A recent post at neighboring blog, BCC, talks about the rising percentage of 20- and 30-somethings who claim “none” as their religion.  Historically, the church has experienced a lot of attrition in this age range, either YSAs (Young Single Adults) who find the strict adherence to the law of chastity increasingly difficult to navigate or young married families who fall away before children are born.  Previously, many of those wandering souls would return as they began to raise families, longing for the child-rearing support and familiar environment of the church to give their children the same experiences they had as children.  Lately, we seem to be losing people in this age range and not seeing as many of them return when children come.  Why do they leave?  What can be done to improve retention in this age group?

First things first – why do they leave?  Generally, people like to assume that others leave the church for a short list of reasons, many of which reflect poorly on the character of the one that left.  Often, I wonder if people don’t just assume people leave for the reasons they themselves would leave.  Even so, some of these reasons are at the heart of why some people leave.  Here are some common reasons we hear:

  • They were offended.  Nobody wants to sound like they are petulant and had their feelings hurt, but truth be told, it sometimes happens.  Add to this that sometimes a local environment can be too difficult or even harmful for some people; the flip-side of someone being offended can be that someone behaved offensively.
  • They wanted to sin.  This is a chicken-egg scenario.  If you no longer consider yourself Mormon, you will probably drink alchohol, coffee, or tea like most non-LDS people do.  Did you leave because you couldn’t resist the smell of Starbucks?  Maybe some do, but that seems like an insufficient reason to change your entire lifestyle.
  • They were led astray by apostate or anti-Mormon views.  Another tricky one because often those who level this criticism may be familiar with basic apologetics, but may not be credible critical thinkers.  Of course, it also sounds like an insult, as if the person is an unwitting dupe.
  • They were lazy.  This is kind of like “they wanted to sin” but includes a mix of “they couldn’t even get out of bed to come to church.”  Do people just quit coming for this reason?  Sure.  But that also means going to church wasn’t compelling enough to that individual; there wasn’t a draw.

Reasons you don’t hear much of, but that are sometimes contributing factors:

  • Church was boring or unfulfilling.  “I just didn’t get anything out of it; my time is better spent doing [insert better activity].”  They found something else (including nothing) that resonated more for them.
  • They did not have a conversion experience.  “I never got an answer.”  This is a tough one to address. People who leave but have had a conversion experience are likely to return like the Prodigal son in time.  Those who have not will not feel a spiritual pull to return.
  • They did not accept commonly expressed worldviews of members.  “I just didn’t fit in, and I didn’t want to fit in.”  This is the old “the church is true, but the people aren’t” argument.  Some can feel repulsed by attitudes of superiority, intolerance, or judgmentalism.  Others can be embarrassed by associating with those who require literalism, are politically vocal, make war with science, or make ill-informed comments in general.
  • Society’s skepticism of religion is sometimes well-placed.  “I’m more spiritual than religious.”  Some religious people are judgmental, weird, hypocritical, etc.  Religions can be self-sustaining enterprises, which creates some skepticism.  To an extent, all religions do indoctrinate and request conformity and squelch dissent.

So, what can the church do to retain members, even through a trying age?  if churches want to reach people now, they need to do a few things really well:

  1. Provide opportunities for meaningful service.  People want to feel like their time investment is really helping someone in need, not just providing marginal benefits to those who don’t have much need (e.g. VT or HT can at times feel this way to some).  Folks become skeptical when all “service” is just a means to indoctrinate others (e.g. benefits the organization more than meeting individual needs).  Many megachurches do this exceptionally well.  You have to feel good about building houses for the poor or helping victims of an earthquake.
  2. Provide a practical gospel.  This means an interpretation of the gospel that is practical in a day-to-day sense and doesn’t require major suspension of disbelief (e.g. literalism or goofy ideas that make you sound like a whack job).  Something that is too esoteric or just plain weird to be explained to non-LDS friends can be a turn off.
  3. Engage members in leadership, especially from a young age, and including those who move in and out (e.g. don’t treat people living in apartments like second class citizens who have to prove themselves before they get any meaningful callings).  We need to avoid making limiting assumptions about what people are capable of doing.
  4. Don’t be out of touch with current societal views, technologies, or scientific knowledge.  People are turned off when they feel church does not have a good grasp on reality; even if it is designed to transcend the earthly experience, it can’t contradict real world views or experience either.  We can’t allow people to express anti-science viewpoints without correction.  We need to relate to people of all ages, not just always assume that older is wiser and the young people need to just shut up and go along to get along.  That played with many earlier generations, but not so much with today’s self-absorbed and better-informed adults.

So what do you think?  What can the church do to keep its young adults interested and involved?  Do you agree or disagree with any of these points?  Discuss.