See Part 1 of this article here that shares some of the data Gary Lawrence gathered when his research firm surveyed 1,000 Americans with extensive questions to evaluate what their image and understanding was about Mormons. The results are astonishing, and somewhat disappointing.
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I value Gary Lawrence’s new book, How Americans View Mormonism-Seven Steps to Improve Our Image, because on the most personal level I am eager to know how to tell my neighbors and friends about the thing I love the most, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I often just don’t know how to do it.
When we founded Meridian Magazine, we purposely moved from Salt Lake to Washington , D.C. so we could experience life outside the heartland of Mormonism and understand what most of our readers knew-that daily interaction, that give-and-take, that brush and rub, with people who do not know our faith and sometimes misunderstand it.
In my eagerness to share what I care about so much, I have sometimes a welter of conflicting emotions. I want to be bold and shout out about my passion for the gospel. At the same time, I want to be soft and not offend anyone. I want to be true to what I know, and yet I don’t want to be pushy. I sometimes halt between all these emotions, wondering what strange thing my neighbors just read in the news about the Church and what false thing they might take as true.
One neighbor told us after she had seen CNN’s Anderson Cooper standing against a backdrop of the Salt Lake Temple , while he gave a report on polygamist Warren Jeff’s criminal activity, “I’d think he was talking about Latter-day Saints and they were really strange if I didn’t know you guys.”
Of course, it made me wonder what the neighbors in the other 16 houses on the block thought, if they had seen the news report. Do they wonder about us or our church, and think we are strange? Do they know us well enough to dispel any distortions thrown their way about our faith, or are they only tolerating us with smiles?
Address the Problem Sooner, Not Later
Gary Lawrence’s purpose in conducting the extensive survey on American’s attitudes toward Mormons was to learn what we could do about our sometimes poor image. He said, “Bigotry toward us is alive and well. The bottom-line fact that almost half of all Americans view us unfavorably indicates the severity of the problem, and the intensity of the negative feelings compels us to address this problem sooner rather than later.”
Of course, he said, a natural thought would be that we need to do more and better missionary work. “Admirable as that might be,” he said, “the strong anti-Mormon sentiment uncovered by recent events suggests an additional approach. Whatever we are accustomed to doing in the way of member missionary work we should by all means continue doing. However, the image improvement to which it is now clear we must also devote ourselves is, though there are parallels, a different animal and thus requires different thinking.”
He suggests that “whereas the goals of member missionary work are referrals and baptisms, the goals of image improvement are to correct misperceptions and provide accurate information about who Mormons are and what we believe.” This can happen wherever we happen to be, and “instead of a few doing a lot, we need many, each doing a little.”
Lawrence uses a football analogy. “Improving our image involves many team members working independently to move the ball down the field a little at a time rather than a few members teaming up to score quickly on a long touchdown pass. Millions of members independently communicating truths about Mormons and Mormonism will ultimately effect a change in our image, although we may never know in this life the results of conversations we have with particular individuals with whom we happen to speak.”
Lawrence suggests, “To improve our image, the objective, in a nutshell, is for more members of the Church to become individually known by more people, and for more of us to state facts in casual, friendly one-to-one conversations.”
To help us with this Lawrence outlines seven steps, with the first three being preparatory, how we change ourselves , to break old ways of thinking.
Step One: Think Differently
Guilt and fear should have no place in our interactions with others when we talk about the gospel. Lawrence suggests that “Fear exists only if it threatens something we value.” Thus, if we value our self-image, we fear anything that will embarrass us or result in ridicule. If we value our friendship, we fear the possibility of losing a friend. If we value our religion, we fear anything that demeans it.”
The key, he says, is to focus more on our values than our fears and know that the best testimonies are often borne when the word testimony isn’t mentioned.
We can understand that while our friends may have many questions about the gospel, they may also have fears about religious discussions. Lawrence says, “There are many who are curious about the Church but may be afraid to initiate a conversation because they fear confrontation, pressure, entrapment, arguments, not having adequate responses to questions we may ask, undermined beliefs, hearing more than they expect or want to hear, a strained relationship.”
Lawrence said, “At the end of a focus group I conducted in Southern California testing a Church film, a young lady waited until the other participants had left and asked me if I was a Mormon. She then said she had Mormon neighbors that she was impressed with and wanted to ask them questions about their religion, but was embarrassed to do so. In other words, she was hesitant to initiate a conversation because she had the same fears we often have.”
We can eliminate fear and guilt if we redefine success. Lawrence makes several suggestions about what that might look like. “Success is living an exemplary Christian life. Success is mingling with new people in the community. Success is having a conversation. Spreading information is spreading the gospel. Success is correcting a distortion about us.”
Step Two: Think Simple
Lawrence advises us that in our talking to others we cut the jargon, because Mormon-speak is sometimes all but incomprehensible to others. For example they may have difficulty understanding the simplest thing we say, “The gospel has been restored, and the keys of the priesthood are again on the earth.”
In focus groups with those of other faiths, he has asked people what they understand when they hear the word gospel. Most of them think it means Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or the “the good news” of Christ’s mission. Very few know it in its true sense as the whole of Christianity-doctrines, ordinances, authority and organization.
