A Lower Lights gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Gloria Pak.

For some Mormons, "cafeteria spirituality" is a lifeline

Over the years people have sometimes asked me how I manage to stay Mormon. Often the people asking this question are themselves frustrated with something about the LDS Church, whether it be conservative politics, a culture of judgment, or a leadership structure that excludes women.

I have tended to shift the direction of these conversations away from the institutional church and toward personal spirituality: what do they find in the Mormon tradition that feeds their souls? What pieces do they feel are missing? And are those missing pieces essential for them to grow spiritually?

If the missing pieces are essential and they’re not readily available in the religious culture of modern Mormonism, I suggest that people who are frustrated consider supplementing. That they stay planted in Mormonism if possible but take responsibility for finding whatever else they need outside of it—whether that’s lively gospel music, contemplative meditation practices, or wisdom from Christianity’s 2,000-year-old tradition of elevating singleness to a calling instead of a moral defect, to take just a few examples.

For years LDS leaders have decried this kind of “cafeteria” spirituality. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the religion to follow, they argue. I would counter that almost everyone already does this; some people are simply more aware of their own tendency to gravitate toward the fried chicken while studiously avoiding the mushrooms. Cafeteria spirituality is a fact of religious life, and has been even before Jesus made his astute crack about the speck in our neighbor’s eye being obscured by the big freakin’ log in our own.

Those who put Mormonism forward as an all-or-nothing choice that is entirely sufficient in itself send the message that anyone who does need something different from the cafeteria line is a bad Mormon. And then they seem surprised and a bit outraged when those people, having been told it is impossible to reconcile being Mormon with their other spiritual needs, exit stage right.

This weekend at Sunstone I sensed an energy coalescing around the option of staying in the Church, but doing it on one’s own terms. Maybe this is just the function of the particular sessions I attended, but throughout the weekend it seemed that many people were reaching for ways to stay Mormon—including by learning about spiritual practices that aren’t readily available in Mormonism.

One of those is group meditation. In a packed session, Thomas McConkie, the founder of Lower Lights in Salt Lake City, got about a hundred Mormons, former Mormons, and other folks to meditate together (key text: D&C 93:29 and 93:33–34) and to talk, really talk, about what was on our hearts.

I’m not necessarily one to open up to strangers—and I lived in fear that he would make us stare into the eyes of people we’d just met, which thankfully was not asked of us—but I found my barriers coming down in my group of five people.

I sensed we were all in different places with Mormonism, which McConkie says is pretty standard among the 140 to 150 people who might show up to a Lower Lights meeting. Only about a quarter have no direct connection to Mormonism, while another quarter are, like him, active in the LDS Church. (He is a Gospel Doctrine teacher.) The remaining half “are somewhere on the spectrum of still being Mormon but being inactive to having left the church.” Many are Millennials and GenXers looking to stay Mormon but wishing to deepen their own connection with the divine through meditation and group work.

“Something Millennials in particular appreciate is being invited into an immersive experience that’s non-didactic. There’s no authority telling them what it should mean,” McConkie explains. “I think what people often get at church can be concept-heavy, and more and more people are recognizing that concepts can’t save us. So the interest is in how we access the realities that these concepts point to, the experiential realities.”

In other words, folks don’t want to just learn about God, but to experience God. And there are a lot of them. Lower Lights is growing rapidly enough that it is spinning off small groups that will meet each week in addition to the large group meditation gatherings each month. They’ve gotten the use of a retreat center for longer-term retreats, and will start a one-year program for transformation and spiritual formation in May of 2019.

Jana Spangler teaches about spirituality at the 2018 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah, July 27, 2018.

The growth of McConkie’s group is not the only sign that Mormons are looking outside the LDS Church for spiritual development. Another Sunstone session that explored this was led by Jana Spangler, a former employee benefits specialist who is now a life coach helping Mormons navigate faith transitions and mixed-faith marriages (which can happen with one spouse leaves the Church or no longer believes and the other is still active).

Spangler is also studying at the Living School with Father Richard Rohr, author of bestselling books on spirituality like Falling Upward and Immortal Diamond.

“When I was attending a retreat with Father Rohr in January in connection with The Living School, I introduced myself to him as a Mormon,” Spangler says. “He said that in his opinion Mormons do the first half of life better than anyone, and we have almost no second half of life. I totally agree with that assessment, especially as it relates to our correlated teaching material.”

That rings true with my experience too—the LDS Church has marvelous programs for teaching youth and young adults, including seminary, the mission experience, and Institute. And then it’s like our development is supposed to be arrested, as we recycle the same four years of lessons for the rest of our adult lives. We celebrate intellectual growth and spiritual change until about age 22 and then do our best to avoid it ever after.

