Elder Perry and the Church’s Image

Elder Perry’s Saturday conference address focused on how we present ourselves and how we are perceived by others.

Religious affiliation affects how we perceive others. For example, when I lived in Oregon it wasn’t uncommon to see the little “Christian fish” on business storefronts. (I see this occasionally in California, but not nearly so frequently.)

At first, this was a value-neutral statement in my mind. I was just as happy to frequent a business as a non- business. However, my experiences with the businesses were subpar, and I came to associate the as indicating, “We’re not as good as the other guys, so we’ll try and get your business by playing on your religious sympathies.” In other words, the created an unlevel playing field, and the non- businesses had to work harder to compensate for the natural advantage that the businesses received.

So what effect would a have on a business storefront?

I’m reminded of the 2006 religious attitudes survey that showed Mormons are one of the least liked religious groups in America. And since the survey was done five years ago Prop. 8 couldn’t have even figured into it. Why don’t people like Mormons, and what can church members do about it?

These are the questions that Elder Perry’s talk addresses. His counsel falls in two main categories:

  1. The internet is a great forum for correcting misinformation.
  2. Don’t be obnoxious in sharing the gospel.

The problems is that these two points kind of contradict each other. Corrections are obnoxious. People don’t feel good when they’re told, “Actually, you’re wrong.”

One key to resolving the friction is to be responsive but not aggressive. One of my favorite statements from Elder Perry was, “Gauge their level of interest by the questions they ask…It is better for them to ask than for you to tell.” You can’t answer a question that’s not being asked.

However, the line that hit closest to home for me was, “We want to avoid becoming defensive, or argue in any way.” A lot of the reason that I don’t discuss religion with people is that I naturally get passionate about things I discuss. I’m aware of it, but I haven’t figured out how to do anything about it. In most contexts it’s a good thing, but with religion…not so much. Passion comes across as “defensive” and “argumentative”.

What I most appreciated was his focus on love. Love reduces the friction and awkwardness, and allows us to view each other forgivingly. Love listens, and love gives the benefit of the doubt. In my experience, “All you need is love,” is not a bad foundation to work from.

And finally, because I can’t help myself, I’ll leave you with this Elder-Callister-inspired piece of artwork:

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36 comments for “Elder Perry and the Church’s Image

  1. The two-dot scheme has to be an all-time worst metaphor/image for the relationship between two complex and independently produced texts, and could only be surpassed by pretending that they are only, in fact, one dot.

  2. I thought the 2 point & line metaphor was pretty weak as well. The point was with just one point (the Bible) you could draw an infinite number of lines (i.e. churches) but you can only draw one line (church) through 2 points (Bible and Book of Mormon). The metaphor breaks apart rather quickly when you realize there are several churches that still believe in the Book of Mormon.

  3. Eric, what about the PoGP? (;) I guess you could use a quadrilateral. But you know, I like me a little geometry in conference.

  4. CJ #6: Or an Old Testament and a New Testament. Or two apostles, Luke and Paul. Or whatever.

  5. With your three dots, Dane, couldn’t you at least triangulate an epicenter? :) Agreed, though, that geometry axioms don’t serve well as theological proofs.

  6. @ Dan (2) – no, because RLDS doesn’t really believe or use the Book of Mormon much if at all any more. I would know since I taught a retired Community of Christ pastor on my mission just a few years ago.

  7. I liked Elder Perry’s talk also, and it seemed of a piece with my favorite talk in recent memory about member missionary work, Elder Ballard’s talk on creating a gospel-centered home. I think there’s a disconnect from this rhetoric at the “big church” level and the continued emphasis on missionary at the “small church” level, at least where I live. We still get a lot of pressure from local leadership and missionaries in our area to aggressively pursue referrals and share the gospel with everyone possible.

    Is there a way for the GAs to tweak the missionary program so that it also aligns with this kindler, gentler vision of member missionary work? I’m completely comfortable trying to be a good example and waiting to answer questions from interested friends, etc, but missionaries who are trying to do a good job are still going to push me to be more assertive than that. I find it an uncomfortable dissonance.

    Also, you can’t rely on “All you need is love” now that President Monson has derided it from the pulpit, can you? :)

  8. The problem with these kinds of talks is that the overzealous glom on to the parts that were meant for the duff-sitters, and vice versa.

    The happy medium is as rare in human affairs as happiness.

  9. ““All you need is love,” is not a bad foundation to work from.”

