Sacrifice and retention: An unsolvable dilemma?

May 1, 2012 | 67 comments
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In Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith taught that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation” (Lecture 6, verse 7). The Church’s dramatic history demonstrates that this call to sacrifice was not mere rhetoric. Extolling the endurance of the pioneers is part of Mormon tradition. In talks and lessons members are repeatedly reminded of commandments and duties. The Mormon system of small congregations with numerous callings and meetings invites one to be fully committed in order to be in “good standing.” The temple recommend interview checks on compliance with commandments such as attendance, Word of Wisdom, and tithing. Our thousands of missionaries exemplify this spirit of total dedication. The call to “sacrifice” through service on various fronts is a regular theme in General Conference talks. The Church thus maintains its status as a “high-tension religious organization” which, according to Finke and Stark (2005), makes members value their membership more than in low-tension, mainline churches. Furthermore, this tension with the “evil” outside world is said to ensure a religion’s vitality.

However, to continue in the market economy terms of Finke and Stark, this approach comes at a high price, i.e. the loss of the majority of the members to inactivity—a fact that Finke and Stark overlook. The theory that more demanding sects do better holds, but, ironically, only for a fraction of the membership. The “costs” of our Church demands are indeed one of the main causes of dropping out. “Inactive” members constitute the majority of Mormons. The Church still counts them as members and cares for them: retention and reactivation are core terms in Church programs. According to ldschurchgrowth, the rate of inactivity in foreign countries hovers around 78%, meaning about 4 out of 5 members are inactive. This ratio of members who step away from participation is not new in the mission field. In 1928, Apostle John A. Widtsoe, then president of the European mission, wrote that probably fewer than a quarter of the members were active (letter to Heber J. Grant, cited in Euvrard 2008:210).That ratio is comparable in other parts of the world outside the United States (Gooren 2007; Knowlton 2005; Numano 2006).

One of the reasons why activity rates are higher in the U.S. is explained by a difference in “costs.” Of course, not all area’s in the U.S. are similar: the Mormon Intermountain West certainly helps push the American averages. But, generally speaking, for most members in foreign countries, to be a faithful Mormon is more demanding. Mauss (2008) compared the costs for European Mormons to the average situation in the United States: more severe familial breaches over conversion, more conflicts within part-member families, cultural tensions over Sunday observance, more distances to cover, more callings to fulfill, and often paying non-deductible tithing on already tax-laden family budgets. As more members drop out, those who remain must care for a soaring ratio of inactives, multiplying the burden. One could add the strain of functioning in immature units, sometimes plagued by discord, or the pressure to participate in missionary work when one struggles with one’s own membership. All of this, moreover, in the framework of frequent legal discrimination and stigmatization in the media of belonging to a cult, and facing such hurdles much alone. Though a number of members thrive in this setting to form the core of the stalwarts—with their shining stories published in Church magazines—, the majority is pushed over the edge of viability.

Another difference between the international church and the U.S., again in particular the Mormon Intermountain West, is that in the latter case inactivity can exist in grades. As part of a cultural and historical heritage, “jack Mormons,” often stemming from pioneer stock, usually remain included in the Mormon-ethnic community. They may still attend church for a family event, or may even return to activity later (Cope 2009; Phillips 2001). Also, through publications, interviews, and blogs, “marginal” American Mormons now try to claim their place in a more diverse Mormonism. Elsewhere, however, nearly all “inactive” members are really and permanently “out,” as analysis confirms (Decoo 1996; Euvrard 2008; van Beek 2009). Our main concern here is membership in that international perspective.

The rhetoric of sacrifice is meant to inspire members to remain faithful. But for people already sacrificing much in terms of “normal” membership, and often being at the brink of burnout, to give them the impression they need to do even more, may not be helpful. There is a risk that such rhetoric becomes counterproductive. Viability is about being happy in the Church—not merely enduring out of duty. Yet this issue is complex. Foremost is the extent of the internalization of the gospel: Are people at peace with themselves, spiritually, morally, emotionally? When external criteria (like attendance at all meetings, percentage of monthly home teaching visits, etc.) tend to dominate or replace internalization, something essential may be endangered. Next, to what extent can Church activity be tailored according to individual needs and possibilities? For members who cherish socialization and involvement, a high amount of Church activity is not a burden. But others drop out when activity demands become difficult or impossible to meet. Another question in the international perspective pertains to the inclusion of local traditions in order to reduce cultural alienation and maintain bridges with non-Mormon family members. Quite problematic in that respect is the acceptance of some leniency in commandments like tithing, the Word or Wisdom, and Sabbath observance. These commandments are, overall, easier to follow in a Mormon environment where the whole society contributes to their normality. They become stumbling blocks in countries where people pay high taxes and tithing is non-deductible, where the sharing of coffee or tea, a welcome drink, or a toast have important social functions, and where Sunday family visits and Sunday recreation are ingrained in the culture to make the Sabbath a true “day of rest.” The present, worldwide, one-fit-for-all expectations do not allow for a “big tent” Mormonism where divergent profiles can feel at ease. The stark separation between “all or nothing” contributes to making people inactive. This discussion is not new, but the internationalization of the Church and its massive problem of retention make the issue as acute as ever.

Viability can be negatively seen as easification, which thereby counters the Mormon concept of commitment and sacrifice. But easification does not necessarily exclude sacrifice: with the right balance and tone, it could make the requirements strengthening rather than unbearable. It should help members stay in the realm of the Church and feel accepted without the sense of guilt that drives them out. There seem to be many Mormons around the world who would like to keep their Mormon identity and continue to participate in viable ways, but with less stringent constraints on items that, one could argue, have little moral implications.

It is, of course, unrealistic to think that such leniency will ever come. Moreover, in the international Church, local stakes and wards are being increasingly led by a second or third generation of church members, raised in a realm of sacrifice and service. These are often also returned missionaries who have been trained to be committed and who are exacting in what they demand of others and themselves. Most are eager to please their superiors by strict compliance and the unwavering application of rules. Often they seem not the ones who, by nature, reach out with compassion and understanding to those who struggle and leave. For them, indeed, the core message of the Gospel is one of obedience to revealed commandments. They can refer to plenty of Scriptures to vindicate that strict partition between the steadfast and the weak. Any indulgence in a welcoming gray zone, if at all allowed, would also be difficult to accept by those who have been keeping the commandments meticulously and count on that conformity for their ultimate reward.

How to conclude? To a probably great extent, our system itself contributes to the inactivity of many members, though, of course, the ultimate decision to leave is always the individual’s choice. But as Church leaders worry about poor retention and would like to reverse the trend, they seem to face an unsolvable dilemma, at least as it pertains to the issues discussed here.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated. Let’s, however, avoid a discussion of who carries more membership costs in which area in the world, or how taxes and tithing are calculated in the one or other country. The essential question is how to improve retention within or against the framework of sacrifice. How to be welcoming and tolerant without undermining obedience. How to keep the weaker links in the chain and still remain a “high-tension religion.”

References

Cope, M. R. (2009). You don’t know Jack: The dynamics of Mormon religious/ethnic identity. Thesis. Provo, Utah: Department of Sociology, Brigham Young University.

Decoo, W. (1996). Feeding the fleeing flock: Reflections on the struggle to retain Church members in Europe. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 29(1), 97–118.

Euvrard, C. (2008). Socio-Histoire du Mormonisme en France – Thèse de doctorat. Paris: École Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

Finke, R., & Stark, R. (2005). The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and losers in our religious economy. Chapel Hill, NC: Rutgers University Press.

