How I Navigate My Church Membership

I Believe in a High Demand Religion, Not a High Stakes Religion

Churches seem to be losing members for a whole host of reasons. I don’t have my finger on all the reasons why. I’m sure every individual who stops regular church attendance has their own personal reasons. I don’t believe, however, the way to keep members active in the church is by scaring them into staying. It doesn’t resonate and is not backed up by empirical evidence. A person’s life will not completely fall apart when they transition out of organized religion. There are plenty of people within church whose lives completely fall apart while maintaining active participation.

I simply don’t believe in a sad heaven. I believe that loving relationships will continue into the next life regardless of faithful attendance. I believe in a God that loves all of humanity that will work with us in our language, within our culture and through our institutions. I believe in a church of God that spans institutional boundaries. I believe that we are saved by grace, that grace requires our active reception of it, but does not require literal beliefs in specific dogmas. There’s a way to think about grace that transcends Christianity. Grace is a core part of all healthy religious institutions. Grace is a part of all healthy institutions, secular and religious. Thriving businesses offer grace-filled working conditions. Academic studies find that forgiveness and gratitude are key components to mental health. Christianity believes grace was activated by Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But mouthing a belief in Jesus is not how we enable that grace in our lives.

Additionally, I believe that churches should be concerned with falling membership but not too concerned.

Matthew 16:25 reads

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will alose his life for my sake shall bfind it.

Matthew 16:25

I believe this verse applies to churches as much as people. Churches that think too much about church end up dying. To thrive, churches care most about how to help and encourage their members to lose their lives in the service of others. In this sense, I believe in a high demand religion – that we should be called into total consecration, intertwining our lives into helping our communities, societies and individuals thrive. But I don’t believe in a high stakes religion. No single religious institution has a monopoly on grace. High demand, but not high stakes.

There Are High Stakes in Life – We Need to Try Harder to Reduce Them

Leaving the church should not be considered a high stake catastrophe. I know people who have left my faith and found a thriving, healthy spiritual journey that has led them into a life of love and service. Our relationships should and must withstand these sorts of transitions. We should love, care and learn from others both within and without church, maybe even especially those who are critical. We should allow ourselves to be called into church service, called out of church service, called into the church and called out of the church.

But it doesn’t mean there aren’t high stake decisions in life. There are. Religious institutions can provide structure and protection here. Too many people die far too young. There are too many people living on the streets. Too much abuse of all kinds. Lives have been ruined by poor choices. Our societal institutions should do a better job trying to alleviate poverty, suffering, addiction and abuse by providing better, more effective safety nets and a network of community support. Churches play an important role here.
Reducing high stakes means better mental health support, more access to addiction services, a justice system that’s more restorative and less purely punitive, a much more comprehensive safety net, better access to an educational system that is nurturing and works better for more people.

Let People Not Programs Complicate Our Lives

Churches need to impose more sacrifice for those with the means, talents and abilities that can really make a difference. A church’s core mission is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Those with excess resources, talent and abilities should sacrifice some of their abundance in the service for those with greater needs. Talented people should get the necessary training to care for and serve others, both professionally where necessary but also in their spare time.

We need more counselors and case workers helping the most vulnerable. Those with extra money should donate that excess to ensure those who need support get it. Many more people should be trained in caring professions.

The poor, the mentally ill, those with the most challenges should complicate our lives. More of what we do should be about pulling more people into our sphere of influence and uplift.

Some Truths are More Important Than Other Truths

Endless apologetic attempts to defend typical religious truth claims completely miss the point about the purpose of religion. I don’t know nor do I much care about what literally did or did not happen with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The six day creation story seems so obviously allegorical I feel embarrassed to have ever thought there was something scientific about the way Genesis presents creationism. Jesus leaving the tomb at his resurrection is a mystery I’m not sure how to even attempt to solve.

I have faith in life after death, in the eternal nature of relationships and identity. I don’t care too much about the details. I don’t think literal belief in religious truth claims should be a determining factor in someone’s religious participation. Does my involvement in my weekly religious service lead me into love, care, grace and gratitude? Truths about how to purify my soul into more consistent and sincere acts of goodness, love and charity are fundamentally what matters.

Conclusions

I’m not sure what will keep religious institutions thriving into the future. What will be the ultimate factor in convincing my children to stay active in this church? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I want my kids to be kind, loving, thriving adults making significant contributions in society where they feel loved, included and supported. I want that for everyone. If they can’t find that kind of love and support at church, I won’t blame them if they leave. I believe they can find it at church, but church’s need to make that their primary mission. Nothing else matters nearly as much.

