Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Most young adult Mormons are skipping General Conference. Why?

The website of the April 2017 LDS General Conference. The second, third, and fourth sessions convene today.

 

This weekend, Mormons around the world will join together in viewing five of the six sessions of the LDS Church’s semiannual General Conference (the first session happened last weekend).

Or at least, some Mormons will.

There has been a notable generational shift in the viewing of General Conference. According to the 2016 Next Mormons survey, most 52+ adults who self-identify as LDS watched at least one part of LDS General Conference in the last six months, with the oldest (the Silent Generation) registering more than three-quarters participation.*

Just over half (51.4 percent) of GenXers had seen any of Conference, and only 44 percent of Millennials had.

In other words, there is more than a thirty-point drop between the oldest generation of Mormons and the youngest in how many had viewed General Conference in the last six months.

(I want to make it clear that because today is Conference, this is not my annual April Fool’s post. If you’d like to read previous AF posts for a laugh, see here and here and here.)

Overall, it’s surprising that many otherwise orthodox Mormons seem to be skipping Conference as a viewing activity, particularly when so many options now exist for streaming sessions online after Conference is over.

There are lots of possible reasons for this; here are just four. The first two are relevant to all Mormons, and the last two are particularly relevant to younger adults.

1. It’s not must-see-TV.

Perhaps the Church’s curricular focus on General Conference talks in other contexts has driven viewing rates down; there may be less impetus to watch Conference if the next week’s sacrament meeting talks will focus on it or it will be dissected over the next year in Relief Society and priesthood meetings.

I would add here that it’s also rare for anything truly exciting to happen at Conference (with the most famous recent exception being the 2012 announcement of lowering the missionary age).

2) We’re watching (or not) at home.

In the United States at least, the last twenty years have seen a deep shift in the location of Conference viewing. Many people now watch it at home, either online or via satellite TV, versus the old model of getting dressed up and going to the church to watch it with other church members.

While this domestication has introduced many wonderful new traditions for Mormon families watching together at home, it has also eliminated what social scientists would consider an opportunity for the social facilitation of “performance gains.” The basic notion here is that we put forward our best selves when other people can see us. When other people can’t see us, we don’t push ourselves for the same level of performance.

This is important because there’s no longer a social cost attached to not watching Conference; in fact, other members of the community probably won’t even know if we don’t watch. In that private context we’re less likely to push ourselves to sacrifice as much time and effort.

3. There’s a growing generation gap.

Millennials may be “tuning out” because they don’t see themselves represented. When members of the Silent Generation watch General Conference, they are guaranteed to see and hear men from their own generation, since just over half of the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are Silents—and two, President Monson and President Nelson, are remnants of the Greatest Generation before them. (By comparison, just 11 percent of Mormons in America are in the Silent Generation, and one percent are of the Greatest Generation, according to 2014 Pew data.)

Baby Boomers, too, can find kindred spirits of their own age in a third of the Quorum and a majority of the Seventies and auxiliary leaders who also speak.

This is not the case for GenXers and Millennials, who will be hard pressed to find any leaders of their generations. The cultural touchstones that general authorities refer to are often events that occurred before those younger generations were even born.

Lest we think that the LDS Church has always been this way, we should recall that it was founded by a young man in his early twenties and has, throughout its history, often featured a cross-generational leadership with many decades separating the apostles who served at any one time. President Monson, for example, was only thirty-six years old when he was called to serve in the Twelve; the late Boyd K. Packer was forty-five. They served in partnership with older and more experienced men. Today’s leadership model, by contrast, caters exclusively to the superannuated.

4. Young adults are less engaged with institutions.

Younger Mormons’ non-participation in General Conference may also reflect a more pervasive apprehension about religious institutions—one that pertains in the nation as a whole, not just to any one religion. Generational researchers have noted that both GenXers and Millennials seem averse to large institutions—the stereotype being that GenXers are suspicious of them, and Millennials are not suspicious so much as disengaged or apathetic.

There’s some truth to those stereotypes. Pew has tracked Millennials’ disaffection from various institutions, including religious ones, and noted steep declines in even a few short years.

In 2010, for example, 73 percent of Millennials said they believed churches and religious organizations had a positive effect on where the country was going, but when the question was asked again just five years later, only 55 percent still felt that way. As younger people aged into the survey—and as existing Millennials became more discouraged by the world around them—the overall effect was an eighteen-point drop in confidence in religious institutions.

Our survey was less alarming. In general, it showed Mormon Millennials to be far more positive about religious institutions than their non-Mormon Millennial peers . . . but not nearly as enthusiastic as their Mormon elders.

I’ll be posting more about these findings in the months to come, but for our purposes this weekend it’s worth asking why more than half of Mormon Millennials—the same people we know from other questions in the study are strong believers in LDS teachings—are going to be giving this weekend’s Conference a miss.

