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“Sorry we were late, Gammy. We had 3 hours of church plus an hour commute each way.”

A recent article explained actions the church is taking to deal with attrition in northern Europe by consolidating struggling wards into larger wards to spread out the leadership responsibilities. To those who served missions in these areas, these changes are disappointing. The church has always struggled in these areas of the world. Some have observed that the solution seems more typical for a US stake. Local and personalized plays better in the towns of Europe where megachurches and Costcos are not the cultural norm. The article points out the downside of the changes, in particular to missionary work:

At the same time the abolition of Church units is also contraction: in Europe it erases the Mormon presence in city after city and reduces the Church’s visibility. It is therefore also an admission of failure: all those cities that were “opened” decades ago, with dedicatory prayers, promises and prophecies, did not make it.

He points out that the shift is toward multi-generational families rather than converts because retention among converts is low.

It explains why consolidation aims at creating more opportunities for teenagers and young single adults, children of Mormon families, to meet weekly, find a partner in the church, marry and produce the next generation. Moreover, an older Mormon generation always puts a significant amount of pressure on the younger generations to remain active. The expectations of (great)-grandparents and parents to see children baptized, advance in the priesthood, go on missions, and marry in the temple are powerful leverages to stay in the Church, even if the younger generations may lack the deep convictions of their progenitors.

In an Ensign article about the Culture of the Gospel, Elder Oaks said:

As we seek to establish the Church in Africa and other nations, we must have third- and fourth-generation faithful Latter-day Saint families in our leadership and membership. Faithful Latter-day Saints who move to another country weaken the Church in their homeland. Of course the Church does not forbid its members from moving from one place to another to better themselves, but it has been many years since the Church has encouraged such emigration.

Bednar’s training graphic.

This implies that wards are struggling in other areas because members have migrated to the US in some cases which is no longer encouraged. Consolidating wards might help alleviate some of the issues that drive members (or their children) to migrate. Most of the European converts I know who moved to Utah did so either 1) to attend BYU so they could more easily find a Mormon spouse, or 2) because they found a Mormon spouse. If it will help the ratios, I’m willing to move to Europe to even things out; however, my own days on the marriage market are long over.

The desire for third- and fourth-generation families (aka “multi-generation” families) is a recent drumbeat we are hearing from church headquarters. Elder Bednar also talked about it in the recent push for Sabbath observance. His talk is discussed in Rebecca J’s excellent post at By Common Consent here.

“The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in the church is to make available the priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and woman and their children to be sealed together and happy at home. Period. Exclamation point. End of sentence. That’s it. . . in the savior’s restored church on the earth today, multi-generational families are a primary source of spiritual strength and continuity. A young seedling develops into a mature tree and produces seeds that fall to forest floor. As conditions are right, the new seeds germinate, begin to grow and the cycle is renewed.”

I’m not crazy about this thinking for several reasons. First of all, I’m second generation, so clearly not good enough by this measure–I’m not the “source of spiritual strength and continuity,” so I must be, by default, a drain on it (?). I’m reminded of the justification to add wives to church leaders because they had “believing blood” while men without such status were left to shift for themselves (to say nothing of the chattel status of the women). Elitism is antithetical to the gospel in which all are equal before God, but we seem to be very human in our persistence in identifying and rewarding the “elites” in our congregations.

Additionally, it feels like we are confusing correlation and causation. We don’t know how to create multi-generational families or why some children leave and others do not. For those who have children leaving, it feels a whole lot like victim blaming. Parents who are already wounded often have kids who have left due to things outside the parents’ control (in no particular order): the church’s misguided culture wars, congregations’ ignorant comments, Biblical literalism, the white-washed correlated lessons that a quick google search reveals to be fictional, or the emphasis on obeying leaders rather than having a personal relationship with God and seeking one’s happiness within the gospel.

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The competition.

This focus is bad for a few reasons: 1) we don’t actually know how to “create” multi-gen families, 2) what used to work doesn’t any more, 3) the most stalwart obey-at-all-cost parents will eat their young in defense of the church (withholding inheritances, etc.). That just results in familial estrangement and resentment, not multi-gen congregations. It’s like a doctor telling you to lose weight without diagnosing any potential factors: genetics, diet, exercise, psychological motives for eating, social habits, your actual BMI, etc. That kind of panacea results in eating disorders, serial dieting, and other unhealthy outcomes; it also usually doesn’t change what a person weighs. The simplistic idea that Sabbath observance is the key to keeping kids in the church is no more a panacea than skipping pancakes. It’s not a bad idea, but you can still get fat without eating pancakes.

Strong Mormon families with children (and with a car) tend to welcome the consolidation. They may gratefully accept the closure of their unit where they may have been the only “normal” family carrying the burden of a struggling branch for years.