    That is, if one doesn’t mind building a superstructure grounded in incoherence.

  10. @ Dan (11) – Well, that was my experience based on speaking with a man on a remote island in Tahiti in 2003. It may be different closer to HQ, but the RLDS church is actually pretty established there, it’s an interesting story.

    I don’t see the dichotomy between full-time missionary duties and member duties. Our job is to prepare and invite friends, the missionaries’ job is to teach (and invite when they have no one to teach).

  11. Re: comments #1-9 — I’m disappointed that no one supplied any analogies involving trigonometric functions, matrices, or differentials. Come on, impress me people! Bonus points if you provide graphics :)

    Cameron N. (#10) — I’ve heard that before. I’m planning to attend our local CofC service this Sunday, so I’ll see what I can learn there.

    John AC — Finding is the hard part and teaching is the fun part. Missionaries like the focus on member finding because it makes being a missionary easy (at least, I know that was certainly the case for me). Members like to have missionaries do the finding for the same reason. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses.

    jader3rd — mmmm…..a burger sounds great right now.

    Adam (#15) — You speak the truth.

    James — Coherence is overrated. Life is complicated and contradictory. So is love. So that works for me.

  12. Had a Church of Christ member in one of my military units about 4 years ago. He said they rarely use the BoM and don’t really consider Jo. Smith a prophet, just a great man who founded the church, but not someone who spoke to God. He claimed his dad was a higher up in the CofC, but I can’t confirm it. But for this kid, the BoM meant nothing and neither did Jo. Smith.

    #12 John AC, I’m meeting with our Mission President tomorrow evening, what question would you ask him about the disconnect and rhetoric? I can get back to you.

  13. Can’t we just turn the plane with the dots on it on its edge? That edge would then be a straight line through which all the dots go.

  14. #19 Jax, How about, Why do your missionaries keep asking me to set a date to have someone ready to listen to the discussions when the apostles are telling me to set a good example, not to be pushy, and to allow gospel conversations to happen organically?

  15. “… RLDS doesn’t really believe or use the Book of Mormon much if at all any more.”

    What I find interesting is that our church, in the early days, didn’t seem to use the Book of Mormon much (except to say, “only a true prophet of God could have produced this, so you should listen to what he’s saying to us now”) either. Did Joseph Smith ever teach any great sermons that quoted heavily from the BofM? Did Brigham Young?

  16. The proper response to the diagram is that the D&C dot coincides with the Book of Mormon dot. Surely, no non-Mormon who thinks Jopseh Smith is author of both books could think they teach divergent doctrines. And if you are coming from the standard LDS perspective, in which both books originate from God, the same identity holds true.

    A more mathematically rigorous diagram of the Bible and the Book of Mormon would have Bible dots representing divergent interpretations located in various places within a multi-dimensional space in which each dimension is a scale concerning principle doctrines, such as the corporeal nature of God. The Book of Mormon dot would come down in this doctrinal space and identify which of the many Bible interpretations is consonant with latter-day revelation. In each of the dimensions there might be several Bible interpretation dots that share the same value on a particular scale, though divergent in other dimensions. This is what the Book of Mormon claims for itself, that it restores the correct understanding of the Bible, by presenting itself as a standard or “canon” against which the other Bible interpretations can be measured. If we accept the Book of Mormon as authentic, then it is a tool that is available for this purpose, one that we should be grateful for.

    I assume that Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible was an effort to describe the version of the Bible that is in this “sweet spot” coincident with the Book of Mormon and the modern revelations in the D&C and especially the Pearl of Great Price.

  17. Raymond, I’m having a hard time taking you seriously when you say, “the D&C dot coincides with the Book of Mormon dot.” Each book has seriously divergent views on the nature of God, what happens after we die, how the atonement works, polygamy, etc. In the church today we’ve found solutions to harmonize those differences, but the line that connects them is not a straight one.

  18. Dane: If you are going to argue about how to apply my analogy, you should at least follow its rules. In a multi-dimensional space, there is a straight line that connects any two dots, no matter how far apart they are. If your assertion is that the D&C and Book of Mormon are divergent on various doctrinal scales, so they are far apart in this space, then that is the way you should say it.

    Then you should offer us in the reasonable near future a blog post that explains your viewpoint, which I am sure would be very interesting. And perhaps we could have another discussion on what those perceived divergences mean to the question of Joseph’s alleged authorship of the Book of Mormon, since most of the significant doctrinal revelations in the D&C came within only a few years of the translation in 1829.

