This post is more for my fellow brothers and sisters in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but non-members may find it helpful to understand what Latter-day Saints think, experience, and about what they concern themselves.
Three events in the recent past have opened the world’s interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the 2002 Winter Olympics, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and the passing of President Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What we members have a challenge with is two issues: how to respond to inquisitive comments about the Church, and how to respond to criticism of the Church.
I am very grateful for recent General Conference talks by Elders M. Russell Ballard and Jeffrey R. Holland on issues that touch on these. Some of my comments are inspired by those talks. (Please read, especially, Elder M. Russell Ballard’s talk during the Saturday afternoon session of the October 2007 Semiannual 177th General Conference, “Faith, Family, Facts, and Fruits”.)
One tendency I have noticed over my years of surfing the Internets is that very often discussions about the Church deteriorates into a contentious shouting match between enemies of the Church and its members. This is not right or good.
I understand our defensiveness. I remember clearly one blogger making a very disparaging remark about a past President of the Church, whereupon I (and other Latter-day Saints) filled his comment thread with rebukes, corrections, histories of the Church, explanation of doctrine, and other posts. I felt ashamed that this was the first time I commented there. Without reading the rest of his blog I did not realize that his treatment is meted out to almost every religion: he was not singling out The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And while he made a few significant mistakes, in all the issue was not really as important or dire as I made it out to be. I was more upset by the perpetuation of the usual criticisms and opposition to the Church than with the actual assertions made.
We also talk our religion very seriously, which influences us to defend it whenever and wherever we notice even a hint of disparagement. This is entirely understandable, but we need to manage how we relate with those who disagree with us.
One thing I got out of Elder Ballard’s talk, was that we when we talk about the Church to non-members, unless they indicate otherwise, we should not become encyclopedias and pour upon them volumes and volumes of information. We need to inform and educate them. Many words will not inform or educate anyone. And it won’t make them interested in learning more either.
A difficult issue is realizing the role the Holy Ghost plays in this. When we speak the truth and it pricks the curiosity or spirit of another, he/she will automatically be interested in seeking more truth and light. If the Holy Ghost cannot so prevail, no amount of words will make a difference. And while intellectual curiosity should be rewarded with as much information we can provide, we must keep in mind that conversion is a spiritual process and experience, not a mental, intellectual, or rational one.
Furthermore, our goal increasingly should be to concentrate on informing people, rather than seeking to convert them, for it is inevitable that if we take the Holy Ghost wherever we go and in whatever we say, our audience will detect it and respond accordingly.
To that end, we must tailor our behavior to conform to two criteria: inform our audience and bring the Spirit.
There are many questions people ask about the Church or want to. We should answer those questions. But we should provide the information they are asking for. We must realize that as with us, even non-members must learn line upon line, precept upon precept. It does not help to talk about the temple if the non-member does not understand the Plan of Salvation. While we cannot refuse to answer the question, on the one hand, and we cannot burden them with reams of foundational information, on the other hand, we need to formulate ways to quickly instill in our audience the basics and foundations of our beliefs, and then move on to what they are asking about. And in answering questions, we should keep it simple and concise. There is nothing wrong in giving a simple and concise answer while informing our audience that details of the issue can be provided if they are so interested.
What should be the goal of our providing information, anyway? It should be to encourage a more accurate understanding of the beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so as to spread the principles of the Restored Gospel. While not all of our audience will want to convert, a good number will understand us better (and more accurately), which in turn will transform into better relations between Latter-day Saints and non-members. Harmony and understanding are always good things. They please our Lord Jesus Christ.
That said, when it comes to in depth debates and discussion, this has to be said: We simply cannot bring the Holy Spirit when we are contentious. In all we say and do, we must be polite, level-headed, and stick to the facts. We must never make any comments that may be considered disparaging or personally negative. Even though defending the Restored Gospel is a very worthy endeavor, we will do the Lord a greater injustice if we offend His Spirit while doing so. We cannot serve God and be contentious at the same time.
The Lord said, “[Y]ea, Satan doth stir up the hearts of the people to contention concerning the points of my doctrine; and in these things they do err, for they do wrest the scriptures and do not understand them” (D&C 10:63b). And so we should inform and explain but not engage in any heated debate.
And also importantly, the Lord said, “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29).
What this teaches us is that if the discussion devolves into a debate wherein the Spirit may not reside, we should respectfully leave. For centuries, the Church remained silent in the face of voluminous onslaughts of assertions, accusations, claims, and outright lies. Slowly, the Church is responding. But we can learn a lesson by how the Church responds: it states the facts, extends an invitation for the audience to learn more information, and drops the issue. It does not engage in verbal wars or debates. And its statement of facts remain focused on the facts and is offered with goodwill and love for all.
As paradoxical as this may sound, I’d like to see more and less involvement by Latter-day Saints online. We need to be more involved in informing people about our beliefs and practices, but we need to be less involved when discussions become heated. There have always been people who have opposed the Lord and His Church. He did not respond by fighting them. Indeed, Peter violently reacted to the Lord’s arrest. The Lord rebuked him. We should be like the Lord: peaceful, peaceable, and peace-loving. When an issue becomes heated, we should state the facts, extend an invitation to learn more information, then leave. There is no dishonor in leaving if no further good can be done, if nothing more can be contributed. If the other side continues to rant and rave, let it. We will, instead, be busy in building up the Kingdom of God on earth rather than driving His Spirit away by being contentious.