Come Follow Me: Doctrine and Covenants 133-134

Historical Context

These sections are out of temporal order in the Doctrine and Covenants. Taken together, they serve different purposes but have an interesting set of complimentary voices when coupled together. D&C 133 was originally intended to be the appendix to the revelations. Written only a few days after D&C 1, the prefix, in November of 1831, a year and a half after the church was first established, recorded at about the time they intended to publish the revelations for mass consumption. They have similar themes and serve as a good way to sum up Joseph Smith’s revelations. They describe the intent, purpose and ultimate vision of the restoration. D&C 134 was written later, in 1835 by Oliver Cowdery in response to the persecutions and injustices inflicted on the Saints in Missouri. D&C 133 serves to spell out the role, expectations and responsibilities of the church. D&C 134 serves to summarize the church’s position on their relationship with and expectation from the civil governments within which they operate. D&C 133 spells out the church’s mission. D&C 134 spells out governments role in relationship to that mission.

D&C 133

Judgment

The revelation starts off quickly with the theme in verse 2:

The Lord who shall suddenly acome to his temple; the Lord who shall come down upon the world with a curse to bjudgment; yea, upon all the nations that cforget God, and upon all the ungodly among you.

verse 2

This verse contains harsh language and the revelation generally deals in harsh binaries that don’t actually reflect my own experience but I believe represents the religious language of the time. My experience is different, with gradations, growth, times when I’m doing well, other times when I’m not. Good people sometimes do bad things, recognizing most people are doing their best, often with mixed up incentives and difficult circumstances.

Terryl Givens has a really great way of nuancing the word judgment that shows up here in this interview on Faith Matters:

But I think the key is in Paul, his epistle to the Corinthians, when he tells us that Jesus will judge us so that He need not condemn us. Judgment, as I understand — as we understand, as it’s being used in both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, is that process by which we are brought to recognize distinctions and how they have operated in our lives and in our character. Judgment in this sense is the prelude to further progress. So judgment is that process by which we are made to become aware of where we are, what yet needs to be done, what lies have we been telling ourselves, how have we been alienated from our true identities.

Terryl Givens

Verse three seems to be saying the same thing but at a larger scale, talking of nations, though I think it applies to both nations as well as us personally.

For he shall make abare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the bsalvation of their God.

verse 3

If Christ is light, making bare is holy arm could be a way to discover what’s actually happening through all nations. Experiencing moments of clarity within the fog of circumstance and bad incentives is the work of Christ. When these moments happen before we’ve prepared for them, they can be painful. In that sense, we don’t have to wait for God to find us. We can find God. Verses 5 and 6 is a call to be more proactive.

Babylon vs. Zion

Go ye out from aBabylon. Be ye bclean that bear the vessels of the Lord. Call your asolemn assemblies, and bspeak often one to another. And let every man call upon the name of the Lord.

5-6

Two contrasting organizations described here, Zion and Babylon. This language is big-tent thinking. Zion includes the pure in heart, those striving to eradicate poverty and build a tent large enough to include all who love God and have a desire to serve God through the service of others. Babylon is the contrasting big tent, filled with people looking to enrich and uplift themselves over others. All of us at times wander in Babylon, perhaps that is our starting point. It takes hard work, sacrifice, consecration and ultimately the grace of Christ to root our hearts and our feet in Zion.

And of course, verse 8 reminds us this is not an individual endeavor. We need to seek out all and invite them into Zion as well, recognizing Zion is truly large and complex. When we think about Zion, we think about enlarging our tents to include more people. Zion is open, big, expansive.

Send forth the elders of my church unto the anations which are afar off; unto the bislands of the sea; send forth unto foreign lands; call upon all nations, first upon the cGentiles, and then upon the Jews. And behold, and lo, this shall be their cry, and the voice of the Lord unto all people: Go ye forth unto the land of Zion, that the borders of my people may be enlarged, and that her astakes may be strengthened, and that bZion may go forth unto the regions round about.

verse 8, 9

Preparation for the Coming of Christ

There’s urgency in many of the verses in this revelation, but verse 15 stands out in this regard.

But verily, thus saith the Lord, let not your flight be in ahaste, but let all things be prepared before you; and he that goeth, let him bnot look back lest sudden destruction shall come upon him.

verse 15.

We don’t need to be in a hurry. I think when it comes to Zion, the preparation is just as important as the event. Both the striving toward Zion can be thought of in some ways part of Zion itself. Preparation takes time, but we need to start now. We don’t just flip a switch and find our hearts pure. It’s work, effort, coming moment by moment, grace for grace.