    Or perhaps I misunderstand what you mean. Are you suggesting that the Book of Mormon itself has some ambiguities as to our understanding of its doctrinal meaning, so that it is more of a fuzzy presence in this doctrinal space, and that minimizing the distance between the position of the D&C and the Book of Mormon might be a means of selecting interpretations that are most compatible with both?

  19. That could be a fun post to write. Let me get back to you on that :) I suppose that the existence of incompatible doctrines between the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants could bolster Joseph’s claims, since it would be reasonable to assume that if he had written both of them himself, you would find the doctrines treated and supported similarly in both.

  20. So the mission president came to meet with me and our branch president to talk about the missionary work we are doing. It was very disappointing. He talked alot, and gave us lots of anecdotes about missionary success, but never asked us specifics about our area and never asked either of us if we had any questions, and then left. So I didn’t get to ask him about that disconnect between local leaders and the GA’s. But given his ‘training’ (lecture?) I don’t know that much of an answer would have been forthcoming. Sorry.

  21. 23 Mark – Check here:

    Brigham Young quoted from the BoM at least 351 times.

    According to that resource, Joseph Smith quoted from the BoM 2147 times.

    Now, I’m not sure how these references are compiled. I’m assuming it’s some kind of data/content mining. Sometimes it seems like the references are really meaningful, as in the speaker says, “As we read in the 31st chapter of Alma…” and other times the speaker is using language similar to what’s in the BoM, as in, “after the manner of happiness.”

  22. Aw, Chris you had me all excited there. Now I’m not so sure. As an example, supposedly Joseph Smith gets points in the BYU reference system for referring to 1 Ne 1:8 (“And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.”) by having said this:

    “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”

    Hmmm. OK. If they say so.

  23. Ya like I said, I’m not sure how the references were generated – so my use of “quoted” is probably not accurate. Sometimes it’s very tight and perhaps more often it’s an allusion to a verse or something related to that verse.

    You could also find a JoD online that you can just search for things like “Alma”, etc. I’ve definitely come across references in the JoD which directly cite BoM scriptures.

  24. Just to continue the tangent… it just seems in general most of JS’s sermons were this way. He took scriptural language and made it his “own”. You might say in a similar manner in which Elder McConkie said in his own talk, “Though you might think these are the words of scripture, words spoken by other Apostles and Prophets, true it is that they were first proclaimed by others, but they are now mine.”

    So when JS used words like “plan of redemption”, he didn’t directly refer to Alma, but that’s the only place that term is used. Same with “power of [the] atonement”, which is only used in Nephi. I assume that was just his style. But I am aware of times he also used NT scriptures and expounded on them. Perhaps some of this has to do with the way the BoM was published? You had verse numbers and could reference the bible, but not so for the BoM (correct?). I wonder how much JoD direct citations increased after verse numbers were added. Still, JS must have been interested in the book, because didn’t he revise it in 1840?

  25. So here we are, four months later, Chris, and I found this interesting bit at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=18&num=2&id=496#_edn12

    “But a wealth of data—Smith’s sermons and editorials, contemporary accounts, early missionary journals—confirm that Joseph was relentless and adamant in presenting the story of the Book of Mormon’s reception and translation as the paramount sign of his prophethood, even as he distanced himself—and potential readers—from what lay between its covers. He never sermonized from it. He virtually never quoted from it. After its publication, he never demonstrated intimate knowledge of its content or story line or themes. It is as if, like a court stenographer, he felt the text flow through him without ever taking cognizance of it. There is no evidence that he studied the Book of Mormon, or even read it after its publication (except to make the most minor of grammatical changes for subsequent editions). Similarly, early missionaries like William McLellin and John F. Boynton would read to potential converts the testimonies of the three witnesses, affirming the reality of the gold plates and Joseph’s prophetic powers of translation, but they do not indicate they ever employed the text of the Book of Mormon itself as a basis for discussion, catechism, or conversion.12 During the seven years of the Church’s Nauvoo period, when Joseph was preaching in public on a regular basis, the hundreds of recorded pages of his sermons contain only a handful of brief allusions to the Book of Mormon—and none of them involve sustained discussion of doctrine or any other content.”

    My feeling about this is that the lessons the Book of Mormon teaches didn’t really apply to 19th century America. I think the Book of Mormon is much more applicable to us now, when a lot of Americans consider this nation to be standing on the brink.

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