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
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.