Verse 19 and 20 also stands out for me:

Wherefore, prepare ye for the acoming of the Bridegroom; go ye, go ye out to meet him.For behold, he shall astand upon the mount of Olivet, and upon the mighty ocean, even the great deep, and upon the islands of the sea, and upon the land of Zion.

19, 20

We should be proactive. Prepare and then proactively go out to meet him. Let Christ’s return come soon, now, in our hearts. This is shadow work, letting Christ’s light shine in our dark corners. Verse 20 describes the ubiquity of this event(s) – in the mounts, on the mighty ocean, and upon the islands of the sea – everywhere, for all.

The next section describes the possibilities. Lands unite (v 24), desserts bloom (v29), rich treasures (v30) and every person shall be filled with the “songs of everlasting joy” (v 33).

All of this sounds good, but starting in verse 41, things get dark and terrible, the Lord’s return is like a “melting fire” (v41), people will tremble (v42), and terrible things come (v43). The Lord will be clothed in red apparel (v48) and the sun, the moon and the stars flee in “shame” “whithholding its light (v49). Verse 51 describes an angry, vengeful God. I’m not sure this makes sense or represents the type of God I yearn for. One way to think about it isn’t so much God, but our reaction to an unprepared return, when we are forced to reckon with what we’ve done and who we are. These moments of clarity can often be painful and dark. The dark night of the soul. But it’s temporary, invariably, and Christ suffers with us, ultimately, v53:

In all their aafflictions he was afflicted. And the angel of his presence saved them; and in his blove, and in his pity, he credeemed them, and bore them, and carried them all the days of old;

verse 53

After the darkness comes light. After the winter, spring. After death, resurrection (v56).

Verse 57 gets to the entire point of this whole thing:

And for this cause, that men might be made apartakers of the bglories which were to be revealed, the Lord sent forth the fulness of his cgospel, his everlasting covenant, reasoning in plainness and simplicity

57

Essentially, the purpose of the gospel is to provide the vehicle for repentance, so that through the weak things “the Lord shall thresh the nations by the power of His spirit” (verse 59). Given that none of us are strong. Every single one of us are weak and vulnerable and utterly dependent on the God who gave us life. God uses those who admit as much to break down those who won’t.

The revelation ends on a dark note as a warning to those who will not listen and as a reminder that there is always an escape.

D&C 134

Section 133 describes the purpose of the church. Section 134 describes the responsibility and duties of government. On the Unshaken podcast, Jared Halverson describes this section as the twelve articles of faith expansion of Article of Faith 12. A few highlights:

Government has been instituted by God (verse 1). This is a strong rebuke of the latest trends disparaging government. No, we need government, we need a good government that makes and administers laws for “the good and safety of society.”

Verse 4 expands on the right of religious worship as long as it does not “infringe upon the rights and liberties of others”. The government should “punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul”.

Verse 5 is a call to citizens to sustain and respect government, while the government is duty bound to “secure the public interest” while also “holding sacred the freedom of conscience.”

Verse 6 makes a distinction between the laws of men and the laws of God, the one “regulating our interests” in how we relate to each other while the other for “spiritual concerns”.

Verse 12 is a difficult one and is a principle deeply contextualized to the Saints’ experiences in Missouri. The LDS church had black members early on. Missouri was a slave state that worried the influx of preeminently northern members moving into the state potentially with free blacks among their mix may tilt the balance in the state. This verse seems designed to assuage that concern. But it’s awful text and has no relevance beyond that limited context. That it’s not worth the risk to try to help the “bond-servant” without consulting the master believing it is “unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace of every government.”

Come Follow Me: Doctrine and Covenants 125-128

Historical Context

The Missouri Mormon War spanned from August to November of 1838 culminating in Governor Lilburn Boggs’ extermination order, demanding that the Mormons leave Missouri or be killed. Forced to flee Missouri in the winter of 1838, the Saints sought refuge in Illinois and Iowa across the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, Joseph Smith and other church leaders had surrendered and languished in jail. The Saints were forced to leave Missouri, having to give up all of their possessions in Missouri once again and find a way to find a new home, led by Brigham Young and the councils Joseph Smith had set up.

