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Change: the problem we want to have

God doesn’t change. Should the Church?

The notion of “change” in church teachings, liturgy, policies, and culture can sometimes make Latter-day Saints feel uncomfortable. We might think: God’s laws are eternal, and a church that is aligned with God’s laws shouldn’t change. But actually, change is the problem we want to have. It means the Restoration is going strong, lasting from generation to new generation.

Russell M. Nelson’s tenure as president of the Church has been dynamic, marked by numerous welcome changes in administration and worship. The General Relief Society Presidency and Board under Jean B. Bingham is characterized by unprecedented diversity of life experience and candor about the challenges Latter-day Saints today are facing. Our leaders are on to something.

But are we in the pews too slow on the uptake? As the mother of four Latter-day Saint children, I wonder if we’re changing fast enough. Numerous church-sponsored events addressing issues like faith crisis, along with my personal observations, show that we as a church are struggling with retention. Multiple studies exist that give varying numbers, but one of the most recent studies reports that in America, the majority of millennial Latter-day Saints (55%) have left and that the trend has worsened over time (compared to 25% who disaffiliated in Generation X). This is worse than the percentage of the people in the universe turned to ashes by the supervillain Thanos in the movie Avengers: Infinity War (50%).

Since something more consequential than Thanos (assuming Thanos existed) threatens my children’s faith in the restored gospel, I want to act. Clearly, we can’t just keep doing the same old things. But what? How? To some at church, the question “How can we change?” sounds subversive. Because “things that are true don’t change.” Right?

We’ve been here before

Surprisingly, I’ve found reassurance in the words of Latter-day Saint leaders nearly one hundred years ago. In 1934 in America, everyone was talking about “the religious crisis” facing the youth. Depression-era poverty and unemployment fed disillusion. Fascism was on the rise and the world was on the path to World War II. Advancing scientific understanding about the age of the earth challenged the Bible’s account of God creating the earth in six days.

It was an age of doubt. “We are living in critical times and everything that can be shaken will be shaken,” declared Young Women’s General President Ruth May Fox. Elsie Talmage Brandley, a member of the Young Women’s General Board, explained, “forces surrounding youth today are more potent in encouraging them to question than were forces yesterday”.

Sound familiar?

In his address at a churchwide conference, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, later President of the Church (1970-1972), declared, “Truth must forever receive fresh interpretation.” “Frequent reorientation,” he said, was necessary within the Church as horizons of human knowledge and experience broadened:

What was adequate for Moses’ time was not adequate for Christ’s, what was adequate for the Prophet Joseph’s time is not adequate for ours, and our grandchildren’s world will find our interpretations inadequate. Their world will have so changed that fundamental truth in order to function for their benefit will have to be interpreted in light of their needs and problems.

Elder Smith optimistically declared that change offered “glorious possibilities.” He urged the Saints to seize new opportunities to put the gospel to work, such as fighting poverty, reducing crime, and working for world peace.

It’s refreshing to hear a church leader older than the oldest great-great-grandmothers and -fathers today encouraging the Latter-day Saints to embrace change. Significant changes did arise out of that time of crisis, including the establishment of the church welfare system and a reinterpretation of the biblical creation account, from the literal six “days” to the more flexible “creative periods.”

Two arenas in which we can do better

Recently the Church and its leaders have introduced substantive changes with regard to two issues: historical transparency and gender equality. However, the spirit of these changes has not yet been fully embraced within local church culture. Now is the time to get to work so that our youth will be able to see the beauty and relevance of the restored gospel today.

1) We should learn how to tackle (instead of avoid) controversial or sensitive topics

In an address to CES educators in 2016, Elder M. Russell Ballard taught about the importance of transparency and candor in the Information Age:

“It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the Church. . . . Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.”

In light of this new era, Elder Ballard said that CES teachers should know the eleven Gospel Topics essays  on the Church’s official website “like the back of [their] hand”. The essays’ takeaway messages: 1) no one in church history has been perfect, and 2) the story of the Restoration, though powerful, can also be messy and complicated.

If Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War were coming to cause 50% of all Latter-day Saint youth to disappear from the pews, I doubt parents would sit on the couch and dispatch CES teachers to stand in his way. Instead, we would leap into our super-suits and rush to the front lines. And yet we who teach youth are being couch-sitters if we don’t do what we can to respond thoughtfully to the rising generation’s hard and valid questions. To name just a handful:

Let us not waste the work of faith and scholarship that has gone into these resources. The new Saints history, available in over a dozen languages, is an even more accessible place to find both faith and footnotes. If you feel about history the same way I feel about computer networks, ask for help from someone at church who has read and understood these new resources, as Elder Ballard suggested to the CES teachers.  

These new materials and the new paradigms they present are not a cure-all, but if we will put in the work to integrate them into our common knowledge, we will strengthen the Latter-day Saints’ spiritual immune system. We will help our youth understand that people can be flawed, yet still called to God’s work.

2) We should include women, girls, and the divine feminine in our church teaching and discussion

Recently there have been numerous changes in how women, girls, and the divine feminine are represented in Latter-day Saint worship and teaching. The most significant of these was the recent change in the temple liturgy, hailed by many as “a great leap forward.” Starting in April 2013, women have been included among those offering prayers at general conference.

Uses of the term “Heavenly Parents” and “Mother in Heaven” in official teaching have increased dramatically. For example, in his general conference address in April 2019, President Nelson spoke of the “covenant path back home to our Heavenly Parents.”

These changes are not just for adults, but for children too. In January 2017, The Friend published a story about “Kylie’s Parents”:

Kylie has a mommy and daddy. She loves them very much. . . . Kylie has Heavenly Parents. She loves Them very much too. Our Heavenly Parents are very kind. So is Kylie. Our Heavenly Parents show love to everyone. Kylie does too!

Clearly, these changes in church policies and practices pertaining to women are intended to address widespread concerns about gender inequality in developed societies. In the same vein, in October 2017, Elder M. Russell Ballard called on the Latter-day Saints to eliminate any prejudice, including . . . sexism. ” Yet as Latter-day Saint mother and blog post author Erin McPhie noted, because youth are “on high alert” for sexism at church, we need to pay more attention to details. A friend who is a BYU professor has told me that in the past few years, more and more students (both male and female) have expressed deep concerns about gender inequality they observe in a church setting.

How can we do a better job of demonstrating through our words and actions that the restored gospel is for both women and men?

  • Use inclusive terminology. Use the term “Heavenly Parents” instead of just “Heavenly Father” whenever possible. Whenever scriptures or older song lyrics say “man” or “men” to mean a general human being, substitute “person” or “women and men” (as speakers often do in general conference). Learn about the many ways in which Latter-day Saints have historically included Mother in Heaven in discussing and understanding God.
  • Highlight women in the scriptures. Every time we teach the creation story, point out the Latter-day Saint belief in Eve’s “visionary wisdom”(as President James E. Faust said, “If it hadn’t been for Eve, none of us would be here”). Share scripture stories centered on wise, strong, and courageous women like Huldah, Deborah, Esther, and Mary.
  • Make the Young Women indispensable to the ward’s functioning to the same extent that the Young Men are. Read recently released General Young Women President Bonnie L. Oscarson’s call in general conference for everyone who sits on a ward council to find creative ways to involve young women in the essential work of the ward. Ministering is another way to include young women in substantial spiritual responsibilities.
  • Make sure that both women and men counsel together regarding any decision affecting the congregation as a whole. Handbook #2, Administering the Church, instructs that ward councils should include a full complement of women members, since “the viewpoint of women is sometimes different from that of men, and it adds essential perspective to understanding and responding to members’ needs.” Since July 2015 local bishoprics have been expected to plan sacrament meetings in consultation with all ward council members, including women. Strive for a natural gender balance in the program and order of speakers.
  • Know who our female leaders are, and pay attention to their words. Too often female speakers in general conference are consciously or subconsciously ignored. Hear what President Nelson said about all of the speakers at the end of the last conference:

    Topics were not assigned to the speakers. They each prayed for personal revelation in preparing their messages. . . . As you study them, seek to learn what the Lord is trying to teach you through His servants.

    Sustain female church leaders such as Relief Society, Primary, and Young Women Presidents Bingham, Jones, and Cordon as the Lord’s servants, and general leaders of your Church. Study and quote women leaders’ addresses.

