The LDS Activity Crisis, Part 6: Differences in the LDS experience

[Part 6 in a semi-regular series on issues involving activity and retention. Previous entries in the series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

It’s doubtful that there’s any church out there that doesn’t deal with inactivity on some level. Being active in any religion is hard, and there will always be people in any congregation where secular pressures and temptations intrude at the expense of spiritual development.

Comparing LDS activity to that in other churches is an ‘apples-and-oranges’ problem, since what counts as ‘active’ in one will not necessarily meet the equivalent standard in another. Having said that, many modern churches (among them, the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses) have high standards, high rates of growth and fairly high rates of activity as well–far beyond the LDS activity level. One might ask what exactly those two churches are doing right that Latter-Day Saints are not…

Before asking, though, one must first determine whether the playing field is level enough for all of these churches such that comparisons are meaningful. Before discussing ‘active members’ you must first define ‘member’, and as it happens the LDS Church has a broader definition of ‘member’ than many others. From the LDS perspective, if you are baptized, you are a member…and will always be a member until you (a) die, (b) get excommunicated (rare), or (c) request your name be removed from the records of the Church (even rarer). Most inactives don’t do anything to warrant (b) and don’t go to the trouble to do (c), so the membership roles of the church are filled with names of many, many people who have little to no contact with the Church, nor ever will again. Compare this to the SDAs and JWs who, in contrast, define ‘members’ largely as whether they’re active or not, and thus obviously have significantly higher activity rates (albeit lower total membership numbers, than had they used the LDS system…)

This oft-criticized LDS method of counting members is in direct accordance with scriptures in D&C and the Book of Mormon, however, and thus not likely to be changed. One end result of it, though, is unmistakeable: compared with other churches, the LDS Church will naturally have a lower activity rate, since the definition of ‘member’ includes far more inactives who do not identify themselves as Mormon and have no church contact or interest whatsoever.

The LDS activity rate is quite a bit lower than the other churches named above, though, such that different methods of counting members fails to account for it all. I’m not aware if the missionary methods of SDAs and JWs have comparative equivalents for either of the problems outlined in Parts 2 or 3 of this series: naïve missionaries concerned with numbers, and/or investigators who are attracted to the church for reasons other than finding religion. Whether they do or not, this is not a large enough problem from the LDS side to explain the differences in activity rates either. Therefore, let’s see if we can find something else…

There are two broad inactivity factors common across all churches which, as mentioned in the previous post, deserve a more in-depth discussion: member conflicts, and personal unworthiness (sin). Many inactives leave their respective churches for one (or both) of these reasons: there are people at church they just can’t get along with, and/or they are not personally faithful to the covenants and commandments as set down by their church and cease to be active because of it.

I don’t believe that any one church is fundamentally better at either avoiding sin, or getting along with each other, than another. In any congregation of equal size, there will always be people whose personalities or opinions clash, and others who are not obedient to the commandments and principles espoused by their church. Although individual congregations may vary, any one world-wide church is probably not inherently better at fellowshipping than another, either–you will always find friendly people and cold people everywhere you go. Comparing specific standards across churches is another ‘apples-and-oranges’ problem, since standards can differ greatly–you could be a heavy drinker, for example, and still be a worthy member of most other churches, but not a worthy Latter-Day Saint. This is still an incomplete answer, though, since the Seventh-Day Adventists, for one, have almost exact equivalents to the Word of Wisdom, Law of Chastity, Law of Tithing, and most other LDS commandments…and yet have much higher rates of activity. Is there some other factor that makes being an active Latter-Day Saint inherently more difficult than being an active member of another faith?

In my opinion, yes–although this does not minimize nor excuse the weaknesses and shortcomings of Latter-Day Saints in the areas of missionary work and fellowshipping which add significantly to inactivity. There are areas in which specific elements unique to the LDS experience add to the activity problem, that virtually all other churches do not have to deal with.

