In Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith taught that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation” (Lecture 6, verse 7). The Church’s dramatic history demonstrates that this call to sacrifice was not mere rhetoric. Extolling the endurance of the pioneers is part of Mormon tradition. In talks and lessons members are repeatedly reminded of commandments and duties. The Mormon system of small congregations with numerous callings and meetings invites one to be fully committed in order to be in “good standing.” The temple recommend interview checks on compliance with commandments such as attendance, Word of Wisdom, and tithing. Our thousands of missionaries exemplify this spirit of total dedication. The call to “sacrifice” through service on various fronts is a regular theme in General Conference talks. The Church thus maintains its status as a “high-tension religious organization” which, according to Finke and Stark (2005), makes members value their membership more than in low-tension, mainline churches. Furthermore, this tension with the “evil” outside world is said to ensure a religion’s vitality.
However, to continue in the market economy terms of Finke and Stark, this approach comes at a high price, i.e. the loss of the majority of the members to inactivity—a fact that Finke and Stark overlook. The theory that more demanding sects do better holds, but, ironically, only for a fraction of the membership. The “costs” of our Church demands are indeed one of the main causes of dropping out. “Inactive” members constitute the majority of Mormons. The Church still counts them as members and cares for them: retention and reactivation are core terms in Church programs. According to ldschurchgrowth, the rate of inactivity in foreign countries hovers around 78%, meaning about 4 out of 5 members are inactive. This ratio of members who step away from participation is not new in the mission field. In 1928, Apostle John A. Widtsoe, then president of the European mission, wrote that probably fewer than a quarter of the members were active (letter to Heber J. Grant, cited in Euvrard 2008:210).That ratio is comparable in other parts of the world outside the United States (Gooren 2007; Knowlton 2005; Numano 2006).
One of the reasons why activity rates are higher in the U.S. is explained by a difference in “costs.” Of course, not all area’s in the U.S. are similar: the Mormon Intermountain West certainly helps push the American averages. But, generally speaking, for most members in foreign countries, to be a faithful Mormon is more demanding. Mauss (2008) compared the costs for European Mormons to the average situation in the United States: more severe familial breaches over conversion, more conflicts within part-member families, cultural tensions over Sunday observance, more distances to cover, more callings to fulfill, and often paying non-deductible tithing on already tax-laden family budgets. As more members drop out, those who remain must care for a soaring ratio of inactives, multiplying the burden. One could add the strain of functioning in immature units, sometimes plagued by discord, or the pressure to participate in missionary work when one struggles with one’s own membership. All of this, moreover, in the framework of frequent legal discrimination and stigmatization in the media of belonging to a cult, and facing such hurdles much alone. Though a number of members thrive in this setting to form the core of the stalwarts—with their shining stories published in Church magazines—, the majority is pushed over the edge of viability.
Another difference between the international church and the U.S., again in particular the Mormon Intermountain West, is that in the latter case inactivity can exist in grades. As part of a cultural and historical heritage, “jack Mormons,” often stemming from pioneer stock, usually remain included in the Mormon-ethnic community. They may still attend church for a family event, or may even return to activity later (Cope 2009; Phillips 2001). Also, through publications, interviews, and blogs, “marginal” American Mormons now try to claim their place in a more diverse Mormonism. Elsewhere, however, nearly all “inactive” members are really and permanently “out,” as analysis confirms (Decoo 1996; Euvrard 2008; van Beek 2009). Our main concern here is membership in that international perspective.