In her work, Spangler draws on the stages of adult development (as does McConkie; see here) to show that Mormonism meets the needs of people in stages 2 and 3, but does little to help those whose development takes them to stages 4 or 5.

“I think that if Mormonism had some leadership or structures that could understand and support spiritual developmental growth into stages 4 and 5, there would be fewer people looking outside and far fewer defections,” she says.

And in the absence of Mormonism creating those structures externally, people will continue to seek it elsewhere.


You can listen to the Lower Lights Mindfulness Plus podcast at https://www.mindfulnessplus.org/.


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  1. I think the Church is trying hard to change, and to be more about “experiencing God.” I think that is what some of the shift to Ministering is about, as well as changed facilitated discussions rather than lessons. But its hard to change.

  2. Yes, I think you’re right. The movement toward conversations instead of a traditional lesson on the first Sunday of the month is a move in this direction. And the less formal Ministering program compared to home and visiting teaching. But . . . those are small changes when you think about some of the other structures in place, like the format of General Conference (8-12 hours of passive listening over 2 days) or the very restricted nature of sacrament meeting. Our Sunday meetings (and even the fact that we call them “meetings”) are more about instruction than they are about worship or experiencing God.

  3. OK I’m a lifer but don’t have the same sense of directionlessness or aimlessness that you’re describing. I find that by simply following the basic tenants and prescribed path of reading and asking and inquiring on my own beyond what is taught in classes, I’m fed and fulfilled. Its like the spirit is the tutor and i’m lead along a path of ongoing discovery, understanding and wonder.

    But all of that is already baked into the faith if people choose to access it. I don’t comprehend the longing for something other or outside the church framework. Within it, the possibilities are endless…if you take the time and initiative to access them. Also, I ignore the chatter of the outside world. It has the ability to give you an “itch” that you’ll feel compelled to “scratch” if you listen too long. That’s probably why Nephi said of the worldly detractors…we paid them no heed. And then on the next page in vs 34 speaking of our day he said…”These are the word of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away.” …not some, not most, but ALL. You’re seeing the fulfillment of that prophesy play out right before your eyes and its avoidable.

  4. “Also, I ignore the chatter of the outside world. It has the ability to
    give you an “itch” that you’ll feel compelled to “scratch” if you listen
    too long.”

    What? You don’t let oprah or ellen tell you what to think? And you don’t quote Marx, Freud or Darwin. Social and academic shame on you.

    (( I keep praying for Christ to hurry up and return as escaping their dreary diatribe is hard when commanded to be in but not of. ))

  5. One of the fundamental premises of Mormonism from the first generation on is that we don’t have ALL the truth. From the 13th Article of Faith to the expectation that we will find aspects that we envy that Romney expressed when commenting on studying other faiths, the belief that those outside Mormonism have something to contribute has been there. Quotes from C.S. Lewis show up regularly in General Conference talks, for example. For me personally, I enjoy C.S. Lewis’s writings, the Tao Te Ching helped me through some rough spots in my life, every time I read through the Bible I select a different translation, and I listen to pastor Chuck Swindoll’s Insight for Living Bible study program almost daily. My mother was into yoga and tried to get us children into it, but that didn’t take.

  6. I remember having a conversation once with two Catholic people. One was deriding so-called “Cafeteria Catholics.” The other one was swift to offer a retort. He said, “That’s exactly what I am – I take what I want and leave behind everything I don’t!” That was the end of that conversation.

  7. If it works for addiction recovery programs, it should work for religion as well.

  8. I’ll be curious to see if the “New Narrative” is a means to open the buffet line…

  9. A few reactions:
    – The great thing about Mormonism is that there is no prescribed structure through which you “experience” God. It doesn’t have to be in group settings, although it can be, it can be anywhere/anytime… Catholic Cathedral, peak of a mountain, laying in bed, in Mr. McConkie’s Lower Lights meetings, or in the fast lane on the freeway. The goal is for each to find their own way to experience God as often as they want, however they want.
    – Pres. Nelson’s speech on “cafeteria-ism” was focused singularly on obedience to God’s commandments, your opinion incorrectly assumes it also refers to the current policies/procedures/culture, and current interpretations of Gods laws of the Church. The scriptural commandments are pretty black and white, the others aren’t.
    – I think the structure you are looking for in Phases 4 and 5 are really there in family, temple and missionary work, some just lose steam early in life and decide family isn’t for them, raising kids is too hard/expensive, going to the temple, researching geneology and serving a full-time mission as an older member of the Church is too much sacrifice and miss the opportunities for growth, blessings and happiness that come from each of those. That’s not to say some will not have trials of mortal “singleness”, same-sex attraction, addictions, family circumstances of death/divorce, etc. that prevent them from creating and building a family and serving a mission, but that is the eternal milestone that can be strived for, and hoped for through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

  10. I want to thank you for using “I statements” here. Not everyone has had the experience you have enjoyed, as you seem to sense.

