A recent article by The Barna Group talks about six reasons young Christians are leaving church behind. I noted how relevant these reasons are to LDS attrition rates among YSAs; these topics are frequent bloggernacle staples (indicating a widening generational cultural divide).  First of all, here are some relevant facts about the rising generation that differ from previous generations:

  • Life events such as marriage, career, and moving out are often delayed due to changes in cultural norms, a worsening economy and bleaker financial prospects.
  • Constant access to and reliance on technology; technology shapes their worldview.  (Anyone else think that picture of a tech-addled teen looks sinister like a heroin addict caught in the act?)
  • Alienation from institutions, and a desire for personalization, uniqueness and self-expression rather than conformity and belonging.
  • Skepticism toward authority.

Here are the reasons cited and (anecdotally) how they appear to relate to Mormonism and the bloggernacle discussion plus my own grade at how we are doing at bridging each gap:

  1. Overprotective.  Gen X-ers, certainly more than their predecessors, chafe at the sheltering mentality pervasive in churches in which everything outside the church is demonized and to be avoided; this is especially difficult as the youth of today are much more keyed in to media and popular culture than in prior generations.  Youth interviewed for the article perceived Christianity to be “stifling, fear-based, and risk-averse.” 
    • LDS Parallels:  1) as mentioned, Young Single Adults and members feel they are treated like children.  2) Some question the focus on blind obedience (including indoctrinating songs like “Follow the Prophet”) that seems to be the hallmark of faithfulness.  3) Elevating advice about earrings, tatoos and shirt color to commandment status runs contrary to the notion of “not being commanded in all things” or giving people correct principles and “letting them govern themselves” as JS taught. 4) The correlation committee in particular seems intent on promoting obedience, following leaders and black & white thinking over personal revelation, inquiry or independent thought (as evidenced by the manuals).  On the upside, local ward cultures vary quite a bit, and the church is more diverse than it purports to be.  Grade:  C+
  2. Lack of spiritual experiences.   A fourth of the youth from the article said that church services weren’t very focused on God and that they considered church attendance “boring.”  Youth who have not had personal spiritual experiences are more likely to consider church irrelevant to their daily lives.
    • LDS Parallels:  On the upside, there is a lot of focus on gaining a personal testimony, daily prayer, serving a mission (at least for 49% of members) and application-based teaching, and we’ve also seen a big improvement in Christ-centered talks (rather than program-centered).  On the downside, spirituality is sometimes confused with sentimentality.  Individuals who have not had meaningful personal spiritual experiences struggle to fit in with a culture focused on testimony-bearing and certainty.  This seems like overplaying a strength to the point that it becomes a weakness.   Grade: A-
  3. Anti-science views.  The feeling is that religions are for the overconfident and undereducated.  A third in the article felt churches are antagonistic to science, and a fourth of young people were specifically turned off religion by their church’s anti-evolution stance.  Schools: 1; Churches: 0.
    • LDS Parallels:  I recently posted on the topic of creationism being taught in seminary, despite the fact that the church does not have an anti-evolution stance and evolution is taught at BYU.  The church also has difficulty distancing itself from anti-science statements of long-dead leaders, so these outdated statement proliferate.  On the upside, the 2 Mormon GOP candidates are the only ones who aren’t burying their heads in the sand on science, and several prominent church leaders have been scientists.  Grade: B+
  4. Sexual stance is unnavigable.  Young people view the Christian stance on sexuality as too simplistic.  40% of Catholics in their 20s feel that the church’s teachings on sex and birth control are out of date (apparently Mormons agree since we no longer prohibit birth control).  The other issues cited:  1) delayed marriage trend makes it harder to live a celibate life, 2) those who have not been celibate feel judged, and 3) sexuality is viewed more positively than in previous generations, as part of having a whole life.  Interestingly, the study showed that as many young Christians are sexually active as non-Christians are.  They’re just not happy about it. 
    • LDS Parallels:  These are the same issues Mormon YSAs face.  For some, it’s mitigated by a strong tendency to marry within the LDS faith, but for those who do not marry young for whatever reason, the pickings are slimmer.  However, many never-married LDS seem to be committed to chastity at least in principle (not questioning its relevance entirely).  And many who’ve “done the deed” return into full grace somewhat seamlessly, unless the wedding invitations have already gone out.  The article didn’t mention homosexuality; accordingly, my grade does not include it either.  (For gay members, I’d have to give an F on this one until there is a workable solution).  Otherwise, Grade:  B
  5. Exclusivity vs. diversity.  Young people today are raised in a multi-cultural environment that values tolerance, diversity, open-mindedness and acceptance.  More than ever before, they are surrounded by people of different races, faiths, and cultures.  There is a tendency to downplay real differences.  When churches focus on exclusivity claims, this creates discomfort for those raised to value diversity and seek common ground.
    • LDS Parallels:  On the upside, as a convert church that sends missionaries around the world, we constantly have an influx of diversity.  On the downside, there is a lot of cultural conformity required for acceptance.  Those in Utah or where the church is prominent may be more immune to this divide (and less exposed to diversity), but overall: Grade:  C-
  6. Doubters not welcome.  Young people in the article felt that church is not a safe place to express doubt and that their church’s response to doubts is trivial and inadequate.  For some, doubts are linked to depression.  Given #5 on this list, if doubters are not accepted, it can mean doubters feel marginalized, like outsiders in an exclusive club.
    • LDS Parallels:  On the downside, the church has a strong culture of how to express beliefs; expressing doubts in the church is discouraged and can be risky.  Doubters often report encountering hostility.  We would do a better job in focusing on seeking after truth rather than declaring that we corner the market on it.  On the upside, members come to blogs to chat about their cognitive dissonance and cultural disconnect!  Grade:  D+

The article also suggested that churches err either in doing too much or too little to cater to the young people.  What do you suggest to address these gaps?  Do you disagree with my assessment of how we are doing?  Do you think the church is getting better or worse at bridging the divide?  Should it even try, or does that erode the “value proposition” of the church?  How do we compare to Christianity in general on these generational issues?  Discuss.