The People Who Return to the Church
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?