Millennials Leaving the Church
The other day I heard that a young man from my ward, Benjamin, now in his fourth year of college, is planning to find a new church. He’s looking for a liberal Christian congregation. The reason he’s looking for a new church: he has deep and abiding problems with the LDS church’s stance on LGBTQ issues.
Benjamin is one of the tens of thousands of young people the church is losing in the U.S. At a recent conference at Claremont Graduate University, Jana Riess, author of The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church, told us that the church is only retaining 30% of its unmarried millennials in the U.S. It retains 60% of its married millennials. Because the numbers of married and unmarried are roughly equivalent, that means that the church is retaining about 45% of its young people in the U.S.
This number is a staggering change from generations past when the church was retaining 70 or 80% or more of its young people.* But as we learned at the conference, this change mirrors the trajectory of young people in many other religions, who are also choosing to distance themselves from the traditions in which they were raised. Interestingly, most of the people our church loses become secular instead of turning to other religions.
What can be done to staunch this flow? Scholars** as well as a panel of LDS millennials at the conference mentioned several possibilities and here I’ll list just a few:
- Make a clear separation between conservative politics and the LDS church. Too often the church has adopted language which mirrors that of conservative Republicans. Showing that there is distance between the church and the Republican party would be a signal to millennials, often more progressive than their parents, that they have a place in the church. For instance, issuing a proclamation on welcoming the stranger, about our welcoming stance toward refugees and immigrants, could help.
- Jana Riess found that a top reason women left the church was because they felt like they were judged at church. As another scholar pointed out, we need to rethink some practices which might be viewed as “rituals of degradation,” practices meant to shame people into certain orthodox behaviors.
- Our leaders should show more vulnerability. Millennials sometimes have a hard time connecting with leaders who almost never admit to mistakes, weakness, doubt, regret, and struggles. Millennials would like to see the more human side of our leaders and moreover, many would like to see the church apologize for problematic past policies and teachings (i.e. priesthood and temple ban).
This last point about vulnerability brings to mind the important work of Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, who recently tragically died. Rachel Held Evans, as Jana Riess explains, captured the imagination and the hearts of millions of Christians as she called her evangelical tradition to do better and be better, to be more expansive and open and welcoming and vulnerable. Elder Gay in the October conference was an exceptional example of this, as he talked about spending most of his life judging his sister for her inactivity in the church and other problems in her life. However, on her death bed, Elder Gay had a come to Jesus moment in which he realized all the ways he shortchanged his sister in his own mind, how he had been blind to her many fantastic qualities and actions. Perhaps talks like this can begin the process of shifting our LDS leaders’ messages toward a discourse that resonates with our younger people.
*the conference focused on millennials in the United States. No doubt these numbers, issues, etc. will differ for Mormons in different parts of the world.
**some of the scholars that talked about these ideas are Jana Riess, John Bartkowski, and David Campbell