  11. From the Lower Light website:

    Sept. 10th – Nov. 5th, 2018

    An exploration of Mystical Christianity, Teachings from the Buddha, and Nondual Awareness.

    There’s an interesting connection between the LDS tradition and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In Tibetan (Tantric) Buddhism, there is the phenomenon of what is called a “terma”. A terma is a sacred text hidden long ago by someone of some level of spiritual awakening, and it is hidden for the purpose of someone, perhaps hundreds of years later, “discovering” the terma text and revealing the teachings of that text in the contemporary world. The idea is that the terma is “discovered” when the world needs to hear it teachings.

    In some sense, The Book of Mormon is a type of Christian terma.

  12. Only if the story about how the BoM came about is true.

  13. There are many who know or have experienced much more than I. I guess the point is that we all could if we want to. Looking “beyond the mark” is not a good thing. And there seems to be many in our day willing to set themselves up as a “light” to be followed or praised = priestcraft 101. Beware, especially if they present themselves as a fix, an enhancement, a modernization, an alternative view to what has been provided. Timothy talks about those having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof, of such turn away…good advice.

  14. I’ve “worshipped” with churches of Christ, LDS Church, Metropolitan Community Church, Lutheran Church, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Mennonite Church, Roman Catholic Church, Baptist Church, etc., in the end, all of their services are about instruction. I don’t think any of them are about experiencing or worshipping God. What does that even mean? How does one experience or worship God?

  15. Ah, and here it is. The clear implication Jana that if you aren’t experiencing great religious satisfaction from the church, it’s not the church–it’s you–who has the problem. With many members, the gaslighting is just around the corner. Just a matter of time before it comes out.

    “Looking “beyond the mark” is not a good thing.”
    Define that phrase. You seem to suggest it applies to those who are unfulfilled by the mind-nummingly boring correlated program of the Mormon church. Is it really looking beyond the mark seek fulfillment that is othewise lacking?

    “And there seems to be many in our day willing to set themselves up as a “light” to be followed or praised = priestcraft 101.”
    Yes, just look to the Mormon general authorities. It started with Joseph Smith, when he realized setting himself up with a church would get him girls and gain. Part of the evidence (there is so much) he was a huckster is the fact Smith was convicted of being a disorderly person (which includes glasslooking) after a trial in Bainbridge, PA, in 1826. Brigham Young did very well financially and had many wives. Even today, the GAs are treated reverentially, as if they had some connection to God that we don’t have. And they love it. Turns out none of them have seen Jesus any more than we have. I recently heard about Bednar revoking an apostolic blessing becuause he perceived some irreverence toward him that he took exception to. As of this minute, there is a former bishop and active member, Sam Young, on a hunger strike about the church’s continuing unchaperoned probing sexual interviews with Mormon youth. He’s right outside church headquarters. Jesus would have talked to him. The church leadership? Crickets.

    “Timothy talks about those having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof, of such turn away…good advice.” And I’ve taken it. I resigned from the church in 2014 after concluding the evidence overwhelming that the church is hypocritical, and the leaders are not inspired as we think. The apostles I used to revere I now know through hindsight were douchebags (Kimball, Peterson, Packer) and liars (Paul H. Dunn) who harmed generations of youth. The church in my 50 years of membership went from a more locally controlled organization to essentially a virginity and obedience cult with strong top-down direction, vetted by the church’s legal firm, Kirton & McConkie.

  16. ” I take what I want and leave behind everything I don’t! ”

    Hmm, that pretty much describes rape and/or a buffet.

  17. I’ve always thought it interesting that Alma 32 refers to his listeners taking even a portion of his words, and starting with that. He doesn’t specify which portion. And I find it important that in discussing the different harvests from the same seeds [words] Jesus in Mark says, “Know ye not this parable? How then will ye know all parables?” So yes, individuals are going to pick and choose which portion upon which to nurture, experiment upon, and there will be differences in the harvest, ranging from nothing to a hundred fold. So soil, nurture, time and patience matter in the long run even more than selection, assuming that we select the good seeds and do not cast them out, or let them succumb to predation or the cares of the word, and plant them in good soil.

    I’ve observed that the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth notes that in the first four of of the nine positions pole “feel abandonment in unstructured learning environments.” From position 6 on, “people feel frustration in too structured of an environment.” Personally, once I started looking for information on my own initiative, rather than passively waiting to be fed on Sunday, personally “seeking out of the best books, words of wisdom” (something very different than seeking out of “approved books words of orthodoxy” and also very different than “seeking out of critical books words of self-justification”), I’ve had an ongoing positive experience, a constantly deepening faith, and the kinds of enlightenment, fruitfulness, and soul-enlargement that Alma promised.

