Back in the years of 2008-2009 I went through a rough separation in my marriage, and then finally a divorce. The aftermath of depression and brokenness brought with it a barrage of mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. I remember literally ripping myself out of bed and putting myself together the first Sunday living back with my parents. It was time to go to church.
I wasn’t feeling particularly like I didn’t want to go worship, that morning. But what I didn’t want was to have to explain to all the people I knew, in the ward I had grown up in, what had happened to me. In their concern, I knew, they would want to mourn with me, shower condolences, and worst, ask me what had happened. All of that had nothing to do with worshipping God, and yet going to church would certainly mean that I would have to face all those things. I wanted to worship God. I didn’t want to deal with people.
I remember looking in the mirror and thinking about all of the many people who had been hurt like me, or far worse, or who were still in the midst of their Abrahamic trials. I felt an immense amazement. Why did any of them go to Church? Why did any of them go and face the questions, the nonverbal judgment, the unspoken assumptions?
Never before in my life had I felt such compassion for the struggling Christian, specifically the struggling Latter-day Saint. Previously, throughout my life, I had always rolled my eyes and sighed when people I considered “more than capable” didn’t drag themselves out of bed and come to church. Getting to church seemed like such an easy thing to do. I had sorrowed at those, who in their “weakness” and “wickedness”, came only for Sacrament meeting and then cut out afterwards, or other attendance hybrids. Until this point in my life, I had always thought that church attendance was the primary measure of someone’s testimony, their belief in and devotion to God. Oh, what a fool I was! What a modern pharisee I was!
Now, standing in front of that mirror, fighting with myself over going to my meetings and facing the members of my ward, I knew better. I understood, for the first time in my life, that church attendance was not the sole measure of my own testimony, nor that of anyone else’s.
Where had I gotten such an idea? From family culture. I was raised that if I believed in God I went to church, I partook of the sacrament, and I renewed my baptismal covenants. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—I felt that it was a very good tradition. But I also got it from church culture. When I attended church, one of the easy, juvenile answers to all the questions Sunday School teachers ask is: go to church; with reading scriptures and saying prayers coming first, of course. However, in this idea, culture was not solely to blame. God has commanded us to go to church. The scriptures teach, “And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day; for verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:9-10).
So, going to church is a commandment. But it is not the only—nor primary—measure of a person’s relationship with God, or their testimony of His gospel. It is only one aspect of godly devotion. It is, perhaps, popular to use for checking on people’s faith because it is so easy to see, and to measure.
Many ideas occurred to me as I stood in front of that mirror, that Sunday morning, years ago. Ideas of how to avoid the people and still honor and worship the Lord. First, and most promising, I could show up late, take the sacrament, then cut out before the end of the meeting. My excuse: The talks are not the most important part, and they aren’t always that great anyway. Second, I could weather some social attacks by showing up early with my parents, but then still cut out before the meeting ended to avoid more. But why should I have to weather anything? Was it anyone’s business that my life was in shambles? Why did I have to report on everything to all these other people? There I was, contemplating the very behavior patterns I had always misjudged before, and realizing that they had so little to do with wickedness, disbelief, or lack of testimony. My testimony was a little bruised, but it was far from struggling.
The verdict? Well, I did go. I went early with my parents. Then, I stayed for the entire three-hour block (it was still three hours back then). I smiled as much as I could. I accepted people’s condolences and well-wishes. I came up with a rather abbreviated version of my plight (“He just didn’t want to be married to me anymore. So, here I am. Tada!”), and then I thanked God when I was at last safe in my parent’s car and on the way home. I had overcome the hardest obstacle to my weekly Sunday attendance—getting the ward members’ curiosity out of the way.
I have never been the same since that day, staring in the mirror. As I sat that first Sunday in the congregation, I looked at all the people around me with new eyes. I saw eyes that had cried all night and that morning, just like me, but had been expertly masked by makeup. I saw the faces of people who, like me, had managed to win their internal argument and had come to church rather than stay curled up in bed, wanting to hope and sleep their very real, deep pains away. I realized, with shocking clarity, that it is a miracle that anyone goes to church. Every person around me, sitting in those pews, was a miracle. They had woken up and come. My heart filled with love for each and every one of them while I was there. It wasn’t a self-righteous congratulatory feeling, as in, “Look at you, you made it. That means you’re righteous today. Now I don’t have to worry about you, at least for this week.”. No, it was a deep love of gratitude, as in, “Look at you, you are a miracle. You came to church today for God despite me, despite everyone else. That might be one of the hardest things to do. I know that now. I know that you are amazing. I’m honored to be here with you.”.
This story is just one tiny experience from my life. It is a story about how culture and perception can keep you and me from seeing people for who they really are. It can keep us from developing a relationship with God. And, sometimes, these things can lead us to negatively influence others and hinder their relationship with God; even to hinder their progression in God’s plan and on the covenant path.