They were obliged to leave Missouri but had not yet determined centralized gather spot, ending up scattered across the Missippi River in Iowa and Illinois, although the area around Quincy, Illinois would become a central gathering spot. By April of 1840, Joseph Smith and the other prisoners had escaped into Illinois to join the Saints. What was Commerce, Illinois that had been renamed Nauvoo had been purchased on favorable terms. Going into 1841, the Illinois government had shown sympathy to the Saints’ plight and had allowed them to settle in what would be a period of peace after so much turmoil, giving them the power to organize, create laws, build a university, and establish a militia.

The revelations in this week’s lesson occur during a moment of city-building, peace and hopefulness after a period of some of the most challenging times in the church’s young history.

Section 125 – March 1841

Nauvoo was the designated new headquarters for the church, but the Saints questioned whether the area could accommodate all of those who would be immigrating into this area. Settlements in Iowa across the river were established. This revelation deals with those settlements. Verse two lays out the central theme of this section.

Verily, thus saith the Lord, I say unto you, if those who acall themselves by my name and are essaying to be my saints, if they will do my will and keep my commandments concerning them, let them gather themselves together unto the places which I shall appoint unto them by my servant Joseph, and build up cities unto my name, that they may be prepared for that which is in store for a time to come.

D&C 125:2

Gathering into cities has always been the central mission of this church. Joseph Smith wasn’t building simply a church, he was building a society, a gathering place, where both temporal and spiritual concerns dominated his thinking. Building up cities not churches in God’s name. Creating zion, a place for the pure in heart with no poor among them. That has always been central to Christianity, taken central shape in this revelation. Within modern times, have we stopped? Should we think more in terms of cities and not churches? I think so.

Section 126 – July 9, 1841

Amazingly, after the conclusion of the Missouri War, after Joseph Smith’s imprisonment, and after the expulsion of the Saints from Missouri, Brigham Young and others were called yet again to serve a mission, into England, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves as refugees before they had yet created stability in Nauvoo.

Brigham Young’s wife Mary Ann devoted her life to the church and to Brigham. Church missions and service pulled Brigham from his home half of their first five years married together. Then on September 14, 1839, Brigham bare farewell once again to England with his family forced to find a way in severe poverty shortly after Mary Ann had given birth. During the two years Brigham Young served, his wife and children suffered, destitute, doing all they could to survive, find a plot of land and build shelter. This revelation comes upon Brigham Young return.

I therefore command you to asend my word abroad, and take especial bcare of your family from this time, henceforth and forever. Amen.

D&C126:3

It’s amazing to me that the church required so much from so many. The ambition to grow the church, to gather, to build temples under constant threats from enemies, in the midst of horrifying poverty is amazing. Recognizing that at times immense sacrifice is required at other times, we need to shore up our circumstances. Here, through revelation, Brigham Young is told that his calling right now is to care for his family, I’m sure much to the relief of his wife who deserves all the credit here.

Section 127 – Sept 1, 1842

Joseph Smith’s legal concerns were never really resolved in Missouri. The trials never actually took place. They escaped in transit. Likely a fair trial was impossible and an unjust sentence was likely. They fled but the Missourians continued efforts to bring Joseph Smith back. Additionally, a failed plot on Governor Bogg’s life was attributed to Joseph Smith further exacerbating his legal troubles. As a result, Joseph Smith was forced into perpetual hiding, removing himself from direct access to the Saints in Nauvoo. The first part of this revelation deals with the perpetual suffering and difficulty that has followed Joseph Smith his entire life. Verse two is particularly poignant:

And as for the aperils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the benvy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was cordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it. Judge ye for yourselves. God dknoweth all these things, whether it be good or bad. But nevertheless, deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become a second nature to me; and I feel, like Paul, to glory in etribulation; for to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all, and will deliver me from henceforth; for behold, and lo, I shall triumph over all my enemies, for the Lord God hath spoken it.

D&C 127:2

Life can sometimes feel like swimming in deep water – a constant struggle, without firm support. Not being a good swimmer myself, this sounds particularly fretful. There’s a contextual issue here. 1830’s and the 1840’s was a particularly fraught time in American history, with a bloody Civil War looming just around the corner. Americans had a firm history of treating populations not found worthy savagely – black Americans, the Native populations and in this case members of the church. We need to learn to keep struggling, “to glory in tribulation”. Hopefully, we can find tribulation within the difficulty of building and creating rather than enduring persecution. Joseph Smith and the early saints did both, often at the same time, as noted in verse 4.

And again, verily thus saith the Lord: Let the work of my atemple, and all the works which I have appointed unto you, be continued on and not cease; and let your bdiligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward, saith the Lord of Hosts. And if they cpersecute you, so persecuted they the prophets and righteous men that were before you. For all this there is a reward in heaven.

