Mormonism is not just a belief system. To be Mormon is more than being a member of a particular church. It is an all-encompassing identity. Our goal in mentoring former Mormons is not just to convince them of different beliefs, or help them find a place in a different church. Those are important, but our ultimate goal is to help a former Mormon navigate a cultural journey to find a new identity in Christ.
Mormonism Is a Cultural Identity
Mormonism is a complete way of life. To be a Mormon entails a deep experience of the shared customs, values, and lifestyle that make up Latter-day Saint culture. It’s common in most churches to think of Mormonism as a cult. While there is some truth to that (depending on your definition), it is much more helpful to think of Mormonism as a culture. That’s why leaving Mormonism to attend a traditional Christian church is nothing like moving from one Protestant denomination to another. Because of the strength of the LDS cultural identity, along with unique LDS beliefs and practices, this transition is a significant and challenging journey for most.
What Is Culture?
“Culture” can be defined as the particular ways of thinking, speaking, and living that are shared by people with a common past and identity. Every person is embedded in a culture. Their culture gives them their sense of identity and place. It simplifies life in a complicated world. We don’t learn culture consciously but absorb it simply by being around other members of our group.
Based on common beliefs and worldview, the Mormon culture – like any other – takes shape in patterns of language, in folklore, in organizational structures, in buildings and artifacts, in forms of art, in ritual and other shared experiences, and in expectations of how people will act. For Mormons, immersion in the culture is often equated with faithfulness to the church.
Variations in Mormon Culture
Even though Latter-day Saints are a tight-knit group sharing a common culture and identity, there is also a great deal of variation. Latter-day Saints speak of themselves as being either ‘active” or ‘Inactive.” Some are true believers, others are closet doubters. Members born into the church are different from converts. Mormons living in the heartland of Utah are different from those living in other places. Often younger generations sees things differently from older generations.
But every Mormon is shaped by their culture in some way. Whether to a greater or lesser extent, every Mormon finds their identity rooted in the overarching LDS culture. That’s why this is the starting point for helping someone on the journey out.
[Related: Helping Former Mormons on the Cultural Journey]
When a person leaves their familiar culture to live in a new setting, they experience “culture shock”, This is a sense of confusion and uncertainty – often with anxiety – that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment, especially if they are not prepared. Realize that any new church an ex-Mormon might attend has a culture of its own – ways of doing things that are simply assumed. Former Mormons often face feelings of disorientation and discomfort when they experience the unfamiliar ways of a new church. They may feel that they don’t “fit”.
Adapting to a New Church
We believe that the local church is God’s way of helping us grow in Christ – so it is important for former Mormons to develop a healthy relationship with a local church. But much about the way churches operate will seem foreign and confusing. Ex-Mormons will feel like outsiders at first. Having looked at everything through the LDS filter, they will not understand what people do and why. They will see things that go against their LDS-rooted values and assumptions. They may assume that others don’t understand them or get their story. They may feel sensitive about being judged negatively by others in the new church.
[Related: Why Choose a Church?]
[Related: Rethinking Basic Assumptions After Mormonism]
Don’t Neglect the “Journey” Issues
Former Mormons have a lot of theological questions, and traditional Christians are very interested in making sure theology is correct. While addressing doctrine is important, it’s not enough. Mormonism shapes the way former Latter-day Saints think not only about God and salvation, but about themselves, about life, about relationships, about church, and much more. Much of the process of mentoring former Mormons deals with these “journey” issues of adapting to a new culture, dealing with loss and other emotions, and forming a new identity.
[Related: Gaining a New Identity After Mormonism]
[Related: Regaining Trust After Mormonism]
[Related: Dealing with Anger After Mormonism]
As important as it is to help former Mormons understand doctrinal issues, you won’t be able to help them find a new spiritual home in Christ and his church unless you understand that Mormonism is a cultural identity.