Monday, June 30, 2014

Vanity Metrics

Each April and October at our much anticipated semi-annual Church General Conference, the Saturday afternoon session opens with a statistical update consisting of a “financial report” and a “membership report” delivered by two church officials (who we sometimes like to pretend are independent auditors as opposed to church employees).  In any event, these statistics are delivered to the audience who's breath is somewhat being held anticipating the new growth numbers.  The media likes to report on this too.

One view is that this is great news, its very reassuring that so many are accepting the Book of Mormon and getting baptized.  It's faith promoting that the Church is growing and having success.  It may also give people additional assurance that they are part of something that must be true, or it wouldn't be growing as it does.  For many it inspires.  We want to believe things today are better than they were yesterday, and that they will continue to get better tomorrow.  And so that is what we get. All is well in Zion we tell ourselves.

But here is something else to consider.  I don't pretend to have every answer, or know every detail.  But this may be interesting.  

How many members the Church has compared to how many active members it has is a much more deflating statistic.  We are not going to get those numbers any time soon at General Conference.  That metric wouldn't feed our vanity.  In this other view, our vanity could be fed by hearing only certain statistics while neglecting others.     

So how does the Church measure all these statistics?  What is considered "active"?  And what is the ratio between Member vs Active Member?    

The Church makes no claim that official membership numbers reflect active or participating members.  A news item from our newest leader: "President Newsroom" observed:

"Church membership growth numbers are often interpreted inaccurately, which can lead to misconceptions in the media. Therefore, it is important to clearly understand what these numbers signify. They represent the number of Church members, but they do not represent activity rates. The Church does not remove an individual's name from its membership rolls based on inactivity."

Lowell Benion and Young noted: "Although Mormons reject infant baptism, they count as members any 'children of record' blessed and named soon after birth. Thus unbaptized children of members (until age eight) make up an important share of the LDS population (about 15 percent among Americans)." (The Uncertain Dynamics of LDS Expansion)

Although the LDS faith is commonly regarded as a high-requirement faith, its definition of membership is closer to that of the Catholic Church. Didn't see that coming did you? 

Again from President Newsroom:  "Over 12 Million Worldwide United in a Single Purpose," (LDS.org press release, April 1, 2005). Can 12 million worldwide unite if even if we have no idea how many of them are even active? Or  even old enough to understand the word unite?  Is the number (12 million in this case) being used to present an image to people?  It must, because as we have seen the 12 million makes no distinction between active vs inactive members.  But President Newsroom implies that all 12 million are apparently united, holding hands almost.  But don't fret, for all of the less active, inactive, lapsed, or disaffected Mormons out there, you are still being counted! You still make a (statistical) difference.


So what constitutes "active"?  That word means different things to different people.  There are enough leaks from downtown and enough claims about this that we can see the patterns.  Many reliable sources say the church defines "activity" based on attending Sacrament meeting at least once per quarter.  Other sources say it's having attended sacrament meeting once per month.  I've personally heard some of each.  Apparently we can't decide if quarterly attendance is too far of a stretch to base our numbers on.  Anyway, so ask you self what day of the year do most people attend Church?  If you had to choose, what day would it be?  If your like most of the Christian world, you would probably guess Easter.  Christmas would be another big hitter.  So if all you do is go on Easter and Christmas your almost active by the quarterly standard.  I wasn't kidding when I brought up the similarity to the Catholic church a minute ago.

Here is an interesting comment found in the Salt Lake Tribune from May 2012.
"We estimate that only 40 percent of LDS Church members in the U.S. attend church regularly," said Matt Martinich, an independent researcher who studies Mormon demographics for cumorah.com. "That number varies by region — some areas have very high attendance like 70 percent and some as low as 20 percent."

I wonder what the objective is when an organization decides to do things like the following:  count people as members regardless of how long it has been since any sort of activity, keeps lost members on the records until they are 110 years old, considers unbaptized children as members, and counts people as members even though those individuals do not self identify as members.  Some reports say that members who have resigned their membership still find their way as part of the membership statistics.  So why fluff numbers?  Who cares?  Fuzzy math doesn't make the church untrue does it?

What profit is there to number fluffing?   There is indeed a "pay off".  For one its to look good.  To project a strong positive image. The advertising and massive marketing strategies by the LDS church confirm just how important it is for the church to fit in and be acceptable to the world. That the LDS Church chooses to advertise total baptized members, rather than total active members, indicates something.  What that is, is up to you.

