It’s fast Sunday today, and I find myself not looking forward to fast and testimony meeting later this afternoon. Of all Sunday sacrament meetings (except maybe High Council Sunday) this is the hardest one for me to find the motivation to attend.
This is unfortunate because in theory, I like the idea of anyone in the congregation having the opportunity to claim the pulpit and share things that are the most meaningful in their lives. That feels wonderfully democratic to me and potentially moving and poignant.
But in reality, I often find myself feeling more distanced, more alienated, and more alone in these meetings than in nearly any other. And much of it is due to the exclusivist rhetoric many people employ as they share their testimonies.
“I know this church is true.”
“I’m so grateful to belong to the one true church of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
“I’m so grateful that we in the church have the truth and that we know how to get back to Heavenly Father.”
These refrains about the one true church and having the truth are common throughout talks and lessons during the Sunday block, but they are present in an especially high proportion during fast and testimony meeting.
And this rhetoric troubles me.
First, this kind of exclusivist discourse has an othering, divisive effect. It puts up a wall between us and others, those that have “the truth” and those that don’t. It rhetorically draws a stark line that creates insiders and outsiders. And at the same time, it implies that all of those outsiders don’t have access to God’s truth (or have considerably less access). Do we want to present to others and to our own congregants a universe in which 99.8% of the population of this earth doesn’t have godly truth? Do we want to even slightly imply that people in this vast population of non-Latter-day Saints haven’t developed meaningful connections with God and powerful spiritual insight within their own traditions? Every time I hear this kind of language, I can’t help but cringe a bit (and I especially cringe when I hear it parroted in rote manner by children). How must this language sound to visitors who are not of our faith? It strikes me as a very narrow presentation of God and Jesus. God is much bigger than this church and always will be.
Second, this kind of exclusivist discourse—so engrained in the Mormon scripts we enact throughout our church lives—orients people towards a mind frame and way of thinking that just doesn’t resonate so well with many young people and non-members any more. As Jana Riess pointed out in her terrific piece from 2019, finding the “true church” was a burning question for many people in Joseph Smith’s time. Most people in the U.S. in the nineteenth century were nominal Christians and some were trying to figure out which was God’s true church. But today, we live in a world where people may be less interested in churches’ exclusive truth claims. To paraphrase Riess, the burning question for many people today is not so much, “Which church is true?” Rather, “How can the Church help people flourish? How is it good? And why does religion even matter?” may be questions that resonate more.
If those latter questions are ones that younger members and our neighbors care about, perhaps it’s time to develop new rhetorical emphases in our meetings. Emphases that don’t divide between those that have the truth and those that don’t. Emphases that don’t sound self-congratulatory and clannish.
Instead, let me hear in testimony meeting about how being a part of this church community has helped to expand your heart and broaden your capacity to love. Tell me about your regrets, your pain, your struggles, and your hope. Tell me about experiences in life that helped you develop compassion. Let me hear about how stories from sacred texts have led to personal insight. Tell me how this tradition has helped you to heal wounds, enhance vision, and find goodness in life.
A meeting filled with that kind of language and content—well, that’s a meeting I would feel motivated to attend.