Over at the Interpreter, Nate Oman asks an important question. How will the church explain its relevance to a new generation that is less interested in the narratives that have served the church well in the past? Or as he puts it, what will be the “new language in which to celebrate the Restoration”? There were times when “Which church is true” was a vital and urgent question for many people in the places where the church was active. There are far fewer people like that in North America and Western Europe today. In a similar way, the church’s family-focused message doesn’t resonate as it once does, and, as Nate notes, some even see it as inherently suspect.
These are important questions. I’d add the caveat that “Which church is true” may well remain an urgent question in some places. The church will have an answer to “Which church is true” as long as there are people asking the question. A second caveat is that the church can’t reach everybody; those who see the institution of marriage as hopelessly corrupted by power inequalities between men and women and something to be overthrown rather than celebrated are not likely to find much else to interest them in the restored gospel. That does not change the fact that the church will need to explain its relevance to people for whom marriage and family are not central concerns.
Nate observes that the church has gone through cycles of expansion and stasis before and that it has modified its message for new times and new contexts. The same is true if we look even farther back at the history of Christianity, and looking at early Christianity may offer some suggestions for how to reframe the narrative of the restored church. This is not the first time that the core elements of Christian teaching have needed to be expressed in new ways. Even such basic teachings as the purpose of Christ’s life and atonement shift along with the expansion of Christianity.
In its earliest centuries, for example, Christian evangelization does not seem to have focused much on sin and redemption. In visual and artistic depictions, Jesus is represented not as a sacrificial offering, but as the perfect man, a moral exemplar whose death was final proof of his moral uprightness. Christ’s mission was explained not as vicarious suffering for human sin, but as the perfect embodiment of the life all people should emulate.
In similar fashion, the tribal chieftains of northern Europe who led their people (or forced their conquered rivals) into Christianity had little use for Jesus as a sacrificial lamb or a suffering victim. They did however find much to admire in Jesus, the rightful king and conquering hero who vanquished death and hell, not to mention a God who was more loyal than capricious Freya, wiser than bumbling Thor, and more trustworthy than devious Odin.
Of course these are just-so stories that set aside centuries of nuance and historical detail, but sweeping central narratives is precisely what the church will need to rethink. These episodes illustrate that Christianity’s shifting narrative responded to acute challenges from outsiders, but also to the internal needs and problems of those outsiders.
As in the past when early Christianity encountered Roman citizens (and barbarians aspiring to acquire Rome’s glory), the church’s new narrative will emerge from its conversations at the interfaces where it is actively engaged. Nate highlights missionary work as the church’s primary form of engagement. The church has other interfaces, including its universities, but the cumulative effect is that the church is most actively engaged with secularism and the broader Christian world. While the church maintains friendly relations with Jewish and Islamic communities, for example, in most places where the church is currently active, neither Judaism nor Islam is forcing the church to rethink its message, and the church doesn’t see in Judaism or Islam (or in many other regions of the religious map of the world) a competitor, a threat, or a likely source of future converts. The church is not in conversation with Judaism or Islam in the same way it is with secularism and Christianity as a whole.
If I had to hazard a guess, I might say that one future narrative for the church in a secular world might involve emphasizing how the theology of personal revelation supports creativity and artistic inspiration. In this narrative, Joseph Smith would function as a paragon of creative effort. Following your heart is a viable message, and following your gut instincts rather than doubting them can have real and immediate advantages. In this narrative, prominent Latter-day Saint artists and performers like Brandon Flowers and the Piano Guys become the vanguard, and even wayward stars can play a role. (See how the Latter-day Saint upbringing of Walter Kirn, Krysten Sinema and Tyler Glenn prepared them for their adult success?) Secularism has its own problems to solve, after all – it will always have trouble supplying a coherent overarching narrative to give meaning to human existence – and there is potential for the restored gospel to influence secularism at the same time that secularism influences the church.
Western Christianity faces its own acute issues. In its conversation with the broader Christian world, the church may be able to make a case for itself as a viable form of institutional Christianity that is reasonably successful at retaining its younger generation without relying on charismatic pastors or making too many concessions to secularism. The church could argue that it provides opportunities for organized Christian service, uncomplicated worship, and a Christian message grounded in the Bible rather than in Reformation-era hairsplitting over creeds and theology, while still being compatible with participation in modern society.
The world in which one of these narratives predominates may or may not allow for coexistence with the other. Or the church may find itself in urgent competition with Islam after all or with something else entirely, necessitating some new narrative altogether. What is likely, however, is that effective new language to celebrate the Restoration will grow out of the church’s areas of active engagement with the outside world, and that the new narratives will not only celebrate the Restoration but also solve urgent problems for our partners in conversation.