In part 1 of Reinventing Your Sundays, I lamented how our once-vibrant religion has devolved into Sunday meetings that are lackluster, impotent, and largely devoid of spirit.
The day after that post appeared, over at Feminist Mormon Housewives a discussion took place entitled “The Church Is Losing Us.” That article generated over 200 comments similar to those here, evidence that there is a rumble of dissatisfaction within the membership that is much broader than I had supposed.
And similar discussions seem to be taking place all over the Bloggernacle. Here's a quite typical comment from a single father, left on Mormon Matters:
“I have to ask myself why I sit in sacrament meeting every week holding my spiritual bowl and hoping for crumbs of spiritual nourishment...but at the same time, I love what Mormonism theoretically has to offer. I know if I left it, I'd never really leave many of it's teachings. The Church seems to me, at times, to be an irrelevant corporation standing like an eclipse in front of the light of it's Gospel. I feel like the church has so much to offer us, but settles for easily digestible platitudes.”
“I love Christ, I love God, I love my daughter, I love creation, I love people. I'm not sure anymore how the church helps me foster any of that love.”
Tens of thousands of ordinarily devout Latter-day Saints are slipping away out of boredom and disaffection -and who can blame them? The lively, spirit-filled community that was evident at the time of Joseph Smith -and still present to a degree during my own youth in the 1950's and '60's -is all but gone. I suggested earlier that if church meetings weren't working for you, you might think about taking a sabbatical. Do what the young Joseph Smith did when he found the local churches weren't stimulating him: sit outside under a tree and read the scriptures.
But for most people, that solution is no solution at all. We have within us a God-given need to gather with like-minded souls. Just staying home is not the answer for everyone, as typified by this letter I received from an LDS attorney in Salt Lake City:
“Over the last ten years or so I have become more and more bored. Every week I struggle to get through those three hours. I go for my kids, but my head is elsewhere. So my question is: what is my alternative? Inactivity would be one option I suppose, but that's not really a solution.”
Well, I think the only real solution will be for Bishops and Branch Presidents to reclaim their autonomy and begin to serve their members rather than behaving as though their allegiance is to the corporate headquarters in Salt Lake. The corporate institution that is the modern LDS Church operates as though the members exist to serve it, rather than the institution existing to serve the members.
I'd like to see local congregations experience the spirit of community that existed within the church at the time of Joseph Smith. But I don't think that's likely. Not until control is removed from the corporate usurpers and diffused back among those who honor the Holy Ghost and the scriptures over men with offices and titles.
D&C 121 tells us that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood,” yet who can deny that their “priesthood” is the very power by which those in high station currently claim authority over the rest of us?
How The Suits Took Over
In 1963, N. Eldon Tanner, a wealthy Mormon industrialist, was leapfrogged into the First Presidency because at that moment in time what the Church needed more than anything else was someone with his connections and business acumen.
Tanner's predecessor in the presidency, Henry D. Moyle, had brought the Church to the very brink of bankruptcy with his program of building chapels in areas where few members even lived. Moyle was not the kind of man who was capable of expounding on Mormon theology, but he enthusiastically believed in “the Church” and he was downright zealous about seeing it grow in his lifetime to “fill all the earth.”
Since the early 1900's, men of vision like Moyle had been called into leadership due to their tremendous success in the business world, a success that was seen as evidence of God's blessings upon them.These men, it was believed, would lead the Church into the twentieth century just as they had ridden American industry into the twentieth century.
Guided by a philosophy akin to “If you build it they will come,” Moyle's plan for growth was simple. First, we build the chapels. Our missionaries will provide the converts to fill those chapels. Tithing receipts from those new converts will be used to replace the money that was used to build those chapels, and as seed money to build new ones. One eternal round.
It was genius.
Except it wasn't.
If chapels were restaurants or retail stores or gas stations, customers might wander in once those establishments appeared in their neighborhoods. That's how business works. You build it, then you advertise it, then they come.
But chapels aren't businesses. They're meeting houses you build for the already existing members of the body of Christ. First you start with an existing community of Saints, then you "advertise," to gather more converts, then when you have enough additional converts, you build the chapel. Henry Moyle had considerable success in the business world, but you can't run a church like a business.
In the early 1960's the LDS Church boasted that ground was being broken on a new chapel somewhere in the world every single day. When a sufficient number of converts failed to materialize fast enough to pay for those chapels, Moyle did what any good shepherd would do: he flew around the country scolding the missionaries for not working hard enough.
