The new media

The following is a talk I delivered yesterday during the adult session of Stake Conference.

For decades we have been lured into a distorted, triumphalist view of the Church by inflated and unsustainable conversion rates and the broken visions of those like Rodney Stark, the otherwise insightful sociologist who declared that Mormonism was the new world religion, and would have 265 Million members by 2080, becoming the world’s second largest Christian faith after Roman Catholicism. We have been content with our programs and with our activities and with our inward focus.

As Christ taught, the Salt and the leaven, both small things, approach the world differently. Salt was the primary means to preserve food, but it is not food. Christ spoke his words, not to the wealthy and well supplied, but to the poor and to those who knew hunger. Salt is insufficient on its own for life. So too the leaven. However, salt when combined with meat transformed the meat, and preserved it. But the meat also transformed the salt. Like salt, leavening, or yeast, is a small fraction of the bread. The yeast acts on the other ingredients and transforms them, but the yeast is also in turn transformed by them. The result is something new and it is the difference between life and death.

Joseph Smith preached a doctrine of radical connectedness. He rebelled against the proto-Victorian family in ways that make us uncomfortable today. Heaven and earth collapsed and an interconnected network of human relations arose. For over a century these connections were focused inwardly. Whereas we once were an isolated people, forced to rely on each other for survival, we now can live our lives autonomously. As everyone else in our society, we generally don’t need our neighbors. Moreover, we only need to be Mormon for three hours on Sunday. Our isolation has contracted beyond our religion, to ourselves. It is no surprise that the desire for connection and the intimacy that comes with it is so prominent, especially among our youth. Our children and our friends desire connection. The question is whether we will connect with them, changing them and being changed by them. Will we be salt, or shall we lose our savor?

[I poached the following blockquoted material from a talk on a similar topic by our very own Steve Evans, with some minor changes.]

In terms of modern digital media, the church has been quick to adopt new methods of communication as soon as they become viable to the mainstream. The Church has been on the internet for decades, and has a significant presence online: LDS.org was established in 1996, mormon.org in 2001, and the LDS newsroom (run by the public affairs department) several years later. The church has blogs, forums, chat rooms, and more. The Church has dedicated massive resources to digitize and make accessible content from scriptures and periodicals to historical documents and art. LDS.org gets millions of views and online resources continue to expand — e.g. book 2 of the church handbook of instructions is now online. Most churches just don’t have that level of resources available to their membership.

The church’s use of Youtube is interesting. We have a channel on Youtube called the Mormon Messages channel. It showcases a series of inspirational videos and themes and has some exclusive content not seen elsewhere.

  • Total Views: 19 million since 2008
  • #2 Top”Most Subscribed” channel in “Nonprofits & Activism” category of YouTube
  • #4 Top”Most Viewed” channel in “Nonprofits & Activism” category of YouTube
  • By comparison, the Vatican launched a channel in 2005, comparative total views are about 4.5M. (and they have over a billion members!)

The church is also very active on Facebook. The Lds.org FB page has over 430K followers. Mormon.org 210K, and the newsroom has 44K. My favorite, the Church History Library FB page, has much less. The Church’s Twitter presence is similarly very large.

Now, we are comfortable with “the church” doing things. We are a people that likes to be commanded in all things. We have the weight of tradition upon us. And some will say that the Church is true, and that we need not change. The voice of the Lord declared that our church was the only “true and living church” with which he was well pleased. I submit that to live is to change. The church is different now than it was for my grandparents and it will be different for my children. Where there is no change, there is only death.

And we are failing many of our people. Less than 10% of our single brothers and sisters worship with us. Our super activities, and our EFYs, and our Camps have failed them. Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments. Perhaps now, with the tools in our reach, we will succeed where those greater than us have not.

We have the opportunity to employ new tools to connect to each other, to change and to be changed by each other. And we can apply them both internally and externally. Internally, these tools can help us be more effective in creating the community of the Saints, the body of Christ. I have a friend who is a bishop in Britain and he has interviewed ward members by Skype. Their youth program is generally managed through Facebook. In London, in a ward where there is more than one convert a month, the bishopric and others generally communicate with and fellowship the new (generally immigrant) members via text message. I was chatting with [the next speaker who is a "mommy blogger"] and when she was a Relief Society President in Connecticut, she held RS Presidency meeting via Google chat. How can we do differently what we have done? How can we connect with our own people in new and better ways?

And externally, how can we connect with those not of our faith? Perhaps the greatest way to retain our savor is to not compartmentalize our faith. Let our Mormonism shine through. For those that blog, follow the example of the wildly popular “Mormon mommy bloggers,” who have vast and diverse readerships, including, according to a recent article on Salon.com, single atheist professional women. They do not write about Mormonism per se, but they do not hide their Mormonism and readers see it and the blessing it is. Two of Bellevue South’s own have recently published a cook book based on their Mormon flavored cooking blog.

