Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Joining the Mormon Church for the Wrong Reasons--George's Post

A.   Joining the Mormon Church for the Wrong Reasons

When exposed to the Mormon Church, whether by meeting full-time missionaries on the street or having neighbors who are members, Malawians tend, at least initially, to view the Mormon Church in the context of other Western institutions and Christian churches that have come to Malawi to dispense aid and provide humanitarian services.  They wonder if joining the Mormon Church (accepting the missionaries’ invitation to be baptized) can get them access to something tangible to make their daily lives easier—such as food, financial aid, transport money, medicine, health care, loans for education.  This may seem to be a cynical way for them to view Church membership, but in a poor country, where most live on the margins, anything that makes their lives a little easier must be taken into account.  They need to provide for themselves and their families and to take advantage of whatever edge they can get.   Without knowing much about Mormonism, many Malawians probably think there is little to distinguish Mormonism from other Christian denominations—it is just another “good” church-- so why shouldn’t they choose to affiliate themselves with whichever church provides the most aid.  They may think of church “aid” itself as evidence of the Christian virtue of “charity,” certainly one of the most important fruits of the gospel.[1]   It seems perfectly rational for the Malawians to ask the question—“what’s in it for me and my family?”
This practical approach to selecting a church in terms of “expected” material benefits is not unprecedented, indeed at one level, it is probably what many individuals do when trying to decide which among several churches they should join.   It is interesting to note that a similar question was, in effect, put to Christ by certain Hebrews.  They said to Christ that their fathers had gotten “manna from heaven,” and asked “What sign shewest thou then that we may see, and believe thee?”[2]  They hoped that Christ might offer them something as tangible, and life sustaining, as the manna that sustained the Hebrews for the forty years they wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.  They did not expect, and probably were disappointed, to hear that in lieu of “manna from heaven” Christ offered to give them only the “bread of life,” not a currency convertible into wheat, flour and perishable bread.[3]  This is a repeat of the theme that men should “not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”[4] a reminder that the gospel is about spiritual and not material blessings.  It is not surprising, however, that those struggling for their daily bread might be more focused on obtaining their daily bread, before focusing on the “bread of life” or other spiritual truths.
The Mormon Church is painfully aware of this mindset in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa—seeing the Mormon Church as a potential source of “aid”-- and is anxious to teach new converts and existing members that the gospel message has a different focus—it is about spiritual blessings and teaching self-reliance.  No one should join the Mormon Church with the expectation of getting something monetary from the Mormon Church.  Quite to the contrary, the opposite is true.  One joins the Mormon Church to learn how to bless the lives of others by giving and in the process to gain one’s salvation.   Mormons are not apologetic about the self-sacrificing aspect of Church membership.  It is in line with the Savior’s surprising, and paradoxical, counsel in the tenth chapter of Matthew: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for make sake shall find it.”  Matt: 10: 39. 
The sacrifices the Mormon Church expects of its members are well-known and few in the United States would ever think of joining the Mormon Church in hopes of “getting” something of material value from membership.  Indeed, on its face it makes little financial sense to become a member.   One of the early principles taught by missionaries is that of the law of tithing—each member being asked to contribute to the Mormon Church 10% of his/her income.   This is in addition to the principle of “fast offering,” where members are asked to contribute each month to the Mormon Church an amount equal to the cost of two meals (which the members are expected to forego), in support of the poor and needy.  Those outside of the Mormon Church may be surprised to learn how faithful many members of the Mormon Church are in observing these principles, this despite the fact that collection plates are not passed during services, there are no boxes or other receptacles present in meetinghouses for receiving donations, no fund raisers, and the topic of church contributions is not frequently discussed during the year.[5]  The annual campaigns on television or through other public media to meet donation goals are not a part of the Mormon culture. 
Though recognizing that the Mormon Church expects its members to live in accordance with the laws of tithing and fast offerings, faithful members see observance of these “fiscal” principles as blessing, rather than handicapping, them and generally do not consider these commandments to be the hardest to keep.    The promises of Malachi are taken literally:  “Will a man rob God?  Yet ye have robbed me.  But ye say, Wherein have we robbed there?  In tithes and offerings. … Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts. If I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”  Mal: 3: 8, 10.  But the blessings are usually thought of as “spiritual” blessings—not money for money. 
Furthermore, as every active member knows, the Mormon Church expects far more than economic sacrifice.  Members are expected to give freely of their time in the service of others and in the worship of God.  They are asked to hold Church callings, teach classes, work with primary-age children, help out with young men and women—all activities pulling one out of the home.  It’s not a Sunday only Church.  Frequently, much of Saturday and weekday evenings are consumed with activities and meetings as well.  Many, if not most, members see their own time commitments to the Mormon Church to represent a far greater sacrifice than the money they are asked to contribute.  
One of the most-oft quoted passages from the Lectures of Faith is Joseph Smith’s startling observation of the centrality of sacrifice in bringing about salvation:  “Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”  Lecture 6: 7a, Lectures of Faith.   As a consequence, no one who really knows anything about the Mormon Church thinks of joining it to “get something monetary.”  Those introduced to the Mormon Church in the United States have to get comfortable with these commitments before joining the Church.  While it may be true that many join the Mormon Church without fully appreciating the level of sacrifices that they will be asked to make over time, most do understand that they will be asked to sacrifice, and certainly do not expect the Mormon Church to give them “aid” or “support.” 

