Recent posts around the blogs have discussed young people’s dropping out of the Church – whether, and when, and why, and how many. While I don’t pretend to have the answers to any of those questions, I thought it could be a contribution to provide context by noting that this is not a new phenomenon, not a new concern, in Mormonism. Fifty years ago, the teacher training manual used by the Church included the following section in a chapter on teachers’ stewardships:
2. We lose many young people from activity.
For every class in the ward or stake, there are certain people who should be present to receive its help. The classes in the Sunday school, the Primary Association, and the Mutual Improvement Associations are intended to include every person in the ward. Some of them are elective. In the Relief Society, it is intended that all women in the ward take part. All holders of the Priesthood should be present in Priesthood classes. One of your most fundamental responsibilities as a teacher grows out of the fact that many people are not present in their classes. For various reasons, many members of the Church are absent from the classes in which they might learn the principles which will save and exalt them.
In fact, for 1956, only 38.4 percent of the members of the Church were in attendance in Sunday School, on the average. For 1959 it was nearer to 41 percent. This means that six of every ten were absent. Of all those who were absent, only six percent were visited by representatives of their classes, to invite them to attend. This means, of course, that nothing was done about the other 94 percent.
Statistics for the stakes of the Church reveal some further alarming facts. They are closely related to the responsibility of teachers in the Church. In 1959 there were 82,883 Aaronic Priesthood holders over 21 – men who had not been active enough to be ordained to the higher Priesthood. There were 27,454 men over 21 who had been baptized into the Church but had still not been ordained to any priesthood. There were thus 110,337 men over 21 years of age who did not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. Some of their brothers in the Church might have helped them earlier in their lives.
There were 11,292 boys between 12 and 21 not ordained to any priesthood. At the age of 12, alone, there were 2,489 who had not been ordained deacons. There were 9,347 males and 8,038 females, or a total of 17,385 persons between 9 and 21, who had been blessed but not baptized. During the year, 641 in this category turned 21, and their names were finally dropped from the records of the church. This is a tragedy. Not all of it could have been avoided. Who knows how much of it might have been changed if the teachers of these people had really represented Jesus, who said, “I will both search my sheep, and seek them out.”
When you are given responsibility for a class in the Church, by consulting with your leaders you can find the names of those who thus come under your stewardship. you should work with these people. You need not feel officially responsible for anyone else, but you ARE responsible for them.
[Asahel D. Woodruff, Teaching the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1961), 233-34.]
The reasons why young people leave church — or The Church — may evolve to some degree. But even without current statistics to precisely measure the leave-takers, even without polls and surveys to find out why young people leave (or why, at least, they say they leave), it seems too easy, too trendy, to place undue responsibility on the internet, or on LGBT issues and other assumed 21st-century tensions. No doubt those are factors in individual cases. But the people who leave because they found “all the history they were never taught” are represented by those who left when they found philosophy or science at college in the 1950s; those who leave because they differ with the Church on Prop 8 are represented by those who left over Civil Rights issues in the ’60s or ERA in the ’70s. And there are always those who, like those spoken of in the 1961 manual, were not visited, were not helped by their brothers in the Church earlier in their lives, and simply drifted into inactivity.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”