Retiring the Term “Inactive”

September 8, 2011

The terms “less-active” and “inactive” are slowly being dropped from church vocabulary, but you won’t hear it announced from the stand.  Earlier this year in a training led by the Area Presidency, UK stake public relations committees were informed that the church no longer classifies people as less-active or inactive; everyone is simply just members of the church.  What is the significance of this change?  And why is it not being made public?  Today’s guest post is by Jake.

What is a Mormon?

Online forums have recently had a wave of discussion regarding what constitutes a Mormon. Calls have been made from blogs and podcasts to include all groups such as New Order Mormons, Uncorrelated Mormons, Liberal Mormons, Cultural Mormons, etc., under the banner of Mormonism. In short, the calls have been for the use of a more inclusive definition of Mormonism. As J. Stapley at By Common Consent said regarding this:

I am a Mormon and I reject all adjectives and sub-categorizations. I have no respect for attempts to conventionalize them. Regardless of what individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, how they approach scripture, history or politics, they are my people, my fellow-citizens and my kin.

Even here at Wheat & Tares, there was an excellent post on what makes someone a Mormon. That concluded:  “I would consider ANYONE who felt ANY connection with Mormonism to be Mormon.  I would welcome them into the tribe.”

Changing Attitudes in the Church

These posts are reflective of the changing attitudes in the church as well.   The ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign is another current approach to breaking down Mormon stereotypes.  In the aforementioned PR training, committees were taught that in conjunction with the ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign, church attendance would no longer be used to infer faithfulness and activity because:

  1. Many good faithful people are unable to attend church on a regular basis. The stake PR representatives were told a story about a couple who had several disabled and severely ill children. Caring for them meant they could not attend church for long periods of time. If someone was to visit their house, however, one could instantly feel the love of the Saviour and the love that permeated their home. The family’s inability to attend to church classified them by definition as less active, yet the stigma that was attached to this designation missed the truth of the family’s real relationship with God. Removing the definition of less-active made things easier for them and for others to obtain temple recommends from zealous bishops who previously saw attendance as essential for temple worthiness.
  2. Many attend church but are spiritually struggling. Stevie Smith described this in a wonderful poem called Not waving but drowning:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Often we mistake a cry for help or struggle for a wave.  The smile of members as they shake our hands may hide the deepest of sorrow, pain, and struggles they have with their faith.  As the hymn Lord, I Would Follow Thee so wonderfully puts it:  “in the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can’t see.”  Classifications based on activity result in less personalization.  The active are viewed as being fine and in no need of help and the less-actives are seen as projects.  Without a classification system, we can take individual cases into account and embrace the wonderful diversity of faith that is found within the church. (Ed: See additionally Apame’s insightful post at Zelophehad’s Daughters about her talk that explores the way that many members hide their doubts in order to show a more faithful front in church.)

What Does This Mean?

This change is evidence of the church becoming more in line with mainstream Christianity. It is a step by the leadership towards accepting the diversity of faith and the expression of that faith that resides under the umbrella of Mormonism. It is a move towards greater tolerance to fulfill a greater need of looking at the individual needs of those around us. It is a move towards being less prescriptive as to what constitutes faithfulness, towards breaking down the idealised Mormon templates that often serve as the judgment paradigms to which others have to match.  It is a move towards realising that there is more to the gospel than simply attending church. Yes, church attendance is useful; if someone really believes, then it is likely they will try and be at church, but the gospel is not only church attendance. And yes, if someone suddenly fails to attend for a long time, it is a sign that one should probably look at what has caused this, but the absence doesn’t automatically make that person any less of a member than those who diligently attend every week. After all, faithfulness should not be measured by the physical distance between us and the church building, but by the spiritual distance between us and God.

Why Has the Change Not Been Made Public?