The Dragon of Church Culture
In our world we have a few different depictions of the fantastical dragon. Most often we tend to lean toward the darker, European version which is monstrous, fire breathing and which tends to symbolize chaos, pride, evil, and destruction. For the purposes of this allegory, I’d like to point very specifically at the dragon, Smaug, in the story of The Hobbit. Smaug was a worm from the north, and he was drawn to the dwarven kingdom of Erabor because of the wealth of golden coins it had amassed. For, a dragon of this kind is more or less addicted to gold and riches. Gold, jewels, and riches feed the dragon ego. He feeds off it, in a sense. However, the question I want to bring out is this: “Why in the story of The Hobbit did the wizard Gandalf decide to assist the dwarves of Erabor in regaining their old kingdom, under the mountain? Certainly, Gandalf the wizard was a nice guy, but he had a very specific reason for helping the dwarves and urging the hobbit, Bilbo, out of his front door. And that reason was because he had a foreboding that “the enemy”—Sauron (who is a type-of-Satan for the intent of this blog)—would try to use the dragon in a war against Middle Earth, and to conquer it.
Consider that. The dragon was dangerous without a direct connection to Sauron—that was clear. But the greatest danger he posed was in becoming an ally of “the enemy” of Middle Earth. The dragon was so formidable that should he rise up and take Sauron’s side, he could be the undoing of Middle Earth. That was why Gandalf helped the dwarves and that was why he involved the meekest of creatures, a hobbit. The dragon had to be beaten so that Middle Earth could be saved.
We have a very similar dragon, today. I call it the Dragon of Church Culture. It is a very real creature in our world. It is powerful and, in many ways, useful. Yet, it has no allegiance to God and is currently in a dangerous alliance with our very real adversary, Satan. Satan has taken notice of our church culture issues and he is actively using them to destroy the elect of God. Thus, we just can’t hold onto our culture anymore, simper adoringly under its spell, or sweep its issues under the rug. Because Satan is actively using it against us, it is a creature that we must slay. The sooner the better.
Our dragon came because fear, pride, weakness, and oversight led us to start counting and amassing spiritual gold. That gold has become a sickness, just as it did for the dwarves of Erabor. It is keeping us from the real treasure—a deep, personal, fulfilling, healing, and sanctifying relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ. A relationship that can help us become like our Father in Heaven.
But how did we get here? When did spiritual gold become a sickness and how do we fight off this dragon? Well, culture is something we develop to support our way of life. More than a right or a wrong way, initially, culture sort of happens because it is how we support our deeply held gospel beliefs. In a sense, a culture makes it easier to live how we believe because it becomes a “way of life”. The problem is that culture is developed by flawed humans who have opinions and struggles. Thus, they develop the culture to match what they believe is “the answer” to protecting the belief system and helping others to live it. Thus, it becomes eccentric and invites oversight and pride—even a spiritual buffet from which we can pick and choose only certain dishes to show our testimony.
In the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants we read: “And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles shall be cut off from among the people;” (1:14). And who is He saying that to? Us! Listen, He continues: “For they have strayed from mine ordinances and…they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world…” (1:16). Our culture has been formed in the likeness of the world, even if it looks a lot more righteous. It is only righteous by comparison with the world, but it falls terribly short when compared against the true measure, the gospel of Jesus Christ. The culture compels us to obey by the power of peer pressure, historical stacks of golden coins, and the weight of well-meaning, but fearful expectation. Our fear of dragon fire from others within the culture leads us to focus on pleasing the culture, instead of developing a close relationship with God, and pleasing only Him.
Do you see what happens? Appeasing the dragon of culture, becomes our focus, instead of our love of God and our relationship with Him. It doesn’t take a large shift in our focus to get off track. It takes only putting Christ in the blurry background—where we swear we can still see Him—while bringing other things closer and making them more clear than He is.
We are all familiar with Cain and Abel. Abel offered a sacrifice and so did Cain, according to the commandments. However, Abel offered his sacrifice with real intent—because he loved God, and because God asked it of him. Cain, on the other hand, offered his sacrifice because Satan told him to (Moses 5:18-23). They both offered a sacrifice according to a command. However, why they offered the sacrifice made all the difference. Keeping commandments because we love God is “acceptable” to Him. Keeping commandments because the dragon of church culture tells us to, is unacceptable.
When appeasing and fitting into the church culture becomes our focus, instead of our deeply held truths and beliefs, then the dragon comes. He’s drawn not to our gospel, but to our golden culture. And though he’s frightening, he praises us for our golden culture, and we keep giving him the gold to keep him happy. Then, the culture becomes focused not on the gospel, but on feeding the dragon. This is how we got here.