Eventually, with the Church 32 million dollars in debt and having to borrow to make payroll, President McKay relieved Henry Moyle of his administrative duties.
Enter the Super-Suits
Eldon Tanner was the right man to pick to put the Church's finances back on track. Like Moyle, Tanner admitted to having a scanty knowledge of the scriptures, but he did know how to make money. Having created a personal fortune in oil and banking, Tanner used his influence to arrange loans with the big New York banks, promising the member's future tithes as collateral. Then he set about readjusting the Church's investment portfolio.
Where previously Church holdings focused largely on farms and ranches (in my opinion entirely appropriate endeavors for a church to be involved in), Tanner expanded the portfolio to include banks, insurance companies, public utilities, commercial real estate, money market funds, treasury bills, and of course oil companies, including Exxon, Standard Oil, and Phillips Petroleum. Tanner had hisself some mad skillz. He bought a million dollars worth of stock in the Los Angeles Times. Four years later it was worth four million. Before long the church was not only out of debt, it was billions in the black.
Tanner held his position as counselor to the president through four separate administrations, effectively acting as the de facto Chief Financial Officer for The Corporation of the President. He saw to it that others with corporate savvy and investment instincts quickly rose to positions of prominence within the Church hierarchy until the entire quorum of the twelve apostles was top heavy with former insurance executives and corporate lawyers.
Tanner was entirely devoted to the Church heart and soul. But like Moyle and others, to him “The Church” meant the organization for which he worked, rather than the collective membership below. Indeed, Tanner did not believe the common tithe-paying members should be privy to how their donations were spent. “I don't think the public needs to have that information,” he was reported as saying.
Although ostensibly the leaders of the Church are engaged in ecclesiastical affairs, behind the scenes many of them keep extremely busy managing the financial side of things full time. My hat is off to these men. I imagine it must take quite a lot of talent to be able to serve both God and Mammon.
A more serious concern is that this corporate mentality has been bleeding down into our local congregations. Every Bishop and Branch President is provided a two-volume set of the company's Standard Operating Procedures which he is expected to follow without question. Your bishop is no longer the shepherd of his flock, he is the manager of a local corporate franchise.
Pity the poor LDS man or woman who has been working all week in an office. When Sunday morning rolls around, they have to dig in the closet for the same style dress, or suit and tie, that they've been wearing all week and slog through one more set of dry, unproductive meetings. Where is that promised “day of rest” they've been hearing so much about?
I guess that was Saturday.
I am a firm supporter of free enterprise and a believer in the capitalist system. But corporate capitalism should not be the model upon which we run our church or conduct our meetings.
What then should be the model? Well, that's already been given to us in D&C 20:45:
“The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost, according to the commandments and revelations of God.”
We have traded the Holy Ghost for a program of structured conformity, and "the commandments and revelations of God" have been put on the back burner in favor of excerpts from conference talks read from the Ensign. Is it any wonder our meetings feel hollow and impotent?
UPDATE January 24, 2023:
In the comment section of my piece titled Why It's Nearly Impossible To Sue The LDS Church (posted January 22, 2023), a reader named Suzie told of a fireside she attended years featuring Eldon Tanner:
I attended a special fireside in my ward where N. Eldon Tanner spoke in our Relief Society room. After he finished speaking, he opened it up to questions. One woman asked, "If we only have enough money to pay either our mortgage payment OR to pay tithing―unable to pay both―should we pay the mortgage payment or should we pay our tithing and lose our home?"He answered, "Lose your home." Then he went into the principles of faith, obedience, and sacrifice.
Conformity or Unity?
So let's get back to that question posed by our attorney friend who asked “what is the alternative?” Is there a modern model we can look to that could take us back to the feelings of inclusion once felt by the early latter-day Saints?
Well, we could look to the Church of Unity as one possible model.
I had read in J.J. Dewey's book The Immortal a suggestion that the Church of Unity (not to be confused with Unitarian-Universalism) tended to conduct their services in a way most closely to that of the early Christian church. All are welcome and accepted, no matter one's personal creed. At Unity, there is no dogmatic requirement that attendees adhere to a specific set of doctrines.
