The following is a rough draft synthesis of an analysis I have seen floating around. As you read it, ask yourself what is right about the analysis and where does it go wrong.
In the 1970 and 1980s the Church did a lot of high quality statistical analysis. I remember sitting in a group while a general authority used an overhead projector to review a lot of it. As I took notes, he smiled and told me I didn’t need to, the results were all expected to be published shortly. That never happened (and, interestingly enough, MormonLeaks and WikiLeaks never obtained the information).
Some of it wasn’t surprising. A scouting program adds nothing to whether or not young men have positive life outcomes. The initial result of that was to stop trying to expand scouting for church units outside of the United States and to attempt to find an alternative program. The problem with the efforts at finding an alternative was that the people assigned to try kept producing scouting clones. As a result, the system has not moved very far since scout camps and infrastructure provide external resources that the Church does not have and there has been a creative gap.
Other things were also interesting. The most direct statistical forecast of children succeeding (defined as going to college, temple marriage and missions) was whether or not their parents paid tithing. That item of data was expressly off-limits in all forms – it lends itself too readily to the prosperity gospel sorts of abominations that are out there and the church was unwilling to even provide data that gave a hint of that stench. A far second was church attendance.
Also important was the peer group. One or two good kids could make or break a congregation’s youth in terms of what they did and where they went.
At the same time they were doing the analysis, the Church began to look at what is the role of a church, a community and a government and just what should a church focus on (it was even the title of a group of overhead projector transparencies). That led to the various efforts to reduce the time in meetings and the community building aspects of the Church as those were not seen as “church” things.
So, where has it led us?
In the 1980s, demographic analysis of Mormons in Utah and similar areas showed that they were definitely happier and better adjusted than their neighbors. Since then, the data seems to indicate that isn’t so much the case (though the data is for Utah, not Church members). The changes since 1980 have been more non-Mormons in Utah, less vitamin D (due to less tanning and more sunscreens) and a dramatic reduction in community.
If you are a leader, you probably don’t notice it as much. Leaders have a reduced burden from having less community and fewer activities and meetings. They are at the top of a social hierarchy and receive more than enough positive social interaction from the Church. They have all the community they could possibly want, and the increase in leader worship in the Church has strengthened that.
But normal members, especially those who are not part of the “same twenty people” (a growing trend in the Church for each ward to be run by a small social clique that runs everything and involves others only to have them put up chairs, vacuum the carpet and wash the dishes), are seeing less community and less social interaction related to their church attendance.
It has been striking to me the number of people who complain that the only thing the Church wants them for is to pay tithing and do janitorial chores. Janitorial chores and money is all the Church asks from them or has them participate in. The Church is no longer a part of what defines their community.
There is a steady call for outreach and love to those who have left. But the question is, what do we invite them to come to? Basically if you’ve left the Church and come back you get the chance to sit in a pew and listen to the same repeating lessons for three hours a week, and maybe get invited to wash dishes or pick up trash at the much rarer activities.
There is no community building going on, and no community to bring people back to. “Come back” is the message, but the unanswered question, is what are people expected to come back to?
Now, was it a good decision to decide that the Church did not need to community build? It definitely led to reduced growth. Reduced growth of the Church means cash surpluses (compared to heavy growth resulting in cash deficits from buildings being raised and other expenses). It means that the “burden” of leadership is much less in many meaningful ways and the rewards are, or can be, much greater.
It also means that outside of what the Church offers the leadership, the people at the top and the same twenty people at the local level, many, many units offer nothing to engage anyone past sitting in the pews and being asked to provide manual labor. Nothing new in the lessons, no community to participate in, it might as well be a cattle call class with the material presented on old videotapes recycled every four years and the students asked to sweep and mop the floors afterwards.
What do you think?
- What is correct in that analysis?
- What is wrong with the above analysis?
- Has the loss of community had anything to do with the dramatic reduction in the growth of the Church?
- Are the repeating curriculums really that boring after several repeats?
- Is the Church really just a place for “the same twenty people” or is that grossly overstated?
- What other thoughts do you have?
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I’m expecting some robust disagreement and comment on the post. It may be written in the first person, but that is a presentation style of the synthesis I’m engaged in by writing this post. Don’t worry about bruising my feelings in pointing out flaws. I’m just presenting what I’ve been seeing discussed in a consolidated way.
I’m probably wrong, but also not defending the thesis, just sharing it for commentary and reflection.
I will offer a few comments towards some of your questions.
Has the loss of community had anything to do with the dramatic reduction in the growth of the Church?
