What is the Church?

I recently finished a review of the April 2022 general conference, and one of the talks that stood out to me most was Reyna Aburto’s talk, “We Are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.  I love the vision she articulates of feeling more ownership within the Church—that it isn’t just the institution—with its hierarchy of leaders and physical buildings—but mostly the members who are the Church.

In the talk, she explains this as follows:

From the beginning, God has sought to gather and organize His children “to bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life.” With that purpose in mind, He has instructed us to build places of worship where we receive knowledge and the ordinances of salvation and exaltation; make and keep covenants that bind us to Jesus Christ; are endowed with “the power of godliness”; and gather together often to remember Jesus and strengthen each other in Him. The Church organization and its buildings exist for our spiritual benefit. “The Church … is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families.”

While talking to a friend going through a difficult time, I asked how he was surviving financially. In tears, he replied that his bishop was helping him using fast-offering funds. He added, “I don’t know where my family and I would be if it wasn’t for the Church.” I replied, “The Church is the members. They are the ones who willingly and joyfully give fast offerings to help those of us in need. You are receiving the fruits of their faith and determination to follow Jesus Christ.”[1]

It’s a beautiful way to say that the Church was made for humankind and not humankind for the Church.  In the effort to achieve the immortality and eternal life of humankind, the Church is a tool God has established—a scaffolding, as she quotes Elder L. Tom Perry as saying—to help us get to where God wants us to be rather than an end unto itself.  She adds that:

Relief Society is not limited to a room in a building, a Sunday lesson, an activity, or a presidency at the local or general level. Relief Society is the covenant women of the Church; it is useach of us and all of us. It is our “global community of compassion and service.” Anywhere and everywhere we go, we are always part of Relief Society as we strive to fulfill its divine purpose, which is for women to accomplish God’s work in individual as well as collective ways by providing relief: “relief of poverty, relief of illness; relief of doubt, relief of ignorance—relief of all that hinders … joy and progress.”

Similar belonging exists in elders quorums and organizations of the Church for all ages, including our children and youth. The Church is more than the buildings and the ecclesiastical structure; the Church is us, the members. We are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with Christ at the head and the prophet as His mouthpiece.[2]

Perhaps it’s my love of the idea of Zion and community building that resonates with this description of the Church and its internal organizations as being the community made up of their membership, and that there are goals that those organizations exist to achieve.  She still makes room for the centralized leadership structure of the Church (“Christ at the head and the prophet as His mouthpiece”), but also emphasizes that we are more important than bodies in Church meetings and a source of income for the Church, which is what I sometimes feel like when “the Brethren” and leaders at more local levels are overemphasized for their role in the organization.

This concept also reminded me some of Aburto’s first general conference address, where she compared the membership of the Church to a kaleidoscope of butterflies:

A group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope. Isn’t that a beautiful image? Each butterfly in a kaleidoscope is unique and different, yet these seemingly fragile creatures have been designed by a loving Creator with the ability to survive, travel, multiply, and disseminate life as they go from one flower to the next, spreading pollen. And although each butterfly is different, they work together to make the world a more beautiful and fruitful place.

Like the monarch butterflies, we are on a journey back to our heavenly home, where we will reunite with our Heavenly Parents. Like the butterflies, we have been given divine attributes that allow us to navigate through life, in order to “[fill] the measure of [our] creation.” Like them, if we knit our hearts together, the Lord will protect us “as a hen [gathers] her chickens under her wings” and will make us into a beautiful kaleidoscope.[3]

I love this image of working together as a group to “make the world a more beautiful and fruitful place” as we journey together back to our heavenly home and “survive, travel, multiply, and disseminate life” along the way.

Anyway, Sister Aburto’s talk was the one that resonated with me most deeply from the recent general conference.  While perhaps not novel or mind-blowing it has been something that has been on my mind since reading the talk, and I felt like it was worth sharing what she articulated about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 

This is what I look like in the kaleidoscope

 

Footnotes:

[1] Reyna I. Aburto, “We Are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” CR April 2022, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2022/04/13aburto.p8?lang=eng.

[2] Reyna I. Aburto, “We Are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” CR April 2022, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2022/04/13aburto.p8?lang=eng.

[3] Reyna I. Aburto, “With One Accord,” CR April 2018, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/04/with-one-accord.p22?lang=eng

23 comments for “What is the Church?

