Public Square Magazine Primary White, Gold & Black Logo | PublicSquareMag | What is Public Square | Politics, Faith & Family | Home | Public Square Magazine
Man Silhouette Kneeling in Prayer w/ White Light & Trees | A Conversation with Faith Matters | Public Square Magazine | Illustrating Faith | Faith Matters Foundation

Cultivating Belief in a Cynical Age: A Conversation with Faith Matters

A discussion with a Faith Matters founder and executive director about their ongoing work and plans, highlighting the need to connect with today’s youth without compromising core teachings.

Since its founding in 2016, Faith Matters has reached more and more people through its podcast and written content. Between the podcast, YouTube, social media, and written content, there are now millions of engagements per year. I’m no longer on the advisory board at Faith Matters, but have enjoyed many warm and wonderful relationships with people involved. I’m grateful for the willingness of executive director Zachary Davis and one of the founders, Bill Turnbull, for exploring here some of the questions that come up for brothers and sisters of faith about their work. 

Jacob Hess: Thanks for joining this conversation and being willing to go a little deeper on some curiosities folks have. You’ve dipped into lots of different efforts over the past couple of years experimenting with various ways to build faith. What are you most excited about in terms of what Faith Matters is doingand planning to doin the years ahead? 

Bill Turnbull: Looking back over our brief history, I think we’ve managed to create a much-needed space at Faith Matters. We’ve sought to create a space very much grounded in a deep faith in Christ and commitment to the Church, with a quality of openness and expansiveness, even in the face of difficult topics. There’s a lot of hunger for this kind of approach. Our podcast, our book publishing efforts, our new Wayfare Magazine—I think they’ve all been novel approaches that address an audience that’s a little tougher for the institutional church to reach and engage. So we plan to do more of the same as we move forward. 

We held our first public gathering last October, which we call Restore. It is an entirely new type of Latter-day Saint gathering and was really well received. Great speakers. Fantastic music and art. We packed the venue with over 1,500 attendees—which is pretty good for a two-day paid event. Restore 2023 (Oct 13-14 of this year) will be bigger and better.

We’re not quite ready to talk publicly about new initiatives we are planning as we move forward, but we see some great opportunities, and we’re excited about the possibilities. We’ll be announcing some of them at our Restore gathering. 

It’s all been really rewarding. It takes a lot of our time and personal resources, but it feels like important work. We’ve been an almost strictly volunteer organization until last year when we hired an incredible new Executive Director, Zachary Davis. It’s time to professionalize the organization if we’re going to move to the next level. So we’re in the middle of that process.

Zachary Davis: The most wonderful part of my job is that every single day we receive messages and emails from people who enthusiastically thank us for helping them grow in their faith. We are constantly thinking about how to develop and deepen our mission through new projects and initiatives. In-person gatherings like Restore are something we want to keep offering, and we’re constantly looking for ways to hold conversations on the biggest questions of our day, like AI, mental health, and care for the natural world.

Jacob: In Faith Matters articles and podcasts, you often feature people who are in varying places about core truth claims about the restoration – working to feature different conversations where everyone can add their voice and perspective about the Church. While acknowledging the way in which you’re seeking to cross-pollinate our truth-seeking conversation as a faith, I have noticed ways this can feel somewhat disorienting to some more orthodox members, who have wondered if you’re saying, “It doesn’t really matter whether you believe X or Y is true in the Church. Everyone’s perspective about what is true is equally valuable.” Can you say more about what you’re hoping people can gain from this array of ideological offerings at Faith Matters?

Bill: We certainly don’t hold the view that “everyone’s perspective about what is true is equally valuable.” That’s postmodern nonsense. It’s probably true that we have some pretty open conversations about things that might make some people uncomfortable. But I think faith shines through pretty brightly in those conversations. Sometimes we all need to get a little uncomfortable if we’re going to learn and grow. Jesus made all kinds of people uncomfortable, including the most orthodox among His people. We try to treat our audience like adults who are able to discern truth for themselves.