Gooren, H. (2007). Latter-day Saints under siege: The unique experience of Nicaraguan Mormons. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 40(3), 134–155.

Knowlton, D. C. (2005). How many members are there really? Two censuses and the meaning of LDS membership in Chile and Mexico. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 38(2), 53–78.

Mauss, A. L. (2008). Can there be a “second harvest”? : Controlling the costs of Latter-day Saint membership in Europe. International Journal of Mormon Studies, 1, 1–59.

Numano, J. (2006). Perseverance amid paradox: The struggle of the LDS Church in Japan today. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 39(4), 138–155.

Phillips, R. D. (2001). Saints in Zion, Saints in Babylon: Religious pluralism and the transformation of American Mormonism. Dissertation. New Brunswick: The State University of New Jersey.

van Beek, W. E. (2009, June 19-20). Mormonism, a global counter-church? (Part ii and iii) . Retrieved June 21, 2009, from By Common Consent: http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/06/19/part-ii/

67 Responses to Sacrifice and retention: An unsolvable dilemma?

  1. nate on May 1, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Great questions. I think this is a concern that probably transcends all dispensations and all religions. Jesus said we have to leave the 99 and go after the one who is lost. But Jesus also said sell all you have and follow me. Does this mean that we bring the lost sheep back to the fold, and then ask of them unbearable sacrifices? Apparently. A great contradiction, an unsolvable dilemma.

    Is it possible to avoid coercive and guilt-laden language regarding sacrifice and focus more on “teaching correct principles,” and letting the members decide the level of sacrifice they want to give according to their own free will and their personal relationship with the Lord?

  2. Cynthia L. on May 1, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Great take on this issue, which has been one I’ve been ruminating on very much lately. Not to get on a tangent, but this was a theme that I found very interesting in Joanna Brooks’ memoir. It’s a tough problem.

  3. whizzbang on May 1, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    I think discipleship is personalized as we learn from two examples in the New Testament-while discipleship is required of everyone the how varies. Remember the example of a certain Ruler in Luke 18 and how Jesus told him to “sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). And yet in Luke 19 Jesus applauded Zaccheus for “And Zacchæus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:8-9). So one was required to sell everything yet the other wasn’t. I tie that into Elder Perry’s advice to build on the strength of the ward and not what others are doing, or Pres. Uchtdorf’s “lift where you stand” idea. What can you do and not what others are doing.My 2 cents

  4. Howard on May 1, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    I don’t think sacrifice vs. retention is an unsolvable dilemma. No sacrifice equals watching church on TV or a drop in church. Nearly total sacrifice equals a disciple, a student to be mentored by someone who knows perhaps even by Christ himself. Sacrifice should be placed on a voluntary sliding scale with no negative stigma attached to your choice in level of participation, but quiet positive personal reinforcement and encouragement provided to those who choose to move up.

  5. Amira on May 2, 2012 at 1:48 am

    It’s obvious that members outside the US aren’t getting enough benefit out of church membership to make up for the sacrifices. I wish, as other have mentioned, that we did a better job of accepting everyone even with their seemingly greater or lesser sacrifice or participation.

    I also think sacrifices are much easier to deal with when you have a community you can rely on and trust for support- for example, like the pioneers had. I think there is a significant amount we could do to create stronger church communities that still allow for local interpretation, and that encourage members in their many obligations, both inside and outside the church.

  6. Tim on May 2, 2012 at 7:03 am

    I think part of the problem with inactivity rates is due to the kind of people missionaries find and bring with them to church. Many of these investigators are indeed fantastic people, and make great members. Too many quality new members fall away because of lack of support.

    But many new members aren’t at the point where prolonged activity–along with abstinence, following the word of wisdom, etc.–is going to happen. Missionaries are often too quick to baptize. The missionaries then leave, and the active members are then stuck with trying to reactivate someone who was perhaps not quite ready to be baptized in the first place. They typically remain on the membership list for the rest of their lives, no matter how short their period of activity was.

    I’ve been on both sides of the equation–as a missionary, knowing that an investigator with an enormous list of problems probably wouldn’t last two weeks without another smoke, but being pressured by everyone from my companion to the Mission President to get her baptized–and as a member working with missionaries, seeing the same sort of thing.

    Perhaps a longer period of living the commandments and attending church prior to being baptized would be in order. Baptism rates would drop, but retention rates would skyrocket.

  7. Jax on May 2, 2012 at 7:08 am

    There is a risk that such rhetoric becomes counterproductive. Viability is about being happy in the Church—

    I liked the post but don’t think that our call to sacrifice can be labeled “rhetoric”. I think it is meant to be an active component of our discipleship that leads to our being happy in the church.

  8. Wilfried on May 2, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Thank you for comments thus far, all. Each of you clarifies the dilemma from various angles, with an emphasis on understanding and tolerance, while recognizing the obligations that our Church membership implies. Indeed, Nate (1) and whizzbang (3), the Scriptures themselves illustrate the contradiction of the dilemma.
    Cynthia L. (2), yes, indeed, people like Joanna Brooks bring the same matter to our attention from their angle.
    Howard (4), well said: “Sacrifice should be placed on a voluntary sliding scale with no negative stigma attached to your choice in level of participation”.
    Amira (5), you’re certainly right to emphasize the function of the community, as Mormon communities are still widely different in various parts of the world.
    Tim (6) points at the problem of the kinds of converts missionaries bring into the Church: indeed, the weaker ones are often not ready for what the Church expects from them, so the quandary seems: should we postpone baptism until they are ready, or be more patient and tolerant with them once they are (too quickly) baptized so that they continue to feel welcome, in spite of obvious weaknesses?
    Jax (7), yes, you are right. I apologize. The term “rhetoric” could be understood here as disparaging the concept of sacrifice. That was not the purpose. As I pointed out in the first paragraph, sacrifice is very much part of the essence of Mormonism. “Rhetoric” here only refers to the way the message can come across.

  9. jane on May 2, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I have a good friend who was faced with two major crises in her immediate family in a short time. She had been serving in a leadership position, but when faced with these two overwhelming challenges, she stopped coming to church. In our conversation one day, she mentioned that she would love to be able to come to Sacrament Meeting sometimes and drink in the gospel, and feel the comfort of the spirit. But she couldn’t deal with the full level of involvement that was expected of her, including taking on a calling. So she chose to stay away altogether.

    Some time soon after that, I was in Ward Council, and the topic of re-activation came up. I alluded to her story (without naming names), and suggested that we allow members to participate at the level they can handle. But the people in the meeting with me insisted that true conversion means full involvement, and that with sacrifice come blessings. I felt like the members of ward council were all dealing with demanding callings, and were asked to make sacrifices to do so. And if they had to, why shouldn’t everybody else buck up to their responsibilities, too? It felt a little bit like the laborer’s in the vineyard complaining that others were getting paid just as much for doing less work – no fair!! Either a high level of sacrifice is actually needed for salvation, or it’s not. And if it were determined that this much work and sacrifice weren’t actually necessary, I got the impression that a bunch of these ward council members would just as soon resign their callings.

  10. Julie M. Smith on May 2, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Very interesting post. Two thoughts:

    (1) I have always criticized the “you’re doing just fine–don’t be so hard on yourself” theme that has seemed to be the bulk of the message aimed at LDS women over the past 20 years (with the exception of Julie Beck). Perhaps that message has been more appropriate for the international Saints . . .

