How Technology is Changing the Church

At checkout on a recent visit to my favorite SLC bookstore, I was rewarded with a free book: After 150 Years: The Latter-day Saints in Sesquicentennial Perspective (Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1983). Loyalty has its perks. A bit dated at 32 years, but this chapter caught my eye: “Testimony and Technology,” by LDS historian James B. Allen. What he didn’t see coming: The Internet.

That’s an observation, not a criticism — no one expected the Internet. But Allen’s discussion of how technology affected religion in the past is instructive: There was the advent of writing (several millennia ago) then there was the advent of printing (five hundred years ago). In terms of technology, nothing else compares with the impact of these two inventions. The Bible over there on your shelf shows the impact writing had on religion. The three or six or nine dozen books on your shelf about Mormonism and religion show the impact of printing, which apart from filling your bookshelf also put vernacular Bibles in the hands of the laity for the first time. But “church” — trooping off to services on Sunday to sing hymns, say prayers, hear a sermon, and take the Eucharist — hasn’t changed much since the Reformation. In the 20th century, radio and TV allowed shut-ins to get religion at home, and nondenominational megachurches changed the scale and tone of what happened on Sunday, but those were just variations on a stable theme. Church on Sunday has not changed much for 500 years.

So is the Internet like radio or TV, an incremental change that won’t directly affect churches, or is it like printing, a revolution in the making? Let’s go with revolution. Writing made religious information suddenly more available across space and time, allowing preservation and distribution of written sacred texts. Printing made those texts and many other religious books and texts suddenly available to a much wider audience. And now the Internet has multiplied exponentially the scale of religious information available to almost anyone on the planet, along with search tools to find a lot of narrowly-tailored information on almost any religious topic of interest. Internet + Google = Revolution. You want to know about Joseph’s plural wives or the evolution of the Word of Wisdom or what General Authorities get paid as a stipend (not, of course, a salary)? Just Google it. The impact of all this on the Church? Initially, significant and negative, with the Church now hastening to update the standard LDS narrative before everyone has a faith crisis.

But this is old news. We’ve been talking about the impact of Internet information on the Church almost since there were blogs (Blogger launched in 1999; Times and Seasons debuted in 2003). Here is a second, less-remarked effect of the wired, networked, smartphone world we now live in. The pace at which we consume information has increased dramatically and the attention span of us info consumers has shrunk. In different terms, our willingness to tolerate the slow. delivery. of. anything. has decreased dramatically. Make it the slow delivery of boring content and we click to another source in about three seconds. Or change the channel. Or head out the door.

It’s the heading out the door part that’s a problem for the Church. The Sunday meetings that make up our current three-hour block are not much different from the same meetings a hundred years ago: slow delivery of largely recycled information you have likely heard several times before. But we the people have changed. In the short term, an active young Latter-day Saint can fill in the gaps between relevant content at church with an iPad or a smartphone the way their parents might have used a book or a nap. But in the long run what happens in church has to take account of the fact that this is 2015, not 1955, and the pews are filled with 2015-people, not 1955-people. These 2015-people won’t sit around reading their smartphones on Sunday forever. Give them better content and better delivery or kiss them good-bye.

There is hope. The Church sets up Spanish-language branches and stakes (and other language units as well) to meet the needs of non-English speakers all across the US. The Church sets up young adult branches to meet the needs of young single adults in the Church. So the principle of tailoring local units to meet the needs of the members is an idea that senior LDS leaders have already embraced. I think that at some point an overhaul of the entire LDS approach to Sunday meetings will be needed to meet the needs of the membership as a whole, just as the Church has wisely acted to meet the needs of particular demographic groups in the past. Please, do it quick before we end up like the Catholic congregations I observed as a missionary in France a generation ago, with no one under 50 in attendance.

And it is technology that is driving this development. Here’s my point in one sentence about how technology is changing the Church: The Internet is changing the scale of information we can now almost instantly access, but it is also changing us; the Church is starting to respond to the information challenge, but also needs to recognize and then respond to the looming challenge of keeping what happens in church on Sunday compatible with the changing sensibilities and capabilities of the membership.

It’s 2015. Life moves pretty fast.

Note: If you want to see what you said on this topic eight years ago, check out this 2007 T&S post.

