There are any number of ways we could improve the Church, but I can think of only one way to save it (which I'll share in a moment).
Of course, this presumes the Church needs saving. Many members believe the Church is doing just fine and is on track to greet the Lord in the clouds at His return.
On the other hand, there are those who think the Church is beyond help and want no part of it.
I stand in the middle. I believe the Church needs saving and I want to help save it. Saying it out loud may sound grandiose; and probably some of you would argue we should leave things to the Brethren or let the Lord handle it on His own. "Better not Steady the Ark, Tim."
How else does the Lord "handle" things but through the grassroots efforts of the weak and simple women and men who follow God's word, animated by His Spirit? Cue Moses. Gideon. Abinadi. Amos. Joseph Smith. Deborah. Tabitha.
Now, it is true that if we were to undertake this endeavor alone, without the Lord's help, it would prove futile. But with God, nothing's impossible.
Jesus said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
Together we can melt mountains and turn rivers out of their course, recreating the religious landscape of the Church into a fertile field of faith; making the desert blossom as a rose and bringing forth good fruit.
As you know, for years the "teaching for doctrine the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9) in the Church has created an environment wherein obedience is exalted above discernment, in which loyalty to one's leaders is extolled even when those leaders are wrong (Cue Blacks and the Priesthood; Polygamy; Mammon; Mountain Meadows; November 2015 Policy of Exclusion).
Jesus quoted Isaiah to the Jews, but He could have as easily spoken these words in our day:
But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
The Church is neither true nor false, anymore than cheesecake is true or false (I credit Ben for the comparison; my inner-Golden-Girl thanks you).
The word "Church" comes from ecclesia, which means an "assembly" or "gathering." In the Christian context, the Church is just a gathering of people who want to follow Jesus Christ.
The sad reality is, our moral agency permits us to make the Church into (1) a heaven on earth, or (2) a hell on earth. So what kind of Church shall it be?
Murder Most Foul
I once prosecuted a young woman for negligent homicide. It was a tragic case; she ran a red light and crashed into another car, killing the driver.
One day in court at a pretrial conference her family cornered me in the hallway. They were angry with me: "She's a good girl; dismiss the case; it was an accident!"
I responded, "Yes, it was an accident, thankfully ― if it had been intentional, it would be murder."
The English common law defines murder as "the unlawful taking of a human life with malice aforethought." Nowadays we call it homicide (the intentional killing of a person with premeditation). The equivalent of negligent homicide is "manslaughter."
Obviously Alma knew nothing about the English common law when he said:
Yea, and I had murdered many of [God's] children.
What was Alma's master plan to "destroy the church of God" (Mosiah 27:10)? Notice, we're not talking about the Church organization per se (that his father was high priest of) ― but to destroy the "Church" as defined in D&C 10:67, which says, "whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church."
Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction.
You see, the way we destroy the Church is NOT by getting people to leave the organization. Removing our names from the rolls won't stop the Church from building new temples.
No, the only way to destroy the Church of God is to get people IN the organization to not repent. This Satan knows.
Was Alma being dramatic, or hyperbolic? Because how can turning people AWAY from God (Christ) be compared to murder?
Well, the more relevant question for us is: If our policies, precepts, and practices in the Church have the effect of turning us away from Christ (usually by getting us to focus on the Prophet and Church leadership, and to depend on their authority and counsel at the cost of our inner light, thereby sublimating our personal, internal connection to the divine and preventing our faith from blossoming in Christ), what does that make us?
You see, that's why I'm NOT worried about our detractors and critics; no, the thing that is concerning to me is seeing Anti-Christ doctrines and precepts creep into our Church curriculum and pulpit-preaching.
I believe the Church is shrinking not because we are under attack (or because society is wicked), but because our meetings and councils and conferences have atrophied from the inside, due to the absence of being "nourished by the good word of God" (Moroni 6:4).
In place of God's oracles and cloven tongues of fire that make a Church living (living because it is quickened by and in His word of truth), we get . . . the covenant path.
"Covenant Path, meet Astroid."
