This week in Mormon Land: Apostle warns against letting converts join the church before they are ready

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Latter-day Saint apostle M. Russell Ballard, shown in 2017, warned recently against baptizing converts too soon, before they have sufficiently learned about the church and its teachings.

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

The ‘B’ word

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

Stories of “baseball baptisms” — join a sports league, join the church — are legendary in Latter-day Saint missionary circles.

But those rushes to baptize, intended to bring about a rapid rise in converts, especially among young men, proved to be off base.

Even less-aggressive approaches, including invitations to baptism during first lessons, were misguided.

“It was never our intention to invite people to be baptized before they had learned something about the gospel, felt the Holy Ghost, and had been properly prepared to accept a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus Christ,” apostle M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, told new mission presidents last month, according to a Church News report. “Our retention rates will dramatically increase when people desire to be baptized because of the spiritual experiences they are having rather than feeling pressured into being baptized by our missionaries.”

Extending a baptism invitation too soon can scare off not only prospective converts, Ballard warned, but also members from sharing with missionaries the names of friends and families who may be interested in learning about the church.

“Missionaries need to be careful not to push people down the path,” the longtime apostle said. “Instead, they should invite them to take the next step on the path.”

So, how soon should the “B” word be broached?

Ballard said all invitations to nonmembers, especially baptism, should be “Spirit-led.”

That echoed the advice of Gary Crittenden, managing director of the church’s missionary department, who told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year that Latter-day Saint leaders “still rely on missionaries when they sit across the table from someone and talk about the gospel to feel impressed about what they should ask them to do.”

There’s “always a balance,” Crittenden said, between moving too quickly and too slowly.

Splitting hairs

(Photo courtesy of Tekulve Jackson-Vann) Tekulve Jackson-Vann sports the dreadlocks that got him briefly barred from working at the Payson Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There are do’s and don’ts to entering and working in a Latter-day Saint temple. But, thanks to Tekulve Jackson-Vann, members now know that dreadlocks will do just fine.

The Payson Temple worker initially was told that his new look wouldn’t cut it, because it violated church guidelines that say temple workers’ appearance should be clean and conservative.

The temple president then got the word from higher-ups: The dreadlocks could stay and so could Jackson-Vann as an ordinance worker.

“I didn’t see it as racism, per se,” Jackson-Vann told The Tribune of the initial ruling. “I saw it as [evidence that] there is room for some cultural sensitivity in the church.”

Tribune humor columnist Robert Kirby later commented that it’s time for faith leaders to let their hair down, so to speak, and stop obsessing over “trivialities.”

“If a global church is what Latter-day Saints truly hope for,” he wrote, “then we’re going to have to back off our Utah corsets a notch or two.”

Truth is ‘stranger’

(Photo courtesy of Netflix) Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Caleb McLaughlin, Millie Bobby Brown, Sadie Sink in Season 3 of “Stranger Things.”

In Season 3 of the megahit “Stranger Things,” Dustin describes Mormons as “super-religious white people.”

Unfortunately, writes Religion News Service senior columnist Jana Riess, there’s more fact than fiction in that characterization — at least on the racial front in America.

Studies show the U.S. church is overwhelmingly white and holding steady at about 85%. That is happening even as the nation itself grows more diverse.

Of course, global Mormonism is a different story, thanks to dramatic proselytizing progress through the years in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

This week’s podcast: How art can enhance worship

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) Richard and Claudia Bushman in 2018.

Retired Columbia University professor Richard L. Bushman is best known for his biography of church founder Joseph Smith and as an expert in early American history.

In the past few years, though, he and his historian wife, Claudia Lauper Bushman, have taken a keen interest in the arts — specifically those associated with Mormonism.

This week, the two talk about what prompted them to help organize the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York City, which just completed its third annual festival, and what they see as the faith’s aesthetic.

Listen here.

More Honor Code reforms

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo)Tyler Slade and Zoe Calcote stand for a moment of silence as the they gather on the campus of Brigham Young University, with hundreds of BYU students at a rally to oppose how the school's Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Provo. The school announced this week further reforms to the office.

The push for reforms at Brigham Young University’s Honor Code Office continues to pay dividends.

This week, officials announced changes intended to “reduce misunderstanding and anxiety” among students at the church-owned Provo school.

The updates include detailing the appeals process, allowing a second person to accompany students in Honor Code meetings and no longer calling Honor Code Office employees “counselors.”

“The feedback from the students has been an essential component to this process, as it has provided a comprehensive perspective on the realities and perceptions of the Honor Code and the Honor Code Office,” Kevin Utt, director of BYU’s Honor Code Office, said in an online statement. “We will continue to communicate updates as they are rolled out so that students know what to expect as they arrive on campus for the fall semester.”

Filmmaker sentenced

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sterling Van Wagenen, 72, during his July 9, 2019, sentencing in West Jordan. Van Wagenen was sentenced to six years to life for sexually abusing a young girl.

Prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen, executive producer of “Jane and Emma,” has been sentenced for a second time to six years to life in prison for sexually abusing a young girl between 2013 and 2015.

“It’s clear that any kind of apology I can make is meaningless at this point,” he told the judge during his first sentencing. “So I am not even going to attempt one. I want you all to know I feel the consequences of what I’ve done. I feel them deeply.”

The punishment comes after Van Wagenen’s admission in an audio interview released in February — by the Truth & Transparency Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the MormonLeaks website — that he had molested a 13-year-old boy in 1993.

The boy, now an adult, praised the girl for stepping forward, calling her “my little hero.”

Quote of the week

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former BYU men's basketball coach Dave Rose.

“One of the best things about being retired now is I can actually cheer for the [University of Utah] Utes. That will be fun.”

Dave Rose, former BYU men’s basketball coach

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.