This reminded me of the words of Joseph Smith when he refuted the idea that to be a Mormon you had to believe a certain way or adhere to a specific set of concrete doctrines. He rejected such notions. “It looks too much like the Methodists,” the prophet said. “Methodists have creeds that a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please.” (History of the Church 5:340)
Where the LDS Church today seems to require uniformity of thought and action among its members, the Church of Unity rejects conformity in favor of simple unity. Unity of the heart. Unity of the soul. That unity that acknowledges all God's children as brothers and sisters. Like Joseph Smith, no one there will require you to hold the same opinions they do. What matters at Unity is love. Love and acceptance. Of all people.
This Unity thing sounded to me like that long-gone, old-timey, pure Mormonism: To each his own. Live-and-let-live. Be who you are. When I heard from two other sources that the Unity model was the way they felt church ought to be, I thought maybe it was time to check this thing out.
Connie wanted to go too, so as soon as her health allowed, one Sunday morning in January we got ourselves dressed and showed up for the 11:30 service at the Sacramento Church of Unity, more commonly known as the Spiritual Life Center of Sacramento.
When we arrived, we could hear music coming from the chapel. There was the distinctive sound of a jangly guitar, drums, and keyboard. Were we late? No, just in time for the prelude music, which happened to be that classic '60's song by The Youngbloods, “Get Together.” Those who were in the chapel were already standing and singing together, even swaying back and forth:
“Love is but a song we sing, and fear is how we die,
You can make the mountains ring, or make the angels cry.”
Well, this was different. If this is the kind of stuff they pick for their prelude music, I might like it here.
I could already sense a feeling of camaraderie in the room, of happiness and friendship, a feeling that everyone who was here actually belonged here. Funny, though it was our first time, we didn't feel like outsiders. People smiled at us and made room for us on a pew. A few minutes after we were seated, I looked around. The place was packed.
After another song, announcements were made. The center is led by a pair of co-pastors, male and female. Reverend Mike asked if there was anyone here for the first time. Connie and I raised our hands, as did several others. Someone appeared beside us and presented us each with a necklace made of tiny seashells. I thought this was a good idea. It identified the newcomers so that others could recognize and welcome them. We should do something like this in our own church, I thought. No matter how long I've been in a particular ward, I was never certain who was a visitor and who was not. Something like this would be helpful.
Attached to the necklace was a tiny slip of paper like a fortune cookie. It read, “Just as God has a design for every shell in the sea, so has God a design for your life.”
Mike asked those who were called as ambassadors to stand, and a half dozen men and women rose. “These are the people to go to if you have any needs or questions, or if you just want someone to talk to,” Mike said. I later learned that the church also had several men and women who were trained chaplains, each devoting a year to the church in that capacity, making themselves available for one-on-one prayer, counseling, and any assistance anyone might come to them for. This was clearly not a church in name only, but a tight, Godly organization. No one who was lonely, sorrowful, or dejected was likely to slip through the cracks here.
The band accompanied a young lady named Ann Roach. She had a very versatile voice and her singing was sweet and lovely, a combination of praise, joy, and wonder. Connie recently remarked that Ann is one of those people who is so beautiful and talented, it's a wonder she isn't famous (I often wonder the same about Connie).The lyrics were in the program, and all were invited to join in.
Co-pastor Christine then came to the pulpit and explained the vision of the center:
“Spiritual Life Center is a loving, vibrant family that welcomes home people of every age, race, culture, sexual orientation and people with disabilities -all people.”
Then she repeated the last two words for emphasis. “All people.” I felt power in those words when she spoke them. There was Godly intent. Clearly, unconditional love and acceptance is the moving force here. “Together,” Christine concluded, “we transform lives.”
I was beginning to believe that.
Unity attracts an eclectic collection of souls. Very few members were raised in this church. Rather, this is the kind of church people from other religious backgrounds end up escaping to. In the congregation we attended there were disaffected Christians (particularly from the more authoritarian denominations such as Catholics and Baptists), Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and even [gasp!] the dreaded Muslims. A local radio preacher is forever railing against the Sacramento Life Center for casting such a wide net and not requiring doctrinal purity. He often refers to Unity of Sacramento disparagingly as "that church of misfits and mavericks."
If he thinks he's offending anyone with that label, he clearly doesn't know this congregation. "The Church of Misfits and Mavericks" is a nickname they would unhesitatingly embrace. On the whole these are people who, I suspect, have known sorrow and they have known joy. These are people with deep life experience, and as a result, a deep capacity for love and understanding. Misfits and Mavericks. I'd wear a label like that with pride myself.
Okay, so there's Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Misfits, and Mavericks. What I wanted to know is, were there any Mormons?
