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Cover image by James H. Fullmer.
This summer, I caught a glimpse of Tyler Glenn and Dan Reynolds on the Love Loud Livestream singing a primary song that ribbed orthodox Latter-day Saints for not embodying love as well as they (and little children) did. I couldn’t help but think about what it could have meant if – instead of using their enormous reach and popularity to foment discontent and further resentment, these missionaries-turned-megastars would have found a way to uphold and defend their family of faith…in the very moment when Heaven Knows we need it the most.
“It’s not more critique and attack we need right now,” I told a friend who has stepped away from our faith: “What we need is more Alma the Youngers.”
It would oversimplify the Book of Mormon account to describe Alma the Younger as being spiritually advantaged for having a prophet father, since that same father once sat on a golden throne speaking deceptive, flattering words to justify the “riotous living” of a sexual free-for-all in his patron King’s court.
However young his son Alma might have been at this time, it’s hard to imagine him being young enough to avoid being influenced. Indeed, even after watching his father’s heart melt from a martyr’s message and be willing to follow this mighty change into the wilderness…even then, something else pulled at little Alma’s core.
The fruit of a hyper-sexualized lifestyle, after all, does have its own seductive sweetness. And like many of our youth today, little Alma simply wasn’t able to resist it, ultimately leveraging his own social platform and ability as a “man of many words” to encourage people to “do after the manner of his iniquities.”
Getting some people to think like him, however, was not enough. Like many today, Alma couldn’t stand that others were teaching and believing otherwise. So, he dedicated himself to secretly “going about to destroy the church of God.”
I’ve never met anyone openly identifying as trying to “destroy the church.” But in their own ways, that’s precisely what a growing number of former members are effectively doing.
Winning hearts. As I detailed in a previous review of the Love Loud phenom, the persuasive power of the rhetoric, music and emotional appeals is substantial. Star-studded line-ups of celebrities, heart-wrenching stories of suicides, spontaneous weeping on stage, and statistics presented (always) in line with the same simple, compelling, enraging story.
What chance do any of the thousands of young Latter-day Saints in attendance have of seeing past the brilliance of the flattering pitch?
Maybe about as much as the earliest audience of Alma the Rebel: “And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them.”
When all is said and done, when all the enormous praise (ala MTV/Billboard/media outlets) received by Dan, Tyler, Kendall and other activists passes away, I fear this will be the historical legacy of their efforts – just as that verse describes.
But it doesn’t have to end this way! Because it didn’t for Alma the Younger: “And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God [with the sons of Mosiah]… and to lead astray the people of the Lord…behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them…”
And here’s where it gets really interesting.
That unloving angel. What that angel had to say to them was so psychologically shocking and unsettling that everyone “fell to the earth” twice – with Alma himself losing his speech and becoming physically paralyzed.
Imagine for a moment public reaction to a story like this showing up on social media: “Man gets physically paralyzed after being confronted by an individual claiming to be a mighty leader.” Not only had this angel dared to pass judgment on Alma’s chosen path, his message made him feel so bad, and yes, so ashamed…that it even knocked him out!
Clearly unforgivable – on this social platform or the next – and certainly grounds for pressing charges, if only the assailant could be found! In the court of public opinion, little attention would be paid to the fact that this very discomfort ultimately led Alma to the most indescribably beautiful transformation imaginable – including being “filled with joy” – with “nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.”
And “from this time forward” rather than continuing to be a great hinderment to the Church, Alma became its veritable tour de force. More than simply another dedicated witness of Christ, he became one of the Mona Lisa’s of ministry and missionary work for the ages.
In a day when the Church of Jesus Christ is being battered from so many directions, I’ve sometimes wondered where are our Alma the Youngers? Who are the voices that will be our own Tour to Force so desperately needed? Where are they? And what would it take to recruit more of these dearly-needed Alma the Youngers for our day?
Of course, there are some around – maybe even more than we know. As one person commented to me, “People are coming back to the Church all the time. We all know less active people who have started attending again. Many of us know people who were excommunicated who are now faithful. Even some who have resigned are rebaptized. There does not seem to be a shortage of people who fit that description.”
But there are more – so many more – needed here, wanted here, and waiting to be “discovered”: beautiful souls, many of whom have been blindsided by new narratives they can hardly see outside of anymore.
You love them. And I do too.
And it’s time for them to come home.
