This week, the dudes who brought us South Park are debuting their musical based on their ever-famous (or infamous) Mormon episode. Book of Mormon has been met with mostly positive reviews but has not been without the negative blowback that typically follows when South Park pokes fun at a particular religion.
Now, it is no secret that foundational Christian doctrine differs from LDS theology in key areas. Christians have made it a sport to argue with and generally make life miserable for Mormons when given the chance. However, we have no problem lining up behind them to protest against the staple gay marriage bill that comes around every other voting season. It is a demented relationship at best.
But this post is about methodology, not theology.
Living in Arizona, we are surrounded by a large population of LDS (Latter Day Saints). They are our neighbors, co-workers, and *GASP* friends. Over the years I have come to respect several things about the Mormon church as an organization and community. These characteristics are things I think the Christian church in America needs to take notes on.
1. Public Relations
If Christianity had a PR firm, it should have been fired decades ago. The fact that we don’t is so painfully obvious that preaching[raw][image align="right"]http://www.i4m.com/think/thumb/South-Park-Mormons.jpg[/image][/raw] against our past failures has almost replaced the Gospel itself. Every Christian engaged with a peer in a spiritual conversation must first overcome the typical “hypocrisy” debate and then tackle the issues of the Crusades, Manifest Destiny and the bombing of abortion clinics (just to name a few).
But the Mormon faith has a tainted past too. Outside of church historians and a handful of ill-intended educated Christians, people don’t know about the dark side of the religion. This dark side includes a massacre of 120 men, women and children settlers less than 150 years ago on American soil.
Instead, the Mormon church is known for being “too nice.” People are annoyed at how perfect its followers seem. Overall, there is a consistent approach to works and Mormonism has branded itself as the religion of good deeds.
Like Christians, Mormons hold some pretty wacky-sounding beliefs too. Try and describe communion to a non believer:
What you say: “Well, we eat bread and pretend it is the body of Jesus and we drink grape juice and call it His blood. We do this together once a month at least.”
What they hear: “We practice ritualistic cannibalism or a regular basis.”
Mormons believe they will one day be exactly like God, but having dominion over their own world. But this belief is buried and lost on even some of its followers. And the way they describe it makes you want to sign up and begin picking out names for you own celestial realm. From a public relations standpoint, the fluidity and consistency at which the LDS church has handled itself is almost flawless.
2. Staffing Issues
Have you ever met a Mormon pastor? Have you come across a guy in jeans a flip flops at your local Starbucks, reading blogs and listening to sermons and getting paid for it by his church? Nope, and you never will.
That’s just not how Mormons roll. Instead, they decided that for each local church body (aka “ward”) there would be several key volunteer leaders (aka “bishops”) and they would be responsible for the delegating the responsibility of running the church to other volunteers. The music, message, and other service elements are performed by volunteer church members each week who are on a sort of “pastoral rotation.” Each year, the church member is assigned his or her “calling” which tells them what duty they be performing in the coming months. The downside of this is that a guy like myself might be stuck pulling diaper duty in the nursery thus propelling me to the megachurch down the road where I don’t have do anything.
The upside of this is that it keeps cost down and every church member has taken ownership of their church. Each family is invested in making sure things run well and the vision of the church is executed. Who doesn’t want that for their local body?
In the average Christian church, the largest budget section is the salary of the staff. We have managed to take a couple curious verses in the New Testament and turn them into a mandate for creating medium-sized corporations complete with corporate perks and parking spaces. I am not going to make a case against paid staff in this post, but it is possible and seems to be doing wonders for the fastest-growing religion in the world right now.
3. Engaging the Community
I recently heard a speaker at a conference of church leaders chastise the audience for focusing their time and energy “building towers of Babel” instead of engaging their community around them. In my conversations with people after the sessions, I was amused and saddened at how many leader assumed the speaker was directing his message to someone else in the room. I never heard one person say, “Wow, that really hit me personally. My church needs to make some changes.”
[raw][image align="left" caption="Mormon missionaries."]http://www.wordsoftruth.net/wotvol10/wotbulletin11222009_files/mormonsonbikes.jpg[/image][/raw]I think this is because as church leaders, we know what we need to do (talk to tour neighbors, etc) but we don’t know how to do it. The Mormons are great at this. Granted, their strategy is simple and hasn’t changed for decades, but they have conditioned their community now to know who they are and what they are about based on looks alone. They use pairs of scrapping young men, wearing dark slacks, white short-sleeved button up shirts and dark ties. They get around on mountain bikes and they always have helmets on. When they come to your door, you know what they are there for: to talk or to help.
One time, a friend of mine who is a Christian told me with great joy how he some Mormons came to his door and asked if there was anything they could do to help him. He put them to work for hours on a hot summer day picking weeds in his backyard. To him, this experience was a win for the real Kingdom, he was glad to take up their time and got joy from relaying the story. I, on the other hand, wondered why the real Kingdom wasn’t the one with the followers who were willing to sacrifice their time and sweat for their community.
We need to learn from the Mormons that engaging your community doesn’t require a ministry or director. Talking to your neighbors means putting their needs above those of your church and asking your congregation to do the same.
4. Social Media
One recurring theme here at Shrinkthechurch is that it is not enough to just HAVE a social media profile for your church, you need to USE it. There is a major difference between talking TO people through Twitter and Facebook and talking WITH them. The first is just traditional, old marketing that gets unused. The second is what make social media work.
The LDS Church is excellent at talking with people across their social media sites. There are several Facebook pages for the different sections and interests and multiple Twitter feeds users can follow for church news, devotions etc. The official LDS Facebook page is updated daily with videos, polls and conversations and has almost half a million users.
Recently, they started the, “I am a Mormon” YouTube campaign where average church members are followed around in their everyday life and proclaim, “My name is ________. I am an artist and I’m a Mormon.” These videos are featured on a microsite that engages prospective converts and even allows them to chat live with average Mormons about their faith.
This is the biggest and most important. While there are varying sects of the LDS religion, for the most part, they are one unified body that offers a consistent experience across all regions and wards. The statement of faith for all communities is the exact same and there is no competition among branches.
Simply put, the Mormon church is the closest thing to a Wal Mart religion there is out there.
On the other hand, Protestant Christianity is always fighting and competing within its parts. In every suburb of America, you can find a handful of Christian churches vying for the love and affection of the same group of people. There is palpable sibling rivalry just below the surface of our churches and as the megachurch movement expands, it is only getting worse. I am unqualified to offer a solution here, but lets look at the LDS Church for ideas.
Now, I know the Mormon church has its flaws. It is not perfect and they may be the first to admit that. But in a recent interview with NPR about their musical making a mockery of Mormonism, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were asked to comment on how they have been received by Mormons. I expected the usual backlash, condemnation and palaver. Instead, the Mormon church responded this way:
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
For Parker and Stone, they said the more reactions they read from Mormons, the more they like them. I’m starting to feel the same way.
Christianity has a lot to learn from its wanna-be second cousin twice removed.