The issue of “truth claims” is an interesting one.  I happen to believe quite strongly, for example, that the Book of Mormon is actually an ancient record that Joseph Smith translated from gold plates. But I also realize that there are people with whom I worship at church or sit beside in the temple who haven’t quite arrived at that conviction. I’m happy to have an open conversation with them about their questions without insisting that they agree with me. I realize that many of these issues aren’t as neat and tidy as we might want them to be. 

At Faith Matters, we don’t have some orthodoxy test for people we bring into conversation. We invite guests who we believe have something valuable to say about the particular topic we happen to be addressing. I imagine most of our guests (with the exception of those frequent guests who are not of our faith) accept the core truth claims of the restoration—that the Church has a unique, divinely-appointed mission to fulfill. But if not, that doesn’t mean we won’t talk to them.

It’s interesting, and a little troubling, to hear pushback from people who feel like you shouldn’t engage people in conversation if you don’t agree with them as if you’re validating their ideas by merely discussing them. That kind of mentality seems profoundly unhealthy.

Zachary: Joseph Smith taught that “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” I take that to mean that we need conversation and exchange with one another to come to a fuller understanding of the truth and that we are each seeking that fullness by way of the spirit, inquiry, and conversation. I think listening deeply to those who may believe quite differently than us can become a great blessing as it leads us to greater light and love.

Jacob: Does that include conservative-leaning, orthodox members who might stretch some of your audience, Zach and Bill? It doesn’t always seem as if voices like mine are featured as regularly as some of your more progressive-leaning friends writing and speaking on your platform.   

Bill: Of course. I think we actually engage traditional voices quite regularly already, but I’m sure we can do better. We need to strive harder to include voices across the spectrum of ideologies.  

Zach: One of the things I admire most about Jesus’s ministry is that He confounds the simplistic and tribal categories we human beings constantly try to create for ourselves and others. Jesus appeals to everyone—conservative, progressive, old, young, urban, rural—because He teaches the truth, and we recognize His truth and His love are larger than the small ideological boxes we try to fit inside. As much as possible, I try to follow his example in this regard.

Jacob: Bill, you recently wrote something in Wayfare where you pushed back on the idea that we need to “defend the faith”suggesting that you didn’t think “truth needs to be defended; rather, it needs simply to be lived.”

As part of that, you represented those with concerns about attacks on the faith as perhaps missing something importantpositioning yourself (and Faith Matters) as choosing another focus and another way. That way, from what I understand, is to not get caught up as much in explaining or defending controversial parts of the gospeland instead, spend a lot more energy taking critical questions people have about our faith far more seriouslyseeing them as perhaps pointing us towards possibilities we may be laying aside too quickly.

Is that a fair summary of your view? And is there anything more you’d like to add?

Bill: I guess I’ve always preferred playing offense to playing defense, so that’s mostly what we do at Faith Matters. We think our tradition has so much to offer the world that we prefer to focus on the expansive ideas and practices of our faith and leave playing defense to others who are doubtless much better at it than we are. 

Some people enjoy apologetics, and I applaud them. But it’s easy to get trapped in it. I think in playing defense, we are too often agreeing to play by the rules of the critics, which are generally the rules of the broader secular enterprise. 

Secularism is naturally cynical about religious or spiritual experience in general. So apologetics can become trapped in an endless debate over “facts,” as if reality could be reduced to a set of bare facts.

Although we generally focus on inspiring conversations, we definitely address challenging questions at Faith Matters. But we’re not going to spend a lot of energy on a question unless, by exploring the question, we open onto something deeper. 

And as I wrote in that essay, I’m generally much more interested in lived truth, which I associate with faith, rather than in propositional beliefs. Faith is engaging the world “as if” those beliefs are actually true. In a way, faith makes beliefs true. There’s a reason we named our foundation Faith Matters (to that point, we created a great little video called Why Faith Matters). We will continue to sponsor some really important theological thinking and conversations at Faith Matters.  But ultimately, belief without faith is rather barren. 

