Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
John Dehlin, new executive director of Sunstone, says he hopes to make the organization more "faith-affirming."

Whatever software-coding challenges John Dehlin has tackled in the past may look a little less daunting once he tackles his newest project.

As the new executive director of Sunstone — a magazine and scholarly forum devoted to examining the more controversial aspects of the LDS Church and its history — Dehlin will be breaking new philosophical ground in his stated goal to make the organization more "faith-affirming."

It remains to be seen how some of the forum's longtime devotees will embrace that new direction. The annual Sunstone Symposium begins Wednesday at the Salt Lake Sheraton City Centre.

Dehlin, who telecommutes from Logan to Boston as OpenCourse Ware Consortium director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, doesn't shy away from acknowledging Sunstone's longtime reputation as a melting pot not only for scholarly LDS discussion, but often for dissent.

He and the forum's leadership team are reframing the way they will approach Sunstone's motto, "faith seeking understanding," though "that's what it has always meant to people who have been a part of it."

"I understand some people are scared because of fireworks of the past," he said. So the new vision statement says the group will be "an independent forum for open, thoughtful and constructive discussion of all things Mormon."

"Independent means we're not apologetic and we're not anti (LDS)," he said. "We lean toward faith and being pro-Mormon, but we want to create a neutral ground where people can ask questions.

"People need to find their own way in their faith journey. If someone is struggling with the First Vision story, we don't just say, 'Well, you need to simply believe it.' There are a certain number of people who need a neutral voice to allow them the freedom to make their decisions."

The history of the LDS Church — and the peculiarities of its claims regarding the nature of God and the origin of new and unique scriptural texts — has been fodder for critics since church founder Joseph Smith organized the faith in 1830. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints profess knowledge of spiritual truths based on faith in the claims Smith made about the church's divine origin as a "restoration" of true Christianity.

But some who were born into the faith or consider themselves believers are troubled by either historical episodes or doctrines that continue to generate media attention, particularly with Mitt Romney's presidential bid.

Dehlin said the word "open" in Sunstone's new vision statement "means we can discuss things openly people can't discuss elsewhere." Whatever the questions, "I need a safe place where I can talk to people like me and know they won't judge me," Dehlin said of Sunstone participants.

"Faithful means we're trying to deal with history and facts, finding the best of academia so opinions are informed rather than dogmatic."

He believes Sunstone has a larger role to play among Latter-day Saints who are not necessarily disaffected but who encounter information about the faith that they didn't learn from the church's formal education programs.

The belief comes from his own experience. Called to be a seminary teacher five years ago while working at Microsoft, Dehlin had gone through all the church's programs for youths and had served an LDS mission. But when he began studying the faith in order to teach his students, he came across aspects as an active member in his early 30s that he'd never known before.

"I had no idea Joseph Smith had multiple wives, that he translated the Book of Mormon by putting a peep stone in a hat, or that the practice of polygamy was continued unofficially in the church for several years after the Manifesto.

"The immediate reaction was to say 'I've been deceived, they've been hiding this stuff because it's embarrassing.' The whole framework of what I believed was challenged by a radical different reality."

When he approached people in his ward to discuss the issues that troubled him, he learned quickly that "you can't bring those topics up." His bishop "wasn't comfortable and didn't know about it."

Then he went to the Internet but found the information there was overwhelmingly anti-Mormon. He realized immersing himself in those sites was "a fast path out of the church. They're all about anger and bitterness and misrepresentation."

Another alternative was apologetic forums, like FAIR or FARMS at Brigham Young University. While he respects those entities and understands their role, "there is a group of people who find the way apologetics are done not only is not helpful but in many ways it accelerates their disaffection from the church," he said.

It was finally at Sunstone that he found a physical community he could interact with and ask questions of. That community was, he acknowledged, a less strident one that many Latter-day Saints became jaded about in the early 1990s when six of Sunstone's most outspoken authors and writers were excommunicated from the LDS Church.

Shortly afterward, top church leaders warned their members to avoid alternative forums for discussion of history and doctrine, and the faculty at Brigham Young University was particularly cautioned to avoid participation.

At that point, membership in Sunstone dropped between 50 and 75 percent, Dehlin said. For several years afterward, discussions within the forum "became a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the conservatives no longer feel comfortable engaging, the liberal voices become more prominent."

While he understands why the forum gained an unsavory reputation among many church members and leaders, Dehlin credits former executive director Dan Wotherspoon for working hard in in recent years to "moderate the voices, to be responsible and to become a faith-promoting institution again."

In that regard, he thinks the forum continues to get a bad rap. "People perceive it much different than how it's being done."

So he's determined to get the word out.

"We're pro-LDS. We're not trying to compete with or tear down the church or discredit it or tell them it's a bad place to be. There are things the church can do well, but they will never offer a class on early folk magic and Mormonism and why that shouldn't want to make you leave the church."

Going forward, the forum will look to not only retain longtime participants — most of whom are 40 and older — but seek out ways to attract a younger, broader membership base. Dehlin hopes to offer magazine articles, podcast interviews, video interviews and even multimedia projects on Sunstone's Web site that draw people who are struggling in with contemporary issues like addiction, their status in the church and lifestyle questions.

"I wouldn't be getting involved if I felt Sunstone's mission was to take away from the church in any way or to erode or take away from people's faith. We want people to feel good about their faith and convictions, to strengthen the level of their happiness and productivity in the church."

As for troubling historical or doctrinal questions, he sees Sunstone as a forum for some — "certainly not everyone" — to delve into a background examination in a way they can't do at church on Sunday.

As for the "faith-affirming" direction, a discussion of the forum's reputation has been ongoing between Dehlin and board members.

"We're not talking about it like it's all messed up and we need to make big changes to fix it. Rather, there's a new generation of people who have needs and wants. We've served current customer base well, but there are new things we can do to reach out to a new and broader audience."