The most interesting talk at UVU’s just-completed Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance Conference was by Jana Riess: “Mormon Millennials: Assimilation or Retrenchment?” Jana gave a preliminary report of research she is doing for a new book on the subject. She defined the Millennial generation as those born in the 80s or 90s. Others define it as those born between 1982 and 2004. Are you a Millennial? Glad you’re here. Hope you stay.
Here are a couple of relevant points from the talk. Jana referenced the Christian Smith book Soul Searching (see here for an earlier discussion) for general commentary on the religious views and practices of Millennials. They are less inclined to affiliate with a religion, with the data showing a significant rise in those who self-define as atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated. More recent Pew data shows declines in affiliation by Millennial Mormons (64% retain their Mormon affiliation as they become young adults, down from prior generations) but better retention than most other denominations. The factoid that really stands out: Most who exit Mormonism tend to leave organized religion altogether. Perhaps the One True Church mentality is so strongly emphasized to LDS youth that young doubters move more easily to a No True Church mentality rather than attempt the challenging task of developing a broader Christian faith and finding a church to attend that supports that different faith orientation. [Or another religious faith apart from Christianity — same principle.]
At the end of the talk, Jana offered some preliminary observations on what the Church is doing right and what it could improve on to retain more Millennials. One thing she mentioned as a good thing is the nicely mapped plan for moving LDS teens to young adulthood as active, participating Mormons. She noted single adult wards in particular (this is apparently just a Mormon thing) but seminary, a mission, and institute are part of that plan as well. Young LDS get lots of participation, responsibility, and leadership opportunities. They feel wanted.
On the needs improvement side of the ledger, Jana noted that there is no institutional mechanism within the Church for young adults to be heard or listened to. I would add that there is really no mechanism for anyone to be heard or listened to within the Church, but that’s not really the point. She noted that Millennials see peers giving talks at the ward on Sunday and at stake conference, but in General Conference they see only speakers who are peers with their grandparents and even great-grandparents. Their generation doesn’t get a voice at General Conference. What a great idea: have a returned missionary or two speak at every General Conference. That’s a simple way to get the attention of our Millennials — while they are still listening. Glad you’re here. Hope you stay.