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Who is leaving the LDS Church?

Singles, young adults, and men (especially those who did not serve a mission) seem to be among the most likely demographics of people who leave the LDS Church. But "The Next Mormons" research can find out a good deal more that we don't yet know.

Youth pass the sacrament during the service at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - Lenexa Ward on June 17, 2012in Lenexa, Kan. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

One of the backers for my Kickstarter campaign for “The Next Mormons” survey explained in a message to me that all four of her adult children have left the LDS Church, and she hopes my research will help her understand why.

It should certainly shed some light.

In this survey, I want to assess how active Mormons feel about a wide range of issues. We ask about Word of Wisdom observance, family size, temple experiences, testimony, political preferences: it’s very wide-ranging.

But the survey also canvasses the ones that got away: not only people who are currently active in the Church and would self-identify as Mormon, but those who were Mormon for at least one year before the age of eighteen and no longer attend. Who is leaving, and why?

To me, this is one of the most important potential findings of this research. This week, I spoke at some length about it in the Mormon Matters podcast with Notre Dame professor David Campbell and Provo Herald reporter Derrick Clements.

Dave explained what this research can add to what we already know about Mormons from prior surveys:

What Jana is proposing would actually be qualitatively different than my impression of what the church typically does for its own survey research, which is simply to survey members – and I think often it’s members who are actually at church. That is, they’ll distribute surveys in a given ward or in a given branch. And that captures, certainly, one share of the LDS population, but by no means the entire population, because as we know there are many people who are not going to be in the pews, or in Relief Society, or in priesthood, or wherever they’re filling out the survey. And that’s an important constituency to capture.

And frankly . . . that’s also not a group that we typically get when we do just a straightforward telephone survey of the general population and ask, “Are you Mormon, or not?” Because many people who would be on the records of the Church, when asked on the phone or online “Are you Mormon?” would say no because they don’t actually do the Mormon stuff. So they don’t think of themselves as Mormon, even though nominally, they would be classified that way, and the Church would consider them to be members.

“The Next Mormons” survey is going to add to our knowledge of both groups: current and former Latter-day Saints.

Who are these former Latter-day Saints? Well, most of them are still officially on the rolls of the Church, but they choose not to attend regularly or self-identify as Mormon.

We know, or can infer, some things about them from prior research. There is a correlation between certain life situations and leaving. This does not mean that being any one of these things will cause a person to leave, only that there is a relationship.

  • Being single. There’s been some tantalizing research over the last two years about singles in the LDS Church. Singles are less likely to stay active than married people, but we don’t yet have reliable national data.  In one stake, single women had an activity rate of 17% and single men just 8%. In my survey and in the book’s oral history interviews I am listening to what singles say about their experiences. (So far, the message is that it is very, very hard to be single in such a married church.)
  • Being male. Men are more likely to leave than women, according to earlier research. Interestingly, this trend is particularly prevalent in Utah. Men are also especially likely to leave if they did not serve a mission. (Again, correlation is not necessarily causation: do they leave because they don’t have a valued place in the Church as adults if they never completed this rite of passage, or did they not serve a mission because they already had one foot out the door?)
  • Being young. The Millennial generation as a whole is the least religiously affiliated of any generation in American history, and that trend is not slowing down. Younger Millennials (18 to 24) are even more likely to describe themselves as “Nones” than older Millennials (25 to 34), who are in turn more likely to disaffiliate than Gen Xers. The bottom line is that in every succeeding generation of the US population as a whole, we’re seeing less affiliation with organized religion. In “The Next Mormons” study, we’ll be able to see to what extent that trend is at work in four generations of Latter-day Saints. What I suspect we will find is that Millennial Mormons are still quite a bit more devout than their Millennial peers – but not as devout as their Mormon parents and grandparents. But I could be wrong; this is why we need hard data.

If you are interested in these large-scale shifts in religious belief and behavior among Mormons – or you’re just concerned about what is happening in your own circle of family and friends — I hope you’ll support the research I’m doing by donating to the Kickstarter campaign by Friday, July 29. We’re halfway through the two-week campaign and are just over halfway to our goal. That’s exciting, but these next few days are critical.

There are some rewards for helping, in addition to HOW AWESOME YOU WILL FEEL ABOUT YOURSELF. Some backers of the project will have access to the executive summary of our findings before the book is published; others will get signed books, their name in the acknowledgments, and—at the $500 level—an author event where I will come and speak to their group or organization about what we’ve learned about young adult Mormons. (Charts! Graphs!)

So please consider making a donation and helping to spread the word on social media. The link to Kickstarter is here.




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