Member Conflicts:

Assuming, as above, that members in any one church are not inherently more or less likely to get along with each other than another, there’s one area in the LDS Church where member conflicts and other inactivity factors are significantly amplified: the LDS system of lay clergy and member ‘callings’.

Most churches have a fairly simple structure–you have the professional priest or minister who ‘runs’ the congregation, and you have everyone else, who pretty much go to church on Sunday and listen. While members are free to disagree with things the priest or minister says, the structure of the church service does not present many obvious opportunities for ‘conflict’ between them, nor for any one member with another. (If there are people you don’t get along with–and there usually will be–you simply don’t speak to them or sit by them in the meetinghouse…)

Not so, on the LDS side, where the calling system presents opportunities for virtually every member to participate in some capacity in church functions–inside and outside of Sunday meetings. And, almost without exception, these callings are performed as a group, instead of as an individual. All Church presidencies are three deep, and the major organizations in a ward (Relief Society and Elder’s Quorum) have many other sub-organizations containing a large number of other members. Most members have co-presidency members with whom to make organization decisions. Most members also have other groups of members above them in the hierarchy who have their own opinions on how things should work. Most members also have ‘underlings’ which have delegated responsibilities, but which you are still responsible for, should they not fulfill their assignments.

While this system gives most members a chance to actively participate in Church activities versus passively sitting and listening every week, this hierarchical calling system unavoidably provides many opportunities for personality conflicts and disagreements to arise–since members must, of necessity, work very closely with one another every week. Avoiding, or not speaking to a particular member you do not get along with is not an option when you are in the same auxiliary presidency and have to face each other every week in meetings.

Whether it’s disagreeing on how things should work within your organization, or perhaps the additional pressure (and resentment) of other members of your auxiliary not fulfilling their responsibilities (putting more pressure on you), the Church lay clergy and calling system is a catalyst for member-member problems to develop. Add in additional personal contact time with other members in home/visiting teaching settings and other Church activities, and we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that the LDS Church has a substantially larger number of members who go inactive because of personal conflicts with other members. It’s not that Mormons are inherently more prone to conflicts of personality or opinion versus other faiths, it’s that they have substantially more opportunities to do so…

(Other forms of inactivity have their roots in the calling system as well: burn-out is a common phenomenon, from members who have regular jobs AND families AND now have a whole boat-load of church responsibilities like planning activities or preparing lessons to take care of each week as well. Contrast the LDS ‘assignment’ system to other churches where the professional, full-time clergy take care of most church functions, and if any lay members get involved–as youth leaders, or something–it is as willing volunteers…)

Other churches have differing levels of participation for lay members, but I know of no comparable equivalent to the member ‘calling’ system in the SDAs, JWs, or any other church out there. The calling system (and lay clergy) has many positive advantages for the Church and its members (the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay), but it must be considered that, were the LDS Church to switch to a ‘professional pastor speaks, members show up and listen’ system of church meetings, many of the current activity problems would disappear…

Sin and Unworthiness:

Every church has standards, and every church has members who do not live up to those standards. As mentioned above, comparing standards from church to church and saying LDS activity is lower because its standards are higher is not a complete enough answer–everyone has sin of some kind and research has shown that churches with higher standards have higher growth and activity rates than churches that do not. And, as noted above, the Seventh Day Adventists, for one, have virtually the same standards of morality and virtue as Latter-Day Saints do, and thus the difference in activity must lie elsewhere.

Assuming, again, that no individual church has members that are substantially more or less likely to be ‘worthy’ (fulfilling the covenants and standards of morality as defined by that church) above another–let’s see if there’s another area where the LDS experience is markedly different from other churches. In this case, the main difference is not in the standards themselves, but in the enforcement of them.