Making the pitch. I had dinner earlier this year with two friends who stepped away from the Church in recent years. Like many, their decision involved plenty of thought and happened over time. I don’t doubt that. In fact, it’s precisely due to their thoughtfulness that prompted me to ask if they’d be willing to hear out my “best recruiting pitch” to come back.
If I was a talent scout for an “Alma the Younger” for our age, they would definitely be near the top of my list. So would another dear friend who taught in the MTC while I was there – and who became one of my favorite conversation partners (not despite our different views of the Church of Jesus Christ, but because of them). And I’d have my eye on a third friend who was my roommate at BYU before later becoming estranged from the Church with his wife.
To be clear, there are limitations to the parallels to Alma the Younger. For instance, each has generally sought to be sensitive and careful with the possibility of destabilizing others’ faith. And each of these couples are seeking to raise good children (albeit disabused of their previous beliefs).
What they do share with pre-transformation Alma is harsh conclusions about their previously beloved faith community – conclusions that I would argue are deeply and dangerously short-sighted. And that’s why I’m recently asking each of them for a fresh opportunity to make the case as to what they may have missed – entreating them to carefully reappraise and rethink assumptions they have made along the way.
Over the next three months – from November to January – I’ll be publishing seven essays representing my best “recruitment pitch” to our Future Alma the Younger(s).1 Although posted publicly for a broader audience, it is these three dear friends I’ll be thinking about when writing.
Admittedly, none of these friends have been enthusiastic to hear me out – with some mixed feelings about my pitch: This again? Sigh.
Surely this is one reason friends who leave the Church often lose interest in having a relationship with active members anymore. Sensing this fear of attempted persuasion or disagreement, we try to be respectful and thus avoid saying much of anything. Communication shrivels to a dribble…
Is there a better way?
Unapologetic transparency. How about this: not hiding what’s really going on inside – on both sides. In this case, yes, dear friends – I’m going to be honest: I want to try and persuade you to consider another perspective. Openly. Transparently. Without apology.
One root word for persuasion is “sweet.”2 But whether from relentless marketing on every side or incessant politicking, the idea of someone trying to convince us of something has become anything but sweet.
But imagine, for a moment, a world where we stop sharing what we find to be good, beautiful or true together? Is that really a world you want to live in?
Not me. So much of my own joy and peace has come from people willing to extend the goodness, truth and beauty they have found and come to love. For this reason, an attempt to persuade is far from a “bad thing” – and instead, I would argue is a crucial “social good,” something we should welcome, value and preserve in society today. That’s something my friend Charles Randall Paul from the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy has taught me.
So, in the weeks ahead, I’ll be making my very best pitch for former brothers and sisters to come home, with (I pray) a wisdom higher than my own.
That doesn’t mean they or you need to listen, of course. I suspect some I send this to directly will refuse to even consider what I have to say – opting out of any back-and-forth.
But, in fairness: what’s really the point anyway? They are convicted – and so are you…why, then, would two people like that even waste time engaging?
Because that’s the only way we’re ever going to learn more! I’m convinced that friendly (but earnest) contestation is crucial to collectively discovering where we’re wrong – and what our blindspots are (including me!)
By contrast, if we never even have the challenging conversations – insulating ourselves and others against challenge – it’s pretty hard to learn anything new.
What best friends do. To those who do hear me out, I want to promise to reciprocate in my openness to hearing from them – especially over time. In this, we’ll be pursuing the spirit of a joint statement by (Marxist thinker) Cornel West and (conservative thinker) Robert George, where they call for a willingness and even an “eagerness” to participate in truth-seeking discourse. As they put it, “The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage — especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held — even our most cherished and identity-forming — beliefs.” [Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression]
George later described it this way: “we both recognize that if somebody does that — someone shows us that we’re wrong about something or we’ve drawn a conclusion that isn’t rationally warranted — that person is not our enemy. That person is our best friend. Even if it’s embarrassing to be refuted or contradicted in public, there’s still nothing more important than the possession of the truth” (emphasis my own).
I recognize that after many years of exploration, there can be a weariness of any such exchange between active and former members of the Church.
For that reason, I’m grateful for those willing to hear me out in the months ahead. If you have friends, family members, neighbors or other loved ones you think might be open to hearing this recruitment pitch, do please pass it along.
It was an angel who persuaded Alma to change course. I’m no angel – but I’d like to give it a shot.
 Some of these were published in an earlier version on Millennial Star – and have been significantly updated here.
 Proto-Indo-European root for persuasion is “swād” meaning “sweet, pleasant.”