I am old enough to remember roadshows and regular exciting youth trips. I am not so much sure cutting these has decreased the GROWTH, but I do think it has impacted the retention. Too much of the social “bonding” I see in the church now is more along the lines of, “We are great, the world is bad and going downhill fast, aren’t you glad you are with us!”.
Are the repeating curriculum’s really that boring after several repeats?
YES – and sometimes repeatedly offensive (milk stripping story over and over). I just read a few days ago at By Common Consent a post diving into Martin Luther. I commented that I would read a book to prepare for a good conversation about that topic. I can’t even force myself to read the next week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson ahead of time.
Is the Church really just a place for “the same twenty people” or is that grossly overstated?
When I was in bishoprics I really saw there is SOME truth to that. But I do think I saw when a ward I was in split and I wondered how in the world the other ward was going to cover the critical positions. This other ward had very little of the existing leadership after the split. But some people that were inactive stepped up when called on to fill key roles. They felt needed. Unfortunately most were unable to continue and fell back into inactivity after two or so years.
I’m probably one of those twenty people but I feel that too. Since we got rid of activity committees and ward activities, and there’s only an annual Christmas party that always conflicts with the school choir concert and maybe a quarterly RS event few attend, I just don’t feel very connected to my ward members (and I live in Utah where they are also my neighbors, fellow carpool parents, etc). The early church had so much community building–literally, building temples and homes and cities from the ground up–that we lack. No sacrifice to bring us together. Temple worship and family history work, such a focus these days, is a very individual pursuit. And yes, sometimes I want to skip GD because I can’t handle the same lesson one more time.
Part of the problem is that creating the lesson manuals, like creating a concordance, is very fulfilling but reading the same is not.
We have a split where the fulfilling activities are clustered with the people who also have more than enough community while those who have no community also are on the end without fulfillment.
HH—why were they unable to continue? It is interesting that they stepped up but then faltered instead of flourishing.
acw— I hear a lot of that. The only new trend is boundary enforcement. I’ve actually heard of wards where non-members who show up with bare shoulders are told to leave instead of invited in. I don’t see that sort of boundary enforcement as welcoming them to come back.
In recent years, I have often wondered how different our situation would look if instead of the push since 1995 to “defend the family,” we had been seeking to “build community.” The single, childless, widowed, LGBT, divorced, etc who did not fit the ideal mould would be viewed as part of the bigger picture instead of deviations from the norm.
I have been making this point for a while, the more anecdotally. The Church of my youth was centered around roadshows, competitive sports, meals, laughter, and fun. The spiritual stuff was mostly reserved for boring Sunday meetings, but the heart of the Church was the camaraderie and friendship I felt in the gatherings on other days. Over the last decade or so there has been an effort to not only decrease the number of non-Sunday events but to also require them to always have some cliche and forced spiritual purpose.
Stephen – I didn’t have a deep talk with any of the individuals once I was out of the ward. But many of these individuals seemed to me just not that interested in giving that much to the church. A reasonable “heavy” calling just fatigued them. At least that was what happened in the past. Several times we would try and reactive them, but it was just like an engine with no gas – as soon as you disengaged the starter, the engine came to a rest.
Couple of somewhat wandering thoughts.
I wish you’d given some kind of explanation for your visuals. I can’t quite puzzle through what they are trying to say. (What do R – H – L – D stand for?)
That said, I have mixed feelings. I grew up in a family of social outcasts in the 70/80s and so the social aspects of the church were nothing but an opportunity to have that reinforced (I was bullied by the other kids, as was my career-oriented mother). Of course, so was Sunday meetings. In someways I don’t miss them at all. But I think my kids do. I think there is also something to be gained by families socializing as families – with the kids off hanging out together, the parents chatting, etc.
I feel zero connection to my current ward and openly avoid anything except Sunday meetings. I spent 10 years before moving to this ward in that inner-circle who does everything. It made me miserable. The pressure was just too much and I didn’t end up bonding to the other inner-circle women. My friends *still* ended up being the converts/other oddballs.
Our current ward (outside of RS) tends toward ward activities where very few people have to do anything other than show up. So a ‘just-come trunk-or-treat, Holiday Breakfast with Santa, Picnic at the park. This is probably because the ward council doesn’t have the time/energy/desire to organize a full on social event. I used to ward Christmas parties, and let me tell you, it was easily a 100 hour job over a three month period.