I've reached an age where I have started to think about the world we are leaving behind for our children.
It crept up on me, this growing sense of my own mortality; how we must all take our bows at some point and exit this life, stage-left or stage-right. Who will take our place? The show, after all, must go on.
My progress is perhaps best illustrated by the fact I used to be the boy in Sacrament Meeting who, when the tray of bread of was passed down the pew, searched for the biggest chunk of bread on the tray; I snatched it up as a prize, focused on getting the most for myself.
Now in middle-age, as the tray is passed to me I search for the smallest piece, saving the big ones for the boys and girls I once was, who will one day become shepherds in Israel. (For the record, although no one has asked me, I would make the pieces as large as possible; why be stingy with that which symbolizes the Lord's grace, by offering crumbs?)
Sitting in Sacrament meeting, watching the young children taking the bread and water, the question that weighs on me is, "What sort of Church will our children inherit from us?"
I live in Utah (which some call the "breadbasket" of the Church) and from where I stand at the heart of Mormondom, I can report: Something is going on.
Something is very wrong. (Or, as Bill and Ted so aptly observed, "Strange things are afoot at the Circle K"). We'd have to live under a rock, or have our heads stuck in the sand, not to feel the seismic shifts rumbling beneath our feet. We are living in a season of spiritual upheaval; we find ourselves at a crossroads.
And whatever "it" is, it seems to have accelerated under President Russell M. Nelson.
The antique piano was a lovely piece of polished mahogany, a symbol of the parents' good taste presiding in the parlor, expensively displayed for guests to admire and moreso its owners, a testament of fine breeding and culture, the piano bespoke promise.
No one played it of course.
Refinement, though, did not describe the children of the house, much to their parents’ dismay. So unlike the instrument, smudged and disorderly, the children never behaved as an instrument should, finely tuned. They lacked the decorum of an etude; their labors fell short of a concerto’s grace.
No one was allowed near it of course.
"You’re too close. This is a priceless piece." "You might scratch the wood and mar its beauty." "You might chip one of the keys. Do please be careful." "Someday it will be yours," the parents promised.
No one disputed it was a precious heirloom of course.
Years yawned while the piano sat untouched, a source of pride for the parents and their guests, while the children grew and moved away. The parents died and now the piano gathers dust in the backroom of a second-hand music store downtown.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experienced slowing growth and high attrition. These trends have arisen from a combination of institutional and societal factors, resulting in losing the large majority of its international converts over the past fifty years.
"Among the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the LDS Church, the latter has fallen to a distant third in active membership.
"In 2020, the LDS membership growth rate fell below the world population growth rate. Aggregate trends suggest that the LDS Church is likely to experience meager growth in congregations and active membership over the next forty years.
"Contemporary trends offer no major developments that appear likely to reverse these dynamics outside of modest growth prospects in Africa.
"Based on the current trajectory, active LDS membership may peak at or below six million.
"In the United States, the influence of the LDS Church is likely approaching its zenith. Gradual plateauing is likely to be followed by some decline. This may already be occurring, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"The faith’s traditional competitive advantages of high fertility, youth retention, and a large full-time missionary force continue to erode."
To summarize: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as an organization) is dying.
Except, perhaps, in Africa.
But as the body dies, will the Spirit emerge?
"The Soil of this World has corrupted my Seed"
Many members remain unconcerned. "Who cares if the Church shrinks? Demographics aren't destiny; just follow the prophet and don't go astray."
But their tune often changes when it hits closer to home (such as when they attend a family gathering and see a large percentage of their grandchildren with tattoos, drinking coffee, and LGBT); then they begin to take notice. What happened, they wonder?
On Reddit, I read yesterday:
"My cousin told his mother he would not serve a mission. My grandfather has not taken this news well. Today, he sent out an ominous text message to the entire family, saying "The soil of this world has corrupted my seed."
The reddit poster went on to describe how judgmental and "ugly" their grandfather was about the life choices of "his posterity." They concluded:
"The group text that my grandfather started 10 hours ago lies quiet. For a man whose tenet is eternal families, he seems to be the one who has decided he does not want to be with his family."
