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Dave, are you joking about the leadership not being responsible for the religious product they are (trying) to sell? They provide the training, teaching materials, teaching tactics, and follow-up guidelines carried out by many people for fewer and fewer converts. I can't see how SLC isn't the principle blame for the current trends.

If there is a problem, I think we have to look deeper than recruitment, teaching, and retention "techniques". It may come down to purity in the lives of the individuals in the church.

As the world grows increasingly wicked, it requires an increase in spiritual power to overcome the opposition. If the great majority of members are satisfied with simply being "good people", without making any significant effort to improve their spiritual strength and faith, then what will distinguish us from any "traditional" Christian church ?

I suggest that if "good" members aren't continually becoming "better", then they won't have the spiritual strength to uplift and guide the "needier" members of the church.

In my experience as a youth, it seemed that a lot of conversions took place in the young adult age group - kids who were searching for their spiritual identity who had contact with LDS youth. With today's easy access to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, I wonder if those who 20 years ago would have been dealing with the challenge of bringing friends into the gospel are now instead preoccupied with the challenge of maintaining their own personal worthiness ?

Brent:

Those concerns might be true in North America, but the reason for the abysmal retention rates in Latin America is due, primarily, to people being baptized who never should have been. This in turn leads to active, converted members being swamped with callings and assignments like HT/VT. They in turn drop out themselves.

I've told this story elsewhere, but my SIL was a seminary teacher in Santiago Chile who was required by the SP to visit 70 inactive kids weekly. She finally released herself and kept going to church, but her predecessor and her replacement have both gone inactive.

For that reason, any slowdown in convert numbers in Latin America is probably good news for the Church over the long term.

When I was stake mission secretary a while ago, I calculated some retention rates among those still living in the unit in which they were baptized and those who had moved. The rates were much higher among the former group. I don't know what inferences to draw from that, however. Perhaps the two groups are otherwise identical, but the movers just fell through the cracks in their new ward where the members had no emotional investment to protect. Or perhaps the two groups are just fundamentally different, with the former more inclined to put down roots and the latter always on the move, both geographically and spiritually.

Dave, your penultimate sentence speaks volumes. The problem is that we're so busy patting ourselves on the back and blowing our own horns that we fail to see the leaks in our boat. (How's that for mixing metaphors?)

I like Brent's thoughts on this matter. I have also thought that the problem might be the rank and file membership rather than the leaders. I think that the members need to follow their leaders more closely, especially when they are asked to pray more, pray more fervently, and search the scriptures more.

Elder Holland gave a conference talk on the retention problem a number of years ago. He pointed out that many members who become inactive are simply not being spiritually fed in our Church meetings. He said that "theological twinkies" are not an adequate substitute for the scriptures in our talks and lessons. By "twinkies" he meant the cute little stories that we hear so often in our meetings.

If the members knew their scriptures better, they would do a better job of incorporating those scriptures into their talks and lessons. Then the Holy Ghost would be more likely to testify to the congregation that what they were hearing is true. The result would be much more spiritually satisfying meetings. We must preach the gospel when we speak and teach lessons, and we can't do that unless we know the scriptures better.

A related stumbling block that is interferring with the spirituality of our meetings is personal worthiness. I've been doing some research on the impact that Internet pornography is having on the Church membership; and if we can believe Internet usage statistics, and the counsel of our Church leaders, pornography has become a terrible problem among active members, largely because of the Internet. Needless to say, this is going to have a negative impact on our personal spirituality that will inevitably be reflected in our Church meetings. Without the Spirit, we cannot learn what we should from the scriptures even when we do study them. And the Spirit is not going to abide with us if we are using pornography.

Add to that the influence of television, much of which is pornographic to a degree. Americans don't read as much as they used to, largely because of the proliferation of nonprint media. We are becoming a nation of vidiots or video idiots, and this is just as true of Mormons as Americans in general. Young people especially do not read as much as those in previous generations. Is this going to impact our reading of the scriptures? Of course it is. And unless we really love and learn the scriptures, our talks and lessons are going to be shallow and uninspiring. And the result? Those who attend Church are going to find our meetings boring and otherwise unfulfilling. All we get is going to be milk, because hardly anyone is qualified to give us the meat. Why even bother going to Church when that happens?

I think this is a problem with the membership, not the leadership. I have heard our leaders constantly ask us to study the scriptures more, to avoid pornography, to seek the Spirit in our lives, to preach the gospel using the scriptures when we speak in Sacrament Meeting, to turn off our televisions and read more. It is not as if we were not being taught these things. We just aren't following very well, and we can do much better. If we don't, the problem of retention is only going to grow worse. And the Church will continue to struggle in its missionary work. When investigators and new members come out to Church, we have to have something for them. If we don't, they will stop coming.

