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We lose many young people from inactivity

December 3, 2010

I’m probably still banned over there, but Keepapitchinin had a really neat article on a section from the 1961 teacher training manual in the church. It was about the number of young people who were inactive in the church, and of the role of teachers in reaching out to them (that wasn’t being met). In the past, to estimate inactivity, I have mentioned using analytical procedures like comparing looking at Aaronic Priesthood holders over 21 (who therefore never received the Melchizedek)…but what was interesting was realizing that those metrics have been used for quite a while…with shocking results.

To an extent, I agree with Ardis:

The reasons why young people leave church — or The Church — may evolve to some degree. But even without current statistics to precisely measure the leave-takers, even without polls and surveys to find out why young people leave (or why, at least, they say they leave), it seems too easy, too trendy, to place undue responsibility on the internet, or on LGBT issues and other assumed 21st-century tensions. No doubt those are factors in individual cases. But the people who leave because they found “all the history they were never taught” are represented by those who left when they found philosophy or science at college in the 1950s; those who leave because they differ with the Church on Prop 8 are represented by those who left over Civil Rights issues in the ’60s or ERA in the ’70s. And there are always those who, like those spoken of in the 1961 manual, were not visited, were not helped by their brothers in the Church earlier in their lives, and simply drifted into inactivity.

I don’t know whether or not the comparisons (e.g., Prop 8 leavers now align with one with Civil Rights or ERA leavers) listed are one-to-one, BUT one thing I will say is I think many ex-mormons overestimate the role of the internet, of discovering history, etc.,

I mean, I just don’t think most teenagers are looking at that stuff. I think the blogging exmo population is very different demographically than probably the majority of people who become inactive (or are considered to have left the church).

That doesn’t mean I think that “laziness” and “desire to sin” necessarily provide the full story either. Rather, I’ve grown fonder of explanations like the fact that the church isn’t as compelling to teenagers. Maybe these teens are not lazy, but bored?

Obviously, faithful members who blog are probably just as non-representative as ex-members who blog, but the thing that I’ve really noticed is that these people are able to find something compelling from the church through other things than the 3-hour block. Seth R recently wrote his brief history (testimony???) at MSP, and what he wrote was interesting:

I absolutely love Mormon theology. I find people like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be absolutely fascinating and powerfully compelling men. A lot of the heroes people pick are honestly so freaking boring. Bland, milquetoast wallflowers who don’t have enough charisma to even suggest anything meaningful. I used to kind of subconsciously feel this way about LDS heroes.

Until I actually studied their lives. Wow… I just find it absolutely delicious that God would manifest himself through men so controversial. This is not the “safe” religion I learned in seminary. This is powerful, potent, mind-bending stuff. I think it has the potential to change the way humanity thinks from here on out through the ages. And I get to be in on it – on the ground level. It’s an absolute privilege for me to be a part of this religion, and I can’t wait to see how it shapes up.

Rather than the common refrain, “If they only knew x, they would leave…” for him, the controversy made the church appear in a completely different (far more intriguing) light. Boring, bland, and milquetoast are bad for Seth, as I imagine they are for many of the people who drift into inactivity. The only problem is…there is no doubt that not everyone will react as Seth does.

So the question is: how does the church present itself as offering powerful, potent, mind-bending stuff without chasing people away?


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  1. So the question is: how does the church present itself as offering powerful, potent, mind-bending stuff without chasing people away?

    It doesn’t. It can’t. And it won’t. At least not without a major re-invention of itself.

    The narrative that must always be maintained is that of “the church is true and its leaders can be fully trusted to convey God’s will.” Those “troubling facts” in Mormon history cannot be fully disclosed in a way that supports and maintains that narrative. Hence official church rhetoric and materials will always downplay them, dismiss them, avoid them or outright contradict them.

    Seth is an outlier. Most Mormons who are confronted with these facts do not react in awe at how God would manifest himself through such “controversial” men. They deny the validity of said facts, express apathy over the significance of those facts (even Seth does this much), or they start down the road of realizing that the facts contradict the “church is true” narrative. There’s also the extreme history buffs like Ardis who make little attempt at reconciling the two narratives and merely assert the truthfulness of both, that all of these flaws and foibles happened, but the church is still “true.” (I don’t know the ins and outs of Ardis’s theological take on controversial areas of Mormon history, btw; that’s just my preliminary assessment after reading the testimony post she put up a few days ago.)

