Moroni, Tevye, and Testimonies (Oh, and some Jehovah’s Witnesses, too)

For my #4, I thought I’d redo a fairly recent post of mine.  I think it relates to John H.’s recent post about doubt and faith.  It’s my own take on some of the seeming inconsistencies in the Church, or at least in my testimony:

Lately some Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to have me pegged as a potential investigator (or whatever they call ‘em). I must say, these Witnesses are very dynamic and interesting to talk to. I think the Elders in my ward could learn a few things from them. But I digress. . .

We haven’t been able to catch each other when there’s been time for a discussion, but I’m not opposed to the idea. Although the JW’s vs. Mormons confrontation seems potentially uncomfortable for many, in my case I think I could actually enjoy it. I mean, I obviously won’t be converted, but it all seems interesting.

Then it hits me. I ‘obviously’ won’t be converted? Why is it so ‘obvious’? Well, because honestly, I won’t give it a real chance. Suddenly it seems a little condesceding to think that way. When I was a missionary, I went around asking people just to try, just to ask God if these things were true, and I promised them he’d tell them they were. In fact, I use that same process regularly even now. But I have no intention of employing it with the message they will share with me.

Intellectually, I have no problem conceiving that the Lord might tell me that I should no longer be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I highly, highly doubt this would ever happen, but as a hypothetical scenario I believe the possibility exists for the right decision for me to be to leave the Church.

Not only that, but in some respects I even consider myself somewhat disgruntled. I disagree with some of the policies of the Church and its members, and I find many aspects of the culture stifling.

So why do I even stay? Because of testimony, I guess. But that’s an interesting one because my testimony of what it means to belong to the "true Church" has changed drastically over the years. It was once something close to "everyone I trust says it’s true, and I think I feel pretty okay about that." I knew nothing in those days about how the Spirit works compared to now! Looking back, I can tell that aspects of my testimony on my mission were not altogether unlike the testimonies of those at Rameumptom (no, silly, not those): I’m so glad I’m one of the few who knows the truth, everyone else is going to hell, I’m their only chance, the world is so much more wicked now than ever, etc. I think it’s human nature to some degree to have an us against the world attitude about groups we’re part of, but I think this "only true Church" bit kind of encourages that.

These days, my testimony of what it means to be in the "true Church" isn’t as neat and simple. For example, I’ve learned as much about listening to the Spirit and about the kind of person I want to be from sources outside the Church as from those in it. Maybe more. Maybe what keep me here are largely the Fiddler on the Roof style tradition/identity issues, to tell the truth. Basically it comes down to the fact that our people have made covenants with the Lord through the proper authority. Many of those symbols are largely arbitrary (I don’t care what people say about the Word of Wisdom — it’s as arbitrary as the sleeve-lengths of our garments), and sometimes frustratingly so, but the point is that it’s how we’ve bound ourselves to the Lord. In other words, it’s who I am.

But that brings me back to my original thought: if everyone the missionaries taught thought like I did, nobody would be willing to put Moroni’s promise into effect. That seems contradictory and even somewhat hypocritical to me.

Anyway, my testimony has become slightly less Moroni, and a little more Tevye. I’m not sure why I’ve just written this thing, but feel free to begin the psychoanalysis.

Some comment highlights:

Steve: Thanks Logan. A great post.

On my mission I found myself wondering what I’d do if I answered the door to the missionaries. I came to the conclusion that I’d never listen to them. It was a slap in the face, that totally changed my perspective on missionary work (and on converts to the church, who are the bravest of the brave, IMHO).

Logan: I’ve mostly come to these conclusions since my mission, although my mission laid the groundwork. Sometimes I’d like to go back and give it a try knowing what I know now. But on the other hand, I don’t think I could give up the sex, so it’s just as well.

But I’m interested, Steve, how did your missionary work change as a result of your perspective change?

Steve: First off, I immediately stopped tracting. I realized that it was a complete waste of time, for the most part (at least, I felt like it was). I started to have more respect for investigators, and began looking for alternative ways to share the gospel & build up the kingdom. More service, more reaching out to the community. It was a scary experience.

Sometimes I wonder if all this means is that I got scared of tracting, and that I shouldn’t have given it up.

Logan: Well Steve, I can understand why you’d wonder if you just get scared of tracting. In my mission, at least, our stewardship reporting was heavily designed to encourage tracting, and thus so was the underlying measurement of how good a missionary one was. It would have been hard to buck that ethos. Tracting was always the easy, safe choice of what to do — you got better numbers and you could tell everyone at district meeting how hard you worked and how many blessings you’d receive for your 12 hours of tracting without getting in the door. If you weren’t baptizing many, at least you got the respect of your comrades.

Not that I meant to turn this into a critique of missionary methods or anything, but I’ve thought about this a lot, actually, having just been ward mission leader and frustrated with some of the culture and dynamics that go on between missionaries and the mission president.

Bob: About tracting… I never really "gave it up". But I did switch strategies toward the end of my mission from "We are missionaries of…with a message to share" to "We represent a Church, which is interested in helping the community. We teach English classes and computer classes; and now we’re interested in knowing what else we can do to help those in this community. Can we come in and discuss some possibilities?"

I’d say that on average I probably "got in" more than twice as much as before.

