Why go to church

I’ve recently seen several posts, giving various reasons why people found it emotionally difficult to go to church and in some cases had stopped. It’s happened to coincide with a few things in my personal study, so I thought I should touch on the topic. It’s one where – for all the difficulty I have with empathy – I think I’m in some position to understand. I too find church difficult at times. Part of this is simply due to the fact that I find groups difficult anyway (thankfully people in my ward are very understanding about this). On some occasions, however, I do run into the same difficulty that I’ve seen mentioned: namely the emphasis the Church places on the family. I’m a 35 year old never married male, in a Church where one prominent leader taught that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”*. Nor do I particularly have a litany of successes outside the “home”. So when the topic turns to families, or eternal marriage, or whatever, it’s hard not to feel like some sort of failure. And I know there’s quite a lot of people in different circumstances who experience similar feelings of falling short.

I’ve seen some attempts to regard this as some sort of cultural difficulty, as opposed to a doctrinal matter. Yet I do not believe that can resolve everything. While there are definitely sentiments and so on out there that are the product of culture, culture isn’t exactly something that can be easily or swiftly steered, and certainly isn’t easily amenable to central direction (I can only imagine that governments would love to if they could). Furthermore, this isn’t just an issue of culture: the importance of the family, the covenant of eternal marriage and so on are matters of doctrine, and they’re ones the world needs to hear. At a time when such matters are increasingly depreciated in Western civilisation, the Church would be failing in its divine responsibility were it not to speak frequently on these topics. The Church’s message is true and needed, even if it may cause discomfort in those who’d like those blessings but who have not received them. There’s a dilemma here that reminds me of Jacob 2 and 3, where (as I mention) Jacob is left having to give a message that may cause some distress because other people need to hear it.

And, after all, this is not the only such thing that may cause discomfort in attending church. I’ve mentioned my own personal difficulty around groups of people. Others may feel they don’t fit in, or face some other anxiety about their situation. Many have their crosses to bear, in many cases through no fault of their own. While others can perhaps make these things easier, ultimately some individuals will be faced with choosing between attending church and incurring some discomfort, and choosing not to.

I can understand the latter decision. But I believe it is a mistake, and one perhaps grounded in a misunderstanding of what attending church is supposed to do. From the way that I’ve heard a number of people speak, there seems to be an expectation that attending church is something we do for our sake, so we feel uplifted or edified or so on. With that expectation, it is understandable that people may conclude that if it is not doing that, well, why go?

It is true that one of the purposes of meeting together is to be “instruct[ed] and edif[ied]” (D&C 43:8) and “speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (Moroni 6:5). But if that were the only reason, well we’d often fall short. To quote Bruce R. McConkie:

…We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that’s all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don’t get anything to speak of.

On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sure, it’s an opportunity to be uplifted and enlightened, and when that happens: great! But the Lord has chosen in his wisdom to staff the place with very imperfect volunteers, and so we don’t always deliver what other people need. We should try harder, of couse. But if we were to assess the Church as if we were some sort of consumer, expecting a service to be delivered, then we are bound to be disappointed.

But that’s not why the Lord has us meet together, certainly not as mere recipients of a service. Setting aside the fact that the Lord also expect us to seek to teach and encourage others also, the scriptures give us a number of other key reasons to worship together.

Firstly, it’s a commandment. If we believe in a God who has given us commandments, we have to take seriously scriptural statements that “the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft” (Alma 6:6), or (as part of a modern decalogue) the commandment “and that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9).

Secondly, as in the verse quoted above, its an opportunity to participate in sacred ordinances, most especially that of the sacrament. Participating in this is likewise a commandment, one we are to “always observe to do” (3 Nephi 18:6-7, 10-12, D&C 20:75), and a major reason for the Church to “meet together oft” (Moroni 6:6).

Thirdly, and encompassing the points mentioned above, we are to gather together not to receive a service, but to worship. The “children of God” were commanded to meet together often to “join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God” (Alma 6:5–6). They “assemble[d] themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually” (Alma 15:17). The church established by Alma at the waters of Mormon had “one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together” (Mosiah 18:25). As the commandment in Section 59 elaborates (v.10):

For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;

None of these other purposes really depend upon what other people do or feel or say. Other people might be insensitive, or unthoughtful, or unsupportive or even judgmental (though I often find people worry about being “judged” by a congregation who are actually far more worried about their own problems). We may not fit in; they may not like us; we may not enjoy it; we may not feel we have gotten the right “experience”; it may be uncomfortable or even painful. But none of that matters.

