As Latter-day Saints we often seem to think that our non-Mormon neighbors see us as we see ourselves. Unfortunately, even many nonmembers who live near to and communicate extensively with Mormons develop serious misconceptions about the nature and purposes of the Lord’s church and its members.
Before I became a Latter-day Saint, for instance, I had grown up in Salt Lake City, and I had had close relationships with Mormons while living on the East and West coasts of the United States and in Europe—all without understanding what being a Latter-day Saint really means.
As I studied the restored gospel in depth for the first time, I was shocked at some of the erroneous ideas I had maintained over the years about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the other hand, I have since been able to see more clearly how many basically righteous and well-meaning Latter-day Saints reinforce some misconceptions about the restored gospel and even alienate nonmember neighbors.
Let’s illustrate with a hypothetical example. The following account is fictitious only in that I do not know of it happening in one family, but it can help us see where we can give wrong impressions.
Roger Allen is an elder. He and his wife, Karen, have three children, ages five, eight, and ten. Roger is a committed family man who puts his family first in his life, with the Church a close second. He not only attends his meetings, but he also makes real efforts to magnify his callings. Because of his initiative and hard work on the job, Roger has been promoted. As foreman of the plant, he looks forward to advancing into executive positions.
Karen once taught music, but hasn’t worked since their first child was born, for she also puts her family first. She believes strongly in supporting her husband as the priesthood leader of the family. In addition to visiting teaching and serving as a counselor in the Primary, Karen sings, plays, or practices nearly every day for a musical performance for one Church function or another.
The Allens are a faithful and dedicated Latter-day Saint family. They would seem to be wonderful examples, but let us see how they are regarded by a nonmember neighbor.
Frank and Ann Howe live next door to the Allens. They drink tea and coffee, occasionally serve wine with dinner, and Frank enjoys his pipe, but otherwise few of their standards differ dramatically from those of the Allens. They usually attend their own Sunday services, taking their children, who are in the same age range as the young Allens.
In short, they are pleasant, decent people. One might logically think that they would be favorably impressed by Roger and Karen and could easily be introduced to the gospel. But Roger and Karen are the first Mormons the Howes have known well, and, without realizing it, the Allen family has in several respects reinforced the Howes’ reservations and misconceptions about the Church.
Let’s take a look at how these feelings can exist in spite of the fact that Roger and Karen generally assume themselves to be “good examples.” First of all, Frank and Ann don’t know the doctrines of the Church that make it unique. They simply feel that the doctrines that all Christian churches should share are the first two great commandments of loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It is their impression that if the second commandment does not seem important in another person’s life, the first commandment probably isn’t either. And frankly, the Howes do not get the feeling that the Allens care about them as much as some of their neighbors have in the past.
On a few occasions since Roger and Karen moved into the neighborhood two years ago, Frank and Ann have mentioned in neighborly conversation that they would like to get together as families to get better acquainted. Roger and Karen have been very much in agreement in principle, but they still have not made themselves available for such activities. Karen politely avoids much interaction with Ann and other nonmember women in the neighborhood, and neither she nor Roger participates in neighborhood and community affairs. Furthermore, the oldest Allen child told one of the Howes’ children that his parents wanted them to play mostly with other Mormons. Frank and Ann have consequently come to see the Allens, and by extension, Mormons in general, as a cliquish people who care for their own but no one else.
The one exception didn’t help. Roger and Karen invited them over for dinner one evening with uncharacteristic friendliness and warmth, spent dinner steering the conversation toward religious topics, and finally asked Frank and Ann if they would like to take the missionary lessons. The Howes politely declined, but both of them were inwardly angered when they thought they perceived that this newfound warmth and attention were come-ons for a pitch about the Allens’ missionary-oriented church. They discussed it when they returned home and agreed that it would have been one thing for Roger and Karen to have demonstrated their friendship and concern for them over a period of time, and then out of that love wished to share something precious. But it was something else altogether to just turn on the warmth in order to fulfill a Church assignment—especially when Roger and Karen seemed to avoid them afterwards.