 

* The Next Mormons survey is a nationally representative sample of 1155 current and 541 former Mormons; only the currently-identified Mormons are included in this post’s data. Generally, the Silent Generation’s responses are collated with the Baby Boomers’ because the Silents’ numbers were small. Still, I’ve included the Silents by themselves in the chart above just because it helps to visually illustrate the overall trend we’re seeing: that viewing GC is declining from one generation to the next.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

47 Comments

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  • Jana,

    Interesting. I like explanation #1 quite a bit, especially since General Conference talks are mostly written to be read as much as spoken. Beyond some well placed alliteration, I find GC talks far more productively (and quickly) consumed in print. Because there is rarely anything new, instead of slogging through hours of talks I can wait to consume the notable or applicable ones to me. And plenty of resources out there exist to point me to those. I think this sort of curated approach is the default for the Millennial generation. Its how they consume things. Setting aside the time to watch every session or the bulk of sessions is really an act of outward devotion (which can be valuable in a religion) as much as anything these days .I wonder how this breaks down by orthodoxy/activity/engagement rate within the generations.

  • The LDS church no longer seems to have a unique identity and the essential elements required for increased religious commitment. I’ve been a very active member for decades and feel the church has become increasingly “watered down, bland, and “progressive.”

    People often adhere to religion to escape the philosophies of the world and the LDS church doesn’t quite offer that refuge as it once had. It is increasingly sounding like it’s offshoot, the “open-minded” Reorganized Community of Christ (CoC). CoC will never increase membership because it is influenced by the world’s philosophies, is not distinctive, expects little of its members, doesn’t represent many conservative values, and stripped its mission down to simply “tolerance, loving everyone, accepting all behavior.” Both churches are beginning to sound uncomfortably like the hippie movement or many of today’s politicians.

    LDS commitment levels will continue to drop as long as: 1) It’s easy to get in 2) It’s easy to get out and stop attending, 3) expectations are low, 4) there’s no more emphasis that it’s the only true path to heaven, 5) its not an important part of lives (because emphasis is primarily on just loving people), 6) too PC, 7) deemphasize church’s history, 8) slowly shift policies and adopt philosophies of the world, 9) minimize teachings of earlier Prophets

    It appears President Ezra Taft Benson’s observations are accurate that the gentiles may be doing more to preserve liberty, freedoms, our nation, etc than Latter-Day Saints. While the Saints are being reminded 20 times each day in Gen Conf to “love everyone”, non-LDS Christians are actually out fighting back against the world’s evils.

  • GLAAD released their annual report Accelerating Acceptance 2017 and it includes the results of polling by Harris. 20% of Millennials openly identify as LGBTQ. What might that say about the closeted number in the LDS Church? Many Millennials don’t like homophobia and transphobia in institutions, especially churches, even the ones who don’t self-identify as LGBTQ. Many of their friends are LGBTQ and they aren’t bothered by that.

    http://www.glaad.org/publications/accelerating-acceptance-2017

  • I agree with #1 and #7 in your list. Converts need to understand what’s expected of them before they enter the covenant of baptism. As for church history, the church is becoming more transparent with a lot of the information that wasn’t previously known to the vast majority of church members, and I fully support that effort. As for being “easy to get out and stop attending,” we have that darn free agency thing we honor, so we can’t do a lot about that. I agree with the premise on the rest of your list, but disagree with the notion that the Church has a problem with them. We do have high expectations; the emphasis on necessary priesthood keys and authority is still valid; it should be and is an important part of our lives; we have taken plenty of stances that were unpopular, while promoting healthy dialog and communication with people we disagree with; and we still quote teachings of early prophets, provided their teachings have been canonized and accepted as doctrine.

  • This may have something to do with it

    “Over the weekend, Mormons held their biannual General Conference. One of the elders, Valeri V. Cordón, gave an eye-opening speech in which he claimed that if you have to
    choose between feeding your family and giving money to the Church, your
    family can wait.”

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2017/04/03/mormon-leader-tells-followers-to-always-pay-their-tithes-even-if-it-means-their-families-starve/

    Running a church like a protection racket doesn’t do much to endear themselves to youth.

  • “1) It’s easy to get in”
    If you don’t want so many numbers, then maybe cut back on the advertising/proselytizing. A church which aggressively looks to build up numbers is in no position to criticize those entering it.

    “2) It’s easy to get out and stop attending”

    And yet many turn to lawyers in order to officially sever their ties to the church. All because of the way the church tries to entangle itself in the secular lives of its members.
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/19/utah-lawyer-thousands-mormons-leave-lds-church-gay-marriage

    “3) expectations are low”

    Aside from avoiding criticizing church leadership and policy. Having to deal with social pressures placed upon members due to the lack of respect generally given to personal boundaries by church leadership.