In sum, to paraphrase 1 Thessalonians 5:22, in the twenty-first century we want to abstain from all appearance of disrespecting women. Let’s take the cue from our leaders and work from the bottom-up so our children, the real investigators on Sunday, will find ample evidence that women are as essential as men in our teachings and institutions.

Change: an opportunity for awesomeness

With our doctrine of ongoing revelation, the Latter-day Saints are well positioned to deal with the coveted problem of change over time, including shifts in moral common sense over generations.

We must rise to the challenge—as Joseph Fielding Smith put it, the opportunity—of reorienting the gospel message to the questions and problems of this new day.

Shoulders to the wheel!

Melissa Inouye is a professor of Chinese history and religious studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. This essay is adapted from a chapter in her book, Crossings: a bald Asian American Latter-day Saint woman scholar’s ventures through life, death, cancer, and motherhood (not necessarily in that order), which has just been published by Deseret Book and the BYU Maxwell Institute. The hard copy and ebook editions are available on Amazon and the Deseret Book website, and the audiobook version, read by the author, is available on the Deseret Book website.

Sources:

[1] For examples of recent church events addressing issues of doubt for young adults, see a September 2018 devotional addressing difficult questions in church history with Elder Cook and church historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow, a January 2019 devotional on doubt featuring Elder and Sister Renlund, a January 2019 devotional on doubt featuring General Authority Seventy Lawrence E. Corbridge, and a February 2019 speech by Elder Dallin H. Oaks acknowledging “matters of church history and doctrinal issues have led some . . . to inactivity.”

[2] Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). In 2018, eminent political scientist and practicing Latter-day Saint David Campbell said of this book: “The Next Mormons is a tour de force, replacing folklore with fact. If you are a practicing Mormon, read this book for a peek into the rising generation within the LDS Church. If you are an LDS leader, read this book to understand the challenges that are on the Church’s horizon.” https://www.amazon.com/Next-Mormons-Millennials-Changing-Church-ebook/dp/B07MTGMC7K See also a forthcoming book based on extensive surveys and interviews by David Ostler on why people experience crises or transitions in their faith and how Latter-day Saints can better minister to those who doubt. https://www.bridgeslds.com.

[3] Kate Holbrook and Jennifer Reeder, eds., introduction to “The Religious Crisis of Today” by Elsie Talmage Brandley, in At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses of Mormon Women (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017).https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/part-3/chapter-32?lang=eng&highlight=Elsie#inline-note14.

[4] ElsieTalmage Brandley, “The Religious Crisis of Today,” Improvement Era 37, no. 8 (467–468, 496–497). https://archive.org/details/improvementera3708unse/page/n19

[5] Joseph F. Smith, “The Glorious Possibilities for Us of the Religious Crisis,” Improvement Era 37, no. 8 (465-466, 495-496: 466). https://archive.org/details/improvementera3708unse/page/n17

[6] Smith, “Glorious Possibilities,” 495.

[7] I should also clarify that challenges for the rising generation vary depending on where you are in the world; my discussion here is focused on the situation of Latter-day Saint youth in developed countries where levels of education for both girls and boys are high. This global and cultural variation is itself one of the Church’s major institutional challenges in the twenty-first century, but that’s another conversation.

[8] Other resources like the Faith Matters Foundation’s Big Questions Project model thoughtful discussion. The BYU Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series similarly demonstrates how people can be aware of all of the most difficult questions and trying situations out there, yet still be believing Latter-day Saints.

[9] In his CES address, when discussing the Gospel Topics essays, Elder Ballard said, “If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them. In other words, “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” as you master the content of these essays. . . .The effort for gospel transparency and spiritual inoculation through a thoughtful study of doctrine and history, coupled with a burning testimony, is the best antidote we have to help students avoid and/or deal with questions, doubt, or faith crises they may face in this information age. As you teachers pay the price to better understand our history, doctrine, and practices—better than you do now—you will be prepared to provide thoughtful, careful, and inspired answers to your students’ questions.”

[10] The Deseret Book series Girls Who Chose God (covering women in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and church history [forthcoming]) beautifully narrates and illustrates many of these.