A person who is a heavy drinker can (and often will) still attend both SDA and LDS church meetings without being molested, despite the fact that he/she is violating one of the key standards of their faith. While Latter-Day Saints will not prevent a member from attending sacrament meeting in an ‘unworthy’ state (nor should they), they have other means of accounting for that member’s lack of obedience: specifically, temple recommends and other church related procedures.

Within LDS society, there are specific and obvious ways in which disobedience can be marked (and ‘punished’, if you will): the offending member cannot go to the temple, they cannot have a calling nor speak in church, and may be asked not to partake of the sacrament each week. Not having a temple recommend is an effective way to divide Church members into what many view as upper and lower-class citizens. Not partaking of the sacrament when everyone around you is, is in a very real way, the modern equivalent of sewing a big, red ‘A’ on their clothes for some members.

Again, I know of no direct equivalent to temple recommends in any other church out there. While many churches have means of ‘punishing’ moral failings in their professional clergy (i.e. you fire them), for the lay folk there really isn’t any method of standards enforcement, short of constantly telling them about judgments in the afterlife. A member may attend church every week knowing full well they are not following some of their church’s key principles (and, in fact, knowing full well everyone else knows they are not following them as well), but in the end it doesn’t really matter–there’s no method of dividing the obedient from the others. That member can attend his/her church meetings every week and be essentially on the exact same standing within the church as every other member in the meetinghouse, since there’s no external ramifications for their disobedience. From the LDS perspective there is, and it seems obvious that many members–faced with the prospect of going to church every week, but NOT being able to participate fully–are more likely to choose inactivity, rather than go through the embarrassment of tacitly admitting to the other members of the congregation their own worthiness problems.

There is a debate whether this system is a good thing or not (which, again, is beyond the scope of this essay). Everyone is a sinner–you might say–and churches are supposed to be hospitals for the sick, not museums of perfection, therefore measures that pass judgment on Church members are unfair. And yet, standards should be enforced, and by being strict and ‘judgmental’, many who might otherwise have coasted along in church activity without changing, will be encouraged to ‘shape up’ and become more worthy because they now have a specific and tangible incentive to do so. I believe the current system has very positive net effect on morality–more members will be encouraged to repent and meet the high standards, instead of dropping out. Yet, the effects of this system on inactivity cannot be denied. There will always be some members who will not change, and–while they might have remained ‘active’ while maintaining their bad habits under a less strict system–will instead leave the Church once they realize how ‘visible’ their disobedience can be to other Church members.

(Yes, this form of inactivity is also due to the often unfair judgmentalness of other members–but, again, I think the issue is not that Mormons are inherently more judgmental than other churches, but that the system gives them more opportunity to be judgmental due to the natural classification of members into differing levels of worthiness…)

The bottom line is: certain elements of LDS organization are far more likely to create inactives than the comparative equivalents in other churches. While this, again, does not excuse personal failures of members to fellowship and treat other members like human beings, it does demonstrate that LDS activity will likely always be lower than other churches, and there’s really not much we can do about it. I believe these two ‘trials-by-fire’ will (on average) produce more members who are better at maintaining standards and getting along with others, but there’s no denying that such trials will end up with a number of members getting burnt to a crisp instead…

Next: What having a ‘testimony’ means…

11 thoughts on “The LDS Activity Crisis, Part 6: Differences in the LDS experience

  1. I mostly agree with your analysis of the issues you presented, but, like some of the commenters on the previous post in this series, I think you have misclassified member-member conflicts as one of two primary reasons for inactivity. Unfortunately, this seems to be a tendency common among active church members. The tendency is, in part, fueled by SS lessons that focus on early members who left the church over misspelled names and pails of milk, lessons that help active members feel better about themselves since they would never leave the church over such minor issues. Let’s not get caught up in saying most inactives are petty, sinners, or petty sinners.