43 comments for “How Technology is Changing the Church

  1. Terry H
    October 22, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    This looks like it is in line with some of your other recent posts (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but in this instance, I partially agree but with a HUGE caveat. I don’t think the current meeting presentation styles are necessarily the way we keep the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is an important covenant that men have with God. Our method and form is worship has to keep that in its primary focus. I don’t care if we in 2015 like our ipads and iphones, but we still have to keep the Sabbath Day holy. How do you suggest the Church (in catering to the needs of the “Life moves pretty fast crowd”) do that.

  2. murray anon
    October 22, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    Terry H: I think he’s suggesting that perhaps because of how technology has changed our attention spans, the Church needs to make church more interesting, otherwise it will keep losing people who are no longer interested in coming.

    Let me throw one idea out. We have this obsession in the Church with the idea that the best way to run Sunday services is to pluck members out of the congregation and give them assignments to teach or speak without any input from them as to whether they actually want to do those things or any regard for whether they are good at those things or any regard for whether they have any particular interest or training in Mormon doctrine.

    What if we back off that? What if our Sunday sermons and classes were routinely led by people that were, you know, good at speaking about Mormonism? It’s not like we have a shortage of them. I’m thinking of institute teachers and seminary teachers and people who comments on the blogs and write Mormon books. What if we trained and paid more of those people and then assigned them to lead our Sunday services and youth programs? Would making Sundays more interesting and more spiritually nourishing really be such a bad thing?

    To put it in personal terms. I would LOVE to spend my Sundays hearing from institute teacher types or Terryl Givens types or even the types of people who write on these blogs. But I’m just about done showing up week after week to listen to talks or lessons that were prepared the night before by people who never want to talk in public, followed by Sunday School lessons taught by people who aren’t interested/capable of doing more than having .

    Yes, I know all the common retorts. “The Lord qualifies those whom He calls” …except when He doesn’t, which is obviously true for all of us who have sat through years and years of uninspired Sunday talks or lessons. And, also, there are the mountain of talks (one from President Eyring comes to mind) about how it’s our duty to educate ourselves during those boring lessons. That’s great in theory. But if it’s not working, and if that dysfunction is causing people to leave, should we be open to changing it?

    IOW, if the point of Church is to nourish the members with the good word of God…would it really be such a bad thing to assign that task to people who actually know how to nourish and are really interested in doing so?

  3. murray anon
    October 22, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Or to put it more succinctly–when I was younger, I used to revel in the fact that, unlike other churches, we don’t have a paid clergy. Now that I’m older, though, I find that I’m jealous of churches that do.

  4. Geoff - Aus
    October 22, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    In a slightly different direction, it would be good to have communication from the top. 40 years ago there were questions and answers in the Ensign. Real questions not easy ones.

    I would like to know what various the 15 expect to happen with the attitude to gay marriage, ordination of women, temple language, and meetings. I would be happy to get different answers from different men.

    With the internet I see no reason why not.

    It would help those of us far away from SLC, and who never meet an Apostle, to feel like we know what is happening, first hand.

  5. FarSide
    October 22, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    “But in the long run what happens in church has to take account of the fact that this is 2015, not 1955, and the pews are filled with 2015-people, not 1955-people.”

    But the people who occupy the soft, plush chairs on the dais at General Conference are 1955 people.

    Aye, there’s the rub.

  6. ABM
    October 22, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    As a millennial myself, I think it would be a shame if we changed the pace of our meetings just to adapt to shorter attention spans. If we are becoming more impatient, less willing to listen, more distracted, isn’t that in many ways another weakness we need to overcome? Life does move pretty fast in 2015, but is that really a good thing and something the church should embrace?

    I am not saying we should never change the format of our meetings, but I actually appreciate the slowing down that church sometimes offers.

  7. mem
    October 22, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    A great idea would be to have our Sunday meetings broadcast to our ward members who cannot get to church due to a chronic illness or being a caregiver for their spouse. It would make them feel connected to their ward even though they can’t physically be there.

  8. jonovitch
    October 23, 2015 at 12:57 am

    murray anon said: “Or to put it more succinctly–when I was younger, I used to revel in the fact that, unlike other churches, we don’t have a paid clergy. Now that I’m older, though, I find that I’m jealous of churches that do.”

    I thought that once or twice, too. Then I visited a couple of other churches’ services that had paid clergy and they weren’t much better.