It is only possible to speculate as to why the church has not made this an announcement via an official letter.  Perhaps some would use the change to justify failing to attend church. If it makes no difference to one’s church standing how often you attend church, then why bother going at all? If I am just as faithful if I go once every two months as when I go every week, then where is the incentive to attend church? It is cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if some attend just to avoid the stigma of being called a less-active, or if some attend because attending church is what it means to them to be faithful. Similarly, if the church moved to a more open interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, the number of members who drank coffee, tea, and alcohol would likely increase as the institutional incentive to comply with the Word of Wisdom decreased.  Greater tolerance can be construed as a relaxation of standards.

Secondly, the vocabulary of activity and less activity is culturally ingrained in our discourse. Such a radical change will take time. Many manuals, talks, handbooks and programmes revolve around these concepts, so to change overnight would therefore be difficult. Any form of change will always come against some form of resistance. So whilst the church has made a dramatic move with this change, the likelihood is that it will make little or no difference for the next 5-10 years. People will still use labels like “less-active,” even if this concept has been retired.

Still, that such a move is being made by the church gives me hope.  What do you think of this change?

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38 Responses to Retiring the Term “Inactive”

  1. Nick Literski on September 8, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    This change will certainly make statistical reports look nicer. No more cluttering up those big membership numbers with large percentages of “less active” members! No more angst over the plummeting “activity” rates of young adults who don’t bother to resign, but won’t go anywhere near an LDS chapel!

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  2. Andrew S on September 8, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Nick, well, that’s certainly one way to look at it, haha…

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  3. Alex T. Valencic on September 8, 2011 at 4:08 PM

    I remember chatting with some friends in my ward who had joked about how often they were contacted by the missionaries because the couple hadn’t been seen at church for several weeks. He was on the high council, with the specific assignment to work with the YSAs in a student ward. She was the stake RS president and was often visiting other wards.

    I see value in fellowshipping those who aren’t around as much, but I think that can easily be done without labels.

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  4. Porter on September 8, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    I applaud the change as well, although I am not sure that anecdotal evidence of comments made in a training meeting in the UK is a valid basis to infer that the Church has officially made this dramatic change worldwide. Have we got anything better than that?

    But assuming it is true, the change may in part be a response to ongoing criticism on LDS blogs that the membership numbers announced in conference do not accurately reflect the real numbers of active members. If we get rid of the active/inactive distinction that criticism pretty much goes away.

    So it they can successfully remove the stigma of non-attendance (which I doubt) aren’t we just like the Catholic church where you can go on Easter and Christmas and people wont treat you like a pariah? Sign me up for that plan! Will tithing be optional too?

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  5. Senile Old Fart on September 8, 2011 at 5:49 PM

    Perhaps we can return to the “adult Aaronic” or “Jack” monikers of yesteryear.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on September 8, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    Porter – it’s ALL optional. Right?

    Nick – I think your view is too cynical on this one. “Inactive” vs “active” are really only distinctions we make internally. No churches report that distinction in their membership numbers. Every church seems to have a different method to count heads. Some churches (non-ordinance based ones) go by sheer attendance numbers. Others go by membership records through some sort of catechism or confirmation ordinance records (as we do and most mainline Protestants). Or Catholics count everyone on the planet who has ever been Catholic and by some stats they count Protestants, too, since they view them as offshoots.

    On the upside, this could reduce the stigma of intermittent activity. But from a practical standpoint, people who don’t participate regularly will still have the stigma of not being one of the ten reliable families.

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  7. mudonme on September 8, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    Hallelujah…and pass the jello!! It’s soooo past time for this to happen.

    Having been in leadership positions and sitting in what used to be called Council meetings, I was always uneasy when the topic of inactive members came up. There were names brought up as being in need of “fellowshipping” and what could we do to reach out. “How about nothing,” I wanted to say. “Perhaps they are mature enough to make their own decisions about attendance.” Assignments were made and accepted for the “reaching out project.” I often wondered if there was real respect or concern for the individual or if it was a “get your numbers up” game. I have to say at this point, I was not bold enough to voice my opinions. I was busy being a good doobie!

