Faith Matters shows that faith does indeed matter, even to questioning Latter-day Saints

Popular podcast and a heavily attended conference are helping to energize members of all stripes.

(Patrick Semansky | AP) The Angel Moroni is seen past trees atop a steeple at the Washington D.C. Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Monday, April 18, 2022, in Kensington, Md.

What began as a family conversation about challenging questions facing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has exploded five years later into a multidimensional platform with a popular podcast, book publishing, online courses, and, just last weekend, an in-person conference that attracted some 1,500 attendees.

It’s called Faith Matters, which defines itself as a “space in which an expansive, radiant approach to the restored gospel can be considered and discussed.”

Most independent groups related to the church are “fueled by anger or cynicism,” says Bill Turnbull, one of the founders with his wife, Susan, brother David Turnbull and David’s wife, Kristin. They wanted to explore questions and issues “in an open way, but also celebrate what we have.”

Faith Matters started with a podcast, hosted first by Latter-day scholar Terryl Givens, interviewing prominent believers who were well-respected in their fields and in the faith.

Soon, they assembled an advisory board made up of a who’s who of Latter-day Saint thinkers and writers, including: Patrick Mason, Thomas Griffith, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Melissa Inouye, Phil Barlow, Mauli Junior Bonner, McArthur Krishna, Rosalynde Welch and others.

These advisers helped the Turnbulls create the Big Questions Project, which tackles generational and gender issues, as well as concerns about history, scripture, doctrine and policy.

The two couples asked their advisers not to provide answers, Bill Turnbull says, but to help others examine them in new ways, possibly leading to “new paradigms.”

An eager audience

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Mason, appearing on a "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019, says Faith Matters' "Restore" conference showed that many members "want to make Mormonism work, for themselves and for others.”

Before long, the “Faith Matters” podcast was attracting a larger and larger number of listeners, who liked the approach.

In the past couple of years, Turnbull says, the podcast audience has doubled to between 150,000 and 200,000 downloads a month.

“We have helped a lot of people see a path forward in our faith, where they might have wondered if they could,” Turnbull says. “That’s the effect we were hoping to have.”

Grappling with faith questions can be isolating, Aubrey Chaves, who co-hosts the “Faith Matters” podcast with her husband, Tim, says in a Religion News Service column by Jana Riess. “We can ask the deepest, scariest, most authentic questions. And then we get this feedback from people saying, ‘I have this question, too.’”

Creating community is at the core of what they do, Tim Chaves tells Riess. “When you start to feel a longing to move to a different place in your faith, you can’t really do it alone. Aubrey and I had each other, because we were both asking questions. That was a huge blessing. But not everyone has a community where they have that sense of belonging.”

To that end, Faith Matters hosted its first “Restore” conference this month at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City.

The two-day event was originally planned for 1,000 attendees, but another 500 wanted in — even at $150 per person or $250 per couple — so organizers opened up more space.

“I loved the sense of community, the hunger from all the participants, the rapt attention that everyone seemed to be giving from start to finish, the goodness and diversity of the audience. I was impressed to see an equal number of men and women, and people of all ages,” says Utah mom Marta Sloan. “And the room was packed from Friday morning to the final speaker on Saturday. Clearly there is a need out there. "

Sloan went with her sisters, mother, aunts and cousins, she says. “We are all longing for change. But we walked away feeling uplifted and strengthened, essentially wanting to stay and make it better.”

No neckties

(Courtesy) Latter-day Saint therapist Jennifer Finlayson Fife serves on the advisory board for Faith Matters.

Organizers wanted to present a more casual, conversational tone, Bill Turnbull says, so they asked for no ties or Sunday attire, no podium or PowerPoint, and no scripts. Just heartfelt, vulnerable stories, he says, which could connect with the audience.

Jeff Strong, a former mission president, talked about young proselytizers focusing on service as missionaries. Fiona Givens, Bethany Brady Spalding and Carol Lynn Pearson analyzed ideas about Heavenly Mother. Jared Halverson of Brigham Young University’s religion department talked about stages of faith.

There was “praise music” provided by the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir. Griffith described his efforts to follow the charge of Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, who called on members to “seek to moderate and to unify” on contested issues.

The whole event felt “worshipful,” Bill Turnbull said. “The energy was terrific.”

The conference was “a good time with friends,” says Kristine Anderson, an independent Mormon studies scholar in Rexburg, Idaho. “Some speakers I connected with more than others, which is normal (about the same rate I do with their podcasts).”

She already has “landed my faith crisis,” Anderson says, “so I know how isolating it can be. Gathering as communities like this can be very healing and fortifying for people. I’m glad it’s here for people it helps. In apologetic spaces, it is interesting to see how people usually create content of the type that has helped them most on their own faith journeys.”

Utah writer Margaret Blair Young says she has been “feeling a shift among members my age and younger away from checklist Mormonism and more towards an expansive religion which cooperates with other denominations, focuses on ‘pure religion and undefiled before God’ (or wholehearted service), and a connectedness with all of God’s creations.”

Young enjoyed being “with like-minded people at the conference,” she says. “The speakers all addressed paths to greater connectedness and aspects of a Zion society.”

What Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University and a member of the Faith Matters board, says he “heard and felt in the room on Friday and Saturday was a big group of people who, in spite of all kinds of challenges, want to make Mormonism work, for themselves and for others.”

A lot of the people who attended the conference, Bill Turnbull says, have a “complicated relationship with the church.”

This was a time to “be joyful and focus on faith,” he says, while not pretending all their issues have gone away.