In April 2012 Bishop Richard C. Edgley of the Presiding Bishopric stated that:
“Reactivation has always been an important part of the work of the Lord. While the rescue is a responsibility of every member, holders of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood have the responsibility to lead out in this work. After all, that is what priesthood service is all about—bringing all people to the exalting covenants; bringing peace, happiness, and self-worth.”
My newly acquired church position has caused me to think about my friends who have left the Church. I’ve been thinking that it’s surely much easier to hold onto people than it is to bring them back, so today I will focus on how our wards could be kinder toward each other particularly toward those who are experiencing a faith crisis, questions or doubts.
Sometimes members have lovingly given church service for years only to encounter doubts or a crisis of faith. It is unfortunate that these good people often find themselves rejected by members of the church as a result. It is sometimes the case that they are vilified behind their backs in the storm of speculation and nastiness that frequently follows. Yet, it’s usually not the case that people who doubt or question are transgressing or looking for excuses to leave the church. In most cases they come by their doubts honestly and in many instances their efforts to address these questions and concerns are their dark night of the soul. Rather than show sensitivity they are sometimes treated like contagions or ‘disturbers of the peace’ at church. Perhaps David’s psalm captures somewhat of what this experience feels like
15 But in mine adversity they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together: yea, the abjects gathered themselves together against me, and I knew it not; they did tear me, and ceased not: 16 With hypocritical mockers in feasts, they gnashed upon me with their teeth.17 Lord, how long wilt thou look on? rescue my soul from their destructions… Psalm 35:15-17:
It also happens that when someone leaves the church they don’t usually get an opportunity to say why they went. There’s no exit interview or debrief. Without such a conversation we can only assume – and we do – often wrongly. So, in anticipation of this talk, I sent the following to a group of less-active friends in our ward:
“I am speaking as the Ward Mission Leader in sacrament meeting on ‘Reactivation and Rescuing’ (I didn’t choose the topic in case you are wondering). Given you are a friend of mine (I hope) who lives in Parklands Ward and we don’t see you much or ever at church, I thought I would ask you a couple of questions in the hope that you can help me address this topic. I’m asking you because I have never been in the position of not being fully involved in the church so I feel quite unqualified to speak on why people put some distance between themselves and the church and what it might take to encourage such people to return. So, if you feel so inclined, I would really appreciate it if you would respond to this text and tell me:
- why you don’t come to church ever or regularly?
- what it would take in your opinion to encourage you to return?
By the way, if you don’t want to answer my questions, that’s OK, I’ll still love you. I just thought it would be better to get it from the horse’s mouth rather than pretend I know the answers to these questions when I don’t. Thanks for your help, Nath.”
I would like to read out some of their responses in the hope that we all recognise just how different the reasons for people not coming to church are and why it is a mistake to suppose there is a silver bullet to solve this issue and to dispense with any allusions you may have if you thought I was going to offer one:
“Hi Nathan, thank you for asking. Until one has been asked, others are going on assumptions formed by their experience rather than the view of the person in question. It is something that I’m sure my family would like to know as well! You have spurred me to write it down; for you, me, family, posterity and whoever wants to know. It probably won’t be in time for your talk, but maybe it may help with your understanding and your calling. Hopefully, I’ll have it down today. Whenever it’s ready, you’ll be the first to have it. After my wife, of course.”
The lesson I learnt from this is that it is important to ask rather than assume why someone isn’t coming.
“Hi Nathan. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the reason I no longer go to church is that I no longer believe any of the truth claims and my personal values do not align with those of the organization. Areas of non-alignment include the marginalization of women and the archaic and harmful treatment of homosexuals. It isn’t about the people. I love many Mormons. I just no longer see church as a healthy place for me to be and nothing anyone can do would get me back to church. I have felt enormous relief over the last six months and the thought of going to church is unappealing. I miss the people though.
Thanks for asking and thanks for not trying to rescue me. The very word makes me feel ill. Not a good term to use. I guess the point is that there are many reasons why people are not attending and it is important to respect their right to make their own choices. I think the message is often that everyone would come back if they were asked in the right way.”
The lesson I learnt from this is that we can’t force belief and if we can’t even explain or justify why as a church we believe or practice certain things, how can we expect others to accept them?
“The biggest hurdle is being single in a church which is all about families. When you hear anything about singles, it almost seems desperate. ‘We know you hurt and things aren’t how you expected, but it will all work out in due course.’ Really? Do these people really know what loneliness is?”
The lesson I learnt from this is that we need to be really careful about what we focus on. When we focus on things that exclude people rather than things that include them, we make people disengage with us.
Recently, Gina asked a bunch of people in her global online community to talk about what did and didn’t work in helping them to be actively engaged in the Church. The other night we discussed the suggestions that emerged with friends who came for dinner. Together we tried to figure out how best to help those who have left – particularly those who are experiencing a crisis of faith. The combined wisdom that came out of these online suggestions and our face to face discussion is directed mainly at those of us in leadership positions, but I think it is instructive for all members:
- Normalise faith crisis as intuitive, expected and welcome. Often a faith crisis signals a natural evolution or spiritual maturation. Or perhaps someone needs to find out more, or to reevaluate their beliefs again to see how they stack up with more information. We shouldn’t be afraid of this. It is wrong to assume that everyone who has doubts is an apostate or anti-Mormon.
- Church leaders should reach out to those who have left the church and thank them for the service over the years. They should express sorrow for any poor church practice that made it difficult for them to stay and they ought to wish them well and continued friendship. Often those who have left have given so much to the community but leave on bad terms. This shouldn’t be the case. Our friendships should be able to endure despite our differences of belief. No one who leaves the church should ever feel that they must give up their friendships with those in the church.
- Ward and stake leaders should read and process the essays as a starting point for understanding the historical concerns at least (the current Christchurch Stake Relief Society Presidency have already done this). It’s so important for all leaders to stay abreast of the Mormon studies issues of the day. They don’t need to have all of the answers but too often we hear of Bishops who respond with anger or incredulity and disbelief when someone comes into their office wanting to process Joseph Smith’s polygamy, women in the church or the Priesthood ban.
- Finally, we need to encourage members to hold their beliefs with less aggression and possessiveness. We need to allow everyone the freedom to share their ongoing and evolving expressions of God and Christ in their lives along with their doubts without others getting white knuckled or shunning them. The church changes all the time. Our doctrines, our policies, our leaders, the way we interpret scripture, even what we wear does naturally change. Our ward communities would be so much better if we simply assume the best of each other and not see change in each other as problematic.
I could have spoken about effective home and visiting teaching which I fervently believe in but you will hear these stories often in the Church. With my 15 minutes, I wanted to share something that you will hear less often, but I believe is important at this time in the Church. I believe that as a Ward, if we accept and embrace all, make this space one of welcoming and love and not of fear or exclusivity, we will build a place that is desirable for leave takers to return to with joy.
My testimony is that the truths of the gospel can and do bless people’s lives, but that some of the cultural practices in the church make it difficult for the gospel to be experienced in ways that are recognised as useful, transformative and joyous. My hope is that together we can ensure we create a space so that when we extend invitations to return, we can do so with the confidence of knowing those we invite will feel welcome and safe with all of their doubts and questions.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.