My dad was my favorite superhero. He did no wrong, he said no wrong, he could leap tall buildings and fix my bike without breaking a sweat. Everything he said was the gospel, everything he did was the coolest and everything he liked became what I liked. He was the strongest, bravest and smartest guy I ever knew...
...and then I became a teenager.
I remember vividly the occasion when I first questioned/doubted my father. I had gone to work with him on a summer day when I had no school. We were discussing basketball over lunch. I had recently completed two basketball camps and was very excited about the upcoming season. While talking basketball I mentioned how I was certain that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who had or would ever live. There was no doubt in my mind that I was right. After all, it's Michael Jordan I was talking about! My dad, however, was not sold (the year was 1991, so Jordan had not yet become the champion we know him to be today). Instead, my father suggested that Magic Johnson, who had achieved far more (at least at that point in time) was a far greater player than Jordan. I couldn't believe my ears. Blasphemy! This old man actually thinks that Magic Johnson could hold a candle to the great Air Jordan!?! Has he gone mad? To make a long story short, he and I disagreed on the matter. I recall thinking, for the very first time, "Maybe this old man doesn't know everything after all. In fact, maybe I know better!"
And so works the mind of all teenagers! Though I loved and revered my father to his dying day (heck, I still love and revere him, he will always be Superman to me), I, like all teenagers, occasionally succumbed to the delusion that I knew better than my parents (even though Michael was clearly better than Magic). As much as I worshipped my dad as a child, I have no doubt that he, like most fathers, wanted me to grow up and become my own man. To get there, I first had to be a teen.
The teenage stage of life may seem like an endurance challenge for parents, but in reality this is a critical period of development in which the birth of individuality comes to life for the very first time. Though saturated with hormones, peer pressure and delusions of grandeur, the teenage years are essential to the evolution of all humans.
When thinking about human growth and development patterns we usually apply such ideas to individuals; the children we raise/know. We rarely if ever consider collective or institutional development along these same developmental lines. This is unfortunate because like individuals, many institutions experience these same "growing pains" in which similar adolescent, teenage and adulthood stages can be observed over time. This is the purpose of my silly little blog post today. I intend to show how one institution (the Mormon Church to which I belong) is experiencing this same developmental pattern. Having gone through our own critical formative years as an adolescent, it is my contention that Mormonism is currently on the cusp of transitioning to its "teenage" stage. How we make that transition is likely going to determine what we look like as a mature adult faith.
I am a 9th generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). As such, Mormonism has become as big a part of my DNA as the genetic material given to me by my mother and father. I have more polygamist ancestors than Hillary Clinton has missing emails! It is my heritage and I love it.
When it comes to Christian churches, the Mormon faith is extremely young. We have only been on the scene for a little under 200 years. That may seem like a lot but compared to more "mature" faiths, we are very much a new kid on the block. Unlike other religions like Catholicism and many branches of Protestantism, which have already gone though their own adolescence, teenage years and are now mature adult faiths, Mormonism has only barely kicked off the proverbial training wheels.
But we're growing up fast!
Our Adolescent Years
The Mormon religion was born in tough circumstances. As an infant faith, we endured the pains of persecution, migration and entrenchment. In some respects we could compare our earliest years to that of a child forced to grow up witnessing the death of a parent, along with repeated moves from one location to another. It was a tough childhood but eventually we emerged as a healthy and vibrant young faith.
