The following is an excerpt from Episode 12 of the churchistrue Faith Crisis and Reconstruction series: Lived Experience.
To emphasize some of the lived experience aspects, I’m going to highlight David Ostler’s great book Bridges that came out last year. Bridges, Ministering to Those Who Question. David Ostler was a former mission president who came home from his mission. And he was assigned as a service missionary in his stake. In the stake, there were a thousand single adults and 80% of them were not active. He went out ministering to them and he started getting a similar kind of view from a lot of these people. And he recognized that there was a serious problem that he wanted to address.
He put up a survey to try to get some data. This is not a statistically valid survey. It’s a self selected survey, but we find some very valuable insights. And these observations go right in line with my observations, with what I’ve seen in my 10 years of doing this and the last five years of doing this very actively and interacting with a lot of people who have been through faith crisis and reconstruction.
He divided the issues into three categories and came up with the hypothesis that if the church could positively address these three areas, that these people that have been through faith crisis and a deep night of the soul faith crisis. When I read these stories they are a lot like mine. That they could remain active in the church and remain positively engaged in the church, if the church could meet their needs in three areas. Those three areas are trust, belonging, and meaning. Let’s get into some detail on that.
First is trust. Do I trust the church in my church leaders, even with the limitations of church members and leaders, I have confidence that the church and its leaders will help me find spiritual purpose and guidance?
I trust leaders and other members to help me as I make choices for my own spiritual growth. One woman responded: “Trust. I have a very hard time trusting the church because of the many times I was lied to about church history.”
I think the church is getting better. We’ve talked about this, the gospel topics essays, and we’ve moved a little bit, but I think there’s a lot more we can do.
In this study, David Ostler got both people that have gone through faith crisis and then also he had a dataset of local leaders asking them these same questions. So local leaders were asked the question, how important do you think it is to address faith crisis in these settings? 98% answered very important or important that the church address these issues in the church, generally in the stake, and at the ward level.
And then we take the data from those in faith crisis. The question was asked, “The church as a whole provides adequate information for leaders to help people who are in faith crisis.” Less than 1% answered strongly agree or agree.
So there’s a major disconnect that our local leaders are recognizing this is important. And people that have gone through faith crisis are overwhelmingly saying, this is not being addressed. This is really difficult. Because faith crisis is catchy.
Let’s say in a ward you had 10 people that had a real burning question about the Book of Abraham. And you had a fireside about the Book of Abraham and, you were able to present the issue in a way that it would satisfy 80% of the people. So out of your 10, eight out of 10 are fine. Two out of 10 still are troubled.
But then, by presenting the problem, now everyone in the board now is aware of the problem. They’re going home. They’re googling Book of Abraham problems. They’re reading the CES letter. You might’ve lost the 20% in that other larger group that never even questioned. So the church has a really difficult time. How do we inoculate? How do we teach these issues without spreading the problem to everyone else who isn’t? Who doesn’t have a faith crisis on their horizon right now.
And I think this is really tough to face, but I think it’s time that we just all faced it as a church. So many of our young people are going through this. So many of our young people are being faced with CES Letter issues, and the answers are not adequate right now. And I think every fact and issue that I brought up in this 12 episode podcast series, we could integrate into our curriculum somehow through seminary, institute, Sunday School lessons.
I don’t know how, but I think it’s time that the church thought about how to integrate all of these issues. The Gospel Topics Essays were a good first start, but we need to do more. We need to go deeper and we need to integrate this all through our curriculum. Maybe even we need a message from the prophet that says it’s okay to view the Book of Mormon as not historical. It’s okay to believe in evolution. It’s okay to believe that polygamy was never ordained of God. There’s a lot of questions that we’re just not sure about. It’s okay to have these alternate ideas. Is that going to cause that big of a problem?
If we just made a short statement like that, the prophet could say, we believe the Book of Mormon is historical. We believe that polygamy was ordained of God. That’s our official position. We believe that Adam and Eve were real people and that the garden of Eden is a literal event. But we understand that a lot of people are starting to view these things metaphorically.
We want them to stay in the church. We want them to feel comfortable. Could the prophet do that? I think if you ran the numbers and thought about what the downside of that is and what the upside of that is and how you can keep people in the church. I don’t think it’s that risky. I think we can pull it off.
Ostler suggestion for leaders on this is to listen, listen, listen, don’t get defensive or try to rebut or argue, or even always try to give answers. Don’t judge, don’t label the doubters as apostates or doubters. Take steps to address their concerns. That’s the hard part but be careful about apologetics.
Apologetics are not always going to convince everyone. And so you can give the apologetics kind of as a first line of defense, but if that’s not working or if there’s too much defensiveness, then, then don’t keep doubling down on apologetics and maybe look for broader answers.
This is something I think a lot about of how the church can implement these kinds of things. And here’s an idea.
What if every steak had a faith crisis class. And it was team taught by maybe someone who was more of a FairMormon Apologist, and then maybe someone who views things more like me. What if these people team taught a stake level faith crisis class, and they covered all the issues like this 12 hour podcast series and even more.
And they each gave their take. They gave the traditional FairMormon take that preserves a literal testimony and LDS exclusivity. And it preserves the traditional LDS testimony. And then to give this more metaphorical take acknowledging that maybe some of this is not what we think, but there’s a different way to think about it.
I think maybe a class that’s team taught like that, that gave both perspectives is something that could work. I don’t know if that could work or not, but that’s an idea I had.
Okay. Now I’m going to turn the tables. David Ostler wrote this book and his audience was other church leaders. And that’s good. And I appreciate that.
As being someone that’s considered the doubter in this equation, I appreciate someone like David Ostler. Who’s a former mission president. Who’s looking out for me and who’s representing me and trying to give other church leaders ideas of how to help me. But as a doubter or as the person in faith reconstruction, I believe I have a responsibility also.
I understand that I have a testimony that’s different than the mainstream. I want to stay in this church. I have the largest part of the responsibility. I’m hoping that the church can make space for me and other members of my ward can make space for me. But I believe I have the larger job to fit myself into something that we can all get along.
And so I’m going to be a little preachy here to my people, to people who are in my shoes, what we can do in this area of trust.
We can give the benefit of the doubt to general authorities. When we hear a general conference talk, we can hear a lot of things that we don’t like and a lot of negative things, and we can look for the bad. We can imagine them as controlling. We can imagine them as a manipulating, we can be very critical.
Or we can give our leaders the benefit of the doubt and we can try to be more empathetic and sympathetic to them. They have a tough job. They’re trying to manage a church. On one side of the church, they have super conservative people. And then on the other side of the church, they have super liberal people.
They have a real challenge in keeping this together because I think we have something good. We have something important to do as a church. How are we going to keep everybody together in order to accomplish this good?
So I can be generous with the general authorities. I can assume good intentions. And also for the people in my ward and my bishop, I can assume good intentions.