I am experiencing one of those dreams where you feel like you wake up and you are in a different world altogether. Nothing you clung to as being familiar is left to hold on to. This is the reality of our Church today.
For just a couple of minutes I would like to take a look at what has happened to the culture of the Church I grew up in, and try to see how it got to where it is today. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still the same church it has always been, but that is the very thing that has changed. There is a big difference between the church and the Church. This very difference is what has made all the difference to what is happening. Please let me explain.
The church of the past
The church is the structure of the organization. The Church is the gospel the church teaches. You will see this difference portrayed in my writing by the lower case c or the upper case c in all my articles. If I am referring to the teachings or to the body of the people of Christ, it is the Church. If it is the building or the organization that is a legal entity it is the church.
Growing up in a military home we moved, on average, every couple of years the whole 19 years of my early life. The organization of the church was the backbone of our social life. We went to the church welfare farms and cleaned the chapels. We did service projects to clean people’s yards and even participated in the old Road Shows that you rarely hear about any more. The church kept you busy. It was the social hub in so many ways for the members of the church.
We had church meetings during the week, and met more than once at different times of the day on Sundays. Traveling to Stake conference was an all day affair. We would travel for a couple of hours to the Stake Center (We lived in Derby, Kansas and had to drive to Topeka). After the two hour session in the morning there was an hour for lunch before the two hour session in the afternoon. We either brought with us bread bags full of warm tuna or bologna sandwiches or, if we were lucky, the Stake would provide box lunches for everyone. That was a treat!
Over time the organization began to change. The revelation on the priesthood came in the late 70’s and opened doors to great missionary fields that didn’t exist before. The makeup of our congregations began to markedly change. It was a thrilling time. Then all the meetings got consolidated. It was like living through the death of an old friend. We had to say goodbye to mid week primary and Relief Society, to Morning Sunday School and evening Sacrament meeting. We went to church on Sunday then went home and looked at each other with an expression that said, “Well, now what do we do?”
Our lives changed incrementally. After many years in the new consolidated schedule, the world changed again, and we had to drop the last hour of meetings. For a church accustomed to long hours in many meetings – more so than any other religion I know of on the planet – we were suddenly down to just two hours a week for our main meetings. Again, we went home and looked at each other and wondered what we were supposed to do with an extra hour on our hands on Sunday.
I had lived through a time when the church and it’s gatherings consumed our lives, to a time when we meet in a block of hours once a week, but were on our own the rest of the week, to now a short two hour block that leaves us free to do what we wish for a whole week. This took a whole new kind of thinking about what it meant to be part of the church/Church. It was like being an adolescent all over again – awkward.
The church of the present
We had some really great Presidents to lead the church from the 90’s till now. President Gordon B. Hinckley was charismatic, upbeat and optimistic in a world that was quickly becoming cynical and mean. He encouraged us to get online and begin participating in the world-wide dialog that was taking place about this church. President Thomas S. Monson was a great story teller and demonstrator of service who furthered that message. We could see the world changing around us. We felt that something was about to happen, but couldn’t put our finger on it. I think it was difficult to pinpoint the feeling because the Brethren and general officers of the church were so supportive and upbeat about being good in a darkening world.
Then came President Russell M. Nelson. In just a couple short years we have organizationally changed to a ministering platform, a word formerly reserved for Protestant faiths. It has been difficult for many to come to grips with ministering. With many millions of members, and all of us in a different place in our understanding of spiritual things, some of us struggle more than others to figure out how the Lord wants us to serve our brothers and sisters both in and outside the gospel.
It is like time is speeding up. Now, instead of maybe one change to the way the church operates happening in a lifetime, we have leapfrogged to changes in organizational operations at every single General Conference. We got ministering, new policies on social issues and population groups, changes to the age of missionaries, the release of Young Men presidencies, the office and duties of Bishops clarified and refined, the expansion of the responsibilities of the Relief Society Presidents and the Elders Quorum Presidents, the consolidation of the priesthood into only one general body of the priesthood who all meet and act as Elders, and the introduction of so many advancements in temple building and family history software that makes finding our kith and kin easier today than it ever has been in the history of the world. It is all rather exhausting just to try to think about it!
The latest change in the church came with the introduction of Covid-19, the coronavirus. We are just at the beginning of the outbreak, and people are still nervous as to what it may mean to each person and family. On March 12, 2020, less than a month before the bicentennial of the Restoration of the Lord’s gospel on the earth, the church made a historic decision to cease all large gatherings until it is deemed safe to be together again as Saints. A worldwide shutdown of the Lord’s church. Unthinkable.
This organization has been the backbone of my social and spiritual life. I am now 62 years old, and not a year has passed in all that time but what me and my ancestors have shared a common understanding and expectation of life and the church we have belonged to. It was impenetrable. It was the Lord’s organization, and nothing could stop it. Now a creature the microscopic size of a virus has shut the whole world of Saints out of all our chapels. I am guessing the Temples won’t be far behind. Even six months ago I couldn’t have imagined anything that would be able to stop all the work for our kindred dead. What a seeming blow to the advancement of the Lord’s kingdom on both sides of the veil!
The church/Church of the future
I include both forms of the Church/church in this part, because they are becoming more and more interchangeable as time goes on. The future of the Church is not uncertain. It most definitely is certain. No virus or calamity is going to change the Lord’s timetable. If there is one thing I have learned in my lifetime it is that what the Lord decrees happens. Period. End of story. What we don’t know is how it will happen or when.
The change to shut down all the chapels of the world and stop all large gatherings may appear to be a setback, but with every setback the Saints have ever been given in this dispensation came an opportunity for them to rise and shine in a new and glorious way. When they were driven from their homes for the second, third, and fourth time, then driven from the state into the wilderness, it must have seemed to them that the progress of the Church/church was faltering. But what is the Church but the nature and quality of the people who make up His kingdom on earth. The more holy they became as a people, no matter what their physical circumstances were, the stronger God’s kingdom became. This is true for us today.
We may feel like we are facing an uncertain time. True, we don’t see the end of this dilemma before us. But we know that if we seek the Spirit and listen to our inspired leaders we will be safe, on either side of the veil we end up on in the next year or two. There is much that will happen in the near future. Time does in fact appear to be speeding up. At least events are happening more quickly than in any other generation. How we face these new challenges, either with despair and fear or hope and determination to excel will determine our individual advancement in the eyes of God.
Sometimes I feel like that original generation that left Egypt with Moses. I am afraid that people my age and older will have to die off for the more faithful to be allowed into the promised land. The church/Church is changing so rapidly that there are times when I struggle to know where I belong in it. But there were a faithful few among the Israelites who left Egypt and that were allowed to enter the Promised Land. I hope I can follow my priesthood leaders and stay close to the Spirit so I will be able to keep up with Israel on our journey forward.