Jacob: Thanks for that, Bill. Compared with asking questions about our faith, I’m curious how valuable you’d see asking questions about the larger secular culture as well. As background for the question, I’ve seen some of my friends over the years so full of concerning questions about the Church (its doctrine, teaching, and history), but with little to no comparable curiosity about the many dominant secular dogmas around sexuality, gender, and other things in larger society today. Would you say it’s equally valuable to interrogate the worldviews and assumptions of those outside the Church as wellparticularly those who undermine people’s faith and confidence in the gospel? 

Zach:  I love how the gospel gives us language and ideas to question the prevailing assumptions of the culture we live in. So I agree with you, Jacob, that there are all kinds of ideas associated with what we call “secularism” that should be examined in the light of Jesus’s teachings. Just to name a few of these bad ideas: 1) that the pursuit of wealth, fame, and pleasure will bring lasting joy; 2) that liberation, not interdependence, should be our highest goal; 3) that only what is measurable is meaningful. 

Bill:  We’re definitely interested in engaging the broader religious and secular world in conversation on the big issues of the day. We have done a lot of what we call “inter-spiritual dialogue”inviting people from other faiths on our media platforms and to speak at our public events. There’s a wonderful energy and spirit that comes from deeply and respectfully engaging other points of view on the most meaningful questions.

You mention gender and sexuality, Jacob, which seems to be of particular interest to Public Square. That’s understandable, given the extremes to which our culture has swung on these questions in the last few years. I think our society is in the process of reevaluating these questions in light of some of these excesses. But I think there are even more fundamental trends in secular culture that we should be challenging too. 

Jacob: The idea that we don’t really have to defend truth, and can simply live it, Bill, is a nice ideareflecting a desire to stay positive, not pick unnecessary fights, and perhaps to “resist not evil” as the Savior taught anciently. I do worry a little that this perspective could bleed into an unwillingness to raise our voices for any truth that makes us uncomfortable. I know your leadership team still believes that’s important to do at timesgiven the push-back you do receive, including from some progressive readers (on the abortion discussion, for instance). Given that, I wonder if you could share how you decide when and where it’s appropriate to raise your voices about a gospel perspective many in the world aren’t too fond of. 

Bill: Yeah, it can get tricky. We try not to wade into culture-war issues. The worst in people tends to come out pretty fast around these issues. We did that podcast episode during the Roe v Wade debates last year. We must have threaded the needle pretty well because we got pushback from both sides. But we also received a lot of feedback on how much understanding that episode created. 

We really try to follow Elder Oaks’ counsel: “On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.” I happen to think President Russell Nelson’s last conference address on avoiding the evil of contention may be the most inspired prophetic message I’ve heard in my lifetime. Very challenging stuff. God is calling us, as a people, to be this force for Christ’s peace in the world at a time when there are unprecedented, powerful forces and technologies that will tend to fundamentally divide us.

Jacob: It’s clear that many church teachings are increasingly unpopularnot just our doctrines around family, but teachings around repentance and even the idea of having clear knowledge about spiritual matters (aka “testimony”). We all naturally want to be respected and liked in society around usso much so that it can be tempting to avoid parts of the gospel message that the world hates. If Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind it hated me first,” shouldn’t we also be okay with being hated for what we believe? Do you see value in presenting the best possible case for the Church’s doctrinesespecially the difficult onesbefore airing skeptical views?

Bill: Jesus did say that to his apostles, as John records. I think He was being clear-eyed about the consequences of challenging, at every turn, the powers that be—the prevailing social and religious institutions and attitudes of his time. He knew His teaching would, at times, be profoundly challenging and disruptive to everyone.

But Jesus spent a lot more time and energy focusing on teaching ‘the good news” of the gospel. Faith. Hope. Charity. Grace. Repentance. Forgiveness. Humility. Discipleship. Covenant community. Fidelity. Our divine nature. The true nature of God. The kingdom within us. Seeing, validating, and serving the marginalized. At-one-ment. 

I don’t believe this good news of the gospel is  “hated” by the world (or even necessarily unpopular). I think most people actually hunger for it at a deep level. Maybe we just need to communicate these truths in a more inviting way. Think about how President Nelson has reframed repentance in his teaching to us. The way he teaches it, repentance is a joyous and inviting doctrine almost anyone can embrace. It’s the way Jesus taught it.

