This post is adapted from notes I prepared for a talk I gave in church in 2013. I was in the Park Slope YSA branch in Brooklyn, New York when I gave it.
For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged; her stakes must be strengthened; yea, verily I say unto you, Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments.
-Doctrine & Covenants 82:14
In the scriptures, those who have received the gospel are given a strong mandate. In Matthew 28:19, we read it: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” It's also in Mark 16:15: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature."
And in the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 28:1-3, we have this passage:
Now it came to pass that after the sons of Mosiah had done all these things, they took a small number with them and returned to their father, the king, and desired of him that he would grant unto them that they might, with these whom they had selected, go up to the land of Nephi that they might preach the things which they had heard, and that they might impart the word of God to their brethren, the Lamanites — That perhaps they might bring them to the knowledge of the Lord their God, ... that they might also be brought to rejoice in the Lord their God, that they might become friendly to one another, and that there should be no more contentions in all the land which the Lord their God had given them. Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.
One of the central, foundational tenets of missionary work is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. It’s why we Mormons go to people’s doors and chat with people online and wear shirts and ties and name tags to the zoo.
That the gospel is “for everyone” is the ideal, the theory. In practice, sometimes the way we behave can contradict this ideal, and some can be left wondering if the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are for them.
I have wondered this for myself, over the years, and I certainly will wonder it again. And I met many people while attending college at BYU who ultimately did make the decision to cut ties with their Mormon practice entirely.
So for this talk I wanted to dig into the doctrine and find some suggestions to this problem of people not feeling like they belong at church.
As I look inwardly at myself and outwardly at my friends who have struggled to feel that a place exists for them at church, I started to make a list of people I know who have struggled to fit in and why, some of whom have left the church. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but just represents my own experience and/or people I know:
People who sometimes don’t fit into the mold:
- people who doubt or have questions about things that it seems everybody else has a sure knowledge of
- LGBTQ individuals
- politically liberal or progressive activists
- single people older than, say, 23 — or people who have been dating longer than a certain period of time but are not engaged or married.
Many of my friends back in Provo fit those categories — some of them fit ALL of those categories. I definitely fit into many of them myself.
So let’s look more at the doctrine:
2 Nephi 26:33: “The Lord … inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
Alma 5:49: “The words which Alma, the High Priest according to the holy order of God, delivered to the people in their cities and villages throughout the land: … And now I say unto you that this is the order after which I am called, yea, to preach unto my beloved brethren, yea, and every one that dwelleth in the land; yea, to preach unto all, both old and young, both bond and free; yea, I say unto you the aged, and also the middle aged, and the rising generation; yea, to cry unto them that they must repent and be born again.”
When a separation happens from the body of Christ, both sides can’t help but bleed a little. When people leave the church, everybody loses something, and the church itself maybe most of all. A congregation is only as rich as its membership is diverse, I believe.
Hugh B. Brown said, “There never was another like you in this world. God throws the mold away every time he makes a man [or woman]. ... I think He made you what you are in order that you might do some particular thing better than anyone else in the world could do it.”
My favorite passage in the Book of Mormon teaches this principle brilliantly. The thesis of 2 Nephi 29 is that God speaks to everyone, including every culture and religion, and that one of His aims is to bring together all truth into one whole. No question about it: when people leave Mormonism, Mormonism gets a little less...something. True? Complete? In any case, we don’t just roll on ahead as if nothing happened. We feel the loss as much as the person leaving does.
What can those who don't fit in do?
Here is my suggestion for what those whose fit with Mormonism feels uncomfortable. It comes from Mark 10:46-52:
And they came to Jericho: and as [Jesus] went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimæus, the son of Timæus, sat by the highway side begging. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called. And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee. And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus. And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.
I am moved by the faith of this assertive blind man. Even when others tried to tell him that he should “hold his peace,” he “cried the more a great deal.” He made a space for himself, choosing to disregard the quieting messages from other faithful followers that he didn’t fit in or was otherwise out of place -- a familiar message to me, one that has often come in the form of “if you disagree with the Church why don’t you start your own?"
In one way or another, I have been asked, “Why do you want to be Mormon, anyway?” by other faithful members, and it is not a pleasant question. Sometimes I have wanted to respond by agreeing with them, but this blind man reminds me that my relationship with God is my own responsibility.
Going to church with people we agree with isn’t really the goal or the plan anyway for Mormons. Eugene England argued in his essay “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” that we go to church geographically precisely so that we can be forced into opportunities to serve with people with whom we may disagree politically or have different personalities. There is great potential for personal growth by embracing this set-up.
