Are Mormons in their 20s and 30s leaving the LDS Church?

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Yesterday I gave a keynote speech at a Mormon Studies conference Utah Valley University, raising a number of questions about the generation that fascinates me most: the Millennials, or those Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s.

You can read news coverage of the conference here or here, but here’s a basic summary of what I was trying to get at by collating a whole lot of data. (The talk was a little Death by PowerPoint-y, I’m afraid. Way too many slides. I get overexcited.)

Here are three key takeaway points:

1. Millennials as a generation are taking longer to grow up.

The Millennial generation as a whole is departing from the traditional script of adulthood: job, marriage, children.

Here’s a slide of Pew data comparing first marriage for each of four generations: the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. By the time members of the Silent Generation (the generation born between 1928 and 1945, who are now among the top leaders of the LDS Church) reached their early 30s, almost two-thirds of them (65%) were already married.

FT_Marriage_DeclineEvery generation’s age of first marriage has dropped since then to the point where only one-quarter of Millennials (26%) are married by their early 30s.

Millennials are also delaying childbirth, having fewer children, and living at home with their parents in greater numbers than previous generations (the “Boomerang” effect).

2. Millennials value inclusion and diversity.

Diversity for Millennials isn’t just a nice thing, or something to tolerate. It’s essential. In one study of Millennials in the workplace, 83% said they were more likely to be engaged with their work in a diverse, inclusive environment. Only 60% thought they could stay engaged in an environment that was not diverse.

This attitude stems directly from their experience of a rapidly changing America. In the early 1960s, when the Silent Generation entered adulthood, 85% of the nation was white, 10% was African American, and 4% was Hispanic. Other racial categories were so small as to not even be blips on the statistical radar.

But look at our nation’s mosaic half a century later in 2010, and at Pew’s projections for 2060, when there will be no racial majority in America.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

So long, Caucasian hegemony. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

3. Mormon retention is down.

There’s an abundance of good news if you’re a Mormon leader. Mormons still have the highest rates of marriage in the United States, extremely high self-reported findings about belief in God and religious practices such as daily prayer, and low incidence of high-risk behavior.

The bad news is that retention is slipping, and younger generations appear to be leading the way.

Let’s get some context for this. Millennials are the most religiously unaffiliated of any generation in recorded US history. More than a third of them have dropped out of organized religion altogether.

Young adult Mormons show some signs of following the national trend. When Pew surveyed this in 2014, 64% of all Latter-day Saints who were raised Mormon still self-identified as Mormon as adults.

That 64% rate is very decent, actually. It’s smack dab in the middle of the stats on religious retention in America, as you can see from the Pew table below.

Hindus, Muslims and Jews Have Highest Retention Rates. Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Survey.

Hindus, Muslims and Jews Have Highest Retention Rates. Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Survey.

But a 2007 Pew study, which asked the same questions as the 2014 one, had shown Mormon retention at 70%.

And Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition, based on research conducted in the early 2000s, had the retention rate (specifically among Mormon young adults) at 72%.

Moreover, retention rates among Mormons reportedly used to be as high as 90% in the 1970s and 1980s (though frankly those samples were small enough and that retention rate so optimistic that I’m not entirely confident we’re comparing apples to apples).

Even if we just consider the national research that has been done in the last fifteen years, Mormonism’s retention rate has been dropping, though not at the precipitous rates experienced by other groups like mainline Protestants.

If we’ve gone from a retention rate of 72 percent to 70 to 64, that’s not half bad considering the times we live in. But I doubt many LDS leaders are going to throw a Munch-n-Mingle to celebrate those numbers.

There are reasons for Mormons’ successes and failures in this area. Yesterday I tried to lay out some of the things we do wonderfully by young adults: sending them on missions; gathering them into singles wards (yes, really) where they are allowed to exercise responsibility; and simply modeling, as parents, the beliefs and behaviors we hope to inculcate. Parental influence is still, statistically, the single most influential factor in determining whether people stick with the religion of their childhood.

But there are also existing or potential problems in the ways the LDS Church is interacting with Millennials. For one thing, there has never before been such a wide generation gap between young adults and the highest leaders of the church.

