The topic of why people leave the church is one that never gets old in the bloggernacle and other online Mormon discussion groups. Everyone has theories, usually self-justifying ones, to explain either why they left or why those who haven’t stayed (like themselves) were offended or stupid or lazy or whatever. Any explanation that is merely bolstering one’s own sense of rightness is likely to be partly wrong, although according to Jonathan Haidt, we don’t really know why we do what we do–it’s all post hoc justification.
I realized that I never shared my own thoughts about the infamous Mormon-leaked slide about why people leave. I thought I’d take a moment to revisit it now that it’s been a few months.
One of the key takeaways church leaders took from this presentation was that Sabbath day observance in families was the key. If families observe the Sabbath, their children won’t leave the church, so the thinking goes. Hedgehog blogged about that idea here. Most of the disaffected people I know thought that was a pretty stupid takeaway. I’m not so sure.
In defense of the Sabbath thing, when they presented this idea in our stake it was that when young people fall away it’s because their families broke the Sabbath. Aside from the obvious blame-the-parents approach that I wasn’t a big fan of, I do think there’s something to this–but only with a boatload of caveats. It has to do with how seriously the family takes church commitments in general, but I like that there’s no set way to “honor the Sabbath” (let’s also just ignore that Sunday is not actually the Sabbath for simplicity sake). So, perhaps its true that more laxity in the home leads kids to leave the church (because kids are generally less invested than the parents until they get older and start having their own kids), but I would bet you dollars to donuts that TOO MUCH Sabbath observance has the same result. I suspect this is a U-shaped curve. If you club the kids over the head with church stuff, they leave as soon as they get out from under mom & dad’s house rules because they hate it. If you’re too lax, they leave because they aren’t invested.
As to the reasons listed in the slide about why people leave, here are some thoughts.
Some of these are related to social movements or competing groups, which happens for a few reasons:
- These groups address a gap people perceive in the church
- They rise around a “cult of personality” or an individual who writes a book, creates a group, or otherwise brings together like-minded people
- They become a threat when there are enough people connected together discussing this topic and forming a group consensus. If they disagree, it’s not a threat.
I see a HUGE difference between the right and left on this, and I’m sure that’s partly because I “get” what the left is on about, but the ones on the right look like wing-nuts to me. But I’ll unbox each one briefly.
- Ordain Women. The crux here is that women have systematically been disenfranchised in the church at an increasing rate since the 1970s. The church is still trying (baby steps) to figure out how to engage women more fully without actually engaging them more fully. Personally, IMO, this one is the church having a real “all male panel” problem. Women are in a tiny little domestic box and any deviation is seen as sinful. The church’s efforts in this arena are pretty poor so far, but all of our measures for success are based on engaging men, not women. The assumption is that women will follow their husbands and that men are harder to engage.
- John Dehlin. What John did was create places for people to talk to others who were experiencing the same doubts. That’s kind of problematic from an Overton Window perspective, but the reason it happened is because wards (and the church at large) are too often hostile to doubts and doubters. This problem goes away if the church can find a way to welcome people at all levels of belief like Catholicism and other Christian faiths have. Some of the Q12 are clearly trying to address this while others are doubling down on ousting doubters.
- Denver Snuffer. He got a toehold because he talked about personal revelation and seeing the savior, and he spoke with spiritual power. We get mostly business-speak in General Conference. People were hungry for revelation and charismatic leadership. He also pointed out ways in which the church has become less revelatory and spiritual. The church brought this on through becoming political, corporate, Wasatch-front-centric, and the nepotism in how leaders are chosen.
- False Prophets. This is just a catch all category for the others like Snuffer and Robert Norman I assume. There will be more. I don’t know who they all are.
- Robert Norman. I literally never heard of this guy before this slide. I guess he’s a former CES teacher. Mary Ann wrote about it here.
- Last days/end of world predictions. Ditto the false prophets bucket – it’s just a catch all for preppers. Note that Julie Rowe, probably the most prominent prepper, isn’t named. That seems pretty sexist to me. Women aren’t taken as seriously as men. Julie Rowe, whom I consider to be a crackpot on par with the others, doesn’t merit naming.
Other things are caused by a disconnect between church culture and personal values.