How do other churches and religions report their membership numbers? Well, a lot of them don’t. But then again, most religions and churches are not nearly as centralized (read: correlated) as the LDS Church.

So why inflate numbers?  Is it possible its pure vanity?  That's one view.  Would it be so far of a stretch to call these membership numbers vanity metrics?  I don't think so.  If so we should not be mislead by them.  I seriously wonder if this truth is more helpful:  As Jesus put it.  "few there be that find it".  That scripture, from one view has been turned into: "don't worry, all is well, more and more are finding their way into the membership statistics than ever".

Jesus's statement makes me sober, makes me want to repent, and instills a need to call upon God.  It does not assure me "all is well" or feed vanity.  For me it usually has the opposite effect of the membership report.  

The youth and their questions

I teach the youth Sunday school class.  We have a question jar that sits on the table when I teach.  At any point during the lesson they can come up and grab the jar, take out one of the slips and write a question.  Then they put it in the jar.   No one puts their name so it stays anonymous.

Here are some of the questions the youth are asking.  I didn't write or alter any of these.  These are directly from the youth.  I don't tell them what they can and cannot ask.

There is something great about the ease and openness with which youth ask questions.  It's a great trait.  It sometimes gets lost in adults, especially in matters of religion.  A humble heart and a question.  So simple, but yet so powerful.

1.  So the Church used to be back east, ya? And then we went to Utah ya?  Will we move as a "Church" again"?
2.  When do we know when we are forgiven?
3.  How do you start repentance?
4.  What if the president of the Church was false?
5. What's the classes favorite song?
6. Can Jesus be portrayed as a super hero with it being disrespectful, what would be his superhero name, and who would be his nemesis?
7.  Why did Jesus have to die for us?  Everyone answers this question with "to set an example" or "to save us" but I still don't understand.
8.  Did you love go on your mission?
9.  Why do you think the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are stereotyped as judgmental?
10.  Did Adam name all the animals?
11.  What color are Jesus's eyes?
12.  Jesus was a Jew, so why in the paintings in our church Jesus is a white man with a long beard, and hair?  But he lived when the Romans ruled those countries (that Jesus lived in) and the Romans made it a rule that people would have to have short hair to separate them from the goths that were attacking them.  Also the Jews in that region would have been dark hair and dark skin, so is our painting of Jesus wrong? Is there even a correct paining of him?
13.  Can you name everyone in the 70?
14.  Sometimes Church is boring, why do I have to go?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Search Engine Church Engine

Open Google.com and do a search with each of the following words.

Church
Friend
Institute
Scripture
Church Music
New Testament

Notice the top site for all of them..... The LDS church (as of this writing 6/27/14).  That is no accident, nor coincidence.  Nor was that cheap (I checked).  You can have your website show up as the top search engine result if you are willing to do the right research, and pay the right professionals for it.  The church pays money to have their site be the top search result.  Savy marketing.

Doctrine used to be what distinguished the LDS Church.  Light and Truth were the engine.  There seems to almost be more emphasis now on marketing and PR'ing a diminishing foundation rather than preserving and teaching the truth the Church once had.  Being the top hit on a search engine however doesn't necessarily bring light and truth.  In my view anyway.  It brings visitors and web hits, but not necessarily revelation, truth, or light.

"New testament" (as a keyword search) had LDS.org as the second to top hit.... Wikipedia now got the top spot.  But check back soon, it may change.

With all the engines now powering the Church, it's possible it could end up driving the truths restored by Joseph Smith further and further behind us. They aren't taught anymore, and many see them as unnecessary, or mysteries to be avoided.  Joseph was persecuted, mobbed, run out of his town and home repeatedly, the abuse he endured should not be forgotten.  Yesterday marked 170 years since the mob killed he and Hyrum.  Joseph was shot in the chest.  He faced his enemies.  He did not run, he was shot n the chest, not the back.  That's courage.  He took the abuse head on.  I admire that, and admire his courage.  Historians say the angry mob included "a prominent newspaper editor, a state senator, a justice of the peace, two regimental military commanders, and men who just a few months before were faithful members of Joseph’s church...‘respectable set of men.’   Not the low life typical mob we tend to envision.

Meanwhile the Church leaders of our day remain behind a makeshift veil of public relations and issue carefully written pre-prepared statements onto the internet.  Joseph is an example to us still.  What was restored through him still ignites the flame of faith.  Sorry but these flimsy stale PR statements, and marketing tools on the internet are not what the restoration was about.  My opinion anyway.  Feel free to disagree and leave a comment.  I enjoy hearing others views.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Who are these Spokespeople?