It’s not just that apostles, like other people in America, are living longer than ever before. They’re also getting appointed much later in life. Recall that Thomas S. Monson was only 36 when he became an apostle. Reverse those digits and you’re getting closer to the age of appointment of our three most recent apostles (64, 62, and 60).

And of course, the church’s hard-line stance on LGBT issues is alienating to a generation that, as a whole, accepts inclusion and diversity as a way of life. The issues that previous generations have with homosexuality are not nearly as problematic for Millennials. What is problematic is the marginalization of minority groups.

I’ll keep you posted on my research for this book.


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  • Elder Anderson

    My guess is millennials are a practical lot, and they want value for their money. Compared to most other churches, the Mormon church is expensive and involves a whole lot of work and arbitrary compliance. In exchange for which, you get to listen to long, boring testimonies every Sunday and probably miss the Sunday game for your trouble. Plus, everybody makes fun of you for that rocks in a hat thing.

  • David Allen

    The other day I was watching a new video by one of my favorite acapella groups, BYU Vocal Point. I was introduced to them when they were contestants a few years back on the Sing-Off. What struck me was that every member was a handsome white guy. And I began to wonder was this just the reality at BYU Provo, that the campus has none of the real racial diversity that is actually the modern LDS Church. How about BYU ID? BYU HI has to have a predominant Asian/Pacific Island representation right? BYU Provo doesn’t have a cross section of Black, Asian, Latino young folks who can sing? Is this an actual bias in the current guys who make up Vocal Point who select the new members each year?

  • Julia

    Whoa, whoa. I have to push back on the idea of marriage and children as delaying growing up. As a never married single in my 30s, I can assure you that I am grown up. And it’s this idea that perpetuates the culture of the church to treat married 20 year olds as more “adult” than older singles.

    Maybe, instead, our ideas of what adulthood means has also evolved along with the decreasing rate of marriage.

  • David Allen

    Not to mention that the consolidated meeting schedule that requires folks to carve out a full 3+ hours on Sunday isn’t as relevant to some folks today as it was when developed in the 1970s following the artificial world oil crisis, when gas jumper from 25¢ a gallon to $1.

  • seripanther

    Second that, as a not-married, childless, independent woman of thirty.

    I pay my taxes and fix my car and wash my dishes and serve in my community and am quite thoroughly sick of getting sent to the kids’ table because of the condition of my hymen.

  • KM

    Please reconsider your framing of delayed marriage as “taking longer to grow up.” Single adults are already infantilized enough by the church. Marriage is not a marker of adulthood. This kind of discourse is why many of us single adults feel excluded even in more progressive Mormon circles.

  • Joseph

    Ug, JANA! I have SERIOUS reservations with this article. It’s called a LINGER LONGER, not a Munch-and-Mingle, you heathen!

  • Sarah

    I was going to make a similar comment! Suggesting that “growing up” means married and having children seems like a pretty narrow definition. I would suggest that sometimes delaying marriage and/or childbearing can actually be a pretty grown up choice!

  • Calvin Arnason

    I find the testimonies [given the first Sunday of every month] to be worth the time and often very interesting. It is a way of community bonding and sharing of life high and low points. It can reveal personal development and discovery. I don’t drink kool-aid … and perhaps there is some geographical dependency in my experience [I live on the West Coast] … but I find the association and common worship valuable – often very valuable. Of course – I am no millennial – am about to begin my eighth decade.

  • Elder Anderson

    Very interesting observation! I sang in the varsity mens glee club (a 20 member acapella) at my university in the south eastern U.S. in the 70’s, and it was quite a diverse group. I was only in Utah around SLC for a few years, but there was a striking lack of diversity compared to other places I’ve lived (west coast and south east). Don’t know if that explains the make up of the singing group.

  • Jana

    You’re quite right. I thought when I wrote it that using that phrasing about the traditional definition of adulthood would suggest that I agree with you that this is certainly not the only definition of adulthood. But I certainly wasn’t very clear about that, and I’m sorry.

  • DougH

    Awhile back, just for fun, I combined retention, conversion and fertility numbers reported by Pew Research. The growth numbers I came up with for one generation, assuming nothing changed, were:

    Evangelicals: 117%
    Mainline Protestants: 75%
    Historically Black Protestant: 106%
    Catholics: 72%
    Mormons: 152%
    Jews: 86%
    Unaffiliated: 203%

    Mormons were the only group to show positive growth through fertility and retention alone, if only barely.

