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.