  1. I wish Sister Aburto’s sentiments expressed how the Church really was/is. Today, the Church leaders seem more obsessed with temple building than truly assisting the poor and downtrodden. And while the members may be a kaleidoscope of colors (half the members live in developing countries), the leadership certainly isn’t. One recommendation to upper management. Please make Sister Eubanks a special assistant to the Church President. And find a woman of color to fill a similar position.

  2. I also appreciated Sister Arbuto’s enthusiasm and sincerity. It may be that wards outside the U.S. have a greater sense of camaraderie, collegiality, cooperation, or congregationalism, rather than the corporatism that seems to prevail in U.S. wards (note: this is my own observation, and may not be a true reflection). That corporatism is still based on good faith efforts of individual members, and I am glad for individual church members everywhere who try to do good.

  3. I appreciate the post. I definitely felt my own ward reflected in Sister Arbuto’s comments.

  4. Great post. I loved Aburto’s talk, too. And actually, I do think it was a novel concept to hear in General Conference. (Compare: Oaks’ recent talk about what the Church is and why it’s important. No mention of how the members are the body of Christ. Nor any mention of the concept that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.” Instead, its focus was on Church as a tool to keep us on our (individual) covenant path.)

    A few years ago, I heard another Christian church’s hymn, “We Are the Church” and was kinda blown away with its simple message: the church isn’t a building or a place, it’s the people. And together, all who follow Christ are the church.

    What is the Church? The Church is the body of Christ. And the body of Christ is us — all of us.

  5. Sister Aburto’s approach is very interesting. The church is a society or ecosystem made up of individuals and families who share many things in common: A belief, covenants, and a righteous desire to help each other and do good things for others. What I often feel is that the Church provides many things and occupations that make us live without integrating or contributing to the good and honorable things that the world has. It is as if we do not share with organizations that are really trying to do good things for others. I imagine that, for example, we should have a much more active and permanent participation in social institutions such as the Red Cross, Alcoholics Anonymous, Support in Foster Homes for the Elderly, etc. but as collaborating partners and not only giving aid in goods and money from time to time.
    For this, a little more autonomy is needed in the local structure of the Church. For example, if we wish to help by facilitating a building to carry out a community activity, such as to better integrate, the request must go to an area committee by the Property Manager. This committee meets very rarely and generally responds at the wrong time and with paperwork that is impossible to obtain (insurance that does not exist in the country) and that is not within the reach of the social organizations that want to support it. Finally, every time social entities that envy our buildings as a possibility of doing something good come to ask for them, our response as a local Church is that we cannot. This is not because it is not possible, but because our internal bureaucracy does not allow us to respond with the appropriate speed. If local leaders eventually skip these procedures, empathizing with the specific needs of the community in which they live, then those who work in the Church seem to enjoy accusing local leaders in front of the area authorities and spoiling everything.

  6. Loved this talk; particularly as a stark contrast to what the “Corporate Church” and its’ Leadership are currently doing. I’ve come to abhor the never ending gathering – and (in my view) hoarding of wealth – through the Ensign Peak Investment arm of the Church. I fully embrace what Sister Aburto speaks about; but turn my back to the worship of wealth: and the “over the top” displays of such.

  7. Loved this talk; particularly as a stark contrast to what the “Corporate Church” and its’ Leadership are currently doing. I’ve come to abhor the never ending gathering – and (in my view) hoarding of wealth – through the Ensign Peak Investment arm of the Church. I fully embrace what Sister Aburto speaks about; but turn my back to the worship of wealth: and the “over the top” displays of such.

  8. I’m pretty sure that if you’re typing something like “I hate the corporate church,” you’ve missed the point of Sister Aburto’s talk.

  9. “In the effort to achieve the immortality and eternal life of humankind, the Church is a tool God has established to help us get to where God wants us to be rather than an end unto itself.”

    Is the Church merely instrumental, or does it have a destiny of its own? What are the chances the True and Living Church is literally “Living” and how would that change our relationship with it?

  10. Jonathan: not so much. Can you imagine how “the poor” throughout the World view the over the top opulence of our Temples? Particularly, when so much of the population is clearly just trying to survive. Personally, I think it’s kinda/sorta disgusting; and needs to stop.

  11. D&C 10 gives a straightforward answer:
    67 Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.

    68 Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.

  12. Repent and come unto Christ. Now THAT I agree with. Everything outside of this can (to one degree or another) be immaterial.