  • I am a firm believer that this is why the Lord directed me to start the Fellowship. With the LDS church being so exclusive, there needs to be a place to Mormons that are more accepting of their neighbors and new revelations.

  • Sue

    As someone who has left, I think the Church needs to engage in a conversation where it seeks to understand respectfully why people leave. Instead it seems the focus is still inward. Yes there are reasons to be upset and angry about Church history and policy but the real reason I left was in search of something “truer” and more sincere.

    God and inspiration and relevant guidance felt muffled by defensiveness and rigidity. Apologize, include, seek inspired changes, look for Zion, cease to coerce youth. Soften, show kindness, appreciate context, create a tone where more of us recognize our still small voices presence in institutional places and practices rather than opposite. Less fear more love. And of course MORE WOMEN!

  • I’m very skeptical retention rates were ever much above 70%. One problem once you go back before the 80’s is that the church is still so essentially regional and so dominant in that region. That means people who today wouldn’t need to associate with the church would de facto be part of the church. (Think especially in small town Utah, Arizona, or Idaho) So today people who in the past would have been inactive now can become something else.

    Anyway, if retention was always around 70% then things haven’t changed much. The drop the latest Pew data shows is somewhat concerning. I’m looking forward to the next ARIS study to see what it shows. There are a few reasons to be skeptical of Pew. Even if Pew is accurate though Mormons are basically tied with all non-ethnic religions. (Meaning religions where there’s also a strong ethnic identity tied to it such as Judaism, much of Islam, and arguably even historical black protestant churches)

  • Michael Layne

    I wouldn’t judge BYU’s diversity by a nine-member, a cappella group. I’ve lived in student housing for Snow College, USU and BYU (though I didn’t attend BYU), and BYU was by far the most diverse from my experience. While I was there, I had friends and roommates who were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Nepali, Ghanaian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Bolivian, Peruvian, Chilean, Navajo, US-born Hispanics, and of course US-born whites (probably left some countries out). I don’t specifically remember any US-born blacks (although I’m sure there were at least some). Nor do I remember anyone from the Middle-East or North Africa. But overall, it seemed much more diverse than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Lower tuition for all LDS members regardless of where they’re from probably had something to do with that.

  • David Allen

    You’ve made my point! The Provo campus is more diverse. So why are all nine of the guys only white? Why isn’t a school sponsored, ambassadorial, music organization more representative of the diversity of the student body?

  • Mike

    The recent rape case at BYU and how the school is trying to victimize her again is another sign why the church will continue to have retention problems. The brethren need a heavy dose of common sense and need to be more in touch with young people.

  • Elder Anderson

    I saw that article. The LDS church has a history of shaming female victims of sexual abuse, blaming the victims (as occurs at BYU), and discouraging victims from contacting police. What we need for the Q12 is less white, younger, from outside Utah, and a few Sisteren in the mix. Amazing how, out of all the world wide choices God has to “call by revelation”, he picks old white guys from Utah for Q12. Sheesh. It’s almost like a bunch of good ol’ boys are perpetuating their own grip on the LDS church’s power and money, and God has nothing to do with the choices. But, you know, “the church is true!”

  • Sue, I am very interested in where you went, after you left the LDS church, how long ago, and did you find what you were looking for.
    I realize by disclosing this you open yourself up in this open blog but I will not criticize you.
    Please share.

  • DougH

    Disqus, yay! Too bad it means that all the previous comments vanished. Anyway, to repost my previous comment, awhile back I combined fertility, retention and conversion rates from Pew Research polls, and the population changes I came up with for the next generation (assuming nothing changes), came to:

    Evangelicals: +17%
    Mainline Protestants: -25%
    Historically Black Protestant: +6%
    Catholics: -28%
    Mormons: +52%
    Jews: -14%
    Unaffiliated: +103%
    Of these Mormons are the only group producing enough children to maintain their own numbers without converts, if only barely.

  • Andrew

    Yeah, but a majority of those children will leave the church. And the activity rate in the church is only about a 1/3 to begin with, being liberal. If the church wants to retain members it’s going to have to change, on current trajectory it’s not looking good.

  • DougH

    According to Pew Research, LDS retention is about 65%.