Expectations and Lived Church Experience

Our experiences seem to be influenced by our expectations. That’s not really an insightful comment, but I think it is worth exploring how our expectations color our lived Church experience. One way of interpreting the experiences of those that stay and those that leave the Church is by how well Lived-Church matches the expectations that the individual has for Church. (I’m not saying that if all those that left changed their expectations they’d stay and that if those that stayed changed theirs they’d leave because that’s overly simplistic, but I think expectations for Church undoubtedly shape our experiences there and whether we’ll find value or not.)

I’ve been reflecting on this in these terms due to a couple recent experiences:

  • I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming and didn’t really love it. It wasn’t bad by any means, but felt thoroughly unremarkable, a sort of machine-produced, fun, empty, fast food film. There’s some ideological quibbles I had with it and a number of other things. This was partially due to reading some negative reviews from a couple friends that I respect prior to seeing the film. I also skimmed through some positive reviews and saw that a number of good friends loved it. My expectations were muddled. A separate friend suggested that I was blinded to the merits of the film by my expectations created from reading these negative reviews, which is undoubtedly a piece of the puzzle, but I think reductive to point to as the sole source.
  • I’ve been talking with a friend about Mormon stuff (surprise! Also, always open to chat if you’re interested. Seriously, I started blogging to start conversations, so comment, message me on Facebook, DM me on twitter, normally you could text me, but I’d recommend not doing that for the next month and a half while I’m abroad) and in our conversations he asked a question that caught me a bit off-guard that relates to expectations: why should I go to Church if I don’t feel like my Bishop is receiving revelation? I’ve never (that I remember) thought about going to Church to hear revelation from my local leaders, so as I continued to move away from emphasizing beliefs in local ecclesiastical authority that operates independently of any effort on my part towards one that suggests that ecclesiastical authority is reached together, by common consent, if you will, that it’s a communal striving that we are meant to engage in. BUT if I had expected what my friend has/does, I would feel remarkably unsatisfied with my Church experience.

So, expectations undoubtedly shape our experiences. Sometimes negative expectations become fulfilled, yet other times those low expectations can allow us to be surprised by what actually happens. Positive/high expectations can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where we blind ourselves to the flaws in something, but can also build up what we are anticipating to unreachable heights.

Yet, I think striving to balance expectations, to manage them, is a healthy way to approach life and particularly the Gospel.

Now, some of the problem with expectations is definitely how the Church bills itself and what the culture emphasizes. That is to say that you may have to work against some mainstream, built-in expectations to have a healthier Church experience (at least, I have). Perhaps this’ll be best illustrated by walking through some things that I now expect from the Church, Gospel, Mormonism that help me have, what to me is a healthier experience.

  • Sunday School isn’t an intellectual conversation. If I were to create my personal perfect SS, this would not be the case. However, because Church is meant for people besides me, SS isn’t designed to be an intellectual conversation. It’s more of a communal re-affirmation of beliefs. I still try to inject my desires for intellectual conversation and different perspectives into SS and am met with varying degrees of success. BUT when I remember to accept this about SS, I have a much more positive experience.
  • People will make mistakes and the Church is imperfect. This should be a no brainer, but people make mistakes. People make up the Church, which suggests that the Church too is imperfect. I don’t really expect my local leaders to be any better than the average person. They’ll mess up and be imperfect and probably think differently than me. But it’s not their Church. At least, not exclusively theirs. It’s theirs and mine and yours and Jesus’. We’re all in this together.
  • It’s about building community. There are other reasons for Church, but the mindset that works best for me is to expect it to be about building community. Yes, there are problems with this expectation, since frequently Church feels like it is committed to building a very certain type of community that may or may not want me in it. However, thinking of Church activities as community building, rather than spiritually strengthening or intellectually stimulating, has helped me find both of those things in greater measure. I don’t know if this is the best possible method for Church, but thinking of Church this way has helped me.
  • I’ll probably be bored. Unlike Spencer W. Kimball (or whichever alleged Church leader said they’d never been to a boring sacrament meeting), I frequently find myself bored at Church. If I accept that, I feel less bored, or at least less bothered by my boredom. I also feel better about various strategies to fight against boredom: making snarky comments throughout Sacrament meeting to whomever is next to me, trying to contribute and shift the tide of SS or other lessons when possible/necessary, bearing my fringey testimony, eating fruit snacks during EQ, etc. I know other people that read or engage in other activities and that works for them, but personally, I try to be physically and mentally present. That helps me feel better about Church and like I’m a more invested member of the community.
  • Church will probably be hard. The final expectation I have is that even with (maybe somewhat because of) these shifts, Church is still hard. It didn’t magically become easy and I know we talk about Church as a hospital for sinners, but I don’t feel like Church is there to heal me. Maybe because I don’t need healing like others do. Maybe because they can’t (or at least don’t) offer the services I need. Maybe because I need to do some healing, or at least, waiting room mood-lifting. For whatever reason, I find myself in the “afflict the comfortable” camp in regard to Church attendance. I go, but I don’t feel rested. Sometimes engaging helps me feel restored because I feel invested and like I’m working with my ward to build a little bit of Zion, but it’s hard work. And probably always will be.

While I “expect” all these things, that doesn’t mean that I think that’s how Church *should* be. I still hope for a Church that is different than this. That is intellectually and spiritually stimulating for me and others like me. That is a welcome place for vulnerability and doubting and questions. That isn’t boring as death. That isn’t always hard, but is sometimes restorative and rejuvenating. But we’re not there yet, so I don’t expect what I know is not. Often I’m pleasantly surprised by those around me.

Perhaps the difference is expecting something, hoping for better, and loving those that are there. The addition of that hope for the better and love for my fellow brothers and sisters, I think allows me to not be soured by these constraints that could be construed as negative expectations. All I know is that shifting towards these expectations is a wonderful benefit to my Church attending experience. Maybe it could do something for yours.

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