I’m going to guess the correlation between tithing paying and success of kids has little to do with causation and instead shows that paying tithing is a good metric for family engagement. I wonder (and I bet the church has these numbers) what percentage of kids leave the church from the inner-circle families as compared to the outer (darkness?) families and how has that changed in the Millennial generation. That we have this very distinct dividing line between inner/outer is somewhat sad. In our ward, it is a division between traditional/Utah Mormons and the rest of us. All of our bishops are Utah transplants (several within weeks of moving here). In setting the ward power structure up that way, we lose what makes our small town unique. It’s an ag area with families that go back a hundred years. But those families tend to be on the outskirts. I wonder if this is *because* they don’t do things in a Utah way, nor are they white collar workers. I also can’t think of a Bishop who was blue collar, either.
I think the other important piece here is that in the US, society is moving away from the ultra-outgoing extroversion of the 1920-80s. Computers, cell phones (and I believe a natural correcting of a cultural imbalance started by Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’) are allowing people to be more introverted. And introverted individuals (I raise hand here as a card carrying introvert) don’t want a social group of 250. Instead they want a group of 4 total. VT / HT could fill this, but I’ve yet to have that happen as the routes are assigned and not natural.
With all that, if the true power of the church is its sense of community (and I think this is one of the major strengths), then building a community does seem vital to long term survival. I wonder at how this works differently outside of t he US.
“No sacrifice to bring us together,” as written by acw also seems very, very significant.
One more thought…
It seems like part of this is a focus on running successful church programs as described in the handbook. The program has become so important, the actual needs of the people in the program have been forgotten.
Great questions and a great post. I’m with Happy Hubby on a lot of this stuff. I don’t think I can make any general comments about community at church because of the fact that since I’m a vocal proponent of gay marriage, women getting the priesthood, etc., I’m already at the margins and am somewhat of a social pariah. So I don’t know how well my ward actually does with the community angle, though a lot of us seem really busy with our own lives and don’t really spend a lot of “extra” socializing time at church.
Having said that, yes, the repeating curriculums are absolutely maddening. My teenage kids are bored out of their skulls with it and they haven’t heard it thirty times over like I have. Also, the manuals do so much whitewashing that anyone who knows the barest bit of church history would be able to pick out the false (or at least misleading) bits. That’s discouraging and frankly, leads to the kind of dividing line that was the subject of a quite recent post at W & T about the different approaches to belief in the LDS culture. I definitely see that the TBMs in my ward are rather suspicious of folks who read things metaphorically and tend not to be scriptural literalists. And those folks are seen as a threat to the church in my ward by the aforementioned TBMs, which fact really does not enhance the chances of strengthening community ties. I think the insistence on orthodoxy is definitely one thing that works against any kind of inclusive vibe. I’m wondering if other folks on here notice a similar divide in their units.
And I also agree that we seem to have gotten to a place where just plain old socializing isn’t good enough. I take Lloyd Isao Ericson’s comment about “forced spiritual purpose” to heart as that’s my experience as well. As if it’s not good enough to just hang out with folks and further cement bonds of friendship and fellowship. I always thought that was the fundamental aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ anyway.
This is a double edged sword. When I grew up virtually every activity I participated in was church related. We had church softball, church basketball, scouts, ward activities, ward campouts, etc. My stake has outlawed ward campouts, scouts can’t camp on Sundays any more, no church sports where I live. Most of me is actually happy we have less church stuff. Those things have been replaced (for those of us with kids) with club sports, AP classes, IB programs, music lessons, dance lessons, and 20+ hours of homework a week. It is different for empty nesters and young couples who might have time and interest to dedicate to church.
I am happy not everything must revolve around the church but I can imagine a time when my kids live in different states and my wife and I are lonely and need more involvement with church or anything for that matter.
I think another challenge is that a lot of the expected community/social bonds depend in some degree on proximity (a ward covering a small area). When a ward is spread out, it gets hard to create or maintain relationships. I love both my home teaching families but they’re an hour round-trip from my house–I’m just not able to meet them every month, let alone have the kind of social activities I’d like to have. I’ve never seen my own home teachers over the entire year I’ve lived in this ward.
Distance alone is not an insurmountable barrier, but when the leadership trying to set the cultural expectations bases them on a Western US ward that can be walked end-to-end in ten minutes…and if anyone raises an eyebrow, we get stories about faithful Saints in other countries who travel days to get to church. (An RM from one of those areas once explained to me, “That’s true that some members travel that long to get to church, but the stories never mention that they only come to church twice a year.”)
There is no way most US families would have the time to staff and participate in the type of programs that were done like roadshows etc. The world has changed. The church couldn’t bring that level of weekday social involvement back if it wanted to because people are doing other things. As far as “janitorial service” in my area that is done by the leaders. Definitely not by anyone on the margins.