There's lots of controversy stirring in the LDS church right now. KUTV news has this piece.

When it comes to spokesmen, the real spokesmen is The President of the Church isn't it?  It's his position and calling to declare doctrine, and he is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for our day.  Yet oddly I have heard far far more from Senior Public Relations' Ally Isom, and Church Spokesperson Jessica Moody.  I'm asking my self if I am to understand since these people speak for the Church, that they speak for the Lord?  A little odd to even have to ask that question.  Why does a Church employ a PR department when it claims to have a living Prophet?  Question to ponder anyway.  I don't know the exact answer.

I know President Monson has a calling which can speak to the Church as a whole for the Lord. But yet no such thing seems to be occurring. Instead I keep hearing from people who hold no calling, who were not sustained, and who are paid for their services. Yet they speak for the Church? I thought we had no paid clergy.  But we do pay people to speak for the unpaid clergy.

Does anyone else find that odd? Am I to understand Ally Isom's responses to the current issues to represent the Lord's will and word on the matter? I certainly hope not, since she couldn't answer some of the questions. 'It is not for me to say' or 'I am not able to speculate,' or 'I am not able to answer that question'.  It's not for her to say?  True, it isn't.  Why did the Church send someone to answer questions she can't answer?  Why not send someone who can?  Isn't that why we sustain the 15 men as Prophets Seers and Revelators?

I'm curious why their voices are all but absent.  Elder Oaks spoke in General Conference and addressed some of the doctrinal points involving women and the priesthood.  That makes one.  But one talk can't address everything that needs addressing.  Pre-prepared statements, talks with a teleprompter (where the audience never asks questions) is one thing.  As is visiting members of your own church in local and distant lands.  Responding to direct, difficult, doctrinal questions is quite another.

Some of my favorite scriptures are when Jesus directly answers questions, and responds to people. The Apostles during his day did as well.  Such experiences and responses have become treasures of scripture, and have lasted thousands of years.  Flip through the New Testament, look how Jesus answered all classes of people, with every which accusation, doctrinal question, cultural problem, or personal pain.  He responded directly to those that attempted sly and clever deceptions.  Prophets throughout scripture have never had paid PR do this for them.  Where are the bold, uncompromising statements of truth we as members hunger to hear?

Our day seems to be hiding, and hiding a great number of things people are afraid to look at.  I think it's always a good idea to look for problems where we presume there aren't any.  Does the Gospel really need a marketing department? And a PR department?  Are those the tools of the Spirit?  Some might say it doesn't matter, and having good PR is a necessity now days.  What do you think? After all, whether it be by the mouth of God's prophets or His PR department, it is the same. Right?

Monday, June 16, 2014

No adult scripture study

A co-worker and I were having lunch today.  The topic of religion came up. He hadn't been a very religious person in prior years of his life, but a few years ago a circumstance occurred and he and his wife came to the conclusion they wanted to find a faith.   So they began searching for a Church.  I became interested in what he looked for, and what conclusions he had come to.

He said they began by wanting to study the scriptures.  I thought this was excellent.  He went on to say that he and his wife began looking for a Church that had a Bible study where they could read and learn from the Bible.  I thought that too was great.  I asked if he and his wife ever perused the LDS church, and mentioned the Book of Mormon.  He said no.  I asked why and he said they didn't have "studies" for adults.

I had no response for that.  Our Institute and Seminaries are for youth, and young adults.  See the below direct quote from the LDS institute web page.    

"The Objective of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion

Our purpose is to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, qualify for the blessings of the temple, and prepare themselves, their families, and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven."

There are a few adult classes offered through BYU. But you have to pay, and they are not really designed for non members.  Missionaries of course would be glad to talk about scriptures, right after they complete the lesson agenda that has been pre prepared.

My co-worker went on to talk about finding a few churches that read scriptures in someones home, and who had informal nights when people would get together to study. I was listening but for the most part my mind wandered off and seriously contemplated what he just told me. The Church I belong to claims restored scripture, revelations to a prophet Joseph Smith, canonized as scripture. Of all churches I thought my own should be the one holding scriptures studies. And not just for youth. For adults of all ages. Just regular old members, being guided by the Spirit, and the desire to learn. It could even be a missionary effort.