    I have grown up and find I evaluate things differently. Does attending meetings and being active make me more spiritual, humble, or Christlike? I would hope yes. But a resounding “no” came to be my answer. To twist the question a little, can I be spiritual and not attend meetings? Absolutely.

    My new definition of active versus inactive or less active revolved around this question. What is my relationship to God and Jesus Christ, whether I am sitting on a bench at church or not? Is it an active or inactive relationship? I found I had to say both. As life ebbs and flows for me, I find it has an impact on my actions and desires. This seems to be my nature. When I put the whole thing into my human perspective, I realized what my answer was and that it is right for me. I get to deem myself active or inactive, not others sitting in a meeting.

    I realize this will not resonate with some, maybe many. That is ok with me. I believe we are all trying to make our way through this experience the best we can. Putting labels on people doesn’t fly for me. Labels are for cans and boxes.

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  8. mudonme on September 8, 2011 at 6:54 PM

    I knew I would forget something. So if the wording is being changed, dropped, or whatever…what happens to the TR interview question about meeting attendance?

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  9. Alex T. Valencic on September 8, 2011 at 8:20 PM

    If the efforts to fellowship are being done as an assigned project, they will most likely fail. I have as of yet to meet anyone who wants to be made a project (except one of my brothers who had the sisters in his ward at BYU shower him with cookies and other baked goods during the holidays).

    But if the members of the ward council or other leadership committee are sincerely wondering what they can do to reach out and make others feel welcome, well, I am totally behind that. What’s good for one is good for all. The best meetings I have been in have been ones where the bishop simply wanted to know what the quorums/auxiliaries were doing to strengthen all members, not just the ones who didn’t come.

    Regarding TR interviews, I don’t see any changes being made, since the question doesn’t ask, “Do you consider yourself active, less-active, or inactive?” It just asks if you faithfully attend your meetings (or something along those lines–I don’t remember the exact words at the moment). All of the interview questions are open to subjective personal evaluation, which is, I believe, the whole point of the interview.

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  10. Jared on September 8, 2011 at 9:06 PM

    Changes can be made to wording to respond to what people find acceptable. The idea isn’t to alienate church members with words and terms.

    The fact remains that church members need to be identified in some manner for record keeping and for purposes of communication.

    My father is a nonmember and my mother was inactive for most of her life. She was in her eighties when she became active and completed her temple work.

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  11. Jeff Spector on September 8, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    Well, we have plenty of folks who attend Church every week who are not active….

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  12. Chino Blanco on September 8, 2011 at 11:47 PM

    “…in conjunction with the ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign, church attendance would no longer be used to infer faithfulness and activity…”

    Wow. I’m really happy for all the BYU students who no longer have to feel they’re forced to attend church. Seriously. I would’ve stuck around and finished my degree at the Y if they hadn’t made it mandatory to attend sac meeting. So glad that decision has finally been reversed some twenty years on.

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  13. Allen on September 9, 2011 at 12:56 AM

    hawkgrrrl wrote – ” “Inactive” vs “active” are really only distinctions we make internally. No churches report that distinction in their membership numbers.”

    As a Ward Mission Leader I am sitting here going over reports that detail membership in just that way. People are constantly referred to as “active” and “inactive” in open Sunday meetings, and in closed-door meetings. Reports that are sent to the Stake level require these numbers, reports kept within the Ward/Branch require these numbers, and reports sent further up the line require these numbers.

    Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching are aimed directly at the “inactive” population of the membership with a small spill-over on to the “active” members.

    In case you’re wondering, our ward averages 40 people on Sundays out of the 640 in the records. That’s a 6.25% activity rate. It will always be a distinction between “active” and “inactive” when it comes to reporting activity levels, there’s really no other way to list it.

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  14. Jacobhalford on September 9, 2011 at 4:53 AM

    “Well, we have plenty of folks who attend Church every week who are not active”

    Which I think is big part of this change. The label of activity and less-activity blinds someone to how involved they really are in the church.

    Nick, I agree with hawk that is a very cynical attitude, but I think there is some strength to it. They can now say we have 12,million members, without having to footnote the actual church attendance. So it is making them more honest at least.

