It’s not uncommon for us to ask visitors to stand up and introduce themselves in second or third hour of our church meetings. We say hi, smile at them, and maybe shake their hands when they sit back down if we’re sitting nearby.
And then we never talk to them again.
Generally speaking, we Mormons are nice people, but we’re not necessarily friendly people. When I say friendly, I’m focusing on the root of the word—friend. Put simply, I think that we are bad at being friends.
Let me step back and give some background on how I came to this conclusion. My life situation is rather unique. I work online and can live anywhere in the world as long as I have an internet connection. I decided to take advantage of this back in 2012, and I’ve been traveling the world and living abroad ever since. Before that, I had spent years growing up abroad and had lived in five countries.
The result of all of this is that I’ve been to church in about fifteen countries now. I’ve attended a very wide swath of different church meetings, from those with hundreds of people in large buildings to just a few people in someone’s home. Since I don’t really have a home anymore, I am a perpetual church visitor.
It’s difficult to understand what it’s like to go to church alone in a ward or branch that isn’t your own if you don’t do it regularly. Take it from me—it can suck pretty bad. More often than not, people don’t talk to me beyond introducing themselves and asking where I’m from. Everyone is perfectly pleasant; no one is mean. But mostly I’m ignored.
I think the root of the issue is that we believe that visitors are someone else’s responsibility. Is that an investigator that just walked in? The missionaries will take care of him. Who was that new guy I saw in elder’s quorum? I dunno, but I’ll bet the elder’s quorum president knows. I see that the visitor over there doesn’t have a wedding ring on. I’m married, so I’ll let one of the single guys in the ward be his friend. This is how we think.
In the course of my travels, I’ll occasionally spend a couple months at a time in cities that I like. I’m currently in one of those cities. A few weeks ago, I was walking out through the church parking lot after church when a local member pulled up on a scooter beside me. He had seen me at the baptism that we had both just attended. He asked me what my name was, where I was from, and how long I was in town for. I told him who I was and where I was from, and then I said that I’d be here for two or three months. “Oh, then you’re just visiting,” he said. We said goodbye and he drove off. He’s never talked to me again. I’m fairly certain that in his mind, it’s not really worth talking to me or getting to know me because I’m just here temporarily. I’m not worth it.
If you’ve been in a ward for your whole life or even a few years, I can see how someone else being there for just a month or two wouldn’t seem like a whole lot. But at this point in my life, being somewhere for a few months is as serious as it gets. It’s a big deal to me. As far as I’m concerned, I live here now. I’m a local.
Why should scooter guy get to know me if I’m only here temporarily? Maybe because I need a friend or someone to talk to. Maybe because I don’t like going to church because everyone ignores me, and I’m on the cusp of inactivity. Maybe I can help you out or bless your life in some way. I don’t know. Do we really need reasons for why we should get to know people better? Remember that “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”1 How depressing of a thought is it to think that Jesus could attend one of our meetings and would probably be ignored?
So what’s the solution here? How can we be more friendly? I was Skyping with some LDS people a couple weeks ago and told them some of my thoughts about how people in the church really aren’t very friendly. They agreed and said that we need people whose callings it is to specifically talk to and befriend (“fellowship”) new people and visitors. But that doesn’t help the situation at all. That’s just compounding the problem by outsourcing friendliness to others. That “someone else will take care of it” mindset is why we’re in this mess to begin with.
No, forcing people to greet or be friends with other people is not the solution. I think that the first step in the solution is to increase awareness. More people need to be aware that this is a problem. (I’ve attended dozens of wards in branches in a bunch of countries and on four continents. Believe me, it’s probably a problem in your ward or branch.) Many of us have been in the Church and in our wards for so long that we forget what it’s like to be an outsider of any kind. Well, let me assure you that it’s not fun. I’m not saying that you have to go alone to some random ward that you’ve never been to before in order to understand what it’s like (though boy, would it help if everyone did that), but just be aware of the new people you see at church. Be on the lookout for them. Assume that they need your friendship. Think back to the times in your life when you have needed friendship, help, and companionship the most. Let the memories of those dark times compel you to want to give that friendship, help, and companionship to others.
President Hinckley stated2 that every new convert needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing from the good word of God. But it’s not just new converts that need those things—we all do. Can anyone really ever have too many friends?
I’ve made some fantastic friends in the two months that I’ve been in this city. You know how I first met them? A single guy about 30 years older than me came up to me after sacrament meeting and introduced himself. He invited me over to his house for lunch after church. He also invited another LDS family that lives in his same building and two other people my age, both of which I’m now great friends with. That one guy increased the number of people I knew in the ward exponentially. And it’s not like friendship is a one-way street. If you befriend someone, you will definitely get something out of it.
One of my favorite things about the Church is that you have a built-in support network wherever you go in the world. You know that when you attend a sacrament meeting somewhere, you’re going to find people that understand you and have similar fundamental beliefs. The problem is that it is often unnecessarily hard to tap into that network. The good news is that each one of us can make it easier. All we have to do is be friendly.
You know what else I’ve noticed while traveling? It’s the wards and branches with the friendliest people that seem to be the most active and thriving, and the converse is just as true. Last year I spent five months in Eastern Europe. I spent two months in the capital city of one of the countries there. The people in the branch there were some of the nicest and friendliest I’ve ever met. They wouldn’t stop chatting with me. They gave me assignments. They made me feel valuable and loved. They called on me in class. They asked me to bless the sacrament. They accepted me as one of their own, never mind the fact that I was only there temporarily. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there were baptisms in the branch there almost every week.
That experience contrasts sharply with the one I had during the month that I spent in the capital city of another Eastern European country. After the first week, no one except for the missionaries talked to me. There were no church activities. No one made an effort to get to know me. And it’s not like this was a massive ward with several hundred people. There were only about ten or twelve people in sacrament meeting each week. An effort had to be made to avoid each other. It’s heartbreaking to think that any of the people our good and hardworking elders and sisters find and bring to church will be treated the same way. It’s not surprising that the Church is growing there at a snail’s pace.
We commit so much energy and resources to finding people who want to learn about the gospel, but we are so bad at doing anything with those people once they’ve established interest. It’s like setting a fishing line in the water, seeing that there’s a fish on the hook, and then letting it just sit there. (Remember also that Jesus called his disciples to be fishers of men3. Aren’t we all his disciples?)
Really what it all boils down to is empathy. The atonement of Christ is meaningful and powerful because Christ is the ultimate empathizer. He suffered for all of our pains, afflictions, and infirmities4, so he knows what we’re going through. In our ongoing quest to emulate Christ’s perfect life and example, we need to develop and strengthen our ability to relate to and understand those around us, including the new people we see and meet at church. Put yourself in their shoes and see what it feels like. Once we truly understand and internalize that, it’s nearly impossible to see an unfamiliar face at church without feeling the desire to be their friend, and that feeling is the closest thing to a pure, Christlike love that I have ever experienced.
Image source: Flickr user Photosightfaces