The Future of the Church IS the ‘International’ Church

IMG_2242It’s a beautiful Winter’s day in Christchurch today.  Clear blue skies, cool temperatures in the shade but warm in the distant sun.  Travelling past Travis Wetlands on our way to church this morning our son Finn asked,

“Mum, why do Pukekos have red beaks?”

We’d been observing the flocks of Canada geese and pukeko congregating, and strutting about on the verge of the road.

“Its cause God made his greatest artists responsible for colouring the animals.”  Was my reply as I imagined Picasso and Kandinsky (personal favourites) splashing colour palettes about in the zoological ‘creation’ stages of the Earth.  “Imagine if all of the animals were one single colour, or  only came in shades of pink, brown, and black?”

There were all around clucks and groans of disapproval from my lads.  “You see it’s the contrast and the difference between each species and between humans that makes life beautiful and gives us meaning.”

I had planned another wee lecture on racial diversity and animal life as a metaphor for that diversity but this was far too much philosophizing  for my fidgety five, and I could tell they were switching off as they began to wonder how Mr. Bean got his underpants off without removing his trousers.

With this notion of diversity in mind, I’ve lately been thinking about Peter Drucker who suggested,  “Every few hundred years in Western history, there occurs a sharp transformation… within a few short decades, society rearranges itself—its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions… We are currently living through just such a transformation.”

Of course he was referring to the rise of post-modernism.  I see the post-modern era as evocative, exciting and fresh.  And while I’m clearly too old to be a millennial I fit right at home in this new cultural context that embraces diversity, contradiction, complexity, multiple readings and perspectives, and irony.   I once got an A+ on a journalism paper asking us to argue whether or not the media could ever be objective.  Of course I answered in the negative and figured my wonderful grade was confirmation of the ‘certainty’ of my thesis.

What has me excited today however, is that I’ve come to realise that our church is actually a post-modern re-storying of the Christian tradition.   At the moment its being held hostage by modernists, but when it breaks free from this pharisaical head lock it might be able to breath out some its most stunning and glorious doctrines and theologies that will make our religion, the religion of the 21st century.

I’m saying this because today I taught Gospel Doctrine twice; once in my ward, and once at a Stake YSA conference.  The more I thought about Section 121 the more it seemed to me that God was teaching Joseph that while the heavens are fixed and are cosmically oriented toward the perfection of the human species, mortality is a scatter shot endeavour with few assurances that a peaceful, untroubled middle-class life is a reward for obedience which, at its very heart is a post-modern notion.

On the other hand a close reading of the Doctrine and Covenants would suggest that we are required as our spiritual due, to be tolerant and inclusive; To eschew, disrupt and question hard lines of authority where that authority exercises dominion, and seeks to remove our agency.   Furthermore we are to recognize that the journey of the church is fraught with good men doing dumb things, dumb men doing good things, and that we as a people are in constant need of God’s grace and mercy because of our fickleness and our recurrent denial of Christ.  Our doctrine proclaims a gentleness and a patience with each other that is more than simply ‘good manners’ – it is a mark of our spiritual transformation.

Some people wonder why I stay in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I’d be lying if I don’t confess that I wonder this myself periodically.  I’m no fan of the corporatization of our religion; I’m irate about the top down hierarchies that valorize church leadership over the sovereignty of God; I find the patriarchy oppressive, and I am aggrieved at the encroachment of American conservative values into our discourse, but I feel sure these notions have an expiry date.  I do think that we are looking at our own cultural turn, because, if we do anything well as a religion, it’s our ability to adapt and change.

That change, I believe, is on the horizon but it won’t happen from the centre out.  It will happen because Mormons all over the world will find their voice and demand a church that is not simply ‘international’ (in that it is everywhere) but is responsive to diversity; is culturally competent; accepts that social rules and morality are contextual; and begins to question patterns of organisation and leadership that are wedded so much to American corporate and cultural life at the expense of their own cultures and contexts.

When we can marry our theology and doctrine to our spiritual practices and turn them into self-conscious and informed cultural practices perhaps then, and only then will we have created our Zion, and  I feel confident that it will be this post-modern turn that will force us to make this long awaited reconciliation.



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  • aletha

    Yes! Exactly how I’ve felt recently. I’m tired of the old, white, conservative men at the top telling everyone how to dress, think, speak, and act. I’m tired of women being fed the line of the “Holy Housewife”. I’m just tired, in general.

