Thursday, March 8, 2012

We Are Responsible, Largely, for the Experiences of Others at Church

[Normally, I would proivde a link to a good post from somewhere else today, but I felt impressed to share this memory, instead.  I hope that decision was inspired - that this post touches someone, somehow today.]

There was a discussion in a leadership meeting I attended once that centered on the question of why members left the Church and what we could do about it. I knew how it probably would go naturally, so I piped up right at the beginning and said that most of the people who have left with whom I have talked personally mention being bored and feeling unfed at church - and that the best thing we can do, in my opinion, is to make our services and classes and meetings at all levels and of all kinds more spiritual and more spiritually filling.

As I expected, there was an initial, immediate reflection of that onto the people who don't come prepared to feel the Spirit (as if it's their own fault for not feeling fed and feeling bored), but the conversation eventually ended up focusing on the "standard" idea that everyone needs a friend, something to do and nourishment with the good word of God. I agreed and simply pointed out that it is up to the leadership of each ward and branch to set the example of nourishing with the good word of God and insist that the membership do that, as well, to the best of their ability.

This is one issue where I agree completely with the "standard Sunday School answer". Everyone needs a friend (someone with whom s/he can talk honestly and openly without being judged or condemned), something to do (to not feel like a nobody and to serve others) and spiritual nourishment (thoughtful, uplifting, enlightening, spirit-directed teaching and sharing). One is social; the next is active personal; the last is spiritual.

If all three of these things were provided to every member, there still would be issues - but they would be much fewer, far between and less serious. So, my advice to everyone is simple:

If you want to deal better with some of the things that cause you to struggle at church, be a real friend to someone at church, find something to do at church that is important and meaningful to you (whether that is an official calling or not) and provide nourishment of the good word of God to those who need it (including yourself outside of church time, if you aren't getting it directly at church from others).


ji said...


I like your thoughts here. But I would like to add a couple of thoughts of my own to take it a little deeper...

We so often think of "we" and "they" -- what "we" need to do so "they" will remain active -- there is something problematic about that approach for me -- every man or woman who has accepted baptism is part of the body of Christ, however imperfect any individual may be, and we all serve and grow together.

Part of the problem is laying modern conventions over ancient principles. A "ward" or "stake" as an organization is a wholly modern invention, and it causes us to look at the Church as an organization with a ward as a subunit of a stake and a stake as a subunit of the home organization. But it isn't really so. In ancient times there were no wards and stakes, I suppose, although there were Aaronic Priesthood priests (we might call them bishops today) and Melchizedek Priesthood priests (we might call them stake presidents today). We would be better served if we looked at ourselves at the local level as members of the body of Christ who serve with Bro. ___ as our Aaronic Priesthood priest and with Bro. ___ as our Melchizedek Priesthood priest. "We" are the Church in this area; or in other wards, the Church in this area is "us".

Another aspect where modern culture has affected all of us is consumerism. We look for a religion that gives us what we want. When we look at numbers and think we need to do something differently, as in your meeting, it seems to end up that "we" need to do something to help "them" -- we need to deliver something better, or more interesting, or more engaging, or more whatever, so that "they" will like it and remain active. Church members err when we think of the Church as an entertainment or food service venue, for example, whichever side of the counter we're on (whether the serving side or the being-served side).

I believe the three things that President Hinckley mentioned are all good, and members do need those things -- but I hesitate to go so far as to separate us into two groups: those who will deliver these things and those who will consume these things. Rather, I think our normal course of Christ-like living will provide these things over time; some sooner and some later depending on the circumstances of one's own little Church.

In the early days of Church history, the Lord himself and other leaders spoke of the branches scattered around as "the Churches" -- each branch was a Church -- there is something in that. When we look at ourselves as just one Church (the big mother Church) and ourselves in a small subdivision (ward) of a subdivision (stake) of the mother Church, we see an entirely different picture. We focus so much on the far-away leaders, granting them celebrity status among us, and we look with almost dismissive disregard at the Aaronic Priesthood priests and Melchizedek Priesthood priests among us. We would see things so much differently if we looked at our own local brothers and sisters in the gospel as "the Church". If we were able to do this, I think the problem you describe would be taken care of at the same time.

Paul said...

Papa D, I like your thoughts on this one. And I agree -- leadership has a key role in making sure the quality of the offering is where it should be. The handbook is clear about this; bishops are responsible for the quality of teaching in the ward. Organization presidents are responsible for the quality of teaching within their organizations.

Yep, there's value in having people prepared when they come to church, but it's easier to get them prepared when they feel like there's something to prepare for.

I like ji's thought, too. It's not so much about "us" keeping "them" active. They are us. It's about nourishing the whole body of Christ.

Papa D said...

Amen, ji. Thank you for that contriubtion. I was adressing the culture of "blame" I've seen in places where I've lived, and I think you said it very well.

Howard said...

I have attended other services that exceed ours by a large margin. Some were a celebration of Christ and life and others spiritually fed the congregation from beginning to end. They were an hour to hour and a half long feel good experiences and the music was wonderful. Contrast this with our stoic 3 hour endurance test. Yes we have doctrine they don't and yes I do feel the Spirit when attending my ward but it's more like prospecting most of the time I have to move a lot of debris to find a few nuggets. Is there some reason we can't have a friend, our doctrine and what they have or is the Mormon God depressed?

Papa D said...

Howard, I think it is almost entirely a function of local leadership. I've been in wards like what youdescribe, but I also have been in wards where it was much closer to three hours of spiritual feasting quite regularly - and the main difference was the tone, mood. focus and personality of the leadership.

That's one of the main points of this post - that things CAN and should be different that in the situation you described.

Howard said...

I know it varies I haven't encountered close to three hours of spiritual feasting yet but I would love to! How frequent is this? Have you ever been in a ward where this was the norm?

Papa D said...

In one of my previous wards, we had a Bishop who was focused intently on making Sacrament Meeting a spiritual event. For about two years, we also had an exceptional Gospel Doctrine teacher - and for about that same time we had a HPGL who was much like the Bishop as far as focusing on spirituality. So, three hours of really good food, at least, was the norm for about a year or two - but I've been in a number of wards where it was pretty good eating for at least two hours on a regular basis.

As I said, most of it was the result of a specific Bishop (and often Relief Society President) who simply was dogged about making it happen.

Aaron said...

I don't believe there is any one reason why people leave the church, but the lack of spiritually challenging or fulfilling meetings and classes is surely one of them. I don't subscribe to the view that I don't have any responsibility to make someone else's church experience meaningful. I do. We all do. If we aren't willing to make an effort, we have no business speaking or teaching or doing anything else. We might as well sit in the back and do a crossword puzzle.