Embarrassment and Missionary Work

Sharing the gospel with friends and neighbours is usually difficult for most members in the British Isles. Missionaries often struggle to find people who are interested. When they do find someone our worship services either fail to speak directly to their concerns or they fail to inspire the forms of devotion that are congruent with their previous religious heritage. For local members there are a variety of social costs that come with being Mormon; our theology, history and praxis are quite alien to many Europeans (as Tresa Edmund’s Guardian column demonstrates). As Mauss has outlined, being a member of the Church in Western Europe is not easy. Within this network of dispositions, doctrine and our past, Embarrassment serves an unusual role in inhibiting the Church’s growth.

Although Britain, as we have been memorably reminded recently, is a Christian country it is a vicarious form of Christianity. For Grace Davie (a major voice in the Sociology of Religion), European cultural life is punctuated with key events which are mediated through religious institutions; such as marriage, birth and death. In short the religious minority, who make such rituals possible, receive implicit approval from the inactive majority through (infrequent) participation in these events.  Christianity, as a particular form of religious discourse, is increasingly becoming less-relevant as alternative forms of spirituality are becoming more popular. Admittedly this process is affecting many Christian denominations.  Yet while this process deepens, Mormons, who are also devout Christians, are further marginalised within this community; not only as Christians but also because they do not have the same level of vicarious support that other Christian faiths experience [1].

This marginalisation reinforces a sense of chosen-ness. LDS peculiarity then serves as an important identity marker which brings with it a feeling of divine favour. However, this marginalisation also means that speaking about our faith inherently involves a sense of embarrassment. The conversation about family values is fine but the one about Joseph Smith, Angels and Gold Plates is not.  Sharing your faith, particularly your Mormon faith, with a co-worker will be awkward at best; and it is this very awkwardness which simultaneously confirms this marginalised status.  Thus embarrassment both incentivises faithfulness whilst it inhibits proselytizing.

‘Seeking the second harvest’ in Western Europe requires that, rather than focussing specifically on resolving the costs of Mormonism, we need to be more conscious of the ways in which these costs are situated within a broader religious culture.

Notes:

1. As an aside, Mormons must have a civil marriage before they receive their Temple marriage.  As such there have been some who have tried to prohibit the use of LDS Chapels for the performance of civil marriages if the couples are not intending to go to the Temple after the ceremony. Because marriage is one of those events where people offer this vicarious support of religion in Britain this seems like a sure fire way of further alienating the Church from local people.

Comments

  1. Jonathan Green says:

    Aaron, I think the central part of your argument, namely:

    “This marginalisation reinforces a sense of chosen-ness. LDS peculiarity then serves as an important identity marker which brings with it a feeling of divine favour. However, this marginalisation also means that speaking about our faith inherently involves a sense of embarrassment”

    is a non-sequitur. Change “inherently” to “often” and I can get on board, however.

  2. I wanted to distinguish between the personal sense of embarrassment that might arise in a variety of situations and the structural sense of embarrassment that arises with having a marginal status in society. From this view, it seems logical to assume that embarrassment is inherent to marginalisation simply because it is an emotional response to this social position. I would argue that it is this structural sense of embarrassment that most keenly reinforces the notion of divine favour. I can concede, however, that the extent to which this embarrassment may be felt (as a result of marginalisation) can be of degrees.

  3. observer fka eric s says:

    The experience of Joseph Smith is no more ridiculous than a talking mule, parting a massive body of water, a rod turning into a snake, rising from the dead three and four days later, a person floating up into heaven, a pillar of fire coming from the sky and lapping up stone altars, and on and on and on. If a person has the capacity to exhibit faith in any one of these, they are amenable to have faith in them all. It has always struck me as odd how some purport to rationally pick and chose which seemingly miraculous and irrational instances are credible. So for another Christian to say that Joseph Smith’s tales are ridiculous is itself ridiculous because of the faith-based instances of their own Christianity.

    Basically, the conversation turns on faith and theism. The capacity is either there or its not. But I think you are right, in that the pews of Western Europe are emptying now because of alternative forms of spirituality which do not require or ask of one’s faith.

  4. >The conversation about family values is fine but the one about Joseph Smith, Angels and Gold Plates is not.

    Actually, whilst embarrassment is a major impediment to growth, as you astutely observe, Aaron, I’m not sure the above are the offenders. It’s that:

    a) Mormonism = “polygamous cult” in most people’s minds and thus it’s difficult to even admit to being a Mormon, and

    b) The lived Mormon experience is embarrassing. How many of us are confident that our friends will be happy to eschew tea, pay tithing, and endure hour after hour of what are likely to be perceived as bland meetings?

