This is the final article in the series on community in the LDS Church. In the first article, I discussed how members in our wards and branches vary in how closely they are connected to their ward or branch communities, and that local ward leaders need to become more conscious of why some members struggle with their ward’s or branch’s community. In the second article, I discussed how the LDS church largely possesses a strong United Community, and I identified that while there are some great benefits to United Communities, there are also some common, although unintended, negative side effects including a lack of cognitive diversity, inclusivity, and unquestioning identification. In the third article, I discussed how (1) church leaders and members need to develop Intentional Communities that are charitable, safe, open, inclusive, engaging, and purposeful; and (2) strongly identifying with the church can prevent communities from possessing those six attributes.
I began writing this series on community in the church because I was challenged to do so by a friend (life-long member) who finds attending church and participating in its community largely disappointing. His experience in the church has been such that he does not believe it to possess the elements of an Intentional Community (charity, safety, openness, inclusivity, engaging, and purposeful) to the degree that he expects it to. As such, he is not as engaged as he wants to be.
To be honest, at first, I wasn’t very excited about writing an article on community. My initial thoughts included the perception that his expectations were too high, and that he needed to be more sensitive to the temporal and social demands people experience that prevent them from being more community-oriented. Additionally, I believed that that since his ward community was unlikely to change much, he should seek community outside of his ward.
When I expressed some of these ideas, he recognized that I was not thinking very deeply about this and was patient with me. Additionally, he expressed reservations about seeking community outside of his ward because he believes the Church to be a vehicle to the Savior, and he wants to invest more into that vehicle, not less.
So, I started diving into the topic. Very quickly, I knew I couldn’t do it justice in just one article. And, it turned into four articles.
In this final article, I will discuss three social factors that prevent well-meaning members from engaging more with their local church communities. Then, I want to provide suggestions for members who struggle with their local church communities. Finally, I want to provide some suggestions for how local church leaders can help everybody within their ward family to feel a part of their local church community.
Three Social Factors that Prevent Well-Meaning Member from Engaging in their Local Church Communities
Beyond the unintended negative consequences of identifying with the church, which involve being exclusive, closed, and judgmental (this was discussed in the prior article), there are a variety of social factors that affect members’ engagement in their local church communities.
First, the reality is that people have more demands on their time than what was largely the case in prior decades. In addition to these increased demands, leaders of the church have been increasing their promotion of “family.” This creates a situation where it is not uncommon for people to feel as though there is a tradeoff between engagement with family and engagement in the church community. Often, what ends up receiving greater priority is one’s family. I am not suggesting this is a bad thing, I am just suggesting that it is an element of our changing reality. However, this dynamic can have a negative impact on those without families.
Second, I believe that one of the shifts affecting local church communities is a shift from believing that one’s life should revolve around the church to believing that the church is a part of, or revolves around, one’s life. Traditionally, the culture of the church was such that the more active you were in the church, the more “righteous” you were (or at least seen that way). Thus, there has historically been strong social pressure to have your life revolve around that church, and thus attend all church functions. Between increased time demands and increased awareness that activity in church functions does not necessarily signal “righteousness” or “commitment to Christ;” more and more, members of the church see the church as being part of their lives, yet not the center of their lives. Along with this comes an increased distinction that there is a difference between Christ and the Church: One can have Christ at the center of one’s life, but not necessarily the Church.
The third factor is one that has probably always played a role in the Church and it probably always will. Since wards and branches are based upon geography, we are limited in our ability to self-select who we attend church with, and the reality is that there are people within our wards and branches who, if we had more freedom, we would choose not to attend with. Thus, in many instances, we are “stuck” going to church with people that we have a hard time connecting with. This can be a good thing because it helps us see the perspectives of others and it helps us learn how to be more inclusive. Yet, it does affect our engagement in the community. For example, it is my guess that you have skipped out on more than one church activity because you knew a particular person that you didn’t want to associate with was going to be there. Or maybe that is just me ;).
For Those Who Struggle with Their Local Church Communities
I bring these factors up for three reasons. First, because we need to be honest with ourselves. As our external world changes, we are continually forced to reconcile and make choices related to our engagement in our local church communities. We can’t expect the Church and our involvement in it to stay the same as significant technology and social norms change. For example, the importance of a (typically average) sacrament meeting talk is now seen as less valuable than what it may have been as we now have near-instant access to thousands of spectacular talks online through lds.org, speeches.byu.edu, and YouTube.com to name a few outlets.