    In fact, on one Sunday after I went to a Lutheran service (which mostly bored me to tears), I attended my regular Mormon sacrament meeting and listened with glee to a wonderful talk given by a smart woman in our ward. I even texted a friend how awesome our sacrament meeting was compared to that lame Lutheran service earlier that morning.

    Not a knock on Lutheranism, just to illustrate the point that a paid clergy doesn’t necessarily equal better sermons. You don’t always get what you pay for. I’ll take unpaid sacrament meeting talks (from people who have been unofficially “trained” all their lives) over paid clergy sermons any day.

    To be completely fair, I heard a really bad, rambling talk on Sunday (from a youth), but I also heard a great talk from an adult who obviously took the assignment relatively seriously. The latter case seems to be the norm (rather than the extreme, and inaccurate, claims of only ever awful, boring, uninspired speakers and teachers).

  9. jennifer Rueben
    October 23, 2015 at 1:10 am

    every new family moving into the ward, every old member moving out of the ward, every mother of currently serving missionaries, every father of the same, every youth who attended youth conference, every leader who walked on trek will speak in sacrament meeting. that makes it easy for whoever is assigning speakers for the week but it does not provide quality worship services. There use to be regular training within the structure of the youth and adults classes relating to public speaking and lesson preparation but that has all gone away.

  10. lastlemming
    October 23, 2015 at 8:38 am

    What if our Sunday sermons and classes were routinely led by people that were, you know, good at speaking about Mormonism? It’s not like we have a shortage of them.

    We may not have a shortage of Randy Botts, but I suspect you have Kevin Barneys, Julie Smiths, and Ardis Parschalls in mind and we most definitely have a shortage of them.

  11. Terry H
    October 23, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Don’t forget to include Ben S.. Actually, thanks to the web we get access to all of them. I enjoy separating the wheat from the chaff (said the chaff). :)

  12. October 23, 2015 at 11:02 am

    The best lessons are ones not done by a great teacher but ones that are laid back discussions by everyone in the class. That’s why I always love Priesthood rather than Sunday School. The former are much more practical than the latter.

    The problem of course is that probably most people who bother to write at a blog wouldn’t be interested in what a professional clergy spoke either. The more you actually do what you’re supposed to in reading your lessons and personal study the less you’ll find church interesting where the majority is dealing with people who don’t do that.

    I also think we err when we look at church as something for us in terms of it being content we partake of passively like TV or (to be frank) too many college lectures. Instead it’s a place we get to serve others. Until we invert our view church will always be disappointing.

  13. Mark N.
    October 23, 2015 at 11:17 am

    “But the people who occupy the soft, plush chairs on the dais at General Conference are 1955 people.”

    I’m not sure I’m utterly convinced that that they’re not 1855 people.

  14. Mark N.
    October 23, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Other comments here have reminded me about the Temple knock on those who are “trained for the ministry.” Or maybe that’s gone away (just shows you how long ago it was that I last went and paid a visit to said edifice).

  15. Cameron N.
    October 23, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Personally, the side effects of the internet age are exactly what has made me appreciate church meetings and the Sabbath day even more than before. After general conference and a sinus infection two weeks ago, I went into my Sunday meetings (9:30-3:30) hopeful for spiritual nourishment. My prayers were answered. Even my meetings prior to normal ones were spiritual feasts.

    I used to be bothered by the slow general conference choir hymns. Even the arrangements of upbeat ones were slower and more subdued. But over time I realized that slowing down is usually necessary to feel the spirit more potently, and now I appreciate the slowness. Sometimes you just gotta be still.

    I know not all wards are like mine, but I do know complaining doesn’t help.

  16. Mike
    October 23, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    I would love to attend a church with drums and comedians and a refreshment break every 15 minutes. Wouldn’t that be great? I’ll bet those who struggled to come to Utah in the 19th century would have loved to have had air conditioned cars to travel in. I guess we all have our trials.

  17. Chadwick
    October 24, 2015 at 11:12 am

    I echo Jennifer Reuben’s comment. My ward is rather transient. The effect on sacrament meeting is that we constantly hear strangers speak to us in sacrament meeting that seem to move out months later. I personally get so much more out of my meetings when I know and can relate to the speaker. Is there a requirement in the handbook that new move ins dominate sacrament meeting? Can no one think outside the box?

