Forgive me in advance. This post might get a bit rambly. I’ve been having thoughts for the past few months (maybe even more than a year?) zooming around my head, and I’ve come close to writing them down now and then, but then they’d crumble apart when I tried to really bring them together, and so I never really bothered. Hopefully today will be different.
It’s a Mormon post (obviously), so feel free to ignore if that’s not your thing. I’ll be back to Pokemon updates and pop culture mania tomorrow.
We’ve been having the sister missionaries over to dinner every month or so for the past half year. Since Denisa and I are both returned missionaries ourselves, we like being able to connect to the missionaries and have them in our home. It’s a varied group, with some being more assertive and outgoing than others, but they all mean well, and I hope other members will do the same for our kids when they’re out on missions themselves.
But it’s not just to give them food, of course. Missionaries are focused on teaching other people about our religion, and with the influx of missionaries in the last few years (total LDS missionaries shot up from around 60,000 to the neighborhood of 90,000 in the space of a year, though it’s down to 75,000 now), there have been many more missionaries in our area. Our ward went from 2 missionaries to 4, and that seems to have happened in many other congregations around us (and the rest of the North East, judging by the few other wards I’ve visited here and there).
The church had a dramatic increase in the number of missionaries, and those missionaries had to be sent somewhere. I don’t have any specific data to back this statement up (it’s all anecdotal), but it stands to reason that the bulk of them didn’t go to exotic faraway places. They went to places where the church was already well-established, and where apartments and infrastructure could be easily found.
But this post isn’t about that. It’s about me. So let’s get back on track, shall we?
With the dramatic increase in missionaries has come a significant shift in the way the church approaches missionary work. We hear again and again that the role of the missionaries is primarily to teach people about the church. Finding people for them to teach is up to the members. We’re told that it’s most effective when members invite their friends to be taught by the missionaries in the members’ homes, and I don’t doubt that’s true. I’m sure there are statistics that show how many people get baptized through that path compared to the number of people baptized through other paths.
So the missionaries are here to teach, and our job as members is to “keep them busy.”
That’s all fine and good on the surface, but it glosses over a key assumption: while the number of missionaries in my area has doubled, the number of people living here has not. I hate to use the phrase, but I’m going to: back in my day, additional missionaries were sent to areas when those areas justified having additional missionaries. I’m not sad that additional missionaries are here. I enjoy having them in the area. But before the new ones arrived, it wasn’t exactly a booming, bustling place where missionary work was concerned. The Elders who were here weren’t working from morning to night, running from teaching appointment to teaching appointment.
In other words, if they weren’t “busy” when there was just two of them, the odds of four of them being busy aren’t too great, regardless of how many people the members find for them to teach.
When the missionary surge began, there was a great deal of excitement in the church. That many more missionaries had to be a great thing. And no doubt it is. But one thing it has not done is led to a corresponding boom in baptisms. Convert baptisms have remained steady, despite the dramatic increase in the number of missionaries.
So is that the members’ fault? Are we not holding up our part of the bargain? Is this “failure to convert” due to my hesitance to hand over my Facebook Friends list to the missionaries? (Tongue in cheek there a bit at the end, but also a bit not.)
And at last we come to part of the heart of the post: my relationship to missionary work. I don’t believe it’s changed much, even since the days I was out wandering the German city streets, looking for people to talk to about my religion. My goal at the time was straightforward: I wanted to tell people what I believed. I wanted to inform them about my religion and faith, and let them know how it’s helped me in my life, and how I hoped it could help them in theirs. At that point, once I’d been able to teach them about the Gospel, what they did with it was largely up to them. They could take it or leave it. If they wanted to take it, super! If they wanted to leave it, that was fine too. I really just wanted people to have an accurate understanding of what I believed.
That’s still the same today. One of the main reasons I write these long Mormon blog posts is because I still have a desire to have people understand where I’m coming from. There continues to be a lot of misunderstanding in the world about what Mormons believe, and if I can help clear some of that up, all the better. I will talk to anyone pretty much anytime about what I believe. I’ll happily answer sincere questions and clarify as needed. And when friends express interest in learning more, I’ll be the first in line to suggest they have the missionaries over to continue the conversation.
But I believe that choice is up to them.
