A while back my friend Melanie J asked me why I think our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, grows so slowly in the South. I've been mulling this question over for a few months now, and I think I've come up with a pretty good answer.
But first: my street cred.
I was born in North Carolina, raised in North Carolina, and, except for the three years it took me to get a degree from BYU, I have lived in the southern states for all of my 33 years, including four years in Memphis, TN for my husband's postsecondary education, and some time in South Carolina.
I was also raised a member of the LDS church -- we are more commonly referred to as Mormons. Young Mormon missionaries knocked on my parents' door a few years before I was born, and when they decided to be baptized, they grabbed on for dear life and never looked back.
So. I know the South. I know the Mormon faith. And I think I understand a little why they don't mix too well. I speak from experience, but without authority. Take my words with a grain of salt, and know that my opinions are just that: opinions.
I live in a smallish town -- we have chain restaurants and even a little mall, but we do not have a high crime rate, any buildings taller than the courthouse, or a freeway with more than two lanes in each direction. What we do have is a Baptist church on every corner. Without looking at the phone book, I can count . . . fourteen just within a few miles of my house. If we add in Methodists, the big Catholic church downtown, a couple of Presbyterians, the Lutheran church attached to my kids' preschool, and several Seventh-Day Adventists, it starts to look like Utah, only varied.
People already have religion here -- and they are devout, faithful, loving people. They love the same Jesus Christ that I do. They take meals to sick people just like I do. They send their kids to Sunday School just like I do. They read their Bibles every day just like I try to do. They set excellent examples of good Christian service. But they don't want anything new.
This is not to say there are not small-minded individuals here and there who do their part to discourage members and investigators alike from attending. There are certain congregations here, and all through the north, south, east and west, whose pastors notoriously preach against the LDS faith. They arm their congregants with pamphlets and talking points to use should they encounter a Mormon, but there isn't as much of that going on as you might think. Too often, those people are friends with a good Mormon family or two and the stuff they hear at church just doesn't jive with the things they know from experience.
And what is that experience? I have found the people I go to church with here to be an extremely interesting and diverse group. In our congregation, we have business executives, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. We have retired soldiers, entrepreneurs, and politicians. We have factory workers, musicians, builders, and artists. Members of our ward (Mormon-ese for congregation) are involved in community organizations and local charities; they have children in the schools and own retirement homes on the golf courses (almost as numerous as the Baptist churches); they represent the Gospel well (or sometimes not) in nearly every corner of this little town. We are normal people. (However. I must insert here that we have our fair share of crazy people -- and they aren't always the best PR for the church. But every church has crazy people! They make the world go 'round!)
But, boy, let me tell you, we work hard. My sister serves as head of the Young Women's organization in her little branch out in the mountains. Her husband serves in the Branch Presidency, which is the local leadership. He also works with the Cub Scouts in their church-sponsored troop, while she teaches seminary (religious education for high school students) one night a week to the far-flung youth of their branch.
Here, visiting and home teaching routes sometimes cover a distance of 60 miles (or more!) and 10 families (or more!).
One of my best friends began coming to church here when my twins were newborn. I was also serving as the Young Women's president and my husband was Young Men's president. We ran around that church building juggling babies and tossing diapers back and forth down the halls while teaching classes, managing the inevitable teenager crises, and planning activities (a trip to Nauvoo, no less!) for the 35 or so youth of our ward. She later told me that while I looked like someone she might like to know, I was way to busy for her to "bother" me.
And if I'm being honest, I'm not sure I would do it if I didn't already know it's true. To join a church where you have to work hard to keep the work going may be a little off-putting to someone who hasn't received a witness. Being a member of this church requires a level of commitment that some people are just not willing to give. Especially if they've already got religion.
And especially if that religion is truly a way of life: many people are so heavily involved in their church communities on a social level that being baptized into the LDS church really feels like a divorce from all of their friends. When your family, friends, neighbors, and childhood confidants still go to the same church on the corner where you have gone since you were born, it's a really big deal to start going someplace else.
But people do it. People change their lives -- the Gospel changes their lives. It certainly has changed mine.
Any questions? Any further insights? Please share!