What can those who do fit in do?
1. Remember our covenants related to empathy.
A passage from Mosiah 18 in the Book of Mormon captures perfectly what we commit to doing when we get baptized:
And it came to pass after many days there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon, to hear the words of Alma. Yea, all were gathered together that believed on his word, to hear him. And he did teach them, and did preach unto them repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord. And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life — Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you? And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.
2. Appreciate and feel grateful for diversity.
President Uchtdorf has said this about diversity at church:
While the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold — that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities. It also contradicts the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency—with all its far-reaching consequences — of each and every one of God’s children. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.
The body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) is not meant to be divided:
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
3. Recognize that feeling comfortable at church is a privilege that comes with a responsibility to help others feel at home as well.
Luke 22:32 says, “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”
One issue that particularly divides and frustrates members of the church in the 21st century is homosexuality. The church’s teachings do not make room for members to be in good standing while participating in sexual or romantic relationships with those of the same sex. This teaching — regardless of whether the principle itself is a true reflection of God's will — must be incredibly difficult to experience for those it affects firsthand.
I believe that if we as a church will limit the possibilities for family formation for a group of individuals, we must be doubly committed to extending the hand of family for those in our communities who will never have a family of their own as long as they are counted among us. And of course it applies to people beyond those in the LGBTQ community.
A few years ago church spokesperson Michael Otterson made this comment:
The Church recognizes that those of its members who are attracted to others of the same sex experience deep emotional, social and physical feelings. The Church distinguishes between feelings or inclinations on the one hand and behavior on the other. It’s not a sin to have feelings, only in yielding to temptation. There is no question that this is difficult, but Church leaders and members are available to help lift, support and encourage fellow members who wish to follow Church doctrine. Their struggle is our struggle. Those in the Church who are attracted to someone of the same sex but stay faithful to the Church’s teachings can be happy during this life and perform meaningful service in the Church. They can enjoy full fellowship with other Church members, including attending and serving in temples, and ultimately receive all the blessings afforded to those who live the commandments of God.
I have questions and even doubt about church teachings on homosexuality and gender, but until those teachings change (and we have been told repeatedly that they will not), I believe that Mormons on all sides of belief on this issue have to be committed to applying that phrase to all who don’t fit easily in: “their struggle is our struggle.”
4. Truly try to understand
I taught for four years at the Missionary Training Center after I came home from my mission in 2008. One of the sweeping changes in MTC curriculum that deeply impressed me, and it was a continuation of what the manual Preach My Gospel was already attempting at, was the increased emphasis in teaching missionaries not only to preach, but to listen, carefully, as they teach people the gospel.
This is what Preach My Gospel says:
While others talk to you, avoid the tendency to think about what you are going to say. Make sure you are really concentrating on the person speaking rather than planning your response. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught: “More important than speaking is listening. These people are not lifeless objects disguised as a baptismal statistic. They are children of God, our brothers and sisters, and they need what we have. Be genuine. Reach out sincerely. Ask these friends what matters most to them. What do they cherish, and what do they hold dear? And then listen. If the setting is right, you might ask what their fears are, what they yearn for, or what they feel is missing in their lives. I promise you that something in what they say will always highlight a truth of the gospel about which you can bear testimony and about which you can then offer more. … If we listen with love, we won’t need to wonder what to say. It will be given to us—by the Spirit and by our friends.”
What can both do?
Finally, every Mormon can check out Mormon.org profiles from the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which collectively demonstrate that as a group we actually are pretty diverse. I was pleasantly surprised at the liberal things they allowed me to say on my own profile.
I’ll close with a Primary song familiar to all Mormon children: “If You Don’t Talk as Most People Do”:
If you don’t walk as most people do, Some people walk away from you, But I won’t! I won’t! If you don’t talk as most people do, Some people talk and laugh at you, But I won’t! I won’t! I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you. That’s how I’ll show my love for you. Jesus walked away from none. He gave his love to ev’ryone. So I will! I will! Jesus blessed all he could see, Then turned and said, “Come, follow me.” And I will! I will! I will! I will! I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you. That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
Wherever we are on our beliefs or understanding of doctrine, 1 Corinthians 13 emphasizes that charity is the greatest of all. Without charity, our prophecies and knowledge and service mean nothing: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
I testify that divine truth can be found in the great diversity of God’s children. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.