    “4) there’s no more emphasis that it’s the only true path to heaven”

    I am sure LDS bishops will disagree with you on this one vehemently. Mormons are not known for their ecumenical disposition or willingness to accept people may not share the same religious beliefs (nor wish to)

    “5) its not an important part of lives”

    I am sure many members wish that were true. The amount of intrusion of the church into the lives of its members is somewhere lower than Scientology and higher than every other mainstream religious sect. There is an emphasis on peer pressure/ostracism in enforcing religious mores and custom.

    “6) too PC,”

    I don’t think you understand what the term means. The church has made a policy of discrimination and supports discriminatory laws for all. If anything they simply lack the honesty to be open about prejudiced agendas

    I see no evidence of 7-9. The LDS is a fairly reactionary church which plays at being more mainstream than reality suggests.

  • Well, there actually is a group of Mormons that may be more aligned with your ideas…it is run by a gentleman named Warren Jeffs; the FLDS, (F for Fundamentalist)…Just what you want, like the Hotel California (especially for the women) …”You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave”.

    The other precepts of the FLDS seem right up your alley too !!

  • The Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, the Book of Mormon, temple covenants, priesthood keys, Joseph Smith, tithing, seminary for the youth, our entire approach to a youth program (including Scouting), proactive membership including holding a calling, aren’t unique enough for you?

    When you say we’re not as “conservative” (politically) as we used to be, I can only think that’s a good thing. And go visit Kirtland, please, if you think we’re *anything* like the CoC (hint – we’re not even in the same ballpark anymore.)

  • The problem with “self-identifying” oneself as Mormon is that (from what I can read from the methodology) is that it doesn’t use any certain criteria. My SIL who hasn’t been in a church in 20 years calls herself Mormon, even though she doesn’t live any remote standard of the Church…

  • “People often adhere to religion to escape the philosophies of the world . . .”

    Sad but true. Multitudes of people cannot cope with the complexities of dealing with reason, evidence, and logic, and therefore seek to escape to the myths, fantasies, and delusions of religion.

  • You forget how many people on the records no longer consider themselves LDS but are still recorded amongst the annual ‘15,000,000’ strong hype, when data shows that the church is in huge decline across Europe has huge numbers vanish the South and Central America, and is losing traditional members in Utah.

  • You need to be a bit more specific, or are you afraid to be? Tell us about the evils of the world the church isn’t fighting against. I might point out that there are really only two commandments and I would guess you still may need to work on one or two of them so it can’t be that easy.

  • That percentage seems high and it decreases with increasing age. Is the 5% guess a gross underestimate due to folks staying closeted? Are there aspects not genetically determined (as I always thought)?

  • hahaha… seriously? What parts do you find open minded, tolerant, loving everybody and accepting all behavior? Did I miss something? Are we now allowing LGBT members to marry and stay active members? Have women been granted the priesthood? Are LGBT member’s children now able to be baptized without denouncing their parents? Have the upper echelons of the church become multi-cultural? Have we stopped practicing polygamy in the temple? Have we stopped harassing those who actually want to leave the church? Do we actually take no for an answer now when asked to pray, new calling, clean up crew, etc? Have we stopped judging our neighbors for every little thing we feel they are not doing as we think they should? I would answer a resounding NO to each of these questions. I think the church is still safely stuck in the 1950’s, no worries about being too progressive here unless you are still upset that black men can receive the priesthood.

  • Perhaps read the paragraph above the chart again and digest it well. It explains possible reasons for the smaller percentages as the cohorts get older.

    There was a time 20 to 25 years ago that the most common form of relationship for gay men was heterosexual marriage. So none of them were stating that they were openly LGBTQ.

  • New data in from PRRI for 2016…Utah Mormons dropped from 58% of Utah 2015 population down to 51% n 2016, I find that hard to believe for a single year. This was a national survey of over 40,000 interviews, so a single state’s data may be less accurate — Utah being relatively less populated than most states. But the trend helps explain the above article. Here’s the link…

    http://ava.prri.org/

  • Don’t be shocked. I’m 62 and this Jack Mormon, with 7 glorious years of nonattendance, skipped conference. I walked out of my High Priests group 7 years ago, mid-lesson, and unlike Lot’s wife, I never looked back. The 7 years without the Church has been 7 years of plenty, so much for Pharaoh’s dream.

  • Mormon leaders did their best to keep the Millennials in the Church supply closet in 2008 with Prop H8 and have been losing ever since.

  • Why do Mormons skip on Conf? Because it’s so damn boring. These guys speak in monotone and quote scripture. One has to have an extremely high tolerance for boredom to sit through Conf.