I grew up under the administrations of Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, and Gordon B. Hinckley. It was a kind of golden age for the Church (that began with David O. McKay in the post-World-War-II era); a time when the Church became the darling of American religious movements, growing in numbers and shining in the public spotlight. Remember it? When President Hinckley joked with Larry King on national television; when the Conference Center was built as a monument to our expanding faith that could no longer fit in the Tabernacle; when we sent missionaries to the former Soviet Block and thought China would be next? The future was bright.
But based on data and projections we're now seeing, it appears our children will live to see the Church contract and fade into irrelevance.
I hope I am wrong, but there is cause to be worried. How did this happen? Can we reverse course? Is it too late?
There's a bit of irony in comparing the Church to the Titanic, as we seem to be following the same legacy ― yes, the ship people claimed was "unsinkable" while wearing tuxedos as the piano played, eating lobster and filet mignon ― just as people today boast that the Church will never be again taken from the earth. "Church, meet iceberg."
It often feels like we're straightening deck chairs on the Titanic ("Women can be witnesses at baptismal services, yay!" "Two hour Church, yay!"). But these administrative changes are not the answer; they haven't solved the underlying problem.
Changing the name of "Home Teaching" to Ministering accomplished nothing.
Eat Your Broccoli
Abby Hansen, a blogger on Exponent II, posed the question on my mind: "Why are people leaving the LDS church?" Why are they leaving in spite of their love for the Church and their ward family? In spite of their heritage and happy memories of road shows and summer socials in the Cultural Hall?
Her insight: They're leaving because they cannot reconcile the Church's polices and doctrines "with their personal moral compass. You see, despite preaching free agency and personal revelation, members and leaders talk badly at church about those who use their agency to choose a different path than theirs." ("A Church that Breaks People," July 17, 2023).
The Church is like a family ― with all of its messiness. To minimize the messiness, I think, we see the Church operating with parental (paternalistic) authority as the leaders govern their small children (the members).
But the problem, of course, is we aren't small children to be given bedtimes and curfews. We are mature, grown men and women who have become parents ourselves, who crave a meaningful faith and forum to fellowship and worship in; when instead we get Tithing Settlement (whoops, I meant Tithing Declaration ― see? Another of those "administrative changes" that changed nothing).
Our parents don't get to force us to eat our broccoli at the dinner table anymore because, as adults, we can choose to eat brussels sprouts or carrots or candy. But when the Prophet proclaims, "Eat your broccoli and don't touch eggplant," then it deputizes the members into being judgmental lunch ladies, whacking the hand of those reaching for the cauliflower with their large wooden spoons.
We have become a Church of broccoli in a garden of squash, and legumes, and root vegetables.
At least, that is the analogy Paul used when he spoke about the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). Imagine if our body had only kidneys ― but no hearts or stomachs? We'd be in bad shape!
The Church is in bad shape because they're telling us to all act like "kidneys" ― to function as organs that are not aligned with our authentic spiritual natures and which waste our diverse gifts.
We've got system failure all over the place because there's not space for us to be . . . ourselves. If I am a small intestine, why would you tell me to follow the operating manual for ovaries? No matter how much I try, the stomach can't produce eggs! (Although I've got a nice tapeworm I can introduce you to.)
- What if the foot told the hands to behave more like feet?
- What if the eye chastised the eardrum to stop listening to all that noise, for heaven's sake?
- What if our gall bladder told our liver to abandon the job it was designed to do?
Doesn’t anyone else see how we effectively deny the gifts of God by stamping out the diversity of operations?
So . . . hear me out here . . . what if the solution to our problem was counter-intuitive? What if the way we become "one" was not through a corporate governance structure (i.e., hierarchy)? Not by appealing to an authority figure to settle our differences?
After all, we all know that outward conformity (external control) doesn't lead to real unity; it leads to white shirts, white smiles, and whited sepulchers.
As long as the Church functions as a daycare, in which we are not equal, putting us all down for naps at the same time and giving us all the same Goldfish crackers to eat, we will continue to dwindle.
