Infantilizing Our New Converts

April 20, 2004 | 25 comments
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Several weeks ago a friend bore his testimony, and I was amazed at his warmth and power. He spoke precisely in the manner which Richard Bushman has suggested, relating in simple terms how the Gospel has affected his life. I’ve been this man’s friend since he came into the Church. I taught him in gospel essentials, and I watched him as he went to the temple. But it wasn’t until this testimony that I saw him as an equal.

I can now see how proud, how condescending, and how blind I was to have ever looked down on this man. What happened? I know that we are to take a somewhat paternal role in welcoming newcomers among us: we take them by the hand and lead them through the ins and outs of church membership. But how did my well-intentioned paternalism turn into a condescending sense of superiority?

I have a number of theories as to causes, but few solutions. Let me list out my thoughts:

1. Cultural dissonance, viewed as inferiority. Coming into the Church can require significant cultural shifts; these involve not just living your life in accordance with the commandments, but understanding how “things are done” in the Church and adjusting to the new social network that Church membership provides. Little behavioral remnants, which have no doctrinal value but are loaded with cultural meaning, can make new members feel lost. How are new members to know how to do things like wearing a white shirt and tie or passing the sacrament with the right hand? Worse yet, long-time members frequently pass judgment on those who don’t pick up on these things, branding them as outsiders from day one. I did this to my friend when he asked me how to pay tithing. Years later, I was still patting myself on the back for helping him out with his awkwardness.

2. Information transfer, viewed as one-way. Clearly, new members have much to learn about the Church when they’re just starting out. Years of seminary, BYU, and General Conference have immersed us in knowledge, both expressed and tacit, that new members need to learn. Generally, we do a good job of conveying this information: Gospel Essentials and new member discussions are pretty effective means of information transfer. But as a former Gospel Essentials teacher, I can tell you — it’s easy to talk down to new people. Somehow, it made me think that I could learn little from new converts, which is a mistake I feel I’m still paying for. Why was I so closed to the idea that someone new to this faith could teach me, just as validly as I could teach them? No wonder a new member feels hesitant about putting their hand up in priesthood, or feels like their view isn’t worth expressing on a blog.

3. A sense of “arrival.” Our church has clear stages for its members through mortality, coupled with ordinances at each stage: baptism, confirmation, endowment, sealing. Those who have gone through each step may easily evaluate the progress of others in light of how many of these ordinances have been performed (don’t we even have a progression chart along these lines for use by leaders?). Clearly, we can look to these ordinances, to a limited extent, as a gauge of how people are moving forward — but we can’t make the mistake of using our own progression charts to look backwards at new members. Their progression in the Church is important; our having received all these ordinances, however, is meaningless. An endowed, temple-married member is not superior (except perhaps statistically) to a new convert. Yet we value these “stable” members more highly, we trust them with more important callings, and we let the new converts hand out the hymnbooks or perhaps pass the Sacrament with the deacons.

Take what you will from my experience — a caution to members, perhaps, that we treat new members with respect. But my suspicion is that until we see our faith as something greater than a series of ordinances, and see each other as true equals in God’s eyes, we’re doomed to this kind of blind arrogance.

25 Responses to Infantilizing Our New Converts

  1. Kaimi on April 20, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    On my mission, we spent months reactivating a shy, smart college-age woman in the ward. She had left the church, for unspecified personality reasons (no real difficult sins or issues, but some clashes and not fitting in, as I understood it). The ward was a major fixer-upper, and she had “future leader” written all over her.

    After a few weeks of attending, she was asked to give a prayer in Relief Society. She gave a very awkward, Catholic-style prayer, and some long-standing members in attendance mocked her for it. She never came back. I could have strangled those members.

    The church is, in addition to being the vehicle for the gospel, also a quirky, sometimes difficult social institution. It is far too easy to make it into an in-group and start to exclude others because they don’t know the social rituals.

  2. Steve Evans on April 20, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    Kaimi, that’s a horrible story. I wish I could say I hadn’t seen the same thing.

    But I’m worried more about the superiority that takes form of latent paternalistic instincts. You know, I never would treat anybody in an explicitly snobby way, but at the same time I’m sure I treat new members in a condescending way.

    How are we supposed to take care of new members, give them “milk before meat,” etc., without descending into this pride routine?

