When I was in grad school in Indiana, the 19 year old inactive son of an inactive family started coming to church out of the blue. He’d come on Sunday morning with his girlfriend both of them dressed like they had come straight to church from a Linkin Park concert and invariably sipping on 64 ounce Super Big Gulps of Mountain Dew as they sat on the front row. We were all so, so happy to have them there. Nobody cared how they were dressed, nobody cared about the Big Gulps (well, I was jealous, but that’s it), nobody cared about piercings or tattoos. They needed to be there and we needed them to be there. That was all that mattered.
There’s no way around the hard truth that church culture has become incredibly aesthetic and that we often use a combination of white upper-middle class and specifically Mormon tropes to gatekeep our communities. We want people to come to church in their “Sunday best,” smelling like essential-oil-laced soap, clean cut (no beards or mustaches for leaders!), smiling, and contributing to the ward. This seems to be particularly true in large swathes of Utah but it’s not just a Utah thing, it’s a problem all over the US, particularly in white, upper-middle class wards.
That gatekeeping, which I think is largely unconscious rather than deliberate, is holding back not just the spiritual potential of active members, but perhaps more importantly, it creates a perception of “us and them,” of “faithful sons and prodigal sons” rather than reminding us of the truth of that parable: that we are all prodigal sons, no one more or less than the other because we have all fallen short of perfection and that is something that is absolute, not relative. When we gatekeep, when we create these artificial cultural standards that prevent all of God’s sheep from being a part of the flock, we are all poorer for it.
I have a dumb thing I do on Twitter where I jokingly/not jokingly invite my followers to come back to church and inevitably get responses either by reply or by DM saying that people simply don’t feel wanted. They feel rejected because of their appearance, their sexuality, their inactivity, their lack of conviction, or a myriad of other reasons. It is absolutely abhorrent to me that we have created a culture where anyone could feel rejected by people who claim to be Christ’s representative organization on earth and there is no doubt in my mind that that culture exists.
I’ve experienced it myself during my freshman year at BYU and I’ve seen a number of friends go through it as well. Whether for internal (spiritual) or external (aesthetic) reasons, people felt they could not go to church because they did not fit into the norms and faced rejection by their fellow members. This is something that has to change or we will never reach the goals we have set for ourselves as a community. That change will be incredibly hard because it has been embedded so deeply into our structure, but we are shackling ourselves spiritually with chains made from white collared shirts and maxi skirts.
Seeing that Monster Energy-branded couple come to church every Sunday not caring for two seconds what anyone thought of how they were dressed because they wanted to be there changed a lot of people’s hearts in our little ward in Indiana. The responsibility to change active members’ hearts to accept people who aren’t at the aesthetic and spiritual mean does not lie with those who are on the margins of the church. But at the same time, simply by taking the step to come to church, you will change people. You will be a part of the progress that we as a culture and a community need to make.
Come to church with your tattoos, smelling of cigarette smoke, hung over from the night before. Bring your coffee if you need to. If you’re a gay member of the church, bring your boyfriend or girlfriend, because we want them there, too. We need you there and you need to be there. The truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ are completely independent of my sins (perceived or real) or yours or anyone else’s, and we all bring them to church with us. Come to church if all you have is hope or you just want to believe.
I hate the analogy that the church is a hospital because then it naturally puts the burden on some people to be doctors and some people to be patients. A better analogy would be that the church is the family in Lost in Space, we’re adrift from our home, every single one of us is lost. No one is less lost than anyone else and we all need each other to get home and we absolutely refuse to get home without bringing every single member of the family with us and nothing matters except we are a family and we are in this together.
Please come to church. It’s not about the institution, it’s about the true love of Christ. We need you there, every single one of you. And together, we’ll make it home.