Monday, June 14, 2010

Some Southern Gospel Perspective

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!

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  1. Excellent post, Emily. I don't envy you. Growing up in Utah, for most of my life, I take a lot of things for granted.

  2. Last night PJ and I went to a wedding where he saw a lot of people he used to go to church with before he "crossed over" and he said he felt like he died. He recognized a lot of people, but everything was so slightly different. It is a sacrafice but truth far outweighs convenience.

  3. Wow, that was fascinating! Not a subject I know much about, of course and I really enjoyed learning more about your neck of the woods.

  4. Fascinating post (yeah, I know Kim just said that, but I'm repeating it). It's always interesting for me to get a different perspective.

    And honestly, there are many days when I'm surprised that anyone makes any church switch, for many of the reason that you mentioned here.

  5. Excellent post. I don't your depth of experience, having only lived in the South for 8 years now, but I think you are spot-on on everything. Great post, InkMom.

  6. I really enjoyed this. I was actually a devout little Baptist girl my whole life, and was going to church 3 days in seven, when I met two LDS girls in school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
    It was their example ALONE that got my attention and I started asking questions, and then they invited me to hear the missionaries' discussions.
    When I was an adult, I moved from the West back to SC, (as you know, cuz your FIL was my Bishop), we still had the opportunity to share the gospel with many co-workers and neighbors, and tho' they felt like they wanted to change, they did not for the very reasons you stated: their faith and family and friends were one in the same. Still, it did make a difference, because they knew the truth and were often quick to defend my faith should someone else say an unkind/untrue word about it. One day, I do believe, the South will go thru a tremendous conversion--I hope I'm alive to see it.

  7. Love it. Growing up in a rural area where our ward was at first a branch, and there's a church on every corner with anti-info (the northwest has a plethora of churches too, go figure), I totally agree. My mom always tells me not to worry about the other Christians, they'll pick it up real quick like on the other side. Hey, they already love Jesus, the rest will be easy for them.

  8. Wonderful post!

    My daughter served a mission in Georgia. She has a deep love for the saints in the south. I've only visited, but loved how friendly everyone was to me.

  9. I had a great post all typed up and then I couldn't get my sign-in to cooperate.

    Anyway, in short, I can relate to all of this post. I won't go into details, but I will say that hubby and I were raised in Utah, baptized, but not active until a couple years ago. When we made "the change", we lost so many friends that it was just sad and surprising all at once. If only love conquered all...

  10. I like your perspective on the church in the south. The gospel sinks deep there, and it is an honorable thing that people are proud to talk about religion. Sure not that way in other parts of the country.

    And you deserve real credit for working so hard to keep your ward running there. Way to go!

  11. One of the things that I loved about living in North Carolina was how deeply religious everyone was. We let our kids go to Vacation Bible School with our Baptist neighbors, and they came to our son's baptism. It was wonderful.

    (You forgot to mention how hard it would be to give up their blood, I mean sweet tea, if they joined.)

  12. I loved this post! Having grown up in Utah, and then living a few years in Arizona did not prepare me well for my tiny branch and how it is where I live now. It's not the south, but people are VERY religious here, and I think I can relate with everything you said (right down to being YW pres and husband being YM pres). Every single one of my friends goes to church every Sunday, which I think is remarkable. And only 3 of them are Mormons. The rest are Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian and a few other Christian religions.

    I don't feel like any of them would necessarily join the church because of their involvement in their own, but I hope I am doing something to educate them about the LDS church. Because I am the only one many of them have ever met.

  13. Really insightful. Although, keeping the ward together means hard work whether you live in the South or in the middle of Provo. In our ward, many people have 2 or 3 callings because people will say no, or, worse, say yes and then won't show up.

  14. Such a great post. It makes me wish I lived in the South. Seriously.
    I've lived in Idaho all my life. I've never been challenged, VTing has always been easy and convenient.
    I admire you and the work you do.

  15. Thanks for your perspective. Since I grew up in Louisiana, I totally relate to much of what you say although our South Louisiana culture has a large dollop of Catholicism sprinkled in. It's often surprised me when I go back to visit how slowly things have grown in the fifteen years since I moved away but I'd put my finger on "tradition" as the reason why, and I think that's what I hear you saying, too. At least, a lot of it comes down to that, I think.

    Oh, man. Last day before we move. Gotta get back to my boxes but I'm SOOO looking forward to a bloggy reconnect next week. Sheesh.

  16. I don't practice any particular faith but culturally I am Jewish through and through and am proud to be so. I think it's great that your area has "homes" for so many from such a diverse group of people.

  17. I love posts on the why's and wherefores of religious feeling, thoughts, actions etc. Insights from others helps me sort out my own life in a way that is non threatening.

    I'm a fan.

  18. My wife and I moved out to Pennsylvania from Utah last year, and have found exactly what you share in your post. Growing up in Colorado and Utah I didn't find the abundant religious followers that I find here in PA. What is interesting, is that it is easier to share the gospel here than in the West. People want to talk religion and are open to learning about yours. In fact, I was telling my wife the other day that I find it easier to talk about God here than I do in Utah. We were always so worried there that people/members would feel we were trying to be TOO righteous by talking about the gospel. Here people hunger to talk about it. I am not putting down Utah, because we really did love it and miss several aspects about it. However, it is interesting to see how differently the mid-Atlantic approaches spirituality over the West.

  19. I had a similar reaction as a young teen when we lived in Finland. The one big difference, though, is that while most Finns are Lutheran, the majority attend church for Easter and Christmas,and that's about it.

    My friends could hardly believe that I not only went to church every single week but that I had youth activities during the week, my family fasted once a month, and so forth. (Not to mention the stress and busyness that came with WHY we were in the country, Dad being mission president.)

    The great thing with Finns--SUCH good people--is that although it takes forever for that witness to come, once they're committed, they're committed. One of the most devout Mormons I knew there went through SEVEN years of missionaries before getting baptized. But you couldn't drag him away from the Church now.

    And you're so right--this church takes a lot of time and effort to keep things running! Even people with a firm conviction can (and do) drop the ball at times.

  20. I grew up in Florida which really isn't "the south" in any way.

    But with 8 kids in my family we were always getting asked if we were Catholics. Hardly anyone knew who Mormons were.

    Great post! And pretty spot on I'd say!

  21. Very well put! I think you have hit the nail on the head!!! I Love the South and all it's diversity and all of the wonderful baptists and others that have shaped my life!!!

  22. I was talking to a friend recently about conversion in general...It seems (although I have no data to back this up) that both mormon and evangelical missionaries have more success in areas where there is poverty and/or social disconnect. "Seekers" tend to be people who are in need (of anything, really). People who are satisfied with their current level of money or social connections are probably much less likely to be open to something new, no matter who is offering.


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