At least initially, the calculus is somewhat different for the Malawians introduced to the Mormon Church.  Because of the overwhelming poverty in Malawi, and the vast amounts of foreign aid—much of which is channeled through Christian churches, Malawians are likely to have a different orientation—having even less appreciation of the need to sacrifice as a church member.  Tithing and fast offering, the subject of early missionary lessons, may not sound as bad—Malawians earn very little and much of their income is tied up in agricultural production—so many bags of maize or pigeon peas from the fields they work.  They may not know that they are expected to “tithe” on the crops they harvest.  Fairly early on, new members learn that the Mormon Church does provide some aid to members.  It covers transport costs on occasion to get members to District meetings; members can be loans to attend school (under what is called the “perpetual education fund”); and, if they are needy, and have urgent needs that cannot be handled with family support, they may turn to the Mormon Church for temporary assistance.[6]
How dangerous is it for an individual to join the Mormon Church for the wrong reasons?  A number of years ago I can remember coming across an odd, but now quite famous, quote by the British poet T.S. Elliot:  “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”  However one may feel about the comment, it does tee up the question.  However, I doubt sincerely that staying in the Mormon Church with the expectation of material reward, for anyone, is a sustainable proposition over the long-haul.   Too much is asked of church members—both in terms of their financial commitments and voluntary contributions of time and service—to make that work.   So whatever benefits one might gain in the short-term are certainly offset by the financial and service commitments that members are expected to make.  Moreover, while members can get church welfare to tide them over periods of need, the Mormon leaders are careful when administering welfare assistance to ensure the program is not abused.[7]  Moreover, the Mormon Church is really only a comfortable place for “true believers”—those willing to make significant sacrifices for their faith.  Those less committed, sooner or later, feel out of place.   Membership is not just about sacrifice and service, it is also about being obedient, trying to keep the commandments.  Those not willing to do so, and intent on hiding their disobedience, will not find the fellowship in the Mormon Church reassuring—they will find themselves uncomfortable, will be quick to criticize, will seek to dissemble and hide their true intents.  Christ himself spoke to a similar issue:  “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.  He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.  But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”  John 3: 17-21.  Hence, those joining the Mormon Church for personal gain are not apt to remain active in the Mormon Church for very long—they will find it easier to distance themselves.[8]   It is usually easier to “get” aid from others. 
Is any good likely to come to those who come to the Mormon Church hoping to get “aid” rather than out of a belief in the basic principles of Mormonism?  Certainly the odds are stacked against this.  But there is the hope that association with Mormons will, over time, wear off on those less committed.  They will grow to appreciate the unique spirit felt in church meetings, take comfort in the fellowship among members, feel enlighted by Church doctrine.  There is not a congregation in the Mormon Church where less active members have not be touched, even after years of inactivity, and then been brought back into full fellowship in the Mormon Church.  Of course, having members in a congregation, who are out to get something for themselves, can be corrosive for other members.  They may become envious, jaded, or critical when they see others, less committed, get commodities from the Mormon Church.  Hence, Mormon leaders go to considerable lengths to ensure that principles of self-reliance, obedience and sacrifice are taught so that new members can be independent, have self-esteem and be contributing and healthy members of the Mormon Church and that the welfare system is not taken advantage of.

[1] See 1 Cor. 13.
[2] See John 6: 30-31.
[3] See ______________ supra.
[4] See Matt. 4: 4.
[5] For example, as a part of the Mormon Church’s unified curriculum program, “tithing” will likely surface a couple times a year as a topic for discussion in Sunday School, Priesthood and Relief Society.  During the month of December, bishops throughout the Mormon Church will remind members of tithing settlement—the request that member visit individually with the bishop to account as to their observance of the principle of tithing—declaring privately whether they are full or partial tithe payers.  With such limited direct attention to “tithing,” one would imagine that members are quite casual in paying tithing, and the rate of full-tithe paying in the Mormon Church is low.  That however is not the case.  The importance of the principle of tithing is underscored in that it is one of the conditions to getting a temple recommend.
[6] An additional advantage—one never considered in the United States—is how nice the Church buildings are.  The Blantyre Building, the first building constructed by the Church in Malawi, is likely the nicest, or certainly one of the nicest, buildings most members will have seen.  Attending Church is a pleasant experience—the seats are comfortable, there is running water and toilets, carpets on the floors, nothing one would notice back home.  We have not visited in a home in Blantyre—though I am sure there are many—as nice as the Blantyre Building.  The other two meetinghouses are more modest, but even those are nice enough.  Many Zingwangwa members when arriving at Church immediately plug their cell phones into the electric sockets, sparing them the cost or hassle of charging them at home or at an internet store.  
[7] The Mormon Church believes strongly in the principles underlying its welfare program.  Those who have been blessed materially are expected to contribute to the welfare of those who are needy—that is an important part of “sacrifice” and “consecration,” learning to overcome the things of the world.  In turn, those who are needy are expected to work, where possible, for what they receive, to learn new skills, and to become self-reliant.   Great efforts are taken to ensure the program is administered tightly to avoid abuse.  See “Mormon Church Welfare Principles” supra.