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The People Who Return to the Church

October 24, 2011

Every so often when I was growing up, I would hear a story about someone who “left” the church but came back to the church later on. I’ve heard this story more on the internet and throughout the Mormon blogging world, but whether offline or online, my ears have always perked up to hear the story.


Because it’s rare to hear people talk about People Who Leave. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself. The category of People Who Leave can sometimes be discussed within the church as a theoretical abstract — and you know the characteristics of that category…they wanted to sin, were personally offended, yadda yadda yadda…but especially if you are going through disaffection yourself, that categorization just seems too stifling to account for real life.

I think people talk about People Who Leave in the abstract because they definitely don’t want to mention any people they know who may have fallen away from the church. That’s just not polite discussion to have in public.

So, when do people seem to be candid about talking about People Who Leave? One case is when those people become the People Who Returned. Because isn’t that so exciting?

The Person Who Returned, if he is a live being, will often tell his story as part of his testimony. And maybe he’ll try to fit his experiences into the abstract categorization of the People Who Leave — when he was younger, maybe he was just too stupid to see that his life would fall apart if he didn’t have the Gospel in it. Maybe his life did. And now, he’s here to tell all of the rest of us that he’s so thankful that he realized the error of his ways sooner rather than later so that he could turn his life around.

…I never liked hearing about these particular People Who Returned…because once again, it didn’t seem big enough to account for my experiences.

In the Mormon Blogging world, there is generally a wider range of People Who Returned (and, at least conceptually, I know these people must be represented in the pews as well…since after all, they did return…but I guess there are reasons for why they are more visible online than off.) And while many of these People Who Returned (and, also on the internet, People Who Stayed) seem to be more aware of issues that I would think about, sometimes I feel that these People Who Returned are even more of a let-down than the first group.

If you can hear them speak candidly (…maybe that’s why you don’t see/hear these people as often at fast & testimony meeting…because they understand that what they have to say is not the stuff that should be said on Sunday), these people will tell you about the troubling issues that shattered their testimonies, or caused them to lose confidence in the ability of the church leadership to lead and prophesy, or shattered their trust in the morality of the church.

That’s why they Left. Or that’s why they considered leaving.

The letdown is why they Returned. Or why they Stayed.

You don’t often hear of any miraculous experiences. You don’t often hear of any solid, decisive resolutions. You don’t hear of slam-dunks for the church.

No, they will usually say that they lowered their expectations. They stopped expecting so much from the People Who Run the Church. They changed their understanding of the scriptures, or of doctrine, or of God.

But that’s just how they changed with respect to others. With respect to themselves, they became humble. Maybe it was realizing that playing nicely with others and keeping the family happy is more important than being true to themselves. Maybe it was realizing that though they certainly have the capability to wage a crusade with their pet issues, they don’t have the capability to make others care or even appreciate said crusades.

Maybe they don’t need to speak out.

This post was inspired by the latest Ask Mormon Girl entry at Feminist Mormon Housewives, but this phenonemon isn’t completely summed by that post alone. Think about what Outside Looking In is saying:

I don’t even really have any religious beliefs, beyond a vague belief in “something more” and an appreciation for the Christ-story. All I know is that I’d really like to come home.

Now, the reason why I think this post doesn’t completely capture the feeling I’m talking about is because I think this post swings hard on the “cultural Mormon” part of the spectrum. I mean, parts of Outside Looking In’s letter read like they could’ve come straight from a John Dehlin production. But I think the phenomenon can still be said to occur from some people who do believe — even if believe means something less or something different than what it used to as a result of lowered expectations.

I feel like my father will always consider me in a state of “rebellion” as long as I’m out of the church. Since I don’t really lose much as long as he is “disappointed” in me going “the wrong direction,” I’m not too bothered by that…but I am bothered that this aspect will likely be a long-term source of that quiet parental disappointment, putting a shadow on anything else I do.

I know that one of the lessons I’m supposed to learn is how not to rely on others’ opinions of me to validate myself. So really, I should just learn not to care what my father thinks on this matter.

…but sometimes, I feel like I should just give in. Not because I think he’s right. Not because I think the church is right. But because I’m tired of disappointing. Let me tell you a story that bothered me…

On a social networking site that I consider pretty disconnected from my other online involvements (you may have seen a couple posts from me talking about Empire Avenue), someone asked me if my father was my father (obviously she knew his name.) She asked me if I had lived in Korea, and had pinned the time frame very accurately. I was surprised, because I didn’t expect some random person to know who I was. I wondered maybe if she hadn’t just been reading this blog or something else I had posted to find out.

…it turns out that she was in Korea at the same time we were, also a member of the church, same ward, etc., She had remembered a talk my father had given over ten years ago, and told me how much love her family had for my father.

…and then came the part that really killed me…

She had read my bio (which says, among other things, that I am “an irresistible (dis)grace of a blogger, cultural Mormon”), and said:

I am not exactly sure what a cultural Mormon is, but it is thrilling to see that the church still is a part of your Dad’s life and that he raised you all up in the gospel.

I’m sure this is the dumbest thing…I mean, up until this point, I wasn’t sure who this person even was…I was just really excited that she knew my father and all…but when that happened, I couldn’t continue the conversation.