    Now I have never been in a highly administrative calling, but, I thought they only ever counted how many people were at church, not who was at church. So, if they only know 40 out of 640 are at church there is no record saying which 40 attended. Therefore to designate as less-active it cannot be done statistically using church records but is just what people notice. Although Sunday School does have registers. But if you have a 6.25% of members attending church, to give names to that number can not be done by the data, which I think would be a reason why the designation is being dropped as it will always be down to subjective judgement as to who gets called less-active.

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  15. dontgetit on September 9, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    Issue as I see it – we can count who is at a meeting physically, but never spiritually.

    There is the essence of spiritually versus physical activity with activity being measured by a body that one can count. The incronguity here is obvious. One could be present physically for the block, counted active, yet not have connected at any level to what the meetings were about. One can attend with their spiritual awareness in a great place and find great insight and meanin at the very same meeting.

    As I look around, I seem some sleeping, some with eyes glazed over, some (parents of young children) who are just praying that it will end soon and they will have survived.

    Some of this is said tongue-in-cheek. No offense intended, just observations.

    Chino made a good summation. When force is involved, I don’t believe it is ever a good situation. We tend to resist that which we feel forced to do.

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  16. Henry on September 9, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    Haven’t the saints always been commanded from the earliest times to always meet together to worship and praise the Lord? If you don’t do this, you are not complying with this commandment.

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  17. James on September 9, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    If these terms are being retired, my guess is that they are being retired as indicators of faithfulness rather than statistical measures. Ward budgets right now are determined by activity rates, so getting rid of the activity metric would make a mess for budgets.

    So I could definitely see a push from the top to get rid of the terms to indicate faithfulness or righteousness or whatever, but I highly doubt the terms are going anywhere as a means of statistical reporting.

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  18. Nick Literski on September 9, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    #6:
    Nick – I think your view is too cynical on this one. “Inactive” vs “active” are really only distinctions we make internally. No churches report that distinction in their membership numbers.

    Based on my experience in several EQ presidencies, as well as a stake executive secretary calling, internal LDS reports do reflect activity levels, with activity defined by attendance at one or more sacrament meetings per month.

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  19. Brian on September 9, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    The week after she received her diploma from BYU, my daughter-in-law sent a letter to her bishop saying she wanted no contact whatsoever from the church. To manage the church local leaders need to classify people. From a general church standpoint, this is really interesting and it would be fascinating to get the inside scoop. From all indications, the activity rates in the future are going to be nothing but bad.

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  20. Porter on September 9, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    I agree that this is purely a cosmetic change, but I am doubtful that anyone will pay attention. The inactive/active distinction is too ingrained in our culture. They tried to replace inactive with “less active” years ago, but it never really took.

    But if we’re going to try to reform our lexicon I would like to nominate the word “member” for removal too. Are we a country club or a church?

    Mudonme, I like your statement about evaluating yourself in terms of you relationship to God and Jesus Christ, but isn’t this a question about how we are labeling other people? All we can use is outward appearances for that, unfortunately.

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  21. Porter on September 9, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    One other note. I was in a SLC ward once where the bishop had large map of the ward behind his desk. Each household on the map was clearly labeled “active” “inactive” or “nonmember.” I’m sure it was well-intentioned, but people labeled as inactive were understandably offended and so he eventually redid the map.

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  22. Hank on September 9, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    Henry:

    Haven’t the saints always been commanded from the earliest times to always meet together to worship and praise the Lord? If you don’t do this, you are not complying with this commandment.

    Meeting together and worshiping can take many different varieties. Just because something happens today in a certain fashion doesn’t mean that’s the way it always has been… the early saints met outdoors in the open air. That was their worship. What makes us think you have to congregate in your local meetinghouse for 3 consecutive hours in order to check of the “I’m following that commandment” box?

    Dontgetit

    As I look around, I seem some sleeping, some with eyes glazed over, some (parents of young children) who are just praying that it will end soon and they will have survived.