Great post, Stephen.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I think the loss of individual belief in the traditional narrative increases the importance of the utility of the church. If one doesn’t believe the dogma, perhaps the community aspects can keep one in the community. Unfortunately, I think the focus has long been on the dogma, leaving practically no room for those who do not believe it.
As for the lessons, they are catechism. Genuine, vulnerable discussions are not encouraged. Our youth’s interest is not improved by focusing on one subject all three hours each week of the month.
In my ward we have members of the stake presidency and people who have left the church helping to clean the building.
However,in my last ward, for socials and parties marginalized members were often contacted to do the cleanup and similar tasks.
Profile: Born in the late 40’s, life-long, highly active in the church, many leadership positions. Always were one of the STPs (same ten people). Never lived in UT except as a student. Last 25 years have been in the Phoenix area. And, NOT Mesa (which has a considerable Utah County vibe.)
Has the loss of community had anything to do with the dramatic reduction in the growth of the Church?
–As someone said earlier, only in so far as retention has been weakened.
Are the repeating curriculums really that boring after several repeats?
–Oh, h-e-double L YES!
Is the Church really just a place for “the same twenty people” or is that grossly overstated?
–No (and 20 is more accurate than 10). There is some turnover in this group that essentially run the ward as people move away or pass away, but there is always a relatively small group that provide that backbone.
What other thoughts do you have?
–There has been a 10+ year trend here (and there is some evidence that this isn’ t just local) to make wards ever smaller. The wards in our stake average 100 to 130 attendance at sacrament meetings! With an activity rate of 35
% to 40% (in one ward) that means the pickings are pretty thin when callings need to be filled. The “rationale” given by the “stake” is that smaller wards require Bishops to involve younger, less-experienced people, more members on the fringe/margins of past experience and activity level–as contrasted with simply training the bishops to do that. BUT, our dear leaders, with all their contact with God’s inspiration (one stake president, while slicing and dicing multiple wards to create a new one, actually said “angels are attending us,” fail to place any/insufficient emphasis on the potential damage a small ward does to the youth (let alone to we parents and empty nesters). If you have youth classes, Dens, Troops, quorums, etc, with few members it is more difficult for all but the most socially confident to find someone else to connect to–and so disaffection becomes easier. Kids and youth don’t go to church because of a desire to feel spiritual, they go to be with their friends. A similar problem is found with the ever-shrinking number of (community-building) social events for adults. There will be only 6-10 High Priests at the one or two socials each year, and I may not like/be able to converse with more than 1-3 of them…if those few choose to attend.
fbisti – In our small ward, we combine with other wards for all youth activities. Seminary, Mutual, all Firesides, Scouting. So the only time the kids are in small group is Sunday meetings. I’d never seen that before here, but it seems like a good idea. Also makes scheduling the building easier.
I think the comments reflect the complexity of the issues and that I Obviously don’t know enough.
There is a major effort to help more than the top 20 people to fully engage in our ward. I rarely attend GD class but I have noticed good attendance in gospel principles class. The youth get a variety of presentations in class because of the difference in the various teachers. This is the. case on Sunday and in seminary. The various seminary classes have former bishops and career women as teachers. There have also been younger men and women teaching at times.
I want to echo some above comments about the community building. The activities that involve multiple wards around here including seminary and cub scouts have been great at involving most kids. There have been 2 recent weddings that had the start of the relationship in seminary class with another ward. 2 of the local bishops have lived in other local wards and make efforts to integrate some activities.
Excellent post and interesting comments. I’m in the ‘worn out’ camp where for all of my life from the age of 13 I had at least one calling and frequently 3, so I’m happy to see a slimmed down program, but I think it does put the onus on ourselves to socialise. Having other families back to lunch on Sundays, involving each other in leisure activities, and allowing our kids to engage with no mos with whom they have something in common.But of course, that’s a dangerous path.
Another important part of this I think needs to be a greater emphasis on the social aspect of home and visiting teaching. In my perfect world I’d be having a shared lunch with all my VT sisters every 4 months. Just difficult to find the space. And munch and mingle doesn’t burden anyone in particular. All stuff that doesn’t require a committee.
“allowing our kids to engage with no mos with whom they have something in common.But of course, that’s a dangerous path.”
Was this meant to be taken seriously? If yes, I’m somewhat shocked and wonder where you live (and wonder what the Non0Mormons think of Mormon families who aren’t allowed to be their friends).
In my life, the tremendous burden of being a local church leader was like Chinese water torture. As a struggling married student with kids popping out as soon as we were married, I remember sitting in a tithing settlement, listening to the bishop wonder why we didn’t pay fast offering. I couldn’t believe we were contributing 10 percent of our sorely needed income and this middle-aged man was complaining it wasn’t more.
