Of Prodigals and Popularity: Thoughts on Retention of Youth, of Young Adults, and Indeed, of Prodigals and Lost Sheep of Any Age in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Why the Church Should be Wary of Fundamental, Foundational Change in an Effort to Retain Them
By Ken K. Gourdin
A former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has leaked videos of discussions between the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the Church’s second-highest administrative body (just below the First Presidency) regarding various issues. One of the videos features such a discussion regarding the (admittedly-abysmal) rate of retention of young adults, a group the Church of Jesus Christ defines as those from the ages of 18 through 30. Another poster at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion said, “The real shocker on this video was Elder [D. Todd] Christofferson’s claim that 72% of [young single adults] leave the church/go inactive by age 20. That number is huge.”
I replied, “Yeah, I’m with ya there, buddy! Church should change to be more popular! (Cf. Matthew 16:24, John 15:18-20, 2 Nephi 9:18, 1 Nephi 8:21-27).” My interlocutor responded, “You don’t find 72% attrition to be extremely high? Is it that high because Satan and his minions are more persuasive than God and His angels? Or is there another reason?” Of course, notwithstanding all of the efforts of “God and His angels,” God cannot abridge anyone’s agency in an effort to save and exalt him.
No, I’m not suggesting that neither the Church of Jesus Christ nor its leaders should be concerned about retention rates among youth and young adults (or about retention of people of any age, for that matter). However, my outlook, attitudes, and perspective on a number of things have changed significantly since I was a young teen, an older teen, and a young adult. (And that is so even though I was never particularly rebellious or lacking in faith during that period.) Still, the intervening years have brought a certain perspective and wisdom. As perceptive and receptive as I was of the things of God in my youth, I like to think that with my advancing age has come a certain amount of wisdom, and that (my imperfections notwithstanding, and surely, those are legion) I am even more perceptive and receptive of the things of God today. For instance, while I never doubted that President Benson was a Prophet of God and, while, on a certain level, I appreciated his seminal sermon “Beware of Pride” when it was first delivered, I have come to appreciate its increasing salience more and more as the ways of God and the ways of the world have continued to diverge in the intervening years. The same is true of The Family: A Proclamation to the World. And those are only two of many such examples I could cite.
I think the Lord’s invitation to Israel, delivered through Moses 4,000 years ago, has continuing relevance to Latter-day Saints of all ages today. “Now, therefore,” said the Lord, “if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then shall ye be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people” (Exodus 19:6). I think Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians in Chapter 6 of his second letter to them, even though it was delivered nearly 2,000 years ago and to a different audience, is relevant and applicable to Latter-day Saints of all ages today. “Come ye out from among [the world],” he wrote, “and be ye separate” (v. 17). Similarly, I think Peter’s description of the Saints of his day ought to apply with equal force to the Saints (of all ages) of our day. He wrote, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2 Peter 2:9; this is actually a reiteration of what Moses told the House of Israel: see Exodus 19:6). Not impressed or persuaded by the words of Moses, Peter, or Paul? OK. How about the words of Jesus Christ Himself? While this counsel was directed specifically to the Apostles, I think it can and should be applied to the Church’s membership at large (see 1 Nephi 19:23). Said He, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:18-19).
No, no one likes to be scorned, or ridiculed, or made fun of. No one likes to be thought of as less popular (or in any other way less acceptable) than one’s peers or associates, and this is especially so among the young. However, changing the Church and Kingdom of God on the Earth to meet the world’s whims or to gain its acceptance is not the answer. The Church is commanded to be “a light unto the world,” “a city that cannot be hid,” a beacon on a hill. It cannot do that if it is simply one dim light among, and on the same level as, many other dim lights. (See Matthew 5:14.) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be a beacon if the Brethren falter in courage and cease to call the Saints and the elect forth out the world. As long as the Church of Jesus Christ maintains its distinctiveness, there will always be a hope that the lost sheep and the prodigals (young and old) will return. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” wrote the writer of Proverbs, “and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Of course, the writer of Proverbs said nothing about a temporary departure from the path by the young, who (we hold out hope) will return later. If, however, the Church of Jesus Christ changes after the fashion of the world, there will be nothing left for the lost sheep and the prodigals (of all ages) to return to.
There is a template on how not to retain and/or to attract members. I’m not casting aspersions on the faith or the faithfulness of any other denomination. These people are my brothers and sisters, just as much as my fellow Latter-day Saints are, and I have no doubt that God is as pleased with their efforts to draw nigh unto him as He is with mine or with anyone else’s. That said, the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ, provides such a template. The sincerity and devotion of its members notwithstanding, recent dilution of the church’s doctrine has turned it into simply another Protestant sect.
In a related vein but on a different subject, I have written elsewhere on the Blog:
We’re not called to stand for what’s right … when it’s easy … or if it’s popular … or (while we’re commanded to love all of our brothers and sisters) if people will love us for it … or as long as the courts think we’re on the “right” side of the law … or as long as people think we’re on the “right” side of history. As Christ said, “If ye were of the world, the world would love you.” Elder Oaks made it clear in his last General Conference address that we may well have to sacrifice these things in order to be true disciples of Christ.1 As President Ezra Taft Benson said nearly a quarter-century ago, the proud care more about “What will the world think of me?”, while the humble care more, “What will God think of me?”2
|1. Elder Dallin H. Oaks (October 2013), “No Other Gods,” 183rd Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, address accessed on line at the following address on October 5, 2016:
|2. President Ezra Taft Benson (April 1989), “Beware of Pride,” 159th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, address accessed on line at the following address on October 5, 2016:|