  3. Grasshopper on April 20, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    3. A sense of “arrival”

    I think this one may be very significant. I recall my dismay when, in a Perfect the Saints priesthood committee meeting, I asked how we could help perfect the members of our ward in terms of spiritual progression. I got blank stares and then somebody commented that “perfecting the Saints” spiritually essentially meant getting them to the temple, and that all that was left after that was “enduring to the end”. Talk about a sense of arrival! I think this does play into our attitudes toward not only new members, but also those who are not active.

  4. Steve Evans on April 20, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    Grasshopper – exactly! Are we really so vain to think that because we’ve jumped through some more hoops than others, that somehow we’re more perfect? Ordinances (in my mind) are door-openers, nothing more. I hate the idea that we are judging ourselves superior to others on that basis.

  5. Aaron Brown on April 20, 2004 at 6:51 pm

    I agree with Kaimi … but I would add that sometimes, an awkward prayer from a new member can be the product of an inexcusable failure on the part of the missionaries to prepare the new member.

    When I was a greenie, my companion and I taught a Pentecostal preacher who had personally baptized over 300 people throughout Patagonia. He eventually joined the Church, in large part due to my companion’s charisma, persistence and similar Pentecostal background. We clearly failed to prepare this man adequately for life in a Mormon congregation. The Sunday after his baptism, he was asked to say the closing prayer in Sacrament meeting. He approached the podium, but instead of praying, began to give a sermon. It was mercifully short, and then he bowed his head to pray. His language, pacing, and rhythm were clearly products of his prior faith — an expected and forgivable occurrence perhaps. But when he closed his prayer “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and then made the sign of the cross, we received numerous glares from members in the audience. They were probably deserved.

    Aaron B

  6. Steve Evans on April 20, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    AB implicitly points out a counterbalance to what I’m saying — that there is a certain level of functionality and stability that we need from new members before they can participate and contribute meaningfully. I totally agree with that notion. I’ve seen the embarrassing prayer thing happen too, and it’s not a great experience.

    Perhaps I’m suggesting that new members can get involved earlier and more substantially than we give them credit for?

  7. Aaron Brown on April 20, 2004 at 7:06 pm

    Certainly we could and should do better at giving new members callings more promptly, so as to give them a way to immerse themselves in the ward, without having to hope that ward social interactions will be sufficient to make them feel welcome. (This seems like a tangential topic…)

    “1. Cultural dissonance, viewed as inferiority.”

    Though the problem you identify here is no doubt real, I often have the exact opposite reaction to the one you describe. That is, I really like hearing the quirky testimonies and off the cuff remarks of new members who are too new to have internalized various cliche Mormon speech patterns or routinized ways of thinking and acting. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

    Aaron B

  8. Steve Evans on April 20, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    AB, me too — I like the dissonance. But it’s easy to transition from “oh, that new member sees things in such an interesting way” to “oh, that new member has a cute way of looking at things”, which infantilizes. How do you appreciate the differences without that happening?

  9. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2004 at 7:15 pm

    I’ve got the disease myself–thinking of new converts or even investigators as sorta childlike. Wish I could get over it. But I think there’s something to taking new members by the hand. Look, they’re notionally in full fellowship and they’re full members of the heavenly kingdom, but there’s a lot of culture involved in becoming a member of the earthly kingdom. These things take time to figure out.

  10. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    Good first post, BTW.

  11. Steve Evans on April 20, 2004 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks, Adam — I’ve had lots of practice.

  12. Mathew Parke on April 20, 2004 at 10:17 pm

    Well Steve, I think you clearly ripped this post off from an idea I talked to you about sparked by my wife’s “crazy convert” comments. Be that as it may (and is), I think you have done a fine job with it. If you keep up like this you will do just fine.

  13. Steve Evans on April 20, 2004 at 10:27 pm

    Mathew, you and I have discussed these ideas before. I think Gigi’s ideas were right on.

  14. Jim F. on April 21, 2004 at 12:10 am

    I’m not sure that my anecdotal evidence tells us very much, but my experience when I joined the Church was (1) that I had a lot to learn and (2) that no one was treating me poorly for it. My first encounter with that kind of treatment was when I came to BYU three years after my baptism. For me the word “coke” was a generic term: you go into a restaurant and ask for a coke, the waiter or waitress asks, “What kind do you want?” If you, indeed, want coke, you say “Just coke.” Otherwise you say “rootbeer” or whatever. When I ordered a coke at the snack bar in Helaman Halls, you would have thought I’d spit in someone’s drink or taken the Lord’s name in vain. The place was immediately quiet with everyone staring at me, but I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. The waitress said, “We don’t have coke,” which struck me as imbecilic since I could see the soft drink dispenser right behind her. Completely baffled, I just left. My roommate filled me in later.

