Missional and Attractional Mormonism

Missional and Attractional Mormonism October 23, 2014

Along with many  other churches in recent years, the leaders and membership of the LDS Church have made a concerted effort to create a more vibrant presence in the social media world. #Sharegoodness, #BecauseofHim,  #DidYouThinkToPray, #LDSConf, Mormon Messages videos, now the Meet the Mormons film— these Twitter and Facebook campaigns, shareable media, and documentaries all have become part and parcel with “hastening the work of salvation,” to quote Elder Bednar’s August address.

I’ve sometimes seen these efforts enacted and received with a degree of ambivalence— part of which, I think, stems from the ambiguity of what these campaigns are precisely designed to do.  What exactly is the work of salvation? Sharing the light of Christ? Making the world a happier, better place? Increasing baptisms in the LDS Church? More ordinance work?

Two terms that have helped me try to articulate this ambiguity have emerged in the New Calvinism/Reformed circles in the last decade or two to describe two different ecclesiastical orientations — “missional” and “attractional.” While these terms have already accumulated quite a bit of baggage in some evangelical circles, they’ve been useful to me in describing what I see as tensions in the Church’s social media efforts to “hasten the work.”

For definitions, I’m taking my cue from James K. A. Smith, a Reformed/Augustinian theologian who describes a “mission-oriented church” as one in which Christians are called to be God’s “image bearers” tasked with the mission of cultivating and reforming culture; they are called to go forth into the world as “cultural agents mediating his love and care for creation.”[1] On the other hand, an “attractional” orientation is one in which the church serves as the locus of certain spiritual services, attracting constituents through programs, proselyting, and so forth.

I see these, loosely, as embodying somewhat competing impulses—on the one hand, a desire to edify and elevate individuals towards God through universally uplifting messages, and on the other, a desire to attract, convert and incorporate others into the body of Christ, specifically understood as the LDS Church. These competing impulses draw on different attitudes—one, universal and denominational (muting doctrinal distinctions/differences), and the other, exceptionalist and institutional (emphasizing the necessity of a particular institutional membership).

Here are some recent examples I’ve seen of these two impulses:

In the “missional,” culture-redeeming realm: in his address, Elder Bednar praised the Easter campaign (a 3 minute video on Christ accompanied by hashtag messages #BecauseOfHim) that spread “the hope, healing, and salvation made possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ”; he lauded the #DidYouThinkToPray campaign for having “touched hundreds of thousands of lives for the better and led to more than 40,000 conversations about the need for prayer”; and he urged that all members continue to  “touch hundred of thousands of lives for the better” through a “steady rainfall of righteousness and truth.” The website  accompanying his address–“Sharing Goodness— offered tips and encouragement like this: “Every time you post simple, genuine messages and links, you help lift and strengthen those who see them. Counter negative posts with positive ones. If a friend is down, say something to cheer them up.”  The campaign is designed in part to “change the existing conversation out there into a more positive conversation.” The Mormon Messages on fatherhoodmotherhoodmarriagedepression, and dozens of other topics offer moving montages, stories, and counsel on fairly universal human themes that, like the hashtag campaigns, seem designed to bring messages of hope and faith into the cultural spaces of social media.

In the “attractional” sense, Elder Bednar also advocates that members use technology to “proclaim the reality of the Restoration of the gospel in the latter days”— the message of Mormonism’s doctrinal exceptionalism. The Sharing Goodness website encourages users to show “how simple truths can help you be happier” so that “those who know you may inquire about the different tone of your posts…[and] will see your light and may eventually ask about your posts. Let them come to you, attracted by your light and your life.” And of course, the active proselyting missionary force is an ever-present medium of attracting constituents to the body of the Church.

Yet this “attractional” approach can often rest on vague or sparse descriptions of what it is people are coming for; what are these simple truths, exactly? And how do they differ from any of the other truths being broadcast by other groups?

