A friend of mine posted this on Facebook a few days ago:
Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.
Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.
It’s a great bumper-sticker quote — short, emotionally charged, and completely one-sided. Usually I see these, chuckle, and move on, but this is one that my mind keeps coming back to, to chew on some more.
What does the church do well?
How does the church justify its own existence?
(As an aside, if your answer to this question is, “The church doesn’t need to justify itself through helping people be happy here on earth. The blessings of obedience to the church are waiting for us in heaven,” then please feel free to ignore this post entirely. All I can say is that reserve the right to judge my church by its fruits.)
No organization is great at everything. That’s why we have governments, schools, markets, churches, and the hundreds of other institutions that form our society. Each provides a distinct service better than any of the others. Governments are not schools, and schools are not churches. So what are churches? And more specifically, what is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; what distinctive service does it provide to society?
Here are my observations on things the church does well:
- Social and emotional support network
- The church creates unity. It meets needs for the people who have the least support from their own families and communities — “the miserable, lonely, and depressed,” to quote Jesus (or was that Ursula?) This is one place where I feel the church does an outstanding job. People just aren’t very good at reaching out to their neighbors on their own. In church we’re still not great at it, but we’re significantly less bad at it than we would be otherwise. It’s awkward to knock at the house next door and ask if they have food in their cupboards; it’s somewhat less awkward to do the same for the families you visit or home teach. It’s awkward to ask the kids skating in front of your house to come play; it’s less awkward to invite the kids who sits next to you in deacons quorum to come play.
- Behavior modifications
- The studies I see published occasionally show that Mormon youth do act significantly differently from their peers. On moral and social issues, from sex and drug/alcohol/tobacco use to scholastic performance and civic engagement, church members act differently (generally speaking) from non-members.
- Growth opportunities
- The church provides opportunities for motivated members to “step up”. Leadership and teaching callings. Youth service and social activities. Full-time missions. High standards. The church sets challenges and then calls on us to meet them.
- Charitable outreach
- The church organizes large service efforts locally and globally. It has the resources and organizational capacity to do this well. I’m grateful for the church’s work in this area.
- Record keeping
- Maybe this is kind of a quirky one to add to the list, but it really is a distinctive strength of the church. I’m not aware of any other organizations that encourage lay record keeping like the church does, through it’s focus on family history research and journaling.
And here are my observations on things the church doesn’t do so well:
- Encouraging humble acceptance of others
- I think this is a side-effect of the first two bullet points in my previous list: by creating a clear in-network, the church implicitly creates an out-network as well; by setting high expectations, it also creates an atmosphere of judgment. This “insider vs. outsider” mentality combined with the oft-stated sentiment that “we have the truth” doesn’t lead to much consideration or sympathy for those who appear “unwilling” to meet and accept the conventional standards.
- Identifying eternal truths
- The history of church doctrine is one of on-going development, redefinition, discussion, and debate. It’s unfortunate that the claim of revealed, unchanging truth is such a core part of our rhetoric, when it is clearly not a part of our lived experience.
- Prophesying future events
- We have a prophet and apostles, but their job is not prognostication. Attempts by church leaders at predicting the future have generally not gone well.
- Relevance in the arts
- Let me explain this one by way of analogy. Growing up, my favorite band was Depeche Mode. I still love them. I rarely buy music anymore (thanks Pandora and Grooveshark!), but when they released their most recent album in 2009, I bought it. Another group — Fever Ray — released their first album the same year. I bought that one too, and it’s also awesome. As I read music reviews over the next few months, I saw the Fever Ray album referenced often, but the Depeche Mode one rarely was. While both bands are “good”, only one is “relevant”. That was a sad realization for me. To put that in a church context, I like Liz Lemon Swindle’s artwork (yes, I see you rolling your eyes at me), but I can’t claim that she’s relevant to the world of art outside the church.
In the end, though, I believe that the greatest gift the church offers is a view into the divine potential of humanity. The church teaches that the celestial kingdom will be here on this earth. What a motivating doctrine! I’m not aware of any other church that teaches that heaven is something that we will build around ourselves. As an inhabitant of that heaven, I would still be able to head over to my parent’s house in Cameron Park — the same place I grew up! — and share hot chocolate (or whatever it is that divine beings drink) with them. For me, the church justifies itself by offering a vision of heaven (like so many other churches do), but then expanding on that by challenging us to create that heaven here, through our own thought, words, sweat, and love.