In a podcast I listened to recently, a man who had left the church described going to sacrament meeting with his still-believing wife and feeling upset at what was said in church. He had come to believe that certain claims that are regularly stated at church were not true, and hearing them was uncomfortable.
Initially, I found this idea strange. Why would it be uncomfortable to simply hear someone say something that you don’t believe to be true?
This made me think of a fast and testimony meeting I attended a year or so ago. Fully half of those who came up to the podium were not members of the Church, let alone members of the ward I was attending. But in spite of this, I didn’t hear anything objectionable and I don’t think other ward members were upset about anything said, even though it wasn’t said the way members would put it.
I don’t think the discrepancy between these two situations had anything to do with the audience. Of course members of the Church are uncomfortable when objectionable things are said in church. I’m aware of wards that are split over things like whether or not Mother in Heaven can be discussed. Part of the ward desperately wants to be closer to Her and as a result they are anxious to discuss her. Another part of the ward feels uncomfortable when She is mentioned, and that discomfort leads them to not even attend certain classes when they believe She will be discussed.
When I think in detail about it, I do understand why hearing uncomfortable ideas causes problems. Some ideas are tied to our emotions—and religious ideas are chief among them because they are close to the core of our beliefs. And when we feel like those core ideas are attacked, its emotionally difficult to not respond, and even more difficult to just sit there and listen. I know I feel that way when I hear something on a subject important to me.
I hear echoes of the gulf over what is ok to discuss in church in the terms that get used. Many members say that they just want to go to church and feel the spirit. They go to church to find refuge from the world; and to find spiritual refreshment. They say that they can’t do that when others bring up ideas they believe are divisive or contentious.
In contrast, others find spirituality in new knowledge, in exploring and understanding more deeply the gospel. If their ideas are non-traditional, they say that they are looking for a “safe place” to express their ideas without being personally attacked.
I don’t think either group is wrong in what they’re seeking. But I also don’t think either group understands the entire situation. I like the saying that church should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” So I suspect that those seeking a “refuge from the world” or a “safe place” are really avoiding the affliction they need. And then I think a little further and I’m not sure they are avoiding anything.
It also doesn’t seem correct to me that merely discussing an alternative or non-traditional view will chase away the spirit. Isn’t the spirit still present in such cases to testify of the truth? I suspect that most of the time what is divisive or contentious is so because of the feelings of those present, not because of the ideas themselves. It’s complicated (and I’m NOT suggesting that those who see other ideas as divisive or contentious can simply turn off their response), but I suspect what chases away the spirit is how we react to an idea as much or more than what the idea is.
Regardless, the question remains what can we discuss at church, and what should we not discuss at church. Is there a place and a way to discuss the controversial? Or ideas that aren’t doctrinal?
I believe that in today’s environment this question is vital. The claim of those who have left the Church is often that when they try to discuss their doubts, no one at church will talk with them. They feel pressured into going along with the majority even if they have evidence that the majority is wrong—and occasionally even though the Church has stated that the majority is wrong!
And among those who are among the majority, I worry that they don’t allow any place for change or insight or revelation—if you aren’t open to different ideas, how can you be open to revelation?
I don’t have a well-developed answer to all this. But I suspect that the gospel answer has to do with loving all of our Father’s children. It may seem simplistic, but if we really love the others in our congregation, we will think about their needs before we speak, and try to find ways of discussing all topics in ways that benefit them, regardless of how well developed their understanding of the gospel is. And I seriously doubt that “calling them to repentance” really serves their needs, simply because verbally attacking others never convinces anyone to change.
Unfortunately, both of the groups I mentioned above are focused on their own needs instead of on the needs of those around them. If the Church is really about the spiritual development of its members—about bringing about their immortality and eternal life—then we have to get serious about focusing on how to help others and worry less about ourselves.
[Addition–could I ask commenters to focus on the positive? On things that may offer solutions or ways of understanding what we face in Church? I don’t believe that mere complaints, much as they can feel good, will be constructive]