Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood

20 changes the new Mormon president has made to appeal to Millennials and Generation Z

The Salt Lake Temple is illuminated at dusk in Utah. Photo by Manish Prabhune/Creative Commons

Since The Next Mormons was published, one of the questions I’ve been asked repeatedly is some version of this:

“When will the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints start changing so that it stops alienating people in their 20s and 30s?”

I reply that the Church has been changing—rapidly. Ever since Russell M. Nelson took office in January of 2018, the changes have been coming fast and furious, and most of them are quite Millennial-friendly. Change is already happening.

Here I give a quick list of 20 such changes that I think are helpful to young adults and teenagers, or at least not off-putting to them. At the end of the post I briefly discuss whether I think it’s enough to keep young adults in the Church. (Short answer: probably not.)

Lightening the Load:

  1. Church meetings are shortened to two hours each Sunday, down from three
  2. The home and visiting teaching program shifts to “ministering,” with less of an emphasis on reporting and bureaucracy

Missionary changes:

  1. Missionaries can call home weekly instead of twice a year, to aid a generation that has higher anxiety and less adult experience
  2. Women missionaries can (finally) wear pants in most situations
  3. Service missions are available for some young people instead of proselytizing missions
  4. A new “planning tool” is available to help young adults prepare for missionary service
  5. There are expanded opportunities for online teaching as a nod to a digital generation
  6. There has been a profound emphasis on interfaith outreach and cooperation from top LDS authorities

Temple changes:

  1. The endowment has undergone major changes to become more friendly to women
  2. Couples can now get married in the temple immediately after a civil wedding ceremony, without the previous one-year waiting period that was required of Mormons in the US
  3. Women with children under 18 can now be temple volunteer workers
  4. Single men can now be temple volunteer workers

Youth program changes:

  1. Mormons have severed ties with the Boy Scouts and announced the creation of new worldwide youth program
  2. The Church now allows some 11-year-old boys to be ordained early to the priesthood and some 11-year-old girls early access to the Young Women program
  3. The Church has promised a new seminary curriculum that helps young people deal with serious questions, and integrates their study with what the rest of the Church is doing

History:

  1. “Saints” publication presents a more honest version of LDS history

Controversial issues:

  1. The Church has rescinded a controversial policy that denied baptism and baby blessings to children of same-sex couples
  2. The Church issued revised guidelines on Mormon leaders conducting interviews alone with youth
  3. Church has debuted a new website to help people struggling with pornography

Random these-kids-today changes:

  1. The Church’s apostles are now on Instagram (Whether they will do a better job of it than they have with Twitter, where they have missed the “social” part of social media in favor of tweeting recycled snippets of old General Conference talks, is anyone’s guess.)

Taken all together, that’s quite a lot of change in a religion that tends to move incrementally, even glacially. My question is not whether change is happening—it is, and it’s obvious that LDS leaders are trying their best to reach out to young adults—but whether it will be enough to stem the tide of disaffiliation.

My academic training is in the history of religion in the United States, so my perspective on the global LDS Church is limited; church leaders do not have that luxury. These changes are being implemented the world over. But I would argue that what is happening in the United States—which is where the Church’s headquarters is located and, overwhelmingly, where its top leaders are from—exercises an outsized influence on leaders’ decisions. In 2015, for example, when the Church’s disastrous LGBT exclusion policy was put in place, leaders noted that it was done in response to the Supreme Court Obergefell decision.

And what is happening in the United States right now is widespread religious disaffiliation. In fact, compared to the exodus of young adults from some other churches and religious traditions in the U.S., Mormonism is not bleeding quite as badly. But the bleeding hurts, particularly when compared to the high institutional loyalty of previous generations of US Mormons, so LDS leaders are stepping up their game to make the Church more palatable to younger Saints without watering down its core doctrines.

While I applaud many of these changes and think they are long overdue, I don’t think they will move the needle back to the way things used to be, for three reasons.

  • Social issues. Young adults aren’t just leaving because church meetings were too long or missionary service was difficult. There are deep-seated social issues at work, rooted in changing definitions of the family in the United States. The Church continues to treat unmarried people as if they are simply biding time until their “real,” grown-up lives will begin at marriage; it continues to preclude women from positions with decision-making authority; it continues to marginalize LGBT people. Some of those issues around gender and sexuality touch the very heart of the way the Church has defined itself doctrinally for decades now, so it’s unlikely to budge anytime soon. Millennials aren’t likely to budge either. This spells a serious and possibly unbridgeable divide.
  • Disaffiliation is very heavy across the board. As I mentioned, young adults are leaving religion in significantly higher numbers than previous generations did when they were the same age. Mormonism is a tiny minority in terms of the U.S. population—a little more than one and a half percent of Americans say they are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which is lower than the percentage whose names are still on the rolls). It is very, very hard for such a tiny minority religion to resist the tide of its host culture. When roughly 98.5% of Americans are going one way, Mormonism is going to be affected by those trajectories, no matter what LDS leaders do or do not do.
  • Programmatic change isn’t the best way to appeal to a generation that is allergic to programs. All of the top-down changes recently announced or implemented by the Church are just that: coming from the top down. Young adults and teenagers don’t have the same relationship to centralized authority that previous generations did. They resonate more with what is local and grassroots, which is going to be challenging for a Church that has utilized its Correlation program over the last half century to drive home the idea that sameness is godly unity.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

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

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