"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
October 22, 2009
Churches grow not because of doctrine
by Orson Scott Card

Last week we looked at Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus movement Became the Dominant Religious force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.

In it, Stark used the growth of the Mormon Church over the past couple of centuries as his benchmark. Stark is on record as saying that the LDS Church is the only religion to arise in recent times that seems to be on track to become a major world religion.

Before we blush from the flattery, let's remember: By the time the primitive Christian Church became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, it had lost much that would later need to be restored.

The apostolic authority was gone. The doctrine of the nature of God had become nearly indistinguishable from neo-Platonism. Church officials were often careerists. Doctrinal disputes were settled, not by revelation, but by argument, politics, or violence.

Yet people kept joining the Church in ever-increasing numbers, regardless of the loss of authority and the politicization of church offices.

If doctrine or authority or inspiration is the main factor in conversion, why did the loss of them make no difference in the rate of conversion?

What Stark has found is that doctrine, in itself, is not the primary reason people join a new church.

My first response, as a Mormon, was to say, That's absurd. What does he think our missionaries are doing, if not teaching doctrine?

But then I realized: Whether we're baptized at age eight or converted as an adult, we join on the basis of scant doctrinal knowledge and then spend the rest of our lives learning to understand more and more.

Those early Christian converts had the stories of Jesus and the community of the Saints. And they were welcomed into a social network of supportive people who tried to live by the teachings of Jesus.

Stark's research shows that conversion works best when it follows existing social networks -- when conversion burns through whole families or existing groups.

We've found the same thing: People who have friends or relatives inside the Church find the transition to Church membership much easier. How many times have we been told that people who are taught the gospel in the home of a member are much more likely to join the Church -- and stay in it?

It's not the house or the furniture, folks, it's the friendship, the level of comfort and confidence.

But what about the role of the Holy Ghost in conversion?

Nothing in Stark's analysis of conversion either denies or confirms the influence of the Spirit in conversion. It's simply not something he can measure.

Let's just remember that conversion is a complicated and ongoing process. It was not a mistake when Jesus told his disciples, "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:32). Conversion was treated as a future event even for his most devoted followers.

Joining the Church is only a step on the road to conversion, though we might use the terms interchangeably.

Not everyone who joins the Church encounters angels first. In fact, isn't it meant to be the other way? When Enos had his remarkable vision, hadn't he already grown up in the Church?

Even when the early Christian Church had drifted far from the doctrines and practices of the Apostolic era, individual converts could still experience the blessings of faith, hope, and charity. The community of Saints could still thrive here and there, wherever people of good will lived by gospel principles.

Our job is to teach people all they can learn and then bring them into the Church to continue learning.

We challenge them to live the most obvious commandments, so they can then spend the rest of their lives learning to obey the harder, deeper ones.

Our goal, as Latter-day Saints, is not to become the dominant church of any nation or region, but rather to make the blessings of the gospel available to all who choose to receive it.

When people join the Church, it is not because their conversion is complete, but because they have decided to set their feet upon the road to lifelong conversion.

So when you read The Rise of Christianity (as I hope you will, since I have barely touched on what it has to teach us as Latter-day Saints), please remember that Stark's findings do not deny the power of the Holy Ghost in leading people to the Church.

Instead, Stark shows us the things that early Christians did to make the Church more welcoming to strangers. We can't give people the witness of the Holy Ghost, but we can encourage them to become part of our lives, we can serve them and allow them to serve alongside us. We can:

"Mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and ... stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things" (Mosiah 18:9).

Let the Spirit do what the Spirit does, while we do all that is within our power to help strangers become our brothers and sisters, fellow seekers and partakers of the tree of life.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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