  5. Aaron
    We have never struggled with what I would call the “social conversion” aspects of the Church (i.e. the thinking that “this is a group of people I don’t mind hanging out with”). The problems come when the “costs” of membership begin to be realised (as well as discussions of gold plates etc). So we have a core of very devout members and a large rump of less-active or semi-active members who have never really gained a full testimony of the Gospel and are not willing or are reluctant to have full membership.

    As you should be well aware, all the members in Europe were asked to devote the most recent Fast Sunday to receiving inspiration to invite someone (either non-member or less-active) to a sacrament meeting in June. I’m sure this will bring some success but I agree with you that we will not truly get the “second harvest” in Europe until the Church has some kind of cultural identity outside of American-centric one we still have here. How we get that when most of the full-time missionaries are American and our literature cannot even spell the word Saviour correctly, I don’t know.

  6. Members of my French Ward tend to cite other kinds of embarrassments: the mentally ill, the chronically poor, and most of all the long term hostility and harshness just under the surface—old hurts that have not been forgiven.

    The other embarrassment would come in second, but it is also very real here. Our stake president is almost 100% incognito. He is smart, and has been able to successfully share the gospel one time with one selected person. Our previous bishop started talking openly about the church and none of his neighbors have spoken to him or acknowledged his presence in more than five years. We get a pass because we are foreign–talking about the church hasn’t had a price. The worst cases in our ward have involved anti-Mormon arson and personal property damage and in another, the loss of employment.

  7. Peter LLC says:

    the pews of Western Europe are emptying now because of alternative forms of spirituality which do not require or ask of one’s faith.

    That plus the checkered past and present of the dominant denomination as well as the state-backed coercion of tithes.

  8. In the UK, does the social cost vary geographically? In France it seems that the bigger the city, the lower the social cost. In a village the social cost is often enormous.

  9. I think the internet is making missionary work difficult here in the UK. I would bet that any where the internet is denser in population their is a direct correlation or missionary work tailing off. I am sure this doesn’t apply only to the UK and Europe but in the States as well.

    The Church like the tobacco industry seems to to do better when their is less access to knowledge.

  10. ” The lived Mormon experience is embarrassing. How many of us are confident that our friends will be happy to eschew tea, pay tithing, and endure hour after hour of what are likely to be perceived as bland meetings?”
    That is my difficulty exactly. I think maybe I am just burning out of years of church service. I see friends that are happy and wonder if they will find being a member will just add alot of stress to their lives.

  11. anonforthis says:

    I’m not sure how different this phenomenon is when compared to the American South or in heavily Catholic parts of the Northeast.

  12. observer fka eric s says:

    9 – James – The correlation between what we know as “traditional missionary work” and the internet is a fascinating topic to me. The LDS proselyting format in operation today is an approachc that stems from the turn of the last century. Seriously. And–subject to small tweaks–has not been changed at all even after the prolifeeration of the internet. The internet has vastly changed consumer behavior of all things–religious curiousities included. The Church is experiencing just how positively powerful the internet can be, but has not yet adapted the proselyting model yet . . . Sigh.

  13. Aaron, thanks for this thoughtful post. And thanks for your perspective in the UK. I remember that the smaller branches of my mission in Germany exhibited similar challenges as some mentioned in the comments — it seems the smaller the unit (and perhaps the smaller the town in which the unit is located), the more likely to have more idiosyncratic behaviors (behaviours) among the members. That certainly was the case in my branch (then ward) when I was young in Western Pennsylvania. My convert parents’ great surprise after embracing the gospel was realizing that their friends were not as enthusiatic (that is, polite, but not interested; please don’t ask again) as my parents were.

  14. ldsbishop, I am more optimistic about the (potential) attraction of our communities but I certainly agree that a number of dynamics are working against such efforts to invite people to Church.

    Paul2, we recently had a young woman join the Church in our ward. She spoke to me once and asked why, when she was investigating the Church , everyone kept saying to her ‘you seem so normal?’ This suggests that some British Mormons are so convinced that their religion is unusual that only the unusual would be interested.

    James, I think the internet is not all that important in Britain whereas I imagine it would be in the US. I suspect that people never even become interested enough to even look at google in Britain.

    Sally, I should add that, although I can understand why Mormonism is perceived as weird, I do believe that our theology and communities could be very attractive to many people.

    anonforthis (#11) the primary difference is that Religion in the US is thriving compared to the UK. Americans do not experience religion vicarious and the religious pluralism experienced by those even in the South and the North-East situates Mormonism in a very different context. Certainly embarrassment will still be felt but the way that Mormons are marginalised in Europe is different.

    Paul, I’d be interested to see how these demographic concerns play out. My experience of British Mormonism is fairly parochial. Moreover I have spent most of that time in a very densely populated part of England. I would be reluctant to speculate one what differences there might be except to say that in every war I have been this reluctance is pervasive.

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