I have spent the past week or so watching old LDS videos at this YouTube Channel. The breadth of what they have is impressive. Usually people like to focus on the story-based films that the Church and BYU have produced, but there have also been many historical videos produced. The YouTube Channel has a playlist devoted entirely to these documentaries, interviews, and other videos of historical interest. I find them to be a fascinating glimpse into the past of Mormonism.
They also make me more than a little sad. When watching these films you get a real sense of the grandeur of the mid-century Church.
Here's an example. The following video is called "For the Strength of the Hills" and is about the construction of the storage vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon. As you watch it the sheer scale of the project is amazing.
These vaults, an the video detailing their construction, were made in the 1960s. But more impressive than the methods and scale of their construction is that they were ever constructed at all.
Seriously, take a moment to imagine what the Church's needs were that were fulfilled by the vaults and how they were meeting those needs before the project was created. They were storing documents and microfilm in buildings in the Salt Lake Valley. There were environmental problems, accessibility problems, communication problems. The vaults addressed some of these problems, the microfilming project some some of these problems, and computers eventually arrived to solve other problems.
The LDS Church of the 1960s and 1970s was in an amazing time of growth and flux. The video series "The Church in Action" was made annually between 1971 and 1981 in an effort to archive the history of the previous year (a final five-year catch-up episode covering 1981-85 was made in 1986). When it comes to the Church in the 1970s I think most members of the Church only think of the removal of the Temple Ban in 1978 (and yes, it was indeed a Temple Ban as the "Church in Action 1978" makes perfectly clear in its opening minutes as it mentions that black LDS members can now go to the Temple and serve full-time missions when they couldn't before). But there is so much more going on. The construction of the Church Office Building is proudly displayed during multiple years. Temples are completed in Seattle, Washington DC, Provo, and Polynesia. Welfare Square receives national attention.
You can find many of these old documentaries here.
Why do I find these old documentaries to be so fascinating? Because for each of these items there was a reason behind it. They weren't just building Temples for the fun of it or to try and be impressive with big numbers: the membership was clamoring for access to the buildings around the world. Welfare Square was made to meet the needs of LDS members during the Depression and after World War II.
Even a building like the Church Office Building, with its pompous white block jutting high up into the Salt Lake City skyline, represents more than just more office space for the growing number of Church employees. With the globes carved into its facade the building itself represents the hopes of the future. This was a Church that was building a foundation from which it would eventually fill the world. The Church was following the "Great Commission" of Jesus and it was doing so in a grand way.
That is why I find these videos fascinating. Because that dream is gone.
We've just finished the [October 2015 General Conference]. A subject that seemed to arise again and again was doubt. Members had to pass around stories of little children seeing "angels" holding up President Monson as he nearly collapsed at the podium because there wasn't anything else nearly so amazing for the weekend. We were encouraged to "Give Brother Joseph a break" for unnamed foibles and shortcomings. We were told that skepticism was "easy" compared to faith.
When we look at the Church of a half-century ago we can see an organization hopeful for the future and that promotes faith despite a lack of evidence. Today I see an organization that is deeply ambivalent about the future (even expecting an imminent breakdown of all social order) and that promotes faith in spite of the evidence.
The Mormon people hunger for powerful leadership. They hunger for revelations and miracles. And since they're not receiving any (and are only being told that small, private miracles happen all the time but are just not discussed or otherwise verified) they are inventing them. The age for missionaries is adjusted and the membership tries to transform what is a policy change into an earth-shattering revelation. The rules of order for some of the top councils are adjusted to allow women to participate in some fashion and the change is trumpeted as a great step forward. After the age for missionaries was adjusted but the differing time services for men and women was discussed, the response was the quip, "One miracle at a time!"
But the people know that this is like putting a Band-aid on a broken bone. Something has happened over the past few decades. The leadership continues to grow ever older in average age than ever before, and the actions of the Church seem to have slowed down in step with that age. When changing a missionary policy is a "miracle" it seems similar to when a person dealing with the effects of advanced age successfully completes something they often find difficult: it is a miracle. For them. But for other people it's less than notable. You might think nothing of just getting down the stairs, but your grandmother may view it very differently.
I think this is what explains the growing phenomenon of individuals like Julie Rowe or Denver Snuffer. These people offer visions and revelations. They offer proof that God is still very much active in peoples lives. They offer a narrative of the world that people can share in and feel like they're part of something grander than themselves. They can enjoy the energy that is now so clearly lacking from a Church that employs people to stay in the boat or to stay in the brine until they become a pickle. The stories may be funny, but most people don't actually find pickles to be all that inspiring.
How can the LDS Church regain that energy that is so obvious from these old films? I think the answer is obvious: it needs to spend money building things.
"But it's already spending lots of money building things!" I can hear you saying.
Yes, it's building more Temples, far more now than most of the active membership needs. Yes, it's renovating their Church History Museum and their Library. They are purchasing land and rebuilding more old homes and buildings in Nauvoo and Kirtland.