    I love the second and third hour meetings because all it takes is one thoughtful comment to turn things around. No such luck in passive sacrament meeting. This of course is based on the premise that the teacher supports comments in class ?

  18. Josh Smith
    October 24, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this Dave.

    My personal experience is that the people at church are wonderful. Sometimes I’ll go to sacrament meeting and then sit and talk to others for the remaining two hours. Without a doubt, Mormonism has genuine Christian people whose lives are better because of their faith.

    I also see sincere people participating in meaningful ways in their faith, and that even happens during the three-hour block.

    From my own perspective, the Internet has taken away the LDS faith’s monopoly on its narrative. As stated in the OP, if someone is genuinely interested in the church’s truth claims–historical claims, doctrinal claims–then that person does not need to go to the three-hour block. In fact, it’s my experience that the people who care most about these topics generally don’t trust the church’s sources. I know I don’t trust the church to tell its own story. That’s a bit harsh. Let me rephrase that. I trust the church to tell a narrative that those in authority perceive as a faith-promoting narrative. I don’t trust the church to tell a consistent or intellectually honest narrative.

    Let me see if I can distil this into an example …

    Here’s what Sunday school looks like: Step one, read scripture passage out of context. Step two, quote some LDS authority figure out of context. Step three, ask class a leading question that would make even Perry Mason blush. Rinse. Repeat.

    If the class has access to the Internet, they can hijack the process at step one and research the passage in context, or a historical figure, or read generally about the topic, or read about another topic, or read a book on botany, or play Angry Birds.

    This has been too long of a comment. In summary, the LDS faith does not control its own narrative, even when its members are sitting its own pews.

  19. Josh Smith
    October 24, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    One more quick comment …

    I’ve also observed that the Internet allows people to form communities.

    (following conversation)

  20. Witteafval
    October 24, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    To Mark N. @13: Definitely 1955. If they were 1855 people they’d be preaching the merits of plural marriage.

  21. Mistral
    October 24, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Personally, I would like to shorten church in order to keep things a little more interesting and eliminate a lot of the stalling for time that seems to go on (I think 10 minutes from each hour to start and encourage alternate activities like fellowshipping and meaningful service in the newly freed up half hour).

    I also think it would be nice if we had more options for Sunday School. Right now the Gospel Doctrine manuals are such that I could (and have) look them over during Sacrament meeting (as a last minute substitute) and give a lesson that got lots of compliments for being interesting and engaging. I did this by encouraging discussion and trying to come up with a few points that haven’t been endlessly rehashed.

    What I would like is for wards to have the option of including “advanced” Gospel Doctrine classes. How I picture it is that someone who has been a member for 5 years and an adult for at least 4 of them can sign up to attend an alternate Sunday School class. The theory is that 5 years is enough for 1 year of Gospel Essentials plus one go round of the 4 year standard works rotation – in practice people may not actually attend Gospel Doctrine for all of that due to other callings, missions or other reasons but it is still a period of time to gain some maturity in the Gospel. Classes for advanced Gospel Doctrine could be modified from the Church approved texts used at the Church Schools and at Institute but focus on individual aspects of the Gospel. For instance during a Old Testament year, there might be a class focusing on Isaiah and Isaiahic prophecies and in a Book of Mormon year there could be a class focusing on themes of pride and repentance. I would also envision the advanced Gospel Doctrine classes including discussion on how to teach the principles learned in engaging and doctrinally appropriate ways. Hopefully this would help ward members become better teachers, missionaries and Sacrament Meeting speakers.

    Obviously that wouldn’t work for all wards (wards with a shortage of active adults might barely have a regular Gospel Doctrine class) but I do think that it would help out a lot of people in wards that it did work in.

  22. October 24, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Our meetings are run by our lay members, and are supposed to be run by the Spirit, so honestly, I don’t think much formal needs to change. How many other religions regularly give their members the opportunity to stand and preach a sermon in front of hundreds of other people? Everyone in a ward has a calling that allows her or him to develop or share some talent. For me, that’s what church is about. I teach Gospel Doctrine, but I’m positive I learn more each week than anyone in my class. The same is true whenever I speak in sacrament meeting.

