Any Latter-day Saint with open eyes and an internet connection can't help but notice that the church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate in recent years.
I'm not even talking about the occasional Jack-Mormon who slips away unnoticed, or the 25-40 percent of converts who stop attending within their first year of baptism . What I'm talking about here are the those who have made the active determination to have their names permanently removed from the records of the church. They're often vocal about their antipathy for the church over what they consider a betrayal of a lifetime of their trust.
Many of the folks I'm referring to all have several things in common: Many are multi-generational LDS and descendants of pioneers; most have served missions, been married in the temple, were full tithe payers and 100 percent home teachers. Some had important callings in the relief society presidency; some were bishops, institute instructors, gospel doctrine teachers, and stake high councilmen. They were valiantly active in the church, the True Blue members of their wards. They were the very last persons anyone, including themselves, would have expected to ever abandon the faith.
Every one of them will tell you this: They once had a rock-solid, unshakable testimony of the church.
And that, in my opinion, was their problem. In having a strong testimony of the church, their focus was in the wrong place. "The Church" never was true, and never can be.
I'll give you a moment to catch your breath here. You may even want to take this opportunity to put your arm to the square and intone "get thee behind me, Satan".
Fine. I'll wait.
The truth is, "The Church" is not "The Gospel". It's merely a vehicle for the delivery of the gospel. What we ought to have a testimony of is The Restoration. Of Christ. Of the Atonement.
The great mission of the church is to bring souls to Christ, so once that has taken place, why not testify of Christ? Why would any of us want to bear testimony of the truthfulness of a corporate institution?
In general conference of October 1982, Elder J. Thomas Fyans related the following fable:
"There’s an ancient oriental legend that tells the story of a jeweler who had a precious pearl he wanted to sell. In order to place this pearl in the proper setting, he conceived the idea of building a special box of the finest woods to contain the pearl. He sought these woods and had them brought to him, and they were polished to a high brilliance. He then reinforced the corners of this box with elegant brass hinges and added a red velvet interior. As a final step, he scented that red velvet with perfume, then placed in that setting this precious pearl.
"The pearl was then placed in the store window of the jeweler, and after a short period of time, a rich man came by. He was attracted by what he saw and sat down with the jeweler to negotiate a purchase. The jeweler soon realized that the man was negotiating for the box rather than the pearl. You see, the man was so overcome by the beauty of the exterior that he failed to see the pearl of great price."
Growing up in the mid to late 1960s in the Anaheim First Ward, my testimony of the church developed and solidified during my teen and young adult years. I loved the church and everything connected to it. At that time "The Church" meant a lot of different things to me: It was The Book of Mormon and the other Standard Works. It was Priesthood meeting, Sunday School, and Sacrament Meeting. In those days the meetings were held at three different times of the day, so between Priesthood and Sunday School, while our fathers drove home to get the other family members, my Aaronic priesthood friends and I had an hour and a half to hang around with each other and bond as friends. So "The Church" also meant the friends I had at church. It meant my teachers, my bishop, and all the grown-up members of my ward. It meant the church building itself.
Often Chuck Anderson and I would stay after our own ward to attend the Fourth Ward Sacrament meeting just so we could sit by Carolyn Watts and DeeAnn Mcnear, because "The Church" also meant foxy Mormon girls. Sometimes Butch Matulich and I would drive over to Cypress because the Cypress ward had such examples of fascinating womanhood as Jeri Sachs and Cheryl Boberg and Helen Young and Little Vicki Robinson. It would not be unfair to say that in my teenage years, the best thing about the Mormon Church was Mormon chicks.
"The Church" also meant M.I.A. on Tuesday nights, and Boy Scouts and Explorers. Before that "The Church" had meant attending Primary with my friends. There were Road Shows, Stake Plays, Pancake Breakfasts, Scout Camp, Church Camp, Stake Dances, Ward Firesides, Stake Firesides, Regional Firesides, Ward Beach Parties, Ward Dinners, Seminary, and even summer trips to BYU for Youth Conference. "The Church" was basketball games and annual Scripture Chase Competitions, and Saturday drives over to the city of Orange to browse the only Deseret Book Store in the county. "The Church" was also represented in my bedroom by a growing collection of church books I bought and read.
"The Church" was the life I was totally immersed in six days a week and thrice on Sunday.
Later there was Institute and Young Adults, bigger Firesides and bigger Dances, a two year Mission, BYU, and a Temple Marriage. "The Church" also meant Temple Square and The Brethren and General Conference and Church Headquarters at 50 East Temple Street in Salt Lake City.
Throughout all this time I experienced the burning in my bosom countless times. I felt the Holy Ghost and I heard the still, small voice. If you had asked me if Jesus had a place in my heart, I would have told you yes. But I have to admit that the presence of Jesus was quiet and subdued compared to all that was going on about me in "The Church" as a whole, and let's face it: Jesus was invisible, while "The Church" was a huge, tangible, omnipresent stew I was swimming in all the time.
So it's probably understandable that when I bore my testimony, I often testified that I "knew" The Church was true, I "knew" that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and I even "knew" that my Mormon friends were the bestest friends in the whole wide world. I don't remember how often I or any of my teenage friends actually thought to mention Jesus Christ in our testimonies except for the part at the end where we'd recite the obligatory mantra "In-the-name-of-Jesus-Christ-Amen".
Not long ago I sat in Fast and Testimony meeting conducting a quiet little experiment. I took out a pen and made a mark on my program for every time someone testified of the truthfulness of the church. I made another mark for every time someone testified of Christ. You might want to try the same experiment. If the mentions of Jesus or the atonement outnumber the mentions of the church or of Joseph Smith, well then, I'd say you live in an extraordinary ward.
The problem with having a testimony of the church is that eventually you'll find that "The Church", whatever that represents to you, may disappoint. Some of those charged with being the gatekeepers of Christ's earthly institution have at times, in a well-meaning effort to spare the flock from some embarrassing facts and "to protect their testimonies", covered up and distorted some of the more uncomfortable and contradictory aspects of our history and doctrine. Many disaffected Mormons tell of an incredible sense of betrayal after awakening to the realization that much of what they had been taught all their lives had not been the complete truth.
Now in my opinion, to discard all of the marvelous realities of the restoration because of a few historical and doctrinal anomalies is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, not to mention taking a giant step backward in one's understanding of the attributes of God and the workings of the universe. However, I respect everyone's desire to come to their own understanding of truth even when their conclusions differ from mine, so more power to them. All of us are on our perfect paths. We do, after all, "claim the privilege of worshiping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege."
I'm endlessly fascinated by the theo-cosmology of the gospel message, of the mysteries of Godliness, of the "oneness" of the universe. Our scriptures reveal things only now being discovered through the science of quantum mechanics, such as that all matter, when reduced to its smallest element, seems to consist of some kind of an innate consciousness, or what we Mormons call "intelligence".
It's been a long time since I heard Cleon Skousen's famous talk, "The Meaning of the Atonement", so yesterday I dug out my old cassette player and gave it another listen. It's still absolutely mind boggling! Brother Skousen was one of the greatest teachers this church ever produced, and I understood better and got closer to Christ from that one presentation than I ever did during a lifetime of sitting in Sunday School class.
The finely carved, ornate box we call "The Church" contains treasures of knowledge that you can barely conceive of in a lifetime of learning. But you won't experience any of it if you spend your life holding the box on your lap admiring the fine workmanship of the outside container. That box is just the handiwork of men. No matter how elegant and rich and impressive it may appear, it's really only some pretty pieces of wood slapped together.
Why would you want to keep focusing on that box? Lift the lid and look inside.