As this relates to what we do at Faith Matters, I think the vast majority of the content we produce focuses on the “good news” side of the gospel. Even when we address a heavy subject, we try to explore how it can spark hope or new understanding—how we can learn and grow from it. I’m sure we often do that less than perfectly, but we try.  For example, we recently had Richard Turley and Barbara Jones Brown on our podcast to talk about their book on the Mountain Meadows massacre. The book pulls no punches, and neither did the conversation.  It’s a heavy topic, but I think the conversation was healthy and helpful. Likewise, I think we presented a very balanced, in-depth treatment of the controversy around church finances. 

We can get all caught up in how different we are from the world and how “right” we are. But if we bring that attitude and energy to the world, people will not be drawn to it. We will have failed our brothers and sisters. 

Jacob: Going back to something you brought up, what about affirming the Church’s teachings around family and gender/sexuality in particular? Do you feel like you do enough in that regard?

Bill: We don’t spend a lot of energy at Faith Matters directly addressing LGBT issues. But we do try to foster understanding and inclusion for our LGBT brothers and sisters—the kind of thing our church leaders have been strongly urging us to do in recent years. We want them and need them in our congregations and in our lives.

I think we have some powerful teachings and practices as a people about eternal covenantal relationships and fidelity in marriage. We have “good news” to proclaim as a faith that can bring a lot of joy to the world. I’m not sure that in doing so, we need to pick a fight with people who, for various reasons, won’t experience that ideal in this life. 

Ultimately, our focus should be to bring people to Christ. And the path of Christian discipleship won’t always be packaged up with an ideal family model. It often looks like single people, or people in mixed-faith marriages, or people struggling in unhealthy marriages or broken families. What does it look like for LGBT people? Reality refuses to be as simple and tidy as we want it to be.

Jacob: In an interview I recently saw between Lila Rose and Francis Chan, this thoughtful Pastor said about the Bible, “There’s been [this] truth that’s been passed down for 6,000 years. Now, you’re going to be so tempted because your friend will come up with a new thought that contradicts itand you’ll be tempted to follow him. But think about it, you’re going to follow your friend’s opinion that he just came up with that goes against 6,000 years of biblical history.”

The Pastor goes on to raise concern with the many in our current society, concluding that those people in the past are “all wrong because we see it now. We get it. We’re the first generation to figure out they were all wrong.” Do you think 21st-century Westerners can sometimes be too quick to lay aside church and scriptural tradition for their own new interpretations

Bill: Yes, the perennial problem of presentism (I almost added progressivism, but I suppose one can take alliteration too far). 

Zach: For most of human history, there was an incredibly deep reverence for the past, a bias towards the old. Just think about how much and for how long Europeans deferred to Aristotle in all manner of things, even when it seemed to contradict observation. But beginning in the Renaissance and accelerating with the rise of science’s authoritative prestige is a new “cult of the new.” 

Every day, in a thousand ways, our culture tells us that new is better than old. There are new wonders all the time because of this cultural disposition, but I think it can also blind us to the deep and nourishing wisdom found in our sacred texts and in the teachings passed down through the generations. This cult of the new also encourages us to view youth as the only happy state of life, a stage to be relentlessly maintained through all manner of Frankensteinian techniques. This can, again, blind us to both the wisdom of our elders and also to the reality of our mortality. Life requires death to grow.

Jacob: I know we all agree that it’s a wonderful feature of the restoration to be open to all truth, wherever it comes from. Compared to the broader Christian world clinging to a single canonical book, this underscores an exciting openness to new truth through “ongoing revelation” in an “ongoing restoration.” That’s clearly beautiful.  

Some have pointed out that this language of “ongoing restoration” and “continuing revelation” can sometimes be used to resist an embrace of current prophetic teachingpointing to the future when one day those prophets will agree with what you or I think. In this way, people can end up only sustaining “future imaginary prophets” who agree with us rather than the current prophet. How would you respond to this misuse of our expansive Latter-day Saint doctrine? And how can we avoid that kind of pitfall? 