Now, as a former member, I kick myself for giving an unreasonable amount of myself and family time to the church. When I think back that my parents couldn’t see our wedding, I feel like I was at Jonestown but thankfully wasn’t asked to drink the poison.
That being said, community is the lasting value of Mormonism. My wife, as she has transitioned to life as a non-Mormon, often mentions the difficulty of replacing being needed and loved by her Mormon friends. She now has a musical group she volunteers in but it doesn’t offer the cross-generational opportunities a church does.
We were one of the 20. It took its toll on me but my wife was always happy to be over-extended. In the end, with a gay son, she felt utter absence of god in the the apostate-gay policy (sorry I don’t know what that is called) and left.
I appreciate the thoughtful articles here. Very interesting that church leaders did not want to further the prosperity gospel idea. It has seemingly been so pervasive in church thought over the years.
It seemes there has been a trend toward more rigidity in the past several years and I wonder how that has affected the building of a church community? It works fine if one fits the “cookie-cutter,” (seminary, scouts, BYU, mission, temple marriage etc) but not so fine if one doesn’t. “Letter-of-the law” leadership can exist anywhere–and functions well for those so inclined, but not for those who aren’t.
In my current ward I have little desire to be part of the “community.”
It is uncomfortable for my husband and I to attend anything beyond sacrament meeting because sometimes we have different opinions as to what/how something is being taught.
Does making people a “project”–trying to push them toward the cookie cutter work?
Has the missionary program, and changes, resulted in a net plus in retention?
In answer to your question REtX, been there, done that, no active children. Love my children’s nomo friends.
But there are those who might see us as having brought our current situation upon our own heads. Tough one. At this point we have to manage our investment in the church community in order to not become spiritually overdrawn.
I guess I’m still not clear. Are you saying your kids left the church because they were friends with non-Mormons (not sure if you are defining nomo as Non-Mormon or No-More-Mormon)? And that some people see this is your fault for not being isolated enough?
Across the 3 wards I have lived in (in as many years) the common trend I see is that most of the remaining “community” aspects of church are being driven by the baby boomer/empty nesters. They tend to be the largest age cohort of active adult members in my ward, they run all of the social activities, and they seem to be the only ones that actively participate in gospel doctrine classes (the subject matter usually caters to their generational points of view anyway). One could posit that this is probably because they are mostly retired and have more free time than those of us with young children. But I think it is also because they are more invested emotionally than succeeding generations–they have a living memory of the days before the 3-hour block, when church occupied a larger footprint in people’s day-to-day lives, and was more of a social gathering place than it is now.
I recall as a youth, after returning home from a disappointing youth conference, listening to my mom go on for an hour about how youth activities were way more fun in her day. They got to go to amusement parks, baseball games, concerts/theater, with maybe a Paul Dunn fireside, etc. We got manual labor service projects and artificial forced spiritual experiences. No wonder my generation is not enthusiastic to pick up the torch.
I think the reason y’all don’t have roadshows anymore is because you drove out all the gay theatre nerds.
I remember the ward talent shows and even a musical troupe being invited to set up in the gym, I mean “cultural hall.” But all this was prior to 1995. Ever since, your leaders have ratcheted up the us vs them, and I’m guessing a whole lot of people — be they LGBT+, introverts, or what have you — felt much more pressure to either conform or leave.
I still remember coming home from YSA events wanting to kill myself, and praying desperately that I could find and rescue someone else who felt as awful at these things as I did.
As someone said above, even the classes don’t allow any discussion of different points of view, and unless you can express your point of view, and have it respected, you do not feel included. But only primary, and conservative answers are acceptable.
I was pleasently surprised recently, to not having trouble getting a temple recommend. Made me feel a little more accepted.
Good to see others recognizing this as well:
A few thoughts:
If people were actually using home teaching and visiting teaching as a springboard to form actual friendships, and not just make a monthly visit, I feel it would fill a lot of the gap and a lot of the needs of the ward members and bring about a stronger community.
The same could be said about focus on actually applying the gospel principles learned (i.e. praying for opportunities to serve, share the Gospel, and then putting our foot forward as a ward to go out and find service opportunities in the community of various kinds).
As for the general feel of Church meetings, I’m hopeful that the new changes in the curriculum come January 2018 will help these to be more of a discussion, more personal, more spontaneous and edifying.
P.S. Given what you shared, I’m glad the Church has largely done away with a focus on Scouting, though I do have fond memories of being with the young men in my ward and being out in nature. I cared very little for the badges or anything of that sort. It also was not a good enough interest for some of the ym in the ward.