Perhaps the Howes would not have reacted so strongly if they didn’t have several other misleading perceptions about the Allens. For one thing, Frank and Ann know that the Mormons have a health code called the Word of Wisdom and realize that Roger and Karen disapprove of Frank’s pipe, and their drinking wine, tea, and coffee. Frank is irritated that Roger would condemn his pipe on moral grounds and is angry about their attitude toward drinking wine. To him, wine is more than a beverage. It is an integral part of his family’s cultural and social background, closely linked with many dimensions of cherished custom and family ritual.
The Allens’ disapproval seems particularly unjust to them since Frank and Ann jog every morning and are careful to eat moderate, nutritious meals. Roger and Karen, by their own admission, almost never exercise, and Karen, who is somewhat overweight, has a real fondness for candy and soft drinks. Why, think the Howes, should they sit in judgment on us for having wine with dinner or for having a cup of coffee? What’s the difference between one health-destroying habit and another? For a Latter-day Saint to make a big point of not drinking coffee, for instance, as a matter of morality and then abuse his body in other ways, such as being extremely overweight, is confusing and offensive to many nonmembers who live around Mormons.
In addition, Ann is especially put off by another matter. Several years ago in another city she heard another Mormon, a young man, talk about archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon. She was amazed to hear this person say that science in the past hundred years had documented the Church’s claims about ancient civilizations in the Americas. Ann has also heard the Allen children make statements to her children about archaeological proofs of the Book of Mormon, and knew where they’d heard it when Roger made the same type of assertion at the dinner they had gone to at the Allens’ home. For Ann, even though she said nothing, that had been an uncomfortable and negative experience.
After first hearing the concept she was interested enough to review various archaeological and anthropological books and articles written about the history of North and South America—and, in her own mind, she did not then find sufficient evidence to substantiate such bold claims as this person made. Her general conclusion—one shared by many responsible nonmembers who have studied the matter in some depth—is that there is not a sufficient foundation to support the extravagant and precise claims that are occasionally heard from some Latter-day Saints about American archaeology and the Book of Mormon.
Ann interpreted what she heard as factually unfounded propaganda. Her conclusion was wrong about the Book of Mormon, but her reaction was not unusual. Trying to prove the truthfulness of the Church or of its scriptures to nonmembers by relying upon inconclusive data is counterproductive. It obscures the more powerful channels of confirmation and, in fact, raises questions about the real strength of the Church’s position.
At first, the Howes were impressed by the deep involvement of the Allens in their church activities, but they expected religious people to be more concerned about the well-being of their fellowmen and a little less concerned about the material rewards of this world. They were disillusioned when they discovered evidence that Roger and Karen were so materially ambitious. Roger frequently mentions how fast he’s been promoted at his work. Frank and Ann have also noticed that on the few occasions when they have had conversations of any length with Karen, she always mentions how well Roger’s work and investments are doing and how they plan to move into a larger home in a more affluent part of town in a few years.
Frank and Ann admire ambitious and successful people, but it unsettles them to observe the Allens’ seemingly inordinate commitment to material goals. Roger once told Frank that Mormons do not equate poverty with righteousness. He also said that the Lord always blesses the faithful with material success. Yet Frank and Ann have the feeling that the Allens are using this principle to rationalize their seemingly zealous commitment to their own material success, at the expense of people-oriented concern and service.
Do these reactions seem extreme? They could be very real. As mentioned earlier, these examples are not intended to represent any particular person or to catalogue all the typical misconceptions about the Church, but they are representative of the circumstances that might cause misunderstandings about what the Church really represents.
Certainly the Howes overreacted. Certainly they misjudged the Church because of the inconsistencies that they thought they observed in the lives of the Allen family. Some of their judgments were premature. But it will be difficult for the Allens to be a factor in inspiring the Howes to investigate the Church unless they do some things differently. A bridge must be built across the chasm that separates them.