Lunch ended with me realizing some things that took me by surprise. We claim modern scripture, restored truth, yet there are no visible or attend-able places to go study them if you are an adult. Is this what it means to neglect the Book of Mormon as D&C 84:54-57 refers to? Which put the Church under condemnation? Sunday school's 4 year cycle of scripture coverage skips over entire books at a time, so that hardly qualifies as scripture study. Our curriculum comes from downtown Salt Lake, and for the youth it's now totally topic based, not scripture based. General Conference every 6 months seems to have replaced our need to read and study the scriptures. I think there are various reasons for this. For one, if members were encouraged to hold scriptures studies in their homes, or have non church sanctioned studies, there would be all sorts of uncorrelated thoughts and doctrine potentially surfacing. This would upset a great many things inside headquarters, and some members.

Another, which would be the most revealing, would be that if any random bishop announced to their ward that there would be a ward led scripture study, once a week, no one would go. There is a pretty observable mindset of disinterest about the scriptures among the Saints. Not everyone, but lots. Our leaders sometimes supplant the written word of God, or the need for it. Which leads to no one being all that interested in studying scripture. "We have a Bible" "There can be no more Bible". We loose the ability to read and understand scripture because we are rarely taught or shown how. Your out of luck if you never attended seminary or institute, and even if you did, that's sometimes not helpful anyway.  No wonder there is an attitude of non interest.

I hope I'm wrong. What do you think? If your Bishop next Sunday announced that the ward would hold a weekly scripture night, where for 1 hour someone in the ward, called to lead the study, would do nothing but assist in studying the scriptures, would people go?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Shingo

"The best approach is to dig out and eliminate the problems where they are assumed not to exist."

-Shigeo Shingo

Imagine if, in a religious context we were to simply be "open" to problems where they are assumed not to exist?  That may be a better bridge between where some people are, and full realization of our current state.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Coincidence?

The NYT had this to say in a recent article about two public figures facing LDS Church discipline.

"Ms. Kelly and Mr. Dehlin were notified of the action against them on two consecutive days, leading them to suspect that the move was coordinated by officials in church headquarters in Salt Lake City."

The Church denies this in the press with these words. "Decisions are made by local leaders and not directed or coordinated by Church headquarters."

The evidence does not support that statement by the Church. The decision may be executed by local leaders, but I know for a fact, and so do many others that the decisions don't always originate at the local level.

Interesting.

Church Work

There is a lot of busyness available to you if you are an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Round table meetings, committee meetings, youth meetings, presidency meetings, pack meetings, council meetings, worship meetings, previews, activities etc etc...  you can easily be kept so busy you don't really stop to think much about what your doing and why.

Depending on your agenda, there can be some advantages to keeping people busy.  People who are more occupied are sometimes less likely to question things, and or rock the boat.  They are also perhaps more easily controlled and influenced since their busyness and engagement can simply be directed in any other non questioning direction desired.

Being caught up in a great cause can be very enjoyable and beneficial.  But being busy is not that.  It's possible for even our religion to slowly trade what matters for what doesn't matter at all

I see a difference between Church work, and Ministering.  Church work is very corporate, it requires you to get authorization from your leader/boss, it has rules, regulations, limits, procedures, all which must be followed.  It draws lines between who can be helped and when and under what circumstances.  It tends to narrow the group being served to "internal" recipients.  Ministering doesn't require all that.  It's more spontaneous, it's spirit guided and dictated, and MUCH more inspiring.  It couldn't care less if the recipient is part of your religion or not.  Church work can be anything but inspiring.  Perhaps you've noticed.  One brings light, the other eventually has to control you or fool you into the same religious mindset that lead the religious people of Christ's day (who thought themselves the chosen people) to reject Him.

A growing number of Church members are becoming frustrated at the uninspired and sometimes baffling things being taught and done by the Church.  We see in the scriptures our great examples of clothing the naked, feeding the poor, revelations, and service to the poor.  What we don't see there are what we seen now which are leaders praying over the opening of law offices, bank dedications, shopping mall centers, catering to wealthy hunters, buying up Florida, and developing attractive commercial real estate in Philadelphia.

The humble work Christ went about doing as he ministered to the outcasts and sinners is more and more different than so much of the Church Work I see currently happening.

What if instead of buying Florida and shopping malls we made our meeting houses into places that also served the poor? It would be a place of "worship" in quite a unique way. Would that hasten the work? More than owning Florida?