    • kiwi57

      I’ve never actually heard of a “Holy Housewife.” I must not have been paying attention. Whom are you quoting?

      • aletha

        Not quoting anyone in particular. It’s a phrase I enjoy, though. I started using it because (at least in Kansas), there is so much emphasis on women being nurturers and stay at home to rear the children.
        Apologies for using a personal phrase. I will try to quote doctrine instead of snarky opnions!

  • JohnH2

    If you could explain how to embrace contradiction and still be coherent and true in any meaningful sense that would be nice.

    • David_Naas

      It helps to have a sense of humor, which is essentially a sense of perspective.
      I was once told that there are three reasons why a person is called to a position of leadership.
      1. Because they are the best person for the job.
      2. Because they are deficient, but need to grow.
      3. Because they are deficient, but those over whom they have been placed need to learn patience and compassion.
      It is easy to embrace contradiction — all you have to do is to admit, in humility, that you don’t know everything.
      Remember that God speaks to people in “their own language”. Just because we both are speaking English does not mean we understand each other (for ex, American versus Kiwi, or Me versus my Mother.)
      The church is going to remain Americanized for some time, but it is also going to change. For crying out loud, it is less than 200 years old, there is a lot of growing up left to do. (If you read the writings of the Early Church, from 100 to 500 A.D., you find the same sanctimonious pomposity you hear from the average GA today. Don’t confuse human failings with eternal verities.) There is finally a European President, there will (relatively) soon be one from Asia and one from Africa, and it will grow.
      Nevertheless, I would maintain that “obedience” does not rule out “intelligence”, nor the resistance to “unrighteous dominion”.
      For what it’s worth (which is probably not much).

      • JohnH2

        You have a singular sentence in that which purports to address the question asked. It is like you are arguing against what you think I should say.

        Admitting that one doesn’t know everything is completely different from believing that A and not A are simultaneously true. That is like saying one has faith in Christ, but doesn’t believe that Christ is real. That one believes in the restoration, but doesn’t believe it to be true. That one sustains the Prophet and GA and thinks they spew sanctimonious pomposity and enforce an oppressive patriarchy and hierarchy against which one is irate. Or that one both lives and doesn’t live the law of chastity, perhaps every other day? Not sure how that works (being a contradiction), you will have to let me know how you embrace that one. That nothing in ones conduct isn’t in harmony with the church and that one doesn’t agree with groups that are contrary to the church, while actively participating in groups which criticize the church and demand doctrinal changes to make the beliefs directly contrary to where they currently are. How one can think any of this is honest is beyond me, but since contradictions imply everything then I guess one can delude oneself into thinking this position is honest, while also being fully aware of its dishonesty. Likewise, how one beleives they both keep and do not keep their covenants doesn’t make sense, I guess calling oneself a Christian due to covenants to stand as a witness of Christ while believing that Christ isn’t real might count? You are obviously quite free to let me know how it is you embrace contradictions in these things, perhaps how you do it is slightly different, it should however be obvious to anyone capable of logic that any such thing loses coherence and can not be true, but of course you must also believe it to be false and incoherent (due to embracing contradiction) so I guess you don’t care.

        • David_Naas

          You are quite correct, sir, I am free. Therefore, I am under no obligation to address the twists and distortions in what you made of my statements. I have no wish to engage in a fencing match with you. If you are unable to understand, no amount of explication will suffice.
          My response to your provocation, of course, entitles, nay, authorizes you to regard me as a despicable apostate (i.e. one who does not agree with YOU.) Enjoy your time in the great and spacious building, and be sure to point fingers and deride those wandering in the plain.
          Good day, and good bye.

          • JohnH2

            Obviously, no explanation will suffice for an incoherent position which embracing contradictions logically leads to.

            Interesting that you would call the building I was referring to the great and spacious one. I, obviously, have no say in developing the questions, nor do I have a say in anything about the questions in regards to anyone but myself. I am seeking to understand how you hold your position to be coherent and how it relates to access to what you appear to call the great and spacious building, I would call it according as it is label: the house of the Lord.

            I started with a simple question about an illogical portion of the OP. An actual answer as to how such a position is remotely coherent and logical would have sufficed; Instead the response was one that blew off the actual question and responded to points that I didn’t bring up but in the same vein as the OP of what I consider to be speaking ill of the Lords anointed.

