Fast Food or Feasting: Spiritual Development


As a Stake Missionary, back when we had that sort of thing, I can remember being involved in teaching discussions (both pre- and post- baptism) to six people. Of these six people, five were baptized. And of those five, one is still active. Even for non-gambling folk, those odds are rather poor.

I remember being very surprised at how quickly investigators are moved along the path to baptism. From what I remember (and I could be wrong, so knowledgeable input would be greatly appreciated), there were six or seven discussions, which took place over days to weeks, investigators were challenged to be baptized somewhere in the middle, and had to attend church at least once. Such an abbreviated timeline seems insufficient to develop a sure foundation upon which to base such a life-changing decision. Of course, it’s possible that there are those who have been doctrinally preparing for years to make such quick decisions, but I would think that they would be the exception, and not the rule.

What do I remember about the five? Five women. One man. Dealing with a variety of challenges that seemed a bit alien in the Mormon landscape. All had rather short periods of investigation, marked by highly emotional discussions. Most seemed to have pretty strong social support, but then it was a YSA ward, and there were activities just about every night of the week. After baptism, there were brief honeymoon periods, but all in this group fell into inactivity within a year. In short, these five had their fill of the burgers-and-fries version of the gospel, but didn’t seem to come away substantially nourished by their encounter. Or, to put it more simply, they weren’t able to endure to the end.

And what about the one? Anne* took her sweet time. She initially came to a singles’ ward party. Cathy* had invited Anne’s coworker Dave*, who was less active, and really had no interest in being reactivated, but Anne jumped at the chance. Anne liked what she saw, and started attending church, and just kept coming back. She literally feasted on the word. Not just the flashy fast-food stuff that comes from having church-friends and enjoying activities; but nourishing religious engagement that involved indepth scripture study, routine prayer, on-going discussions and active questioning of doctrine that she didn’t understand. After our anxiousness at her initial delay at baptism wore off, we all just learned to live with the fact that she’d do it in her own time. For over a year, Anne came to church, continued to investigate (officially and unofficially), and even was a part of the Activities Committee. When the time came that she decided to be baptized, it seemed like a natural and inevitable transition.

Armand Mauss notes a trend of emotionalism over intellectualism in his piece, “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways: A Personal Essay on Mormon Pop Culture” (found in Proving Contraries). In the beginning, Mauss discusses a testimony meeting where one speaker is unable to locate a set of scriptures at the pulpit, but several others are able to find relief from tear-laden eyes in the ubiquitous box of Kleenex. He states, “It is as though the tissue box symbolizes a more frequent resort to tender feelings at the expense of an earlier greater reliance on intellectual substance in preaching … It represents the triumph of the heart over the head in popular Latter-day Saint religious expression.” Not that the head alone is sufficient. One without the other is rather like a computer without a power source, or a car with an empty tank. Doctrinal understanding is the structure, and spiritual promptings are the juices that make it go.

So, it would seem that the problem in the conversion process would be, how to help investigators grow both spiritually and doctrinally in a manner that facilitates long-term investment in the gospel. Unfortunately, I don’t have many answers. The factors that I’ve seen that seem to make a difference:
Reading through the Book of Mormon. Not just the seminary scriptures, but the
whole thing.
Encouraging questioning.
Not being pressured into baptism
Church attendance. Not just once prior to baptism, but many times.
Being well integrated and having good supports in the ward one is going to be active in.

In short, encouraging investigators and members to feast on the word. After all, we all need continual nourishment of our spirits.

There were two fascinating articles in the Summer 2005 issue of Dialogue, regarding church membership in central and south America: Knowlton’s, “How Many Members Are There Really? Two Censuses and the Meaning of LDS Membership in Chile and Mexico,” and Grover’s, “The Maturing of the Oak: The Dynamics of Latter-day Saint Growth in Latin America.” Both have drawn conclusions about membership from church statistics, and compared them with outside official sources. The end result is that retention is problematic.

