable?
How can you make others and yourself uncomfortable in the right ways, the ways that lead to growth and self-improvement?
I lack those skills, which is why I remain silent and hope a better ambassador than I comes along.
I can make myself more more comfortable by installing a game on my cellphone. I’m still waiting on more discreet noise cancelling headphones. 😉 But in all seriousness, I get nothing out of stroking the true church’s ego, and that seems to be the only topic of our talks and lessons.
Another thing I’ll say, then I’ll shut up and listen.
I think that the average person goes to church to be challenged to better live their current set of beliefs, they don’t necessarily go to church to have their beliefs challenged.
I’m probably wrong about that, but the thought is out there now.
Fred VII: I could not like your first comment more. It’s how I feel as well, and you’ve stated it better than I did what type of challenge people want at Church, and why it’s a comfortable challenge. Bravo! Your comment about stroking the Church’s ego being the currect sole topic of our talks & lessons hits home for me so much. I have only been to Church twice this year (post-vax) and 80% of what was said in talks & lessons was about obeying leaders and the Church’s authority and quoting leaders and assuring each other how great and wise the leaders are. How is this what we’ve become? It’s incredibly disturbing. This was not the Church I grew up in. It feels like we’ve been sliding into this since the late 70s / early 80s when they introduced the curriculum about Church leaders into RS / PH / Primary. Prior to that, the lessons were more about Jesus’ teachings. I would bet more of the young Church members today know the “modern parables / personal stories” of recent leaders that were shared in General Conference than know the intricate and often paradoxical parables Jesus taught. The former always have a single black & white moral, and the latter usually do not (but are still taught as if they do).
Angela C this is what saddens and disturbs me as well
Today someone said over the pulpit “it feels like the Family Proclamation was divinely inspired for 2021.”
I wonder if this good brother would be comfortable learning about 1990s legal events in Hawaii.
This is exactly how I feel. This last Sunday I was literally just called into the bishops office and told that if I continue to make comments like this then I would be apostatizing.
I read some unpopular scriptures in fast and testimony meeting. Nothing more. Prophet is not a god however we accept him as such.
We don’t even believe our own scriptures and have now become a place to just stroke each other’s ego.