Sunday, June 12, 2016

Help, my child has left The Church!

Today in Sunday School the instructor led a discussion wayward children.  Wayward in this context referred to people's children who differ in religious affiliation, or who have left the belief system of the parents, which in LDS culture is talked about as "leaving the church" or "loosing a testimony".

There was widespread concern and mutual shared pain of many members of the Sunday School.  Many no doubt felt the loss and sadness or disappointment of children, or grandchildren, friends or other family who they said had "left  the church".  Or who have adopted different beliefs and behaviors which may or may not conform to orthodox Mormon thought. These people are often viewed as deviant, rebellious, and their actions may range from destructive, involving substance abuse for example, to simply differing views or understanding of the Gospel.  This can no doubt be sensitive and sometimes difficult. 

The teacher posed the question to the class as to why this happens? Why do children leave a religeon? Or distance themselves from the Church?  Why does this happen when we've tried out best to teach them?  The instructor used scriptural examples such as Alma and Lehi who despite good parenting and themselves being authors of scripture yet still had children who go off and do or believe something their parents wish or desire them not to.

The class responded with various answers, most of them centered on agency.  Agency is why children leave. "Because they have the freedom to do and choose as they believe" said many.  This is absolutely true in one sense, but in another it misses perhaps an elephant in the room.

The Lord on more than a few occasions speaks of hypocrisy.  No one likes it, no one wants to accept that it may apply to them, but Jesus often refers to hypocrisy both in olden times and in modern revelation through Joseph Smith. It's not just hypocrisy in general, it's religious hypocrisy that ought to get our attention.  I'll explain in a second how this applies to wayward children.

Matthew 23:28

28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Doctrine and Covenants 121:42

42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

See also 3 Nephi 16:10 and 2 Nephi 31:13 to get the gist of what I"m referring to with hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy, some LDS flavors.  

The teacher's question as to why kids leaves the church was a good one.  However I think he was asking the wrong people.  Why the children leave the Church vs why the parents or LDS ward members assume they leave can be so different it's worth your time to consider.  Would the two agree if you put them in a room together as to why even one of them left the Church?  In my experience, the answer is almost never.  So what does this have to do with hypocrisy?

For the next section the word "child" is not referring to age, but just refers generically to a person's child.  Independent of age.

What I personally believe children most often reject, or leave, or loose a testimony of is not so much the idea of a loving and merciful God, or a God of justice even, or of God speaking to mankind and giving them instructions, scriptures, warnings.  What I believe children more often reject is the hypocrisy demonstrated by others.  They reject the difference between what they observes or experiences from those claiming to be religious, and what their heart tells them is true.  I believe they commonly reject the religious justification for exercising control or coercion upon them.  And when the coercion doesn't work, the parents or whomever was doing it often then views the failure as the child's failure and the child's use (read misuse) of agency. 

Scripture teach that when, under the guise of priesthood or religion we undertake to gratify our pride, vain ambition or exercise any degree of unrighteous dominion, the heavens withdraw themselves.  Even the heavens withdraw or "leave" this kind of behavior.  It's no wonder kids frown on it too .

So what about things like this?  This is just a list to provoke thought, there are a million different scenarios and this is only food for thought.

-Using church attendance, as leverage or as a weight over a child's head for their freedoms or social privileges?  Perhaps they are physically forced to attend church meetings.  Or threatened the loss of using a family car if any church attendance slips.  And that "God" is upset with them if they aren't adhering to every teaching of the church. 

- When we say we love them unconditionally, but hypocritically reveal our love was actually conditional on them believing and doing only what the parent or authority wanted.  Once the child changes their beliefs or investigates some different belief love also stops. And the threats begin.  Is this maybe why some children reject the beliefs of the parent?  Is this "loss of testimony" because the child has agency and is allowed to act wrong?  Or are they rejecting the hypocrisy they observe?   

-When we mis-portray God as someone who also uses religion as leverage to coerce or control some behavior or belief? 