    Most non-members who learn the ins and outs of Mormon history beforehand will never join the church, and members who learn about this history stand a chance of defecting. The church knows this, hence the church’s present treatment of these issues in its official literature.

    Some aspects of the church’s history that were once covered up can be told in a way that maintains the key narrative, and those things will be brought forth. But you aren’t getting a Sunday School lesson on Helen Mar Kimball’s testimony of and experience with plural marriage any time soon.

  2. And besides the LDS-specific challenges, I’d guess that “the church” has become less compelling to Mormon teenagers because religious affiliation generally has become much less important to their peers. Back in the 60s – the time period Ardis references in her post – the percentage of unaffiliated kids would’ve been around 5%, whereas now it’s around 30%. Nothing new under the sun? What about the rise of the ‘nones’?

  3. “So the question is: how does the church present itself as offering powerful, potent, mind-bending stuff without chasing people away?”

    I don’t think it can without losing the active LDS parents. While youth don’t want boring heroes…the active LDS parents would rather thier children have a hero that is noncontroversial. the active LDS parent wants their adolescent to survive “adolescence” without having their kid make the same choices as their controversial hero (i.e. stay safely in the box). I personally would rather not have my kid decide to live polygamy on the sly. Its a normal human parental trait to want to protect your kids from things the parent views as harmful…but then again not many kids who idolize Alma cut off arms.

  4. I think the church has basically painted itself into a corner. It has worked so long and hard on presenting latter-day prophets in hagiographic terms — to making them out to be perfect people — that it can’t easily make a shift towards humanizing them.

    The church can sort of talk about the weird stuff that Moses or Jonah did (yet they were prophets anyway), but talking about the weird stuff that Joseph and Brigham did? They have no way of doing that. Not after a century and half of hagiography.

    But of course, none of us seems to know right now why people are actually leaving, nor if it really has to do with much of anything besides our society’s generally increasing secularization. This lack of data is frustrating.

  5. Mike S permalink


    I agree with your assertion that the majority of people are NOT leaving the Church because of things they found on the internet. But I would split this into 2 parts:

    1) People leaving the LDS church. I think that people have left the church and still do leave the church because it is not a great fit for them. This may be social, where they don’t fit into a ward. This may be behavioral, where the nit-picking little rules bother them. This may be testimonial, where they can’t say they “know” like everyone else around them, either about the church itself or God in general. Or it may simply be that they have thought long and hard about it and feel that God/karma/life perhaps has a different path for them.

    I think that people have always had these reasons, hence the quotes that Ardis posted. Now, however, I think the internet probably both helps AND hurts. For some people, finding out history might be something that drives them out. For others, however, it has probably been a support. Some people may not feel comfortably with the lily-white TBM version of the church presented today but through finding online communities where there are others who agree, perhaps they have found coping mechanisms to remain true to who they are yet still be active. So maybe a wash.

    2) Converts: This is where I see a much bigger impact. People won’t buy a car or even a TV without researching information about it, so expecting that they would do something as significant as change religion without looking things up online is crazy. This is where I think the internet is a net negative.

    Granted, there are videos of skateboarder Mormons, etc. online, but there are similar positive messages about every religion. They may show that there are relatively normal people who choose to be Mormon, but that’s not very compelling. There are the same things in other religions, testimonies for other religions, etc.

    But I do think there are “red flags” that people run into when researching Mormonism online. As an example, regardless of people talking about how Scientology has changed their lives for the better, I will probably never be able to give Scientology a balanced investigation because of all of the crazy things I have heard about them. I would argue that it is similar with Mormonism.

    So, overall, I don’t know that people are “leaving” the Church because of the internet per se. Activity rates seem similar to historical rates in many ways. But I do think that the internet has decreased the number of people “joining” the Church significantly. As a percentage of membership, the number of converts has decreased roughly 50% over the past 10-15 years. That is A LOT, regardless of how anyone wants to spin it.

  6. But so many of them come back with a vengeance, like me.

  7. Screaming Nephite,

    I’m not sure whose loss that ultimately is.

  8. I agree with Mike. The Internet has got to be a killer to the missionary program, especially abroad.

    Foreigners join the Church in part because they embrace the positive American stereotype: freedom, progress, and opportunity.

    The Church is not exactly a progressive organization.

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