My 21-year-old son, Ethan, was home from college for a couple weeks this summer. On Sunday when he came to church with us, our bishop asked him, “So, are you still active in the Church?” He asked this question in the presence of several other people, then proceeded to give a mini-talk on what it felt like to have a testimony. My son was put off by the conversation, as were the other people in the group.
For the record, my son is “active” in the Church. At least if that means someone who goes to church regularly, attends Institute classes, and has a calling or two. I’m not sure why the bishop asked him so pointedly whether he was still active, and what answer he expected. Did he wonder because my son hasn’t yet gone on a mission? Do people assume if someone doesn’t go at 19 there’s some problem with their testimony or worthiness? Did he wonder because my son has a beard? Did he wonder because my son generally favors red or blue shirts to white? (And in Ethan’s student ward at the University of Colorado in Boulder, white shirts are as rare as Republicans.)
Whatever the reason, it was curious that the bishop wasn’t a bit more subtle. He could have easily learned my son’s activity status in many different ways. He’s a good man, and well-intentioned. Bishops have a tough job and I don’t want to judge him. However, it leads me to ask a lot of questions. What exactly does it mean to be active in the church? Is there a magic number of times you have to actually attend? I know people who pop into church every other month but still feel like they are thoroughly active in the church. Does activity constitute being busy with callings, going to social events, and hanging out with members of the ward? Are you still active if you skip stake conference every time it occurs? How about if you consider general conference a vacation day from church?
Can you be active in the church if you attend but don’t believe any of the doctrine? How about if you’re a “dry Mormon” who hasn’t been baptized but you show up every week? Does mere attendance make you active?
What do you think? What does being active in the church mean to you?