Zachary: I can see why that critique might be made, but in my view, what the “ongoing restoration” means is that God will, indeed, “yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Great and important! 

I also think it means that God doesn’t want us to be passive in the building of His kingdom. We should look for ways to fully live the truths and covenants we have made and also use our agency to seek new understandings, new ways of expressing and living the gospel, and new ways of serving each other and the world. 

As Clayton Christensen used to teach often, many of the church programs that we love, such as Primary, began as small, local, bottom-up innovations. It is a joyful teaching of our tradition that more light is always available to those who seek it. Our tradition begins with a young boy desperately seeking a greater fullness of God’s truths. I think we should always embrace that seeking spirit and never begin to believe we have enough.

Jacob: For a brother or sister (or investigator) who hasn’t been able to reconcile themselves to some core truth claims in the restoration, what do you hope they will take away from your work at Faith Matters? 

Zachary: I love Alma 32:27: “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” I hope people encounter the Spirit in our work in a way that helps them to desire to believe, to experiment with new light, and eventually begin to more fully walk Jesus’s path.

Jacob: I know you’ve had a wide array of positive feedback over the years, including a number of people relating that Faith Matters is helping “keep them in the Church.” While this is encouraging to hear, I can’t help but think about how often I’ve heard similar things from others in the past, including Julie Hanks and John Dehlin. 

That makes me wonder what exactly it means to “keep people in the Church”and whether that goal may be limited in itself. As in, “I’ll help you feel comfortable enough still being a part of this group, even if you don’t actually believe it or want to give heart to it.” We all know people who go through the motions in a marriage, a job, or at Churcheven though they’re not truly converted. In what ways can we help people’s hearts and minds receive truth more deeply in a way that aligns their lives with God’s will and covenants?   

Bill: Totally agree. We should measure our efforts by whether or not we build faith and understanding. We have received hundreds of comments and messages over our brief history, and overwhelmingly that seems to be the effect we’re having. I don’t think we’ve ever had a message that inferred we had caused someone to lose faith. 

Zach: I agree that the phrase “keep people in the church” is rather lifeless, especially the way it suggests a kind of begrudging, grimacing “endure to the end” kind of approach. I love Jesus’s teaching in John 10:10 “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.” Following Jesus should lead to joy, vitality, energy, strength, and love. I see our work at Faith Matters as not to help people grit their teeth and drag themselves to sacrament meeting, but to become transformed into beings of greater light through the healing power of Jesus. There is nothing more beautiful and exciting and wonderful than the gospel, and it is our joy to help people connect and experience that good news through conversations, writing, videos, events, and community.  

Jacob: An interesting debate is taking place when it comes to young people who are struggling with faith. On one hand, are those who argue that an increasing incidence of disaffection is mostly a sign what we’re offering the rising generation is just not resonatingand that something needs to change with our offering (e.g., reconsidering fundamentals in terms of how we proselyte, worship, or teach about the family). On the other hand, are those who argue that this same disaffection is a sign that the messages young people are receiving in the world are resonating too muchand that we need to help them find ways to receive our current offering more deeply in their hearts and minds (without necessarily needing fundamental revisions on the part of our own doctrine). 

Depending on the perspective we take, it leads to very different conversations about the Church and what is needed to help people stay. I’d love to hear more of your take on what we need to do to keep more young people active and participating in faith. Is it a matter of moving away from teachings and practices estranging peopleor finding more ways to help these same people receive those truths? 

Zachary: There are clearly some large technological and cultural forces that are making it very difficult for young people to flourish emotionally and spiritually. The depth of this crisis should spur us to serious reflection about why our children are struggling. 

But certainly, one way to help our young people is to follow Jesus’s example and meet people where they are—to help connect them to gospel principles that they currently need. For example, let’s say your teen is suffering from anxiety and fear. By teaching the loving care our Heavenly Parents have for us and by showing how faith helps us move forward in the world with trust, we might be able to help alleviate their anxiety. Line upon line, we can help them build a foundation of faith, one that can help young people navigate a broader culture often hostile to the sacred. But I think we have to be responsive to the needs they have and help provide new language and expression to gospel principles. If we use stale language, they won’t be able to hear the power and beauty of the message of the restoration. 

