I’ve been exploring the internet going on five years, viewing websites and blogs that present information about the Mormon church. Most of the sites I visit are created and visited by members and former members of the church. The subject matter of post and the comments made range widely.
On one side of the continuum are sites written and frequented by church members who are filled with faith, on the other extreme are members who have left the church, but can’t leave the church alone. Then there is a large group of members who are in the middle. Their sites are frequented by members whose faith can be described as fragile.
This is a very general description and isn’t meant to be critical in any way. My heart aches every time I read a post or comment that details a members loss of faith. The battle for the faith of church members is real and has been going on from the day the church was organized. However, the internet has increased the reach, speed and intensity of the various players in this battle.
I think we live in that day prophesied by Heber C. Kimball. He said:
This Church has before it many close places through which it will have to pass before the work of God is crowned with victory. To meet the difficulties that are coming, it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of this work for yourselves. The difficulties will be of such a character that the man or woman who does not possess this personal knowledge or witness will fall. If you have not got the testimony, live right and call upon the Lord and cease not till you obtain it. If you do not you will not stand. Harold B. Lee quoting Heber C. Kimball, BYU, June 28, 1955; also in “We Believe” by Rulon T. Burton, p. 1038-39.
I think many members who frequent the “Bloggernacle” are struggling to stand, just as Kimball prophesied. Over the years as I have interacted with them, they separate themselves into two groups: 1. those who are active but range in feelings from disheartened to cynical because of challenges to their faith, 2. those who are not currently attending church and range in feelings from anger; saying they have been deceived by church leaders, to content because they’ve left the church. What I’ve described is a broad generalization. It is not my purpose to go into all the shades and hues of their respective struggles.
As Kimball said in his prophecy, the solution to the dilemma is to acquire a testimony. His counsel, “… live right and call upon the Lord and cease not till you obtain it. If you do not you will not stand.”
The Heart of the Struggle
The struggle to acquire a testimony from the Holy Ghost (a genuine testimony) is not new, it has been going on since the church was first organized. With the advent of the internet some members who don’t have a genuine testimony are beginning to fall by the wayside, as Kimball prophesied. Among those who are falling away are young members, including returned missionaries. They were raised in the dawn of the internet era and it is part of them like TV was for their parents generation. LDS historian Richard L. Bushman observing this wrote:
I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along. If their teachers covered up Joseph Smith’s flaws, what else are they hiding? Shaken Faith Syndrome, Michael R. Ash, P.ix.
A genuine testimony will protect members exposed to the wiles of the internet, while an imitation testimony will set them up for disappointment and failure. This is true for all members, not just those raised in the internet generation. The difference between a genuine and imitation testimony is described by Elder Packer.
Elder Packer asked a Stake President what the biggest problem in his Stake was. The Stake President replied, “Programs and activities of the church are becoming a substitute for testimonies.” I Think the Stake President’s reply clarifies what an imitation testimony is (the Savior explained these two kinds of testimonies in 3 Nephi 11:31-40).
When I heard Elder Packer relate this story I immediately thought of an old saying, “active in the church but not the gospel”. How is it possible to be active in the church, but be inactive in the gospel?
To answer this question a few definitions might be useful. First, to be a member of the church is to have your name officially on record with church headquarters. Based on this kind of record keeping there are approximately fourteen million members today.
The Lord defines His church differently:
…whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. D&C 10:67
The Lord’s definition of what membership in his church means is clear. It also answers the question asked above about being active in the church, but not the gospel. Those who fail to repent are not coming to Christ. Therefore, they are not active in the gospel, even though they are active in the church.
I have an idea that what the Stake President was telling Elder Packer is that he sees members in his Stake being more dedicated to the programs and activities of the church than they are to the gospel of repentance. If that is the case, then it provides a reason why some members have a testimony from the Holy Ghost, while other members have a testimony of the “church”. One is a genuine testimony, while the other is imitation.
The problem of church members not acquiring a genuine testimony is not new. In 1958 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith cautioned members, saying:
…it is my judgment that there are many members of this Church who have been baptized for the remission of their sins, who have had hands laid upon their heads for the gift of the Holy Ghost, who have never received that gift, that is, the manifestations of it. Why? Because they have never put themselves in order to receive these manifestations. They have never humbled themselves. They have never taken the steps that would prepare them for the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Therefore they go through life without that knowledge, and they have not the understanding. Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, October 1958, p.21 – p.22
Members who have never put themselves in order to receive a genuine testimony are not able to stand in the face of the difficulties prophesied by Kimball.
Finding a Solution (Inoculation)
There are many ways to approach the battle for the faith of church members, whether it be for those members who are active in the church, but not the gospel, or for those who have their faith shaken by the internet.
For example, I’ve been reading from an excellent book titled, Shaken Faith Syndrome, by Michael R. Ash. His book is written to fortify the faith of those who struggle with the difficulties found on the internet. His approach is to take on the critics of the church and answer the issues they raise using “apologetics”. This approach can be very helpful, but ultimately each member must gain a genuine testimony by living right and calling upon the Lord and cease not till they obtain it.
The Lord’s Solution
Nephi spoke of a “mist of darkness” that challenged those who set out to follow Christ. I am acquainted with this. I know by experience what its like to have my faith challenged by an array of LDS critical information. I know what its like to deal with misinformed, and even unkind, but well intended church leaders (well, not always well-intended). I’ve felt the painful sting when friends and loved ones abandon their faith for the ways of the world; I once did that myself. But more importantly, and to my great joy, I know what it is like to obtain a testimony from the Holy Ghost, and to be forgiven of my sins.
Brigham Young said:
It yields solid satisfaction to hear men testify of the truth of the Gospel. It is always peculiarly interesting to me to hear the Saints tell their experience. It is to me one of the best of sermons to hear men and women relate to each other how the Lord has wrought upon their understanding, and brought them into the path of truth, life, and salvation. I would rather hear men tell their own experience…that they have conversed with angels, have had the power of the Holy Ghost upon them giving them visions and revelations, than hear any other kind of preaching that ever saluted my ears. JD 1:90-91
With Brigham Young’s thoughts as motivation, I’ve thrown my hat in the ring, and join others who are helping those who are struggling to stand. I enter this effort with the gifts, talents, and experiences the Lord has provided me with (Click the Table of Contents below, and see “My Experience with the Savior”. It’s a brief history of my experience with the Savior, how he left the ninety and nine and came for me.)
Sharing Sacred Experiences
When members receive spiritual experiences, church leaders have counseled them to be selective how they share them. They are sacred and need to be treated accordingly. A careful reading of the scriptures and the words of the modern day prophets teach the importance of properly sharing sacred experiences. If those who receive them don’t testify, the work of the Lord suffers (D&C 46:9, 26, 60:2, 13). They need to be shared wisely (not chattered about).