    (2) I think the crux of the issue is determining which sacrifices are actually required by the Lord (in which case, we can’t do anything about them) and which are only cultural (in which case, let’s chuck ‘em).

    For example, tithing. I doubt that many American Saints pay tithing on the market value of their employer-provided health benefits or the market value of their children’s education at the local public school. And they would still consider themselves to be full tithe payers, despite the fact that they were enjoying these “increases” (which probably amount to +/-50K/year for the average LDS family with kids) without paying tithing on them. By the same token, should a Saint in a higher-tax, higher-benefit society feel obligated to pay on her gross wages when 60% of that is taxed?

    I don’t want to derail this conversation into one on the intricacies of tithe paying; I just wanted to use that as an example of a situation with some sticky cultural underpinnings to the idea of sacrifice.

  11. Wilfried on May 2, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Excellent example, Jane (9). I have seen the same more than once in various places. It confirms the dilemma: yes, we want everyone to feel welcome whatever their degree of involvement or obedience; yes, everyone must accept callings, serve, and sacrifice because that is what the gospel requires. Also, it is certainly true that some of those who are fully engaged, and have been so for years, find it difficult to accept that a “more relaxed” approach, as they see it, would be acceptable for the same blessings and same eternal outcome.

    Julie (10), you point at a major question — “determining which sacrifices are actually required by the Lord (in which case, we can’t do anything about them) and which are only cultural”. To a certain extent Christ answers the question in the New Testament, as well as passages in Acts and some of the Epistles: the absolute commandment of love and charity, the ordinances, and then the rest which is put in a rather cultural perspective, or at least in a non-fanatic perspective: Sabbath, what one eats or drinks, tithing… But it is not easy to see the line of demarcation and much can be left to interpretation.

  12. stephen hardy on May 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Tim’s point (6) is worthy of some reflection: Who do we baptise? I would add this question: “How big of a problem is it for the church if many people become quickly inactive after being baptised?” We set the bar higher, a while ago, for missionaries. Maybe we should consider doing the same for converts. Perhaps we should making joining a bit harder.

    In my mission, in Thailand some decades ago, my new mission president learned that only about 5% of new baptisms were going to church one year after joining the church. He instituted a new rule: An investigator needed to attend church at least three times before being baptised. After this rule was implemented, we dropped from around 15 to 17 baptisms a month to… zero baptisms for almost two months. The mission president was under pressure from the area authority to change the rule, and he eventually loosened it a bit. His attitude was that it was better to weed out those were not going to be commited before baptism, and thus keep those who would never return to church off of our records. Most mission presidents seem to teach (I think) that investigators must be hurried to baptism because the spirit of the adversary will work hard to keep someone from being baptisized. I have never bought into that kind of thinking myself.

    Where the church is weak, new members or enthusiastic members can become crushed by the weight of heavy callings before they are ready for them.

    Julie’s point about required versus cultural sacrifices is likely to be an essential part of considering this. But when we are immersed in the culture, it can be hard or even impossible to see the difference. Is a two year mission experience essential? Or a strong cultural expectation? Missionaries serving from European countries face serious education setbacks if they interrupt their university education for a mission, and therefore their thinking about a mission might be different than that of Americans. However, a well meaning General Authority or ex-pat Bishop/Stake President may not understand that there are serious differences in the “costs” of missionary service in different cultures, and may therefore give insensitive or rigid advise to a young man or woman of mission-serving age. One young women in our ward in Paris dropped out of her music school to serve a mission and was never allowed back in. Is this what the Lord wants?

    The sabbath day issue can also be significant. When there is a high expectation to attend family gatherings or go out for a meal on Sunday, what is a good Mormon convert to do? If they start missing Sunday events, then the family’s fears about Mormonism may be met: The church will drive the family apart as the convert is encouraged to attend church and forgo family events. But “honoring your father and mother” can mean meeting their reasonable requests, such as a monthly (or weekly) Sunday family dinner at a favorite restaurant. In areas where the Mormon culture is dominant, or at least noticable, it may be easier for a family to understand a new member’s commitment, but in Europe, where the church’s profile is very low, it will be hard for a new member’s famly to understand their commitment.

    This is a great post with no easy answers. However, I think that we ought to do something more, as a church, about the problem of very very high inactivity rates after baptism. Think of it in a corporate sense (the church often does!): If someone bought a product once, and only once, a good company would try to figure out why so many make the choice to purchase such-and-such only once. The church ought to work out why so many newly baptised Mormons don’t come back for more. Making changes can be risky, and may result in a short-term setback in terms of baptisms.

  13. Bob on May 2, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Wilfried,
    “: The absolute …….., the ordinances…”.
    But, if you can’t get the ordinances because of what you eat or drink, or fail in tithing, what are you going to do?

  14. Bob on May 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    @stephen hardy,
    I believe there was a time (JS time?), when you were not confirmed a member of the Church until one year after your Baptism(?)

  15. Wilfried on May 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    Thank you, Stephen (12), for that substantial contribution. Timing before baptism remains a difficult issue in relation to retention. It’s not only the personal preparedness that counts (which can also be short and still yield faithful members), but also the familial, cultural, and social implications, both within and outside the Church. Converts seldom can fully assess those coming challenges in a short time, hence the struggles and conflicts soon after a quick baptism, with the massive problem of retention afterwards. “Preach my gospel” does not pay any significant attention to that broader framework and the consequences on retention. I too am convinced the Church needs to find better solutions to this quandary.

    Bob (13), yes, you focus on another aspect of the dilemma. In the time of John the Baptist and Christ, and probably also in the early history of the Restored Church, there probably was no list of precise questions preceding the ordinances (but, as you mentioned in (14) perhaps a longer time to be confirmed). But even with a list of questions, in our time we may assume that many investigators easily answer that they won’t smoke or drink anymore, come to church, and pay tithing. No serious trial period required. Eager missionaries are most willing to give investigators the benefit of the doubt. But after baptism come the expectations and obligations of real Mormon life and the issue discussed in this post.

  16. Mike S on May 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    #10 Julie: I think the crux of the issue is determining which sacrifices are actually required by the Lord (in which case, we can’t do anything about them) and which are only cultural (in which case, let’s chuck ‘em).

    This is the crux, in my opinion. There are many non-doctrinal things emphasized in the Church today as what it means to be a “Mormon” – tattoos, earrings, covered shoulders, drinking a glass of wine (which even Christ, Joseph Smith and the Nephites did), white shirts, attending church EVERY Sunday, calculating exact percentages of charitable donations, etc. We judge each other on these things. We ask about them in various interviews.

    Our sacrifices should ideally be about more important things such as helping each other, giving to the poor (and not building billion $ malls – but don’t want to get sidetracked there), time devoted to scripture study, etc.

  17. Kingsley on May 2, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I agree with Mike S and Julie. Tattoos, earrings, caffeine, non-business attire, etc. — time to get over it. Eating out on Sunday — time to get over it. R-rated movies, tank-tops, hemlines, let’s get over ‘em. It isn’t social conservatism that makes us a peculiar people; far from it. Throw a rock and hit one. It’s angels in the age of print, gods planning gardens, elder’s quorums moving you in in one morning, apostles on TV. The Church is fortunate in its narrative, which moves and inspires devotion. It’s less fortunate in its obsession with haircuts. Elder Holland one dreamed that BYU would become the “Harvard of the west.” That’s not going to happen so long as shaving trumps library privileges. The same narrowness just might check other ambitions, too.