The rhetoric of sacrifice is meant to inspire members to remain faithful. But for people already sacrificing much in terms of “normal” membership, and often being at the brink of burnout, to give them the impression they need to do even more, may not be helpful. There is a risk that such rhetoric becomes counterproductive. Viability is about being happy in the Church—not merely enduring out of duty. Yet this issue is complex. Foremost is the extent of the internalization of the gospel: Are people at peace with themselves, spiritually, morally, emotionally? When external criteria (like attendance at all meetings, percentage of monthly home teaching visits, etc.) tend to dominate or replace internalization, something essential may be endangered. Next, to what extent can Church activity be tailored according to individual needs and possibilities? For members who cherish socialization and involvement, a high amount of Church activity is not a burden. But others drop out when activity demands become difficult or impossible to meet. Another question in the international perspective pertains to the inclusion of local traditions in order to reduce cultural alienation and maintain bridges with non-Mormon family members. Quite problematic in that respect is the acceptance of some leniency in commandments like tithing, the Word or Wisdom, and Sabbath observance. These commandments are, overall, easier to follow in a Mormon environment where the whole society contributes to their normality. They become stumbling blocks in countries where people pay high taxes and tithing is non-deductible, where the sharing of coffee or tea, a welcome drink, or a toast have important social functions, and where Sunday family visits and Sunday recreation are ingrained in the culture to make the Sabbath a true “day of rest.” The present, worldwide, one-fit-for-all expectations do not allow for a “big tent” Mormonism where divergent profiles can feel at ease. The stark separation between “all or nothing” contributes to making people inactive. This discussion is not new, but the internationalization of the Church and its massive problem of retention make the issue as acute as ever.
Viability can be negatively seen as easification, which thereby counters the Mormon concept of commitment and sacrifice. But easification does not necessarily exclude sacrifice: with the right balance and tone, it could make the requirements strengthening rather than unbearable. It should help members stay in the realm of the Church and feel accepted without the sense of guilt that drives them out. There seem to be many Mormons around the world who would like to keep their Mormon identity and continue to participate in viable ways, but with less stringent constraints on items that, one could argue, have little moral implications.
It is, of course, unrealistic to think that such leniency will ever come. Moreover, in the international Church, local stakes and wards are being increasingly led by a second or third generation of church members, raised in a realm of sacrifice and service. These are often also returned missionaries who have been trained to be committed and who are exacting in what they demand of others and themselves. Most are eager to please their superiors by strict compliance and the unwavering application of rules. Often they seem not the ones who, by nature, reach out with compassion and understanding to those who struggle and leave. For them, indeed, the core message of the Gospel is one of obedience to revealed commandments. They can refer to plenty of Scriptures to vindicate that strict partition between the steadfast and the weak. Any indulgence in a welcoming gray zone, if at all allowed, would also be difficult to accept by those who have been keeping the commandments meticulously and count on that conformity for their ultimate reward.
How to conclude? To a probably great extent, our system itself contributes to the inactivity of many members, though, of course, the ultimate decision to leave is always the individual’s choice. But as Church leaders worry about poor retention and would like to reverse the trend, they seem to face an unsolvable dilemma, at least as it pertains to the issues discussed here.
Comments and suggestions are appreciated. Let’s, however, avoid a discussion of who carries more membership costs in which area in the world, or how taxes and tithing are calculated in the one or other country. The essential question is how to improve retention within or against the framework of sacrifice. How to be welcoming and tolerant without undermining obedience. How to keep the weaker links in the chain and still remain a “high-tension religion.”
Cope, M. R. (2009). You don’t know Jack: The dynamics of Mormon religious/ethnic identity. Thesis. Provo, Utah: Department of Sociology, Brigham Young University.
Decoo, W. (1996). Feeding the fleeing flock: Reflections on the struggle to retain Church members in Europe. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 29(1), 97–118.
Euvrard, C. (2008). Socio-Histoire du Mormonisme en France – Thèse de doctorat. Paris: École Pratique des Hautes Etudes.
Finke, R., & Stark, R. (2005). The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and losers in our religious economy. Chapel Hill, NC: Rutgers University Press.
Gooren, H. (2007). Latter-day Saints under siege: The unique experience of Nicaraguan Mormons. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 40(3), 134–155.
Knowlton, D. C. (2005). How many members are there really? Two censuses and the meaning of LDS membership in Chile and Mexico. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 38(2), 53–78.
Mauss, A. L. (2008). Can there be a “second harvest”? : Controlling the costs of Latter-day Saint membership in Europe. International Journal of Mormon Studies, 1, 1–59.
Numano, J. (2006). Perseverance amid paradox: The struggle of the LDS Church in Japan today. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 39(4), 138–155.
Phillips, R. D. (2001). Saints in Zion, Saints in Babylon: Religious pluralism and the transformation of American Mormonism. Dissertation. New Brunswick: The State University of New Jersey.
van Beek, W. E. (2009, June 19-20). Mormonism, a global counter-church? (Part ii and iii) . Retrieved June 21, 2009, from By Common Consent: http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/06/19/part-ii/