- Disagree with Current Policies. I really don’t like that this slide is on the left side because that reveals / bolsters that the church’s policies are right-wing. I know they are, but they should at least pretend they are non-partisan. Also there are people on the right who don’t agree with church policies. There are a lot of policies out there. This one’s also interesting because we call something a policy when it doesn’t qualify as a doctrine and it’s seen as temporary usually and man-made vs. revealed. I guess I would say, if you have crappy policies, fix them. Stinkers like Nov. 5 are just simply terrible, and I don’t buy for a second that it was revelation. That was a ridiculous assertion. I’m equally unconvinced that the Proclamation was revelation since it was written by lawyers to give the church grounds to oppose gay marriage.
- Secular. This is lazy terminology. We are all secular to some extent. We have a lay clergy, for crying out loud! The church is secular, concerned with more than just spiritual matters–our doctrine ties up the stuff of life with spiritual matters; we don’t believe in a full separation of these things. We are run by business men at the ward and higher up levels. I suppose this refers to individuals who don’t see any value in what is spiritual, but again, I don’t think there are a lot of people like that. They just might not feel they get spiritual nourishment at church.
- Incredulity over Church History. The white-washing has come home to roost. The church caused this one, unfortunately, and they are now working to fix it, albeit a bit slowly and in some cases not very well. As we can see, even bishops haven’t read the essays.
- Lack of commitment. I suspect this is similar to the “Secular” category, just a catch all. Why don’t people commit? Perhaps they don’t feel their local wards are worth their commitment. Maybe they are busy with other things. Who knows? Are we giving them interesting things to commit to?
- Church has lost its way or is deficient. There are some on the right who feel like we’ve lost the revelatory thing and leadership is dull and uninspiring, but there are also those who feel (and this might be more on the left) that the church is intellectually lazy, manuals have all the common sense correlated out of them, lessons are proof-texting, etc. Putting it on the right misses a bunch of people, IMO, and a very important part of what needs to improve.
- Need “something more.” Perhaps this is the milk before meat (that never comes) argument. If so, I don’t think it’s on the right only. If it’s the lack of revelation, then again, we’ve got a lot of overlap with several other categories.
- Language and cultural problems “-ites.” I suspect this means the global church thing, and if so, it’s probably a byproduct of some areas where the church grew quickly but through things like baseball baptisms, and now the wards don’t have sufficient leadership to staff positions and people don’t fully understand what they are doing. Not sure. The word “-ites” is enigmatic.
And a few are personal “weakness” related, or the “fault” of the person who left.
- Chastity. Yes, this is always going to be an issue.
- Pornography. This is, IMO, completely overstated, and not because I don’t think porn can be an issue. It’s just outsize compared to how many people actually leave church because of it.
- Lack of righteousness. Well, what a catch-all category that is! Also, there are plenty of people who don’t leave who aren’t righteous or who are self-righteous (which is itself unrighteous), so this category is dumb.
- Sabbath. I already said what I had to say about that, but it’s really an overlap with secular and lack of commitment probably.
How Can We Improve?
I would contrast that with my own thoughts for what we need to do to get people more active or what would impact it:
- Be Charitable To Others. I am really put off by how my ward trash talks people who’ve left. How about we treat absent people with kindness and respect, even if they rejected something we hold dear? My old ward did not do this, and whenever I hear this, it is a huge turn off and makes me not want to go back. I thought we were supposed to be learning to be Christlike, not nursing our hurt feelings against people who left the church. I really hate this.
- Do More Service. If we were focused on organizing service events for our communities, that’s something EVERYONE could get behind regardless of the doctrines and the history and whatnot. We could bring non-members and feel like it wasn’t an embarrassment. This should be the bread & butter for churches.
- Meaningful Callings. I swear that the old adage is true that people need to feel needed and if someone doesn’t have a meaningful calling, they will fall away every time. But so many people feel underutilized.
- Bring Back Fun. We used to have fun in our wards. There were activities, road shows, campouts, etc. It seems like since we cut the activities committee, the only “activity” is cleaning the building. People want a sense of community at church. Bring back the linger longers!
What do you think would help reduce the loss of members?
Do you think the leaked slide’s reasons are accurate or not? Have your views changed since this was first made public?
Is the focus on Sabbath Day observance likely to create more “stickiness” to the church? Why or why not?