Due to the hard knocks endured in our earliest formative years, Mormonism grew up somewhat paranoid, defensive, exclusive and alarmist. Even after finding a stable home in the West, the fear of further persecution (both real and perceived) caused us to distrust anything deemed "anti-Mormon" or "gentile" in nature. That which wasn't officially "church approved" was oftentimes considered alien, dangerous and toxic, and was subsequently dismissed without much debate. Like an abused dog, Mormonism learned to both hide in a corner and growl while showing its teeth at anything it considered unsafe. As Mormonism grew up, church leadership (like any good parent) hoped to ensure the further growth, protection and development of its young but increasing membership. As a result, leaders established a standardized set of rules, doctrines and teachings (through what has become known as Correlation), which served to codify, simplify and homogenize the Mormon message. The effort to standardize the Mormon faith proved extremely successful as members across the globe studied the same material from the same manuals. The member in Bolivia and in Utah read the same lesson from the same book on the same Sunday. In fact, Correlation became a source of pride for the young Mormon Church. It was common to hear a member proclaim, "No matter where I go, the gospel is the same." Here is a comical take on Correlation and it's impact on the church:
And like any blissful, loving child, Mormons happily gobbled up this easy to digest correlated message as if it had been produced by Gerber. The message was pure, easy to understand and not dependent on further detail/expansion. Correlated Mormonism had all the recommended daily nutrition needed for spiritual life. And even if we wanted more, our parents were always quick to remind us that milk came before meat. In short, Mormonism's youth was inundated with the message that the "church is perfect," "prophets cannot/will not lead you astray," and there is "popcorn popping on the apricot tree." Like a child who is told to eat his/her green beans, wash his/her face and be in bed before Santa comes, the youthful Latter-day Saint faith never had a reason to doubt its parents.
The Dreaded Teens!!!
As sweet as they are, children do not remain children for long. Everyone eventually outgrows their superhero capes and their Flintstone vitamins. Child-like innocence and acceptance is replaced with a healthy sense curiosity and even doubt about everything we see and experience. The days of quietly submitting to the authority of parents is replaced by a desire to assert one's growing sense of individuality.
The same is true of Mormonism. But instead of hormones like testosterone flooding the bloodstream, the church's veins are being bombarded by the chemicals of the information super highway...a.k.a. the dreaded Internet! As Mormonism has entered the 21st century it has been met with a plethora of historical, doctrinal, theological and cultural issues that it never had to deal with during its adolescence. Like a parent trying to educate his/her child about sex, college prospects, etc., Mormon leadership is currently assessing how best to address the mounting issues of doubt, disaffection, etc. As former Church Historian Marlin K Jensen stated:
[S]ince Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now...we are trying to create an offering that will address these issues and be available for the public at large and to the church leaders, because many of them don’t have answers either. It can be very disappointing to church members.”And it is here that we find the nucleus of the problem. The parent (church leadership) is wrestling with how best to address the growing doubts/concerns of their teenager (the member). Unfortunately this process also goes through growing pains. At times, church leadership has resorted to addressing its membership by referencing the old adolescent narrative. This warn out script that employs absolute unquestioning authority in place of inclusive dialogue and effective listening skills has sadly put many on the defensive. "Because I said so" and "Just do what you're told" work well with little children but not so much with a teenager.
It comes as no surprise that the devout within the faith see this change as fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus taught that even "the very elect" would fall away from the church (Matt. 24:24), and that some seeds would fall on the rocks and thorns and be "devoured" or "choked" (Matt 13). And while these arguments hold merit in many specific cases, I contend that it would be foolish for us to lie this down as a blanket explanation for the changes we are currently seeing.
In addition, the doubting membership, often afraid to express themselves, have developed a sense of betrayal (whether real or perceived) when it comes to the church. For many, discovering troubling issues has caused them to question just how trustworthy the current Mormon narrative is. Like a teenager whose pubescent hormones are beginning to swell, these doubts and concerns are gaining momentum. The religion they once esteemed to be perfect, flawless and above reproach, as seen through the eyes of a child, is now seen for what it ultimately is: flawed, imperfect and oftentimes in error. The child no longer believes the parent is Superman, as evidenced by some recent opposition to something as simple as sustaining leaders in General Conference
What we are left with is the perfect breeding ground for mutual frustration. Parent and teen alike are digging in their respective heels and refusing to budge. One feels disrespected, the other unvalued. The parent seeks to control while the teen resorts to defiance. Mom and Dad know they have the high ground of age and wisdom while the child knows it's just a matter of time until he/she is out the door.
