As a missionary, I was constantly admonished to ensure that our potential converts were spiritually, and not just socially converted. The idea was that people were getting baptized because they were buddies with the missionaries, or because their girlfriend wanted them to, or (in some cynical comments) because they liked the church’s welfare program. The assumption was that social conversion was neither very difficult nor very important, and the worry was that people did not have deep enough spiritual roots when they joined the church.
A decade later, and especially as a member of a ward where a lot of missionary work is done (and lots more could be done), I find myself rethinking the mantra that was pounded in my head while I was pounding the pavement. Of course, I still believe that a deep spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the restored gospel is the single most important factor in whether or not someone should join the church. But nowadays I’m more inclined to think that spiritual conversion comes quicker and (dare I say) easier than does social conversion.
This is purely anecdotal, but in my personal interactions with them I have found that among the roughly two dozen people who have been baptized in my ward over the past 2-3 years, virtually all of them have had significant spiritual experiences. Most of them bear testimony that they know or feel that the church is true, that Joseph Smith and Gordon Hinckley are prophets, that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, etc. They may not fully comprehend what all that means or be able to articulate any of it in a nuanced way, but they have felt the Spirit’s witness of truth, and they have accepted it as authentic and personal. They generally feel the Spirit when the read the Book of Mormon, meet with the missionaries, and come to church. And then they go inactive–some within weeks of their baptism, others within months. But in at least 75% of the cases, we don’t see them at church anymore.
I don’t think it’s the missionaries’ fault. They’re not baptizing people they met yesterday. I don’t think it’s the ward mission’s fault, as we’ve had good ward mission leaders and good ward missionaries. I don’t think it’s the ward’s fault, as we have an excellent bishop who genuinely loves and cares about the new converts, and we have scores of members who have made personal sacrifices in giving people rides, going on exchanges with the missionaries, inviting investigators and new converts into their homes, etc. None of us are perfect, but I believe we’re all trying hard, and none of us want the new members to get baptized and then never come back.
Retention is a huge issue around the church, and one that the General Authorities, and Pres. Hinckley in particular, have been hounding us about (in a good way) for several years. And it is probably slightly different in every ward and stake. But in my limited experience I have found that the most serious obstacles in retaining new converts are not spiritual, but rather social and cultural. In particular, I find race and class to be the most serious stumblingblocks to making and keeping large numbers of converts.
The LDS church is an American, white, middle-class church. Of course I believe that its message and aspirations are universal, but on the ground its origins, demographics, values, and organizational structure are solidly rooted in the white American middle class, particularly as it was formulated from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, with emphases (and we could certainly list others) on thrift, decorum, kindness, hard work, patriotism and/or civic pride, respect for authority, and most of all the Victorian family model. (I should say that I am not making a criticism here, simply an observation — I certainly prefer all these things to their opposites.)
Most of our converts, at least in my ward, are either non-white or poor (or both). In my seven years in the ward, we have never baptized a middle- or upper-class family, white or non-white (there was one in the next ward over who went inactive and then moved into our ward). As I said, most of these people are earnest seekers of truth and/or the good life, who have felt the goodness in the gospel and the witness of the Spirit. They are spiritually converted, or at least have had the seeds planted and beginning to grow and bear fruit. But when they come to church, they don’t find anyone who is really like them, and they often feel the active (white middle-class English-speaking) members of the ward don’t fully understand them, and vice versa.
There are deep cultural divides between whites, Hispanics, and blacks, and (I believe) even deeper disconnects between members of the lower classes and members of the middle and upper-middle classes. Most of the new converts don’t have cars, and so require rides to church. Many of them have unstable and unpredictable lives, and aren’t used to getting up for 9:00 church, and so they often aren’t there or not ready when people come to pick them up, creating frustration and ultimately some resentment. When they do come to church, they often feel out of place because their clothing is not as nice as most members’. There is a serious social chasm between them and most active members — what does a black single mother in public housing have in common with a PhD student in philosophy, or a medical resident, or a middle-aged businessman? Many of the new converts live in neighborhoods where the sisters in the ward understandably do not want to go or take their children, especially alone or in the evenings. When African American converts come, they see a sea of white faces–we have a fairly diverse ward by Mormon standards (we actually have African American members!), but when you come from an all-black neighborhood and an all-black church it can be intimidating. One of our biggest problems is that when people join the church and start to better their lives, they go out and get jobs (as we encourage them), but they are often limited to low-wage entry-level positions in retail, food, janitorial, or housekeeping, which requires them to work on Sunday.
These people have felt the Spirit. They have made covenants. They want to be part of the kingdom of God. They are our brothers and sisters, both as children of God and as disciples of Christ. We want them to be among us, and to stay among us. How do we make it happen?