It’s not my style to just go up to a friend out of the blue and say, “Want to have the missionaries over?” My style is to talk to them about what they believe. Offer advice when they seem to be looking for it. That advice is going to be heavily influenced by who I am and what I believe. My friends know and understand that. And over the years, I’ve invited some friends to hear more about the church. Some have accepted, and some haven’t, but they’re all still my friends. I imagine I’ll invite quite a few more over the years, but I don’t know when that will happen, and under what circumstances.
Here’s the thing: these days, my relation to the church would probably fall more under the “It’s Complicated” status on Facebook. I still believe in the church and its teachings, but I also recognize that many of those teachings are going to be problematic for many of my friends. For example, the approach the church has taken to gay members (and non-members) and their children has been very troubling for me. (Something I was very open with on the blog, as always.) What it boils down to is that I have no issue at all with the gospel. There are parts of it that I don’t understand, but even that makes sense: God knows more than I do, so it stands to reason He would do things that I don’t really get from time to time, just as I do things my kids don’t really get from time to time. (Try explaining income tax to a three year old, people.) I live my life as best as I can and trust that the gospel will iron things out eventually. (Sometimes, maybe the thing that gets ironed out is me. I’ve certainly got plenty of wrinkles.) It’s the day to day church membership and application of that gospel that can get pretty tricky.
I’m going to be blunt.
Some days, I come home from church and need a few hours before I’m able to calm down and not be one big bundle of frustration and irritation. Things people say, political opinions expressed, attitudes exhibited: they can all really rub me the wrong way. And I’m 100% certain things I’ve done and said in church (and on the blog) have caused other Mormons to want to pull their own hair out or yell at me or try to get me in trouble with a Bishop or three. I like to believe none of us does it on purpose. It’s just a side effect of having so many imperfect people from all walks of life interact with each other on a weekly basis. It’s what happens when many different, valid interpretations of how to live the gospel come crashing together week after week.
These days, my approach to helping others reflects my approach to sharing the gospel: I fall heavily on the side of personal responsibility. If people want to come to church, great. If they don’t, fine. I’m reluctant to be the one out there trying to drag them someplace they don’t want to go, whether they’ve been baptized or not. Our local congregation’s numbers have really shrunk, for a variety of reasons. Some people have moved away. Some people have left the church, Some people have just stopped coming. Is that on me? On the missionaries? I don’t think so. I think it’s on the individual. And yet sometimes it feels like if I don’t go to church, that’s my fault and I need to repent. And if my neighbor doesn’t go to church, it’s also my fault and I need to repent.
It all comes back to the same thing for me: live my life as best as I can. Try my best to be nice to other people and to be welcoming to others at church. Try to create an environment that is friendly and welcoming to all, and let people know it’s there and that we’d love to have them stop by. But once that’s done, then it’s up to the individual to decide what to do with it. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, right? And if someone doesn’t want to do something, no amount of me wanting them to do something will make up for that.
So if the church causes me such frustration some weeks, why do I keep going?
Simple: I believe it’s true. Despite all the issues, I’ve prayed about it and received personal confirmation that there’s truth at the center of it all. Living by its precepts, I’ve been very happy on a macro level. I have guidance when I need it, and overarching goals to help me stay on a good path. I’ve personally witnessed miracles through living this religion. It’s helped me countless ways.
But I’ve also seen friends leave the church for a variety of reasons. I respect those decisions, even understand some of them. We all have different paths to walk through life, and my path might not be yours, whether you’re a member or not.
It’s at this point that a blog post this long (1,800 words and counting!) usually has come to some sort of enlightening conclusion. Something that ties everything together and makes you feel like you’ve really arrived. So perhaps it’s fitting that this post still lacks that final oomph. Because that’s kind of the point. How do you take all of this baggage, all these years of living life and living the gospel, and tell the missionary who’s just met you and is now asking you which of your friends you’re going to invite to be taught, the missionary who’s not even 20 and is smiling so chipperly in front of you . . . how do you sum that all up and help them understand? Understand . . . everything?
I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Though of course, if any of you out there would like to know more about this Gospel, I know of a couple of missionaries who would love nothing more than to talk to you about it. Just give me a heads up.
And that’s about all I have to say on this at the moment. Not all I think, but all I can mash down into words. Thanks for reading.