A daycare will never bring about Zion.
"Here's a Story of a Lovely Lady"
The puzzling thing to me is why members of the Church have such a high opinion of it, when the scriptures teach us that the history of Israel is a story of a family who rarely follows the Lord's will.
And so it is today with us.
But thankfully God does not confine Himself to one group or family; He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). Anyone willing to "listen" to Him is invited to the party ("No admittance except on party business").
Janey, a blogger at Wheat and Tares, wrote about the way she found her connection to God:
"Imagine a world in which the canonized scriptures were just a jumping off point, rather than a fence, for ideas about God. I came to accept my journals as my own personal scripture. They are a record of my dealings with God, my ponderings and my understandings. Some of my insights were sparked by reading what prophets said about their dealings with God; some came as I prayed about situations I couldn’t find in the scriptures. My scriptures aren’t canonized. No one else has to accept my records as guidance for their lives, but they are scripture to me.
"The nature of God includes our interactions with him. God is not an inanimate object, like a rock, that can be factually described in absolute terms. 'The rock weighs a certain amount, is a certain color, is made up of certain minerals.' But to know a living being, we incorporate our relationship with that being. Your knowledge of your child is based on interactions with your child, not just objective facts about them. Interactions are individual experiences. You can’t let someone else dictate the terms of your interactions.
"For me, there is more religious freedom outside of the Church than inside it. My experiences with God are not limited by what prophets think is appropriate."
While the Church emphasizes the objectivity of truth, it neglects the fact that truth is also relational.
When we divorce the truth from our relationships (with God and with each other), the result is a sterile and commercial environment where truth takes a backseat to the bottom-line.
So how can we save the Church?
I'm glad you asked!
This is How to Save the Church The way to save the Church is to forget this nonsense about having a monopoly on God's divine authority, pretending we're the Coach's favorite high school quarterback and everyone else is second-string.
Why? Because we have been led to believe that authority is found in the priesthood, in its titles and offices and keys (hence: its leaders); but in reality, authority resides in the truth of God.
Jesus told us this, so why do we keep moving the targets?
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
You see, the Church is "living" only when it is filled with Christ's life (His truth).
Remember, Christ's authority did not come from running the Sanhedrin as if it were the Coca Cola company and Christ its president; no, Christ said his authority stemmed from speaking the words of His Father.
Only the truth will set us free; our slavish devotion to authority holds us captive.
The Church is true only insofar as it lives in God's TRUTH.
The good news is, the Church has a lot of truth (although not all of it). The portion of truth the Church has to offer the rest of the world is largely found in the Book of Mormon and writings of Joseph Smith.
In other words, if we reoriented our message away from, "We're the only ones with authority" to "We have a pearl of great price that God has given us, and we want to share it with you," we could avoid all the tomfoolery about keys and the Last Charge Meeting.
This will not be an easy transition. Our challenge is to reverse decades of conditioning that the Church has a monopoly on God's authority, which has produced pride, unrighteous dominion, and the abomination of putting shredded carrots in Jell-O.
As we've discussed at length in this blog, any priesthood "authority" the Church claims hails through Joseph Smith (as the Popes' authority-claims come through Peter).
Alas, Joseph never laid hands on and ordained Brigham Young to be his successor (as either an apostle or high priest). Brigham's claim to authority derived from the common consent of the those he led; for what other authority did he uniquely have but their willing obedience?
The Restoration stumbled right out of the gate by taking a page out of the Pope's playbook, by exalting authority over truth, to the detriment of both.
Some might argue, "But Tim! Can't you have both? Must truth and authority be separate?"
See, they've misunderstood me. Truth and authority are never separate: for authority inheres in God's word (see D&C 132:12-14).
My point, though, is truth does NOT arise from one's authority. This means a leader can teach falsehood. A thing is "authoritative" not because of who said it, but because it possesses God's truth.
For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
The principle of truth trumping priesthood offices and titles should be apparent to anyone who has attended Sunday School, because Jesus taught:
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
The reason the Church is being destroyed from within is because we have a pretty loose relationship with the truth.