Once upon a time, there were Mormons … Two hundred years from now, even a hundred years from now, will that be a phrase that appears in history books? Is it possible that, having started, grown, and flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries, the LDS Church could, in the 21st and 22nd centuries, go into terminal decline? Or to avoid that outcome, would the Church be forced to adopt such drastic changes to its practices and beliefs that you and I might not recognize the LDS Church of 2119 or 2219? These are questions to ponder while getting ready to read The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church (OUP, 2019) by Jana Riess. It’s available starting next week.
I don’t have a copy yet and haven’t read the book, but there is a preview of the book by Peggy Fletcher Stack posted at the Salt Lake Tribune. The focus of the preview (and the book) is on Mormon Millennials. As you are probably aware, the problem with Millennials is that they are losing interest in religion, at least traditional organized religion. Mormon Millennials are right in stride with their peers in losing interest in Mormonism, at least the traditional organized version thereof (the LDS Church). You can’t fight demographics. Either the LDS Church will shrink or it will change. And big change, not the little stuff: It will take more than a renaming exercise or moving from a three-hour to a two-hour Sunday meeting schedule to stop the bleeding.
Here’s a quotation from the SL Trib piece: “[I]n the mid- to late-20th century, the LDS Church’s emphasis on the nuclear family and opposition to homosexuality were ‘an attractive feature to many Americans,’ she said. ‘Now, it’s a liability.’” Is it conceivable the Church could turn from its doctrine of family salvation and temple sealings to a doctrine that focuses on individual salvation? Could the Church possibly reverse course on its now deeply entrenched opposition to gays and gay marriage to somehow incorporate full salvation for gays into its theology and doctrine? That’s the sort of big change we’re talking about.
I’m not really politicking for that particular change, just throwing out that example to show the scale of change that would make a difference. It’s on a par with the abandonment of plural marriage (the practice, at least) in the 19th century. Ask yourself: What would the LDS Church look like today had it not abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890? It would almost certainly be much smaller, with a membership numbered in the thousands, not the millions. We wouldn’t be posting and commenting on blogs about Mormonism because there wouldn’t be much conversation about Mormonism. Because there wouldn’t be much Mormonism. On the scale of centuries rather than years, that’s a real possibility. This is a sobering thought experiment for the average Mormon of today.
A section of the SL Trib piece talks about “generational identity.” That’s an increasing challenge for the LDS Church, more so now, it seems, than in prior years. Perhaps because the Internet and smart phones have changed everything. Perhaps because the senior leadership is now three, even four generations removed from Generation Z (the most common name at this point for the generation that is coming after the Millennials). Churches grow by attracting new converts and having more babies. With both LDS conversion rates and LDS birth rates dropping, retaining as many teens and young adults as active and attending Mormons is more important than ever. But the that retention rate is dropping as well.
The Next Mormons is a troubling glimpse into the future of the LDS Church. Demographics are destiny, as they say, and right now Mormon demographics are not looking good.