  13. I think the way we do things nowadays–with all of our modern gadgetry–has a tendency to mask the underlying sacrifices and offerings that are given for the purpose of building temples. In earlier times it was plain to see that it was primarily poor people who were giving so much of their time, talents, and substance, to build temples in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Deseret. My sense is that if we were to do a strict accounting of who’s paying tithing today we’d see that the majority of them are living at or just above the poverty line–according to American standards. And we’d also see that the majority of them are quite happy to know that their offerings–however small they may be–are helping in the great project of making the blessings of temple more accessible to the saints.

  14. All my experience suggests that the vast majority of church members, aside from a handful of online cranks, are excited to have an apostle come to speak at a stake conference, or to learn that a new temple will be built nearby. If you believe that the members are the church in any substantive sense, it’s very odd to respond by expressing resentment toward general authorities or demanding that the church stop building temples.

    LHL, you really need to get out more if you think our temples are over-the-top opulent. You know it’s only gold leaf over the Moroni statues, right?

  15. in our Stake we have a Bishop’s storehouse. Every two weeks since 2017 the Church spends at least 10-15K on food and stuff. That’s just the people who go through there and not the people who talk to the Bishop for rent/utilities etc. I just don’t buy the idea that the Church is living off of the backs of the poor and then turning them away. It is not happening here.

  16. Everyone who is complaining about temples clearly does not understand the human need for beauty, quite aside from the vital ordinances that temples are built to house.
    Yes, I say that beauty is a need, and the world as a whole needs more beautiful architecture. As humans, we need spaces that lift us out of the everyday world. We need spaces that respect the numinous, that are sacred – set apart, made holy. Cathedrals capture this sense of awe and wonder, and so do our temples.
    Is there a point when beauty becomes simple opulence? Certainly! However, I rarely see temple architecture cross that boundary. And every temple is, like the cathedrals, a massive, complex sets of symbols designed to point us toward eternal things. They are schools meant for children of Heavenly Parents.
    There are so many mean, ugly public spaces in the world. Temples are a counterpoint to the world in this, as in every other way, with their well-kept grounds, their artwork and their artistry, all of the best quality and sourced, when possible, locally, so that the temple seems familiar to those who frequent its environs. Good architecture can help create good community, by building a sense of shared responsibility for a beautiful space as well, which is another blessing of temples.
    Temples lift our view to Christ. They help us see what will be. Thus they help us, in the fullest sense, to repent and come unto Christ. They provide spaces to perform ordinances that sanctify and arm us with power from on high.
    So no, I don’t think the recent surge in temple-building is a waste of resources. Temples are a blessing that comes specifically from the Church as an organization; it is not possible for every single member to build their own.
    On the other hand, every member of the Church can serve their neighbor in some capacity. If we are doing badly at that, then perhaps we should repent, rather than blaming temple-building for our mortal weakness.

  17. I believe that temple work plays a major role in the process of sanctifying the saints. And as we build more temples in our effort to make them more easily accessible to the saints we will see the further fulfillment of this prophecy from 1 Nephi 14:

    12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

    13 And it came to pass that I beheld that the great mother of abominations did gather together multitudes upon the face of all the earth, among all the nations of the Gentiles, to fight against the Lamb of God.

    14 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.

  18. As a registered member of the handful-of-online-cranks group, I need to make a couple of points:

    1. I do appreciate all the new temples in Utah County. Until the last few years there were only 2 temples within a 10-minute driving distance from my home. With recent additions in AF and Payson, I now have an additional 2 that are 20-minutes away. Still this is a major inconvenience. So the Church leaders, with me in mind,
    are currently constructing another temple nearer my home on I-15 for easy access. And again reacting to my plaintiff pleas, the Church just broke ground on a temple just blocks from my home.

    2. Then, to further improve the situation, and do away with with the Star Trek design, the Church is remodeling the Provo MTC temple to make it look like all the other new temples it’s currently building. Uniformity is critical.

    3. Then in order to preserve the Teichart murals in the Manti temple, the Church is building a new temple nearby. The logic there escapes me, but it obviously made sense to someone. But don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the Church preserving Minerva’s mural.

    As for me and the handful-of-online-cranks, we would prefer to see all these resources go into helping the poor instead of concentrating so heavily on the dead.

  19. Temple work is not just about the dead. It’s also about sanctifying the living. And as the saints become more sanctified they’ll give more to the poor. Everybody wins.

  20. Rogerdhansen:

    Sometimes I agree with you and sometimes I don’t, but could I please be the Vice-President of your on-line cranks organization?

    I appreciate your efforts in your comments, because Christ came to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. I confess to a less-than-Christian pleasure in fighting against Church members’ group-think that assumes there is only one position on a given Church issue.