    For me, the biggest shift of the internet age is that literature is now about actively creating, not just receiving. In the 1500s, millions of people read Martin Luther’s tracts, which helped create the Protestant Reformation. In the 2010s, people don’t just read things: they respond to them, not just with close friends or family, but to worldwide audiences. People don’t just read online articles and videos, they create them.

    And I feel like the church is way ahead of the curve on that.

    Josh Smith, you make the comment about how an average Sunday School lesson goes, but the only reason it goes like that is because of the teacher. If you were teaching, would you share scriptures out of context or ask leading questions or skip over the difficult stuff? A couple weeks ago, my lesson was on 1 Corinthians 11-16, and we spent the whole lesson talking about Paul’s sexism, how our views have changed since then, and the difference between culture and the gospel, including watching Eldon Tanner’s reading of Official Declaration 2 in General Conference in 1978.

    We ended with the open-ended question of how to know whether a teaching in the church is eternal or not, which there wasn’t a scripted right answer to, and the class came up with a lot of ideas I hadn’t thought of, as well as, honestly, some I didn’t personally agree with. But I didn’t insert my opinions or thoughts at all into that part of the lesson. The whole point was for the class to think about the question, not to be given the answer.

    The church is whatever we make of it, and through callings, we have all the tools we need to implement whatever changes we want. Instead of wishing for professional, paid clergy, why not take the challenge upon ourselves to deliver the same or better quality of sermons and lessons that they do? Most of us have degrees just like they do, and formal education isn’t a requirement for being a good teaching anyway. The greatest teacher of all time was an uneducated carpenter.

    There is still one big institutional problem, of course: the church is still overtly sexist in certain callings, which make it impossible for women to have any hope of changing specific things, like how church disciplinary councils are run. But with the recent focus on Ward Councils designing sacrament meetings and working together to meet needs and fulfill callings, the sexism is at least diminishing.

  23. Josh Smith
    October 24, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    “but the only reason it goes like that is because of the teacher …”

    … and the curriculum. So the pedagogical hell I described above is only applicable if you have a teacher who is doing what they’ve been told to do–follow the manual.

    You’re right that a teacher who is knowledgeable and willing to deviate from the manual makes class much more engaging. A group of people willing to step outside of orthodoxy a bit makes class more interesting. You know where these people can be found?

    Online! These people form communities on social media. These people write blogs. Many of these people are not LDS. Some used to be LDS. Some are transitioning out of being LDS. Some are making a go of remaining LDS. But these people are rarely sitting in Sunday school.

    Please don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love my neighbors and fellow ward members. I aspire to be 1/10th as good and diligent and useful and upright. I love to talk with people and hear about their life experiences. But I don’t need a three-hour block to engage with my friends and neighbors.

    (This reads much more argumentative than intended. I’m not sure how to fix it. Please imagine me with a peaceful countenance as you read this.)

  24. Ben S.
    October 24, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    “follow the manual.” This is not self-interpreting.
    I’ve had SP’s positively comment on my teaching, which I know others would not understand to constitute “following the manual.”

    And I’m aware of people who think “following the manual” means, for example, limiting your questions to those printed in the manual. It really depends on how the interchange of how a given teacher, SS President, Bishop, and SP understand the boundaries of that statement.

  25. Josh Smith
    October 24, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    That makes sense, Ben S.

  26. October 25, 2015 at 11:12 am

    No offense taken, Josh. My experience has been like Ben’s, where my teaching style has been encouraged by my priesthood leaders. I have been told more than once that the church’s goal is to switch away from rote lessons and to have more personal preparation and class participation. I feel I do stick to the intended curriculum: the particular assigned chapters of scripture. I honestly believe the rest of the manual is just meant to be useful teaching helps, to be adopted or discarded as the teacher chooses. Time and time again, the manuals of the church remind the teachers not to use everything in the lesson, but instead to prayerfully pick just those parts that they feel will help their classes.

    As for you not needing a three-hour block personally, I can’t speak for you. I know I benefit from it, but I don’t see a problem with the meetings other than Sacrament Meeting being presented more explicitly as optional helps, like Relief Society Enrichment nights, and not as things that somehow have any influence at all on your personal righteousness. Not that it should matter what other people think. Right now, you don’t need to attend Sunday School or Relief Society to hold a temple recommend, so if you can get past perceived social repercussions, the church already allows for a two-hour block for men, and a one-hour block for women.

