Sunday, May 25, 2008

I Think This Went Well But Who Knows

Well, I gave my talk today. I felt pretty good about how it went. People were polite and complementary but how do really know what people think. The comment which brought the biggest smile to my face was when my neighbor, a new convert, said "that was freaking fantastic." I told him that was one the best things anyone had every said to me. I owe a lot to my wife on this one -- she is a much better writer and message crafter than me. Of course, that's what she does for a living. She edited this for content and clarity several times for me. She may not be a Mormon but she gets us. So, here's a shout out to you helpmeet.

I have to admit I am jealous Elder O’Toole is spending the next two years in Ireland sharing the gospel full time. I fondly recall my time in the London South Mission. So much of my life and world view was shaped by my mission. It was an incredible time of clarity and focus, and I hope Elder O'Toole is blessed with as wonderful an experience as I had.

I get to talk today about member missionary work. But before I start, let me congratulate everyone here. We have been phenomenally successful missionaries. By almost any measure, Church growth is remarkable. From its humble beginnings as an upstart church one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has a presence in over 160 countries. It has more than 52,000 full-time missionaries and exceeds 13 million members. Membership has quadrupled in the last 40 years.

But I don’t have to tell you that our Church is not one to be content with doing well -- we perpetually seek to do better. We push ever onward and upward in our quest to spread the gospel. And a big part of that undertaking rests with people like you and me – the regular members of the church. If you haven’t repeatedly heard the call for member missionary work, then you have been napping in Church and watching something other than General Conference.

There are a lot of ways to be active member missionaries. For some, it is an easy matter to approach strangers and strike up a discussion about the Church. Some people comfortably and successfully distribute multiple copies of the Book of Mormon. These gifted advocates thrive on the challenges and rewards of overt proselytizing. But for many of us, the thought of spreading the word in such a bold and extroverted manner is frightening. Instead, we prefer to cautiously make friends, hoping that they will make it easy for us to share our faith. And then there are those of us who are so uncomfortable with the thought of discussing our beliefs that we simply do nothing, the result being that we perpetually feel bad about ourselves and question our commitment to the gospel.

Whatever your comfort level, there are some things, I believe, that all of us can do that will enhance our missionary efforts and will increase the receptiveness of potential converts. Simply put, we can live our lives in a positive way that draws the attention of others. With our example we can influence their feelings about the Church, and possibly lead some to enquire after our message and accept the gospel. We can be open to and pursue religious discussions, not in a preachy way, but in a manner where we share our beliefs and views while learning of those of others. This may sound like a comparatively passive way to spread the gospel, but I think it is actually an extremely effective method for promoting interest in and conversation about our beliefs.

Many, if not most of us, are lifelong members of the Church. Not having lived outside the Church, it is hard for us to understand that many people have wildly inaccurate and ill conceived ideas of who and what we are. It may be easy to dismiss their perceptions, but that doesn’t change what they think. You know the saying, perception is reality. And it’s hard to be an effective missionary if those who don’t know us believe us to be a dangerous and crazy cult. Whether we like it or not, we have a lot of work to do to let others know that we are not to be feared or mistrusted. We need to let others see who and what we are. But in order to enable others to see the real us, we need to understand how they see us now.

Dealing with the perceptions of the Church has been on the minds of several General Authorities lately. Last year, while serving as the head of the Church Missionary Committee, Elder Quentin L. Cook told a group of BYU students that some Latter-day Saints are frustrated because they see this as a difficult time to spread the gospel message. After all, Elder Cook said, according to a recent Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans view Mormons unfavorably, 11 percent don’t know we are, and 18 percent think of polygamy when our name is mentioned.

Let me repeat that, 46 percent of Americans view us unfavorably. And only 42% view us favorably. That means there are more people that see us negatively than positively. I realize that we as a people are not running for office, but if we were, we probably couldn’t win with those numbers. I don’t know about you but I am quite surprised to find that level of discomfort with us. I know we have a long history of strained relations with the public at large, but I thought we had largely put those troubles behind us. After all, Church members have risen to tops of their fields in many areas of business, sports and public life. But in spite of this, people still hold a lot in incorrect ideas about us.

Now, I have to admit I am a bit of a media junkie. I am fascinated by politics, religion and pop culture and how they intersect. And when it comes to Mormons and the media, this last year has been a veritable Chuck-O-Rama of plenty and indulgence.