-Make things like the Word of Wisdom compliance more important than an individual. What does this communicate?  Acting out is part of childhood, and is often to get attention.  But when we double down on health code violations as if they were akin to murder what type of light does this paint the Church in?  It's no wonder children want to leave the Church.  The Church institution and cultural views are (perceived) as more beloved than they are.

-Basing gifts or love on possession of a temple recommend?  Ever heard of a child's inheritance being denied due to lack of a temple recommend?  There are LDS videos portraying this and in some cases advocating it's a correct principle.

-Induce fear, shame and guilt when kids go contrary to cultural traditions but who have not violated God's actual commandments?   Could this mis-portray God as someone the child will likely want nothing to do with.

-Present "The church" as the same thing as "the Gospel".  And then use the church as a tool to beat them with?  Or use it as a measuring stick to evaluate the child's goodness? 

-Portray directly or indirectly to a child that "coming to church" is the same thing as "coming to Christ".  And that attendance, with proper shirt color matters above all else?

-Characterize someone who is studying materials outside of LDS.org as "on the road to apostasy"

-Characterize someone who is searching or deeper truth in the gospel as "looking beyond the mark" or "looking for a reason to leave the Church".

-Pay little heed to contradictions between what we profess to believe and what we actually say and do.

In my view THESE are what gets rejected.  And sometimes the baby goes with the bathwater.  Kids sense when the Gospel is no longer an invitation, but a demand, an obligation, and requirement or means of control.  It's usually unintentional, but it never produces anything good.   

So what happens in LDS culture is the authority figure (of any kind, parent, bishop, etc..) often does not conceive of themselves as having done anything wrong to cause the child to leave or reject aspects of the Church or Gospel?  They often pin ALL of it on the child for leaving or going astray. And then call it "well they have their agency" in Sunday school.  Ignoring the hypocrisy that may have been happening all along.

What if a person has trouble with Church finances?  Well that must mean you are faithless and can't pay tithing.  If you have trouble with Church history?  Well that must mean you lack faith in the living Prophets and Apostles or have read too deeply into some apostate website.  If you have trouble with organized religion in general?  Then you must be sinning in some regard.  If you are speaking out against religious things you disagree with?  That must mean you have some sin in your life you have not reconciled.  Or your just willfully rebelling against something that is SO obviously right.  These examples of false reasoning are understandably rejected by a lot of Millennials.

This isn't to say one should blame themselves for everything that ever happens and try to be responsible for other people's choices.  That isn't what I'm saying.  There may be some parents or grandparents that blame themselves for everything, mom's seem more prone to to this.  I don't believe that is the solution.  It just seems to leave people feeling bad and guilty, sometimes for years. Whether blaming self, or the person who "has left".... blame doesn't work.  There has to be something better that can move everyone into a better place.    

In truth, people have their agency.  But rather than pinning everything on the perceived wayward individual or berating yourself and living with guilt, consider these questions instead:

What religious hypocrisy have I displayed or been blind to throughout my life that may have pushed my child away from something I value? Ask any "wayward" child that question and they will likely be able to answer it fairly quickly.  Or consider this question: "How could I have mis-portrayed or inadvertently mis-lived the Gospel in such a way that caused my child to turn away from it, or reject it as unappealing?"

These questions take some emotional maturity but can produce answers that can change both parent and child.  They are repentance based, not guilt or blame based.  These types of internal introspective questions are what the Lord asks himself. (Jacob 5:47). He is our great example. Says the Lord: But what could I have done more in my vineyard?

The Lord didn't blame the vineyard for failed or bad fruit.  He looked at himself first! I believe that is Godly behavior.  The being who is more intelligent than us all asked what else HE could do.  And I think he meant it, it was not a smug rhetorical question.  It sounds incredibly humble.  We tend to chalk up others distance from the Church to some apostate belief, or website, or some misguided use of agency.  Especially when we see people on the news.   But what if we looked inward first?  Taking personal accountability doesn't push people away.  It almost without fail helps begin to heal what is broken.