  27. Brad L
    October 25, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    The church is whatever we make of it, and through callings, we have all the tools we need to implement whatever changes we want.

    No, it isn’t. Denver Snuffer and John Dehlin can attest to that. The correlated materials are sternly imposed on teachers. While there may be a few, like Ben S, who have the clout and wherewithall to teach lessons that are not from the manual, the church leaders appear very insistent that church-approved curricula be adhered by teachers.

  28. Josh Smith
    October 25, 2015 at 7:22 pm


    If you’re a teacher in my ward, please let me know and I’ll show up. Seriously. :-)

  29. Ben S.
    October 25, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    “Denver Snuffer and John Dehlin can attest to that.” These are hardly normative experiences or people.

  30. Brad L
    October 25, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    OK. However, the point is that while leaders allow members a certain degree of interpretive freedom in teaching lessons and explaining doctrine to other members while serving in church callings, it clearly has its limits. Mormonism isn’t whatever anyone wants it to be and the leaders don’t allow members to just change it into whatever they want. It seems fairly obvious, but there are those who think that they can have their Mormonism and eat it too.

  31. sjames
    October 26, 2015 at 2:48 am

    “So the principle of tailoring local units to meet the needs of the members is an idea that senior LDS leaders have already embraced”

    Not quite. We have the ‘small’ church and the ‘big’ church. For a long time, most of my life in fact, we have lived in branches and districts (the small church) in relative anonymity, scarcely noticed and seldom visited even by MPs. The big church arrived in the mail through magazines or later on DVDs. These days technology has brought the big church and much direction now comes direct from SLC or Area, often leapfrogging PH levels in between. So small leadership and inspired direction is now to be more tightly aligned with big leadership and inspired direction, notwithstanding the capacities, needs and nuances of the ‘local’, new technological structures require compliance or things don’t work anymore.

  32. October 26, 2015 at 5:09 am

    Thanks, Josh Smith! I’ll let you know next time I move. :P

    Brad L., I don’t have any particular clout in my ward, and I’m given extensive freedom in my teaching. And it’s not like the bishopric are somehow unaware of what I’m doing: they and/or their wives attend on a regular basis. So, even if what you say is true for 99% of teachers, it isn’t true for me, and anecdotal evidence is all I have to go off of. I would be interested to know if anyone here has ever been released from a teaching calling because of something she said in one of her lessons. It would still be anecdotal, but I have just personally never heard of it happening. As more anecdotal evidence of support in the church for honest discussions, I knew a member of my bishopric who said publicly that he didn’t know whether the church was true or not, but he knew it was good for his family, and that was enough for him. He wasn’t released early.

    I think culturally people have a fear of going near the limits of what is accepted, and so we tend to raise harsh barriers for our own behavior, and that of others.

    I think we can get scared or angry or vindictive because of stories of excommunications. I think much of that emotion can be justified. But I also think it can sometimes lead us to superimpose their experiences on our own, which may be unrelated.

    Just my own thoughts, though; sorry to disagree.

    Also, one last note: sustaining/common consent/voting on offices is a real thing. If we wanted to, we could refuse to sustain any level of leadership, and they would have to be released. Now, culturally that is very unlikely to happen in most places, but it’s a structural mechanism that is there for us. Historically, it was used to determine the second President of our church. The Nauvoo saints, and no one else, determined that Brigham Young would succeed Joseph Smith.

    One second last note (do people still use PPS?): I’m not saying that you can’t be released from a calling or excommunicated because of the views you have and express. Clearly, that happens. But my guess, since I don’t know from personal experience what causes censorship or discipline, is that if a person words things carefully, she can say a lot more than when she speaks straightforwardly and bluntly.

    Can I teach a lesson in my ward culture about ancient sexism and how church traditions change? Yes. If I flat-out say as a Gospel Doctrine teacher what I do online: that the church is sexist against women in regard to the priesthood, and it has no explicit scriptural rationale for doing so, would a lot of people get upset? In my ward’s culture, yes. But I can and do include every scripture about women prophesying that’s included in the lesson’s chapters, and no one has a problem with it.

