On Sunday our high councilor spoke during Sacrament Meeting. It was an excellent talk that I feel should be shared with as many people as possible. Personal information has been removed, but otherwise the talk is here as it was given. Italicized emphases in the text were used in the written talk from the high councilor.
I’ve been in this ward for a while now, but since this is a ward where many people come and go, I will briefly introduce myself and my family. [Talks about himself]. [Talks about his wife]. You don’t see her here because about 10 years ago she decided to leave the church. She joined the church in college, then after several years decided she no longer believed in it; so I guess you could say she had conversion experiences in both directions. [Talks about his children].
For the first few years we lived in this ward, I got to serve in the young mens presidency. I love that calling, but I’ve since been called to be a stake high councilor. That’s why you’re having to listen to me today. As part of that calling I get to sit in council with the stake presidency. I guess the conventional thing for me to do is to tell you that the stake president loves you. He hasn’t yet said that to me explicitly, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. I’ve observed him to be a man of remarkable faith and a very kind heart. I think we’re in good hands.
Every time I give a talk in church I feel obliged to begin with a warning, so here it is. I do not consider myself an expert on spiritual matters. I plan to share ideas that I hope will be helpful and inspiring, but please take them for what they are: the opinions and ideas of a guy who isn’t totally sure he knows what he’s talking about.
On top of that, I’ve chosen to speak today on a tricky topic, and I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to collect and structure my thoughts. So please bear with me, and try to listen with a forgiving attitude.
Many years ago I served a mission. It was a transformative experience for me. I was a proud, thick-headed kid, but through steady work and service I learned some profound lessons about the gospel. Most importantly, as I served people and tried to help them turn toward Christ, I was given glimpses into how much our Heavenly Father loves his children. Detailed memories have begun to fade, but the overall experience and its effects on me are still things that I deeply cherish.
Of course, not all of the experiences I had on my mission were positive ones, and as an entry point to my topic I want to describe a negative experience I had in the missionary training center. We had fairly regular meetings with general authorities of the church, and it was typical in those meetings for a choir to perform a song or two. My boys can tell you that I like to sing, but they can also probably tell you that I’m not especially good at it. Certainly I have no training, nor can I read music. But I decided to join the choir one week with my companion (who actually was a good singer). Early in the first practice, the choir leader said something about how baritones should sing this part, and basses should sing that part. I leaned over to my companion who was seated next to me and said “What should I do? I’m not sure if I’m a baritone or a bass.” At this point a missionary seated in front of me turned around with a scornful look on his face and said “If you don’t know that, then what are you doing here?”
I’m sure you can imagine how I felt. But I’m not telling you the story so you can feel sorry for me and my hurt feelings. And in fairness, the missionary had a point. But I want you to think about the message he was delivering: You do not belong here.
What I want to talk about today are the ways that we, as members of the church, might sometimes send similar messages to each other, albeit in more subtle ways than in my MTC story. I’m afraid much of what I’m going to say might seem like rambling, but let me begin by trying to be clear about what I’m trying to talk about. The gospel of Jesus Christ is one of inclusion: our God aims to save and exalt all of his beloved children. Ironically, the Church of Jesus Christ sometimes feels like one of exclusion: when people aren’t sure if they fully believe or belong, they often feel like they are being pushed out. What I want to talk about are some reasons why people start to feel like they don’t belong, and offer some suggestions for how we can make sure our church is a more welcoming place for such people.
When I talk about “people who wonder whether they belong here,” I’m not referring to some separate group of doubters or sinners. I suspect most, if not all, of us have felt this way before. More to the point, I have felt this way. And I don’t mean “I once felt this way a long time ago, before I became enlightened and gained a perfect unshakeable testimony.” I mean I have felt this way within the past month. So please understand that I am speaking about these issues from a place of empathy. And please allow yourself to hear what I’m saying as a message to you and about you, not just about “other people who don’t yet have a testimony.”
