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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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13 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Amen to all of that, Caroline! Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece.

  2. Ziff says:

    This is excellent, Caroline. Point #1 in your list particularly strikes me because I was just discussing this issue with a friend. I think many GAs, along with lots of other American Mormons, have a hard time separating their politics from their religion in their rhetoric because in they’ve never done so in their heads. It’s just all the good things from God and GOP mixed together and it’s all one great whole. You would think that a person as egregiously awful and thoroughly anti-Jesus as Trump would help American Mormons in finally engaging in this separation, but at least in my observation, he’s helped much less than I would have expected.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, I think you’re right, Ziff. At the conference, David Campbell talked about the church using terms like “religious liberty” that now have a distinctly conservative undertone since GOP people use it so much (i.e. liberty for religions to discriminate against gay people). That would be one of many discourses church leaders could be much more careful about adopting wholesale. But like you say, it’s probably hard for many to even see that those phrases now have those political undertones and usages that are often offputting to progressives.

  3. Chiaroscuro says:

    I loved Jana’s new book. Great research on such an important topic

  4. Patty Johnson says:

    I followed the link to Elder Gay’s talk. What a wonderful message! Thanks.

  5. Stacy says:

    I think that 70-80% is really, really sketchy as far as Gen X is concerned–at least, it would highly depend on location. In the cohort of kids I grew up with alone, I’d say my local ward retained *maybe* 15% of all the kids that were born into/grew up in the church from 1975-1992. Maybe.

    And maybe that’s balanced out by 95% retention in Provo, who knows. But my experience in many places outside Utah says that even Gen X wasn’t really sticking around that much.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, I hear you. I need to look up the numbers and dates to be sure, but I think the 70 to 80% would best apply to kids coming of age in the 50s and 60s and before. And you’re right that it would vary mightily depending on location.

  6. DT says:

    As a Canadian, it was hard to hear the rhetoric that the Church put out about the ERA. American politics bleeds across the border, but I don’t want to have it in my church. The Church is either neutral or it is not. The pat answer about politically neutrality should not be trotted out only when there is a public outcry.

    It is painful to hear about all the new policy changes without any explanation and acknowledgement of the pain that was caused by illogical procedures that were maintained as gospel truth. That is why we are still leaving. I agree that the fallibility of leaders should be confessed more often. You can’t crush me when I disagree and fight back, but expect me to rejoice because God apparently changed His mind about policies that weren’t Christ-like to begin with!

    • Caroline says:

      DT, as you expressed, a lot of people have such mixed feelings about these policy changes. On the one hand, it’s great they’ve changed. But on the other, it would have been such a terrific opportunity to acknowledge fallible humanity and that those old policies don’t reflect God’s hope and vision for humanity. An apology would have been amazing. But doing so, would, in church leaders’ minds, damage their prophetic authority. So we get these changes with no apologies or regret for the pain they’ve caused. Very sad to see these missed opportunities to model humility and repentance.

    • I think you hit the nail right on the head. The Church is quick to make policy changes not when its own members suffer, but when PR begins to get ugly. The arbitrary decision-making with the “I’m never wrong!” attitude is tiring and the lack of explanation/apology makes it very clear the changes are only motivated by concern for public image, not for the well-being of members.

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