This is not to detract from the fact that attending church may require much more from some people than it does others. I sympathise with those facing that. I also know the Lord is just and merciful, and I have no doubt that He will recognise that, and judge (and bless) accordingly. But perhaps it will help us if we recognise that going to church is not about what other people do or feel towards us, or even about how we feel and whether we feel good or uplifted. It’s about about obeying and worshipping God, and Him only. Other people are involved because He has commanded us to worship collectively, and as part of our worship He has expectations as to how we treat them and the rest of his children. But whether we enjoy church or not, whether we fit in or not, whether we feel uplifted or not: none of this can stop us from paying our devotions to the Most High. And if we attend and reverently offer our worship, despite our difficulties, then we are doing what the Lord requires of us.

 

* Postscript: Interestingly, it seems that David O. McKay did not coin this particular quote, but was actually quoting a particular author. President Harold B. Lee also offered a paraphrase of this particularly quotation, which may be encouraging for those who are trying but feel like they are meeting little success in family life: “Remember, paraphrasing what President McKay said, “No success will compensate for failure in the home.” Remember also that no home is a failure as long as that home doesn’t give up.” (Emphasis from linked blog).

Unbelief, and membership in the Church of Christ

I haven’t updated this blog in a fair while, as I’ve been striving to finish writing up my thesis. And the next post I was going to do was going to be a speculative post involving spiders. That’s still going to happen at some stage (and people who speak to me in real life have likely heard at least some of it). But then something else came up that has sadly caught my attention.

Namely the recent reaction to the Church’s amendments to the Handbook of Instructions concerning same-sex marriage.

I’m not really going to discuss the actual policy itself, other than the section on children is an extension of the policy applied to polygamous families, and that entering into a same sex marriage isn’t just being classed as apostasy, it is apostasy: it is, after all, a public act in opposition to the Church’s teachings, not just the result of a yielding to temptation. Further context can be found here on the actual policy itself.

It is the reaction to all this that gets my attention. It follows the reaction to several other things over the years on social media (such as the Church’s efforts to support marriage, the “Ordain Women” movement and the excommunications of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin). I have become aware – who couldn’t? – that there’s at least a portion of Church membership who stand vocally opposed to the Church’s policies, and often teachings. This has struck very close to home, as I have seen friends and continue to see friends go astray in these things. People who were once my brothers and sisters in the gospel have abandoned the Church because of these things. I am not a diplomatic man, and I hold no ecclesiastical position of any major consequence. But if there are members, ersatz members and ex-members who feel free to comment in such a way as to lead my friends astray, then I believe I at least have the right to reply.

The real problem

Now this is not so directed as those Church members who otherwise agree with the Church’s teachings but felt some concern at the announced policies. There are other, better, things that they can read which hopefully address their concerns. But my observation is that those most concerned at this, and certainly those who are most vocal, not only differ with the announced policy, but some if not all of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the family. Indeed I struggle to think of a single blog article or facebook comment I’ve seen whizzing by in the past week that was critical of handbook changes which was by someone who didn’t also – explicitly or implicitly – object to the Church’s fundamental teachings in this area in the first place. So some comments about policy vs doctrine are misguided – while the exact nature of a policy like this may well take different forms, the Church’s fundamental opposition to same-sex marriage as contrary to the Lord’s commands isn’t new. That wasn’t going to change just because US law changed.

I have been struck, for a number of years, by a line from Alma 12:

Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption
(Alma 12:32, my emphasis)

This is quite a common pattern. When I was a full-time missionary, we taught people about the law of chastity after we had taught them about the plan of salvation and eternal families. We taught about fasting and tithing after we taught about sacrifice. Many of God’s commandments may be confusing to us mortals when we’re working from our own presuppositions about the universe – but they make fundamental sense when we understand and believe in God and His plan. The Church’s teachings on the nature of the family, the law of chastity and human sexuality make perfect sense when we know that He is, that Christ is our Saviour, that He revealed Himself to prophets who recorded it in scripture, and that He has established His Church in these latter days which He continues to lead to which He has given His power and authority. Likewise the administration of priesthood ordinances is not a mere social event, but the exercise of that power and authority that requires preconditions, including faith.

Now many of those writing these various posts, comments etc have certainly been in the Church long enough to learn all this. They’ve been taught it. “Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?” If they are now having trouble accepting the Church’s teachings on family and sexuality, then what is the problem?

I speak bluntly. The problem is unbelief.

Unbelief

Now they may believe something, for example, that God exists. But it is impossible to believe that God exists, that He has revealed commandments in His scriptures and to His modern prophets, and that by His power Man and Woman may be knit together for eternity, and that obedience to this covenant is the path to exaltation, to believe all of that and yet believe that somehow God and His prophets have it wrong and that violating those commandments and barring oneself from what is required to gain exaltation must be morally acceptable. Somewhere there is a lack of belief.