    My conclusion is that this kind of thing is more likely where the members of a ward feel more established and, probably, have fewer converts. I don’t think I’ve seen much of it in European or Korean wards and branches.

  15. Jeremy on April 21, 2004 at 12:36 am

    Great topic, Steve. I’d like to talk about educating new members about the pernicious evil of face cards.

    Just kidding. But I do want to relate an experience. A woman in our ward joined the church a couple of years ago, after having been active in various charismatic churches (Pentecostal, black Baptist, etc.) She immediate became integrated (or, I should say, integrated herself; she didn’t wait around to be asked), and was soon a “fixture” in the ward social community. Still, though, I think she felt that ward members didn’t take her lifelong religious devotion seriously–that people considered previous church experience as childishly fake or pretend, as if her sense of spirituality had really only emerged in a true way once she became Mormon. At the same time, I suspect she looked around the ward and sensed that many of the members who seemed dismissive of her religious past lacked in their own lives any real spiritual enthusiasm or vitality. It’s all too easy for all of us to fall into habitual gospel living, and for our outward religious expressions to get a little mechanical and shopworn; as a new convert, she seemed to sense this right off the bat. She dealt with it in a brilliant way. In her first talk in sacrament meeting, about a year after her baptism, she seemed to be gently taking us to task. “I wasn’t new to Jesus when I joined this church,” she said, somewhat firmly. “I’d known him for a long time. Now I just know him better.” She remains very active in the ward (my Sunbeam is in her primary class), but has retained (I sometimes suspect deliberately) a few charismatic mannerisms and turns of phrase–no hallelujahs during talks or anything, mostly subtle turns of phrase, greeting with hugs rather than handshakes, etc. I think it’s her way of saying “This is what doesn’t matter, and this is what DOES.” The absence of the (mostly arbitrary and inconsequential) Mormon mannerisms that she hasn’t assimilated sets in more accurate relief the important stuff that she has, and helps define for the rest of us where the boundary between doctrinal belief and culture falls.

  16. Thom on April 21, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Okay, seemingly tangiential story with a real point:

    Several years ago, I was looking into attending a executive protection (ie bodyguarding)training program, and I called state poice headquarters to see if they knew of any programs they would recommend. Granted, in retrospect it was foolish of me to think that state police employees would know anything about private programs that engage in a training for quasi-police functions, but their reaction actually stunned me. A state police supervisor indicated that non-governmental training programs are unimportant and “don’t count.”

    Don’t count? Towards what? Sure they don’t qualify one to become an actual law enforcement official, but corportate executives hire private individuals to protect them and their families, not actual government agents. Private training programs provide useful training that helps practitioners protect their clients, whether or not they have ever been or ever become “real police officers,” the position that was clearly all important to this state police official.

    Okay, long winded story, I know, I’m sorry. But here’s the point. Perhaps we members of the Church tend to view Christians of other denominations as if they “don’t count.” “It is lovely that you spent 30 years as a super-faithful member of another Christian church, but since that demonination insn’t Jesus’ true church, your time and service there “don’t count.” Sorry you wasted so much time there, but its nice to have you on board now.”

  17. Karen on April 21, 2004 at 12:01 pm

    I think Jeremy brings up a critical point. We can’t come up with a uniform way of “dealing with” new converts because new converts are such a non-uniform group. I think the most important thing we can do is get to know them and their personalities. If I were making friends with a painfully shy new convert, I would stick right at their elbow, introducing them to people, helping move the conversation along, and giving them an out if they felt uncomfortable. This would be absolutely smothering for someone more outgoing. I think that some people require more “paternalism” and others don’t. That kind of decision would absolutely have to be on a case by case basis.

