There will always be those who are skeptical about our history. Converting someone to believe (a process I underwent to become LDS), cannot proceed without facing critical examination of the stories. On occasion I think about what would have happened if I were investigating the church’s claims today for the first time. Without question I would use the Internet to check what the missionaries were telling me. Given the fact that I would have to decide whether to believe this new faith, and the troubling perception our critics urge that it is being offered by a Fortune 500 corporation, I do not think I would trust anything on the church’s own website. I think I would avoid considering that until I had first been convinced of the missionaries’ message.
I think my approach would be typical. There’s nothing more troubling to someone thinking about changing their religion than the risk of being duped by foolish believers in some nonsensical cult. And like it or not, Mormonism is thought of in those terms. I know. I’ve been there, but I came aboard in the days of flannel board missionary lessons and computers driven by punch cards. There was no Wikipedia or Google. The world changed. So Mormonism must face down the challenges of widespread information. This information challenges the traditional stories and presents very different views of the events. Missionaries must be able to overcome these many honest questions. I’m certain today I would ask a good deal more than what I asked in 1973. Church members also must become part of the solution.
When a prospective convert comes to hear our lessons, observe our meetings, and talk with our members they come equipped with a body of questions arising from the acidic environment of the Internet. Every omission in our story can become the stumbling block to accepting the challenge to convert. I would never have prayed and asked God if Mormonism was true until after first inspecting enough of the Mormons to determine they were sound people. Sound in their lives, marriages and teaching. The “weirdness gauge” was employed. Any strange, aberrant behavior would have sent the alarm sounding and I would have been unwilling to proceed further; but I found the church quite likable. Understand I did NOT want the Mormons to be likable. I wanted to dismiss them, and continue on with my happy life. However, they satisfied the initial concerns enough that I was willing to consider it seriously.
Today, when asked about troubling matters, every Mormon should to be able to show the faith in a positive light. In a very real way the only progress we can hope to make in today’s environment will come through an educated population of believers. Myths and half-truths may be “inspirational” and keep immature faith around for a while, but sooner or later the acid of today’s information age will burn away anything that is not gold. We have tens-of-thousands of adults now leaving the church after having spent their lives believing Mormonism. They are discovering the information exists to challenge every step of our faith, from Joseph Smith’s youth to the 1978 revelation on priesthood. Members are vulnerable and they are leaving. The problem is already well underway. What we’ve been doing with our history has not prepared us for what is now happening.
Confining the church’s educational efforts to “faith promoting” stories may have been enough in the 1950’s through the year 2000, but it is absolutely not enough now. If the church insists that this must continue, then the church will become a tiny organization of myth believers who cloister together and repeat endlessly a litany of imaginative stories. That is the course we are on at the moment. The great apostasy underway is because the environment changed. The church’s opinion polling and focus group testing is not adequate to adapt to the real challenges. The real challenges are to undergo the rigors of opening the history up to deal forthrightly with our past. The church needs to undergo a metamorphosis into the most open, most candid, most self-critical and inviting faith on earth. We must allow ideas to be expressed in an environment of tolerance and learning. Militant insistence on following a centrally produced lesson manual as an unyielding standard will not be enough. People are walking out of those classes. Either they are turned off and mentally checking out, or they are physically leaving. This is not their fault. They cannot control the fact they are bored.
What is almost impossible to accomplish has been accomplished by the central planners of Mormonism. The most exciting thing in the world is to learn new truth. Nothing is quite as delightful as finding new truths. The Gospel contains all truth. Our lessons and meetings should be celebrations of truth. Instead they have become wary gatherings of fearful people who are on the lookout for unorthodox comments. Some feel Mormon meetings are held inside a police-state. The central planners are fearful of new ideas. They guard against freedom of thought precisely because they are living in a bunker, trying to uphold a dishonest or incomplete history. It will not work. We must openly discuss our history. We must return to delighting in the doctrine. The Gospel is wonderful, not oppressive. It is not mere tradition to be guarded or defended. It is Christ’s message of love and hope for all mankind.
Our history has influenced who we call to leadership positions because it has affected what the leaders responsibilities are. They MUST administer a far-flung corporate empire with almost unmanageable human resources challenges. Budgets, staffing, property management, liability management, accounting, banking and legal concerns are overwhelming. These are the realities of the top leadership’s job. It is the result of the events in phase 2 and 3, and the explosive growth in phase 4. There aren’t many mystics available in our ranks who have enough banking, accounting, legal, business management or personnel competence to occupy the present leadership responsibilities. That is a product of the church’s history. But it is also the church’s present reality.
The church itself has a great challenge now directly bearing down on it. I sympathize and lend my prayers to its success. The struggle will require perhaps more from it than the church is willing to change. One great advantage grows out of one of the church’s apparent weaknesses. We elevate to the highest position a man who is almost always elderly, frail and beyond the age of most unhealthy appetites. Such a man will consider carefully his proximity to the judgments of God, and likely will be willing to do what is right, even if painful.