  18. Angie on May 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    “It’s obvious that members outside the US aren’t getting enough benefit out of church membership to make up for the sacrifices.” (5)

    The benefits of church membership are the gift of the Holy Ghost, access to covenants, and standards to help us navigate this crazy life. I know this sounds “goody-goody,” but it is a privilege to serve God, not a burden. If it feels like too much of a burden, then we can use the same things that church membership gives us (the Spirit, prophetic guidance, etc.) to ask God for help. I think this is all part of the becoming “adults of God,” as I heard Aileen Clyde once say.

  19. Kingsley on May 2, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    re #18

    That’s what new members need. Exhortations to grow up.

  20. whizzbang on May 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    @19-maybe some members need to be told to do that as per Paul in Ephesians 4:15-“But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:”

  21. Ivan Wolfe on May 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    In response to Julie and Kingsley and others:

    At what point do we decide what is cultural and what isn’t? A good quote from Finke and Stark (Wilfried quoted them in the post, and I think they are mostly right about how religion works):

    “… Each reduction seems so small and engenders widespread approval. No doubt most Methodists were glad to be permitted to go to the circus just as most Catholics probably welcomed the chance to skip Mass from time to time . . . There comes a point, however, when a religious body has become so worldly that its rewards are few and lacking in plausibility . . . Here people begin to switch away.” (283)

    The things that seem so small and petty to some of us are often the very reasons the church remains viable. I, for one, am glad the emphasis on R-rated movies has nearly vanished from official discourse. But at the same time, there is a “point of no return” where retention becomes almost impossible – we give up too much, we become too much like the “mainline” denominations that, as Finke and Stark say, are “headed for the sidelines” in terms of membership. Reduce the tension, and people flee for other high tension groups.

  22. Wilfried on May 2, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Mike S (16) and Kinsley (17) versus Angie (18): quite a difference of opinion, but I think both viewpoints should be appreciated, as they confirm the tension that the dilemma engenders. On the one hand, we do not want to lose people over what can be seen as non-essential or non-doctrinal items. But how do we define the limits between the one and the other, as Julie M. Smith pointed at? On the other hand, hailing the mighty principles of the gospel as the God-given solution to all our struggles testifies of great faith, but does not seem to work for 4 out of 5 members.

    Ivan Wolfe (21), excellent to refer to Finke and Stark. But, and that is a main point in my post, the high-tension religion first sacrifices the majority of its members to its high demands (so to speak, with some hyperbole). Finke and Stark overlook that aspect and only point at the steadfast minority which, for them, constitutes the lively “sect”. Then they claim that loosening the norms will slowly turn the sect into a mainline church which loses its appeal and may even become an empty shell. Yes, agreed, but could there not be a middle ground where the high-tension religion also and foremost takes better care of its “fleeing flock” by tolerating some lower-tension viability? But perhaps no middle ground is possible, hence the unsolved dilemma?

  23. Bob on May 2, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    @Ivan Wolfe,
    ” Reduce the tension,(in Mormonism), and people flee for other high tension groups”.

    What are these higher tension groups X-Mormons are fleeing to? I think they are fleeing FROM the Mormon tension to some peace and rest. They don’t wish to go to groups demanding more from them.

  24. Ivan Wolfe on May 2, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Bob –

    well, Finke and Stark do say that some leave religion altogether, and a small minority will join even more permissive faiths.

    However, right now Mormonism is a high tension group, so we don’t have a lot of people fleeing for even higher tension groups. Finke and Stark say it is possible for a group to be too high tension. There is a balance between being too high and too low. Your objections don’t seem related to the point being made; I would suggest reading Finke and Stark first.

    Wilifried – I have no idea. My guess is the constant struggle between going too high tension or losing the tension will always result in some people being left out, no matter what. I’m not sure if there is a real solution to the dilemma, other than the constant negotiations and re-negotations we and the church have to make with each other and society at large.

  25. Bob on May 2, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    @ Ivan Wolfe,
    ( Wilfried):”The rhetoric of sacrifice is meant to inspire members to remain faithful. But for people already sacrificing much in terms of “normal” membership, and often being at the brink of burnout, to give them the impression they need to do even more, may not be helpful”.

    How is this different than what I said? Why do you see me as not relating to the point of this post?

  26. Amira on May 2, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Angie (18), I do agree with you. I personally see significant benefits to my church membership and I think the sacrifices are worth it for the reasons you list.

    But that can’t work for everyone. I know women who already had high standards from their cultural heritage before they were baptized; who have zero access to any covenants- they can’t even take the sacrament to renew their baptismal covenants; and who always, from what they’ve told me, had the guidance of the Holy Ghost in their lives. I really struggle to see what they’re getting out of being members of the church, but they make sacrifices to be part of it. There is no way I could tell them they need to do more.

  27. Bradley on May 2, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    JS’s “sacrifice of all things” reminds me of Capt Willard’s “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely doggone right! Unless you were goin’ all the way…”.

    Selective sacrifice is not the same as sacrifice of all things. What we have now is a different brand of life and salvation than JS envisioned.

  28. Wilfried on May 2, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Thanks, Bradley (27). The topic of what is meant by “sacrifice of all things” puts on an interesting tangent. Joseph Smith, indeed, used the expression and his life exemplifies what he meant. Do the later attempts to institute the United Order point in the direction Joseph Smith envisioned? Or is total sacrifice basically the willingness to respond to every calling and serve the Church to the utmost of our abilities? Considering the variables of our times and context, I agree that one could argue about the “measure” of present sacrifice compared to what members endured in the 1830s to 1850s. But I think we can assume that still today most fully-dedicated members are still “sacrificing all things” for the Kingdom.

    But then we come back to the topic of the post: the majority of our members is inactive, mostly because they cannot cope with the sacrifices required. At the same time the Church is very concerned about retention and does not want to lose these brothers and sisters. That is the quandary. Could we allow more “selective” sacrifices to use your term? No, seems the natural response of the stalwart. In that case we must accept that a few million members remain outside.

  29. Kingsley on May 2, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    @Ivan Wofle

    Well, there’s tension and then there’s tension, I guess. A strict beard policy is probably no more sustaining, spiritually speaking, than the modish codes of style and dress that decide who is in and who is out at your local high school. Whereas simply believing the Joseph Smith story these days bars you from going too mainline and keeps you lovingly at odds with the world. The Church’s strength is in that story and not in the ephemeral obsessions of its cultural warriors.

    @Bradley

    We’ve been led astray, then? By whom? When?

  30. Kingsley on May 2, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Wilfried (28)

    It’s hard to imagine JS taking the view of the stalwarts in this case. It’s my impression that he was amazingly tolerant of all kinds of selectivity among the Saints. Also my impression that the sort of stalwart who would shut the door against his less magnificently endowed brothers and sisters is the sort that would have stalwarted himself right out of JS’s inner circle.

  31. Wilfried on May 2, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    I certainly agree, Kingsley (30).

  32. Amira on May 3, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Instead of thinking of it as requiring less sacrifice from some members, can’t we think of it as accepting different sacrifice instead? Acceptable sacrifices cannot look the same everywhere in the world.

  33. Kingsley on May 3, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Amira (32)

    Be nice if we could. I remember reading that when one of Wittgenstein’s sisters criticized him for his apparently erratic or eccentric life choices, he said she was like someone watching a passerby through a window and wondering at his odd movements. She didn’t realize he was walking in a gale and doing all he could to stay upright.