    I am actually dreading the next time abortion comes up in a Church meeting, because I describe myself as a pro-life supporter of Roe vs. Wade. I will probably not be able to keep my mouth shut.

  21. The comparison of medieval cathedrals to our temples doesn’t work for me. EC’s comment is so over the top, I thought at first it was satire. But I’m now thinking it is not. Medieval cathedrals took 100’s of years to construct, Modern Mormon temples are now just slapped together. Some even question the Church’s current building standards. They are all just clones of each other. Medieval churches are for the most part open to the public. Mormon temples require a hefty entry fee. As for the heavy-duty symbolism leading us to eternal truths, cathedrals can be inspiring, temple ceremonies are assembly-line affairs designed to get as many endowments done as possible. And the movie is boring.

    And if you are looking for inspiring places beside the Celestial Room, you might try art museums, concert halls, wildlife refuges, mountain tops, soup kitchens, hiking in canyons and forests, etc. As for the ugly buildings that now surround us, the Mormon church is responsible for a lot of them. Our churches are like warehouses with steeples, which stand vacant 90 percent of the time.

    Jack it is not clear that temple attendance inspires members to give to the poor. Temple attendees have already been liberated of 10 percent of their net (or gross).

  22. rogerdhansen:

    “Medieval cathedrals took 100’s of years to construct, Modern Mormon temples are now just slapped together.”

    Even so, the church is “slapping together” hundreds of temples across the world. So the project is immense in its own right–and I’m grateful that we have the technology to build “cathedrals” on such a grand scale.

    “Some even question the Church’s current building standards.”

    Not according what I’ve heard from a brother in my ward who has been a building superintendent over many of the church’s new and remodeled temples–including the current project at Temple Square. The sense I get from him–if I’m understanding him correctly–is that the church spares no expense with regard to the structural integrity its temples. There may be disagreement having to do with the more aesthetic elements of the buildings–but that’s to be expected, IMO.

    “Medieval churches are for the most part open to the public. Mormon temples require a hefty entry fee.”

    Yes–and the “heftiest fees” probably have to do more with the Law of Chastity, The Word of Wisdom, and loyalty to living prophets, than with anything else.

    “And if you are looking for inspiring places beside the Celestial Room, you might try art museums, concert halls, wildlife refuges, mountain tops, soup kitchens, hiking in canyons and forests, etc.”

    All of those places can be inspiring in their own way. But what we don’t want to do is neglect that which is most sacred and holy in our pursuit of other worthy fountains of wisdom and virtue.

    “As for the ugly buildings that now surround us, the Mormon church is responsible for a lot of them. Our churches are like warehouses with steeples, which stand vacant 90 percent of the time.”

    Come now, brother. We can’t win for loosing. Yes, our regular meeting houses are much more utilitarian than our temples–as they should be. But the fun irony in all of this is–on the one hand, the church is criticized for the “opulence” of its temples. And on the other hand, its criticized for the “ugliness” of its regular meeting houses.

    “Jack it is not clear that temple attendance inspires members to give to the poor.”

    I’m not aware of any robust longitudinal study on the subject–but my guess is that your average bishop would say that there is a correlation between regular temple attendance and an increased willingness to give of one’s time, talents, and substance, in the cause of the Kingdom–which includes giving to the poor.

  23. @ rogerdhansen,
    You don’t have to agree with my take on temples, but you seem to be responding to my comment in the worst faith possible.
    Certainly our newest temples take only a few years to build. That’s because we now use machines and techniques that our ancestors only dreamed of. Whether that’s worse or better, only God knows.
    The tabernacle of Moses and Solomon’s temple also required a hefty entrance fee . . . and the proper lineage in order to serve there. Does that make them less holy? I would argue that sacrifice is what makes places holy. That’s partly why I compared our temples to cathedrals, because those were also built with great sacrifice, as sacred edifices intended to instruct those entering their precincts.
    I personally search out beauty wherever I can find it – local hikes in the mountains, concert halls, gardens, etc., but I find that the temple has a special beauty that comes with its dedicated purpose, and a sense of holiness and peace that is unique.
    As for symbolism, I was speaking specifically to the architecture. I cannot truthfully say that I personally love the new slide shows. I find them difficult to track, because they have taken all the story out of the ordinance. Nevertheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned, so I persist. I don’t go to the temple to be entertained; I go there to learn how to become holy, and to come to know my Savior.
    I frankly agree with your ‘warehouses with steeples’ comment, but I was talking about our temples, not our meetinghouses.

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