Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Do So Many Young People Leave the LDS Church?

I don’t mean to dismiss the central question of the post title in any way, since retention of single youth (16-30) is a serious issues in the Church (70% inactivity among young men prior to missions is a pretty good estimate), but just a few things to consider for historical context: 

1) This has been a serious issue since the beginning of time – and has relatively little to do with the apparent “righteousness” of the parents. IF we take the scriptures literally, Heavenly Father lost 33% of his youngsters – and Lehi lost 50% of his kids who weren’t born in isolation – and Israel never could keep those darned rising generations in line – and Alma’s and Mosiah’s sons were radical sinners for a time – and pretty much every generation who lived a near-Zion state lost it to a new generation – and the activity rate overall in the Church was far worse a hundred years ago than it is now – and the same issue is worse in most Christian churches now than in the LDS Church.

2) Those who leave home tend to stretch and test the boundaries anyway – and those who go to college where there is not a church within easy walking distance or an active, engaging Institute program slip into inactivity almost naturally.

3) It’s hard to gain a truly personal testimony while remaining in the presence of one’s parents and childhood leaders – and our pre-mortal life narrative acknowledges that fully. Thus, it’s rare that a young person really has a rock solid, personal testimony. That kind of faith needs to be grown and gained on one’s own – at the very time when the challenges are the greatest.

4) Most of the “issues” everyone mentions simply are the vehicles our current youth drive on their way out the door. Other times had other vehicles.

I don’t have any easy answers – but my main suggestion would be to give our youth the responsibilities and power they are supposed to have within the YM & YW programs. See them and treat them as young MEN and WOMEN from the age of 12 – which really doesn’t happen very much, in my experience. Our society has infanticized the teenage years to a shocking degree – and we buy into it too much, despite (not because of) the Church.


Richard said...

It is happening across the board. If you talked to my youth pastor friend at a Pentecostal church, they are worried about the same thing. The United Methodist Church is scrambling for the last three years trying to reclaim their lost youth. I guess this would speak to a larger cultural and spiritual dilemma. To a lesser degree, adults are leaving church too. Most churches don't have a net gain in attendence...they have a loss.

Anonymous said...

Good post, challenging. I suspect, as you suggest, there are as many reasons why young people leave as there are young people who leave. One thing, however, has caught my attention lately. Young people today find it increasingly difficult to say over and over that ours is the only true church. It's not that they don't accept that as a matter of faith, just that we do not need to keep saying it over and over. They want to be respected and accepted by their peers for who they are, they want to reach out to their nonmember friends and admire them for their particular faith, but find this insistence on saying ours is the only true church rather offputting.

Paul said...

I was fortunate as a young man to have a bishop who took your suggestion to heart -- he gave real planning and execution responsibility to the young men and young women rather than their leaders, and I grew because of it.

I remember sitting in a stake PH leadership meeting a decade ago. We were talking bout the drop-off from deacon to priest. The member of our stake presidency in our session was about 75 years old at the time and he said that things hadn't changed much since he was a young man growing up in SLC.

ji said...

Yes! Our young men and women need real experiences with adults, and meaningful experiences in serving and planning during their adolescence.

Mutual must be meaningful. A tenure as a teacher quorum president or a laurels class president must be meaningful. Otherwise, it's just babysitting.

Every ward and branch in the church has to figure this out for itself, over and over again.

Papa D said...

Richard, that understanding is a big part of why I can be relatively calm when talking about this issue. I know it's not unique in any way to the LDS Church.

Anonymous, I also think that phrase is very difficult - not because I don't believe it, but because I interpret it very differently than many young kids are taught. I know quite a few faithful, dedicated adults who struggle with that phrase - and most of them have strong testimonies of the Restored Gospel.

Paul, dedicated Bishops who undertand and a blessing - and the inactivity rate from many decades ago was higher across the board than it is now.

ji, Amen.

Richard said...

It is something close to my heart and in my head as my son has been inactive since his ordination as a teacher. He still relates to being a Mormon but not to church. I have no answer but the disconnect between his identity as a baptized member of the church and his not wanting to associate with going to church is interesting.

Paul said...

Richard, this is no theoretical construct for me, either -- my three oldest sons have each left the church, and each around age 16. Son #4 (child #6) is now 16 and teeters at the brink.

I also teetered a bit, but I had had enough personal spiritual experiences to keep me from leaping away.

I wish I knew the secret answers...

Anonymous said...

Youth can definitely use more authentic and worthwhile opportunities to serve. However, is it possible the the Church simply doesn't meet their needs in a meaningful way? One other thought--I believe this Digital/Internet Revolution we are going through is completely transforming societies, and perhaps the way that religion must evolve. When historians look back 300 years from now, they will label our current time as a revolutionary era on the scale of the Iron Age, or the Industrial Revolution.

Mike S said...

This is a real problem and I don't have a great answer.

I do think that as a Church, we need to at least meet the youth partway. It seems our natural reaction to this is to make things more strict and worry about even more minutiae (ie. whether an unendowed girls's shoulders are covered, etc.)

Perhaps instead of making things more authoritarian, we should pull back and stop worrying about non-essential things. Teach basic and fundamental principles and let them develop their own identities.

I don't know if that's the answer, but it seems the current approach isn't working too well.

Papa D said...

Thanks, everyone, for the input.

One more thing that I did't mention in the post:

By the time most teenagers reach Seminary age, they've heard the same topics and basic lessons multiple times - and, too often, Sunday School and Sacrament Meeting are repeats of stuff they know by heart. They tend not to be challenged to think deeply about things - and that leades to a lack of perceived and/or real spiritual, theological growth.

I teach the oldest youth Sunday School class in my ward, and my Bishop said when I was called that the students have learned the mechanics of flying a plane and now they need to learn to be pilots of their own planes.

Paul said...

I had an awesome teacher when I was in that age. She was a return missionary who had been recently divorced (almost unheard of in the 1970s in our part of the world), and she taught a challenging and somewhat free-wheeling class (very faithful, but challenging). You've got a smart bishop.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou Paul, I'm sure you know how comforting it is to realise that others have been there before us.

My daughter married an atheist last month in the anglican church. Go figure. I'm a little astounded at how difficult I have found this, where is my inner liberal when I need her?

For her, it was a combination of factors, not least that returned missionaries without education found it difficult to deal with her achievements, they were intimidated. She in turn rejected the 'meat market' of having to compete with girls who's major interest was their grooming, which was socially isolating for her as someone who's interests were a little broader.

We also found that seminary created winners and losers-in our area kids have to rise at 5.30 am in order to make seminary before school, and if you don't attend you are percieved as being less active. The days were just too long for someone also interested in accomplishing other things. Add in a heavy handed Bishop and a young womens group made up of the 'ruling' family and relations ,and you have the perfect storm.

Sadly she finds no peace in leaving the church behind.

I'd like to see weekly seminary lessons during Sunday meetings, and more flexibility about home study or parent taught seminary. Obviously I'd like her social experience to have been different but there's no accounting for folk. You just don't understand that when you're a teenager and then the mistakes are made. In their defence several members came to her wedding which she had on a Sunday. We all do our best, but I think with seminary the best has become the enemy of the good.