    The problem with this mentality is one of implicit judgment. I happen to be – generally speaking – one of those with “eyes glazed over” in our meetings at our local ward. That’s not because I don’t care, that I don’t want to get something out of it, but more because I find the whole process (at the moment) stultifying.

    We don’t worship anymore, we recite platitudes and cliches… and that’s fine for some people. It just happens that I yearn for more out of church than the incredibly boring, mind-numbing drivel that we currently celebrate as “church”. Why is it that we can’t even carry on a semi-cerebral conversation at church without resorting to name-calling (i.e. apostate, unfaithful, etc)?

    I don’t understand why we can’t celebrate nature as one of the great places to worship. Instead of sequestering ourselves in a manmade edifice for the 3-hour Sunday block every week, why not venture outdoors and meet in a grove, or a meadow, or on the banks of a river, stream or lake?

    It’d be nice to see a little creativity go into what we define as “church” or “worship.” As is, I count myself as spiritually “inactive” at Church (even while remaining there physically), but nevertheless “active” in my spiritual life.

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  23. Jeff Spector on September 9, 2011 at 12:57 PM

    Hank,

    “What makes us think you have to congregate in your local meetinghouse for 3 consecutive hours in order to check of the “I’m following that commandment” box?”

    Perhaps because of this:

    “It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus; Doctrine and Covenants 20:75)

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  24. Mai Li on September 9, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    Regarding the question about what this change will do to the TR question about attending meetings: My husband and I, who were always TR holders, were out of the country for several years and had let our TRs lapse. After we had been home for some time, our bishop asked us if we would like to renew our recommends. I told him that I didn’t attend RS or SS (I do attend sacrament meeting on a fairly regular basis) and he agreed that I was not eligible for a TR.

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  25. Ray on September 9, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    Mai Li, your Bishop was wrong. Period.

    Fwiw, I’ve always hated the “less active” designation – especially when it was used to describe people who really were totally inactive. Call a spade a spade if you’re going to use terms like that; otherwise, don’t use them. I prefer not using them.

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  26. Heber13 on September 9, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    “the church no longer classifies people as less-active or inactive; everyone is simply just members of the church.”

    Hmm…how am I supposed to express my individuality if they keep taking these sub-classifications away at church?

    I guess people will just have to categorize me as a fool (which has nothing to do with my lack of activity at church).

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  27. Goldarn on September 9, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    Ray, Mai Li’s bishop was correct. The TR questions clearly indicate that a member must attend Sacrament and PH/RS in order to get a TR.

    On another topic—
    I used to be the ward chorister, so I sat on the stand every week. One week I realized that a lot of people looked sad, depressed, not happy to be there, etc. I started keeping track, and every week at least half of the ward (and we overflowed into the gym, so we weren’t small) looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. Children, teens, adults, didn’t matter.

    Every few months the ward has a missionary sunday kind of thing, where they try to invite lots of “non-members” (if you’ll excuse the categorization!) and really try to have a good meeting. The pre-approve the hymns, give the speakers a long time to prepare (instead of calling them that week), and basically do the kind of preparation that other churches do before hand to make sure the meeting is top-notch. Those weeks usually went pretty well, but the next week it was back to normal.

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  28. Din on September 9, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    Does this mean the church’s activity rate will no longer be 50%?

    Oh I see what they did.

    Clever.

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  29. John on September 9, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    Spector:

    Maybe Im misreading D&C 20, but I dont see where “often” is scripturally defined as every week, in a chapel, for 3 hours. Maybe you’re proof texting a little too much there…

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  30. Jacobhalford on September 9, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    Nick,

    “Based on my experience in several EQ presidencies, as well as a stake executive secretary calling, internal LDS reports do reflect activity levels, with activity defined by attendance at one or more sacrament meetings per month.”

    I would be interested in knowing how they actually are able to quantify who is active? How do they actually know who attends once a month, other then they own personal judgement or if they noticed them in the congregation?