  34. Kristine on May 3, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Kingsley!!!

  35. Jeremiah J. on May 3, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Wilfried, could you give me the specific link on the ldschurchgrowth site to the non-US activity rates? I’m familiar with the site and I’ve spent some time there but I can’t find what you’re referring to.

    Other than that citation, this list of references is really great.

  36. Adam G. on May 3, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Joseph Smith didn’t ask for much in the way of sacrifice? One’s magnificently-endowed mind boggles.

    This thread is disappointingly taking a turn towards a groupthink consensus that the stalwarts are wrong. The perspective that we’re dealing with some intractable problems is much more defensible. Institutions cannot just finesse the conflicting needs of their members or potential members. The denial of trade-offs, even severe and tragic trade-offs, and of hysteresis, is an American disease. I’m not a stalwart myself, but my personal opinion is without them, the church would be dead. They aren’t the enemy or the problem.

    Point 2: Finley and Starke don’t miss inactivity per se. Their thesis (which isn’t really their own, they are drawing on shared conclusions from sociology of religion scholars) is about religious growth but is indifferent to how that growth is achieved, either through steady small growth of retained members or faster nominal growth with more “chaff” falling by the wayside.

    Point 3: Mormonism’s ‘tension’ and demand for sacrifice isn’t as high as we’d like to think. Most active or semi-active members have various strategies for making a separate peace with the demands of the Kingdom–they turn down callings, or half-ass them, or adopt an attitude of ‘obedezco pero no cumplo” or are passive-aggressive to a degree. The result is something that requires more time and effort than the Westerm average, but that I would hesitate to boast about as any kind of weighty sacrifice. There are religions that require much more in the way of sacrifice and that are experiencing much more substantial growth–the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to mind. This is more true of America. Abroad being a Mormon is intrinsically more difficult.

  37. Wilfried on May 3, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Jeremiah (35), try this link, or google “The worldwide activity rate for the LDS Church at present is estimated at 30% whereas the activity rate outside of the United States and Canada is estimated at 22.5%.”

    Also, there just was an interesting article in the Salt Lake Tribune about Church growth and activity rate (40%) in the U.S.

  38. Wilfried on May 3, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Adam G. (36), thank you for very welcome and clarifying comments.

    I don’t think anyone said that Joseph Smith didn’t ask for much in the way of sacrifice, only that there was “an impression that he was amazingly tolerant of all kinds of selectivity among the Saints” (30). That was perhaps strongly worded and may be wrongly interpreted. But I think we all agree that Joseph Smith’s willingness to forgive and re-accept even his worst enemies is legendary. There are no doubt many more examples of his patience with the weaker saints.

    You said: “This thread is disappointingly taking a turn towards a groupthink consensus that the stalwarts are wrong”. I would be sorry if it went in that direction. But I can share the concern that some stalwarts do not always understand how certain attitudes are not helpful to struggling members (who often give as much to the Church). On the other hand, yes, I agree: “without them [the stalwarts in general], the church would be dead. They aren’t the enemy or the problem.”

    As to point 2, no doubt you are right. In their analysis Finke and Stark analyze growth and are indifferent to the “chaff” falling by the wayside in high-tension sects. But the Church is very much concerned about the “chaff” and wants to retain its converts as much as possible. Hence the topic of this post in a search for solutions, if any.

    Your point 3 reminds us that we always need to nuance. But it seems your view is more from a perspective in the U.S. I am not sure it is as valid for foreign countries where the “costs” of membership and the overall atmosphere are different. Also, there are “stalwarts” who deeply struggle and are close to burnout.

    You mentioned: “There are religions that require much more in the way of sacrifice and that are experiencing much more substantial growth–the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to mind.” I don’t think that is true any more. I would need to look up the sources, but I have read that the Jehovah’s Witnesses experience exactly the same challenges, with massive problems of retention and in some countries no growth anymore.

  39. John Mansfield on May 3, 2012 at 11:07 am

    The problem may be too little Mormon culture instead of too much. Even if he’s the only Latter-day Saint in a hundred miles, a convert will find his social relations altered. He’s not going to be part of the social life of his former religion anymore. He’s not going join co-workers for a drink at a strip club. What does he get in place of that? Three hours each Sunday of spiritual edification followed by six and a half days on his own. Try to read scriptures and pray a lot, because you’re on your own.

    The social liabilities of being a Mormon in Europe should be minor compared with being an observant Jew, but the Jews have had a while to face up to the isolation, deal with it, and not expect anything better short of moving to Israel or the United States.

  40. wowbagger on May 3, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Wilfried

    Am enjoying the discussion, as usual

    You make the observation “the majority of our members is inactive, mostly because they cannot cope with the sacrifices required.”

    I would like to comment on this. As a former member of the LDS faith, I did not simply leave because of the level of sacrifice, nor do I suspect many others followed this line of thinking.

    As an illustration, consider the market for vegetables. If carrots cost 10 times the price of celery, people will shy away from purchasing carrots. You could say that this is because people do not like carrots. An alternate way to think about this is that people do not like carrots THAT MUCH and the benefit that accrues to the consumer is outweighed by the cost.

    There is a certain asymmetry in the discussion so far. I left the LDS faith (at the age of 51) because my perception of the benefits was far outweighed by the costs of membership in time, energy, effort and finances. Many new members feel “something” that leads to their conversion, then quickly realize all that is required of their new faith and do the mental calculus of “too expensive for what I am getting” and not simply “too expensive”

    I think the battle to win people back would have to be mounted on two fronts, reducing the cost and convincing less active people that the benefits are greater than they currently perceive them to be.

  41. Kingsley on May 3, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Adam G.

    Of course JS demanded a lot of the saints. I only said he was amazingly tolerant of their shortcoming, and that he wasn’t one for shutting doors. Also, one man’s groupthink is another man’s minority opinion.

  42. Kingsley on May 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Hi, Kristine!

  43. Mark Brown on May 3, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    I think Stark’s analysis is completely inadequate.

    Mormonism is in a high state of tension with the surrounding culture in Europe. Stark’s model would predict that Europeans would be flocking to the LDS church, yet our numbers have been in decline there for decades.

  44. Adam Greenwood on May 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Stark’s model predicts that there is an optimal level of tension. Too much, and your conversion rate decreases. It also doesn’t seek to replace secular trends, i.e., society-wide trends.

  45. Wilfried on May 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks all, for the last comments. I will respond in separate comments.

    John Mansfield (39), yes, the aspect of socio-cultural belonging is for many members an important issue. It is true that Mormon converts see their social relations often profoundly altered: they enter into a new group (which may be very small and very different of their normal relations), while Church demands tend to severe or at least hamper the relations with their former circle. However, in relation to the topic of the post, the question is if it needs to be so. Fewer time-consuming Church demands, encouragement to keep relations alive with others (especially if they are wholesome, such as in cultural, social, or sport organizations), and better integration of the local culture into Church life, could lessen the breaches and even provide better opportunities to familiarize outsiders with Mormonism. By the same token, it could make Mormonism more viable for converts with strong social ties outside the Church.

