An interesting discussion happened on our backlist a few days ago. [Every group blog has a supersecret private group or email list where perms talk about things like rumors overheard in Sunday School, bad jokes heard at family reunions, and diets that actually work.] The topic du jour was the surprising and credible report that core membership statistics — things like temple attendance, temple recommend holders, and payment of tithing — are up, contrasted with more general membership difficulties like the constant stream of faith crisis discussions (even in LDS publications), the Gospel Topics Essays as damage control, and lots and lots of reports of regular active members who choose inactivity or complete exit from the Church. So what’s going on?

Here was my comment in the discussion:

So in practice it is becoming an up or out church, although the rhetoric tells an everybody-is-welcome-here story.

Unpacking this a bit, up or out systems are seen in elite institutions like big law firms or university departments or the foreign service, where after an initial period of employment and experience, say five to seven years, you either get promoted or terminated. In the LDS Church, if one chooses not to move up the standard path of LDS life achievements (seminary, mission, temple marriage, accepting callings) … well, you don’t get terminated, you just get a lot of pressure to “do the right thing,” and if you don’t then you may never quite be welcomed into the clubhouse anymore.

The subtle but persistent pressure to make those standard choices has gone up over the last few decades, creating the up or out sense I referred to. The broadly welcoming rhetoric is still what is preached. Once you’re in, the up or out pressure is what is practiced. Some marginal Mormons do get back in the game, so the core membership statistics are up. But the campaign to make that happen also pushes some marginal members completely out the door and maybe out of the Church. So the reports of people leaving are up as well. The up or out pressure explains both increased core statistics and overall declines. At least that was my take on the issue.

There were insightful thoughts offered by other contributors to the backlist discussion: (1) The decline in overall participation is also observed (and in fact is generally worse) in other denominations. (2) The decline of religion that has been evident in Europe for more than a century is only now happening in America. (3) The Church has always used a sense of elitism (as in “you are the chosen generation”) to strengthen commitment. (4) The leadership is very aware that the age of growth by missionary conversion is drawing to a close, so they are stressing families and retention to foster more internal growth. These are all great points. I’m sure readers have a few more ideas to add. No doubt some will reject the idea tout court and, in view of the continued building of new temples and the impressive growth in the LDS financial portfolio, tell us that all is well in Zion.

As I’ve kicked this discussion around in my head the last couple of days, I focused on one big change that seems to support a shift in LDS leadership perspective and strategy: lowering the missionary age for young men to 18. It certainly hasn’t produced better prepared or more mature missionaries. It seems quite evident now that the change hasn’t improved the missionary program or the quality of the convert pool at all. But it has moved more young LDS into missionary service, although even that is a mixed result given the larger percentage of missionaries who return home early, a fairly traumatic event within LDS culture, although it shouldn’t be. If the program most dedicated to producing external conversions gets shifted in order to increase and strengthen *internal* conversions (the missionaries themselves), that is strong evidence supporting #4 above. The great age of Mormon conversion is over.

But wait, there’s more. An alternative view of the age change move also occurred to me. Few people have talked about the impact of the age change for women, who can now serve at age 19 rather than 21. Suddenly a lot more young women are electing to serve missions and they are thrilled to do so. We might wring our hands about sending out 18 year olds, but that’s just the young men who serve. The impact on young women seems to be much more positive. The young women I have seen leave to serve missions from my ward and the sister missionaries serving in my area are just top notch. I don’t know how that relates to the larger issue outlined above, but if we are going to comment on the change to 18 as, at best, a mixed blessing, we ought to also note how positive the change to 19 for young women has been. As Alice Cooper once sang, “Well I’m 19 and I can do what I want, and I want to serve a mission.” Something like that.