‘Better than Lennon and McCartney’ — In songs and sermons, gathering celebrates Mormonism’s strengths without ignoring its weaknesses

“Restore” event draws 3,500 attendees from across the spectrum of belief and practice.

Sandy • To Brandon Flowers, lead singer for The Killers rock band, a simple Latter-day Saint hymn can be more profound than any Beatles lyric.

Flowers, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then quoted this verse by memory from “Lord, I Would Follow Thee”:

“Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.”

That, Flowers said, is “better than Lennon and McCartney.”

Thousands of people in the Mountain America Exposition Center erupted into wild applause.

They had come for a sense of community with folks who wanted to celebrate the inspiring and elevating elements of Mormonism, without ignoring its challenging aspects.

It was the second annual “Restore” gathering, a two-day assemblage sponsored by Faith Matters, which defines itself as a “space in which an expansive, radiant approach to the restored gospel can be considered and discussed.”

The event featured a lively mix of music, poetry, speeches and sermons — with a dash of millennial meet-ups — and packed with Latter-day Saint “celebrities,” including Flowers, football Hall of Famer Steve Young, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, sex therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, singer Conlon Bonner, and author McArthur Krishna, to name a few.

(Faith Matters) Author McArthur Krishna speaks at the Restore gathering at Sandy's Mountain America Exposition Center.

The celebration brought together members from Mormon Women for Ethical Government, the Mormon History Association and the Bountiful Children’s Foundation.

It provided a showcase for bookstores, including Writ and Vision and Benchmark Books, publications like Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Exponent II, and Public Square Magazine, publishing houses such as By Common Consent and Signature Books, and podcasts like “Come Back” and “Scripture Central.”

For Provo resident Liz Davis Maxfield, Restore represented “a very hopeful, inclusive, expansive Mormonism.” Another attendee called it a combination of “early Sunstone Symposium and LDS General Conference.”

Filling a need

(Faith Matters) Thousands attend the Restore gathering at Sandy's Mountain America Exposition Center In October 2023.

Most independent groups related to the church are “fueled by anger or cynicism,” Bill Turnbull, one of the founders, said last year.

Turnbull created Faith Matters 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.”

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

In the past few years, Bill Turnbull said, the podcast audience has risen to between 250,000 and 300,000 downloads a month. Now it also has a print publication, “Wayfare: Explorations in Faith,” which offers essays by Latter-day Saint writers and thinkers.

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

Faith Matters added the Restore gathering last year, attracting more than 1,500 people. This year, attendees reached 3,500.

“All of us at Faith Matters had high expectations because of the caliber of speakers, artists, poets and musicians we had invited,” he said. “Still, we were amazed at the powerful spirit of love and hope, a spirit that the attendees themselves brought and that was really connecting.”

Turnbull perceives in the community “a profound hunger to express the joyful truths of the restoration with new language, music and art.”

Finding a place for questions

Through a confluence of forces, today’s Latter-day Saints face a society dominated by secularism, said Tyler Johnson, who teaches at Stanford’s medical school, which means many believers have to wrestle with hard questions.

Restore represents “a productive and constructive place at the nexus of modernity and deeply held religious beliefs,” he said. “offering a community that will help them engage with it.”

Allison Dayton, who created Lift & Love to strengthen LGBTQ members and their families and allies, attended both days.

To be in a room with thousands of people, all actively wrestling with different questions and staying in the faith, Dayton said, “felt like sacred ground.”

Her group held its own event in September, called “Gather,” which united a coalition of groups and individuals who give their time to ensure LGBTQ people and their families are supported in Utah’s predominant faith.

It also drew a huge crowd (1,300 participants) from across the spectrum of belief and practice.

There was no presentation specifically on LGBTQ issues at Restore, but a live poll showed these were the most pressing concerns.

“It gives me hope,” Dayton said, “that there will be more support and more discussion around the LGBTQ community in the future.”

Seeking God at church

(Faith Matters) Singer Brandon Flowers performs at the Restore gathering at Sandy's Mountain America Exposition Center in October 2023.

Rosalynde Welch finds her spiritual foundation at Latter-day Saint chapels. She has a “this-worldly sensibility, more religious than spiritual.”

Her “sense of God seems to root me deeper in this world, rather than uproot me and point me toward a different one,” Welch said. “The most compelling part of my religious life is what happens on my local scale, in my place, rather than the ‘church in general.’”

Her “intuitions of divinity tend to bubble up from this world, like a spring,” she said, “not rain down on me from heaven.”

If, “for you, God bubbles up, you have to find the local springs,” Welch told her audience. “If you’re feeling disconnected from God, look for him in this world. But if you’re feeling disconnected from this world, trust my hunch: Look for it at church.”

For his part, Flowers clearly finds the divine at church, but he also seemed right at home at Restore — big enough for a concert, intimate enough for a testimony meeting.

“I got religious DNA,” the singer told a rapt audience. “I’m a natural believer. It just makes sense to me.”

He was reared in central Utah’s Nephi by a Latter-day Saint family that wasn’t “crazy active” in the church, he said, but he learned “the basics.”

Flowers wasn’t very involved in the church after starting the band in 2001. He married outside the faith and had no plans to persuade his wife to join. While on his first tour, however, unbeknownst to him, his mom gave his wife a copy of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, and she converted.

Together, they began going to church and slowly became more and more involved.

“I don’t think we have all the pieces to the puzzle,” he said, “but the picture I see makes me want to follow Christ and take my kids to church.”

Four years ago, when the church’s yearlong curriculum was the New Testament, it prompted him to write several songs for the band’s album “Imploding the Mirage.”

The lyrics were “all about reconciliation,” Flowers said, “because that topic kept coming up that year… especially being reconciled to my wife and to God.”

Millions of his fans may not all get those messages. He’s OK with that.

“People who write — whether poetry or songs — stumble upon truth and people recognize that,” he said. “Some of us who maybe are more in touch with it or are used to it recognize it as being from a spiritual realm, from this higher place. Others just like how it makes them feel.”

When asked if Jesus would listen to his music, Flowers quipped: “He’d have to be selective.”

The Killers frontman then closed his remarks with a rock/country version of the hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour.”

Jesus, no doubt, would have approved.