          • David_Naas

            After reflection and prayer, I am called to apologize for losing my temper at your deliberate and willful distortions of my words. I interpreted what you said as judgmental and condemnatory. (And, yes, I am human enough, sill, to be miffed at the tone I perceive in he way you phrased your wording.) What I read in your “innocent” and “simple question” was a deliberate snarkiness and attempt to dominate.
            If that was not your intention, again, I apologize My own snark about the great and spacious building referred to the edifice of your own paradigms, as I perceived them, and the, again perceived, uncharitableness of your attitude. I have seen many people driven from he Church by those who assume a moral superiority, and who evince an attitude that bullying Heavenly Father’s other children guarantees then a front place in the Celestial Kingdom. Nor when I am remarking on certain officials, it is in the personal knowledge that not everyone, save only the President, is anointed by the Lord. Some people in “leadership” positions utilize the manipulative methods of used car salesmen, which is surely not the will of God, as Heavenly Father will not countenance unrighteous domination.
            Again, I apologize for judging and condemning you. I do not see “Obedience” as the answer to every question in the Church, but “Intelligent Obedience” as being the will of Heavenly Father. If that is a difficult concept to grasp, please leave off the attack and, the next time you travel upward to a white room with white curtains, pray both of understanding of the struggles of other people, and that their struggle might be favorable resolved.
            Here is a link (you will agree that Terry Givens is orthodox?) that better says what I had hoped to say.

            And, lastly, apologies, for my response to you demonstrated that here are burrs and thorns in my own heart.

          • JohnH2

            In my original question there was no attempt at any sort of tone, my graduate degree is in Mathematics, my undergraduate included a minor in Philosophy: contradictions in a system imply everything and render the system incoherent, Belief and doubt can not coexist.

            In my response to your response, now in that case there is quite a lot of room to criticize my tone in nearly all of it, some of which was certainly uncalled for, particularly in regards to chastity as that had nothing to do with what you or the OP have ever said, that I am aware of.

            I do not know why you continue to bring up obedience? It is the first law of heaven, what we are being tested on, and the way to obtain blessings, but I haven’t said anything about it or how it relates to church leadership.

            I am not at all familiar with Terry Givens. I have read quite a lot more of the early Church Fathers then I have of modern LDS ones.

  • kiwi57

    I am convinced that Gina is right that the future of the Church is the “International” Church. I am, however, not convinced that there is any future at all in trying to become some kind of social club for non-alcoholic champagne socialists. Oher churches have tried that approach, and it has been less that successful.
    And I am entirely unconvinced by the rather facile idea that “embracing diversity” means holding exactly the same outlook as everyone else. Or at least, everyone in whatever academically fashionable circles one happens to move in at the time.

    If a church is anything, it is a community of shared belief. And while it’s great to be “inclusive” up to a point, it’s worth remembering that we really can’t be said to include anyone at all if there’s nobody we don’t include.

    • Auckland Blue

      I tend to agree. We already have a more liberal strain of Mormonism–The Community of Christ–and it’s not like Millenials are pouring into it, are they? A “postmodern” turn might make the church more palatable to some, but it’s hardly a magic wand for dramatic growth or energy. I think part of the problem is in Gina’s implied definition of the “international church”.

      What Gina seems to have in mind is a country like her own-New Zealand-where secularism rules the roost and where a conservative American religion hardly seems to have a robust future. This is why the “postmodern” turn looks like the only viable option. To truly understand the “international” church, however, I think we’re better off looking at Africa, the Philippines, and parts of South America. In these regions literalism, Evangelism, and Pentecostalism all seem to be dominant.

      In short, Gina’s “postmodern” church is still too Western-centric and fails to grasp the realities of the international church. I don’t doubt that her “postmodern” Mormonism is what works best for her. I just doubt that it represents the ideas and energies that are actually creating the “international” church today.

      • kiwi57

        It’s true that New Zealand is fairly secular, especially among the opinion-leading elite groups (and the chattering classes.) However, it is not true that the Church isn’t doing well here; it is. Just not so much among the aforementioned self-styled elite groups.
        As I see it, Gina’s problem isn’t that she thinks the rest of the world is just like New Zealand; it is that she thinks it’s following the changing fashions of academic thought as slavishly as it follows the fashions of women’s clothing.
        It’s not obvious to me that it is.
        What is obvious to me is that not only is the Church in New Zealand more “diverse” than she supposes it is along the Wasatch Front, it’s also more meaningfully diverse than she thinks it is here. We don’t all vote Labour or approve of such legal oxymorons as “same sex marriage.” Not all of us are waiting for the first female Stake President or the first “gay” Temple sealing.
        Which is to say, we’re not all fringe Mormons or borderline apostates.