As it relates to blogs, I have helped run an explicitly Mormon blog for the better part of a decade, and I never fail to be surprised by some of our people’s ignorance and lack of civility when faced with challenging ideas or different perspectives. Just take a step over to the comment section of the Salt Lake Tribune. Perhaps our cultural isolation has distorted our view. First I encourage everyone to be familiar with the content on the Church Newsroom, including their statements on controversial topics. Second, if we are to be the salt of all the world, we must have patience and empathy for others. How many of us have non-Mormon, or Evangelical, or gay friends? We are all children of God. And we are to leaven the whole world.

Many of us are already using Facebook. I encourage us to let our Mormonism shine through there. Now, nothing would be worse for the church than to have millions of Facebook users parrot the canned responses of church authorities. However if we include our lived religion in the view that others see, we have the opportunity to show the light of Christ as it mingles with our diverse personalities. Our Facebook status could read “making dinner for my friend who had a baby” or “I am insane. I’m taking the scouts ice camping.” One friend recently answered questions on her wall about BYU’s honor code from a non-Mormon associate. Hundreds of people will see that respectful exchange.

As Zenos said, those whom the Lord has called will always be few. Let us remember that salt alone is not nourishing, neither yeast. Let us connect with each other and with the world. Let us change and be changed. It is a peculiar miracle, that as we expand the body of Christ, we become the bread of his flesh. That we be sanctified by his blood, is my prayer.

Comments

  1. Natalie B. says:

    What an excellent talk Stapley (and Steve). I really like your discussion of salt and leaven.

  2. I wish that i could have been there J. It is also great to see your Stake taking these new technologies seriously enough to have you speak about them in Stake Conference.

  3. Thanks!

  4. Great (radical) fun.

  5. Excellent. Great thoughts.

  6. Great ideas and illustrations.

    You are so lucky. We’re still in the stage here that whenever a talk or lesson calls for listing time-wasters, or evils of the world, or threats to marriage, or false gods, or just about anything else not-quite-nice, the Internet is one of the first “evils” named. No explanation is given or called for; it’s common knowledge that the Internet in and of itself is bad. *sigh*

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Great work, J. Your stake is indeed true.

  8. Nice talk. Such a refreshing perspective and “modern” view. Love it!

  9. An interesting talk, as a British Mormon I think perhaps we are better suited to such things because we are so heavily outnumbered. Our youth use facebook to arrange most things. I teach at institute and the CFSA I’m attached to has a big Facebook/internet presence. This use of technology is brilliant. But It does concern me that so many parents are uninterested in their kids web life. My wife is the Stake Young Womens president and all the stake youth have her as a Facebook friend. She has on occasions had to speak quietly to one of them about living the same standards online as in the “real world” its sad though when their parents haven’t got a clue. Be were your youth are should apply to the web as well as other aspect of life. My own kids have facebook accounts with the condition we are “friends” and I help/encourage my youngest to blog, there are so many opportunities to connect with others via technology.

  10. Good ideas among a peer group, like the Facebook postings at the end. But how do adults connect with those 90% of youth online? Can then, and should they?

  11. JohnTeal, it is just like the mid nineteenth century. The British will save the Church.

    Clair, I’ll be the first to admit that it can be very creepy to have adults friending youth. However, if you a YW President or a Bishop, I think it isn’t creepy.

  12. Just to clarify, I agree random adults befriending our youth is a worry, all the more reason for our Youth leaders and parents to be involved. Although my two eldest have facebook accounts and we are their “friends” we don’t make a habit of extending this to their friends. In fact I regularly refuse friend requests from my kids friends. I can see my kids wall by being a friend and that’s enough. For example in a post made on my sons wall by a non member from his school, an inappropriate word was used. We didn’t wade in with censorship, My wife just mentioned in passing at the dinner table that she had seen a comment on his wall that was perhaps inappropriate and left it at that. A couple of days later our son proudly told us he had chatted with his friend at school and pointed out his mum could see his wall. The friend asked our son to apologise to us and has not repeated it. Sharing the gospel is as much about empowering youth and reinforcing standards as it is about sending out missionaries. As for my wife being friends with so many stake young women? We trust these leaders to take them camping, to have activities with them each week, why not trust them on Facebook? Until all parents can or will look out for their youth in such places I am proud that she has such a strong relationship with then to care.
    Finally I have 3 kids, the youngest is 13 in a couple of months and is desperate to have a Facebook account but respects our view that if the owners of said site impose a 13 year age limit ,she should be “honest in all her dealings” teaching is sometimes in non-participation.