  2. It’s true I have no statistical data to back this up (which would require a massive survey of all inactives around the world) and have just my personal impression to go on. My experience with inactives in my own ward, though, shows over two-thirds of them are not the ‘I just don’t believe in Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon anymore’ variety, but rather the ‘I don’t like the bishop, Relief Society is full of gossips and hypocrites, the Elder’s Quorum never does what they’re supposed to, the Sunday School teacher is so boring (etc)’ variety.

    The scope of ‘member conflicts’ can be quite broad–and doesn’t deal only with ‘minor’ issues such as misspelled names. Some members have serious disagreements with leaders over how individual organizations are run. Some women feel the male leaders of the Church don’t respect them and their opinions. Some wards have bishops or other leaders who have entirely incorrect opinions on how things should be done, and force their authority on others. I know of a guy who was called as a ward clerk and went inactive because he was tired of showing up for early morning meetings, and having the entire bishopric show up late (or not at all) every single week. All of these are serious problems, yet have nothing to do with unbelief in the Church’s divine status.

    So, basically, I still believe ‘member conflicts’ in their wide variety of forms are one of the “primary” factors in inactivity–barring some direct evidence otherwise…

  3. “the offending member………….cannot have a calling nor speak in church, and may be asked not to partake of the sacrament each week.”

    I’ve haven’t been in a ward where an active person w/ a WofW problem didn’t have a calling, spoke in church or took the sacrament each week. Are such restrictions a Utah-Idaho thing?

    Now, inactives who use a WofW problem as an excuse for inactivity, yes, that is a major issue I’ve seen my whole life. Frankly I don’t blame them the way members can make them feel bad for such a minor issue in the scheme of things.

    On member-member conflicts, I’ve seen people practically chased out of the church, usually because some Molly or Peter forgot we’re all volunteers. We lost a great family to the Methodists that way. Tragic.

  4. I think another reason that we may have more conflicts than other churches is the neighborhood structure of wards. Most other churches allow their membership to pick and choose their congregation. If I am feeling less welcome by my conservative pastor, I look for a more liberal church. In our church, you are assigned which ward you go to, whether you like it or not, and if you choose to go to another ward, you may not be invited to serve because you are not a “member” of that ward.

    That said, if picking and choosing were allowed, the role of bishop would become a popularity contest with bishops vying for members to fill their chapels.

  5. I’m much less familiar with the Seventh-Day Adventists, but from what I know of the JWs, I think their set-up is prone to problems in both areas you cite. Their leadership is very much a grass-roots thing, with all members of the congregation expected to pull a laboring oar, especially with respect to missionary outreach. One anecdote from a German sister who had converted from JW to the Church of Jesus Christ:

    She was getting older and much less able to climb stairs. This hampered her ability to go door to door, as almost all buildings in her vicinity were at least three-story apartment buildings. The local leader in charge of missionary work was very hard on her for not getting her quota of door knocks every week and persistently hounded her to do better. Finally he told her: Sister, why don’t you just write down the names of families you knocked on your report and turn it in. I don’t care if you really visited them. I just need to turn in MY report showing that the people I’m in charge of are doing something. She was insensed at this request that she lie, knew that she wasn’t in the correct church, and went home to pray for messengers from God. That night, “Hi, we’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

    With respect to Sin and Unworthiness, JWs are quick to excommunicate, and publicly announce that Brother X has been exed for Y. Excommunication is much more final and binding than with us, with no real room for repentance or reentry into the fellowship of the congregation. This is largely because of their view that you wouldn’t sin and get excommunicated if you weren’t possessed of evil spirits. They don’t want your possessed self hanging around the congregation. In fact, one of the best ways to get rid of JW missionaries that won’t stop pestering you is to tell them you are a former JW who has been exed. They’ll flee the scene to avoid being possessed by the same evil spirits that have gotten to you.

  6. Excommunication in the LDS church has become more of a clerical process than a literal removal of blessings, which is surprising considering the LDS church is supposed to be “The Kingdom of God on Earth” and that without baptism, one cannot even enter the Celestial Kingdom.