    But more broadly than just trying to communicate my own beliefs, when you create a climate of open discussion and not skipping past the hard parts of the gospel, or having set right and wrong answers, anyone, not just the teacher, can bring up things they have questions or beliefs about, without having to feel like they have to worry about being immediately silenced. And while I have NO regard for statements from members of the Public Affairs team, and am only referencing this because it is self-serving to my argument, a member of the department said in a radio interview that Sunday School and Relief Society are the perfect place to have conversations about different beliefs in the gospel:

    Interviewer: “[W]hat if you believe—as some women do—that it’s time for the church to give women the priesthood? Where do you express that?”

    . . .

    Representative: “No one’s questioning your ability to discuss it in a congregation, in a Sunday school class, in Relief Society class.”

    Interviewer: “In a congregation? In a congregation a woman can stand up [and] say that?”

    Representative: “She can certainly have the conversation. In my Relief Society we can. . . . The conversation is welcome. We’ve had a similar conversation in my Relief Society in Kaysville, Utah. We had a similar conversation about gay marriage in our Relief Society. My daughter in Palo Alto just had a very interesting conversation this very last Sunday. We have those conversations. It is a safe place.”

    (the full transcript, which is where my quotations came from, is here )

  33. Brad L
    October 26, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    mirrorrorrim, I don’t know how or what exactly you teach, and I only know of one case in which a teacher was released from his calling because of what he was teaching. But you just can’t say that you can just up and try to change Mormonism in whatever direction you want without encountering pushback from the members, local leaders, and even higher leaders at some point. Clearly there are limits, you have to concede as much. I just can’t imagine that you’re actually deviating from the curriculum or members’ and leaders’ expectation as much as you might think that you are deviating. Maybe next time you teach you could try suggesting to your ward members that they accept temple sealings of same-sex couples or that they regard the Book of Abraham in the same way that we now regard the Kinderhook plates, and see what kind of reaction you get.

  34. October 26, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Brad L., I think we have maybe misunderstood one another.

    By myself, I don’t think I can change much beyond my specific calling. But I believe every member has that same ability. If I encounter pushback, it is because other members have just as much say in creating the church as I do. The church with all its successes, with all its failures, is the way it is because that’s how we want it to be—not me individually, but all of us collectively, as a shared community. If it’s sexist, it’s because we as a community are sexist, women and men alike. If it’s anti-historical, it’s because we as a community don’t value history. If it’s anti-gay, it’s because we as a people devalue the lives of people who are homosexual. If we don’t allow one another to be our authentic selves in church, that’s all on us.

    Do I think all of these things will change in my lifetime? I honestly don’t know. But within the next decade, I sincerely believe we can and will change some of them. And within a hundred years, yes, I feel almost all, if not all, of these things will change, even to the point that we will have homosexual sealings.

    And for me, there’s enough good in the church and its people that I’m willing to wait for that. And while I can’t say everything in my class without offending someone, I can say a lot, and hopefully everyone there feels he or she can, too. That’s what I want to create with my calling. If you’re ever a teacher, and feel it’s important to recommend the things you talk about to the people you teach, I hope you are able to, so you can make of it what you want.

    If I were in your class, I certainly wouldn’t be offended or try to get you released. :)

  35. Ben S.
    October 26, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    “accept temple sealings of same-sex couples or that they regard the Book of Abraham in the same way that we now regard the Kinderhook plates” Seriously, first taking Dehlin and Snuffer as normal examples, and now this? We’re pushing the envelope in class, not borrowing talking points from RfM. Broad limits is not the same as no limits at all.

  36. Brad L
    October 26, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    mirrorrorrim, the members don’t equally have as much say as anyone else in “creating the church.” The LDS church’s doctrines and teachings are largely the product of what Joseph Smith claimed were revelations from God and subsequent leaders building off of that. Deviations that are too far from this core can’t properly be considered Mormonism. Again, Mormonism isn’t what the membership at large makes of it, it is what the higher leaders at the top make of it. The rank-and-file’s perceptions of Mormonism is largely a reflection of the higher leaders’.

    Ben S., Dehlin is an example, and a perfect example of someone who wanted to appear Mormon in spite of hardly sharing any of Mormonism’s core beliefs (have his Mormonism and eat it too). And all I need to refute the idea that “the church is what you make of it” is one example.

  37. Ben S.
    October 26, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    Ok, we understand that phrase differently then. I do not understand “the church is what you make of it” to mean “anything goes.”

