When I read Meridian Magazine’s article 8 Things that Can Pull You Away from the Church yesterday morning my heart sank. Not because I disagree with the author’s suggestions of ways to strengthen one’s faith, but because it oversimplifies the complex process individuals go through when they decide to distance from or to leave the LDS Church. (Meridian Magazine is a private online magazine whose audience is primarily active Mormons)
While I see the positive intent of the authors and they offer good suggestions to nurture testimonies, there are unintended consequences of using these 8 reasons–stop reading the Book of Mormon, forget their covenants, listen to those who’ve left the Church, stop praying to stay strong, stop going to Church, don’t listen to General Conference, listen to philosophies of men over leaders, fail to acknowledge the Lord’s blessings–as explanations for why others leave the Church. As a therapist, family member, and active Church member who has many loved ones who are no longer attending Church, I wanted to voice some of my concerns about the unintended impact of this article:
1) Oversimplifies reasons people leave the Church
This article suggests that disobedience and lack of dedication to spiritual practices are reasons people leave the Church. While these 8 reasons are some of the reasons that people leave the Church, there are also many, many other reasons that people pull away. Until we acknowledge reasons outside of the “Sunday School answers” it will be very difficult for those of us who are active Mormons to listen empathetically and respond respectfully to the thoughts and feelings of those who have left the Church.
2) Neglects systemic factors impacting disaffection from the Church
Explaining disaffection from Church as primarily due to one’s own choices neglects any relational or systemic factors that impact individual choices. For example, some people have experienced abuses of power or gender inequality which impact their decision to leave the Church. Additionally, the LDS Church’s new level of historical transparency (see Church topic essays on plural marriage, first vision accounts, Book of Mormon and DNA, translation of book of Abraham)–have brought up sincere questions by many faithful members. Any discussion about things that pull others away from the Church is incomplete with out engaging in the messiness that can surface when considering more complex questions.
3) Fosters “us” vs. “them” mentality
The title of the article uses the phrase “8 things that can pull you away from the Church” but the article focuses on “them” and “they.” Individuals who have left the Church often feel on the outside, feel disconnected from loved ones. The “us” vs. “them” paradigm can easily perpetuate divisiveness and judgment instead of inviting love and compassion among the spectrum of Mormons. I believe there is only “we.”
4) Suggests staying away instead of mourning
The suggestion to simply stay away from people talking negatively about the Church leaders because they are “doing the bidding of Satan” is reductionistic and dangerous. While it is important to shield our faith from negative influences, this must be balanced with Christ’s teaching to mourn with those that mourn. From my personal and professional experience, people who criticize the Church leaders are doing so as part of a grieving process. Often, people who are pulling away from the Church are close family members or friends who are in pain associated with their decision. I suggest that we should seek the Spirit to know when to set boundaries with loved ones and when to move toward them and show acceptance and love.
5) Fails to include self-reflection on impact of our behavior on others
This article leaves out the importance of self-reflection – of asking ourselves and the Spirit to illuminate our part in the process of many people leaving the Church. How am I being unwelcoming, judgmental, prideful, or insensitive to those around me? It is easy to point a finger at others for leaving the Church, but we are all part of their process. Instead of determining why others leave the Church, we would be wise to ponder what we can do to be more welcoming, inclusive, and loving.
We are living in a complex world. And while I believe that prioritizing our simple spiritual practices helps maintain and strengthen our faith, it is not helpful to ascribe simplistic explanations for other people choosing to step back from or to leave the Church.