When he asked for their understanding of the word restored , they said it is what you might do to a piece of old furniture or an old vehicle that has been sitting in the garage.
“Their answers did not suggest in the slightest that the object in point had been lost and then was returned; rather, they assumed the object had always been around but had lost luster and required repainting or refinishing,” Lawrence said. I wonder how many people upon hearing our claim that the gospel has been restored walk away musing, “St.
Matthew has a new coat of paint?”
He suggests that “instead of saying The gospel has been restored,” consider expressing the same idea in three sentences that anyone regardless of religious background can grasp.
- Christ organized a church.
- Men changed it.
- It has been brought back.
Or condense it to one simple claim: “We claim to be the re-established original Christian church.”
Step 3: Prepare the Stage
Lawrence tells the story that “Winston Churchill once excused himself from a dinner party saying he had to practice [his] impromptus’ for a speech the next day in the House of Commons. We, likewise, must prepare our impromptus in the form of facts about the Church we can casually drop into conversations.”
“We must become for gospel truths what Johnny Appleseed was for apples,” Lawrence writes.
Elder M. Russell Ballard stressed that there is “a great need for clear, simple statements that present those who are curious with the basics about the Church as it is today” and asked us to choose a few facts from four categories of information that we could present simply and succinctly:
Facts: our name, how we began, our headquarters, our prophet, number of members, our rate of growth, finances, unpaid clergy, both men and women in positions of leadership, and our representation in government and the professions.
Faith: the soul, God is our Father, Christ is the Son of God and our personal Savior. His atoning sacrifice, our core beliefs, the original church is restored along with the authority to act in God’s name, apostles and prophets, the Bible, the Book of Mormon as another testament of Jesus Christ.
Family: our theology and lifestyles are family-centered, deep commitment to marriage, clarification of 19 th -century polygamy, Sunday services, family home evenings, auxiliary programs, family history, and the most sacred ordinances of the temple relate to our families.
Fruits: health code, longevity, low divorce rates, high educational level, volunteerism, missionary service, self-reliance, work ethic and our humanitarian efforts throughout the world to alleviate suffering.
Step 4: Have Natural Conversations
“Opinions cannot change facts, but facts can change opinions,” Lawrence notes, as he gives several ideas about how to do that. He particularly emphasizes, however, that we should find a way to state our main claim.
He says, “There comes a time to simply drop comments into conversations and see what happens. I cannot provide you with a foolproof formula how to do it I only know that if we are sensitive to conversations and social dynamics, we will find many opportunities to state our claim and do so comfortably. We will feel when we are being nudged by the Spirit to say something.
“Not long ago, for example, I had just used a parenthetical mention to signal my religious affiliation to a medical technician when she replied, “Oh, I used to date a Mormon in high school.” We talked about her experience, which was positive, and then I asked, “Did he ever tell you our main claim?” She said she had heard something about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but asked what I meant. I continued. We make a claim that has three parts’ and went on to state them. She said, I didn’t know that,’ Now she’s part of the 14% who know our claim, and that’s where I left it. It was simple and comfortable, even with two other people in the room.”
Step 5: Expand the Vision
Lawrence found from his survey results that we assume that Americans know more about us than they actually do. Most people are barely aware or just awakening to who we are. Most questions asked of us will not be hostile. Usually, people just want to know the facts.
Before we can expand the vision of the gospel, we have to know what they want to know. Lawrence says, “If people are willing to ask one question, they’re willing to ask several, because formulating one question helps them realize how much they don’t know. Place one answer on their mental maps and there’s a good chance that additional questions will line up in their mental queue.
“If someone repeats a false claim they’ve heard (you’re not Christians, you practice polygamy, you don’t believe the Bible) or poses a cynical question, don’t become defensive. View it as an opportunity to place a new fact on their mental map.
Step 6: Use Technology
“When a possibility arises to converse about religion with those of other faiths,” says Lawrence , “many of us freeze up because we think this requires a foray outside our warm and fuzzy comfort zone, and we don’t want to leave it.”
In this world of modern technology, however, with chatrooms, blogs, emails and much more we don’t really have to leave our comfort zone to have even soul-to-soul communication which the written word facilitates. As Lawrence quips, “Email means never having to say you’re uncomfortable.”
All the possibilities of the Internet can be brought in to play to share gospel knowledge.
Step 7: Guide Patiently
The seventh and last step discusses what happens when the curious become interested and the interested become ready to seriously investigate the Church. The key, Lawrence says is gentle mentoring. To mentor, he says, means to coach, assist, inform, advise, watch over, facilitate, help, guide, counsel, suggest, and teach, while the student takes ownership of his own journey.
“We value things we must work for,” says Lawrence . What an investigator needs is someone who will lovingly walk with them on that journey.
This, of course, is but a taste of what Gary Lawrence suggests in his book, but I found it wonderfully freeing, imbuing me with renewed vigor for the important work of talking about the gospel. “There is a place in religion for pastels and nuances,” Lawrence says, “but not when we are competing for the world’s attention. If we are too timid to challenge false doctrine and distortions, we deserve to be the most misunderstood religion in the world.”
If we follow the counsel he gives us, we can make some earnest steps to reversing that label.