One of the main reasons that people can feel like they don’t belong in the church is that they don’t believe the doctrine as easily as others seem to believe it, or they don’t see the doctrine the way the majority of members seem to see it. One of my favorite social psychology experiments was one conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, aimed at understanding conformity. Subjects in the experiment were brought into a room with seven other participants. However, the seven other participants were “confederates” – they were in on the experiment. The participants would be shown a card with a line segment on it, and another card with three line segments on it, and each participant was then asked to say which of the three line segments was the same length as the one on the first card. The answer in each case was fairly obvious: it wasn’t hard at all to tell which segment was the same length. The seating was arranged so that the true experimental subject always answered last. In the first round, the seven confederates would each in turn give the correct answer, followed by the subject. Then they’d be shown another set of line segments, and again the seven confederates would each give the correct answer, followed by the subject. But in the third round, all seven confederates would unanimously give the wrong answer: for instance, they’d all say that line segment A was the match when in fact it was obvious that line A was too long. This would put the true experimental subject in a dilemma: should he agree with what seven people in front of him so confidently reported? Or should he answer based on what his own eyes clearly told him? I won’t belabor this by telling you about the results of the experiment – I’m sure you can guess that there was a high rate of conformity. But I want to tell you about my favorite part. When I first read about this study, I saw a picture that was taken during the experiment. In the picture, you can see the eight participants seated around a long table. Seven of them look completely calm, and one of them is leaning forward, squinting and straining at the picture of the line segments, with his mouth open and an utterly perplexed look on his face.
What is my point in describing this to you? Well, at church I have occasionally felt like that 8th guy with the perplexed look on his face. Sometimes it has felt like everyone around me is saying stuff that seems a little crazy, and then reassuring each other about how right they all are. And how do I feel when this happens? Like I don’t belong here. And I suspect that some of you have felt the same way.
Our discussions in church sometimes seem geared toward achieving agreement and consensus. Surely there are some basic principles we all expect to agree on, but we should try not to be uncomfortable when others voice opinions that differ from our own. When Jesus called 12 disciples, I doubt he expected them to be clones of one another. We get glimpses in the New Testament of the disciples’ different personalities: Peter is passionate, Thomas skeptical, James and John were thought to be bold and quick-tempered. I imagine that this group of disciples didn’t always agree with one another, and I like to believe that in some ways Jesus wanted it that way.
As members of the church, we tend to get especially uncomfortable when someone expresses serious doubts about the gospel or the church, or shares opinions that conflict with standard doctrine. This is natural, but unfortunate. Everyone struggles with faith, but it is sad when those who are struggling feel like their voices aren’t welcome, or their opinions a threat. Instead of being treated with patience and empathy, they feel like they are being told “if you don’t believe it, then you don’t belong here” – or, even more insidiously – “if you don’t believe all of it, then you don’t belong here.”
How can we make church a place where everyone feels welcome, including those who are wrestling with doubt? I think a good place to start is with empathy. I once heard an apostle give a talk in general conference, directing the talk explicitly toward those who had doubts about the church. The way I heard the talk, the message could have been summarized as “To those of you who have doubts: What’s your problem? Get over it already.” I’m sure that’s not the message that was intended. But it made me think about how important it is for people, myself included, to feel validated – to be told yes, some things are hard to reconcile, and you are not alone.
If we want to be more empathetic toward people who struggle with faith, or more forgiving of ourselves when our own faith falters, a good place to start is to recognize that the Lord appears to have intended for us to struggle. In church culture we like to use the language of certainty: we are taught to say that we know the church is true, and we like words like “perfect” and “firm” and “unshakeable.” But, in my opinion, an honest assessment of our relationship with God must admit that it involves a great deal of mystery and uncertainty and confusion. We’re told that if we’re unsure, we can just ask Him in prayer to tell us it’s true. But for many of us the answers to such prayers don’t come easily; inspirations, if and when they finally come, may be “dimly perceived” and difficult to interpret. I recently read a commentator who suggested we understand this not as evidence of God’s indifference, but as a way in which God poses the important question: “What will you do now?”
If we start with the premise that God is mysterious and that faith takes time and effort to cultivate, we will likely have more patience with our own doubts and those of others. If someone expresses a skeptical or unorthodox opinion in Sunday School, we won’t shift in our seats and think of how we can say something faith-promoting to offset the deviation. We won’t panic and call a meeting to discuss how to fix the problem, fretting with furrowed brows that “she doesn’t have a testimony, and she’s already 13!!” We’ll simply recognize that even if the person is at a different place than we are, he or she is traveling on the same highly nonlinear path that we are. And if we’re prompted to respond, it will likely be to express empathy: maybe simply saying, “Ah, I know what you mean.”
