Many churches of mainstream Protestant and Catholic religions are largely empty. I learned something about this supposed disinterest in religion that is flooding the developed world through an experience I had with a man that I met several years ago named Stephen Spencer. Asking sincere questions about someone’s supposed disinterest in religion is another way to engage in conversations about the gospel.
In our first conversation, I used Mormon words, and he verified, “Oh, so you’re a Mormon?”
I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. Why do you ask? It really is a great church, by the way.”
He said, “Just interested. I haven’t gone to church for about thirty years.”
Rather than trying to convince Stephen that he needed our church or any church, I said, “Why do you think so many people are exiting rather than entering churches? Are there any big deal-breaking questions that caused you to despair of organized religion because the churches didn’t have answers to those questions?”
Stephen responded that he’d like to take some time to put them together “in a cogent list.”
I said, “I would love to discuss these questions, because I think about this a lot too. And if by chance the LDS perspective shines any light on a question, I’ll offer it to you.” Stephen was amenable, and we set up a meeting early the next week.
At the next meeting I was quite stunned: Stephen had some very good questions—about the purpose of life, if there is one; what is God, if there is one; and so on. He said, “As I went through college and graduate school, the churches I attended just could not answer my questions. So I stopped going to church and have been looking for answers in philosophy and science instead. Frankly, they can’t answer them any better than churches can.”
We started at the top of Stephen’s list. I asked questions about his first question, just to understand why it was important to him, and why he hadn’t been impressed with the answers that others had offered. I then found and discussed answers to that question in the Book of Mormon.
I noticed that he crossed the first question off his list. “Why did you cross it off?” I asked.
“You answered it,” he replied.
We then organized the subsequent lessons with the missionaries around the remaining questions on his list. When we scheduled a time for the zone leaders to interview Stephen for baptism, we listed all of the concepts, doctrines, and practices that are covered in the four lessons. We were delighted that we had covered every one of them, but in a sequence that answered Stephen’s questions.
Today, if someone asks me something about our church, I don’t tell him what I want him to know. Rather, I ask, “Do you have any questions about religious issues that you’ve been wondering about or that you haven’t been able to get good answers to?” It turns out that there are a lot of people with questions. Most of them have given up on churches as a source of answers. As a consequence, even though they’re interested in important questions, we categorize them as not interested in religion.
Explaining Ourselves through Questions
A friend once said, “I don’t get it. Every Mormon I have met is a good, clear-minded person. What I don’t get is how such good people believe in such a strange church!” I have concluded that the best way to resolve this paradox about us is by examining the questions that we typically ask in contrast to others, rather than comparing our answers to those that other churches offer. Though there is no “best” answer to a question like my friend posed, in the following paragraphs I’ll recount how I used questions to explain our church to my friend.
I’ve never been to heaven, of course, I told him. But in trying to imagine what it is like, one metaphor that helps me is to imagine that God has constructed massive libraries in heaven. The shelves in these libraries are filled with books that are packed with truths, insights, and answers. Most of the books have never been checked out. Why, you might ask, are these stored in these libraries, rather than having have been distributed broadly to people on earth?
The reason is that people learn when they’re ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. So if God directed a heavenly librarian to get the answer to question #23 off the shelf and send it down to some random person on earth, the answer would simply not be noticed. But when we ask a question, it is as if we put a Velcro pad in our brain where we need the answer. When the answer is then delivered, it sticks itself to the Velcro right where it is needed. The rule is this: Anybody on earth can check out any book—but the catch is that you need to ask the question first.
I told my friend that in the third century after Christ’s death, the leaders of the early Christian Church essentially announced that God had given them all of the answers. And believing that they had received all the answers, there was no need to ask questions of God. When they stopped asking questions, revelation from heaven stopped. There was no need for prophets. These leaders essentially turned off the lights on the earth and plunged mankind into the dark ages.
Reformers like Luther, Wesley, and Calvin started asking questions again. But their questions were largely targeted to each other, debating interpretations of the answers that had been given centuries ago. They created churches that were differentiated one from another by the way they interpreted the answers. These men did enormous good in making the Bible available to people in their own languages and in explaining what it meant. But they did not revisit the basic conclusion of their early leaders—that all of the answers had been given to mankind.
