Monday, February 17, 2014

Public Relations is Not a Priesthood Responsibility

If you are going to have a crisis of faith, I recommend that you don’t do it while serving as your ward’s elders quorum president.  A much better choice would be to initiate your crisis of faith while serving as a nursery leader.  You can go pretty far afield and still maintain a solid testimony of the importance of providing overwrought parents with two hours of relief from their screaming children.  If this warning serves to help just one person, then perhaps my own experience will not have been in vain. 

You’ll see a lot of strange things from now on, George

Cracking your mind open to the idea that the church has gone off course can be like a bad trip from an LDS overdose.  People that you know well and hold in high esteem may start saying outlandish things from time to time.  Things like, “No one will do anything if you don’t follow up with them”, or “we know that people who don’t attend church meetings can never go to the Celestial Kingdom”, or “charity doesn’t mean we can let people think we approve of their bad choices – we need to keep bugging them about it”, or finally, “that scripture is very interesting, but what does the handbook say?”.  It’s even more disconcerting that, apart from these occasional unholy utterances, most of what these same people say and do continues to be perfectly in keeping with your own understanding of Christ’s teachings. 

It’s like the whole world has been infected with a correlation-zombie virus that only manifests sporadically, but with increased frequency and intensity if you happen to be sitting in a leadership meeting or in gospel doctrine class.  And realizing that you didn’t feel this way just a short time ago leaves you with the uncomfortable worry that you might actually be the one infected with the zombie virus.

Marketing Jesus

A major disadvantage of being a questioning elders quorum president is Stake Priesthood Meeting (yes, every man is supposed to go, but it’s harder to avoid as an EQP).  Here is where you may find the most discomfiting incongruities between what you want to believe the church to be and what you actually see preached from the pulpit. 

I was sitting in just such a meeting earlier this month when my image of the church was dealt a particularly heavy blow.  A bishop from our stake began with a PowerPoint presentation full of scary statistics about the likelihood of people joining the church based on their perceptions of church members.  Notably, knowing a church member personally didn’t improve conversion probability as much as one might hope for. 

The bishop’s conclusion (handed down to him from Salt Lake) was: not only do we need to get to know more people outside of the church (I agree here), but we need to LET THEM KNOW that we believe in Jesus, and that we are Christlike, darn it!  I’m thinking, hmmm, I always thought that message was best conveyed by quiet actions, but maybe that’s just me.

Next, the solution!  A sequence of PowerPoint charts advocating more yellow helping hands vests, more publicity for service projects, and most importantly, more Facebook likes of church-produced videos!  We are informed of a major forthcoming push by top church leadership and (gasp) an upcoming handbook change all formalizing our responsibility to create new ward and stake Facebook pages that we will then “friend”, ultimately flooding the social media earth with our perfectly correlated likes (assuming of course, that all of our non-member friends don’t block our feeds once they become conference quote spam machines).

We were then shown some short church-produced videos on the topics of Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.  They were full of feel-good music and images of fathers changing tires and mothers doing crafts with their kids.  I actually wasn’t put off so much by the Hallmarkesque presentation as I was by the stark contrast between the two movies.  Why can’t the dad do crafts and the mom help fix the car tire?  There were other movies about the importance of religion and freedom of expression in society.  I was okay with these movies, except that I had a sneaking suspicion that they were a reaction to the gay marriage thing in Utah, which of course is a much bigger harbinger of doom for our society than something like income inequality, for instance.  Oh, and I thought it was a bit much when the Harvard professor said that the decline of formalized religion would necessarily lead to a police state in America.  Much was made of the fact that these videos do not mention the name of the church.  Oh, except that when we like them right after liking President Monson, it won’t be too hard for people to put two and two together, wink. 

The PRiesthood

Most alarmingly, this new PR push was not considered simply a new policy, but much much more.  Our Stake President actually said these words … “public relations is now a priesthood responsibility.”  Wow, really?  Can you imagine Jesus saying those words?  I mean, he was so obsessed with his image, right?  No!  He said not to let even our left hand know what our right hand was doing, let alone our neighbors and all of our Facebook contacts.  It is no longer enough for the corporate divisions of the church to stay confined within the church office building.  Now, it is every member’s sacred responsibility to further the  work of the public relations department.  Let’s hope that the next department for us to support isn’t purchasing (think City Creek).

The stake president then went on to say that no Eagle Scout project should be carried out without everyone present leaving with the knowledge that they were working with members of the church.  So, I suppose that if it doesn’t come up naturally, there will be this awkward moment where the budding eagle scout clears his throat and announces, “Oh yeah, just so everyone knows, I am a Mormon, and we are doing something Christlike right now.  Okay, you can go back to work now.”  So much for those rewards in heaven.

Reforming a Machiavellian Mormonism

I know I’ve sounded very negative.  That’s because this whole thing really ticks me off.  But, I don’t want to give the impression that I think the church (or it’s leaders) are bad people.  I think my stake president is a really nice man, and he does a lot of good.  I’m just frustrated by the way the church is going more and more toward this corporate mentality.  It seems that the end goal of growing the church is used to justify any means, no matter how contrary to the teachings of Christ. 

My goal is not to tear down the church, but to help reform it.  By posting here and joining a growing conversation, I hope that together we can advocate for change and help the church to become what it used to be and what it can be once again – no more a corporation investing massive amounts of money in new shopping malls, but simply a community of people united in their belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of that gospel through the prophet Joseph Smith. 

For now, I am posting anonymously under the name of Martin Harris Luther.  It rubs me wrong to hide this way in anonymity.  At some point, I plan to go public with my identity, but even then I don’t want to advertise my views unsolicited.  Also, as I am still in my calling as an elders quorum president, I don’t want my statements to be taken as official by those in my quorum or in the church at large.  It’s just my opinions folks.  In face-to-face interactions with other church members, I think it is usually more effective to carefully test the waters and then let them take the lead on broaching this territory.  For me, being a reformer will primarily mean sharing ideas slowly and quietly.  But I think there will be other times where more boldness is appropriate, such as here on this blog.