        • Auckland Blue

          Auckland created its 11th and 12th Stakes this year. Hamilton created its 4th Stake last year. Given the number of Kiwi Mormons who have moved to Australia, I think these are significant developments. My point is simply that when you compare this to growth in Africa, for example, it doesn’t compare. The future of the international church today is being created in very different cultural spaces than New Zealand.

          My main point is that Gina’s dichotomy of a “modernist” American church against a “postmodernist” international church doesn’t ring true to me. The kind of future church Gina envisions actually has its strongest advocates within America. It’s not a battle between the American church and the international church; it’s a battle between mainstream conservative and increasingly vocal liberal interpretations of the tradition. I agree that the New Zealand church contains a wide variety of voices along this spectrum.

    • Julia Taylor

      You say that it is worth remembering that we can’t really include everyone, and that structurally, we have to have some people we keep out. As a structural organization, (like a club or corporation) that would be true. However, this is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Christ has made it clear that He does not want to exclude anyone. (Full Stop.)

      The invitation to , “Come Unto Me,” was not given to a small, select group at the top of a power structure. It is an invitation to ALL of the earth’s population. We send missionaries to everywhere they are invited, (and we work hard to get those invitations) because we have been commanded to take the gospel to all of our brothers and sisters. When we take the gospel to them, we are not superior beings, offering a great gift to those who are inferior to us, we are humble servants of Christ, sharing the thing that has saved us from our sins and wretchedness, with people who may well be our spiritual superiors, but who have yet to have this particular truth available to them.

      I find it disturbing that anyone would want to be part of an organization that claims to be Christ’s church, while arguing that we must have some people who are not part of the organization, so that we can define its boundaries. Our job is to make the church as wide, open, loving, and boundless as possible. The time for judgment is not in this life, and aside from our own judgment, we will have no part in deciding who Christ advocates for, and accepts as His own, and who He excludes. If we are to be judged with the same judgment we use on others, then I would much rather ere on the side of loving and accepting all of those who want the gospel, in their own language, at their own experience level, and alongside them as they struggle, mourn, grow and recognize that I have as much to learn, by being with them.

      I refuse to believe that I am supposed to push people out of the church, who may be mourning and struggling to cling to the parts of the gospel that are important to them, because I find them less worthy than me. The scriptures and the testimonies of current general authorities of the church, all testify that they have times that they are aware of their “nothingness before The Lord.” If they struggle, why should I believe that my struggles, or the struggles of those in other parts of the globe, are a reason to plant them on the “outside” of Christ’s invitation?

      • kiwi57

        Hi Julia.

        I appreciate your feedback. I hope you understand that I’m not for a moment suggesting that you, or I, or anyone at all is “supposed to push people out of the church.” What I’m saying is something quite different: that the Church consists of those who have accepted the Saviour’s invitation on his terms — and not on theirs.

        After all, Jesus didn’t say “Let’s meet halfway,” he said “Come unto me.” He’s already met us where we are; it’s up to us to do whatever moving needs to be done.

        To the extent that the Church strives to be obedient to the Lord, we are inevitably going to “exclude” those who don’t want to be obedient. That’s not because we’re pushing them out, but because we and they are heading in different directions. If the only way to be as “inclusive” as they would like is to let them hijack us and take us where the Lord is not leading, then I’m afraid they are going to be disappointed.

        Neither “inclusiveness” nor “diversity,” the two great cultural buzzwords of the day, are actual moral imperatives. We still have to choose between the Tree of Life and the Great and Spacious Building; we can’t have both, and someone who really values the one won’t really want the other.

  • Robert Dee

    Kiaora Gina, I agree, an organisational culture based on corporate america does not engage well in our community. A focus on the ‘rules of men’ has always provided (throughout the ages) an alarmingly effective way of hiding from the glorious and demanding work of spiritual transformation. In my own mind I have to be very clear about the difference between the ‘church as the scaffolding’ and what it is we are actually supposed to be building. I love your belief in the increasingly significant role of multi-cultural mormon voices. Thank you for your insights. Nga mihi, Robert