Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


Why the Mormon Church is True

posted by Jana Riess

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People in my congregation sometimes make reference to the idea that the LDS Church is the “only true Church” on the face of the earth. Such formulations nearly always make me uncomfortable. As I’ve stated here before, I’m basically a failed saint. My faith is as characterized as much by doubt as it is by certainty, and more by a hopeful desire to serve Jesus than confidence in my specific means of doing so.

But in at least one way I am sure we Mormons get it right: I am forced, every week, to go to church with people I wouldn’t otherwise go out of my way to befriend. One of them is someone who drives me up a tree. And like it or not, that is the gospel.

Mormonism operates under a strict “parish model”–kind of like Catholics used to, but on steroids. We don’t get the luxury of shopping around for the ward with the nicest building or the most established youth group or the coolest bishop (which incidentally happens to be mine, at least in the last point).

The Powers That Be draw up our ward boundaries without consulting us, and we are expected to suck it up.

In places like Utah, where you can’t spit without hitting a hundred Latter-day Saints, this policy isn’t that radical. There are neighborhoods in Salt Lake City where a ward might encompass just a few streets. So if your neighborhood is fairly homogeneous, your ward will be, too.

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I’ve never lived in a ward like that, however. The first congregation I ever belonged to was in Princeton, New Jersey. (It spoiled me forever, by the way.) We had a shocking range of backgrounds in that community. The president of Lenox China was in my ward, as was a chief legal counsel for Bristol Meyers Squibb and a Wall Street wunderkind. But they worked in their callings alongside a number of first-generation Guatemalan immigrants and people living below the poverty level. We had diehard Republicans in their SUVs and tweedy academic Democrats in beat-up Volvos. And we had a number of people who couldn’t afford a car at all. We did not have obvious things in common with each other, but we had to figure out how to be a family.

That’s one thing about Mormonism that is truer than any religious organization I’ve ever seen. My religion forces me out of my comfort zone every single day. In the ward where I live now, our boundaries cover much of the urban core of downtown Cincinnati as well as affluent suburbs like Indian Hill. When my mom, who is a Lutheran, visited my church one Christmas, she remarked that in her congregation, people talked a lot about social justice and how to reach out to African Americans, but real live black people were pretty thin on the ground. At my church, she was pleasantly surprised to see racial diversity in action. My ward doesn’t fit the prophetic critique delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Mormons may have a long way to go in race relations, but being intentionally lumped together in church is the only way to make real equality happen.

The racial and socioeconomic diversity of Mormon wards–or at least those outside heavily Mormon areas–is made possible by this un-American-sounding policy that we can’t choose where we go to church. Technically, yes, a Latter-day Saint can attend any ward she wants to. But if she desires a calling (a volunteer job) and a temple recommend, she has to attend the ward she’s zoned for, no kvetching allowed.

And believe me, sometimes it’s hard. In my ward there is a person who drives me crazy with right-wing politics and a tendency to make startling pronouncements about, for example, how the people of Haiti deserved their earthquake. I never know what’s going to come out of this person’s mouth, but I usually disagree with it. I would never choose to go to church with this person, but I’m glad that someone wiser than I am is making me do it. It’s forced me to learn a lot about myself, my beliefs, my own appallingly limited perspective, and what it means to be the church.

Walter Brueggemann points out in Mandate to Difference that a major part of why any church exists is to reach out, as Jesus would, to people who are least like ourselves. I’m frankly not sure that I’m a strong enough Christian to do that if left to my own devices. I’d rather go to my husband’s Episcopal church, where the people think like me, the sermons are first-rate, and a girl can get a really good cup of coffee.

But I am called to be here, working out my salvation alongside people who are radically different. And isn’t that what the Savior modeled?



  • Greg

    Nicely done. And if it’s any help, there are people at Crossroads who drive me nuts as well. Grace and Truth. Probably a little heavier on the former.

  • Kevin Barney

    Great observation! This policy has resulted in wonderful diversity in my ward northwest of the City of Chicago.

  • JCK

    oooo, oooo…do I get three guesses????

  • harpchil

    Amen. Except in my ward (in Arizona), the number of people who drive me nuts (for the exact comments you mentioned) is much, MUCH higher than one.

  • http://thefivedollars.blogspot.com Ellen

    This is an aspect of the Mormon church I never knew about, and it reminds me of a line in CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters about how the point is not to shop around for a church that meets your needs but to figure what you’re supposed to do in the church you’re in. Seems like committing to a church in this way makes worship and church membership much more of a discipline–something you do because it’s integral to your faith life, not because you would necessarily choose it as a preferred activity–than in many denominations.

  • Phyllis Riess

    Good insight beautifully stated. Something to think about.

  • Your Name

    Truth is the language of god. Truth, Love and Knowledge are the trinity of god. Thats what he tells me. He says, “only when you set your belief free, do not own your belief, amend your belief until truth is all that is left of your belief, when truth and your belief are one, then you shall be one with me.’
    He says, “do not fear to question me, for I have given you the ability to question. The question is the pathway to align your belief with truth and therefore find me”
    He says “worship is the requirement of people who call themselves ‘lord’ for these people are needy”.
    He says “Love me, for love is my devine gift to you” then he says “love eachother, for this is my devine gift to you”
    does anyone know why I hear this every time I close my eyes.
    He says, ” I have written no books on paper”
    He says, “Each and everyone of you are the pages of my bible. Seek the truth and my bible shall be written”
    He also says, “Only men with agenda’s expect and demand blind faith, I know you will love me for what I am, when you know me”
    Does anyone else know of this?