Second, recognizing the social factors and pulls affecting church members’ engagement in the church helps those who are struggling with their local church communities to be more empathetic of well-meaning members who are not as involved as even they would like to be. The reality is that all people go through their own “times and seasons” associated with their engagement in the Church. As a father of young children, I have come to learn that it is simply easier to be personally engaged in the Church and its related activities when you do not have small children to take care of.
Third, recognizing these social factors and pulls help empower those who are struggling with their local church communities to generate solutions to their struggles. The reality is that you may never get what you want out of your local church community. But, that is not to say that you can’t find communities that you can engage in within the Church. One place to start is to identify a small subset of members in your ward or stake that you can connect with on a regular basis. It could be a choir, a family home evening group, a scripture study group, book club, or faith crisis group. If that is proving difficult, the options become limitless when you go online. Any of these options are viable. Just remember to look for the necessary ingredients of Intentional Communities (charity, safety, openness, inclusiveness, engaging, and purposeful), and seek to personally support and promote them yourself.
What Can Leaders Do to Help Everyone in Their Ward Family Feel a Part of Their Local Church Community?
Local church leaders play a significant role in shaping their local church community. Let me suggest three ways local church leaders can help everyone in their ward family feel a part of their local church community.
First, local church leaders need to focus on the essential elements of an Intentional Community: charity, safety, openness, inclusiveness, engaging, and being purposeful. Local leaders would benefit from seeking to measure (taking the temperature of) each of these elements in their ward and auxiliaries. It is difficult to make progress in these areas if we do not know the current state of each element. This can be done through formal short surveys or through informal interviews. Of course, getting the input of those who attend less frequently will be a challenge, but their voice may be the most valuable.
Empowered with a knowledge of the current state of each of these elements, ward councils can discuss, make intentions, and take action on promoting each element in a way that is best for their ward and auxiliaries.
Second, local church leaders need to focus on planning and designing meetings and activities that are worth attending. Traditionally, as members’ lives have revolved around the church, members have been willing to attend regardless of the quality of the meetings and activities. But, with (1) the Church increasingly being seen as a part of peoples’ lives (as opposed to lives revolving around the Church), (2) greater demands on peoples’ time outside of church, and (3) higher expectations resulting from social media and related technology, expecting church members to attend events for the sake of attending is setting yourself up for failure.
On a side note, oftentimes church leaders feel like if an event is “Church/ward sanctioned” without age or gender restrictions, everyone needs to be invited. This mentality often prevents close and personal connections that are more likely to occur in smaller group settings. Additionally, oftentimes church leaders feel like if an event is not “well-attended,” that the event is not worth the time and effort to plan. For example, I have been a part of wards who stop holding ‘ward temple nights’ because only 10 people seem to show up (as if they have the expectation that dozens will show up). These more intimate events help with developing smaller sub-communities within a ward. In other words, while we need to make events worth attending, we shouldn’t always judge the success of an event by how many people show up.
Third, local church leaders need to create or encourage the creation of smaller communities within the ward community. The reality is that those in our church that need community and support the most often do not get it in our current church format with large Sunday school, elders quorum, and Relief Society classes. Those settings are often dominated by those who already feel a strong connection to the community. It may not be a bad idea to plan scheduled smaller-group meetings for members facing unique life circumstances such as: raising young children, divorced or widowed, faith crisis, addiction recovery, single parents, etc.
Let me use a business analogy to make a final point here. Organizations go through different life-phases. Start-up phase is when an organization is trying to figure out how it is going to be successful. Then, as they start becoming successful, they go through a growth phase. When an organization goes through a growth phase, it is often necessary to create strategies, policies, and procedures to ensure the organization continues on its trajectory and adequately serves its customers. But over time, as the external environment and customer interests’ change, the strategies, policies, and procedures once put into place slowly lose effectiveness. This results in a decision point, where the organization needs to make a decision between undergoing deep change or continue on the path of slow death. (Bring on two-hour church 😉 )
In a similar vein, because of changing societal factors as well as technology, it is unreasonable to expect older social traditions within the church to meet the social demands of the future. I hope that this article has better helped you understand the changing social landscape and has provided you with ideas about how we can make our personal church experiences and local church communities more charitable, safe, open, inclusive, engaging, and purposeful.