  13. As a Facebook employee, I would have said an extra-hearty “amen” to this talk were I in your ward. Thanks for posting it.

  14. Our new Bishop is encouraging everyone in the ward to create a mormon.org profile, among other e-communication measures he’s implementing. It’s really cool to see the way he’s been able to connect with the youth in the ward.

  15. Randy B. says:

    Nice work, J.

  16. J, I’m going to forward this to our ward council. We had a discussion there yesterday about some of these same issues, and how some of the social media might help us connect.

    I’m reminded of how the Christchurch, NZ stake set up a facebook page in the wake of the earthquake there to disseminate information. We were also able to verify that a nephew working in Tokyo was fine when he skyped to his sister and mother this weekend.

    Salt and leavening are good metaphors here. I like your talk.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    Well done, J. I agree with the primary thrust of your talk, and wonder how it was received.

  18. Interesting. When I stated at a meeting that I would put up a FB page for our Stake Activities Committee, the HC rep’s first response was, “Uh,…I should clear that with the Stake President.” He was surprised to hear that the Church has such a large presence on FB.

  19. “cook book based on their Mormon flavored cooking blog.”

    I’ve heard that Mormons taste a bit like truffles, is this true?

  20. Jello with fruit and ice cream with chocolate syrup, actually, Karen – but finding out is discouraged in most civilized countries.

  21. Perhaps those that are struggling to convince fellow members of the benefits may like to share a link to the Manchester England Centre for Young Single adults, an excellent example including a link on its home page to the facebook group.

    http://ldscfya.co.uk/

    John

  22. Steve, it seems to have been well received, but then again, people don’t typically tell you to your face that it wasn’t well received.

  23. That must have been quite some talk! I commend you for the boldness you’re using.

    There’s a lot in here I’d like to respond to, which wouldn’t be fit for a comments section, so check my website later for a fuller response.

    For now, I’d just like to say that I feel our Mormon culture has lost it’s ingenuity. The earlier church, as you stated so well, was willing to blaze new trails in even the most sacrosanct of traditions. Whatever caused us to turn away from this attitude, we now have an opportunity to turn back to being a people excited about change and our place in a new world.

    Your references to the “salt of the earth” teaching of the Savior reminds me that He gave that commendation to the people as the ending to a session where he, piece by piece, tore down the culture of the day. This further informs the truth that we cannot expect the revolutionary change promised by the gospel to take place when the agents of that growth are in a state of stasis.

    And finally, as for the “creepiness” of befriending on Facebook, is a matter of carrying over the same ideals and behaviors we hold in the “real world” over into the internet. The issue is that we all still see these mediums as private, like some sort of secret clubhouse or back alley, when, in fact, they’re more a town square or cultural hall. Is it creepy for an adult in the ward to have some interaction with their children’s friends? To the extent they are exercising judgment and keeping it straightforward, I don’t think so. I understand the need for maintaining boundaries, but I don’t think the rules are any different on facebook than they are in real-life.

  24. Gdub, you are spot on with the misconception that these mediums are private they are more public than any real world. Some of our youth have friends counted in 4 digits on their profiles, anything put on their wall has MORE exposure than things said in a cultural hall ! Ps I couldnt get the link in your name to take me to your website.

  25. Thanks John,

    the issue is with my shared hosting. They have been experiencing all sorts of beautifully catastrophic downtime and issues all morning. I didn’t know about it when I changed some domain settings which is only compounding the problem. I say check back later, because I should have it fixed.

  26. @J. Stapley,

    Agree wholeheartedly with a lot of the premises you put forth–particularly about “challenging ideas” and “other perspectives.” I currently live in a Muslim-majority country and have had to bite my tongue when I’m back in the States on vacation and speak to others close to me (also members of the church) whose perspectives on Islam and Muslims sound like parroted cable news tripe. Before that, I lived in two heavily inner-city US wards wherein we truly tried to implement technology, but struggled because large segments of both congregations had neither computers nor internet access; the only connection we got outside of church was during a visit in a dodgy neighborhood (before dark, of course).

    Simple human interaction melts away religious differences and bridges technological gaps. I pray for more of that everywhere.

  27. I loved this talk. Salt and leaven, super. I’ll admit to facebooking my kids and some grandkids, but seldom write anything. Who wants comments on one’s facebook from your grandma. I can see the media as a great advantage to our people as a means of connection. I can even see me connecting to the world. So would our ward Recipe club (which is very successful) rate a blog.

  28. Just read this again and loved it again. Also, Ardis, good point about talks focusing too much on dangers not enough on virtues. Sometimes you’d think we’re a bunch of Luddites when we ought to be pioneers.

  29. Thanks, man.

  30. J., I’ve enjoyed the dialogue above. Thanks for your talk and your posts.

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