  • E.

    Great article, Jana. I’ve always thought that this was one of the most impressive points of the church too. And I smiled at the mentions of “he/she who must not be named”; I’ve had quite a few interesting conversations with said person as well. :)

  • jeanie johnson

    nicely said. i agree. you’re in cincinnati? do you know karen anderson?

  • Alethea

    Brilliant, Jana. When I’m asked why I am an active Mormon, my response is frequently, “They need me.” There are some days when I doubt this, but your post reminds me that, indeed, we all belong; there is a seat for us each at the table.

  • JWL

    The actual wording is “the only true and living Church.” I relate to the idea of the “living church” as much or more than the “true church.” From time to time I’ve tried to persuade illustrator friends of the merit of doing a series of posters called “Signs of the Living Church.” It would feature items like children in Sacrament Meeting, the open mike service the first Sunday of every month, and someone who looks like you patiently listening to one of our brethren of the right expound!

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I am assuming you are familiar with, and alluding to, the essay by the late Professor Eugene England of BYU, entitled “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” He spoke about the importance of our being forced to learn to serve people whom we might not otherwise choose to associate with, in order to develop the kind of encompassing love and compassion that Christ modeled for us.
    A point I have made in response to remarks of the ignorant (like Bill Maher) accusing Mormons of being “racist” is that we have not had racially segregated congregations, even before the 1978 revelation on ordination of blacks to the priesthood. When I was growing up in Salt Lake in the 1950s, there were black LDS families down the street from my family, and they were members of the South 2nd Ward the same as us. While there are language-based congregations (like the Japanese-language Dai Ichi ["First"] Ward in Salt Lake, which my family attended for several years), just as there are wards for “singles”, a member always has the choice of attending his or her own geographic ward. If, as Robert Frost said, home is where they have to take you in, then an LDS ward is “home” for all members in its boundaries.
    For me, the most objectionable fellow ward member was a woman in the first ward we lived in when I was attending law school some 35 years ago. She happened to be the twin sister of the wife of a guy who was in my ROTC unit and then my first squadron, who did some nice things for us like loaning us an extra baby crib when we were expecting twins. The sister came by one day to berate me for not showing up for a ward project when I was sick at home with the flu and answering the door in my bathrobe because I had been lying down recuperating.
    In a lot of areas outside Utah, wards can be quite large, but that was also the case in my ward in Idaho. It went from the city limits of Idaho Falls to include the farms all the way out to the Idaho National Engineering laboratory nuclear reactor research site some 40 miles west. We had two or three snow days each winter so that members wouldn’t get stuck in the snow drifts trying to get to church, which was in a building some 5 miles north of town surrounded by farms. I figured out that all the other LDS meetinghouses in the city were closer to our home than our own meetinghouse.
    We had a mixed congregation of farmers (most of whom had at least one finger missing) and engineers who worked at the Site. A lot of really nice people. And a couple of lawyers like me and the stake president.

  • Mensch

    Well said, Jana. It is said that we can pick our friends but not our family. But if we truly are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, then should not the Lord’s church apply the same principle by not allowing us to select our ward family? Over the years, there have been many such many “family members” with whom I would not have affiliated with of my own accord, but who, through being required to “live” together in the same ward family, serving each other through our callings and see their examples of living the Gospel, have become some of my most treasured acquaintances, and from whom I have learned lessons I could have learned no other way.

  • Daniel

    This is a great post. My new ward in Philadelphia puts people from the largely white, affluent suburbs with people from the poorer, mostly African American area of West Philadelphia. There is no way these people would socialize with one another unless they were in the same ward and I, for one, am extremely grateful for it.

  • melissa

    Every ward has one or two that seem to be gifted in the annoying dept. One “Dear Sister” grated on my nerves so bad I couldn’t even tolerate her voice! I solved MY problem by making a list of all her good qualities and things that I knew she had done for others. I spent 15 min with a blank piece of paper, but once I got going I was surprised at how many things I could come up with. Does she still annoy me? Yes! Do I want to run shrieking from the room every time I hear her voice? not any more!And that is one of the many blessings of the gospel and “forced wardship” – We grow!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment ajfakjfkajfkasdjfka

    Why the Bible says, if any angel or a man brings a different gospel that we have preached, anathema is he. Galatians, chapter 1, verse 8.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Matthew

    The mormon church really is true. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so widely discussed today. The prophet Joseph smith saw god the father and his son Jesus Christ. We too can know of its truth through prayer and script study.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Your Name

    If you have any doubts. Just remember that it’s okay. I had doubts at one time myself yet now I know for certain that this church is true

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rhett Wilkinson

    This is a wonderful post. I am LDS and I agree. The first ward I served in was Princeton. I’m sure we know many of the same people.

  • http://you'reallnuts casey

    if the lds church is true why do they ban non-members from temple marriage? would jesus support that? no….and really ‘ widely discussed ” you mean like more controversial…if you’re telling me your church is the true one with 7 million members out west compared to the catholic churches 1.5 plus billion members…get out of here….

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