Some of those who’ve commented have been quite open about this too – one I happened to read claiming that the individual had been a ‘practicing Mormon’ for decades, but never a ‘believing Mormon’.

This attitude baffles me. I find it incredible, yet I do know people who hold to this – who do not believe all the teachings of the Church, but who continue to claim a “Mormon” identity. What’s more is that some of these voices increasingly campaign that this *should* be the case, that the Church should give up any ambition for its members to believe, that it’s possible to be, say an atheist or agnostic and a Mormon (I would not have believed this had I not read it myself), and that the Church should be ‘inclusive’ of those who feel ethnically ‘Mormon’, but reject (loudly) the teachings of the Church.

I shall return to the last point later. On the former, it is certainly the case that those who are experiencing doubt and unbelief have been urged (as within the last few years by Elder Uchtdorf) to remain within the Church. It’s also the case that doubt and unbelief are not always the result of sin. But some have misconstrued this into thinking unbelief is an acceptable, or even a desirable state, and that one can be “faithful” and comfortable in the Church while remaining in a state of unbelief. This is not true.

For unbelief is a sin.

I’m aware that statement may cause hackles to rise. But sometimes things must be put as plainly and bluntly as possible. There are sins of the intellect. And I am not seeking to rise up as a great accuser here, for we are all sinners. I have my sins as does any man, and all of us need to repent. I’ve even recently struggled with unbelief: not as to the existence of God or the truth of His Church or anything like that, but in believing certain promises God has extended to me. I’ve struggled with some of that, and have had to strive to believe. I certainly lay no claims to perfection. Every one of us does things that are wrong, and need to change and repent. For us to do that, of course, we need to realise where we have erred, so that we might call upon God and that He might correct us. The reason people struggling with unbelief are encouraged to remain within the Church is – as it is for the rest of us and most of our sins – the Church is the best place to do that.

And far from being content in our unbelief, it is one of those things in which we sin and in which we need to repent. Christ “upbraided” his disciples for “their unbelief” (Mark 16:14), and taught elsewhere that “he that believeth not is condemned already” (John 3:18). We likewise learn “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and are warned to “take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). In the Book of Mormon we find Nephi mourning because of “the unbelief […] of men” (2 Nephi 32:7), and are told directly by Christ (as reported by Moroni) to “come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief” (Ether 4:13). Finally in modern revelation we see Edward Partridge being warned that “if he repent not of his sins, which are unbelief and blindness of heart, let him take heed lest he fall” (D&C 58:15) and the Church as a whole taught that “your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received— Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation” (D&C 84:54-55). While faith and belief may not come easily, we are commanded to “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and instructed to “exercise a particle of faith”, and to not cast out the word “by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord” (Alma 32:27-28). Unbelief is a sin, but with God’s grace we can choose differently, by “experimenting” on his word, by yielding to the influence of His spirit and by remembering our previous experiences.

For several years now I have been struck by how important it is to remember our spiritual experiences and those miracles we witness. While there’s some – like the aforementioned article writer – who may have never have believed, others did at some stage. And for at least some of them, including some of my friends, that belief was not just a vain hope, but founded on actual experiences. I wonder what they make or even remember of those now, and there’s some friends I wish I could just shake: “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what it was like? What you felt and saw?” How I wish I could help them remember, for it is actual experience with the Divine that answers all questions and doubts.

The exclusivity of “inclusivity”

There is one final point I wish to briefly address, namely this concept that because of one’s ancestry and upbringing in the culture, one can continue to be a “Mormon” while rejecting the practice and especially the belief, and even that they should be permitted access to the Temple and so forth in spite of public disbelief. I have to admit this argument gets me angry to some degree, although I doubt that many who advance it see the implications of it.

Converts must believe to be baptized. To unite themselves with the Church, they must have faith and practice the first principle of the Gospel. And before they are baptized, they are asked about what they believe to ensure they meet the requirements for baptism. To become a “Mormon”, they must have and exercise their faith.

What is being implicitly proposed, then, ends up being a two-tier system. Converts must have faith to become members of the Church and enjoy its spiritual blessings. But those of a particular ancestry and upbringing need no faith to accrue the same benefits. I can only imagine what the Apostle Paul would make of this argument. As for me, all I can think is to paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: “Think not to say within yourselves that we have Brigham Young, or Lorenzo Snow or whomever to be our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Brigham Young”.

The ‘Crisis in Masculinity’, Addiction and ‘Dating’ (Hey, I didn’t make this connection!)

