Any church is like an orange: it has sweet, juicy, nourishing fruit (i.e., truths that help people live better lives); and it has a tough, bitter peel that protects the fruit and holds it together (i.e. an organizational structure, prescribed forms of worship, and claims to divine authority). Were it not for its protective institutional peel, a church’s nourishing spiritual teachings would become damaged and lost; were it not for its fruitful truths, a church’s institutional peel would be hollow and purposeless.
For me, the sweet, juicy, nourishing fruit of Christianity is best exemplified by the timeless truths for daily living that we read in the Sermon on the Mount: be generous, help people because you love them, don’t be a religious “show off”, don’t get angry with people or insult them, worry about improving yourself instead of pointing out others’ faults, be a doer and not just a hearer of Christ’s word, etc. Meditating on these thoughts and truths feeds my soul.
This nourishing spiritual fruit has been preserved and promoted by numerous ecclesiastical institutions for millennia: the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, the LDS Church, etc. These and many other protective “peels” hold together communities that feed on Christ’s spiritually-nourishing messages.
One of the ongoing challenges of any organized religion is to ensure the ecclesiastical institution that is meant to protect and preserve the nourishing spiritual truths does not itself become the object of its members’ focus and devotion. Like an orange whose peel becomes too thick, drying the fruit and sapping its sweetness, the church that unduly centers its members’ attention on itself rather than on the nourishing fruit of Christ’s message will leave its members spiritually malnourished and feeling “burnt out.” This general concept can be found in the Book of Mormon’s Allegory of the Olive Tree, where the showy branches of the tree outgrow its roots, the unseen source of its nourishment, resulting in bad fruit.
The Book of Mormon warns us not to take an “All is well in Zion” approach to religion, taking false comfort in Zion’s seeming prosperity. Accordingly, it seems Mormons might do well to critically examine ourselves by taking an honest look at whether we unduly dwell on “the peel” of the Church (i.e., its institutional structure and forms of worship, its hierarchy and claims to exclusive divine authority, its leaders past and present) at the expense of savoring to a greater degree the nourishing spiritual fruit of Christ’s teachings.
But how exactly can we gauge whether “the peel” is overtaking “the fruit”? How can we determine whether our focus on the Church gets in the way of the Gospel? What aspects of our Church experience can we survey for warning signs that we’re dwelling on the institution, leadership, and authority of our Church rather than on Christ’s message of love and service? Perhaps we can begin by asking:
- Do the mantras of our testimony meetings relate more often to “the peel” or “the fruit” of our religion?
- What is the “peel-to-fruit ratio” of the topics covered in our Church lesson manuals?
- To what degree do General Conference talks focus on “the peel” versus “the fruit”?
- What is the “peel-to-fruit” ratio of speaking topics assigned by our stake presidencies and bishoprics?
- To what extent are the various activities of our wards and stakes centered on putting “the fruit” of Christ’s message into action (i.e., serving “the least of these” in our communities)?
Over the past several years, I’ve been increasingly concerned by the number of my friends who have become deeply dissatisfied with their weekly attendance at Church meetings. For the most part, I’m talking about people who grew up active in the Church, served honorable full-time missions, married in the temple, magnified leadership callings, and hit all the major milestones of Mormon activity. In such situations, it is tempting to become defensive and write off their dissatisfaction to some sin, faulty perspective, or lack of effort on their part. But when one of our number chooses to leave the fold, it seems Christ’s message compels us to take an honest look at ourselves and ask, “Lord, is it I?”; to see the beam in our own eye rather than attributing it all to some mote in our brother or sister’s eye.
To be honest, I often wonder whether a seemingly increasing number are dissatisfied with Church meetings because they don’t find them spiritually nourishing; because they come to Church seeking to feast on the fruit of Christ’s teachings but instead find the talks and lessons focused far too often and far too much on instilling confidence, loyalty, and devotion to the peel of the Church and its leaders past and present. And we can respond to their dissatisfaction by trotting out familiar phrases about how you get out of Church what you put into it, and how you should preach yourself a sermon if you don’t like the one being preached. But that seems like faulting the restaurant patron who doesn’t like his meal by saying he should chew his food better, or that he hasn’t developed a refined enough palate yet — pretending as if the chef, the ingredients he selects, and his preparation bear no responsibility for the patron’s dissatisfaction.
Although we may be tempted to disclaim responsibility when one of our fold is dissatisfied with his or her Church experience, I think we need to recognize that the mode of worship and instruction laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants vests us with the responsibility to edify one another. Not only does this require thoughtful preparation of our talks and lessons, but perhaps most importantly, requires us to focus on “the fruit” of the Gospel by approaching every discussion topic from a Christ-centered perspective that inspires participants with ways to better live the humble, graceful life exemplified by the Savior. And hopefully, if we each do our part to edify one another by focusing on the nourishing fruit of Christ’s Gospel rather than unduly focusing on the protective peel of the Church, the claim that “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ” will indisputably deserve an exclamation point, not a question mark.