    I found your other remark interesting: “The social liabilities of being a Mormon in Europe should be minor compared with being an observant Jew, but the Jews have had a while to face up to the isolation, deal with it, and not expect anything better short of moving to Israel or the United States.” My experience is different. Wherever they are in the world, I have the impression that Jews, in particular observant Jews, will congregate close to each other in certain city parts and form close-knit communities. My home town Antwerp has a thriving community of about 20,000 Jews, most living in the same city parts, with their own schools and numerous synagogues. Many cities around the world have their Jewish communities, some small, some larger. Moreover, their centuries-old traditions (though fragmented over many kinds of groups) and their strong familial ties create bonds which Mormon branches or wards, with their converts from the most diverse corners and living far apart from each other, cannot replicate as such. It means that the social liabilities of being a Mormon in a foreign country are probably more severe than for observant Jews.

  46. Wilfried on May 4, 2012 at 12:24 am

    Wowbagger (40), I appreciate your visit and comment. It’s particularly helpful to have an “inactive” member comment from his perspective on this very topic.

    I can see your point and concur. When I wrote that “the majority of our members is inactive, mostly because they cannot cope with the sacrifices required”, it implied a cost-benefit issue as well, as clarified in other parts of the post. In fact, “costs” in this context can be viewed as a synonym of “sacrifices”. For obvious semantic reasons, Church talk will not refer to “sacrifices” as “costs”, but basically they are the same. Similarly, Church talk will refer to “blessings”, while the economical view will identify “benefits”. And indeed, many members turn away because, as you said, the “perception of the benefits was far outweighed by the costs of membership in time, energy, effort and finances.” Or: the perception of the sacrifices outweighs the blessings. Moreover, “sacrifices” also play out in less dramatic ways than the word suggests. Just sitting three hours in Church can be a significant weekly sacrifice for some.

    Of course, we should also recognize that deeply committed members, from within their personal religious conviction and experience, can see blessings differently. We need to respect that. What for the one person is a “non benefit”, can be viewed as a “blessing” by someone else. It is clear that many Church talks and lessons are meant to help members see the result of their sacrifices (costs) as blessings (benefits). But, equally true, that operation is not convincing nor successful for others.

    Your advice is noteworthy: “I think the battle to win people back would have to be mounted on two fronts, reducing the cost and convincing less active people that the benefits are greater than they currently perceive them to be.” In fact, the Church is giving hints in that direction, though the counsel needs to trickle further through and be implemented: “Members should not be asked to make excessive family sacrifices to serve or to support programs or activities” (Handbook of Instructions 2010, part II, section 17.2). Of course, how to define “excessive”? Time will tell if local leaders follow this counsel, how they interpret it, and what effect it may have.

    One thing is certain: Rather than shifting the blame for inactivity solely on the inactive members, we need to maturely examine the extent to which the Church itself fosters disengagement and how it can turn the tables. Thanks again for your contribution to that effort.

  47. palerobber on May 4, 2012 at 1:08 am

    outside the US things certainly may be different, but…

    people here drop out because they’ve lost faith in the church’s divinity and/or its institutions. of all the “inactive” mormons i’ve known over the years, i’ve yet to meet one who stopped participating because found it too demanding.

    conversely, the majority of “active” mormons i’ve known appear to scarifice very little for the church apart from tithing. i’m not criticizing them, that’s just how things are.

  48. john f. on May 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

    “Tattoos, earrings, caffeine, non-business attire, etc. — time to get over it. Eating out on Sunday — time to get over it. R-rated movies, tank-tops, hemlines, let’s get over ‘em. It isn’t social conservatism that makes us a peculiar people; far from it. Throw a rock and hit one. It’s angels in the age of print, gods planning gardens, elder’s quorums moving you in in one morning, apostles on TV. The Church is fortunate in its narrative, which moves and inspires devotion. It’s less fortunate in its obsession with haircuts. Elder Holland one dreamed that BYU would become the “Harvard of the west.” That’s not going to happen so long as shaving trumps library privileges. The same narrowness just might check other ambitions, too.”

    Loved that, Kingsley, and completely agree. Also loved comment #30. For a long time now — too long, I think — the message has been “The Church doesn’t need you: it is a train that will speed along on it’s way without you whether you are on it or not.” Instead, we need to be saying, “The Church desperately needs you and the unique contribution that you can make. We are less without you so please join us and stay with us; share your ideas with us and take ownership by leaving your mark. Along the way as fellow travellers we will support you and embrace you despite differences of opinion as you enrich us with your presence and contribution.”

  49. Wilfried on May 4, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Mark Brown (43) and Adam Greewood (44), thanks for the exchange on “Stark’s model”. Adam is right to nuance exaggerated conclusions from the analysis. Finke and Stark point at general trends. Also, one cannot expect much effect from Mormon missionary work in Europe, simply because of the extremely low efficiency of the overall missionary approach. It’s safe to say that less than 1 in 10,000 Europeans has ever had a chance to get introduced to Mormonism.

    palerobber (47), harshly said, but your argument is no doubt valid for a number of people in the U.S. No need to deny that and it is indeed a challenge for the Church.

    John f. (48), you confirm the issue discussed at various points in the the post and the comments, i.e., the major problem of losing people over what can be seen as non-essential or non-doctrinal items. And yes, the Church needs everyone and should be welcoming to anyone. But then again, the dilemma: doing this, without undermining some core principles. It has been said from the first comment: not easy.

  50. John Mansfield on May 4, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Wilfried, how great are the time demands on a new convert? You seem to be concerned with leaders of the ward, people who participated with the church a couple years or more. Their challenge is worth addressing, but how much of the 80% inactive are they? I assume that the bulk of Europe’s inactive LDS are people whose total time investment in being a Mormon didn’t get past a double-digit number of hours. Beyond attending services on Sunday and accepting visits from missionaries and home teachers, what hours did most converts devote to their new religion before they dropped it?

    Your observation of Europe’s Jews congregating in tight-knit communities still indicates that their social liabilities are great and have to be dealt with by giving up most towns and neighborhoods as lost and gathering benefit that will only come from being part of a concentration of Jews. Half of the world’s Jews live in five cities. Of the top twenty cities, which are home to 70% of the world’s Jews, ten are in the United States, four are in Israel, and two are in Canada; the remaining four are London, Paris, Moscow, and Buenos Aires.

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/world-jewish-population.htm

  51. Adam Greenwood on May 4, 2012 at 8:28 am

    “Tattoos, earrings, caffeine, non-business attire, etc. — time to get over it. Eating out on Sunday — time to get over it. R-rated movies, tank-tops, hemlines, let’s get over ‘em. It isn’t social conservatism that makes us a peculiar people; far from it. Throw a rock and hit one. It’s angels in the age of print, gods planning gardens, elder’s quorums moving you in in one morning, apostles on TV. The Church is fortunate in its narrative, which moves and inspires devotion. It’s less fortunate in its obsession with haircuts. Elder Holland one dreamed that BYU would become the “Harvard of the west.” That’s not going to happen so long as shaving trumps library privileges. The same narrowness just might check other ambitions, too.”

    Loved that, Kingsley, and completely agree. Also loved comment #30. For a long time now — too long, I think — the message has been “The Church doesn’t need you: it is a train that will speed along on it’s way without you whether you are on it or not.” Instead, we need to be saying, “The Church desperately needs you and the unique contribution that you can make. We are less without you so please join us and stay with us; share your ideas with us and take ownership by leaving your mark. Along the way as fellow travellers we will support you and embrace you despite differences of opinion as you enrich us with your presence and contribution.”

    Can’t agree at all. This is more of the perspective that their is a simple fix to an inexplicable problem. It shows little to no awareness of how cultures work or why they evolve in the way they do. You can’t and probably shouldn’t want to eliminate signifiers. Its part of the desire to get to the “essence,” the “inner X,” or the “authentic,” which is a modern delusion.

