In the community where I am currently privileged to live, many churches abound. These churches fill various niches: some serve students, some serve the low-income community, others are historically black, some are conservative, and others are liberal. Many are Evangelical, but there is a large diversity of brands. While having a diversity of churches in an area might seem unsurprising, I have recently been startled by the perspectives of many people who attend these churches.
As a Mormon, I am accustomed to the idea that a proper belief in God must be accompanied by a belief in his authorized church. Although I do not always believe that everything within the LDS church is inspired or even representative of what God might deem “best practices,” I am nevertheless a product of a theological culture in which my participation in God’s church often seems like a measure of my faith in God. In other words, I carry in my head the idea that a decision to stop participating in the Mormon church would be an act of de-conversion not only from the church but also from proper belief in God. In our church, after all, we profess our knowledge that God loves us in the same breath that we profess His church is true.
However, as I interact with people from the many churches in my community, I begin to notice a pattern. Many of these people are very strong Christians, yet they don’t have allegiance to a particular church. Instead, they often switch churches without guilt or compunction as their lives change in ways that make some churches more conducive to their spiritual growth than others. As one of my neighbors recently put it to me, her testimony is of Christ, not of a particular church. Although she loves The Book of Mormon and programs like Relief Society, she feels that she can add these into her life without actually converting to our church. They are simply other testaments of Jesus Christ that add value to the core faith she already has.
Surely, our success at propogating ourselves as an organization stems in part from its members’ theological commitment to believing that they can only attend this church. But these faithful Christians raise questions in my mind. Are we a culture that focuses on conversion to a specific church and culture more than on conversion to Christ? And, if so, what does belonging to this church really add to the relationship with the Savior that faithful Christians already have other than access to ordinances that we believe are necessary? Although church doctrine construes Mormon ordinances as necessary to return to Christ, does our belief in our church risk overshadowing a message about Christ? Can it make sense within the theology of Mormonism to have a faith in Christ but not a faith in the church? Has conversion to the church always been such a strong aspect of Mormonism, or in early times was conversion to Christ and his gospel more detached from an organization?