Maybe the solution is to have stake conference broadcast from remote locations with a general authority present and have the apostles provide annual training over satellite. That will probably make more people stay in the Church.

When I hear the leaders constantly berating the members (and missionaries) about their failures in missionary work, I can't help but think of this old story:


A dog food company’s new product wasn’t selling. The big boss called his senior staff together. The heads of finance, packaging, pricing, advertising, promotion and distribution all claimed they had done everything right and were not to blame. "Why doesn’t it sell?" demanded the boss. To which a timid junior executive replied: "Sir, dogs won’t eat it."

"I might suggest that mandatory retirement for GAs at age 80 (75? 72?) and more diversity in recruiting new GAs would help broaden the LDS vision....." Amen

"And moving to a church management style that isn't cloned from corporate America ..." The problem is also that it is from corporate America circa 1950-60. A "think global, act local" approach would help greatly.

Re: #6:

Blaming the membership is just nuts. They've already bought the product. Blaming potential converts for not buying is also nuts.

The fault lies clearly with the leadership for transforming a church into a corporation.

John W. Redelfs-
While I agree that church meetings are often dull and uninspiring and that we as members must take responsibility for that, I think the leaders must also realize how their policies and council often cause conflict and alienation.

When the church was smaller maybe it made sense to base some church policies on cultural values. Today, I believe it is a major cause of inactivity and stunted growth. Someone very close to me went inactive because in being extended a stake calling he was advised that God wanted him to change his appearance and look more like the brethren. He has heard all of the counsel to be humble and just follow. He has also been told to just do what he wants, but stay in the church. Never has anyone suggested, however, that the church might stop pushing a culture, neither more or less noble than any other.

I think it is interesting to consider what is expected of someone at baptism (feel a confirmation of the spirit, have a desire to repent of your sins and strive to be more like Christ ...) and then what is later expected of members in addition to those wonderful things (men should cut their hair, wear white shirts to church, and go to college; women should have no more than one pair of earings, wear dresses to church ...). There is much more to it than these things, but maybe my point is coming across. Can we understand how for some people the gospel seems to take a back seat to culture in the church?

Just a thought, but maybe if we respected people for who they are and where they come from, we could obtain and retain more members. Maybe we could even appreciate the greater influence they will have in sharing the gospel with others who share their culture.

I understand that this is only one aspect of the issue, but for some an important one. Also, I am not talking about any part of someone's culture that is contrary to God's commandments, but those that are a part of individual expression.

John Redelfs,

One concern with your position is that Latin America, the area with the worst retention statistics in the church, is also an area where access to the internet in the home is pretty scarce among members. Unless we think that Latin American members are rushing out to look at pornography in public internet cafes (which is possible, I suppose), this argument holds no water in the region where the problem is biggest.

Don't hide history. Let people see the good, bad and the ugly, and let converts investigate for as long as they need with absolutely no pressure.

So conservative that it's turned people off?

Hmm ... interesting hypo. Would your response be the same if the LDS Church had gone "liberal" like the mainline churches, who are shrinking in numbers at a far greater rate & number?

Maybe the solution is to have stake conference broadcast from remote locations with a general authority present.

My understanding is that 1 out of the 2 Stake Conferences held each year, at least in my area (California), is going to be a video multi-Stake Conference until further notice. I don't know how others feel about video Stake Conferences, but I don't like 'em. I wouldn't be surprised if attendance at the video Stake Conferences is soon discovered to be lower than the "live" ones.

Lyle, I think you're right, it is hard to suggest "too conservative" given the numerical success of conservative Christian churches and the struggles of liberal Protestant denominations. However, the conservative sort of Protestant churches that have propered the most visibly are the newer, non-denominational suburban megachurches. In contrast, the LDS Church retains a strong denominational identity. But then, JW and SDA also have strong identity and they have not seen pronounced slowdowns as we have. It is a puzzle, isn't it?

I think John W and Ally have it right on here. We as memebers of the church need to do a better job and I think the leaders could do some things too (I know that's a safe answer, but let me explain).
John's quote of Elder Holland's talk fits perfectly. We seem to want to feel the emotions that are often attached to the Spirit (a motive many other denoms use a LOT from my experience) but don't focus enough on inviting the Spirit itself.
Pornography is a major problem and seems to only be getting worse (and yes, even in latin america where it is in the street and in all the homes, etc., etc.). It was told me at school, at every priesthood meeting and everything I ever went to with the stake pres. present. plus who knows how much members are really listening to the counsel givin concerning gambling and that?
My concern nowadays is more with us trying to fit in with the world. We're working so hard to be neighborly and understanding that I wonder if it comes at the cost of standing up boldly for what we know to be true. If we're to be an intriguing religion we need to retain our peculiarity.
Finally I think the rates are part of the whole "raising the bar" dealy. Once we get over this hump of working out all the bad bugs we can move forward, back into the motion we had a decade or so ago.