    Which is not to say that the costs are real, though I suspect that they are exaggerated, and the real burdens of membership are things that are more difficult to disparage.

  52. Wilfried on May 4, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Good question, John Mansfield (50): “You seem to be concerned with leaders of the ward, people who participated with the church a couple years or more. Their challenge is worth addressing, but how much of the 80% inactive are they?”

    Van Beek (2009) studied the repartition of the inactives in a typical Dutch ward as to reasons they left; Euvrard (2008) did a comparable analysis for the overall situation in France, also with reference to the timing question; others I cite in the references give indications that answer your question. I can confirm from own experience over almost 50 years in the Church:

    – About 50% of converts drop out within 2,5 years of activity, but many leave sooner, some within weeks or months. The latter are the typical “quick” baptisms missionaries rather easily obtain — singles, expatriates, loners, including needy or unstable persons, who embrace the attention and friendship the missionaries give them. Sure, they need the gospel, but have no roots to hold. Those who leave very quickly, indeed, didn’t give anything to the Church in terms of service, only the burden that local members must now try to follow up on them. Others, who tried their membership for a somewhat longer time, may have given more, but most soon found the costs of attending and serving too much. The demanding dimension of required changes in life usually becomes only clear after baptism. Even if the conversion is genuine, the step from the religious discovery, with its spiritual excitement brought by missionaries into one’s own home, to attending the (small) Mormon ward miles away and being called to help and serve in various capacities, can be disappointing.

    – A second group is mature members who have been active for many years but who then become disengaged. For the Netherlands, Van Beek (2009) counts about 40% of the inactives in that group. He distinguishes between those whose life events lead them away such as divorce, (re)marriage, or acceptance of their homosexuality, and those who become disenchanted for a variety of reasons. Of the latter group some cannot cope anymore with the demands of attendance and involvement because of familial and social reasons. Others, indeed a minority as you suggested, often after decades of toiling for the Church, fall prey to burnout—with feelings of having been bled dry in unrelenting service without proper support, appreciation, or promised results. Sometimes such departures happen after an accumulation of misunderstandings, conflicts, and hurt feelings that lead to a breaking point.

    So, yes, there is a variety. The most painful departures are certainly those who leave after years of relentless service. But each of those who leave is precious and each loss is sad. The variety also means we need to find more varied answers to each of the groups.

  53. clark on May 4, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Elsewhere, however, nearly all “inactive” members are really and permanently “out,” as analysis confirms (Decoo 1996; Euvrard 2008; van Beek 2009). Our main concern here is membership in that international perspective.

    I wonder how much this is heavily biased by convert retention. That is we’d expect converts who leave the first year to not come back. They just decided it wasn’t for them. But what about people from member families outside of the intermountain west? I’d honestly expect a somewhat similar behavior to those in Utah. Maybe not quite as pronounced due to social interaction via church being more important in Utah and south east Idaho. But probably much more than the bias by convert retention would suggest.

  54. clark on May 4, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Ah Wilfried answered my question – sorry about the repetition. My window was sitting open for a while as I made my comment. I probably should refresh before posting.

  55. Wilfried on May 4, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Let me come back to a question raised in various comments: what types of inactives are there? From personal experience some of us tend to focus on one kind, and generalize from there, but the matter is complex. There are interesting studies about the topic.

    Mauss (1969) suggests three dimensions of disaffection: cognitive (intellectual rejection of doctrines), affective (emotional reaction against attitudes and behaviors in the Church), and social (problems with communal bonding).

    Albrecht (1998) identifies nine types of Mormons along two dimensions of (dis)engagement: belief and community. His typology moves from the one extreme of “fervent follower” (fully committed to doctrines and community) to the other extreme of “apostate” (rejecting both doctrine and community).

    Van Beek (2009) distinguishes engaged believers (the majority of active members), engaged nonbelievers (those who attend meetings and otherwise outwardly conform but who lack spiritual conviction), disengaged nonbelievers (the majority of the inactive), and disengaged believers (inactives, but still believing).

    Gooren (2005, 2010), who probably did the most prolific work on the topic, presents a complex model for “conversion careers” using five levels of religious commitment, from preaffiliation to disaffiliation, influenced by four types of factors—personality, contingency, institutional, and social.

    All these facets and criteria are applicable to Mormons around the world, but surveys and demographic data are lacking to assign weight to each category per country.

    From my experience with inactive members in Europe, the relation with the Mormon community must always be viewed at least as dual, one “structural” with the Church as organization and another “social” with members. A number of inactive families and individuals remain friends with active members, directly or through social networks. This case prevails particularly when they have been long engaged in the Church. However, they sense the organizational Church as a “greedy institution, one claiming the whole life of the individual” (van Beek 2005, p. 24). Eventually, this perception of the structure becomes a main obstacle to continued participation. But quite a few of those inactives miss the Church. They do not deny sacred and sweet memories, they remember friends, and often they still harbor a testimony of the restored gospel. They consider themselves “Mormon,” but what inhibits their return is the stumbling block of an “all or nothing” commitment. We may assume that tens of thousands of European Mormons (and similarly elsewhere in the world) broke off engagement under this pressure. Hence, again, the topic of this post.

    References

    Albrecht, S. L. (1998). The consequential dimension of Mormon religiosity. In J. T. Duke (Ed.), Latter-day Saint social life: Social research on the LDS Church and its members (pp. 253–292). Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.

    Gooren, H. (2005). Towards a new model of conversion careers: The impact of personality and contingency factors. Exchange, 34(2), 149–166.

    Gooren, H. (2010). Religious conversion and disaffiliation: Tracing patterns of change in faith practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Mauss, A. L. (1969). Dimensions of religious defection. Review of Religious Research, 10(3), 128–135.

    van Beek, W. E. (2005). Mormon Europeans or European Mormons? An “Afro-European” view on religious colonization. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Dialogue, 38(4), 3–36.

    van Beek, W. E. (2009, June 19-20). Mormonism, a global counter-church? (Part ii and iii) . Retrieved June 21, 2009, from By Common Consent: http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/06/19/part-ii/

  56. Angie on May 4, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    What if we changed our perspective – it’s not a sacrifice to give up the work meeting at a strip club. It’s not a sacrifice to spend our time serving others, instead of watching too much tv. Real life happens in and out of the church. But in the church, we have access to the constant guidance of the Holy Ghost and prophets. And access to the covenants that seal our loved ones to us forever. Some of the commenters seem to think that church membership is a burden? I don’t see it that way. It is a privilege to fill my life with things that are actually true, instead of false or shallow pursuits.

    (Playing devil’s advocate with myself – what if I’m serving the church at the expense of family time, instead of just giving up extra screen time? Well, that’s when I seek wisdom from God to know when to say “no.” The church agrees that family time is sacred.)

  57. Tim on May 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Perhaps another reason to not baptize quite so quickly–

    J.T. Ready in Arizona.

    Horrific crimes committed by a monster who also happened to be LDS. The warning signs were there before he was baptized, if anyone bothered to look.