“You'd be surprised how many Mormons we have here,” Reverend Mike told me later, “At first they used to all sit on the same two rows together in the back, but now they've pretty well integrated to where you can't tell them apart from anyone else.”
Of course, if you really want to meet a lot of Mormons at the Church of Unity, you should visit the one in Salt Lake City. I called Jim Peterson, pastor of that congregation and asked him what the percentage of Mormons was there. The answer surprised even me. “93 percent,” he replied, “But we usually just say 90.”
If you're a believing Mormon like myself, you'll find that at the church of Unity no one will try to dissuade you from your beliefs or try to convert you to theirs. Your beliefs are considered a part of who you are. And "who you are" is what matters at Unity, not your doctrinal baggage. I can arrive at Unity with an appreciation for the divinity of the Book of Mormon and an affinity for the early teachings of Joseph Smith, and easily find common ground among those who do not share those particular beliefs, because no one cares. A person's religion is his personal business. It just doesn't matter to anyone else. Lif'e is just too short to be concerned with who's right and who's wrong.
Indeed, what I find most attractive about Unity is that their creed would have fit perfectly alongside that of many of the earliest latter-day Saints:
- God is the source and creator of all. There is no other enduring power. God is good and present everywhere.
- We are spiritual beings, created in God's image. The spirit of God lives within each person; therefore all people are inherently good.
- We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.
- There is power in affirmative prayer, which we believe increases our connection to God.
- Knowledge of these spiritual principles is not enough. We must live them.
Although the LDS church has become dogmatic in modern times, you'd be hard pressed to find anything in the creed above that Joseph Smith would disagree with. The ability to love unconditionally and learn from people of diverse faiths was basic to Joseph Smith's worldview. “Friendship,” the prophet taught, “is the grand fundamental of Mormonism.”Sitting in that pew for the first time, listening to the music, I was beginning to feel that spirit of friendship in the air about me. The Center receives an influx of first-time visitors every week, so at one point everyone was asked to stand up and introduce themselves to the people around them. Among those Connie and I exchanged handshakes and hellos with was a smiling young woman named Tamar, whose name I remember because it was printed on a name tag which hung around her neck. I assumed because she wore a name tag that she was some sort of official here.
We were next led in a quiet, calming chant/song song that prepared us for the meditation that was also led by Reverend Christine. This was a very soothing experience, as it allowed us to quiet our minds and let our hearts connect with the spirit. This is, to me, an experience hard to duplicate in LDS sacrament meetings with the distraction of children. Here, there is a nursery, so that your experience at church can be distinct from your everyday hustle and bustle at home.
It so happened that the day we attended, a guest pastor from one of the local black churches was the guest speaker. Apparently the Spiritual Life Center regularly invites speakers from other religions in order to foster understanding. What a change, I thought, from my own inclusive religion, where few thoughts or statements not approved through proper channels ever get presented to the membership. I was reminded how far we've come from the days of our founder. Joseph Smith did not presume that the church he founded contained all truth. He would listen with interest to the thoughts and ideas of those outside his own sphere of knowledge and belief. “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up,” he counseled, “or we shall not come out true 'Mormons'.”
After the speaker concluded, children were filed in from wherever they had been keeping them, and gathered on the stand as we all stood to sing the closing song, which, it happened, was a song I already knew. It was that old classic from the '60's, “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” We all stood and held hands, swaying easily as we sang, “let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
Near the end of the song the band took it up a step, beginning the dramatic ritard toward the powerful finale:
To take each moment,
And live each moment,
In peace eternally,
"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin..."
And there it was. Out of nowhere, a sweet, soothing, wave of emotion washed over me and filled me up. It was a feeling of pure love. Of belonging. A knowledge from deep within me that I was connected heart and soul with every single person in that room, and that I loved them and they loved me.
I couldn't finish the last two words. My throat choked up and my eyes filled with moisture and my heart was overflowing with...something.
Joy? Love? Acceptance? It was all of that, and more than that. It was peace.
Here I stood in a strange chapel, with Connie's hand in my left and some guy's hand in my right, singing a song that was so ubiquitous in high school that I was damn sick of hearing it, and I was having a moment of pure spiritual bliss. When was the last time I felt anything like this in one of my own ward meetings? I couldn't tell you.
Certainly I'm no stranger to the spirit. Connie and I experience that sweet feeling washing over us both together and separately in little incidents here and there almost daily. But there is something ineffably satisfying about standing hand in hand with a group of fellow sons and daughters, and feeling the love, and light, and power of God made manifest within all our hearts together.
