This is the second article in a four-part series on community within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Read part 1
In the first article in this series, I discussed how some members in the church really enjoy going to church because they receive value from being part of the Church community, but I also recognized that not all members feel this way. I suggested that there are different types of communities ranging from being quite basic to being quite united (I summarize this below). I then ended the article asking the question: “Which form of community should we be striving to create in our stakes, wards, and branches?” While I am not going to answer this question in depth in this article (we’ll do that in the third). The purpose of this article is to explore the important role that community has played in our church and why it has played such an important role. This will set us up to more fully answer the question: “Which form of community should we be striving to create in our stakes, wards, and branches?” Hint: It is different than our current community and this article helps explain why. This article is ultimately designed to help church leaders and members take an objective perspective toward our Church community to understand both its advantages and disadvantages.
Strong and united communities can be a great force for good and positive change. Since I am not as well-versed at world history as I should be, let me point to some powerful examples of such communities in United States history:
- The Revolutionary War – Those living in the original 13 colonies banded together to the degree that thousands put their lives at risk in order to secure independence from Great Britain.
- The Union Army during the Civil War – The individuals in this army were willing to fight and die for the cause of freedom and to preserve the United States of America.
- The Civil Rights Movement – For over a decade, people, largely African Americans, banded together and staged protests to secure legal rights for African Americans.
In each of these instances, individuals within these communities were passionate about their cause and identified with their communities. They identified so strongly that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their well-being for the cause of a greater good.
For those within the Church, it is easy to see this type of a community as an integral part of the Church’s history. In the early days of the church, members and new converts banded together in similar geographic locations. Many were willing to persevere through persecution and untold hardships as they were driven from their homes, traveled across the plains and settled throughout the Wasatch Front. Truly the success and growth of the Latter-day Church is founded on the success and benefits of community.
In fact, one writer from the New Republic stated that Mormonism “constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America.” Truly, community is intertwined with the LDS Church’s DNA. Part of the reason why community is such a strong ideal within the LDS Church is that it is strongly supported by scripture and related teachings. Here are some references:
- D&C 130: 2 – “The same sociality which exists among us here [in mortality] will exist among us there [in eternity], only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (Implying that heaven is made up of relationships and community)
- Mosiah 18: 8-9, 21 – Our baptismal covenant suggests that we enter into a community where we become “…willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to morn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…” and that we should have our “hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” 1
- Corinthians 1: 10 – Paul exhorts the saints as follows: “Now I beseech you, brethren by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
- D&C 38: 30 – “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”
Different Types of Communities
In the first article in this series, I introduced the idea that the term “community” can mean a variety of different things, ranging along a continuum of largely weak to strong. In doing so, I identified three types of communities:
- Basic Community – Individuals share characteristics with others in community, but there is little emotional connection to or involvement in the community
- Involved Community – Individuals demonstrate some engagement in the community but they also feel independent from the community. Meaning they do not fully identify with the community or possess all of the same interests, goals, and beliefs that the community promotes or espouses
- United Community – Individuals strongly identify with the community and, as such, they exhibit and internalize the same interests, goals, and beliefs that the community promotes and espouses
Out of these three types of communities, it appears as though the scriptures presented above, as well as our historical culture, focuses on the strongest form of community: united communities.
Benefits of United Communities
There are a variety of important benefits to belonging to a United Community. Such benefits include: strength, protection, support, efficiency, and effectiveness. Additionally, belonging to a united community can add great value to someone’s life. The individuals who truly feel like they belong to a united community feel welcomed, known, accepted, cared for, and loved.
Downsides of United Communities
Despite all the great value of united communities, and even the apparent promotion of united communities in the scriptures, there are often negative side effects to united communities. Part of what makes these negative side effects so negative is that those within the united communities can actually see these things as a positive. In other words, they are often only observed as negative by an outsider to the community.
The first negative side effect is a lack of cognitive diversity. United communities generally have strong norms, and usually, there are strong norms about how to think and what to believe, which implicitly includes norms that limit questioning and thinking critically about prevailing thoughts and beliefs. While these norms surely create efficiency and help everyone feel “on the same page,” they often create a closed loop, where essentially the same information is presented over and over again. While this can be beneficial if the original thinking is accurate, it can be extremely detrimental if it is not accurate. Additionally, this closed loop ultimately puts a limit on the quality of thinking that takes place, as it is only with questioning and critical thinking that the quality of a community’s thinking improves.
The second negative side effect is a lack of inclusivity. Between the strong norms, high involvement, similar thinking, and strong identification that occurs in united communities, members within united communities often find it difficult to welcome in and be accepting of newcomers to the community. What ends up happening is that significant barriers to entry into the community are created. Unless someone is willing to pass through the significant barriers, people are going to be reluctant to enter the community. Additionally, when members of the community go against a norm (e.g., wear something that conflicts with the norms) or suggest that prevailing notions/ideas need to be rethought, such members are pressured to either leave the community or conform, often through judgment, social pressure, and/or criticism.
The third negative side effect is the most extreme and it is the development of unquestioning identification. In the most extreme cases, people within a united community identify so strongly with the community that they are willing to go to extreme lengths to both protect and promote the community. In the media, a term often used to describe this is radicalization and it is something that we have seen associated with the connection between Islam and terrorist groups.
Again, these side effects are often easy to see when viewing other united communities. For example, when I think about terrorist groups, polygamous communities, and the Westboro Baptist Church, I feel like it is easy to see these side effects. Yet, it has been harder for me to see these side effects within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Objectively Considering The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
When trying to take an objective perspective on the Church, it should be apparent that it is a fairly strong united community (Although there is some variation in this across its wards and branches). It should also be apparent that there are many benefits to such a united community, including those listed above.
However, an important question to ask is, can we or have we also seen some of the negative side effects of united communities?
- Is there a lack of cognitive diversity?
- What happens when someone questions traditional teaching?
- Are new ideas and perspectives welcome?
- Is there a lack of inclusiveness?
- Are people wanting to join the church, or are the barriers to entry seen by those not in our church as being too high to make it appealing?
- Are people judged and criticized if they go against the norms within the Church?
- Is there unquestioning identification?
- Are people willing to go to extreme lengths to both protect and promote the Church?
- Did members of the church follow a stake president and militia leader to carry out a deliberate massacre against an emigrant company traveling from Arkansas to California, known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
- Are church members quick to get defensive when critical information about the church is presented?
I do not bring this information up to be antagonistic against the church, I bring it up only to suggest the possibility that although there are great benefits to the largely united community found within the church, such a community is not perfect.
If united communities seem to be promoted by prophets and even Jesus Christ in the scriptures, yet there is evidence that they can have some negative side effects, this leads us back to the question that we ended the previous article on: Which form of community should we be striving to create in our stakes, wards, and branches?
As mentioned previously, communities can range from basic to united, and everything in between. The reality is that there is no “perfect” type of community, each has its pros and cons.
When it comes to the form of community that we should be striving to create in our stakes, wards, and branches, my answer is a different community all together: an intentional community.
To create an intentional community, we have to identify the essential and most valuable elements of a united community and create norms and measures to support these elements while simultaneously preventing the downsides of such communities.
I will dive into the process of developing an Intentional Community in the next article.
Read Part 3: Becoming an Intentional Community
Ryan is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in success mindsets, leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. You can check out his leadership and personal success blog at https://www.ryangottfredson.com/. This is the second article in a four-part series on community within the LDS Church.