Some recent statistical analysis (which has huge problems as it is grossly in accurate for dates before 1970 or so since activity rates increased between 1960 and 1973) reveals that the trend of increasing inactivity started in the 1980s — long before general access to the internet or similar matters that are trendy to associate with the growth of inactives.
Which leads to the question — what happened?
The moment you take the analysis past recent navel gazing, you need to ask yourself what happened about 1980 or so? That is when the changes started, so what happened then that was different?
The answer is two things:
- The effort to create a permanent rotating curriculum.
- The effort to separate Church from Community.
The effort to create a permanent rotating curriculum has gone through a number of iterations, but around 1980 or so, they started rolling out manuals that were to last forever. Those priesthood/relief society manuals did not, but we have had the rotating four year scripture study program going a long time. The current priesthood/relief society manuals, while they focus on different prophets, are attempts to derive the same core values and messages from each of them, more or less — a stated goal of correlation.
This leads to boredom.
Think how many people read the material for Sunday School class. There are many excellent instructors, but how often do they just go through the motions pretending to teach material that people pretend to already know?
The other thing that happened is that the Church made an effort to withdraw from creating community and to encourage those same members to instead take the time that was freed up to participate in their communities outside of the Church. Most wards have vastly reduced social activities and connections from what congregations had in the 1970s. We have a consolidated meeting schedule. We no longer have as many meetings during the week and we have far, far fewer social activities. This creates the result that we are no longer socially connected to each other. Not only are Mormons ceasing to be an ethnic group, in many cases we are ceasing to be friends.
The result is that people are bored with Church and lack the social rewards of participating in social activities.
This means that we are much more separated by political differences, the progressives from the traditionalists, because those political and social differences are more key to our identity than our membership in the Church. Those communities are where our social hearts lie.
As for doctrine, our doctrinal hearts are so simplified that they lack meaning to many beyond a core that can be found almost anywhere.
I don’t have a solution. However, it is important to realize what the problem is not and what is causing inactivity rather than what happens that is symptom of the causes. Most of the things we think of as causes are symptoms of the loss of community and the feeling that rather than progressing in learning and understanding (progressing from milk to meat, so to speak) we are only recycling used milk.
Until we reverse that, we are creating an environment that for many offers less and less every year.
What do you think?