Culture is a good thing when it focuses us toward the gospel of Jesus Christ in a Christ-centered way. Culture becomes toxic, however, when it becomes something unto itself—like its own set of rules, like the “oral law” of the pharisees. When culture becomes its own monster, a dragon, for example, it then ceases to be helpful and becomes, instead, a hellish hindrance. It sits on the covenant pathway devouring offerings of spiritual pride and empty works until those who feed it can no longer see beyond it, let alone to get beyond it. They are stopped in their progression toward becoming like God. Often, they help others to get stranded in front of the dragon. They begin to worship the beauty of the dragon (because they can measure the successful offerings of their allegiance to it), adding to his hoard not just golden spiritual works, but broken souls.
Okay, so let me know show you a little more specifically what this looks like.
An example of a cultural belief (or an oral law) is the notion that young men and women who love the Lord will serve a mission, most especially at the earliest possible age they qualify for it. Young men get the harder brunt of this because of the prophetic plea, “…every worthy able young man should prepare to serve a mission” (President Thomas S. Monson, A Call for Missionaries, February 2011). If young people are not on “the mission track” at least a few months before the anticipated age, we begin to fear for their righteousness. It often becomes a source of personal and family shame if a son waffles in his desire to serve, or if he chooses not to go. If he doesn’t serve at all, the culture supports the idea of group disappointment that this young person has “failed” God and the family and is on the path to destruction. So, the culture tries to support the prophet’s call, but often does it in a non-Christlike way, which is not the gospel of Jesus Christ at all.
So here is the argument the dragon makes so that we will keep offering up golden coins of righteousness to him. He argues, “But the call from a prophet of God is real. He does encourage every worthy and able young man to serve.” So, how does the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we claim to believe, reply? It says, “But you misunderstand the call to go to mean that anyone who doesn’t is in dire spiritual danger, and in terrible covenant disfavor. This is not so.” This idea that those who can and do not are evil, or lost forever, is a cultural belief encouraged by the dragon, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The culture, or oral law of expectations that we surround the gospel with, becomes a groupthink problem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink). The group decides at a macro level, discouraging individual revelation and application of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It often never occurs to the group that those who shrink from serving a mission do so for the right reason. They don’t feel ready. They have been inspired to develop their relationship with God more and to learn the things that will help them do that, which takes them on a path that doesn’t fit “the culture”, but it does fit “the gospel” of faith, repentance, covenant-making and sacrifice. Many, who go on missions just to satisfy the culture, often come home early because they were not spiritually ready. Then, they respond to the feeling of group shame that they came home early and sometimes leave the church because they couldn’t offer the gold up that the dragon wanted. This, my friends, is a tragedy!
It never occurs to us that having more golden coins (or doing things the way the culture has come to expect) does not mean we have a better relationship with God. It never occurs to us that going to church or on mission to satisfy the group, or the culture—just to earn the coins—means nothing to God (Moroni 7:6-7). It only means something to the dragon. For “when [we] knew god, [we] glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in [our] imaginations, and [our] foolish hearts [were] darkened. Professing [ourselves] to be wise, [we] became fools” (Romans 1:21-22). “For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness” (Moroni 7:6-7).
I grew up with a young man, who, when the time came for him to serve a mission, he decided not to go. He did keep going to church, and trying to live the gospel. Then, he met an amazing, fabulous young woman. They decided to get married civilly and then prepare to go to the temple together to receive their endowment and be sealed. Some were a little concerned about the failed mission service, and even more were uncertain about the marriage that didn’t take place in the temple. However, I knew both personally, and they are some of the most Christlike and faithful people I have ever met. After getting married civilly they began preparing to go to the temple. I was privileged to sit in on some of their temple preparation, and these two people were spiritually acute, worthy, and had more desire and excitement to enter into these very real and powerful temple covenants with God, than I had seen in many others who did things the “cultural way”. What happened with both of them was that they had testimonies and a personal relationship with God for themselves. They followed personal inspiration that led them to find each other and build a beautiful, covenant family.
These amazing individuals progressed along the covenant path differently than the culture expected because they were “all in”. They knew themselves and they knew the Lord and they loved Him. The young man loved God but knew a mission wasn’t in the cards for him. This young woman loved the Lord, and when she met the young man, they both knew that they needed to get married civilly and then prepare for the temple. Their eyes were on the same goal as all of the rest of us. They wanted an eternal family and were working toward one. The culture was against them. But the gospel of Jesus Christ was not. Some people were afraid for them—unnecessarily. God was not.
Well, my friends, we have a very real dragon on our hands. What are we going to do with it? Are we going to let its alliance with the enemy go on? This is the end of Part I: The Dragon of Church Culture. However, I will be returning soon with Part II: of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Men, and Wizards; where we will get to the bottom of what modern cultural pharisees look like among the different people and personalities who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We will talk about how we can all self-evaluate and find the modern pharisee within ourselves, and how the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient to help us repent and refocus on the gospel, and our relationship with our Heavenly Parents instead of the feeding the cultural dragon.