A couple of weeks ago I taught Lesson #12 in the Howard W. Hunter manual, titled Come Back and Feast at the Table of the Lord. The title comes from Pres. Hunter’s remarks at the press conference given the day after he became President of the Church in 1994. I want to point out that he was well ahead of his time. He gave these remarks years before “faith crisis” became a thing in the Church and years before Pres. Monson’s theme of The Rescue became emphasized. As he is quoted in the manual:
To those who have transgressed or been offended, we say, come back. To those who are hurt and struggling and afraid, we say, let us stand with you and dry your tears. To those who are confused and assailed by error on every side, we say, come to the God of all truth and the Church of continuing revelation. Come back. Stand with us. Carry on. Be believing. All is well, and all will be well. Feast at the table laid before you in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strive to follow the Good Shepherd who has provided it. Have hope, exert faith, receive—and give—charity, the pure love of Christ.
The tone of the message is remarkably positive: come back, stand with us, be believing, have hope, receive charity. But it is hard to talk about reactivation or bringing people back without some actual understanding of why people pull away from full activity or exit the Church entirely. Pres. Hunter identifies in passing several factors: transgression, offense, hurt, struggling, afraid, confused, assailed by error. That’s actually a fairly broad set of factors. Sometimes Mormons talk as if transgression and offense are the only relevant explanations.
To help with the discussion about why people question or simply exit the Church, I pulled some ideas from Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2016; Deseret Book and NAMI). He borrowed terms from Richard Bushman, suggesting people get “switched off” or “squeezed out.” The switched off folks, says Mason, are Mormons who “encounter troubling information … usually regarding our history or doctrine,” then become increasingly skeptical of LDS claims as they dig deeper into those issues. Some withdraw from activity at some point in that process.
Those who are squeezed out get stuck on issues that are, says Mason, not essential aspects of the Church and gospel.
But sometimes they feel alienated by things like the dominant political conservatism among the members (at least in the United States), or the sense that church membership is an all-or-nothing proposition … or heartfelt questions about whether girls and women have all the opportunities for spiritual growth and recognition in the church that boys and men do, or how the church ministers to our LGBT brothers and sisters. (p. 3)
Mason adds that these two categories do not exhaust the list. I might add people who get burned out and people who get kicked out.
Here’s the thing that strikes me about these categories: they are all largely self-inflicted. If people are switched off by encountering troubling information, that is partly because over the past generation or two the Church has done a poor job of teaching its history to the membership. If people are squeezed out, it’s because LDS leadership has allowed political conservatism, even extremism, to become entangled with the LDS gospel and because the Church has adopted a harsh stance toward feminism, homosexuality, and the whole range of LGBT issues. If people get burned out, it’s because they are overworked. And people who get kicked out — well, sometimes excommunication is justified, but a wide range of anecdotal reports make it clear that some local leaders, some of the time, see LDS discipline as a solution to faith issues, progressive political views, or simple personality clashes (some bishops don’t deal well with strong personalities).
The bottom line: The Church is good at causing problems for itself. It would be a lot easier for me to have warm feelings about “the Rescue” and various reactivation schemes if the some segment of leadership would acknowledge that they have at least in part caused the problem to start with, then also display some initiative to change the culture and stop switching off, squeezing out, burning out, or kicking out members who, years later, we are then asked to go find and reactivate. I think we need to clean our own house first.
Let me try to wind up on a positive note. Too much talk and effort is directed at reactivation; some thought and action needs to be directed to avoiding deactivation, which requires first that we understand deactivation. Here is what President Hinckley said in General Conference in April 1997:
With the ever-increasing number of converts, we must make an increasingly substantial effort to assist them as they find their way. Every one of them needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with “the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4). It is our duty and opportunity to provide these things.
This is a good place to start — friendship and being engaged in a productive calling are important. But many of the people who are being squeezed out or switched off have many friends in their wards, have callings they enjoy, and do plenty of scriptural self-nurturing. We need to think harder about how not to lose converts and lifers, and how to keep those who, heeding Pres. Hunter’s plea, do actually come back.