I also think it’s important that we not assume faith crises are the consequence of sin or neglect. Sometimes when a person’s faith faltered and he or she fell away from the church, I have heard people say “she must not have been reading her scriptures” or “there must have been some sin in his life.” It is likely true that, on average, people who stop coming to church read their scriptures less than people who do come to church. But correlation is not causation. People who diligently study the scriptures can still have crises of faith. But the real danger in these attitudes is not simply that they’re inaccurate; it’s that they’re dismissive and disrespectful to people who are genuinely struggling, with a sincere heart, to find and understand truth. If we convince ourselves that faith crises only happen to people who are doing something wrong, the message we’ll be sending to people with doubts is “if you’re not a believer, I’ll infer you’re a sinner.” This is not likely to make them feel welcome.
You may have noticed an implicit premise in what I’m saying, which is that we should want everyone to feel welcome at church, including those with doubts and concerns about the church. And it’s possible you’re asking yourself, “Well, do we really want them here? We’re here to nurture our faith. Do we really want to increase the number of skeptics in our congregations?” My response to these questions is, first, too many skeptics is not a problem we’re likely to have. For now, at least, we’re too good at driving them away. Second, with the possible exception of people who come to church to willfully antagonize, I think the answer is an emphatic yes: we should want everyone to be here, and we should want everyone to feel welcome here. Did Christ associate only with the faithful? He ministered to believers and unbelievers, to the sinful and to the repentant. You may say “Well – he was the Son of God, so his testimony was too strong to be shaken by anyone’s unbelief.” But I suggest an alternative: he was the Son of God, so his love was too strong to be shaken by anyone’s unbelief.
I’ve talked about how people who have doubts can feel pushed away from participating in the church. Another threat to our sense of belonging is a perception that we’re not as righteous or as spiritual as everyone else. Ours is a church with many programs and prescriptions, many dos and many don’ts. It’s hard to keep up with all the things we’re supposed to be doing, and easy to feel like we’re not measuring up – especially if it seems like everyone else in the ward is doing everything right. When someone in church talks about how sweet it was to sneak in some family history work in between dropping off dinner for a widow and preparing a family home evening lesson, and all we can remember from last week was how many swear words we said under our breath, how do we start to feel? Like we don’t belong.
A missionary companion of mine once told me that when he gave priesthood blessings, the words came to him in inspiration so clearly it was like reading the words off a scroll. To help me understand what he meant, he said it was like the scrolling of the prologue in the Star Wars movies. I could have reacted to this by thinking “how blessed I am to have a companion who is so attuned to the Spirit!” But mostly I just thought “Wow, I’ve never experienced anything even close to that. I guess I’m really lousy at this spirituality thing.” In other words: maybe this isn’t where I belong. I mention this to set up a simple suggestion: when we describe our spiritual experiences, we should be modest and honest about the nature of those experiences. We may be tempted to exaggerate them, thinking that embellishment will amplify the faith-promoting effect; but in fact this can have exactly the opposite effect. It can make people doubt the validity and worth of their own less dramatic spiritual experiences. Relatedly: if we “know with every fiber of our being” that something is true, I suppose we should go ahead and say it. But if not, we should never pretend. As Sister Wixom said in her talk during the most recent general conference, the ward should not be a place to “put on a perfect face.” If we present our true, honest selves, then those around us will feel comfortable being their true, honest selves. And it’s the true honest selves that the Lord loves, no matter what stage of spiritual progression we are at.
I believe that Jesus Christ lives and that he loves us. I believe that he loves us in spite of, and perhaps even because of, our faults and foibles. I believe he understands our struggles with faith, and expects each of us to travel a different road to redemption. My prayer is that we’ll treat each other with love, patience, and perspective as we travel our respective roads.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
I recorded the last 2/3 of the talk (after the first 1/3 I knew I wanted a record of it). After church I was given a written copy of the talk from the RS President, who got it from the high councilor. There are very slight variations between the text and the audio, but none of significance. The recording starts near the paragraph above the first picture.
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