Daniel Peterson (the former editor of the FARMS review) has posted a link on his blog and some comments of his own on a newspaper piece talking of a ‘crisis of masculinity’,and its connection to excessive gaming and pornography use. I think both (the blog and the newspaper article) are worth reading and thinking about, though there were a few points that I ended up responding to in the comments, both about said crisis and about the association made in the blog with lack of dating in a singles ward. Since it ended up being a lengthy comment, I thought I might as well put it here too (with a couple of clarifications):

Firstly, I think there’s undoubtedly a crisis in masculinity: look at male suicide rates. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Men under 50 in the UK, and this appears to reflect a common trend across the West. Unfortunately that also indicates the issues involved are more deep-seated than the two suggested addictions. Addictions are very often as much a symptom of intense personal difficulties as they are the cause of them (though they undoubtedly exacerbate them), flawed attempts at escaping a situation. And thinking upon it, the suicide rates suggest the ‘crisis’ is also affecting men who are far too old to have grown up under the influence of computer gaming, which the article itself appears to suggest is a causal factor – undoubtedly other can addictions take their place, but any pervasive crisis also has deeper issues.

Unfortunately it really feels that a lot of the time men are simply berated for this, rather than actually encouraged in a meaningful way to be able to do better. There needs to be a better response (and I believe the Gospel can offer a better response).

Specifically on the dating thing though, a few observations from my perspective:

1) I was in a singles ward for three years, and know full well that the Bishopric were less than happy at the level of dating going on. But there were a range of things going on that simply telling off the males wouldn’t have fixed. The 3-1 (sometimes 4-1) ratio probably didn’t help (and unfortunately at least some of the female members of the ward I spoke to simply didn’t realise how easy it is not to be noticed amongst 120 other people, particularly if they felt they shouldn’t even go to the effort of introducing themselves to people).

2) I undoubtedly didn’t help the statistics. Truthfully I’ve only been on a handful of dates in my life. But this wasn’t from lack of desire, but the fact that I didn’t (and still don’t) have a clue. I’d been very lucky in that ward to fall in with the right group of people and had some good friends (of both genders), in a way I hadn’t really had before in my life; but that area continued to confuse me, and the few experiences I had were not positive. I always felt intensely bad after each attempt at dating and found the whole thing intensely difficult and didn’t know why. Undoubtedly part of my difficulties was a then undiagnosed case of high functioning autistic spectrum disorder, along with what might be conservatively termed a somewhat negative self-image. Under those circumstances, more suggestions that I was somehow offending people even without doing anything because of my failures in this area would not have (and still don’t) help. The idea in some quarters that this is somehow a sin is even more stressful: I have enough sins to worry about!

3) Based on observation though, everyone seems a bit confused, and not just those of us who’d find *any* social rules confusing. And I think one problem at present may be dating itself: Dating is not an eternal principle.

Dating is a particular courtship pattern from a relatively brief period of Western history, that worked because it was generally easy to harmonise with eternal principles. But the Church didn’t choose to practice it out of some sort of conscious choice – it practised it because the surrounding Western culture did too. Things went differently, not only in other dispensations (I admit I find it funny when those who assume dating is an eternal principle are shocked at arranged marriages in the Old Testament), but even simply earlier in this dispensation.

Of course, now Western civilisation is adopting patterns that are less easy to harmonise with eternal principles. And I think under those circumstances it’s difficult for Church members to consciously hold onto this earlier system of courtship patterns in the face of what Western society is doing, when really the only reason they followed them in the first place is because we’re used to following what surrounding western society was doing. Over time I think something else is going to have to develop to fill the new gap, I guess particularly as Church culture divorces from where the West is headed and move towards building the culture of Zion.

In the meantime though (as I guess that may take a while to sort out), a lot of people are going to be confused and disappointed, and I think what’s at play with ‘dating’ goes beyond a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Social changes aren’t just the result of men (and only men) failing to measure up; everyone after all, male and female, is fallen. Just holding men responsible is unlikely to fix the situation. To take the case mentioned in the blog, where apparently one YSA sister and a number of her compatriots were upset with the Elders Quorum as they regular scheduled weekend computer game nights and weren’t dating, I doubt just not permitting the EQ activities as suggested would have appreciably affected the level of dating. I can appreciate the point made in the comments about Leadership’s role in such wards in encouraging appropriate interactions between the sexes, but I suspect merely removing the EQ activities from the schedule wouldn’t be enough (I assume the issue with the EQ activities was one frequency and timing – an Elders Quorum with no activities would in my mind also be inappropriate, as it’d fail to fulfil the Quorum function of brotherhood). I’m also not sure it’s too helpful to have some people feeling they can be justifiably angry at others for not taking them on dates: it’s not a particularly encouraging view to see dates as some sort of obligated tribute, and I’m not sure people are particularly inclined to date others they’re angry at or know are angry at them.

But I could be completely wrong. This is, as mentioned above, an Achilles heel.