However, in the end, is it really just a number’s game? What about all of those baseball baptisms? With the concepts of eternal progression and missionary work in spirit prison, does it really matter if those who are baptized fall away? Is it sufficient that they have been baptized, and can accept or reject the gospel at some later point in their existence when they may have a fuller understanding of said existence? Having an incomplete picture of the eternities, I can’t give a comprehensive answer, but the only answer I can give on my current understanding is a resounding No. I think it ill advised to rush investigators to baptism without a firm foundation of both spiritual and doctrinal understanding of the gospel, or to continue with the nutrition metaphor, to give them sustenance enough that they will be strong enough to endure the marathon that is our eternal existence.

Again, I’ve just skimmed the surface on this topic. However, current info on requirements for baptism, and any ideas on how missionary work and retention can be improved would be much appreciated.

*Names have been changed, but of course you knew that.

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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10 Responses

  1. sarah says:

    I think investigators should be encouraged to take several months to a year or more to make a decision about baptism. Some people “know” right off the bat that this is the church for them, but most people need to be part of a religious community for awhile before they are sure it is right for them.

    Most of my convert friends who then proceeded to leave talked about how different the real Mormon church experience was from the emotional rush and personal attention that comes prior to being baptized. And most of these friends joined after only a few discussions and a few visits to church. They got caught up in the excitement and emotion of the conversion process and once church just became part of everyday life, they lost interest, felt like they didn’t fit in, or became disillusioned. Most of my convert friends who stayed took a long time to make their baptism decision. It was a very concious choice for them and they knew what they were getting into.

    I think the Jewish faith has it right in that they make it quite difficult to convert. You have to essentially prove to them that you truly believe and want to make Judaism a major part of your life. When my friend’s husband converted, he even got circumcised (ouch) — and the process of being allowed to convert took him about a year and lots of classes.

    It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and then lose interest when something becames less exciting, more mundane, or too time consuming– it happens to me all the time with groups I join because of my “interest du jour.” The first few times I attended the Unitarian church, I was gung ho and ready to join. After being a regular attendee for 3 months, I realized I felt more comfortable with the Mormons and moved on. It takes time to understand a religion and know if it is right for you.

  2. Melinda says:

    Time is the most important factor. I taught a woman who had been coming to Church for so long that everyone that she was a member. We were shocked when she asked to be baptized! She’s stayed active. Others who joined after an emotional and spiritual high during the investigative process left. Of course, there are also a couple of people who stayed active after a short investigation period.

    While it would be ideal to see a six-month participation period before baptism, I doubt it will happen. We frequently heard from the mission president that Satan starts to work on those who are interested in the Church, and baptizing them and giving them the Holy Ghost strengthens them spiritually so they can better withstand Satan’s nefarious schemes.
    But the poor retention rates suggest that the Holy Ghost doesn’t help much in keeping people active.

    New baptism statistics would drop like a rock if people had to prove they wanted to be Mormons. But then again, we wouldn’t need so many missionaries.

  3. Darryl says:

    You are discounting the power of the spirit to make real changes in peoples lives.

  4. Dora says:

    Thanks Sarah. I’m so glad that you’ve continued to maintain friendships with converts-who-left. I’ve heard a few complaints that mormons are so insular and only have interests in non-members who want to convert. Interesting about Jewish protocol for conversion. From what I understand, it’s not a proselytizing religion, and I would think that most converts are doing so because of a desire to be closer to a loved one.

    I don’t know if a year’s “training” would work for the LDS church, but I do think that three months would be a good minimum period. Three months is about the time that flase excitement wanes in romantic relationships … maybe it would work for religious fervor?

    Another plus for choosing quality over quantity of converts: the ward’s ability to focus and meet the needs of investigators and new members during the critical transition period, how ever long it lasts.

    Hmmm .. I don’t think it’s discounting the power of the spirit. I believe it’s more that sometimes spiritually young investigators may not be able to distinguish between warm-fuzzy feelings and genuine promptings of the spirit. Not every good feeling is coming directly from the spirit. And not every painful or bad feeling is from the adversary.

  5. Kristian says:

    When we went to Church for the first time on the invitation of a friend, we hadn’t had any of the discussion yet. I was an Agnostic Anti-Christian and only went to placate my wife on hopes she would stop bugging me about a church. That first day was also the first day of Church for a man who had just married a stalwart lifelong member and was checking things out. I had determined by the time the GP class was over (we stay the whole 3 hour block) that I wanted to join the church. We kept going and it took about 5 months and we were baptized. We’re both still very active.

