I haven’t been able to shake Mike’s excellent post from Thursday. The identification of need with belief strikes me as an important one for our faith.

But I haven’t been able to shake it not just because of the insight it provides, but because I’m a step outside of the world Mike describes: frankly, I don’t need the church to be true.

That’s not to say I don’t believe, or that I don’t participate. I do both. But I don’t need the church to be true in a way that previous generations may have.

Partly, I live in a disenchanted world. I don’t need religion to explain the world I live in. Science can do that. I may not understand the intricacies of evolution or of the Big Bang, but I could if I’d focused on science rather than music and literature. The world around us is spectacular. It’s beautiful. And it’s explainable.

I don’t need religion to live a good life. I can act ethically without fear of hell or hope for heaven. Many people navigate life admirably without religious belief. Many people fail miserably in spite of religious belief. (Also, the reverse: many fail without religious belief, and many navigate life admirably with belief.)

I don’t need religion to get ahead. My Mormonism doesn’t open a whole lot of doors in Chicago, or in academia. (I’ll note that it also doesn’t really close any doors in either place.)

I don’t even need the community that religion provides. Most of my friends are the parents of kids my kids go to school with. Or people I work with, or people who live in the same building I live in, or people whose kids do the same activities my kids do.

None of that is to say religion doesn’t explain the world I live in, doesn’t aid my living a good life, doesn’t provide me with a community. It does all of those things. It’s simply that I don’t need religion to do any of those things.

And what does that mean? Maybe nothing. But more and more I believe it means that we need to think carefully about what we’re offering. To the extent that people don’t need religion in the same way they once did, our truth-claims may not be enough to capture their interest.

Does that mean we should give up our truth-claims? By no means. But we may have to recognize that they, standing alone, may not be enough; what does it matter if we’re the only true and living church upon the face of the earth if the people we’re engaging with aren’t choosing only among churches, but also among church and non-church?

Ultimately, a large part of the reason I attend church, a large part of the reason that I engage with the church, is because I’ve chosen to. But that choice can be a hard one, for all sorts of reasons. If we want to care for Jesus’ sheep, we need to engage them at the level they need. We need to be open to the idea that “One True Church” is answering a question many of our neighbors don’t have.  And we can’t take for granted that they want religion—if we want to be truly pastoral, we need to give them a reason to choose belief.


  1. Spot on. This is the problem I see the church needing to address. Where is the relevance if we don’t need the church for all the traditional reasons people attended? No body I know is really asking “Where do I go after death” or “Why am I here” any more. Nobody (outside of members defending their own faiths) cares which church is more true than all the other churches. And yet, those are the reasons we throw out for convincing people to listen to the missionaries.

    IMHO, the next generation (or their children) will return to wanting faith as part of their life. Spirituality is part of being human. This future generation is not going to go backwards though. So let’s start looking forward to how we build a church that satisfies the inner needs people actually have today and pushes them out of their comfort zones to be better members of the human race. And make it something that is so appealing, people crave what it offers.

  2. Because I have to look at everything by comparison with history: In about 1930 John A. Widtsoe realized that the old missionary tracts — the ones elders had been using for 50 years or more — were no longer having much if any effect in the field. Nobody had the same questions anymore, so they didn’t care how many ways the missionaries could prove through Biblical texts that the Restoration fulfilled ancient prophecy. Widtsoe wrote a series of “Centennial Tracts” that instead focused on what people *did* care about: How to live healthier, happier lives; how to raise their families; how to get along in a changing world. He wrote about how the Church could answer all those questions — and laid the groundwork for the world all of us grew up in, with the way we present ourselves at fairs and in the Reader’s Digest and on TV spots.

    So it doesn’t seem radical to me that the world may have moved on to a different set of questions, and that our outreach to nonmembers and our own next generation might need to emphasize a different subset of gospel benefits. Sam could be on to something here — at least there’s historical precedent.

  3. Thanks, ReTx and Ardis! (I especially love to learn about the historical precedent.)

    I want to emphasize, I don’t see any need for the church to back down on its truth claims. We’re a restorationist religion that appeals to scripture, to revelation, and to an authority structure. All of that can still be true while, at the same time, we look for how the church (in its current structure, with its current doctrines) can better serve the society we’re in. And I think there’s at least value in exploring the idea.

  4. Sam,

    This resonates so deeply with me. Thank you.