The documentary Meet the Mormons seems to also represent a muted “attractional” approach: while explicitly “not trying to convert anyone” and only “help those not of our faith better understand Latter-day Saints as a people” (according to the director), any film with a name like Meet the Mormons produced by an institution with a dedicated proselyting force can only have an implied chain of hoped-for events: familiarization, interest, investigation, and conversion. The collection of stories—told in a way that was meant to be “entertaining, uplifting, and engaging”—aimed to represent how “diverse” Mormons live out the normal parts of their lives—working, raising a family, etc.—with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The film, however, did not highlight anything particularly distinctive about Mormonism (according to disappointed critics); in an “attractional” approach that elides the uniqueness of Mormonism, the draw has to rely on something broader: in this case, what seem to be happier, more wholesome lives. I’m not saying Mormonism can’t offer that; but to present the shiniest possible face of Mormonism in this implicit attractional approach runs the risk of presenting a religion that boasts merit badges and cheerful guarantees of “more happiness” rather than one that requires “the sacrifice of all things” or promises to heal, not prevent, life’s wounds.

This, at least, is one of several risks that an “attractional” approach entails—at least, one that tries to mute its exceptionalism. Another is the potential to dilute Mormonism into a kind of bonus package for life—something I think is evident in the goal expressed by the MtM director:  “[Viewers] will get a sense of ways someone’s life is enhanced by living the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Not to hang too much on a single word—but this diplomatic idea of “enhancing” someone’s life through the gospel of Jesus Christ dramatically dilutes the essence and purpose of Mormonism (which, like other Christians, is centered on rebirth and transformation in Christ—and more radically, eventual theosis; a process that hardly seems captured by this “lite” version of Mormonism). On the other hand, an attractional approach that embraces its own peculiarity can be “too different,” and thus jeopardize its capacity for relevance and connection—and collaboration with other faiths (something the LDS Church seems more invested in, of late). It can also smack to others as too exclusive, with absolute truth claims that jar the senses of a pluralistic society such as ours. In a broader sense, attractional approaches can also be perceived as overly commercial or even invasive—particularly to a millennial generation that is keenly attuned to advertisement and marketing.

The missional approach has its own perils for Mormonism: in promoting universal, inclusive messages that reach out to uplift or improve the lives of people in their own cultural spaces, Mormonism implicitly adopts a kind of denominationalism — an acceptance of Christian pluralism by which doctrinal differences are ultimately insignificant (which, to some Mormons, would defeat the point of the Restoration). The missional approach puts distance between the institutional church body and the evangelized—which may strike some Mormons as inadequate or incomplete fulfillment of its proselyting responsibilities. I don’t have space to broach the difficulties of trying to formulate a consensus within Mormonism of what exactly their “missional” purpose should be (most recently evident in the disagreement between Richard Bushman and Ralph Hancock about whether the Church should primarily be a source of compassion and good will in a conflicted world, or a bedrock of moral steadfastness in relativistic world); nor have I touched on the problems of using the inherently performative (branding, self-imaging) but ostensibly organic (non-commercial), yet evaluative (quantifiable “likes,” downvoting, etc.) medium of social media to share pre-packaged spiritual messages or personal convictions.[2]

Ultimately, I’m not sure how the Church can simultaneously achieve its missional and attractional aims—as I see them currently expressed—in a coherent way. I’m not sure which way it will go, but I think the Catholic Church provides one interesting template. Just days before Elder Bednar’s address, the Pope’s social media expert Archbishop José Gómez spoke to Catholic clergy and educators about the Church’s presence on social media in the “missional” task of “giving the internet a soul,” or imbuing the internet with Christian ethics. Catholics were urged to facilitate a “culture of encounter” that would help people encounter Christ in their “own language and culture,” according to another Catholic leader. Furthermore, Catholics were encouraged to “seek out and collaborate with the ‘good Samaritans’ who are using social media positively, even if they’re not people of faith.” This collaborative, broadly evangelical, and decidedly missional emphasis may find resonance with Mormons who feel less comfortable with an attractional approach. In any case, Mormons are not alone in trying to figure out how to navigate, in the words of Archbishop Gómez, the new digital “mission territory.”

—–

1 1. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Press, 2009) 163-164; see also this interview, describing the importance of linking mission and worship:

2 The Church newsroom has recently featured people in their “own voices,” perhaps to respond to the tension of communicating spiritual conviction through pre-packaged videos or messages. Mormon Messages have also produced videos addressing the “less shiny” side of gospel living, focusing on depression, pornography, hectic or disordered lives, etc., which I think is a promising counter to the merit badge approach.


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