D&C 127:4

Additionally, the doctrine of baptisms for the dead had recently been revealed, unfolding over time through multiple revelations. After years of suffering, having to see so many depart their earth at very young ages, mothers losing children, children losing mothers, many of the Nauvoo saints suffering from malaria in Nauvoo, many others dying in Missouri. Edward Partridge has died, Joseph Smith’s father had also passed away. Being able to participate through covenant and ordinances to connect the living to the dead must have been an amazingly comforting revelation.

This revelation pointed out that these ordinances had to be recorded.

That in all your recordings it may be arecorded in heaven; whatsoever you bbind on earth, may be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth, may be loosed in heaven;

And again, let all the arecords be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts.

D&C 127:7,9

Section 128 – Sept 6 1842

This section is a continuation of the previous revelation. It begins with some hints that Joseph Smith, while in hiding, has been consumed with thoughts on baptisms for the dead.

I now resume the subject of the abaptism for the dead, as that subject seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings the strongest, since I have been pursued by my enemies.

D&C 128:1

In section 127, Joseph Smith taught the importance of recording the ordinances, in this revelation he works through the details, to appoint a recorder in every ward, taking careful minutes, citing three witnesses present, then transferring these records regularly to a general recorder, to keep a record of these ordinances in a centralized location. Calling providing this level of rigor and care that the record shall be “just as holy” (verse 4).

All of this care is comes from Joseph Smith’s study of the Bible, Revelations 20:12 cited in verse 6.

Revelation 20:12And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were awritten in the books, according to their works.

D&C 128:6

The act of recording, invokes the priesthood power.

Now, the nature of this ordinance consists in the apower of the priesthood, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, wherein it is granted that whatsoever you bbind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Or, in other words, taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works, whether they themselves have attended to the cordinances in their own propria persona, or by the means of their own agents, according to the ordinance which God has prepared for their salvation from before the foundation of the world, according to the records which they have kept concerning their dead.

D&C 128:8

In other words, to bind something done on earth in heaven, it must be done “in authority, in the name of the Lord”, “truly and faithfully”, keeping “a proper and faithful record of the same”. (verse 9).

This sealing power is referenced in Matthew 16:18, 19 in D&C 128:10.

Joseph Smith declares this the summom bonum, the highest good, the means to provide the salvation of the “children of men, both as well for the dead as for the living” (D&C 128:11).

According to v. 12 and 13, the ordinance was established relationally the baptismal font symbolized the grave, built underneath, and then the person living, immersed as if dying, into the water, to be reborn to a new life, binding the living person with the dead.

Fundamentally, baptisms of the dead is the ordinance to provide a “welding link” (verse 18) between fathers and children because we cannot find salvation without them, nor they without us. A welding together of dispensations.

Beginning in verse 19, Joseph Smith spills out in exclamation marks.

Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of agladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of btruth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great cjoy. How beautiful upon the mountains are the dfeet of those that bring glad tidings of good things, and that say unto Zion: Behold, thy God reigneth! As the edews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them!

D&C 128:19

Imagine now, Joseph Smith, in hiding, fresh from spending months of time in jail, watching his people suffer, seeing many of them die, worried about the salvation of all people, agonizing over doctrine, trying to understand God’s purpose. Fresh off of Missouri, Joseph Smith gets the doctrine of baptism for the dead revealed piecemeal, slowly and evolving, precept upon precept. Here, he looks back on his life and sees the connecting tissues, the priesthood restoration, the new scriptures, the angelic visits, the revelations, all of it culminating in this moment.

22 Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. aCourage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into bsinging. Let the cdead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the dKing Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to eredeem them out of their fprison; for the prisoners shall go free.

D&C 128:22

Joseph Smith cherished this revelation so much, he imagined the mountains shouting for joy, the valleys crying aloud, the seas and dry lands, the rivers and brooks flowing with gladness. The earth and all of its creations overwhelmed with joy as ordinances bind the living with the dead.

Conclusion

This weeks revelations were like a symphony. Fresh off the Missouri war, struggling to establish themselves in Nauvoo. I can imagine a bit of rest as they again begin to gather, finding settlements, building cities, dedicating them to God. Brigham Young is told to care for his family. Joseph Smith is forced into hiding, recognizing the deep waters he swims in and the need to endure through tribulation. All of this culminates in the revelation on temple ordinances for the dead that brings through Joseph Smith an obvious outpouring of joy and happiness. A final crescendo.