Thoughts of a Non-Convert

I worry about posting this. I know it can be a touchy topic, and I don’t want to be the elephant carelessly stomping around and offending people right and left. So if I’m doing that, then tell me. Really. Then I’ll know what to do better next time.

I’m not a convert.  I know, I know, “everyone’s a convert.”  But really, I’m not.  It’s not that I’ve just stayed in the Church because I was raised in it, and never engaged in any kind of thought for myself, as some are quick to assume.  But quite frankly, I have no idea what it would be like to be a member of a different religious tradition, or none at all, and then switch to Mormonism, and I don’t think I should pretend that I really understand the experience.  I have plenty of admiration for those who do it—one of my professors in grad school was an expert on conversion, and one of the things he always said is that we ought to have a lot of respect for converts to any faith, because it’s an immensely challenging life transition.  But it’s something foreign to me.

And sometimes I wonder how the fact that I was born and raised in the Church shapes my approach to it.  I’ve never been much at ease with the “only true Church” claim.  And part of the reason is that it just seems an unlikely  coincidence that out of the thousands of faiths out there, the one I just happened to be born into was the one and only, God’s chosen people.  It seems too much like asserting that the country I was born into just happens to be God’s True Country.  Or (as I learned in seminary) that the planet I was born on is the wickedest of all planets, the historical era I was born into is the wickedest of all historical eras, and my generation is the most chosen of all generations.  I have a hard time swallowing this stuff.

Another aspect of the Church that I’ve never done very well with is the missionary impulse, the drive to convert the world.  I’m terrible at missionary work.  There are a number of reasons for that—I worry a lot about the potential of proselytizing  to undermine mutually respectful relationships and make everyone suspicious of you.  But there’s more.  The truth is, I don’t seem to generally believe that people would be better off as Mormons.  If you want to convert to Judaism, it’s not unknown for Jews to try to talk you out of it. Why would anyone want to be a Jew, they’ll ask.  And I feel a bit the same way.  It’s my tradition, so I put up with the craziness, but why on earth would anyone voluntarily sign up for this thing?

In many ways, I feel about the Church the same way I feel about my family.  I certainly have that same kind of fierce loyalty.  I and my siblings might go on for hours about what’s wrong with the family, but let an outsider say one negative thing and my claws will come out.  I fight it and complain about it, and it’s so deeply woven into my identity that I can’t imagine who I would be without it.

I’m sure many are reading this and thinking about how I’m one of those awful lifelong members who completely take the Church for granted, who don’t appreciate what they have.  It might be true.  But this is the thing.  The Church is responsible for some amazingly good things in my life—and for some amazingly painful ones.  It’s all there, muddled together.  I can’t neatly separate it out, or pretend that my relationship to the Church is less complicated than it is.  And just as I don’t think it’s fair for someone who didn’t share my experience growing up in my family to lecture me about lack of appreciation for it, I don’t think it’s fair for someone who hasn’t experienced my life history with the Church to accuse me of ingratitude.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that everything good and bad in my life has been to some degree connected with the Church.  Depression, connections to God, supportive communities, dysfunctions, guilt, all of it.  It’s difficult to say whether the Church has been either a “good” or a “bad” thing in my life, when the Church has always been such a central aspect of it.

Another point. In a lot of our debates and discussions about doctrines and making nuanced judgments and all of that, we’re assuming that people are coming from a viewpoint of adults. But things are very different when you’re a child in the church. When I was in Primary, I thought a bishop couldn’t be wrong, let alone a prophet. And you can’t tell me that at the age of five, I should have known better. We might talk about the complexities of gender roles, but that’s not what kids are going to see. They’re going to notice which sex is the one in charge. And when we’re thinking about church practices and policies, I think that’s worth remembering—the messages we’re sending to our children. The messages that you internalize when you grow up in the church.

I’m reading back over this and realizing that a lot of it may not be unique to non-converts. But I do wonder sometimes how my experience would be different if there were a clear break in my life, a before and after, when it came to being LDS. (Not necessarily better or worse–just different.)


  1. I really like this, Lynnette, particularly the point you emphasize that it’s not possible to disentangle your relationship with the church enough to even get to an answer about whether it’s more good than bad. Like you said, particularly when you’re raised with it, the history of your relationship is just so long and intertwined with all your history that it’s difficult to see where you end and the church begins.

    I also definitely relate to the comparison to family. I know I spend lots of my blogging time arguing with people about how riddled with faults the church is. But I have just the same experience you describe, where I see someone drive by BCC (or whatever blog) and lob a grenade comment about how “you Mormons” are such unenlightened jerks, and it takes the blink of an eye for me to feel very protective and defensive about the church.

    Great post!

