During the recent Saturday afternoon session of the general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, First Presidency member Dallin H. Oaks took on a controversial subject especially pertinent to millennials and Gen Zers.
The church leader addressed "non-church goers"—both those who have stopped attending the LDS church, as well as those who have dropped out of other religious organizations. Citing large-scale societal trends that show significantly reduced participation in organized religion, Oaks argued that actively participating in a church helps us "rise above the individualism of our age" and "overcome the personal selfishness that can retard spiritual growth."
While pointing out that all religious organizations can provide numerous individual and societal benefits, Oaks stressed that the LDS Church contains the most optimal blessings, due to its unique ability to provide divinely authorized ordinances that lead to salvation.
In addition, Oaks showcased the church's many humanitarian endeavors, arguing that its ability to pool and distribute resources and organize collective efforts is matched by no other.
Oaks didn't just speak about the blessings of membership in the church. He also described reasons for why he believes some no longer attend in an insensitive and tone-deaf way, oversimplifying what is typically a complex experience.
"Some say that attending church meetings is not helping them," he said. "Some say 'I didn't learn anything today,' or 'No one was friendly to me,' or 'I was offended.' Personal disappointments should never keep us from the doctrine of Christ, who taught us to serve, not to be served."
In pointing out what he felt caused members to leave, he never once acknowledged why members may be feeling unwelcome, lonely or hurt at church in the first place. Does it occur to him that many who distance themselves are doing so—at least in part—because of the pain, frustration and marginalization they feel while attending?
Just imagine how LGBTQ+ members feel who continue to hear teachings that classify their identities and relationships as inherently inferior to cisgender heterosexuality. How about a female member who continually feels undervalued, all the while receiving incessant praise about her angelic qualities? And what about a non-white member of a ward that is 90% or more white? Or someone who feels that their unorthodox perspectives are not welcomed or safe to express?
The list goes on. Instead of reducing people's genuine concerns with phrases like "personal disappointments" and "being offended," Oaks could have compassionately acknowledged personal reasons for why people decide to leave in the first place.
Also disturbing were Oaks' descriptions of what he feels non-church goers lack. He argued that "individual spirituality can seldom provide the motivation and structure for unselfish service provided by the restored church."
While it is true that the church provides many wonderful service opportunities, to imply that non-church goers find less motivation and structure for unselfish service is presumptuous and condescending, plus it leads many attending members to elevate themselves and their religious beliefs above others.
Oaks also used strong language to portray the host of blessings he feels non-attending members miss out on. "Members who forgo church attendance and rely only on individual spirituality separate themselves from these Gospel essentials," he said, "the power and blessings of the priesthood, the fullness of restored doctrine and the motivations and opportunities to apply that doctrine. They forfeit their opportunity to qualify to perpetuate their family for eternity."
To declare that non-attending church members essentially forfeit the opportunity to be with their family for eternity is an authoritative fear tactic to scare people back into church. Again, many who have left the church do not feel any more loved or welcomed by this kind of rhetoric.
One woman who recently decided to take a step back from church attendance told me that Oaks' talk put salt on wounds that had been accumulating for quite some time, making her less likely to return anytime soon. Sadly, I'm sure she's not alone.
Instead of expressing compassion and understanding for the many reasons people feel unwanted, unwelcomed or unsafe at church, Oaks quoted a statement from Spencer W. Kimball that eerily resembles what many call victim blaming: "We do not go to Sabbath meetings to be entertained, or even simply to be instructed. We go to worship the Lord. It is an individual responsibility. If the service is a failure to you, you have failed."
The idea that people who've have negative experiences at church are the ones who failed removes all accountability from church leaders and mainstream members, instead pointing the finger at those who so often feel ostracized and unaccepted.
Rather than describing these individuals as "failing," church leaders and members should turn inward and ask what they might be doing or saying that leads others to have less than desirable experiences at church. This aligns more fully with the merciful and compassionate spirit of Christianity that the church so often espouses.
As Oaks continues to tackle controversial and sensitive subjects from the pulpit, his messages would have been better received if he replaced this harsh and condemning style with a more compassionate and understanding tone.
Then, he would more effectively "leave the ninety and nine ... and go after that which is lost." (Luke 15:4).
In the meantime, I express sympathy and love to those who continue to fall victim to his words, especially LGBTQ+ members, who often feel marginalized and attacked as a result of many of his conference addresses.
Regardless of Oaks' intentions, the sting of his words can often have counterproductive effects, driving away the very people he attempts to reach.
Private Eye is off this week. Keith Burns is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism & Sexuality. Send feedback to email@example.com.