I then told my friend that in 1820 in upstate New York, a fourteen-year-old boy, Joseph Smith, prayed to God, asking a simple question: Which, of all these churches, should he join? God and His Son Jesus Christ actually came down from heaven to personally give him the answer—that he should join none of them, because they were wrong. A simple boy asked a simple question and got a simple answer. And then they left.
For three more years, Joseph received no more answers from God because he essentially didn’t ask any more questions. Then in 1823, at age seventeen, Joseph again prayed with a question—which in today’s language essentially was this: “I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch, but it’s not clear whether the ball is in my court or yours. Is there something you want me to do?” Immediately, an angel, Moroni, appeared and began answering Joseph’s question about what God wanted him to do—and why.
Interestingly, however, the librarians in the heavenly libraries didn’t announce over the loudspeaker system, “We’ve finally got our man down there. Let’s empty the libraries and give that guy everything we’ve got!” Instead, over the next twenty years, Joseph Smith repeatedly asked questions of God about things he didn’t understand. And God answered those questions step by step, clarifying questions about some of the answers that already been revealed and giving him additional truth. And to keep it all in perspective, God assured Joseph that He didn’t plan to give him all the answers at that point—that there were many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God that He would give to them in the future—provided, of course, that they keep asking questions.
I explained to my new friend that while we refer to the work of Luther, Wesley, Calvin, and others as the Reformation, we call the story of Joseph Smith the beginning of the Restoration of the original church that Jesus established. In essence, it restored questions to the earth, which then elicited answers that man had previously not known. Because of this, we have learned much more about God’s plan for us than is known among those who decided eighteen centuries ago that there were no more answers, no more questions. The salient difference between other churches and the LDS Church isn’t a difference of orthodoxy versus unorthodoxy. Rather, it is the difference in the depth and breadth of understanding of God’s plan for us. And this comes from the quality of the questions that are being asked. Oddly, the reason why some people frame Mormonism as “strange” is that we are in fact unique! We don’t believe that God has ever given mankind all of the answers—and so we continue to ask.
“Got it,” my friend noted. “But doesn’t it bother you that it is predicated on a fourteen-year-old boy speaking with God and angels? To me, it is just an incredible story—as in not a credible story.”
“Think about it this way,” I responded. “Imagine that you were in heaven, wanting to give truth and insight and answers to mankind. Would you choose a spokesman for you on earth who truly believes that heaven already has given everything that is to be given? Or might you prefer instead someone whose mind is filled with questions, someone who is eager to get answers? Would you prefer someone who has advanced degrees from a divinity school, or a boy?”
I then summarized the background information about people whom God had called to become His prophets over time. There is information only for a few—including Enoch, Moses, Samuel, Saul, David, Jeremiah, and Amos. So I arrayed these stories on an oral spreadsheet of sorts, with these headings at the top of the columns: How old was he? What was his reaction to the call from God to be His prophet? Did the prophet know much about God or His plan for mankind at the time of his call? What, if known, was his profession or his educational background?
This arrayed a stunning pattern. All but one were young boys at the time they were called. Each was taken by total surprise, and some tried to convince God that He had asked the wrong man. Most were shepherds; they knew little about God or about what He had previously taught to earlier prophets. God then fundamentally changed them into powerful orators and leaders.
I then said, “Look at the pattern. The assertion that God and angels appeared to a simple, uneducated boy in the 1820s and called him to be His prophet to the world is the single most credible event in the history of religion in the last eighteen centuries. God had access to the best in the world. Why would He choose a simple boy?”
My friend answered, “I guess it is because he would ask a lot of questions.”
What makes the LDS Church so different? Questions have been restored to the earth. As a church and as individuals we know much more about God’s plan for us than is available for those who have been told that the “libraries” above were emptied of answers and padlocked centuries ago. Our story is not just credible. It is true.
Because God gives answers when we ask questions, it is a good way to do missionary work. People will learn when they are ready to learn, not when we are ready to teach them. Discovering what questions are on people’s minds about religion helps me see that I actually am surrounded by many more people who are religious than I had imagined—because they have questions.
“Uncomfortable.” “Intimidating.” That's how many people describe member missionary work. Clayton Christensen admits that he and his wife, Christine, felt that way in the past too. But they also recognized the tremendous blessings associated with the work, and they wanted to learn how to share the gospel in ways that would be natural and rewarding. Their refreshing perspectives are presented in The Power of Everyday Missionaries, which includes inspiring, unusual stories that demonstrate the effectiveness of the ideas.