  2. My 16 year old is having a hard time thinking the church is true. She sees lots of good people who don’t have the gospel. Also, she doesn’t see the ways that she has benefitted from being raised in the gospel.
    I guess it depends on who you are comparing church members to.
    For me, I think of people in our society and think that most of them would benefit from being part of the church and following its teachings. If all parents raised their children with its principles the world would be a better place.
    Are there some people who are successfully trying to be good people and who are happy without the gospel? Yes. But so many people can’t and aren’t, but with the structure of a church community, with the organized worship and doctrinal teachings, they would have more potential.
    I have been lucky to be surrounded by people who try so earnestly to live the gospel. That is what I would wish for the whole world, and for every child growing up to be raised in.

  3. I think truth claims and proselytizing go hand in hand – if you believe you have the Best Thing, it’s easier to see why you would want everyone else to have it. But if you look at the Thing you have and see it’s flaws and beauties, and you look at the Things other people have, and those Things have flaws and beauties, too, it makes it a lot harder to see why everyone should want the flawed and beautiful Thing you’ve got.

    I’ve always been one of those people that sees a lot of beautiful and flawed Things, and never really understood the desire to convert people over to mine.

  4. So much of this resonated with me, Lynette. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a church lesson about conversion, and found myself forced to admit that I have not been converted. I grew up in the church, have lived its teachings all of my life, and have invested years of anguished prayer and searching into trying to obtain the kind of certainty that conversion implies. It hasn’t happened for me yet, notwithstanding my efforts, feeble though they surely are.

    What Enna said about truth claims, missionary efforts, and conversion reflects my outlook as well. Having experienced both the beauty and the pain of church membership, and having seen both reflected in the lives of my friends of other faiths or no faith in particular, I do not feel an impulse to convert others.

    The standard narrative of conversion for people born in the church seems to go something like this: when you’re a kid, you rely on the testimonies of others. Then, at some point probably in your teens, you decide to find out for yourself. You read the Book of Mormon, pray about it, and receive your witness. I think the narrative doesn’t reflect the experiences of some members. We’re not, as you said, Lynette, riding along on the comfortable coattails of someone else’s testimony, having not yet worked up the desire to know for ourselves. We’re here in the church of our own volition, as complicated as that looks with family ties, social pressures, the pain and beauty alike. We’re putting so much effort into our dazzling complex relationship with the church and God that sometimes we feel like we can barely keep the other aspects of our lives together.

  5. I’ve been thinking about conversion as a phenomenon quite a lot lately. As the century has progressed, various religions have begun using the 1st Amendment as a sword rather than a shield. Attacks on LGBTQ people, the ACA, gun control, etc, have consistently used religion as the basis for attacking the social fabric (I get it that this is my POV). So I’ve begun to wonder, particularly since it seems likely that the Gang of Five on the Supremes will grant freedom of conscience to corporate entities, why religious belief should be granted any constitutional protection. If one can change one’s religious beliefs in an instant, it seems that any belief is based on emotional or psychological needs that are so variable should not be subjected to strict scrutiny as being fundamental to the exercise of liberty. For such an interest to be compelling, it must be necessary or crucial, as opposed to something merely preferred. Religion clearly is something that is merely preferred. People without religion are not necessarily distinguishable from those with it. Conversion, it seems, shows that religion is no more nor less important than any other choice.

  6. I’ve always felt a certain sense of envy towards converts. I love the church. But frankly, I can’t fathom affirmatively converting to it from another tradition or from non-tradition. I stand in awe of those who actually convert.

  7. As an adult convert (well, I was in college, so I suppose “adult” is debatable) I can only say that I have always been a seeker in the true, 19th-century, early-Mormon-convert sense; that I have always been looking for the “One True Church;” that I left the faith of my youth as a teen because I became convinced that its claims to truth were wrong; and that my study of the experience of the prophet Joseph and my reading of the BoM sparked an immensely powerful spiritual experience that made my conversion from boozin’, wenchin’, careless frat boy to young LDS elder seem less convulsive than inevitable.

    As a missionary, 13 months after my own baptism, I thought it might not be too hard, because surely, everyone would be able to see this wonderful thing as clearly as I did. I found out quickly that they did not, and over the intervening nearly 30 years, I’ve come to find that many long-term and lifelong members haven’t either. I wish that were not the case. Perhaps paradoxically, it seems to have made me more, not less, tolerant of doubt and dissent in myself and in others.

    Rather than being arrogantly certain of the Truth, I find myself increasingly in awe of the strength and power with which Heavenly Father made himself known to me. No matter how badly I screw up – and that’s been pretty badly – I can’t get past that experience. I’m grateful for that; it grounds me.

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