It is pretty great being a member of the LDS Church. We have a tightly-knit, caring community. We have satisfying, coherent theology. We have a strong organizational structure that provides us with opportunity to serve and grow. I know of no other institution that better fulfils the Divine purposes of transforming our natures and getting us to care for each other. The beliefs and practices of the LDS Church do an admirable job meeting the deep human needs and longings at the core of religiosity.
It is understandable why people would want to be part of this community. Even in an article about why Latter-day Saints aren’t Christian, a Catholic Bishop acknowledges there is “much to admire” in our faith.
That said, I submit that the evangelistic conditioning that every person needs to be an active member of the LDS Church is problematic and offensive. The Church meets the social needs of members so well that often “doing missionary work” is a key factor getting members to talk to those not of their faith community. Though the degree differs with the individual, the assignment of conversion therefore simmers beneath all social interaction between members and “non-members”. The message is clear: to be fully accepted and valued, all people need to belong to the “one true Church.”
Elder Eyring poignantly played upon and reinforced this message in his 1996 General Conference talk “Witnesses for God”:
“Those we meet will feel the love that springs from our long practice in keeping a covenant to ‘mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.’ It may not be in hours or days as it was for King Lamoni, but they will feel our love after testing our hearts. And when they find our concern is sincere, the Holy Spirit can more easily touch them to allow us to teach and to testify, as it did for Ammon.
“Again I have a caution and a promise. The caution is that sorrow will come from failure either to love or to bear witness. If we fail to feel and show honest concern for those we approach with the Gospel, they will reasonably distrust our message. But, if out of fear of rejection we fail to tell them what the gospel has meant in our lives and could mean in theirs, we will someday share their sorrow.
“Either in this life or in the life to come, they will know that we failed to share with them the priceless gift of the gospel. They will know that accepting the gospel was the only way for them to inherit eternal life. And they will know that we received the gospel with a promise that we would share it.” (“Witnesses for God”, October 1996 General Conference)
On one hand, Eyring models missionary work in a very positive, natural way based in love and sincerity. But I think the “us centered” approach of focusing on obligation can often backfire. The feeling of duty to share the gospel can result in members offering “warm bread and a cold shoulder.” As Marlin Jensen notes in the talk from which that phrase was drawn, no one wants to be made a project, assigned a friend (“Friendship: A Gospel Principle”, April 1999 General Conference).
Eyring’s rhetoric motivates members to remember their missionary duty. Does it fully acknowledge the power of LDS soteriology however? The LDS view of salvation is one of its most appealing points. In short, we believe in a hell temporary at most and a salvation best described as universal. The LDS position as I understand it is that everyone will get the chance to accept or reject the gospel with full knowledge of its truth. Now, it is true that if we delay sharing the joys of the gospels with our friends, they may miss out on a greater measure of joy and fulfillment in this life. But our missionary work should flow naturally from friendship and wanting to share the rewards of our faith, not a sense of obligation that we or those we care about will be condemned if we fail to act–that fear based approach forces the issue and can come across as false.
That is the offensive part, now the problematic part: Adherents of an exclusivistic worldview can be socially tolerant and get along well with those of other faiths, but they cannot be religiously tolerant, not truly. Even as such a believer allows for a plurality of belief, at the core of feelings and doctrine is the surety that eventually, everyone else will need to convert. The only way to practice true religious tolerance is to allow that someone can be right with God based on *their own religion*. So Jews and Christians and Muslims can be great neighbors, all the while convinced that when the Kingdom of God is restored, their Abrahamic compatriots will see the light (ironically, according to the Qur’an Jesus is the one who will convert the world to Islam).
There is nothing wrong with sharing with people ideas or practices that improve our lives. And to the Church’s credit, this is often how missionary work is framed. From an institutional perspective, however, this absolutist emphasis on missionary work serves to confirm the faith of the members as it increases the membership and therefore resources of the Church.
So what’s the solution? It is already there in the teachings of LDS leaders–friendship, love, and service needs to develop naturally rather than being forced. It needs to flourish “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46). The LDS church encourages a healthy emphasis on relationships, from focus on family, to home and visiting teaching, to sharing the joy of the gospel.
But all this service needs to be a natural extension of our lives and feelings, rather than being manipulated by exclusivist rhetoric. I think we can allow the power of the LDS view of salvation and post-mortal missionary work to diminish our anxiety. We need to let go. If we care for those around us with their well-being sincerely in mind, they will likely be interested in all the positives of LDS belief and practice, and might join if it is best for them. But though that can be a positive result, I do not think it can be a goal.
There are some things we cannot aim for; we can only live correct principles that maximize the chance of our desired result. Someone falling in love with you, raising obedient children, making *anyone* change–none of these things can be forced. I put conversion in the same category.
As LDS members let go of the idea that everyone needs to belong to the “only true Church” (in this life) and instead strive to live the principles of happiness as fully as possible while sharing those principles with those around them, I feel several benefits will occur:
1) Members will continue to nurture and value even those relationships that do not result in “conversion”
2) Investigators will no longer feel the anxious obligation projected by the members, and will be more receptive to the benefits that come from Church membership.
3) The Church itself will be more worth being a part of. I think Jesus would approve.