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Cover image via LDS.org.
Older LDS folks have not forgotten the days of building funds, budget dinners and the like. Nor the times where everyone pitched in to build the new chapel. Hurrah for Israel.
Today we blithely accept our large meetinghouses without much thought of who pays for them. We never hear about making a donation for the stake center or even the new temple. Salt Lake takes care of that. Perish the thought that the Wi-Fi doesn’t quite work as well as it ought to work. And why do we still have chalk boards when white boards are so much better.
It could be much worse – and to be fair, these are quite prosperous times we live in. Some in other faiths have seen such a falling of attendance that parishes have closed and cathedrals are near museums. Anti-Mormons enjoy claiming people are leaving the LDS faith in droves. I haven’t seen any droves go by where we live, but there is little doubt the LDS faith is struggling to keep pace with the changing mores of American society. The wide and spacious buildings have never been more alluring. Those leaving the faith rarely leave it for another faith, but rather choose to give up on faith. Always, they tout, for the best of reasons.
We can expect more of this. The Book of Mormon cycles run true today. The mist of darkness and the chants of modernity cloud the eyes and din the ears. Do keep in mind that in the Book of Mormon it prophesies that the church of God will remain a very small number among the inhabitants of the earth.
While the LDS activity numbers in many parts of the vineyard remain well over 50% (some lower and many much higher), members do fall away. “Inactives” as they were once called, filled some home teaching routes. Having eight families to home teach with only one or two active members was not uncommon. The ministering approach today hopes to change that. We shall see.
It is also good to remember that many of these “less actives” as the more politically correct term states, defy the detractors of the faith who relish the idea that people are repudiating the LDS faith. It is true they may no longer attend church, have dropped any pretense of living the Word of Wisdom, and consider the Sabbath a great day for recreation, but I suspect many are like those I was once asked to visit at the behest of our good bishop. At 26, I served as a counsellor in a bishopric in California with another 26 year old as the 1stcounsellor. The bishop tasked us with taking a list of 20 some families who had not set foot in the church in a decade or more and to go find them and visit with them. He asked us to understand them and try to discover why they no longer associated with the church. He stated that we were to ask them if they wished to have their names removed from the church records.
Away we went. Over a period of months, we visited most of those on the list. We were kindly greeted and got a chance to get to know the family. Occasionally a reason was given that someone had offended, perhaps a bishop, Relief Society president or other church leader or member and that turned them off from coming. Others commented, “if I showed up at church, the walls would fall down.” For some it was the fear of smelling like smoke and how they thought they’d be shunned.
In every case we asked the bishop’s question if they’d like to have their names removed from the church rolls. I cannot recall an exception to the following answer. The question shocked and offended them. They often said, “Of course not. I’m a Mormon and I’ll die a Mormon. Don’t you dare take my name off the rolls.” Again, they were quite insulted.
We asked most if they thought Joseph Smith was a prophet, if the Book of Mormon was true, that both testified of Christ. They quickly agreed, but said they just couldn’t live everything and would be hypocrites to attend church the way they lived. On more than one visit I asked how they envisioned Heavenly Father and Christ. Their words were straight out of Joseph’s First Vision. Over the years I’ve asked the people I know who left the LDS Church and attend another the same question. I never get an answer that correlates to the Nicean Creed or anything close to a 3 in 1 godhead. Instead, it is the First Vision nearly verbatim.
At least that’s my experience. Many others who I’ve worked with in other bishoprics, high councils, gospel doctrine and priesthood classes have shared similar tales.
Yes, these are troubling times in the USA with a declining morality and crumbling houses of personal faith. Just as in the Book of Mormon, when people prosper, have time on their hands to “enjoy life,” faith is the usual victim.
Those blessed to have learned the doctrines of divinity; that we are literally Heavenly Father’s children, that he loves us; that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct beings with two in an anthropomorphic form; that all he has can be ours; and that families are literally forever if we so choose; those who are blessed with this knowledge find it nearly impossible to ever change their paradigm that they are literal descendants of their Heavenly Father. When they close their eyes, they see what Joseph and many prophets before him saw.
Are they welcome to return? More than they’ll ever know. They may get far more attention and kindness than they can stand. We know this earth life is how many years we have on this earth plus 1,000 years more. We never give up on them and hope they’ll never give up on themselves.
While in that California bishopric, a gnarled carpenter older than my father, named Rex, worked for us. Rex is the best finish carpenter I’ve seen. So skilled and careful, loving the wood into new creations. I hired Rex only to find out from his mother who was in our ward, that Rex was her rough-hewn, tumbled down son who made her heartsick. She loved him and prayed for him. Every time she saw me she thanked me, “for looking after my dear Rex.”
Rex had been through some marriages and to say he had a Word of Wisdom problem is putting it gently. If Rex didn’t show up on the job site, I knew I needed to bail him out of the drunk tank. He needed a place to live so we put a trailer on our job site and after hours, he was our guard. He valiantly protected our site.
My wife and I decided contracting was not for me, so we headed back to school for more education. More than 10 years passed and I got a phone call one night. A quiet voice let me know it was Rex, calling from Evanston, Wyoming, wanting to know how I was. He then had a question to ask me. I could not imagine what it could be. He asked me if I’d be willing to be his escort when he went to the Salt Lake Temple in two weeks. I couldn’t say anything for a minute. He asked if I was still there. I fought through the emotions and said I’d be honored to do so, but, first, he had to tell me “what in the…what had happened to him!” He told me his whole story with me shaking my head in disbelief, and with a bit of embarrassment for not believing a guy like Rex could ever change his ways and gain great faith. Going through the temple with him was surreal. Divinely surreal. We kept in touch for some weeks and months to come, but then I did not hear from him for a while and wondered what had happened. I made some calls to Evanston and found out Rex had died peacefully in his sleep one night. He died happy. No doubt, his reunion with his mother was joyful.
We have many Rex’s out there. Patience and kindness are essential and faith that what we’ve been blessed with in the restored gospel will allow His children to once again hear his voice. Our Father won’t give up on them. He never gives up on us. His church will not go away but will be a safe harbor for those who seek Him.
No, Mormons are NOT leaving the church, either in droves, herds or Cadillacs. But every soul is important so the concern remains as it always has — seek to help the one return.
Editor’s Note: We recognize that the above reflections on why people leave may not be comprehensive in covering the experiences of everyone, particularly young people. If you have any insights on this phenomenon and what we can do to reach out to and connect better with those that struggle, feel free to comment below.