(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) LDS General Conference is over, and the “big” discourses are now being pored over by bloggers (here) and well-reported (here) and (here). To me, though, an equally significant discourse was delivered by Bonnie L. Oscarson, the LDS Church’s Young Women General President. Her talk is an acknowledgment that many inactive or semi-active LDS members do possess testimonies, and knowledge, of the church’s teachings.
Just last week, at my kids’ MMA/boxing gym, I was chatting with an elderly woman who is an LDS temple worker, about our lives in the church. She told me that for a long time, before she became active in the church, she had a strong testimony. “You can have a testimony, and not be converted,” she told me.
I listened with interest, but was a little skeptical. “How could one have a strong testimony and not be coming to church?” was my internal question. Surprisingly (to me), one of the “smaller conference talks,” was directed specifically to that issue.
Sister Oscarson taught that a testimony of the Gospel can be gained through having faith and following the commandments of God. At the same time, she echoed my friend’s counsel that conversion follows a testimony: “Oscarson said: “Conversion comes as we live pure and virtuous lives and enjoy the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Conversion comes as we understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and acknowledge Him as our Savior and Redeemer, and allow the Atonement to take effect in our lives.”
Although active Mormons make sincere efforts to bring inactive members back into activity, there still exists, too often, (in my opinion) the assumption that the inactive member has “lost” his or her testimony, or never had one. The idea that a church member could have a testimony but not attend church is hard for many to imagine. I have sat in ward meetings where the inactive member’s excuse of “I know the church is true so I don’t have to go” is treated by some with a combination of skepticism and even derision. I’ve shared that skepticism and derision, to be honest.
Mormonism is a service- and ritual-oriented religion. Active members are expected to hold church callings, visit members regularly, pay a 10 percent of income tithing, pay fast offerings and, if they have a recommend, visit LDS temples and participate in ceremonies there. When a member fulfills these requirements, it’s easy to think, “there’s a member who is doing what is needed to have a testimony.”
But one doesn’t, as quickly, feel the same when visiting the inactive member who is never in church, who treats visitors kindly, but gently rebuffs invitations to attend church meetings. Sister Oscarson is making an appeal to those members’ worth and reminding those active members who visit them that they should not treat inactive members with condescension, but as fellow followers, and fellow members of the church, equal in worth in God’s eyes.
Inactivity is a persistent problem in the LDS Church. Placing “conversion” as a step beyond having a testimony provides another rationale for missionary work for members, one that goes beyond teaching principles. It requires that visitors, missionaries or members, treat their visitors as equals, and attempt to persuade these inactive members that they need to be converted to church activity so their talents, testimony, and fervor can be used to help convert others.
It will be interesting to see if LDS Church activity rates increase over the next several years. Certainly, there will be more efforts to “convert” other than Sister Oscarson’s significant discourse.
I need to add that for about 21 months, while living in Boston, I was semi-active, and that is putting it charitably. I attended church about 10 times in that era, but I always felt I had a testimony.