  5. D Christian Harrison says:

    Lovely post, per usual, Sam… but I must disagree with your point that you don’t need religion in order to live an ethical life. My full response may end-up taking a proper post, but the short of it is this: your ethical framework is borrowed from a religious heritage. So while you may or may not “need” such a framework, you cannot extricate yourself from having already availed yourself of one. Moreover, sans a religious framework, the mechanisms needed to promulgate a secular moral framework would—in very short order—look (and behave) like a religion.

    That’s the short version.

  6. Thanks, Christian. I think that’s a good point, but I would respond that, even if I needed a religious foundation to build a non-religious ethical system on, that religious system is an already-existing infrastructure. It doesn’t demand my current or future participation in religion for me to build on the foundation that’s already there.

    Again, I’m not trying to argue that religion has no value, merely that the place of religion has shifted, and that we need to deal with that shift in our pastoral roles.

    And also, I look forward to your post!

  7. Sam, what I think you’re saying makes sense to me and I think it is important. It does feel like many people’s wants and needs, and what the Church teaches in outreach, have diverged.
    I think the emphasis on family (that I casually peg to the last two decades) is a genuine attempt to bridge that gap. My personal opinion is that the family emphasis is turning out to be more divisive than bridging (but that’s a controversial view, and not the point of this comment).
    Some of your phrases suggest that what anybody needs out of religion is all wrapped up in truth claims. But your examples say otherwise. Mormon practice of my generation put a lot of emphasis on truth claims, but it doesn’t have to be so. I think truth is only a small part of the whole menu of benefits religion can offer.

  8. D Christian Harrison says:

    But in making your argument, you are making use of a line of thinking used elsewhere—though to somewhat different ends—namely, that religion isn’t necessary to live a moral life. My point—raised in part to your comment and in part to this larger conversation—is that you’ve used the framework in the past… rely on it today… moreover, your children (and their peers) will use it or something that looks very much like it in the future. So making the argument that you don’t need something that you’re benefiting from, strikes me as unfortunate.

    We must, I agree, adjust our pastoral and evangelical messaging to account for such a perception—but I do not think the perception is well-grounded.

    When conservatives of a certain stripe extoll the virtues of “making it on our own”, progressives of a certain stripe rightly pillory them for ignoring the enormous role that the collective played and continues to play in their success (roads, police, fire, communications infrastructure, ad nauseam). This feels not a little like the line of thinking that you’re tapping into.

  9. I think that’s a totally fair criticism, Christian. At the same time, though, I don’t think saying, You’re living your life on an infrastructure established by the church! is going to put a ton of butts in the pew (though there is something I personally find attractive about the argument).

    Moreover, that argument doesn’t militate in favor of Mormonism (or any other particular religion), since we have deep foundations in Protestantism and Catholicism, which in turn have foundations in Judaism, which in turn has foundations in other ancient Babylonian religions, which in turn probably find their roots in something else.

  10. D Christian Harrison says:

    I think each religion will have to make its own argument in favor of its brand of the framework. ;-)

  11. nothing assumed about your food allergy says:

    Sam, if religion is unnecessary to respond to the needs you’ve listed, why do we care about putting butts in the pew? What are these other needs or questions that our religion might have a unique answer to?

  12. Clayton Christensen deals with this effectively in his book the Power of Everyday Missionaries. He talks about the missionary message being too invite people to join us in service projects in our wards, serving in our communities. I think it’s a timely approach and one much more geared to retention in our current age. Continuing to answer questions fewer and fewer people are asking is not a good strategy. Now people are asking “How can I find meaningful service opportunities?” It’s also behind the launch of justserve. It’s a soft sell obviously in that it’s kind of not selling at all. People will have experiences that in turn open their minds to new questions. Or so the thinking goes.

  13. A Happy Hubby says:

    Sam – Very interesting and much of it resonates with me and OH how I wish we could have such a conversation even in my local ward (a very good ward).

    One separate thought came to my mind. You mention several things you don’t NEED the church to be: true, explain the world, provide you moral framework, membership in a club to help open doors, a community, etc.
    But there is a flip side that drives away many people also. They DON’T WANT a church that: is heavy on patriarchy, look down upon LGBQT+, degenerate other religions/beliefs, shame sexuality, preach rigid gender roles, etc.