How To Make Your Ward A Friendlier Place
A little more than an hour after the meeting had started, Church was over.
Wow. That was easy.
But it was not quite over. Now came the reason “church” was invented in the first place. The first century Christians didn't gather together to slog through any boring routine or because they felt they were supposed to, or expected to "be in attendance." No, they gathered together for one overriding reason: They craved that sense of community. Fellowship. The chance to associate one with another.
We filed out of the chapel and reconvened informally in the Fellowship Hall. Here, people visited with one another and strangers introduced themselves to us. There were cookies and refreshments available, and displays set up around the room to notify attendees of the various classes, seminars, and workshops available throughout the week. Children were here present (especially around the refreshment table). It was a wonderful, welcoming, familial experience.
There was also a table where, for a donation of a dollar, we could get our own name tags printed up by next week, complete with a lanyard to hang around our necks, so next time we wouldn't be strangers. It turns out Tamar wasn't some church “official” after all. A lot of others were wearing name tags just like hers. It certainly helped in learning their names.
(Note to those members of Unity who may be reading this who weren't wearing their name tags: please get on the stick. It's one of the most unique and important things about your church.)
Name tags in church struck me as a terrific idea. Just think if we did this in our local wards. We'd finally know the names of all those members we pretend to know the names of, but really don't. I think if we furnished name tags in Mormon wards, our meetings would be much friendlier places.
But to tell you the truth, I don't think approval for something so simple and beneficial would ever make it through the bureaucracy.
Connie and I have been back a couple of times since that first visit. (We got our name tags!) We even decided to join the choir so we could sing with that band on Easter Sunday. There was going to be strings and horns and everything. Sadly, Connie suffered a mild stroke before Easter, so we couldn't even attend the service. (Connie doesn't feel the stroke was all that “mild.” by the way.)
A Reformation For The Restoration
You know what I'd like to see in the LDS Church? I'd like to see us get back to having those remarkable experiences that were once common to the early Latter-day Saints. Feeling the spirit in church should not be a once-in-a-while thing. It should be an every time thing. Wouldn't it be something if, instead of the stultifying dullness so many of our members decry as routine, we could once again arrive at our meeting houses expecting to feel the spirit of God wash over us like a river? I know it's possible because every single time I've attended the Spiritual Life Center, I've felt it. So, we know the spirit of God is alive and well. We Latter-day Saints have just forgotten, as a community, how to really tap into it.
I think it would be something if a lot of you readers found the Unity Church nearest you and paid a visit. Check it out, then take what you learn there and see if you can begin to institute that feeling in your home wards. Maybe in a generation or so we can take things back. Remember, the church is not some distant institution made up of self-appointed, so-called “leaders.” The church is you. You are the church.
And yes, I did say “self-appointed” leaders. (Or, more accurately, appointed by each other within a system of cronyism not seen since the days of King Noah.) If you really believe every single corporate officer of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come into his position because Jesus Christ personally called him to that position, you haven't been paying close attention to what's been going on around you.
Here's a recent article from the Deseret News reporting on the Prophet of God dedicating a bank. Yes, that's right. A bank. The Prophet of God. Read it to your loved ones and tell them it's a parody. They won't believe it isn't.
(P.S. You'll never guess who owns stock in that bank.)
The Experiences We've Lost
LDS historian Don Bradley reminds us that the grand principles of Mormonism that Joseph Smith declared have never been revoked.
“These principles provide foundation stones...for defining the 'pure Mormon' -for distinguishing between what is and what is not purely, or legitimately, Mormon.”
Bradley goes on to remind us that in its final formulation by the Prophet, Mormonism is generous, open, and expansive. Whether it continues in that embodiment “depends on the willingness of individual Latter-day Saints to continue their prophet's reformation by reforming Mormonism as it exists in their personal faith and lives.
“Mormonism will...build a heaven on earth no faster and more effectively than individual Mormons shoulder this responsibility themselves.”
Feel like shouldering that responsibility? Well, first you'll have to re-experience what we've lost. Unity is one way I've found. If you live in Utah there are Unity Churches in Salt Lake City, Park City, and St. George. Search here for Unity in other locations.This site, Pure Mormonism, has been receiving anywhere from fifteen to twenty thousand visitors each month. Wouldn't it be something if next Sunday a whole bunch of you visited this other church and then brought back that spirit of unity to your home wards?
We might actually have a chance of continuing the restoration Joseph Smith started.