  58. Robert Poort on May 12, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Some of my personal experiences and the interesting introduction to
    this discussion indeed suggests that our church tent is getting smaller and therefore fewer members fit in. For our family, living in the Intermountain West and in an ethnic (Tongan) ward with low tension, makes a huge difference when compared to being a part of the church in my native Netherlands. Perhaps we may learn from our brothers and sisters in the catholic church who greatly respect and appreciate their holy father the Pope, but do maintain their right to not always follow his lead. You may frown on such behavior, but I call it a healthy balance between institutional and individual needs we seem to sometimes forget as latter-day saints. Our personal revelation should nurture our family instead of the institution. We – as individuals and families – are the church, and we sacrifice time and talents, not conscience and integrity. Don’t let the institution run your life, but be the captain of your soul and take charge. As pres. Dieter Uchtdorf expressed it so well: “stop punishing yourself”! Many of our frustations are self inflicted wounds, I’m convinced, caused by a lack of spiritual and emotional balance.

  59. Ronan on May 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Wilfried,

    One the way back from the London temple, and having just donated a kidney to fill my car with petrol, I started thinking about something else to consider in your analysis of costs:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/05/13/gas-prices-and-the-mormon-commute/

  60. Adam Greenwood on May 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    There are large and possibly fruitful parallels to the economic concept of price discrimination and the difficulties of setting the right price point in an environment where consumers are aware of the price charged to others.

  61. Wilfried on May 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Thanks, Robert (58), for your thoughts. Yes, the principle you mention (“Our personal revelation should nurture our family instead of the institution”) is valuable, and may at the same time be challenging to implement. The call to sacrifice, which is valid in its own right, often implies serving the needs of the institution (in its broadest social sense) more than those of the individual or the family. The main point, as you mention, is a question of balance. Many Church leaders are sensitive to that balance, but not all.

    Ronan (59), yes, “more distances to cover” is one of the items that Mauss mentions as extra cost for members in European countries. That includes extra costs (and at a gas price about twice as high in some countries compared to the U.S. where people consider it already high). The Handbook asks to be sensitive to this issue, but the pressures to attend meetings and do HT and VT continue to be many, including missionaries asking to co-teach investigators and the program to fellowship new converts through extra HT. All “vital” things…

    It remains a difficult issue because no one wants to be whining and sacrifice is part of our Mormon tradition. But the weight of sacrifice is different for the one or the other. Some can bear a lot, others less. Some can bear very much until they break. A main point of my post is how we can avoid losing members over the “costs”, whatever they are for the individual. How far can leniency reach to make sure people continue to feel welcome. The discussion brought up excellent suggestions, but the basic dilemma is far from solved.

  62. whizzbang on May 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    @61-In my Canadian city retention is a huge isse. At one point this mission had the lowest retention rate in the North America Central area and it hasn’t gotten much better. One reason is the people who live here are in flux and make decisions they don’t have to live with and those who remain are asked to bear the brunt of it. The ward boundaries here are so ridiculous it defies logic. Our ward is long and narrow with the chapel at literally one end of the area with most of the members at the other end and the area with the most members are generally poorer so transportation is a weekly struggle. The pressure to baptize is still fierce as ever and that hasn’t changed much. I want to believe that missionary work is not a numbers game but most of the time I don’t-it was when I served in LA and it still is. Our city is getting a Temple. I think this will break the members here, trying to serve there and hold ward callings, I am trying to be cautiously optimistic about it. But the Stake President who will move away in a few years agreed to have it here so he doesn’t care at all, he’s moving just like all the other stake presidents have done in the past. They finished their service and then moved. The Church proclaims that we have 4500 members in our stake which is 1300 more then we have on the rolls.We have about 1200 people who what you would consider active in our entire stake which is all of our province, Northen Minnesota and N. Ontario. I started a program that we are purging the records of people who don’t live at the addresses nymore or are dead or don’t want contact with the Church so that 3200 is less…

  63. Ronan on May 14, 2012 at 6:34 am

    Wilfried,

    On the BCC thread, two English bishops have reported a fuel bill of $2000 p.a. That is a colossal amount of money. I would guess that your average active Mormon family that needs to drive to church in Europe spends around $1000, possibly more. Add that to tithing, offerings, an above-average family size, and mission contributions and I suspect that Mormonism is the most expensive religion in Europe. No wonder that those that thrive ecclesiastically tend to be well off!

  64. Wilfried on May 15, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Ronan (63), your remark (and also the comments on your thread on the topic) make we wonder if there would be a correlation between income and retention and/or between income and callings at certain levels of leadership. That would be a troublesome finding, though such relation would never be intentionally provoked. But costs of membership could lead to more inactivity among those that feel those costs (like tithing or transportation costs) more acutely. There could also be an (unconscious) tendency to call people to positions where their income could sustain the requirements of the calling. I have no idea if research has been done on these issues.

  65. InquiringMind on May 16, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    The current “model of church membership” does not seem to thrive anywhere except the western United States. Are we to learn from the situation, or is it just the way it is? I don’t know, but it is frustrating to see the amount of resources being expended, with little to show for it. Is more centralization really the answer here? If you visit the Church Office Building, it feels like you have walked onto a movie set depicting something like the ICC in 1959. Lots of guys scurrying around in white shirts and ties, but doing exactly what that is so essential to serving the Lord? Is constant reediting of similar lesson manuals and figuring out what color cushions will be on the choir loft chairs in new buildings really the work of the Lord, or a righteous way of scoring a paycheck with benefits in Utah? I don’t live there, those closer to the scene can surely add more. How are we to build Zion when the Church has adopted a wordly business model to govern itself, with Executive and Managing Directorships, departments that seek to perpetuate themselves and actively compete for favor and bigger budgets?

    I really don’t get it anymore. I am afraid of being called into a higher/Leadership calling because of how it might impact my spirituality.

    Comments?

  66. Cameron N on May 30, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Inquiring (65), you say you don’t live in Utah but are making some extrapolations about what takes place at church HQ. Do you have anecdotal experience related to your comments?

    More on topic, I had a thought regarding this nice discussion:

    When thinking of the Joseph Smith quote regarding the sacrifice of all things, the extremity of the phrase ‘all things’ can paint a picture of immediacy in our minds. However, the Lord’s enabling power usually helps us in incremental improvements over a lifetime. I always love stories of reaching out to less-active members when the visitors tell them that they are needed. The Lord will usually push us without prompting us to expend our strength too quickly. However, we will each be pushed.

    The invitation to return must be done in humility, love, and compassion, just as the sustaining one another can be. If gas is expensive, surely prayer and cooperation between members can help.

  67. James on June 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Professor Decco, what are your thoughts on this:

    For some members, remaining continually (as opposed to continuously) engaged in church service is the only way for them to remain worthy.

    For other members, remaining continually engaged in church service is not necessary for them to remain worthy.

    Allow me to explain further: A member with an addiction to cigarette smoking will definitely have to remain physically and therefore mentally occupied in serving others, otherwise, if left by himself and in a state of physical inactivity, will be tempted to smoke a cigarette and therefore, lose the Spirit.

    On the other hand, a member who has never ever smoked a cigarette and is persuaded of its harmful effects, will never be tempted to smoke, even if left by himself for years on end. He will never lose the Spirit in this way.

    Thus, it is crucial for each member to be wise. For some they can afford to make less sacrifices because in the end, they will not have infringed upon the great commandments (word of wisdom, law of chastity, etc.) preventing them from obtaining exaltation. However, for others who want to gain exaltation and have difficulties keeping the great commandments, a great amount of sacrifice is required on their behalf.

    The truth of the matter is that not everyone in this world is born in the same circumstances and not everyone was able to develop the necessary qualities to face life. We indeed live in an inegalitarian world and we need to use our time wisely.

    Am I wrong? Am I being too general?