    I think there is conflation between attendance and activity. This I think stems from a statistical abuse. For instance, say 60 people out of a ward of a 100 are at church two weeks in a row, how do you know that it is the same 60 people? As the ward attendance only lists the total at sacrament not specifically who was there. It could be that only 30 were there both weeks, with the others being investigators, friends, or visitors, or occasional attendees. So the statistics say it has an activity rate of 60%, which is not the actual case, on the other hand it may have 30 that travel a lot but attend frequently. The statistics mislead one into making flawed conclusions as you start to think that 60% are active, when really it just says 60 people come to church.

    What I think has happened is that because leaders like quantifiable ways of measuring so they can manage more effectively (like the Bishop porter mentioned with his map splitting people up) they have mixed church attendance with a concept of activity. All they really know is how many come to church which has been extrapolated into a signifier of how many are active in the ward, stake, mission or the church. So this move is an attempt to rectify this statistical point.

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  31. Jacobhalford on September 9, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    John,

    “I dont see where “often” is scripturally defined as every week, in a chapel, for 3 hours.”

    I think that you have failed to read footnote d that says ‘See BD: Church attendance’ in which BRM clearly states that saints must assemble for 3 hours every week to be considered saints.

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  32. hawkgrrrl on September 9, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    I think my comment about how the stats are used was misunderstood. I only meant that “active” vs “inactive” is not reported externally. When insider or ex-Mo critics see the membership number they all cry out “yeah, but how many of those are active?” as if the church is trying to pull a fast one (our external critics don’t typically ask this). Activity information is used internally, not to caveat or inflate membership numbers reported externally. As an ordinance-based church, reporting based on number baptized (and names not removed) is still perfectly valid regardless of activity levels. We report like Catholicism.

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  33. Ray on September 9, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    #27 – It’s not that cut and dried, which is what I should have said. The answer to some of the questions can be “not fully” and still warrant a recommend.

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  34. Jeff Spector on September 10, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    “Maybe Im misreading D&C 20, but I dont see where “often” is scripturally defined as every week, in a chapel, for 3 hours. Maybe you’re proof texting a little too much there…”

    So, in that case, how often is often since you seem to think once a week is too much?

    The Church has defined often as once a week. Does it have it wrong?

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  35. John on September 11, 2011 at 2:42 AM

    Spector:

    Classic response from you. Would you care to point out where I said that “once a week is too much”? Or, did you gloss over the fact that the jist of my comment was questioning how the weekly, 3-hour block became the de-facto standard simply because that’s what we do today?

    Surely the word “week” existed back when D&C 20 was given/revealed, did it not? And, if it did (and the 1828 Webster’s suggest that the word “week” did, indeed, exist and meant the same thing it means today), then why did the Lord use the word “often” instead of “week”? Surely you’d grant the Lord the ability to know what certain words mean and, when revelations are given, to use the words He wants to use to convey the message He wants to convey.

    If the Lord wanted to say that he wanted us to meet weekly to partake of the Sacrament, I’m confident He would have done so. Likewise, if He wanted us to meet frequently (synonym for “often”), he would have said so (and He did).

    The issue I have – and the issue you routinely gloss over with your trite responses – is that the LDS have a penchant for taking something and applying the modern meaning without contemplation or thought as to the desired meaning. I highly doubt the Lord intended our Sacraments to be required to happen every week as part of a 3-hour block and required to take place in some local chapel.

    Just because something is happening currently doesn’t mean that that something is the optimal way of doing things…

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  36. [...] less-believing kids, you can follow the prophet or follow your heart. The CoJCoL-dS has decided to stop labelling people “inactive”, but the Mormon History Website is still going strong at talking shit about ExMormons. Not that [...]

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  37. [...] time you heard the terms “inactive Mormon” or “less active Mormon”? Over at Wheat and Tares, there’s an interesting post about a change brewing in the Church’s PR: these terms are [...]

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  38. [...] out the terms “inactive” and “less active” from their vocabulary. This is a story I had reposted from Wheat & Tares, which had a first-person account of a meeting in the UK where such language was allegedly [...]

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