    But Mormonism has become so politically correct that it often speaks out of both sides of its mouth. Excommunication either means you are out of the kingdom until rebaptized or it’s a “blessing” intended to “free” (former) members of their covenants.

    Until this and 1,000,000 other confusing elements of church policy, procedure and practice are clarified, millions of members will continue to head for the hills, throwing their hands up in confusion and desperation.

  7. Headed Out:
    You sound like I did years ago. I was confused too, and hurt by a lot of seeming contradictions, and hurt by offenses from fellow members. But there are answers. I eventually found a key answer to my main stumbling block, and came back. Through help from a couple of good bishops, reading the scriptures and praying every day, I finally got the other answers I needed.
    Life, and membership in the church is an open-book test. We’re allowed to ask for help, and we’re allowed to copy answers from others.
    For me, I had a testimony so I knew the church was true, but I couldn’t understand how the true church could be so messed up and have so many jerks in it. I had to learn to stop blaming God for the jerks, and to stop blaming the jerks for my own problems. But sometimes the answer is “Yeah, that brother/sister/bishop/stake-pres was just plain wrong. How can we make it up to you?”

  8. I have had experience with the member-member conflicts, and while I have been surprised and disappointed, one thing has always puzzled me. It seems like those who have had the most sordid pasts are also those who are least likely to show understanding to others who are struggling. It really isn’t an unusual phenomena; often the most rabid anti-smokers are ex-smokers.

  9. I think alot of what you said is actual and factual and most of the comments were as well. From my perspective however, I think you need to differentiate on a few concepts. First the difference between the western (Utah, Idaho, Arizona) experience and the rest of the mission field. I think they are almost completly different. I think you will really find that the level of those living “unworthy” yet still attending church meetings is greatly increased in the West. Where it is more of a social stigma or culture thing than one of faith or belief. I think in the mission field you will find more inactivity because people may feel it’s just not worth it to commit to the time factor (distance to wards, stakes etc) if not fully into living the tenants of the religion. One of the most important aspects I feel that would distinguish inactivity in the LDS church from other churches is the amount of actual work and commitment it takes to be “fully” involved in the LDS church. I think in most other churches, you come, you worship for an hour or two, once a week, a few times a month, it does not take a great deal of commitment or even faith. If your there your there, if not you are not judged or looked down on or people wondering “why” and “what you have done” religion in most if not all other churches is almost as a spectator. In the LDS church it’s mostly as a participator, There is a huge time commitment etc. (especially if you have kids or hold a calling). So I would think most of those that would become inactive, do so because they might just see it as not being worth the time for what they are getting out of it. They may have a small glimmer of a testimony or even a strong one, in some cases none at all, but they may just feel that having a testimony does not balance out everything you must do. It just creates that viscious cycle. Some people would rather just watch, some don’t want to home teach or have home teachers, some don’t want to be “friends” with everyone or go to all the ward functions…I think most of those who become inactive do so because it’s just enough to just pray, go to church for an hour and go home….all the other “stuff” just gets to be too much, especially if you are a convert, ordo not have a strong testimony or an understanding of how or why things work in the church the way they do. The interesting thing is I have known plenty of “active” every Sunday Church going “Mormons” who have absolutly no testimony or understanding of the principles of the Gospel, who would never think of removing their garmets or drinking a beer but if you asked them how are we saved, grace or works and they say “works” (despite the direct quote from Nephi that “we are saved by grace after all we can do!” Among other prophets quotes opn the subject. Compare these people who are considered active to a “non-Active” member who may have a word of wisdom problem or hurt feelings for some reason or another, who will never go back to church but has a much strongwer “testimony” than the actual “active” member. I ask you who has the greater understanding. I think this is the aspect that makes us most unique.

  10. Interesting article and great comments, everyone. I’ve been thinking a lot about inactivity lately, and the reasons why people become inactive, and this was a good exploration of the subject.

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