This past weekend I had a very interesting experience. On Saturday, I attended the Yuma FamilySearch Center Conference in a Stake Center in Yuma, Arizona. Yuma is about three hours south of Mesa and this is the third year in a row I have attended and taught at that Conference. I taught 6 one-hour classes in a row. The very next day, I taught essentially one of the same classes to a Ward in Gilbert, Arizona during their Sunday School time of the Block. Both classes were about the same subject; FamilySearch.org's Family Tree Program. After the second day's class, I had to remark about the distinctive difference between the two classes and put down some of my thoughts.
I am going to compare the two classes I taught on the same subject. Bear in mind that in Yuma, I was teaching at a Conference where the people attending were not all members of the Church. Also in Yuma, the people who came had chosen to attend the Conference on a Saturday. They did not have any obligation to be there. In contrast, the class on Sunday was part of a regularly scheduled set of Sunday meetings we call the Block. None of the people there were there because of their prior interest in genealogy or FamilySearch or Family Tree. Both meetings were well attended. I estimate the Yuma meeting had over 100 people. The Gilbert meeting had close to 250 people. Both meetings were held in the Chapel of a Stake Center. My presentation in Yuma was very specific about the program and generated a great deal of comments and questions from the participants. In Gilbert, the presentation was mainly a PowerPoint and there were very few comments and even fewer questions. As a side note, I knew only a very, very few of the people in Yuma, maybe one or two. In contrast, I saw probably a dozen or more people in the Gilbert Ward I knew personally.
Now what were the main differences between the two classes on two different days? I assure you, the experiences were completely and dramatically different.
A first impression was that the differences between the meetings could be attributed to the voluntary vs. quasi-involuntary nature of the two groups in attendance. But I think the differences run much deeper than that. Genealogy is a touchy subject to discuss in the Church. I am in a position to talk to both those who are members of the Church and those who are not, on a one-to-one basis almost every day, day after day. When I talk to people about genealogy in a non-church setting, such as my class last week at the Maricopa County Library, I find that those in attendance are mostly very curious and have a lot of questions. They are concerned about how to proceed to find their ancestors and are very surprised at what I say and tell them. I get the exactly opposite response generally from members of the Church. When I bring up the subject of genealogy in any context, I seldom hear questions and I almost always get a change-the-subject negative reaction. There are a few notable exceptions, but they are mostly with people who are already involved in genealogy one way or another.
What was interesting to me was that this difference in attitude came across as the main contrast between the Yuma and Gilbert classes. When I am teaching, I can tell if the class members are responding to what I am saying. If they are not, I feel like I am wading through mud or talking to a brick wall. That is what I felt like with the Ward in Gilbert. I could sense the antagonism and lack of interest. This is not just a passive disinterest, but an active antagonism. As a consolation, I did have several people after the Gilbert presentation who went beyond the polite, "thanks for coming," type of response and indicated that they had learned something during the class. But, the overall feeling of the meeting was in sharp contrast to the open, interested response in Yuma.
Why is this the case? Why do members of the Church generally respond in a negative fashion to the ideas of doing family history? Was it the content and manner of my presentation? From my perspective, I was talking about the same subject in almost exactly the same way to both groups. In the case of Yuma, I felt the positive response of the audience and in Gilbert it was almost exactly opposite.
It seems to me that this attitude of Church members generally has to be addressed. I do not think it is lack of interest per se. When I address any congregation of members in almost any context where they are in a formal Church meeting, I frequently get the same negative response to genealogy. I am reminded of the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. Family History is viewed as "just another program" that will add more time and responsibilities and has no clear benefits. It is like repeated pleas to "do your home teaching and visiting teaching." Everyone in the Church "knows" that they have this responsibility, but they have no idea how they are going to add this "new" program into their already busy and distracted lives. They see people like me who are involved on a regular basis and they see that as a threat. It is an entirely cultural and not a religious response. They see genealogy as a threat to replace something they already are doing and value as a positive activity with an activity they find boring and uninteresting.
In any event, the issue is real. There is a distinct negative response to Family History or genealogy or whatever you want to call it from members. Perhaps as I write about this subject, I can come up with some positive suggestions to alleviate this antagonism? I certainly hope so.