Kaimi: Great post. I think a big problem with the baptism / retention / temple / whatever tracking is that it has to assume an end point. And in real life, there is no end point.

We can say "5 baptisms — great!" But then the question: will they stay active? We can say "perfect retention through October!" But then the question: what about November?

There’s no end in the process. We like to count numbers, think we’ve reached a finish line, but there’s no finish line. Even death and exaltation (or damnation, as the case may be) is unlikely to give us a finish line, as far as I can tell. So our attempts to put a number, a success ratio, on missionary work, are bound to be woefully under-illustative. (Is that a word?)

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Comments

  1. The most rewarding experiences I had tracting were with people who were praying and waiting for us. Ok, at least twice with those people the tracting consisted of beign prodded to go directly to their doors and once directly to the very small neighborhood.

    Anyway.

  2. I suppose a good question to consider is why do you feel it is obvious that you won’t be converted? For me, I can personally say that my testimony of JS, president Hinkley and the BoM are kind of a cincher. I would seriously consider anything someone had to say in a gospel discussion but I seriously doubt that I would be swayed to leave the church for another church that doesn’t provide or believe in those things I already hold a testimony of. I don’t think that would be a traditionalist view.

    I would have to disagree with your next paragraph though. Let us assume the church is true, I already believe it is and may go into that later, but for now let’s have this caveat. If the church is true why would God want anyone to leave it. Certainly if there were aspects to your life or faith that were conflicting, God wouldn’t give up and just say, its time to move on? I would imagine that God would want you stay, be fellowshiped and have your concerns addressed, hoping that a change of heart would bring you back home. It makes me think of the prodigal son’s return. The father never wanted his son to go join another family that was not his, he simply kept faith he would come back.

    One of the things we just discussed in EQ was truth. What it means and how we in the church use it sometimes incorrectly. I believe this to be the true church of christ on earth. But that does not mean I believe we know 100% of the gospel as it exists in its entirety. That would shut out the oprotunity for revelation and new knowlege. But I do believe we have the most correct and the most of the gospel as it has been given to us on the earth.

    We also stressed that we do not hold an exclusive right to all truth either. Virtually all religions in the world hold some degree of truth.

  3. Charles, I thought I addressed your first question in the body of the post, but to clarify: I won’t be converted because I won’t give it a chance, which in turn is because being a member of the Church is my identity.

    And I agree that the Church is *true* (whatever that exactly means). But I also think that the Church isn’t *perfect*. As has been discussed here recently, the Church isn’t able to provide for every need of every person. As I said, I highly doubt it would ever happen — and if it ever did it would likely be because of my own weaknesses — but I don’t think the idea is impossible that the best way for me to progress would be outside of the Church.

    Let me say this again: I really don’t think this will ever happen to me. But I do think there’s a possibility. And I think that there are probably some people for whom leaving the Church truly was the right decision for them.

  4. I think it’s just being honest to say that if the missionaries knocked on your door, you’d probably reject their message.

    To a certain extent, this thread (and the one I oafishly posted today) is about missionary work and our struggles to get the message across in an effective manner. For a church founded by missionary work, we sure don’t seem to be doing a very good job of it lately.

    It’s not for a lack of trying, either. Our missionaries are clearly devoted and great instruments in the Lord’s hands. I just wonder if maybe we need to rethink our strategies a little.

  5. A couple thoughts:

    Tracting was at the bottom of the list of “finding tools” in the little white book for good reason.

    I had some more success with old investigators and less active members. These people were often far more easy to get in the door with and talk too. Unfortunately, there was usually a reason they were not baptized or had gone inactive in the first place. Still, they could be a good source of referrals.

    Steve, you say we need to rethink our strategies a little. I think that has been happenning. President Hinckley has been talking about retention for about ten years now! There is a new missionary guide, a “raise the bar” standard, and an ever-increasing emphasis on couple missionaries. Presumably the rethinking will continue until the Second Coming.

  6. Frank, I think you’re right on about rethinking our strategies, I agree that it’s already happening. I guess I was thinking about a shift in the attitudes of the membership in general rather than just a top-down change. What I had in mind was for members to stop outsourcing their missionary work, and to kind a source of renewed energy for sharing the gospel. I really think that conventional, door-to-door missionary work is statistically dead in North America.

  7. For freshman orientation at Brigham Young–which I eventually left for personal reasons–President Jeffery Holland began his presentation at the Marriott Center by showing the opening clip of Fiddler on the Roof, up to the spot where Tevye says, “in our town everybody knows who they are and what God expects of them”; then lights came up, Jeffery started his welcome. That day I was reborn as an old Jewish guy from Williamsburg and spent the semester walking around looking up and quoting things like, “Lord, I know we’re the chosen people, but couldn’t you choose somebody else for a while.” Then one day it occurred to me that President Holland had missed the point completely. The whole meaning of Fiddler is that children, generations, can break with and change tradition without the whole structure of the religion and culture tumbling down. When I tired of holding up the tent of Mormon tradition, I did let my heart ask the big Moroni question and the world opened up, far beyond Provo and beyond a movie about transformation and adaptation of Jewish culture to modern life. What the Mormons desperately need is not a Work and Glory, but an opus that appeals to all people because it makes the unique Mormon experience universal and finally brings very-worldly Salt Lake into the real word.

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