And everybody loses.
So how can be prevent mutual defeat? I'm no expert but I want to propose one simple skill that I believe both sides (the parent and teen/the believer and doubter) are missing.
We need to LISTEN to one another.
This probably seems like a no-brainer but if there was one key attribute in successfully raising teenagers (or successfully seeking a meaningful relationship with anyone) it would be listening. As Dr. Aletha Solter, an acclaimed Development Psychologist explains:
Teenagers frequently complain that their parents don't listen and don't understand. This lack of good communication can lead to a feeling of disconnection from parents, which can put teens at risk. Good listening involves reflecting back your teen's feelings so he feels fully heard. This is called "active listening" or "reflective listening."Active listening and reflective listening are much more than simply hearing sound. It requires sincere interest and a willingness to understand somebody on their terms. In short, good listening requires us to check our egos, biases and even some of our beliefs at the door.
Too often effective listening is one of the first casualties in the battle between believers and skeptics. Both camps (the believer and the doubter) usually end up talking over and past one another. Each feels a deep need to have their opinions/beliefs recognized and legitimized. There is nothing wrong with that. Where we go wrong is when we perceive the "other guy's" position as being hostile to our own. This needs to stop. It's time to start listening to one another. Instead of expounding and exhorting we simply need to open our ears and shut our mouths.
In the wake of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999, parent, teachers and the media at large desperately looked for someone or something to blame for the travesty. What had caused Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two teenage friends, to murder fifteen of their fellow classmates? As the debates raged on everything from video games to gun control was blamed for the tragedy. In addition, rock personality Marilyn Manson received plenty of scorn for his loud brand of music (Manson's music happened to be popular with both Harris and Klebold). In what is perhaps the most ironic twist of all, it was Manson who pinpointed what the real issue had likely been all along:
Could the Columbine tragedy have been prevented if a parent, a teacher, a fellow student had stopped and honestly listened to Harris and/or Klebold's concerns? We'll never know and I certainly don't want to Monday morning quarterback that terrible tragedy. With that being said, I think we can all agree that listening to one another, honestly and sincerely considering what is being said, even if we loathe it, can go a long way toward healing wounds and building bridges.
In his bestselling book, "Just Listen: Discovering the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone" author Mark Goulston states:
Managers, CEO's and salespeople often tell me, "Talking to so-and-so is like hitting a brick wall." When I hear those words, I reply: "Stop hitting the brick wall and look for the loose brick." Find that loose brick -- what the other person really needs from you -- and you can pull down the strongest barriers and connect people in ways you never thought possible.This advice works not only with managers and CEO's but with parents and teenagers, believers and skeptics. If Mormonism ever hopes to emerge as a vibrant and healthy adult faith we will first have to learn how to listen to one another.
In conclusion, allow me to direct your attention to the world's greatest living listener. He is a man who assumed control of an organization that was literally drowning in scandal and corruption. His position is such that billions of people the world over hang on his every word. His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but you probably know him better as Pope Francis:
As Mormons we would be very wise to learn from this example. Too often we write off our "apostates" without so much as an afterthought. "They got what they deserved" is the standard salve used to justify our cankered hearts.
Imagine for a moment the progress we would see if we as a church would sincerely listen to one another. If the church as a parent would cease the lecturing of the "teenage" member and choose instead to listen to their concerns without passing judgment, I believe we would see far fewer "teens" electing to leave the flock. Yes, it is much easier to preach, exhort, condemn, chastise and even excommunicate, but where is the growth? In the end everyone loses and everyone fails to progress. There is greater strength to be had when the parent and the teen work together in the spirit of mutual love and respect. As Jesus reminds us, "If ye are not one, ye are not mine."
It's time we shake off the adolescent mentality and embrace being a teenager! After all, who wants to remain forever a "Child of God?" I think he, like my earthly father, wants me to become my own man. It's time for us to work on becoming an "Adult of God."
But first, let's get through our teens...hopefully without too much acne! =)