If I become a Person Who Returns to the church, then I don’t want it to be for bad reasons. But what are bad reasons and who decides? If I return to make good on my father raising me all up in the gospel, is that bad? If I return because I’d like to come home or because these are my people or because I don’t want to be a disappointment anymore, are these bad? Is any reason other than “I have a testimony of the truth of the church” acceptable?

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  1. We really can’t help but care on one level or another what our parents think. Cut yourself some slack when it comes to caring about your dad’s thoughts. 🙂

    Your reasons for returning are your own. I have seriously considered going back several times in the last year…

    I would not suggest returning because of wanting to make good on your father raising you up in the gospel… If you return for whatever reason you need to make it about yourself. It needs to be because it is something that you really want to do.

  2. I remember someone growing up who mentioned in their testimony that they had been excommunicated multiple times and returned. I believe it was word of wisdom related. I think that story was uniquely their own…not really something that fits in the typical mormon narrative. I wonder if there are people who have problems with drugs or alcohol and find comfort in the mormon faith.

    I realized that living my life based on my parents’ wishes, hopes and dreams for me would never make me happy. Not that happiness is the ideal, but once I accepted that my parents would never be happy with some of my choices, I was able to move forward. What if you return to activity, but then choose not to marry or marry in the temple? What if you marry in the temple but decide not to have kids? What if you decide to move far from you dad or make a career choice or move that he disapproves of? Living your life for parental approval (or how other people approve of your dad) is a recipe for unhappiness IMO. A person can’t make another person happy or approve, so they might as well be the best person they can be, figuring their own path, and hope that their parents/loved ones can respect that.

  3. kiley,

    in this case, I don’t seriously see myself returning, because I don’t have reasons for me.

    …but it seems that recently, I’m having all these changes that I need to make…but I don’t have reasons to make them *for myself*. All the reasons dwell on *others*. E.g., need to change my personality because I piss other people off, and eventually that could come back to hurt me. I don’t want to change for myself; I just want to avoid doing something that makes someone do something drastic in response…


    The thing is that my parents have a very weird Mormonness (perhaps because they are converts themselves..?). So, it doesn’t seem like they would care or be worried about my not marrying in the temple, so on and so on. (It’s a bit too late for me to make a career choice at this point that my parents disapprove of, considering that already, my choice of major and study has been a discussion with them on what we both think would be best.)

    It seems to me the conflict is two-fold. Parents have wisdom in some areas, but then in other areas, they are just as flawed as the rest of us. I, for the most part, am ignorant in most areas, but in some areas, I may know better about my own circumstances. How to tease out the two. I know a lot of people who don’t follow their parents’ advice regarding career choices, for example, and so then they struggle to make ends meet, or they don’t make their “big break” (because they were too naive about the work/connections required to “make it big.”) So, how happy can they be? I know money isn’t everything, but I would really like stability most of all, and that’s really an area where parents have gotten a grip on things, and where “figuring out your own path” is antithetical to that.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    It’s not really about what makes you happy.

    Church sometimes makes me happy. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it annoys me. Sometimes it negatively judges me. It doesn’t accept who I am at a given moment. It requires all sorts of things of me as a man. Other times it offers solace and comfort, intellectual stimulation, friends, spiritual connection.

    But I consider all that to be really beside the point. The question of whether the LDS Church accommodates me or makes me happy is no longer of interest to me.

    Inheriting a bazillion dollars, retiring, and playing MMORPS as much as I want, and hiking all of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet might make me happy too. Skiing, nice clothes, etc.

    But so what? That’s not what I’m meant for.

    Happiness is cheap. It’s a poor substitute for purpose and destiny. My realization was that the LDS Church was my destiny – regardless of whether it pandered to my emotional well-being, and regardless of whether it made me “happy” in some sense. “A ship is safest moored in the harbor, but that is not what ships are made for” and all that jazz.

    Embracing a destiny requires a sense of humility. It requires a sense that there is something out there more important than you are. This is my spot. My future, my being. It’s who I am. I will fight for it, I will defend it.

  5. I’m not sure if my comment is completely relevant, but… My experience with “People Who Return” is different from what you describe – very few of them left or returned for theological reasons. The leaving + returning for those in my/my family’s acquaintance has had more to do with connectedness (which you also touched on). They left because they were more satisfied with other social connections. They came back because they preferred/valued the social connections of Mormon culture.

    I know someone who left for social reasons, and went back because the combination of social/theological support helped her stay drug-free. If that’s what it takes to keep her clean, I think that is a great reason to go back.

  6. Seth,

    I 1ed your message because I didn’t have much to say.

    Simply Sarah,

    That comment is totally relevant. I think it’s really weird that few people return for theological reasons… But I guess that’s the way things work.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    I wouldn’t say it was odd.

    People are intuitive beings primarily, and only secondarily logical beings. As much as secularists like to tout the superiority of logic and reason (usually while opportunistically claiming they are the ones who have most of it), it plays a relatively minor role in human decision-making. For most people – whether religious or secular.

    At the end of the day, logic simply isn’t that compelling. But intuition is.

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