Journalists who really want to know what makes Mormons tick should step away from the "blogs and books and Web searches" and spend a few observant hours with the leaders and members of an LDS congregation.
That's the opinion of Michael Otterson, head of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, written in his latest blog post on the Washington Post website.
"Drop by, sit at the back and observe, or sit at the front if you wish," Otterson writes. "You won't have to do anything — no kneeling, no recitations, no collection plates. But feel free to talk to the members. Ask them about the responsibilities they hold. Talk to the teenagers. Attend the classes after the main worship service."
Otterson quotes Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, who recently told a group of prominent journalists: "If you want to understand Mormonism, you have to understand the ward."
A "ward," Otterson explains, "is what Latter-day Saints call a parish or congregation. Along with families, wards are the hub of Mormons' religious life, the place where most of the action happens. Its collection of families and individuals of every type and shade is at the heart of the faith, and their collective commitment to each other is a direct consequence of their commitment to be followers of Jesus Christ."
Otterson also urges reporters to talk to the bishop, or lay minister, of the congregation they visit. But he suggests that they make an appointment "because he's likely spending most of the day face-to-face with members who need help."
"The bishop may spend 20 hours or so a week dealing with issues related to his service," he writes. "So be sensitive to his time, but don't let that stop you from asking about how his ward works, and how he feels about his 'flock.'"
Otterson referred to a recent story by Eliza Gray for The New Republic, in which the reporter visited LDS services and talked to members of the church about their faith. Within the article, stories are told about Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Harry Reid and their service to members of their respective LDS wards.
"Writing or reporting about Mormons from a desk and a keyboard without a field trip to a Mormon ward is like covering Congress from Kalamazoo," Otterson writes. "You have to be there. You have to feel the pulse. You have to understand the perspectives, the nuances, the motivation deeply rooted in belief. Then you'll be better able to explain what makes Mormons tick so enthusiastically."