From another discussion forum, “Reuben” notes that if we are focused on multi-generational families, we are over-reliant on cultural belonging and not enough on actual conversion.

I think “faithful parents produce faithful children” worked better in pre-Internet days. It relies on parents’ worldviews being transmitted pretty much intact. This requires a good deal of isolation from competing worldviews and disconfirming facts. We need to update our worldviews, which is really hard and takes time, and think of our children more as potential converts than as hearts and minds that rightfully belong to the Church. Then, if we’re attracting and keeping external converts, we’ll naturally make internal converts.

It feels like a vote of no confidence in the gospel’s ability to transform lives without the blackmail of familial pressure to bolster it.

Another issue with this focus on multi-generational families is that convert families are often part-member families, and European culture prizes family time, including extended family members. The article also points out cultural difficulties that come with increased travel times due to the consolidation that put pressure on interfaith relationships within families. While local members were told that the maximum travel time would only be 45 minutes, that was assuming that each person would have access to a car, not at all a given in European cities where many ride bikes or rely on public transportation.

In Europe, as in many other parts of the world where converts form the bulk, we have numerous single members and part-member families. In the best case scenario, the husband or wife accepts the half-day Sunday absence of the partner. But when the absence extends to a couple of hours more, and to more travel costs, it becomes troublesome. Similar difficulties develop with parents and grand-parents who aren’t members: the consolidation abolishes or disturbs traditions of joined Sunday afternoons. In such families often a delicate balance had been achieved as to time management between church and family, but the extra requirements may lead to breaking points. None of this bothers the multigenerational Mormon family.

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Who will be left?

The author also notes that multi-generational families tend to focus inward, choosing stake leadership from their own ranks, molding the lessons and talks to suit their interests, and underutilizing marginalized groups:

They form dynasties of “birthright members” who know each other well but who, especially among their younger generations, often seem to have little or no interest in converts, foreigners, divorcees, singles and single parents.

Simply put, we do not improve retention by focusing on multi-gen families, but by giving responsibility to converts and relying on them. Making it clear they are second class is only going to result in further problems with retention, including among the next generations we are so focused on keeping.

Some additional observations from other discussion groups:

In Europe, many are converting to other religions or joining other social movements. The fact that the LDS Church refuses to shed some of it’s culture to embrace the culture where it is trying to spread prevents its own growth. This is the classic tendency to confuse the gospel with the culture. If the church could somehow be willing to adjust its culture to fit the local needs, yet still retain the important essences of the gospel, growth would be a natural result.

It would be hard to shed some of these things, especially when multi-generational families have embraced them as a part of their own culture and identity. But if the church started to discuss the possibility of shedding (at least in certain areas) things like the 3-hour meeting block, home teaching or visiting teaching, mutual, etc. couldn’t they still maintain the core of the gospel, but tailor the delivery of that gospel to the locale rather than insisting on one-size-fits-all Mormonism that clearly doesn’t actually work for all? – “Doubting Tom”

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Bikes outside an Amsterdam church.

From “Holy Cow” a former missionary who served 18 months in the stake in question:

Demanding strict, blind obedience just doesn’t fly with the staunchly independent and proud mentality of the Dutch people. What was once three missions, is not one mission. It looks like the same thing is now happening to stakes, wards, and branches. The comments from Rachel Whipple following the article give a good picture of how this actually impacts the members directly. In an area where membership is already struggling, making members travel farther (in a country where many use train and bikes for travel) to cram into an undersized building is not going to help the membership. It will further alienate people. Especially, after this was just shoved down their throats with little to no input from members. In many areas, members will go along with changes like this, but some cultures just don’t put up with being told what is best for them, with no opportunity to be a part of the decision making process. It’s a shame to see this. The church will continue to shrink in Europe, and decision made by our top leadership are contributing to the problem. :(

“SamBee” agrees with this assessment, that the Americentric church misunderstands Europe:

They’ve used completely the wrong models in Europe – boundaries drawn by outsiders, complete neglect of the countryside, misunderstanding of the Irish situation etc.


I had a few initial thoughts after reading the article:
1) My US stake just split up to make ward sizes smaller. If I were a wee bit more skeptical, I’d be thinking that one way to “cook the books” on the “growth” numbers we do is to make up for losses in Europe & elsewhere by shrinking US wards that can handle it more. That’s just my business experience speaking, so I hope it’s not the case.
2) The more the church aligns with the far right in US politics (the culture wars) the less relevant we will be in places like Europe (let alone the US) that are generally all to the left of the US’s left. Many church leaders seem so focused on Utah’s unique demographic that they don’t fully grasp anything outside the mountain west.
3) As a missionary, it was frustrating that the families who most needed the church were the least embraced by the wards in many cases. A focus on multi-gen families has serious negative downstream impacts where these families are the only ones viewed as “leadership” potential.