“IF WE CAN’T FIX IT, IT AIN’T BROKE.”
Because I live in Hong Kong, whenever I’m in the States I tend to notice all sorts of little things and to recklessly ascribe deep cultural meaning to them. So when I read this slogan on the wooden sign nailed on the outside of the car repair shop, it struck me as a charming specimen of Americans’ optimistic, can-do attitude.
The wooden sign was a play on the original saying, “IF IT AIN’T BROKE, DON’T FIX IT.” It kept nearly the exact same words, but fundamentally changed their meaning. In the original, the message is that the thing in question is not really in need of repair—therefore, do nothing. The premise of this car garage remix was different. In the first place, “it” was probably broken somehow. But, in the second place, it could undoubtedly be fixed, and they were just the right folks for the job.
I find this sort of cheery, confident can-do-ism in Mormonism as well. Because local Mormon congregations depend entirely on volunteer labor, from the bishop to the activities committee chair, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are adept at identifying what needs to be done and doing it. The “pillars” of any given congregation are not necessarily the members of the congregation whose scriptural knowledge is the most profound, but the people who, week after week and year after year, expend the time and energy to set up chairs, take down chairs, sweep and mop the floor, bring food and drink, and perform the many other varied tasks that keep the church organization up and running.
Perhaps this is why until quite recently, the word “activity” functioned as a gauge of a person’s religious commitment in casual church parlance. Even though the terms “inactive” and “less active” are now officially out of circulation, the fact that “active” is still frequently used as a very positive adjective within the Church suggests the value that Mormons place on initiative, volunteerism, and engagement. Indeed, Mormons frequently quote a divine injunction in Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-27:
For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant . . .
Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.
Elder M. Russell Ballard’s October 2012 General Conference talk, “Be Anxiously Engaged,” quoted from this passage to underscore the potential power of the many members of the church throughout the world acting collectively to live the teachings of Jesus Christ. In this passage, “anxiously” suggests not anxiety, but earnest initiative.
For instance, there is nothing in the Church’s General Handbook of Instructions about the proper procedure for vacuuming up cracker crumbs that have been ground into the chapel carpet. Cracker crumbs are not supposed to be ground into the carpet, anyway. But when this does happen, thankfully there is always someone who takes the initiative to fetch a vacuum cleaner so that it doesn’t create more problems down the road such as attracting rats. Yes, the general consensus seems to be: an active Mormon is a good Mormon.
But how do we tend to respond when Mormon activity or engagement moves from doing things within the status quo to proposing changes to the status quo? It is a peculiar feature of church culture that when someone proposes a practical change to how things are done within the Church, such as making church procedures more responsive to local cultural realities, or creating more opportunities for women to be involved in decision-making and pastoral care, such proposals for “reform” often run the risk of being called insubordinate, incompetent, or unfaithful.
In other words, when a person uses common sense to identify problems in the Church and to propose practical solutions, he or she is often dismissed with an answer something like: “IF IT’S NOT ALREADY BEING FIXED, THEN IT AIN’T BROKE.”
Does the Church as it is currently constituted represent the best of all possible worlds? Certainly Elder Uchtdorf’s recent talk suggests otherwise: “I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”
In many cases, the things that need to be fixed have less to do with human error than they have to do with the changing circumstances that arise from Mormonism’s transformation from a small American religious movement into a global church. To explain it metaphorically, it’s as if the Church were first built as a covered wagon perfectly equipped to carry Saints across the American Plains. Over time, as the need arose, it was retrofitted with rubber tires, a metal chassis, and a combustion engine so that it became a modern bus. When the bus was taken overseas to places like Asia and Africa, it encountered new maintenance difficulties stemming from new climates, different driving conditions, and so on. Old components had to be torn out and new components swapped in.
Where does the contemporary church bus most need repairs in order to keep it running? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. Some point out that in the majority of Mormon families worldwide, both fathers and mothers must work in order to provide for the family’s economic needs, and thus more rhetoric and church policies to support dual-breadwinner families are needed. Some argue for the increasing necessity of using online tools such as websites and social media to candidly address chapters of church history that have been “under-disseminated” because they make people uncomfortable.
Some say that we still have much work to do in the project of fully tapping Mormon women’s potential to serve and bless in the Church. This is what I’ve said recently, and what hundreds of Mormons will be saying on December 15 when they wear pants and purple ties to church. They will be doing this as a sincere expression of their values and beliefs as active Latter-day Saints, not as a strategic bid to undermine the priesthood and cast aspersions on every person who thinks that Mormon women are doing just fine.
Of course, the Church is not a democracy and the gospel is not a matter of majority rule. But anyone who knows even a little Church history knows that if anything’s constant within the Church as an institution, it’s change. (Not surprising for a church that believes in continuing revelation.) Past generations of Latter-day Saints, including not only prophets and apostles but also local leaders and members, have risen to real challenges and sought practical solutions, exercising human initiative instead of sitting around waiting to be divinely compelled.
Change in the LDS Church is not a process of lobbying higher-ups, but of each person seeing what needs to be done and then doing it within his or her own sphere of influence. Day by day, our church institutions and communities can become better and better at perfecting the Saints, proclaiming the gospel, redeeming the dead, and helping the poor and needy. These are jobs for everyone, not just “the Brethren,” “the Lord,” or “someone else.”
In conclusion, when we nail our wooden shingle over the church garage, let it read: IF IT AIN’T FIXED, WE CAN!
The spirit of volunteerism and community-mindedness is alive and well on all fronts of the debate and disagreement that we are experiencing as a diverse worldwide church. While disagreements are inevitable given our varied circumstances and experiences, in our church culture we must stop viewing “active” attempts to reform the status quo as antagonistic, willfully ignorant, or unfaithful.
It is certainly true that not all attempts to bring about change in the Church are created equal, but I am certain that, contrary to what I’ve read recently online in comment threads, none of the individuals trying to enact such change are acting out of evil intent, complete ignorance of the gospel, or pure spiritual laxity. On the contrary, such activism is part of the same instinctive reaction of seeing cracker crumbs in the chapel carpet and fetching the vacuum. Being open to discussion can’t hurt; being dismissive of sincere concerns can’t help.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, if it ain’t fixed, we will. Let us push the wheel along: across the Plains, along the highways, into Asia, Africa, Latin America, and wherever else there is a need.