There were our American Idol contestants, David Archuleta and Brooke White. When Brooke announced to Simon, Randy and Paula that she didn’t see R rated movies, I turned to my wife and proclaimed the obvious: “she’s a Mormon.” There was Mitt Romney’s run for President. It was fascinating, revealing and troubling to see how his religion impacted his undertaking. Then there was the storm of coverage that accompanied the raids on the FLDS community in Texas, and our Church’s rigorous efforts to ensure we were we not lumped in with the FLDS in the eyes of the world.

For better or worse, this last year could rightly be dubbed the year of the Mormons in the media because so much attention has been directed at the Church and its members.

This attention has been commented upon several times recently by Elder Russell M. Ballard, who serves on the Church Public Affairs Committee. Two months ago, when speaking to the BYU Management Society in Washington, D.C., he noted that the level of media attention toward the Church was higher in the last year than in the last century, largely because Mitt Romney sought the presidency. While stressing the political neutrality of the Church, he noted all the debate and discussion in news columns, on TV and talk shows, and on Internet blogs. But what really grabbed his attention was what the coverage and demonstrated about how others view’s of the Church.

He said

what is really interesting to me and our Public Affairs team was whether all of this had any affect on the way people perceive The Church

He further said,

I personally think interest in the Church over the past year and a half was a plus. I’d much rather have people talking about us than ignoring us. The biggest problem we face is apathy. Still, we have learned a lot. One thing we have concluded is that even after one hundred seventy eight years, there is more misinformation out there than we had imagined.

Elder Ballard indentified two main sources for this misinformation and ill will: One on the right and the other on the left.

If you have been following this as well, it will should no surprise that one of our main detractors are conservative Christians who don’t like our doctrine and translate that into public opposition. We have read, over and over again, Elder Ballard said, of accusations that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult and does not follow the tenets of mainstream Christianity.

The second source of opposition he identified comes from some on the left who target the Church over moral issues like abortion and same gender marriage.

While recognizing a wide spectrum of opinion, Elder Ballard said he was most interested in the perspective of those who fell between the two extremes, the great mass in the middle. Elder Ballard told his audience

What is of greatest interest to me is the perceptions of the great mass of American people who are in the middle of these two extremes

Many of these people are simply puzzled. If they know a Latter-day Saint, they may have a positive impression and consider Mormons model citizens. Still, they hear assertions or descriptions of our Christian doctrines that seem unfamiliar. They hear harsh — sometimes mean-spirited — criticisms or accusations. Many want answers, and the places they are most likely to seek those answers are either on the Internet or from their Mormon acquaintances.

Lately, there’s been one more factor influencing those caught between the two ideological extremes: the FLDS raid in Texas and the avalanche of news coverage and commentary that accompanied it. This single event drew international attention on our Church – and that attention for the most part wasn’t positive. And much of it has been downright wrong. To combat the misinformation, Church leaders and public relations officials have worked vigorously to provide accurate information.

Elder Ballard weighed in on this in his April address as well. He said

in the past two weeks we have seen a flood of publicity coming out of Texas where state authorities have removed women and children from the FLDS polygamous community. This religious group, of course, has nothing to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of the news media have attempted to make that clear. But a few—especially some in other countries—have confused their readers or viewers by suggesting that this group in Texas is somehow connected to us, and, of course, you know that they are not. This is currently a very difficult Public Affairs challenge.

Difficult indeed as many of you likely know. I imagine a lot of you have had conversations on an airplane or with a non-member about how the LDS and FLDS Church differ. It can be a challenge to articulate the differences in a manner that is meaningful and easily understood. But it is important that those discussions occur. And remember, we may know the differences, but many others don’t.

So the question for me is this – what can be about this inaccurate information. Elder Ballard asked the same question of his audience. He put it this way

let me pose a question. What are you prepared to do about it? If you are a member of the Church, what is your responsibility during this period of unusual attention and debate? Interest has continued at a high level and probably will for some time. If a national conversation is going on about the Church, are you going to be an active participant or a silent observer?

While noting the responsibility of Church leaders to engage the media, he said that they can’t do it all, especially at the grass-roots, community level. He then called on us to take up the cause. And while acknowledging that our leaders speak authoritatively for the Church, they look to faithful members to engage personally with blogs, to write thoughtful, online letters to news organizations, and to act in other ways to correct the record with their own opinions.

Of course Elder Ballard doesn’t expect us to try and book a slot on Larry King Live or take out full page newspaper ads to get our message out. And we don’t have to militant about it. His call for action is much milder. He advised that our communications could take the form of a simple conversation. He said

I am talking about taking part in everyday conversations in an unforced way, where your values and your religious beliefs will arise naturally. No one likes to have religion thrust down their throats. Instead, allow people to see how your beliefs lift and shape your life for the better.

