Is Mormon culture the same as Mormon doctrine? It is hard to tell the difference, especially in heavily Mormon populated areas.
Church membership does not only mean that a person accepts the doctrine, it also means that they become part of a culture built around attempts to live the doctrine. Sometimes this is helpful, but sometimes it can be harmful when mainstream members assume that parts of the Mormon culture are actually doctrine. They may become militant in their beliefs and people leave the church.
Against this, I would like to suggest four things that we can do to make Mormon culture more accepting off all people.
1. More support for introverts in meetings.
Nobody is completely introverted or extroverted, but everybody has tendencies towards one of those personality types. Introverts tend to be more thoughtful and quiet, avoiding large social settings and feeling awkward around large groups of people. Extroverts thrive on social connections and are outgoing. Church services and activities are geared towards extraversion.
We see this a lot in social activities or group meetings, where people assume that a member not actively participating is somehow unhappy or in spiritual danger. We are constantly told to reach out to those people, which is good, but we reach out to introverts by forcing them to extroverted.
This is why we have some youth who dread mutual or why we have members who do not like church meetings. It may not be because they do not want to be around other members, they just feel uncomfortable being forced to be extroverted, because introverted church members are seen as lonely, withdrawn and struggling.
It would be helpful if in church meetings we gave time for people to sit and think instead of constantly bombarding them with questions and call for involvement. I have been in Sunday schools where I have spent the time to think and ponder, only to be dragged out of my thoughts by a teacher who somehow thought I was not involved enough to be “feeling the Spirit.”
Would it not be nice to have meetings where we were given time to ponder and think without interruption?
We also need to recognize that not everyone feels comfortable in social settings, and that is ok. Not every member of a ward needs to enjoy ward activities to feel like they belong. Instead of insisting that everybody be friends with everybody else, we need to realize that some people feel comfortable with only a few close friends in a ward. Being quiet and awkward at church does not mean that a person is struggling.
That being said, we still need to be friendly at church meetings. When we see new people at sacrament meeting, we do need to be friendly and make them feel welcome. It is important though that we help them on their terms, not ours.
2. Greater support for sensitive topics such as homosexuality and mental illness.
Sometimes, I have felt like the culture of the church has told me: “We want to help you, but only if it is something that we understand and have easy answers for.”
I struggle with depression and social anxiety, and have often felt outcast or even attacked in church meetings. I have sat through many lessons and church talks where the speaker has talked about how the gospel will always make us happy and if we are feeling down, we just need to pray, read our scriptures, and attend meetings. Then, we will feel all better. Can you imagine what that would do to somebody struggling with mental illness? Not only are they having internal struggles, but people are teaching that outward solutions make one happy. It is implied that if you are not happy, you must be doing something wrong.
Mental illness support is almost completely missing from church services. We need to acknowledge that people with mental or emotional problems have real medical conditions. Telling them at church that if they have more faith or if they try harder they will automatically feel better is alienating and losing our members. It does not give them the support that they need during their difficulties.
More dire is the way that Mormon culture deals with homosexuality. Instead of providing love and support to homosexual members, the culture tends to actively alienate good homosexual members.
Does anybody really think that a fiery sermon about homosexuality will do any good? Being told that you are going to hell for feelings that you can not control is destructive and un-Christlike. Regardless of personal opinions about homosexuality, we should have the decency to treat these members just like any other members.
We are losing many homosexual members because in church meetings we are focusing less on helping them understand what they can do with their feelings and spending more time preaching about how their feelings are destroying the family and leading us into the apocalypse. Even when members begrudgingly acknowledge that homosexual tendencies themselves are not evil, the love is not felt.
The key here is to recognize that members have a variety of difficulties. Applying blanket messages and outright ignoring the feelings of members is only driving people away.
3. Stop preaching about things that are not doctrine.
In the past few months I have heard about the evils voting for Democrats, accepting organic evolution, watching R-rated movies and girls wearing leggings during church lessons. Are these really topics that need to be brought up during Sunday schools and priesthood meetings? Sure, these opinions may come from doctrinal truths, but they are not doctrine in and of themselves.
Often times, church members (myself included) will give their opinion as gospel fact. Even worse, we will use the real doctrine to back up fake doctrine. I remember one lesson from early last year where we were talking about self-reliance and hard work. During the lesson, a member of the bishopric went on a lengthy rant about how everything that the Democrat party stood for was contrary to this doctrine. He was convinced that his politically ideology was backed by the lesson and had the need to share that with everyone. Not only did I disagree with what he was saying, I was being told that because I disagreed I was in conflict with gospel principles.
We spend far too much time in lessons discussing how certain political ideas and entertainment choices are contrary to the gospel or against the teachings of the church, even though there is no doctrinal foundation for those claims. When this happens, good members of the church feel isolated.
Whenever you feel the need to preach against topics ask yourself: if somebody does any of these things (i.e. vote for Democrats, accept organic evolution, watch R-rated movies or wear leggings) will that keep them out of the temple?
If the leaders of the church have not spoken out about something in an official setting we need to be silent about it in church. No matter what opinions you have, what blogs you read, or what you saw on TV, if the brethren have not officially made a statement about what you are teaching, stop immediately! Too many church members feel alone at church because a homogeneous Mormon culture is telling them that their opinions are against the doctrine. We must acknowledge that the church has many members, and everybody has different opinions, and none of these opinions are imperative to get into heaven.
4. Acknowledge that some different lifestyles and ideas are not contrary to the gospel.
This is the underlying principle behind all of my suggestions. We need to start destroying the stereotype of the standard Mormon. We need to be aware that people with different ideas, cultures and lifestyles may be a part of our church. The mindset that because somebody chose to follow the theological ideals of Mormonism also means that they need to assimilated into the culture must be destroyed. Instead of having a single homogeneous culture, we need to be a church of diversity. We need to have multiple opinions, multiple lifestyles and multiple types of people. As we spread throughout the world, every unique person that gets baptized adds something new to the body of the church. By insisting on making everybody the same, we are ruining what makes us so special as a church: that people of all shapes and sizes can unite under the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As I write this, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from President Dieter F. Uchtdorf:
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.
We may believe this in an academic sense, but do we actually feel and practice it?
I hope that anybody reading this is aware that I am not criticizing Mormon doctrine. I believe that the doctrine of the church is pure and un-defiled. It is the truth that God has revealed to humanity for generations. I am eternal grateful that I am a part of it.
But the culture needs to change, and it needs to change fast. All of these suggestions can be implemented. It will only take a little effort.