    My friend “Bill” continued to investigate the Church for TEN YEARS. In fact, they live in a small branch now and they assigned him to teach the Sunbeams because they figured he’s coming every week and the branch so very small they needed every person to help possible. After finally getting baptized, he was called to the Branch Presidency within a year.

    We’re both strong, active members. I wanted to join the Church after one lesson. If it had been an “altar call” in a Pentecostal Church, I’d have been dunked that day. It took “Bill” ten years of marriage to one of the best LDS women I know.

    We also had a new member that I home-taught for a little while that took 2 years to join, but is now inactive and struggling.

    I guess my point is that maybe it’s not time that is the answer, but something deeper.

  6. Dora says:

    Thanks for sharing your story kristian. The interesting thing is that five months seems like a comparatively long time to investigate the church. There have been times when people are rushed through (for a variety of reasons) and baptised within two weeks. And yes, there are some people who could probably do very well with very short investigation periods. However, I still think that a more balanced approach … spiritual AND doctrinal understanding … builds a more steady foundation upon which build one’s eternal perspective.

  7. harijans says:

    Everyone is different. I had one investigator take all six discussions in 24 hours, and get baptized, moved the next day to a place where she had no support from the members, and she is still active.

    There was another gentleman who investigated and came to church for years, ward loved him, he got baptized, and went inactive shortly thereafter.

    There is no way to tell who needs how much time to be ready for the church. Thankfully, missionaries today are taught to use much more leaway in their commitments. Gone are the days of baptismal commitments in the second discussion. Heck, even the second discussion is gone.

    Some people need to be pushed a little, some need to be left alone. Conversion and activity in the Mormon Church is still one of those great mysteries in my mind.

  8. AmyB says:

    I think more time and more understanding should be required. People who have six discussions and have attended for a couple weeks can’t possibly have any idea what they are getting into.

    In my last ward they baptized a few new people every month. Sacrament meeting attendance numbers remained flat. It was a huge stress on our dysfunctional ward to try and assimilate so many new members. The missionary efforts, in my opinion, would have been much better used toward strengthening the ward members that were already there first. Then we might have been able to support the new members.

    I think that the institution is so focused on numbers and statistics that the real lives of real people get lost. Of course baptism rates would decrease if there were a longer waiting period, but the people who stay would be more likely to be dedicated, active members. It’s clear at this point that quantity is more important that quality.

  9. Dora says:

    So, who decides the readiness for an investigator’s worthiness? Is it the missionaries who teach the discussions, a zone leader, the bishop? I would be more inclined to have the bishop of the receiving ward be the one to conduct interviews for baptism. That way, the bishop (and hopefully the ward) would be more intune to the needs of each convert, and the shift would seem more natural.

  10. VirtualM says:

    In our dysfunctional ward, the Bishop meets with each baptismal candidate prior to baptism, but just as it was when I was a missionary, the District Leader does the actual baptismal interview and determines if a candidate is ready.
    On my mission, we were expected to challenge ‘investigators’ (come on, someone you’ve just met on a doorstep should not be classified as an investigator) to baptism on the first discussion – or it did not count as a first discussion in our stats and we would get in trouble. It never sat well with me and I came up with a lot of creative wording techniques. My husband and I both had people baptized when we were missionaries that we weren’t comfortable baptising, but mission rules and overzealous mission leaders often did treat it like a numbers game and impose a lot of guilt for failure to produce baptisms. I was told that if I was obedient, the Lord would prepare someone to be baptized in my area each month; the problem was obviously within me if no one was jumping in the water. Are these converts ‘better off’ for having been baptized? Who knows. Something in me clings to the hope that they are.
    I feel the same as AmyB – we have ten full-time missionaries in our ward (I’m a ward missionary) and we really need them to focus their efforts on those we already have instead of the two or three new converts that we get each month, most of which fall away after only a few weeks attendance. Our ward list is a black hole with hundreds of inactive members, and it’s impossible to keep track of who even lives in the boundaries, there is so much turnover. We’re struggling to keep up home teaching lists that have twenty families apiece. At least for our ward, I KNOW that we need to change our focus to quality instead of quantity.

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