Another installment in my occasional series (see here, here), this one prompted by a fine little two-page article titled “Keeping the Faith” in, of all places, the BYU Magazine. The Church, both the membership and leaders, finally seems to be waking up to the fact that the Church is losing its youngest adult cohort, the Millennials. What exactly is the problem? What can be done at the local level to address the problem? What can LDS leaders do at the Church-wide level to address it?
1. Yes, there is a problem. But it’s not like the LDS Newsroom posts a press release stating that, in a private meeting last Tuesday, senior LDS leaders acknowledged the problem and appointed a Seventy to formulate an LDS response. You have to read between the lines. There is last week’s LDS Newsroom piece reporting Elder Perry’s meeting with Seventh Day Adventist leaders, in which Elder Perry is quoted as saying we need to “find a way to keeping faith alive in the 14- to 35-year-olds so that faith will grow with them, so they’ll have a foundation for their life.” There is Elder Uchtdorf’s October 2013 Conference talk, “Come, Join With Us,” sounding an understanding and welcoming note not always heard in that setting.
There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith — even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.
Part of the problem is that the Internet has made negative information about the LDS Church easily available. Part of the problem is that the correlated LDS curriculum, whatever its merits, has made young LDS more vulnerable to credible negative information. But the biggest problem is simply generational: there is indisputable demographic data showing an across the board decline in interest in organized religion — of any variety, not just LDS religion — by young adults, the 18-to-35s that Elder Perry referred to. Putnam and Campbell is just one source that addresses this in some detail. We’re not losing all of the Millennials, just a lot more of that cohort than was the case even 20 years ago. That is the problem.
2. What can individuals do in response to the problem? The “Keeping the Faith” article does a nice job offering ideas (please republish this in the Ensign!). Just the headings in the article give you a pretty good sense of the content: Information Explosion; Destigmatizing Doubt; Embracing the Questioner; Educating Yourself. Among the detailed suggestions:
- “Do create an atmosphere of warmth and openness in your home that invites conversations on difficult topics of all kinds.”
- “Do react matter-of-factly and kindly to questions, no matter how distressing they might be to you personally.”
- “Don’t communicate that it’s wrong or unfaithful to have questions or doubts.”
While the article is addressed to parents responding to a child expressing doctrinal doubts, the discussion applies to young adults, old adults, and local leaders as well. I have sympathy for local leaders who get little training or direction for dealing with faith crises — they deal with plenty of other crises, too. The anecdotal reports one hears often report sympathetic and supportive bishops and stake presidents, but not always. The institutional tendency within the Church of equating doubt with sin or unfaithfulness is a real obstacle to progress. Too often our reaction to doubt is to unwittingly push people out by overreacting and by mischaracterizing their doubts or weakened faith. We really have to dial it down.
3. We need a plan. A plan to, as the article authors put it, destigmatize doubt. It has to be a centralized plan that will result in some specific changes at the general level and that will generate some specific helpful guidance to local leaders. Perhaps there is already a plan. If so, please execute the plan immediately. What do you think ought to be in the plan? Here are a few of my ideas.
- Broaden the curriculum. The article features commentary and advice from BYU professors Rachel Cope and J. Spencer Fluhman. “Fluhman and Cope say they have seen an increase in distressed students coming to them with tough questions. Both suggest that parents — and all Latter-day Saints — become more prepared to discuss hard issues of faith and less afraid to engage in open dialogue.” So parents should actually buy and READ Leonard and Allen’s Story of the Latter-day Saints or Bowman’s The Mormon People. And a few other books. But the LDS curriculum people ought to pull their heads up out of the ground and start incorporating LDS scholarship into the lessons rather than scrupulously avoiding any citation outside the curriculum echo chamber. Memo to Salt Lake: Last chance for inoculation before the epidemic hits if it’s not too late already.
- Faith is enough. There is an institutional practice of expressing faith as knowledge: “I know the Church is true.” If you can’t say that, you are supposed to read and fast and pray until you can. I have talked with young LDS who think they have faith and serve in church and read the scriptures but don’t feel they meet the “sure knowledge” hurdle and consequently think they are not really a full Mormon. The internal dialogue is something like this: “It’s clear what they expect and what I’m supposed to say, and despite doing the right things I’m not quite there. Maybe the Church isn’t for me.” We really need to convince ourselves that faith is enough, then stop making a generation of self-questioning Millennials feel like faith is not enough for them so, as a consequence, the Church is not the right place for them. What a stupid message to send our young people. President Uchtdorf gets it. Does anyone else?
- Doubt is not sin. LDS leaders need to give specific guidance to local leaders that doubt is not sin and expressions of doubt should not be treated as indications of faulty conduct or as invitations to identify such conduct. People who express a faith crisis need support and encouragement, not the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects that when they go to their bishop looking for answers or at least sympathy and support. But sometimes that’s what they get.
- Ninety-minute block? I used to push for the two-hour block, but times have changed. Three hours is just too much.
So — what do you think? Is this really a problem? Anything you can suggest we do as individuals at the local level? Any other suggestions for positive change at the general church-wide level?
Note: The BYU Magazine article was also discussed in a FAIRBlog post. The post also links to and discusses a New Era article, “True or False?“. The post notes that both articles include discussion of new essays at the LDS.org Gospel Topics section addressing doctrinal and historical issues. Another related post is “What do Millennials Want from the Church?” at FMH.