A few months ago, a friend of mine who was recently called into a Young Women presidency shared with me a question that has been troubling her. She put it like this:
Why are we losing so many of our active youth in the ten or so years after they graduate from high school?
According to my friend, over the last few years only about a third of the active youth in her ward are still regularly attending church by the time their 10 year high school class reunion has rolled around. This, she says, is a sharp decrease in retention rates from years prior (she figures it was a little over half that were still active at that same point 20 years ago). She also told me that she had recently seen this 2016 article (citing Jana Riess’ research) that states that about 64% of Mormon millennials are remaining in the faith as compared to about 90% 30 years ago. While the percentages themselves are different, the steep decline in retention in my friend’s ward is a reflection of what seems to be happening in the church as a whole.
FWIW, how to better reach Mormonism’s young people is a question I feel especially desperate/motivated/responsible to seek solutions for. I’m a millennial, an active Mormon, a feminist mom of two young daughters, and someone who’s held Young Women callings in each of the last three wards I’ve attended (I’m currently a Beehive advisor). Some of the brightest, dearest, most morally-minded people I know have stepped away from the church over the last decade, and renegotiating my own relationship with the church over the last few years hasn’t been a cakewalk.
The friend who called me has also spent a lot of time thinking thinking about this topic (though for some different reasons than I have). And as we shared experiences and insights about the pressing question of why we are losing so many of our youth, we both agreed on two things; 1) that the heart and soul of the gospel is expansive, empowering, and redemptive; and 2) that that’s often not the version of the gospel our young people (or old people!) are hearing or seeing at church.
Some examples that came up during our conversation (we mostly discussed Young Women):
- That too often, what we teach at church around the topic of women’s bodies promotes hypersexualization, teaches our young women to self-objectify, and reinforces the dangerous notion that women are responsible for men’s thoughts and actions.
- That too often, we continue to justify teaching a sanitized version of Mormon history to our youth despite the serious existence of the internet (making false but “faith-promoting” stories only temporarily the latter) and despite the reality that our youth can handle (and even crave to be trusted with) messiness and authenticity.
- That when describing what a worthy and fulfilling life can look like for a Mormon woman, we too often promote a rigid and overly-simplistic narrative that not every girl will be able to achieve or find happiness in–one that can discourage them from having aspirations, limit their willingness to seek for and act on personal revelation, and weaken their ability to respond to life’s challenges with resilience and creativity.
- That too often, our YW activities are far more crafting and baking and makeovers and wedding-themed modesty fashion shows (eek) than they are about developing crucial life skills and providing meaningful service and having honest discussions about the complex questions and struggles our youth are facing.
Our shared feeling was that our youth are too often being presented with a version of the gospel that feels small-minded, fearful, and irrelevant to their lives. And if that’s what they see, why would they stay?
This isn’t always the case, obviously. And of course there are many factors here that neither your nor I have have much control over. Different people can come to different conclusions about the same information regardless of how well it is taught or how valuable we might think it is. And there are larger forces at work too, of course; e.g, as societal attitudes towards issues of gender and sexual orientation continue to shift, it seems only logical that the Church’s male-only priesthood and attitudes/policies aimed at LGBTQ individuals will alienate youth in increasingly greater numbers. I don’t think many Mormons would dispute that regardless of personal stances.
Yet despite factors outside our control, we can help our youth experience the gospel in more meaningful and encompassing ways. This should be the goal, in my opinion–not only because we have more control over what we teach than we do over retention numbers, but because I personally find it just as frightening to think that former YW of mine might leave the church because the gospel was never presented to them in ways that encouraged them to be strong and ever-learning and compassionate as it does to think that they might stay because of the same lack of teaching. I want young women to leave my lessons and activities better prepared to face life with greater courage and self-sufficiency and kindness regardless of whether they end up choosing to stay connected to Mormonism.
Having said all of that, I’ll be the first to admit that this is easier said than done. I have two rules for myself as a YW teacher in the Church:
1) that I will never knowingly teach anything that contradicts current, official church teachings or policies, no matter my personal opinions; and
2) that I will never knowingly teach anything that undermines principles of good spiritual and mental health or contradicts my conscience or, no matter what is in the manual or what other people in the Church might be teaching.
Keeping within these parameters is usually easy enough (these resources have been enormously helpful for navigating this balance). And when I see the thoughtfulness and faith and compassion of our young people and glimpse the kind of Mormonism capable of “stretching people’s moral imaginations,” of “[calling us] to a life of faith that is… creative, venturesome, open, and empowering,” I feel a renewed determination to keep at it. But there are other times when it’s morally messy; like when 3rd hour ends and I’m carting two overtired kids and an overflowing diaper bag across the parking lot while holding back hot tears or with my stomach in knots, feeling inadequate to the task and complicit in things that I believe have the potential to inflict serious damage on my young women’s faith or relationships or sense of worth or even their long-term relationship to the Church. For better and for worse, I’m restricted in my ability to encourage honest questioning and seeking, to counter what I feel are the ill-effects of patriarchy, and to convey to them that there are people and conditions commonly labeled as broken or deficient that I believe God sees as whole and good. There are many times when I don’t even know how to do this thing I usually love and sometimes feel called to do with my differing opinions and lack of social capital (I’m an awkward human) and general limitations as a teacher. And at times, juggling all of that starts to feel pointlessly exhausting.
It’s often easy for me to feel uncertainty and worry and apathy when I consider the future of the church and its young people. But I’m an idealist, too; and stories like this one inspire me and remind me that there are teachers in the church who feel motivated to find ways to make the gospel more meaningful and relevant for our youth. While teachers in the church don’t have control over everything when it comes to better reaching and retaining Mormon youth in the church, I think that wrestling with the question can at least invite revelation as to how to better reach the kids we teach every Sunday. There’s a lot I can’t fix or change, but I can at least work to better connect my young women with a gospel and a God big enough to hold each of them through the spectrum of life’s painful and perplexing things and animate the best and most beautiful within them.
* With all of this in mind, I’m planning to at least occasionally post ideas for activities I’ve done [or want to do] with my young women that at least make an honest attempt at addressing timely topics in open, meaningful, and empowering ways while honoring the rules I’ve made for myself as a teacher in the Church. There’s several topics I’d like to cover that regular church lessons might not touch on or naturally make much space for: from bringing in more stories that celebrate diversity and encourage positive, faithful discussion around tough moments in Mormonism’s past to covering things like consent and characteristics of healthy (and unhealthy) relationships and objectification of women in the media. A lot of these things have already been covered on various Mormon blogs, of course, and when that is the case, I’ll do my best to link to good resources. Mostly, I’ll be asking for input to make my teaching better and offer comprehensive materials to other teachers who may sometimes feel stuck or discouraged like I have. Hooray!