Bill: I think Zach’s right on all points. We are called to be an innovative people. The Restoration is an ongoing process designed to respond to the challenges of each generation. And this current generation of young people is facing challenges that human civilization has never seen before. I don’t think the challenges that technology (particularly A.I.) will be presenting this generation can be overstated. We did not—as a society, as parents, or as a faith—do nearly enough to protect our children against the ravages of social media. We have seen the effects of that lack of foresight in a colossal teen mental health crisis. The next wave of technological innovation is potentially much more spiritually and emotionally destabilizing. How will we, as a church and as parents, prepare and respond?

We have actually recently formed a Gen Z  advisory council, about 20 wonderful twenty-somethings, with the object of better understanding how they are navigating their spiritual and religious lives. 

Jacob, you mention some “fundamentals” in your question, including the way we share the gospel through our mission program and the way we worship together on Sundays. These aren’t “doctrines” but practices or programs. Let’s not pretend that the way we do missionary work and the way we gather to worship haven’t changed over time and won’t change again. They’re changing as we speak. 

And let’s not pretend we can’t do better in each of those areas. With convert baptisms and retention of new converts running below what we would hope, and with too many of our missionaries becoming disengaged from the Church after they return, we should constantly be asking ourselves if we are sharing the gospel in the way Christ would have us do. 

Similarly, let’s not pretend the way we gather to worship on Sunday could not be more connecting and nurturing for our members. What can we do to attract even more people to flock to worship with us? And how can we help people find even more meaningful connection, spiritual nourishment, and help in meeting life’s challenges when they gather to worship with us? What can we do to prevent people from drifting away? We should be asking these questions as a people.

Jacob: It’s not uncommon to see people online say the gospel or Church is “not working for them.” For instance, they may not feel like they’ve been able to gain a testimony, repentance feels overwhelming and shaming, or the family model doesn’t feel attainable. Sometimes I worry that our response to those people is to say, “Oh, that’s not working for you? Come try this instead”rather than pointing people back to the tradition and the beautiful basicsto find the power that we know is there to find. I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on this ​potential tension and the best way to navigate it.  

Zachary: I think we have a challenge that not everyone feels entirely welcome at church or, more generally, in our faith community. It may be unintentional, but there is a real and powerful set of expectations about what a Latter-day Saint life should look like, and those who diverge from that ideal can indeed feel that the dominant church culture “doesn’t work” for them. When they attend, they may not feel that they are getting what they want out of church. 

But I’ve found that when I began to view church as a place to serve (rather than be served), as a place to give (rather than to receive), my experience transformed, and I found a much greater measure of joy. Sometimes, helping a person on the margins to continue walking the gospel path will require this kind of reframing, an adjustment of mindset or language, or a fresh way of understanding the deep sources of truth and life found in Jesus. That doesn’t have to mean a dilution of truth or covenants, but instead, a trust that a church that is true and living means that it will always be responsive to the needs of each new generation of God’s children.

About the authors

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Bill Turnbull

Bill Turnbull is one of the founders of Faith Matters foundation. He and his wife Susan are parents of six children and grandparents to twenty-four.

Zachary Davis

Zachary Davis is Executive Director of Faith Matters and Editor of Wayfare. He's also the founder of Lyceum, an educational audio studio, and the host of Ministry of Ideas, Writ Large & Making Meaning.
On Key

You Might Also Like

The Middle Ground is Disappearing

As the doctrine of the “self-centered” West becomes increasingly distinct from the doctrines of the Restored Gospel, the faithful can no longer stay in a middle ground.

AstraZeneca and Pfizer Will Save Us

After years of studying contrasting health narratives and their correspondence with actual scientific data, I can’t help but say, be wary of the medical salvation story. It’s usually too good to be true.

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter

Stay up to date on the intersection of faith in the public square.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This