  14. In choosing the aspects of the church that we emphasize in our missionary work, we shape the next generation’s living view of the church—the teachings that the common member sees as most important and the practices that the common member experiences as being most central. I am thrilled at the thought that devoting increasing attention to service among full-time missionaries could, over time, open our wards to more engagement with the larger community.

    On the other hand, we have a strong institutional bias in favor of emphasizing doctrine in our teachings. In other words, we have a tendency to cast beliefs and practices in doctrinal terms rather than practical terms. I’m struck by the example of our emphasis on the family, which might have begun as an effort to stress a positive aspect of Mormon life, but then mutated into a new doctrinal rigidity over sex and gender issues. By boiling The Family down to a doctrinal essence, we’ve taken most of the juice out of it.

  15. great post Sam and loved that comment Loursat!

  16. Hawkgrrrl says:

    Loursat: Exactly! I’ve been lamenting the same thing since the church pivoted hard in that direction in the 1980s after we got so much positive press about our families. Church leaders, missionary dept, and curriculum writers all got the memo that this was the important thing, what made us attractive to other people, and what would bring people into the church. But boy have we gone down the rabbit hole! We’re now at the point that we are losing people because they don’t have an “ideal” family (or may never have one), and we forgot that the gospel isn’t just for families.

  17. “I don’t need the church to be true.” I had the exact same reaction to Mike’s post. And that need is perhaps even less acute for me since I do not have the foggiest idea how an organization can be “true.” This, combined with the fact that so many of the church’s truth claims have been discredited or abandoned by the institution itself, makes the “truthfulness” of the church seem inconsequential.

    So, why do I stay?

    Much of what I have learned in the church about the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the scriptures peculiar to church (in addition to the Bible) has the ring of truth. Further, by and large its members strive to live that gospel, and they make me a better person by encouraging me to do likewise. Though I have found important truths in other faith traditions that appear to be absent from Mormonism, the LDS church has facilitated my gaining a testimony of Christ, His teachings and His atonement. In addition, by expecting not much more than this from the church, I am less likely to become disenchanted when, on occasion, its leaders appear to act contrary to the Savior’s teachings. The only thing that is hard, at times, is getting some of my saints to accept me on these terms.

  18. Brother Sky says:

    Nice post, Sam. I think I’m with you on most of it. I wonder, too, if the notion of need is less individually driven and more of an institutional thing that we imbibe and then mistake it for our own need. What I mean is that the church, because it needs to put “butts in the seats”, as nothing assumed puts it, feels the need to manufacture need: The eternal family, the plan of happiness, the (just flat wrong) implications that anyone who isn’t a Mormon is living an incomplete life, etc. That message, obviously, isn’t as effective as it once was because people don’t respond to the needs that the church assumes they have. That is perhaps what gets us to your original post’s last comment about the “ONE TRUE CHURCH” answering questions most people don’t need the answers to. So the way I’d frame this issue is that the church responded to/created a need that at one time existed (or the church assumed it did) but now, that need no longer exists (in part because of a far less homogeneous culture than existed even thirty years ago) and therefore the church is losing traction because the need it’s trying to create isn’t one that people are buying into.

    If that’s the case, then the other thing that happens is that the church’s truth claims become de-legitimized, not because non-believers push back and assert that those claims are untrue (though there is solid evidence that pushes back against many of those claims), but because those truth claims are no longer relevant. So in essence, the church is failing because it is failing to manufacture need in the minds of non-members (and plenty of members, judging by declining attendance). Is that about right?

  19. I mostly agree with the sentiment of the OP, but I think it underestimates the comfort of doctrines about the eternities for those who have suffered profound loss. I imagine the drastic reduction of pain and suffering related to death, along with less premature death in Western cultures, particularly among the more wealthy, is part of what the OP is describing. Certainly people without God find ways to cope with loss, but it sure helps that people experience so much less loss now. As for me, I will choose to keep believing that I’ll see my son again no matter what any evidence might demonstrate to the contrary. I choose not to live in that world. It offers no light for my soul, only a universe full of cruel entropy. I’ll go mad before I’ll give up my hope of holding my son again. If no one were to preach this doctrine to me, I would make it up myself.

  20. A Happy Hubby says:

    Nice recap Brother Sky. A hearty AMEN.