  38. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Mistral (21) We’ve been doing the current Sunday School style curriculum since I think Pres Benson challenged us to study the Book of Mormon. Unless I’m mistaken after than we switched to a different standard work each week. Honestly I’m not sure this has made members better versed on the scriptures nor read their scriptures more. (Maybe I’m wrong in that) I do think it’s often very hard for people to teach. I suspect the PH/RS manuals are even worse as it’s not clear if we’re teaching the topic or are supposed to be doing for the prophet what Sunday School did for the scriptures.

    I think it’d be a great time to shake up the curriculum a bit.

    mirrorrorrim (34) I think the members perhaps have in the collective a bit of spiritual wisdom. I’d just note that active members seem much more in the mainstream and quite far away from the Dehlins of the world. I can’t speak for any Bishop, but I’d hope that if there was a teacher saying things far out of the mainstream that they’d be counseled and released. That’d be true even if some of the things were true. For instance I don’t think talking about Second Endowments has any place in Sunday School. With all apologies to the person in the interview you mentioned I don’t think Sunday School is the place to have out the gender issues either.

    I think you also presuppose a kind of privileging of Church doctrine by social norms. Sometimes that’s correct as with blacks and the priesthood. Sometimes it’s not. I don’t think we can say how the church ought to change independent of clear revelation. And of course if it’s real revelation we won’t share it.

  39. October 27, 2015 at 10:36 am

    i’m with Brad L on this. you teach outside the manual and you’ll be sent to the headmaster’s office. haha, yeah, i know all about it.

    also, it is unfortunate that technology is changing the church. it’s more likely the church is forced to compete with it (internet). it’s not so for the catholic and protestant churches (the classic churches). what has changed their teaching is science and i think the lds church is woefully behind the times.

    i wrote a blog post on the plight of the religious teacher here which i think is fitting to this discussion too.

  40. October 29, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Brad L., it seems like we just have a very different understanding on the issue. I’m sad we cannot come to agreement. Mormonism as you define it is not something that appeals to me, but thankfully, living it as I define it has not gotten me into any trouble. As a rank-and-file member, I can say my perception is does not always align with all leaders, and as sisters and brothers, I don’t believe there are “higher” or “lower” members—we are all equal.

    Clark Goble, I think that’s an unfortunate position to take, wanting people to be released even if they speak the truth. I think the mindset you describe is the exact cultural problem that holds so many members back from making substantive changes in their communities, and creates the feeling of powerlessness that Brad L. has expressed so clearly.

    Athena, I’d be interested to hear about your experience being called in for what you taught. Like I said, I have honestly never heard of it happening, so I am curious to hear about someone who has had that happen.

  41. Brad L
    October 29, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    mirrorrorrim, you don’t get to define Mormonism, only the higher leaders do.

  42. Clark Goble
    October 29, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    Mirrorrorrim I don’t think truth defines appropriateness. If I went up in Sunday School and discussed my latest bowel movement it might be true but it’s inappropriate to discuss in that place. If I was talking about it with my doctor it may well be completely appropriate.

    There simply are many truths including religious truths inappropriate for certain forums including religious forums. This is explicit in the Book of Mormon. Alma 12:9 among many other places in scripture. (I think Matt 13 goes in that direction as well)

  43. October 30, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    mirrorrorrim, every time i taught i raised eyebrows. i’m not going to go into detail but when i was called as the relief society presidency i said i would accept the calling on two conditions: that i wouldn’t have to speak; and that i wouldn’t have to stand up in front of people and speak. who was i kidding, right? yes, i was serious.

    the last class i taught i challenged the sisters to think about something. the lesson got hijacked ten mins in because one sister wanted to talk about the dirty dishes in her sink and how on earth was she going to get them clean with everything going on with her life. it derailed my lesson and i couldn’t get back on track. it annoyed me to heck. but that’s what our lessons are like in relief society. sisters don’t want to be challenged to think about hard issues, they want to go feel the spirit and watch each other cry. they are too busy trying to keep up with their callings, and being mothers and it makes it harder when leaders in the stake are pushing our sisters to attend the temple and do family history work etc and these are women with children still at home.

    having said that, the church as a whole needs to rethink its classes and its teaching materials and teachers.

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