Here's (more or less) how I responded: God made the earth as a place for us to learn and to be tested -- and it's happening everywhere! People out in the middle of the jungle are learning tons of things that God intended for them to learn while here on the earth -- all the "grade-school" stuff.
Those attending other churches get the next level of education; they learn a great deal of truth from the Bible and elsewhere, however they are missing some of the core doctrines that are essential to making the most of this life. Instead of a Thanksgiving feast, they get a few carrots and some gravy -- which is still good...
In that sense, then, the LDS church is God's university here on earth, where we get the best classes, lessons, and homework for what He wants us to become. It really is.
That's about as far as I got with the person. I get the feeling sometimes that folks at work who know I'm LDS end up feeling a mix of pity and vague concern for me -- as if I'd been duped into it and now I sacrifice time and money and effort for a vain cause, and they somehow wish they could think of the logic to gently offer to get me out of all of it. But nothing could be farther from the truth! Just like any good university program, it's not easy, but at stopping points along the way you realize how much you've learned and how far you've come. Not duped, I have my own proof!
The courses can be hard, but I never doubted they were worth the effort. Here are a few example of "courses", and some of the benefits I've seen from having taken them:
- Public speaking -- being asked to give periodic talks in Sacrament Meeting and give lessons in classes means I don't get nearly so nervous when addressing large groups anymore
- Human interaction -- having to talk to total strangers every day for 2 years on my mission, and then often with hometeaching and elders quorum callings means that I don't get nearly so nervous when meeting new people either
- Management -- be active in the church and it won't be long before you have a leadership calling; there you get lots of training and practice managing and leading people -- the key word there is "practice", which people (including me) seem to need a lot of before they're worth anything as managers or leaders
- Foreign language -- spend 2 years in Ecuador among the people and you're bound to learn Spanish
- Tithing -- paying 10% of your gross income to the church to many sounds crazy; it does force you to be careful with your money, but even more important is that it invokes blessings from heaven that pretty much every tithing-paying member in the church will attest to
- Relationships -- we interact a lot with other members of the church; we get called into callings that put us in situations where we have to learn to get along with people who are different from us, which is always a growth opportunity; also, at work I mostly only know engineers, but from church I have good friends who are mechanics, doctors, lawyers, welders, managers, and pretty much anything you can think of; we all help each other out, which is really a wonderful blessing for us
- Personal revelation -- I won't say much about this except that we believe that members are entitled to personal revelation through the Holy Ghost, which means that we have a direct connection to a source of absolute truth that can fill in the blanks in our understanding of the gospel that no earthly teacher could -- I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world
- (and very timely, since it's going on this weekend) General Conference -- 10 hours every six months where we get to learn directly from the seventy, 12 apostles and the prophet. These aren't paid preachers or professional showmen -- these are guys from 60 to 100 years old who remind you of the super-loving grandpa you may not have had. They are perfectly lucid and "bright" and sharp, delivering gentle and powerful lessons and discourses from the scriptures and their own lives. Of all the people I've met or known or read about, these are the best individuals I know of: healthy, devoted, sincere, powerful, loving, gentle, wise, complete. These broadcasts are priceless.
If only I had time and occasion to explain all that to the folks with the pity.