Yesterday I attended a meeting at which Gary Lawrence spoke about the research he conducted which forms the foundation of his book, How Americans View Mormonism. His firm contacted 1,000 randomly selected Americans and asked 55 questions. The answers given by the respondents clearly demonstrate that we are doing a poor job of communicating.
I have written a post about Lawrence’s research previously at BCC, so there is no need to go over it again here. Suffice it to say that more people view us unfavorably than favorably, and that the only religion more disliked than Mormonism is Islam. The remainder of this post is a transcript of the rough notes I took during the presentation.
When asked to describe Mormons, people use words like honest, friendly, kind, strong family values, patriotic, and willing to help the needy. This is the message we are trying to send, so it is gratifying to see that it is being received. Unfortunately, people also use some other words to describe us: self-righteous, out of touch, insular, narrow, fanatical, and brainwashed. We must ask ourselves why people are also getting this second message we do not intend to send.
Much of the problem is because we seldom associate with people who aren’t LDS. The simple fact is that we are insular, and this insularity inevitably produces unsatisfactory and dysfunctional interactions and conversations about religion. We literally do not know how to talk to other people about our faith in ways they understand and find useful, and we are so clueless about our own cluelessness that we don’t even realize we are talking past them.
Lawrence gave an example. Many Americans believe that LDS people practice polygamy. We have expended lots of time, effort, and money to try to persuade them that we don’t, and we get our noses out of joint when people confuse LDS with FLDS, for instance. But he then asked the group how many of us understand the differences between the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Nobody raised a hand, to us, they are all Lutherans. Until we are willing to understand others, we have no standing to insist they understand us. [I was reminded of the wise aphorism from St. Francis R. Covey, that we should seek to understand before we seek to be understood.]
Another example involved the way we explain the central message of The Restoration: The gospel has been restored. Pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. When our neighbors hear ‘gospel’, they think Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. And when they hear that something has been restored, invariably they think of a physical object, like an classic car or a piece of heirloom furniture. We use familiar words, but in an unfamiliar context and consequently our listeners are unable to grok what we are talking about. Lawrence suggests that we say something like this:
We believe that Jesus established a church while He was on the earth, and that people later made unauthorized changes to that church. We believe that our church is the re-establishment of Christ’s original church.
Lawrence’s research found that many people are intensely curious about Mormons. He calls these people curiositators, to distinguish them from investigators. When somebody asks us a curious-type question, our strong tendency is to think it is an investigator-type question. We tell them that there are two young men in our congregation who would be glad to answer their questions, so the friend says “OK, send them over”. We give ourselves brownie points for being a good member-missionary, the missionaries think that they have been handed a golden investigator — after all, aren’t member referrals solid gold? — and they try to get a baptism commitment on the first visit. In the meantime, our (former) friend is wondering what is going on, he was expecting some kind of Q&A session. This scenario is very easy to imagine, I’ve done it myself, and it is also easy to see how our popularity numbers wind up in Al Quaida territory.
Here are some suggestions Lawrence made as to how we can improve the way LDS people are perceived:
1. Actively seek to befriend people who are not LDS. NEVER BRING UP THE TOPIC OF RELIGION. They will find out soon enough that you are LDS and ask you about it. When they do, answer the question as simply and briefly as possible, then change the topic.
2. When speaking with others, speak English instead of Mormonese.
3. Respond to curious questions with short, direct answers. Resist the urge to drop the whole ton of bricks on somebody who asks you a simple question.
4. Use the missionaries judiciously, and make sure to set appropriate expectations on both sides.