But I mean more than just building things like that. In the 1930's they built Welfare Square to feed people and employ people. Average people working in the Stake fields knew their work was going to help others directly. But now the orchards are sold and developed, and the canneries, which had never been able to compete against ever-cheapening international goods, are closing down. The Temple program expanded and brought Temples to people around the world. But now there are so many Temples compared to active membership that time spent at the Temples must be scheduled so that they can keep costs lower by not using cleaning crews as often and not using as much electricity or laundry (when the Temple even has a laundry) except when necessary. They expanded BYU into a world-class institution with state-of-the-art technologies. But now colleges themselves are facing a growing bubble of student debts and a workforce that is not rewarding an undergraduate degree the way it used to, leading to a resurgence in the importance of trade schools.
The answer cannot be to simply build what was built in the past. Those past projects were built to address specific needs. Those needs have changed.
What is needed now is projects built to deal with the current needs in a big way. We need a Church that has grown comfortable in avoiding risk to step up and take some risks.
What if the Mormon Church became known as the Church that:
- Builds and operates low-income housing to help people lift themselves out of poverty
- Operates domestic abuse shelters
- Provides high-quality rehabilitation centers to help people get off of dangerous drugs and educate people about the science of heroine and meth addiction
- Supports single-parent families through providing child care services or reimbursement so that parents can better provide for their families
- Inoculates the world against common and deadly diseases like malaria and hepatitis using the knowledge they already have from their missionary program of how to get trained professionals into the towns and villages of the world to interact with people on a personal level
- Is directly funding desalination technology to benefit people who need access to fresh drinking water
- Is funding power technologies like wind, solar, fission, and even fusion because cheaper access to clean power helps to provide more resources to people around the world which lowers on of the major causes of wars and conflicts
- Freely or at least cheaply provided technical education to the people of the world so that the Einsteins of the world who had died in times past with their genius unrealized due to poverty or lack of access to education are not passed over again
I know some of those idea seem extremely unlike the LDS Church and its aims today. But let's step back in time to the 1910s when the Church was just struggling to establish itself as pro-American in popular culture and imagine telling them than in just a few decades they're going to be boring caves into the mountainsides to store microfilm. Imagine telling them that in just a few short years they'll be growing food to feed the hungry and making clothing for the naked Mormons of Europe. Imagine telling them that they'll expand the Brigham Young Academy into a world-class institution of higher-learning with an amazing business school and strong support of the physical sciences. Imagine telling them that the ban of black members from the Priesthood and the Temples is reversed. And in all of those things, the Church was promoting a mission given to them by none other than Jesus Christ himself. They were not just helping humanity prepare for the next world, they were helping humanity to live in this one.
Then imagine telling them that afterwards they'll be cleaning their ward buildings by assignment every week with unskilled, unpaid volunteer efforts. Tell them that they'll provide some tuition loans through a "Perpetual Education Fund" but that often the amounts provided aren't enough to cover tuition without unattainable scholarships and that the interests on these loans are often more a challenge to pay off than was presented to the borrower. Tell them that building Temples has become so commonplace that many of them often spend multiple days a week closed due to lack of members to fill them. Tell them that the Church asks their membership to spend millions in a fruitless attempt to maintain laws in the face of overwhelming and successful public clamor for change. Tell them that their leadership has an average age approaching ninety years old and are constantly dealing with issues of physical and mental health. Tell them that the Church is expelling members who are dissatisfied with this state of events and respond either by seeking for revelations and divine energy of their own or seek to influence change from within the organization. Tell them that revelations like the Proclamation on the Family now arrive through committees and are never explicitly called "revelations," leading to confusion among the membership regarding their authority and canonical status. Tell them that evidences of God's inspiration among their leaders is limited to policy changes about missionary ages and stories of how their leaders don't collapse at the pulpit due to their fellow General Authorities standing just out of sight behind them to catch them or due to angels that a handful of children tell their parents about seeing over the Television holding up the Church President.
There's a reason things are in a bad place. There's a reason that there are groups like the Remnant who are beginning to reject the Priesthood authority of the main Church. There's a reason that thousands of people hang onto every word spoken by members who had Near Death Experiences and speak to their fears about blood Moons and Jade Helm. There's a reason that people are finding it ever more impossible to believe in spite of the evidence to the contrary. There's just nothing left anymore for them to grab onto in the middle. People are walking out the doors, either to the conservative right or the liberal left. And the Church is doubling down on the middle, hoping that if they can just maintain long enough something will happen to rescue them from their situation.
They need to take a page from the playbook of their history. They need to get back to building what matters. They need to build for the future of their members, not just for the future of Salt Lake City, not just for their own bottom line by shuffling real estate around. They need to build the projects than can be the foundation for the next half-century. They can't just wait for God to rescue them. The aims of the old Welfare Program apply to them in this case: the idler has no place in Zion. God will help those who help themselves.