The most important lesson that I have learned through observation, as well as from my personal experience concerning the impact Latter-day Saints have on their neighbors, is that there is no substitute for literally loving your neighbors as yourself. We may convey the image—most Latter-day Saints do—of being clean, honest, industrious, responsible, etc., but if there is not genuine and observable love in our hearts for our neighbors, numerous worthy people may never be drawn enough into our sphere of influence to even glimpse the beauty of the restored gospel.
What can we do?
1. Be consistent. If you present yourself as a friend to someone, be a friend. Latter-day Saints often warmly greet a family moving into a neighborhood or a person coming to church for the first time, but then return to their old concerns and social patterns as if the new people were really not there. I have known many nonmembers who feel that Mormons lack openness and warmth toward those who are not members of the Church; and many of us are often inconsistent in the attentions we give. This doesn’t mean we should stop fellowshipping; it does mean that we should be careful about creating expectations we do not intend to fulfill.
2. Include nonmembers socially. Fellowshipping is pretty limited if you don’t let people into your social circle. True, we can only spread ourselves so thin, but most people will naturally conclude that we don’t care for them if we never want to spend time with them or want them to meet our other friends.
3. Instruct children. When it comes to nonmember neighbors, friends, or schoolmates, seemingly innocent comments are sometimes made by unthinking LDS children that might lead to embarrassment, misunderstanding, or hurt feelings. Children need to be taught to be good examples, and they need to learn courtesy, kindness, and respect for others. Above all, they need to learn that “different” does not always mean “wrong.”
4. Don’t overemphasize the Word of Wisdom. One of the principles that sets Latter-day Saints apart from other people is obedience to the Word of Wisdom, and the Lord wants it that way. This does not require that we judge others who have not accepted this law. Don’t change your standards; just don’t insist that others must conform to the Word of Wisdom before you will love and appreciate them.
5. Know your religion. There are few things so disappointing to an individual with questions about religion as the discovery that his enthusiastic Latter-day Saint neighbor does not know what he is talking about. We need not be able to quote scripture on every conceivable question, but we should understand the basic tenets of the restored gospel and have a working familiarity with the scriptures. We should also be careful about making definitive statements in gospel areas where definitive information has not been given. Also, if we run into a question that we can’t answer, let’s avoid the temptation to speculate; instead, we should admit that we do not know, and go and find the answer.
6. Bear your testimony often. There are many Latter-day Saints who hesitate to bear testimony to non-Mormon acquaintances. Clearly one must use discretion in discussing such a personal and sensitive matter, but too many Latter-day Saints are too timid. Many new members would have discovered the restored gospel much earlier if their Mormon friends had had the courage to express how they feel about the Church. And numerous potential converts will begin to make eternal changes in their lives when they hear words of testimony from someone close to them—someone who will make the difference in their lives.
7. Emphasize prayer. Personal revelation is a concept that is foreign to many people who try to evaluate beliefs on a rational analysis of available evidence and regard turning to feelings to be irrational. It is important to encourage a potential investigator of the Church to trust the “promptings of the Spirit.” Although praying for an answer to a question may seem very natural to Latter-day Saints, it is probably a new thought for a potential investigator.
8. Emphasize faith. The individual who will not make a commitment until his every question is answered probably never will make that commitment. From flipping on a light switch to getting a polio vaccination we must usually rely on the testimony of another that something will work until we try it for ourselves. Similarly, a person must be willing at some point to rely on faith to transcend his understanding before he can experience the truthfulness of the gospel in a way he could not grasp by intellectual analysis alone.
Every Latter-day Saint has his own style of befriending his nonmember acquaintances. But we must all remind ourselves of the gospel standards we wish to impart and constantly ask ourselves whether we are successfully giving the impressions to others that we wish to convey. Just as Roger and Karen Allen, we do not always succeed in our intentions in this regard because we are not sensitive enough to the perceptions and assumptions of those with whom we relate. And in the last analysis, every Latter-day Saint should know that many souls are won or lost through the example and influence that each one of us conveys.