The church, as you may have noticed, has a message it wants to share with the world. Because the world is constantly changing, modernity is a moving target. So to make its message legible, the church has to remain engaged with the contemporary world. But the conversation, as it must, goes both ways.
Not all aspects of the church are similarly engaged. Our Sunday curriculum, as just one of many possible examples, is a largely internal affair. For our tradition of scriptural interpretation that is reflected in our manuals, developments outside the church are all but irrelevant. A church concerned primarily with inward-directed curriculum would be a recipe for stasis. The church is instead highly engaged with the contemporary world, but in specific ways. There are undoubtedly many I’m overlooking, but these three seem particularly important.
Missions. Missionaries are quite literally the church’s first line of engagement with the contemporary world. With every new conversation, a missionary has to figure out what the church might mean to people of other faiths or no faith at all, for people of every kind of educational and occupational and ethnic background imaginable, and to forms of family organization that are beyond what have been previously imagined—and what those people, in turn, might mean for the church. (Seeing the church’s proselytizing efforts as a modernizing force isn’t an original idea; I’m borrowing it from a highly compelling presentation given by Philip Lockley, now of Durham University, at a conference in 2014.)
BYU. Running a university system forces the church (and many of its college-age members along with it) to present itself at an institutional level within a broad range of academic frameworks while at the same time maintaining its identity. Student aid has to meet federal guidelines, credit hours have to transfer, and research has to follow disciplinary norms. The church has something to say about earlier times and how people should live; running a university forces it to think about what history and sociology and other disciplines might have to say on these subjects. Apologetics is the other sphere where this kind of intellectual interchange occurs, and that work is vitally important. People need examples of what their faith means in a world shaped by science and scholarship. Institutional-level organs like the Maxwell Institute and BYU Studies help to create an apologetics that is also versed in academic and disciplinary norms.
Politics. On a number of occasions, the church has made its stance known on various issues of present controversy. Its input, it seems, has not always been well received. And yet continuing to identify how the church might be affected by a changing world and engaging with that world are critically important to the church. The world will do as it will, but if the church wants to continue to have something to say, it has to remain interfaced with the world as it exists. To remain silent on politics is to admit that the church has nothing relevant to say. Even worse, it would let the church avoid internal conversations about issues it needs to discuss and neglect perspectives it needs to consider.
The church could avoid controversy, of course. It could withdraw from missionary work—not just at the cost of rejecting the Great Commission, but also of losing a key site of conversation with the outside world. The church could secularize BYU and never have to trouble itself with any of the academic disciplines again, which would also be a disaster for anyone hoping for the church to grapple with the implications of Title IX and faculty gender balance and academic freedom. The church could have avoided political entanglements over a century ago by giving up on Utah statehood, retreating to the deserts and mountains and colonies, and waiting out the centuries until attitudes toward polygamy became more enlightened. It could avoid controversy today by retreating into uncertainty and metaphor, so that the Book of Mormon would be just a story about faith instead of an assertion about history, and Jesus would be just a reminder to be kind instead of the strait gate and narrow path to salvation from sin and death.
Other churches have certainly made those choices and been satisfied with the outcomes. But I’m glad we didn’t. For one, I don’t want to wear homespun in a compound in the Uintah foothills, and I’m glad we decided that other things were more valuable to us than plural marriage. For another, I don’t want to live in a metaphorical Zion, but in a Zion of concrete and steel and rituals and customs, and I need the church to keep trying to figure out how to build that Zion in the world I live in as it exists right now.