  18. ronin on April 21, 2004 at 5:24 pm

    As a convert I felt very much the same way that Steve descrivbes, kind of like I was being treated i n a mildly condescending manner. Still do, in fact. Have had people make comments because I still sit in the campus ares coffeeshops, and because there have been times when I have missed attending Church, because I have had to work. This december, it will be 10 years since the day I was Baptised, but, in some ways, I still feel like an outsider, not fully accepted as a “real” Mormon by the folks who are come from multi-generational Church member families. Plus, i wonder how folks deal with the cultural issues in a Church that is predominantly Caucasian, when folks with Hispanic, or African-American, Asian, Indian backgrounds come in

  19. Steve Evans on April 21, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    Ronin,

    You seem to have gotten past it to a certain extent. The other “success” stories here share that trait. I wish I’d seen more stories told here about how the members changed and stopped being condescending, but I’m not surprised by their rarity.

  20. Jim F. on April 21, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Steve, one problem is that, as your original post shows, we seldom realize we are being condescending until after the fact. I don’t mean that as an excuse for condescension. I’m just pointing out a fact about the difficulty of overcoming it. I know when I’m lying. I would know if I were fudging on my tithing. I would know that I was drinking alcohol if I did so. But rarely if ever know when I’m being condescending. What do I do to guard against it?

  21. Steve Evans on April 21, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    Jim — yes, you’re right. Does the Gospel provide us with mechanisms to help prevent this from happening? Perhaps, but if so, they’re among the least-emphasized aspects.

  22. Steve Evans on April 21, 2004 at 7:51 pm

    Jim, I’ve been thinking about what you (we) can do to avoid being condescending in the first place. King Benjamin nailed it for me on this point, I think, by exhorting us to come to a sense of our own nothingness. Clearly, humility is the key to avoiding talking down to people. The question really then becomes, how do you know when you’re being humble? (not an easy question either, I confess)

    How can you tell when you’re being condescending? That’s tough, unless you’ve honed your senses for that purpose. But I don’t think it’s impossible. You’re a teacher, Jim — how do you teach students without talking down to them? We can maybe draw parallels that way. And don’t pretend that you are some kind of ogre or that you’re condescending in class: I’ve seen you teach.

  23. Jim F. on April 21, 2004 at 8:05 pm

    Interesting Steve, while I was posting on another thread, you posted the same answer I was thinking to post: humility. I can’t keep up with you.

    I think that one way to understand humility is as self-questioning. Of course there is self-questioning and there’s self-questioning. Some forms of it can be quite destructive. But there is a sense in which it is important that I not be sure of myself, that I not be sure I know what I think I do or that I am what I think I am. Perhaps that would help me not be condescending to new members or not-so-new members.

    I think it also helps to hear stories like some of those we’ve heard here about what we can learn from new converts who don’t do things quite the way the rest of us do them. I really enjoy the public prayers of recent converts. They often say things in fresh ways and make church prayers much more meaningful.

    How do I teach students without talking down to them? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. I don’t think am condescending in class, but “talks down to students” is often marked on my teacher evaluations.

  24. Steve Evans on April 21, 2004 at 8:24 pm

    I’d agree with what you’ve said, Jim, and might add that in this context, we might be looking for a particular humility with regards to our cultural and religious institutions. How that would take form is something I’m still figuring out.

    Also, I imagine that if we had student evaluations, “sucks up to teacher” would appear even more often as “talks down to students” is marked on teacher evaluations.

  25. William Morris on April 21, 2004 at 8:41 pm

    I think one answer is to do a lot less talking. We [I?] tend to want to explain things to converts — esp. in the “this is how *we* do it”/”this is what *we* believe” vein.

    I find that my conversations with converts always go better if I’m asking questions and doing little explaining. This is what Karen and Jeremy have said, but I want to emphasize that getting to know someone in a way that truly helps them is more than the BROT defaults of talking about work/family/education/sports.

    And when we do explain, I think it’s good to be as informal in our explanations as possible.

    I’ve mentioned this before but since our EQ has so many converts and often has investigators in attendance, I try very hard to pick my terms and phrases carefully. And I like to frame my questions/topics/discussions/scripture references with some common themes that I have emphasized over the course of my teaching in this ward.

    So for instance…

    Instead of saying
    “In the pre-existence”

    I will say something like:
    “So before this mortal life we existed and spirits and lived with our Heavenly Parents.”

    Plus I use a lot of apposition [maybe this is condescending].

    “As priesthood holders, as those who have the power and responsibility to act in the name of God and serve others, what can we do to…”

    If a recent convert makes a comment, I will often respond to that comment by using the same language he uses. I’m not talking about wrong terminology here, but rather using the “Christian” discourse rather than defaulting back to LDS discourse — referring to the sacrament as communion for instance.

    I think it works. I have had positive comments about my approach.

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