  • RNS – News, today

    from “Mormon leader Thomas Monson, 89, hospitalized”

    “While LDS officials aren’t speculating on Monson’s health, a successor is in place. Should Monson leave office, Russell M. Nelson, 92, a thoracic surgeon who since 2015 has been president of the church’s second-highest governing body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, would ascend to the position, as Monson did in 2008.”

    Anyone else wonder if this is relevant to the headline above?

  • Nice little soul you have there. It would be a real shame if something…happened to it.

  • I want to share the reasons we missed conference more when my husband & I were younger: We were raising a family of six and had sporting and other commitments on Sat that needed to be taken care of. Our ward used to have “linger longers” between sessions on Sunday which were great and a big draw to attend at church, and now there are four units in our bldg. and it is a stake center!!!! I guess the Church is not dying out in SE FL. Now we can watch all the sessions at home (we are 61 and don’t have young children to keep entertained for 8 hours in a weekend) As mentioned, the talks are also readable and available to DVR to watch later, which we have done as well if there is a conflict. However, after 40 years of membership in the SE USA, we had an opportunity to go to UT to watch conference this year (the Motherland!) and it looked like a very mixed age group of attendees and a full house. 40 years ago we would drive our family 45 minutes over a mountain to listen to conference over a phone line. And the stake center was full way back then. I think you sacrifice for what you love and desire. The GA’s are living longer like everyone else, with better medical care. Lucky us, because we have to stay the course against a tide of moral relativism & wickedness, which has been pulling harder and harder at the world since I was young and two elders knocked on my door.

  • I suggest you reread the talk. That’s not how I took it. In his father’s case, he had faith. Doesn’t mean it policy.

  • 8 year olds wanting to get baptized have to renounce their gay parents? That’s a new one. BTW, if an 8 year old from a divorced family would like to get baptized, they have to get both parents’ permission. Similar.

  • That is a pretty weak dodge. It is clear such attitudes are hardly outliers. The fact you look for excuses instead of showing outrage demonstrates how acceptable such attitudes are.

  • Actually it’s not that new; that rule went down in 2015. 8 year olds of gay parents (same sex couples) are not allowed to be baptised. They must wait until they are 18, denounce their parents and then they can get baptised. I’m sure those kids will be flocking to the church at 18.

  • The fact that you display outrage demontrates how you clearly do not understand the gist of Cordon’s talk. Nor the teachings of the church.

  • Not boring at all. I don’t find them to be monotonic, either, and vocal music is my profession. Boredom comes from one’s attitude. I find conference to be exciting and inspiring. And I reread them and listen to them many times after conference. You find them boring because you do not look for what can be inspiring to you. You look to be entertained instead of enlightened. You only see what you want to see—old men, giving speeches, and *gasp* quoting scriptures. Yep. Pretty boring. That’s your attitude to blame, not conference.

  • Hawke: I’m glad you find conference inspiring. Good for you. My comment requires context. I said conference is boring because it doesn’t capture the attention of an increasing number of Latter-day Saints who do not watch it. This is especially true of millenials who have turned away from religion altogether. LDS manuals are boring too. The Brethren can only say “pray, pay and obey” so many times before it does something to your brain. Sadly, if you compare manuals from the 1950s and 1960s, you’ll find that they are nothing like the manuals today. Correlated manuals have stifled the quality of thought in Mormonism. You have to have a high tolerance for boredom to sit through conference and/or Sunday School. The increasing number of Saints ignoring both is a testament to that.

  • Your opinion is duly noted. But it does nothing to refute or deny my prior statements. Your response is far too untimely to care.

  • Awesome! Threatening me with your loving Jesus. Irony? Which only exposes what many so-called Christians are: hypocrites. Professing Christlike love while secretly hoping those who skied and golfed on Sundays get hammered.

  • It’s still a matter of attitude. But you have a point there as they are revamping the manuals completely. As a matter of fact, they are doing away with them. As you alluded, the manuals are pretty outdated for current times.

  • You responded to me. I didn’t ask for your opinion. Nor have you proferred a post detailing some relevant facts to the story.

    You were triggered by a six month old post. Poor little snowflake could not handle criticism of his church and their shakedown methods.

    Troll better next time. That was just plain stupid on your part.

  • Well, with that crushing riposte, I suppose I’m so thoroughly beaten that I’ll just leave the field to you. Have a good day–and I mean that. I have no ill-will toward you, but there is amusement.

    For me, cigars and scotch at the end of another great day. And I’ll be thinking of you on second Saturday as I drink bloody marys, talk trash, and golf with my buddies. Enjoy gospel doctrine class. eye wink

  • Nor do I have any ill-will toward you. For me, it’s pizza and rootbeer at the end of my day. Topped with ice cream. And disc golf with my buddies…

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