  21. I think that the basic source of the church’s vitality is the ineffable Spirit. Missionary work and all other kinds of ministry always involve our somewhat fumbling efforts to explain what can only be felt. We are constantly looking for ways to get the Spirit into people’s lives, and the messages that help make that connection must change as the world changes. So I don’t think it’s quite right to say that the church manufactures need. Instead, we are always trying to discover how the divine can manifest itself in a constantly evolving culture.

  22. nothing assumed about your food allergy says:

    Owen, thank you for your comment. This is very similar to my position right now. Anything not directly related to the question of death and resurrection is for me utterly beside the point. I don’t need the church to be “true,” but man do I need Christ’s resurrection to be true.

  23. Chadwick says:

    My experience with our Church’s position on eternal families has been very interesting. I remember as a missionary always getting excited for the fourth discussion, thinking it would blow people away. It never did. Their opinion on the fourth discussion was that they already believed in eternal families, even if their current church didn’t teach it. I think people believe what they will in order to survive hardship, and don’t need a church’s rubber stamp to make it so. Which unfortunately can render our beliefs somewhat moot, unless people really want to understand the logistics of eternal families, which we can provide.

    If family is no longer the message to share with the world (and I agree it’s not since we are defining family too narrowly now for the masses), then what is our message to the world? The only thing I can think of is peace. The gospel brings me peace. Anything else, I do agree, can be found elsewhere, though for some of us wandering introverts, the instant community is also a huge blessing.

  24. Loursat’s comment on the universal importance of the Spirit reflects the reality of what each of us, believer or nonbeliever needs whether or not we realize it. As Elder Holland stated:

    Most people don’t come to church looking merely for a few new gospel facts or to see old friends, though all of that is important. They come seeking a spiritual experience. They want peace. They want their faith fortified and their hope renewed. They want, in short, to be nourished by the good word of God, to be strengthened by the powers of heaven.

    Which echoes Moroni’s own description of purpose for the community of Christ and what it can offer the adherents:

    And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith. And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls. And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus.

    Whether or not we personally need the Church, as a member of the body much as the head needs the heart and the foot, the Church needs us. Today I may not need anyone to serve my needs but I can be certain then that someone probably needs me to serve them.

  25. This makes me think of the losses of mainline Protestant churches for the past half-century, and the losses evangelical churches are more recently reporting. The need for religion just isn’t there like it used to be, and Mormons aren’t exempt. Their clergy struggle plenty with how to stay relevant to their flocks, and how to make adjustments to meet their needs. I hope our leadership struggles similarly, though more often than not it looks to me that our leadership has an attitude of what can you do for US, not what can we do to help YOU. Like they’re compliance officers, not shepherds.

    Also, Loursat, I’m loving your comments.

  26. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    Owen and Nothing Assumed:

    I don’t disagree… yet I think your comments illustrate the OP’s point precisely, but sort of inverted. That is, if we’ve experienced profound loss, the doctrine of eternal families is phenomenally appealing. As Owen puts it, “If no one were to preach this doctrine to me, I would make it up myself.”

    But in a way, that’s the point of the OP: not everyone feels that way, nor are an increasing number of people centered on the doctrine as a motivator in any event. As you yourself put it, one doesn’t really need the church to provide such doctrine, because in the absence of some institutionally promulgated doctrine of eternal families we’d simply assume it’s true anyway, in some form or another.

    By needing the doctrine (of eternal families) to be true so desperately, you effectively articulate why one doesn’t need an organized religion to assert it in order to believe it.

    This is a fascinating OP and thread! And it does tap into something I’ve increasingly suspected: that the traditional missionary “appeals” are appealing to an increasingly narrow segment of society: those who already want organized religion and are simply searching/ready for the “right” one.

  27. A few years ago I worked with a German PhD in the hard sciences in his early 30s. Getting to know him was a revelation for this lifelong Mormon RM. I was so used to the religious/anti religious narrative, where there are enemies to religion that must be either refuted or won over, that I was unprepared for a third alternative. He was far from religious but he wasn’t anti religious either, he was areligious. And I realized that to him, an educated, young European, religion was kind of like witchcraft might be to me. I’m not pro witchcraft nor am I anti witchcraft, because, as they say, I have no dog in that hunt, and any passionate arguments pro or con about it are both irrelevant to me as a 21st century American.

  28. Glenn Thigpen says:

    There is a difference between not needing something and not feeling the need for something. Wisdom is knowing the difference.

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