    So, for instance, I’ve found inspiration in the LDS scriptures, LDS scholars, and from a wide range of non-LDS writers, including Eliade, Girard, Campbell, Smart, Frye, Barker, Alter, Moody, Zaleski, Kuhn and many others, from whom I learned to see things in LDS scriptures that I did not know was there. I’ve even managed to contribute now and then. I’ve noticed the LDS scripture that said that all things that are given from him are “the typifying of Christ” and noticed such typifying going on in Harry Potter, and even Buffy, giving me license and encouragement to grow spiritually there. (I once commented to you on that at an SLC Sunstone panel years ago.)

    It’s important, when dealing with the LDS community as a whole, and the various subgroups and streams, and temperaments, and Perry Positions within, to look up “sustain” in a good dictionary. It means a lot more than we may suppose, unless we give it a closer look. And what it actually means is something that any community requires to survive and thrive, and corresponds with what Brigham Young was thinking about when he asked the Saints to “understand people as they are, and not as you are.”

  18. I think I forgot to breathe as I read this article. Then — a mix of tears [HAPPY — FINALLY– YES!!!] and frustration that the majority of folks in my area prefer to stay in the cocoon of safety. I left that cocoon behind, found out it’s quite okay to fly, grow, etc. and STILL remain active. No intellectual discussion here is intended. For me, it comes down to broad reading and studying of books that enrich me spiritually [many by other beliefs]. I hold on to what the Spirit whispers to me is true, and reject the rest. Same thing with the Church – if you know something is surely true – keep it. Otherwise – maybe not! I stay active – teach Relief Society – mostly keep my mouth shut [ pearls before swine???] and often learn a great deal, though not usually through the prescribed lessons- more often from a talk is given that makes my little heart jump for joy.

  19. I enjoyed your column. I am thinking “cafeteria spirituality” is different from what then apostle Russell M. Nelson was referring to when speaking of picking and choosing which commandments to keep. It’s an important distinction, I believe.

  20. Thanks for your articulating the distinction between “cafeteria-ism” in regards to keeping the commandments or current policies/procedures/culture etc.

  21. I think that it depends upon what your religious goal is. If your religious goal is self-improvement, then I agree with you. There are many churches, faith traditions, religious practices from all over the world from which you can snip bits and pieces that will make you a better human being. For me, self-improvement is more of a bi-product than a primary goal of my religious observance. I wish for redemption. Eternal life. Salvation. I believe that the only way that I can reach that goal is by doing my absolute best to follow all of God’s commandments and then plead for grace from the Savior Jesus Christ to help me where I fall short and make up the difference.

    Paul said that we see through glass darkly. Proverbs counsels us to lean not unto our own understanding. The book of Isaiah states “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” I believe that it takes faith. The book of Hebrews teaches us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and the Book of Mormon exhorts us to “dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

    Sometimes our faith requires us to test something that we may not understand or may not make sense to us initially. If we do it with an open heart, I believe that we will receive a witness of that particular principle. I believe that picking and choosing will limit our spiritual growth to a small box of our own design.

  22. Jana,
    They may be small changes, but they are not insignificant. There are also certainly more changes in that same vein coming soon (e.g. the expansion of come follow me to Primary in 2019) .

    I have a coupled of thoughts and a couple of questions – and sorry that I am a bit late to the party.

    1. How would you define Worship and experiencing God?
    2. What changes would you want to see to general conference?
    3. What is it that you find restrictive about sacrament meeting?

    1. I feel that Sacrament meeting is very worshipful: We meet together with our community and sing praises. We partake of communion and have time for quiet reflection. We share experiences and scripture and pray together.
    2. Second and third hours (Sunday school and individual quorums/classes) is absolutely about instruction, but there are also aspects of those that are worshipful and who said that the two are exclusive?
    3. What is wrong with some aspects of church being about instruction or indeed a large part of it?

    Ultimately, I guess that I am just not sure what you want out of Sunday services. I am not saying that things can’t improve. I also know that there can be a lot of variability from region to region, ward to ward and from Sunday to Sunday. I can also say for myself and for others because of a demanding Sunday calling perhaps (e.g. nursery, primary, bishopric, teacher, etc.) or a challenging personal situation that Sunday services do not always feel like the most worshipful time . All that said, however, the time that we spend together as a christian community learning and serving together is an important part of worship, but it isn’t the only part. We should also be taking time out to meditate, read, ponder, think, serve, etc., especially on Sundays, but also at other times during the week. I believe that if we strive harder to be worshipful all the time, our Sunday worship services will become more meaningful.

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