"What is the root problem?"

Try 1st Nephi 8:28. Too simple? Too scriptural? I don't think so.

Reforms? Please. The Church is built upon the authority of the priesthood. Criticizing those who lead is really just disbelieving that the Lord actually is guiding this Church by revelation. Who knows what He is planning. The very perceived current shortfalls of Church may in fact be what leads to its greater future strength. Church leaders would be the first to admit they are not perfect, but they do have the authority to lead the Church in the direction the Lord wants it to go, not the direction we short-sightedly think it should go. Moving forward with faith and "throwing up our hands" are two completely different responses to current trends. One motivates us to stay true and press forward and the other is just apathetic and causes lukewarmness.

While I'm not fully endorsing Guest4...there is something to be said for that. Is it sad that so many have turned away? Yes. Is it the "Church's" fault? Um...no.

Individuals have agency. This is the problem and the solution. If you think it's a problem, then do something about it yourself in your own ward via spending time with new members and inactives.


Dave: It is a very interesting thought though. I'm working on a post exploring what would happen if the LDS Church froze in time; i.e. would be seen as 20th Century "Amish" who knock doors in white shirts while the rest of society changes and whether this would be a plus or a minus.

The vehement responses that I've seen on this topic in a number of different forums suggest that the membership statistics are an even bigger source of potential cognitive dissonance for a lot of members than any DNA evidence ever was. I'm actually surprised by this--I expected this to be an opportunity for constructive discussion rather than recriminations.

RT, I agree. The LDS Church (and individual Mormons) take "membership" statistics very seriously. I think it flows from Daniel's prophecy of the stone cut from the mountain, which LDS identify as the Church, which is supposed to grow and fill up the whole earth. So membership growth fulfills expectations; stalled growth or shrinkage is unwelcome because it suggests either Daniel's vision is wrong or that the kingdom that will fill up the earth isn't the LDS Church.

Another scriptural source of the seriousness with which LDS take membership statistics is the books written in heaven mentioned in Revelation, which LDS take to be LDS membership records, including records of ordinances.

Personally, I think the emphasis on statistics is correlated with the background of so many LDS leaders in corporate management -- they have learned to manage using statistical measures of success in attaining well defined goals. Other denominations, with leadership drawn from the ranks of professional clergy, seem to employ a different management style.

Good point, Dave. I'm not sure if the corporate statistical agenda view is hurtful, helpful, both or neither. When Pres. Hinckley set the goal for the church to double the number of convert baptisms, my mission was one of the few that actually accomplished that. I don't know for sure how much good or bad that was for our mission. Everyone pretended it was all good by saying things like "we care about numbers because we care about the people BEHIND the numbers." which we only partly believed.
I'm really torn on this subject. I think numbers are important to an extent, but the church could use a strong shift away from emphasizing them so much for a while. Interesting, interesting.

John 6:66 - 69:

"From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God."

If we are looking for root causes for loss of membership, seems we need to look at:

1) The main reason(s) the persons joined/became active in the church to begin with;

2) Did they ultimately not find what they were looking for?

3) Did they find what they were looking for and then change their mind about what they really wanted?

4) Are these individuals moving on to a different expression of faith or just returning to previous worldly habits?

5) What was missing in the individual's testimony that, when faced by hardship, persecution, opposition, temptation (or boredom?), they did not respond in the same way that Peter did in the scriptural example above?

This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Brigham Young offered some interesting commentary back in his day about people who did not stay the course.

"Will there still be apostasy? Yes, brethren and sisters, you may expect that people will come into the Church and then apostatize. You may expect that some people will run well for a season, and then fall out by the way.

Many receive the Gospel because they know it is true; they are convinced in their judgment that it is true; strong argument overpowers them, and they are rationally compelled to admit the Gospel to be true upon fair reasoning. They yield to it, and obey its first principles, but never seek to be enlightened by the power of the Holy Ghost; such ones frequently step out of the way." JD 2:250

One problem with the numbers-are-down-because-of-the-corporate-structure-of-the-Church thesis is that the rise of that structure correlates with the most explosive growth in the history of the Church. In short, it was a model that worked quite well for several decades. It seems pretty clear to me that our current model is in some sense broken, but it also seems to me that the Church is experimenting with other models. For myself, I suspect that there is a cyclical process imposed on Church growth by a lay ministry. We can only grow as fast as we can produce competent leaders to run local units. Convert baptisms can be produced quite rapidly, but leadership experience probably takes a generation or more to create. I think that in many areas the capacity to assimilate new converts has simply been exceeded. This isn't a perfect explanation, but I think there is something to it.

The whole issue of missionary work and church organization is a lot of fun. I had a post about this back when the missionary discussions were abolished entitled "The Industrial Organization of the Gospel."

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