Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's an Extroverts Church: Part I

By Megan Licous Speer

I'd like to welcome our first guest post blogger: Megan Licous Speer. I met Megan by being her visiting teacher. I was a recently returned missionary myself and had an almost overbearing passion for visiting teaching.  I'm glad because this girl makes you work for her friendship--and boy does it pay off. She's major cool, fiercely loyal, hugely articulate, and a mega talented writer.  And her name is Megan.  I'm more of an extrovert so the social aspect of Church has been good to me, but I think it's important to hear different perspectives so we can help everyone have a positive church experience.  This post was originally posted on her blog "rawm" on February 24, 2014 as part one. Part II is posted here

To be righteous is to be social; this is the main thing I learned at church during my college years.

After my parents moved our family to Oregon when I was six, we had the good fortune of rooting and staying in the area for a very long time. LDS congregations are determined geographically, so I knew the same people at church, at school, and in the neighborhoods from the time I could remember to the time I left for college. Because of how comfortable I was, and because I rarely--if ever--had to engage someone I hadn't known pretty much all my life, I left for college having no idea that I was an introvert or that my religion was deeply social.

Megan is on the far right, with her arms crossed.

Obviously, churches are institutions, and are--by definition--social. Still, as churches go, the LDS church is peculiar. Where many religions have room for or even focus on private worship, LDS religious worship is almost exclusively social. I was thinking about this one day and wanted to make a list of all religious activities that are interpersonal. The ones I came up with are:

-all three hours of weekly church (sacrament meeting [partake of ordinance and general worship], Sunday school [scripture study], third hour [sex-specific and -divided meetings])
-prayer in familial and any other groups
-family and seminary or other group scripture study
-24/7 missions of predetermined length (assigned living arrangement with a stranger)
-all temple rituals, which are essential for exaltation
-all midweek activities (all organized by group [age and sex])
-all non-formal missionary work (interaction with friend, neighbor, co-worker, etc.)
-family home evening
-visiting and home teaching
-all additional young adult activities
-viewing general conference (culturally social)
-baptism and confirmation
-charitable service (culturally social)
-all formal repentance
-bearing of testimony
-receiving or giving patriarchal blessings
-receiving or giving priesthood blessings
-virtually all callings (organized, temporary church volunteer positions)
-exaltation (gifts from God based on worthiness, most importantly: living with and as Gods in family units)
-worthiness and other interviews

For sure, the degree to which each of these is social, and with whom exactly they are done, varies quite a bit, but it is either unusual or impossible to do any of them alone. Depending on the demographics of a member's area and living situation, they may have to go to a complete stranger for any of these hopefully personal, spiritual experiences. Compare these to the list of religious activities members can do alone:

-scripture study
-genealogical research
-small acts of kindness
-receiving revelation and spiritual promptings
-paying tithing (unless paying with a spouse)
-journal-keeping (but often done with a purpose of sharing with others)
-salvation (gifts from God that come regardless of worthiness, namely immortality)

Members are taught to make personal worship daily habit, but this is rarely discussed at length, and it doesn't stop there. In general, the church favors teachings on family, missionary work, and group service above solitary relationship with God, meditation, or progression. In an LDS meeting, the phrase "take a moment to think to yourself" is usually followed by, "now turn to your side and share with your neighbor." The scriptures--even some of the most famous passages--talk about retiring to your closet or going into the wilderness alone to ponder, repent, and strive, but this is not emphasized in lessons. While it is mentioned that the Savior often went up into the mountains alone to think and meditate, it is always emphasized that He never turned away any who sought after Him (which they invariably did), I assume because His apostles wished to emphasize His selflessness over His personal worship style or personality traits.

Group activities are given much more emphasis than individual activities that are elevated in other religions; for example, it is generally unacceptable to skip church meetings to ponder and study alone. Even the idea of dedicating the Sabbath to personal worship after regular meetings is suspect; at times, I have asked to have auxiliary church meetings I attend held during the week, rather than on Sunday, so that I could focus on personal worship and being with my family, but it has always been very poorly received or completely side-eyed and denied. Sunday, it seems, is--rather than a day of rest--a day given to members to perform all of their religious, social duties.

Socializing is not bad and introverts enjoy socializing, mainly when their batteries are full and it's on a personal, no-nonsense, deep conversational level that is rarely reached in LDS religious group settings. In a religion with a compulsory social schedule and agenda, with heavy moral implications attached, introverts find themselves inching by and leaving meetings as soon as they end, sometimes feeling guilty or being questioned for it later. "We go even when we don't want to go" is what my mom often told me and my brothers when it came to church duties, and I wonder now if that was advice from an introvert to her replicated introverts as much as it was from a dutiful church member to her children.

In some ways, this focus on the social respects and speaks to the quiet intimacy of spiritual experience, allowing members to focus their time together on edifying one another in mind, spirit, heart, perception, and understanding. Some social aspects of the church are entirely redeeming: things are done by common consent, members serve as volunteers in different capacities, and members know they will have a ward family to support them no matter where they go. At a time, though, when psychologists believe extroversion and introversion are based in biology, culturally steering religious experience toward extroverts, rather than introverts, makes about as much sense as steering religious experiences more toward men than women.

Despite all of this, introverts can win in the ways that matter to them: by reading the lessons in advance and making personal reflection a precursor to meetings; by sharing powerful, personal insights as speakers or teachers; and, when needed, by working to find the spirit within the noise.

I arrived at college to an instant, geographically determined network of people I was supposed to automatically like, spend time with, support religiously, socially, and academically, as well as be around 24/7. It didn't take long to realize that religion and spirituality were different than what I thought they were, and the self-discovery and struggle that have followed have become invaluable to me.

Megan Nield Speer grew up in Hillsboro, Oregon, graduated in 2012 with a BA in English from Brigham Young University, and currently works for the university and as a freelance writer. Her current focuses include postmodernism, film, feminism, LDS culture, holistic living, and online outreach. She and her husband, Samuel, enjoy collaborating on artistic and social projects.

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