Imagine hearing about an amazing band. All of your friends and family members have just raved on and on about them, and you're dying to hear them. Even better, they're coming to your city and your friend got a bunch of tickets so your whole group can go together.
You anxiously count down til the day of the concert. You paid a lot of money and are fully invested in enjoying yourself. You get there and they play their first song. Everyone around you is singing and dancing and clearly having the time of their life. You're not. You're a little confused as you feel disappointment, but you think that it's maybe your unfamiliarity with the band or maybe that one song was an anomaly.
There's a whole concert left; surely you will love something.
But, the more the band plays, the more you feel flustered. Your friends couldn't be happier and keep remarking on how incredibly beautiful that one song was and how amazing that other one was, and you start feeling really disconcerted because it just sounds awful to you. Every note is discordant, there's no melody that you can pick up on, and it just sounds like a compilation of terrible noises joined together at different rhythms and styles.
The longer you listen, the worse you feel. And when you venture to ask your friends if they hear the same thing, they look at you like you are crazy: "It's the most beautiful music I've ever heard! How can you not like that?"
After a few comments like that, you can only come to one unsettling conclusion. In this whole crowd of thousands of people, you are the only one that doesn't like it, therefore you are the problem, not the band. There is something wrong with your hearing, or maybe even just your taste, but either way, you are clearly wrong and very much a part of an unpopular minority. So you shut up, pretend to like it and feel more and more miserable and unauthentic.
Wouldn't that be an awful feeling? What if you felt that way at church? You go and you invest and you do what you're supposed to, but at the end of the day you can't feel anything, you don't feel connected to the Spirit or the people around you, and based on everyone's comments/testimonies/lessons you feel utterly and completely alone and not just that, but like something is deeply wrong with you.
Clearly everyone else has it all figured out so you must be broken. You struggle quietly and keep yourself afloat with times you did hear the heavenly music and you keep going and "faking it" til you make it.
But one day you have a glimmer of bravery and decide to open up to someone, a trusted someone. You admit that you're not hearing and feeling the same thing as everyone else. You watch as their body reacts with fear, they stiffen and advise you most passionately on what you need to hurry and do to get out of this scary place of ambiguity. They throw some thoughtless, one-size-fits-all platitudes your way and expect you to change immediately. And so you inwardly shut down even more, feel worse about yourself, and officially put that part of you under lock and key. You either keep numbly going through the motions or you leave because the dissonance and loneliness is so great, you can't bear it.
But what if that trusted someone reacted differently? What if they listened and loved and weren't afraid to go to a place of ambiguity and grayness with you. What if they leaned towards you, reached out to you as their eyes filled with tears at your pain, validated how hard that must be, and told you they loved you and accepted you no matter what.
Then you might ask their advice because now you sense that whatever you say or do is safe there. They might open up about a time that was similar and how they got overcame it or just found a tender compensation. They might not relate at all but offer some sound advice that is sensitive to who you are as an individual. Or they might not have any advice but you will leave feeling loved and validated and stronger as you now know that you are not alone.
I have literally been every person in this scenario. I used to—and sadly probably still will—react poorly to people opening up about their doubts and trials of faith. Frankly, it's pure fear that causes that reaction. It brings a very uncomfortable grayness to our comfort zone of black and white, and that's a scary, unsettling place to be.
I have been the person that struggles with a few things and I have faced different reactions. And I can tell you the empathetic reaction is not only the right, Christlike thing to do but it is the most effective. Love is the single greatest, most lasting motivator we have, and if someone shows us acceptance and grace and empathy we are going to keep that relationship open, we're not going to give up, we're going to accept and ask for advice, and we're going to keep trying. We'll feel safe, comforted, accepted, stronger, validated, and inspired.
Frankly, I think we're losing people not only because they face these judgmental, fear-based reactions, but on the whole, they feel so alone and because of that, they feel inherently wrong. Based on 99.9 percent of church interactions (at least in my experience), these people feel like everyone else is perfect, makes no mistakes, does it all, and believes and knows everything with no doubt or discomfort or struggle.
The unintended but terribly damaging message from this is "if you don't have a testimony of every single concept, if you make mistakes, if you feel at odds sometimes with doctrine or culture, you are wrong and bad and there is no place for you." Because we are not brave enough to own our doubts, to own our uncomfortable questions, to own our imperfections, our denial and silence is creating a chasm so deep and dark that the people who were in the middle gray drop in the darkness never to be seen again. We don't want that!
Now, I'm not saying we need to get up in fast and testimony meeting and list all our issues and doctrinal questions to help others feel at ease. Obviously we want to uplift, inspire, be appropriate, and show reverence and respect. But I believe we can do all of that while still being more vulnerable and real.
Instead of acting like we have it all figured out, let's include how we got there and the obstacles and turning points along the way. Let's be open and comfortable that we're all different and coming from diverse places instead of just good and bad. Let's be comfortable, humble, and brave enough to comment and ask for help understanding something instead of listing how impressive our system or way is. Let's get rid of the one-size-fits-all approach to righteousness. Let's instead accept that God made us with distinctive strengths, weaknesses, and processes and that righteousness is an individual pursuit that will look differently for each person. Just as we sin differently, we are good differently. And how much more rich would our lives and congregations be if we made room for all those varied strengths? If we want the strengths, we have to make equal room for the weaknesses, and that to me is the very definition of extending grace, just as Christ does.
So whoever is struggling, please don't go. We need you; we really really do. You have something that is unique to you and we benefit from your perspective, talents, and struggles. If you're stalwart and unwavering, we need you too. We need your strength, experience, faith, and mostly your love. And that is how we'll all flourish and grow.
I can't think of a better closing than a quote from Elder Holland : "On those days when we feel a little out of tune, a little less than what we think we see or hear in others, I would ask us... to remember it is by divine design that not all the voices in God’s choir are the same. It takes variety—sopranos and altos, baritones and basses—to make rich music... When we disparage our uniqueness or try to conform to fictitious stereotypes . . . we lose the richness of tone and timbre that God intended when He created a world of diversity . . . I plead with each one of us to stay permanently and faithfully in the choir, where we will be able to savor forever that most precious anthem of all—'the song of redeeming love.'"