What I take from this is that we can and need to be part of the discussion our society is having about Mormonism. And if we do not participate, the discussion will take place without us. We need to explain and define ourselves. There is a notion in our society that it’s not polite to discuss religion. I don’t agree with that. Talking openly about religion in a spirit of exploration and understanding can bring together people with vastly different beliefs and approaches to life.

But we have to be prepared to have a discussion with people who have their own ideas and beliefs. And this can be challenging. I have a good friend who I have spent many a lively evening with jostling over the differences and culture of Mormons and Unitarians. She has not become a Mormon and I have not joined the Unitarians. But we both have learned of each other’s faith and the reasons for our association which our respective churches. It has been rewarding and thought provoking to discuss our religious differences and similarities.

But she tells me that I am one of the few Mormons that will discuss religions with her. She knows and works with scores of active members and loves to discuss religion, but she says she finds few takers. I wonder why this is. I have know her a long time, so maybe it’s a comfort thing, but I think many people are reluctant to have a real conversation with her. She won’t tolerate platitudes, she wants real ideas and real beliefs, but she loves to discuss the religious matters. Do we perhaps shy away from a discussion that requires us to move beyond a simple declaration of belief? I think a discussion requires that give more than just statements of belief. It requires an exchange of ideas and thoughts.

I personally find that deep down many people want to discuss their religious views. As we get to know each other, that quickly discover that I like discussing current events and politics and religion. I think they find it amusing and a little disconcerting but are also intrigued. I can usually get them to discuss these things with me but they want a discussion, not a sermon. They want to hear what I think and they also want to share their beliefs. So I make a strong effort to learn their views and idea while I share mine. In doing so we get to know each other.

Now many of those I talk to may find me unconventional and quirky. But they also know that I am a seeker of personal and religious understanding. And that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the foundation from which I conduct my exploration. And I believe that in my own little way I am sharing the gospel and getting information out there.

So Brothers and Sisters, I will ask the same question Elder Ballard asked – what are you prepared to do about it. I hope you will take up his challenge and join the discussion.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.


kframpton said...

I believe you said what you wanted to say. I was worried on Friday when you told me what you wanted to get across during your talk. I am pleased to tell you that it was insightful, and well writen. You have achieved your goal of not coming across as questionable. You can hold your head high at church and know that I would let you kids play with mine!

Kfram said...

I was thinking about you today while sitting through my sacrament meeting todasy (and was bored at the drowing on of the speakers...). Your talk was definitely more interesting that what I had to listen to!!

The Faithful Dissident said...

Sanford, that was "friggin' fabulous" to go along with what your neighbour said. :) Seriously, that was a great talk. What I liked best was that although it was sending a clear message, it was humble and spiritual and didn't cross any boundaries of being too secular for a sacrament meeting, in my view. Great job! Hopefully you got members asking themselves why people such as your Unitarian friend don't approach them to talk religion.

You should copyright that one before the Mormon talk plagiarizers find it. I'd be tempted to use it myself. :)

Fifthgen said...

I really like the message that a good "member missionary" needs to engage in a real exchange of ideas, which means both listening and then talking about the real deal. I don't think we hear that kind of practical - - and realstic - - advice very often. And, I think your tone was perfect - - thought-provoking, not preachy. I give it four stars.

Fifthgen said...

I also like how current the talk felt because of your discussion of the internet, the presidential campaign, the FLDS debacle, etc. And, I think a logical extension of what you are saying is that individuality can be a good thing in introducing people to the LDS Church.

Puolustaja said...

Sanford, enjoyed the talk. Do you also do Firesides?

dcroshaw said...

Nice job, Sanford! Very clear cut and a good message that many members would benefit from hearing. I also appreciate that you ARE a good example at starting up conversations and jumping into the meat of what people think. I'm glad some of the members of your ward gave you some positive feedback as well. Way to go.

Sanford said...

Thanks everyone for your support. I was afraid I might have to pat myself on the back a little more so thanks for taking care of it for me. Fifthgen, about the four stars, I assume your star scale is the standard 1 to 10? Puolustaja, welcome back. Firesides are ok but I am thinking a little bigger. Perhaps your father would like me to keynote his next Stake Conference.:)

reddirtgirl said...

Sanford. It is a really good and very thoughtful talk. The kind I would have enjoyed hearing when I did go to church.

Here is my BUT-- I never did and still do not understand why talks given by members have to end with "in the name of Jesus Christ". Are we as humans not even worthy enough to offer our thoughts and feelings to fellow members without doing so through Jesus? I am honestly interested in your answer. Or perhaps I do not really understand the whole in the name of Jesus Christ thing.

I'll take my answer on or off line.