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“We Lose Many Young People From Activity,” 1961

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 03, 2010

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.”



24 Comments »

  1. One of the things I found when I was Young Men’s President was that the biggest reason people were inactive when they were 18 was that they were inactive when they were 12. I’d say 50% of our youth were inactive due to their parents being inactive. Of those who were active when they were 12, I’ve seen attrition mainly due to lack of cultural fit, rather than doctrinal or political reasons. By this I mean that what the kids are not convinced of is the value of going to church and being part of the community. Sadly, I don’t think this is something we address very often.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 3, 2010 @ 8:26 am

  2. My 2 sons have been sick the last 2-3 weeks (one 2, one three) due a varied assortments of ailments. (One is 10, one is just short of 5).

    Today, the primary teacher for the 4yo called very concerned, because he hasn’t been to Church in 3 weeks (and she has seen me at Church, so she knows we’re around).

    My wife will probably tell me I’m wrong, but I can only think of 1-2 other times where a teacher ever called us asking about the child in their class (i.e., not a HT or VT call, but a primary or SS teacher).

    Comment by queuno — December 3, 2010 @ 9:30 am

  3. So, for those of us who don’t regularly troll the bloggernacle, have similar statistics been published by the Church today?

    Matt W. seems to imply that it’s a two-fold problem: (1)Some cultural accretions of Mormonism are a turnoff (e.g. If YM are not into scouting or basketball, there’s not much reason to attend.) and
    (2) The level of testimony is inadequate (i.e. They don’t know for themselves that attending church, prayer, etc. truly improves their lives. So when parental pressure disappears, the youth disappear too.)

    I don’t know that a simple visit from the teacher would resolve either of these problems, although it’s better than nothing.

    Comment by Clark — December 3, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  4. I have a mentor in the church who believes that (at least for boys) if you don’t ‘get’ the active ones by 13/14 you are already too late. I don’t know if it translates the same to women, but at 12/13/14 these boys MUST be having individual, personal spiritual experiences. I suspect this number lowers as the world progresses, but 12/13/14 is the key in boys…

    Comment by zionssuburb — December 3, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  5. While I don’t doubt that activity rates have always been low, I’m wondering if there is something new going on now.

    One of the things that annoyed me the most about the recent “Why are people leaving churches?” post at BCC a few weeks ago was the complete and utter avoidance of any discussion of Christianity at large by those who left comments. All they seemed to be concerned about was reasons why *Mormons* were leaving the LDS Church (and, while I cannot discout anyone’s personal experiences, I doubt most people today are leaving because of discovering hidden history).

    Kevin Barney had actually been asking a *far* more interesting question, IMHO: Why are CHRISTIANS (including, but not limited to, Mormons) leaving churches in greater numbers in both liberal and conservative churches? A few decades ago the loss was more in liberal churches which led to a lot of discussion about how a firm stand on issues and morals was keeping conservative churches stable, but that distinction has since been eroding away. Statistics seem to indicate that the problem of retention is increasingly becoming a problem for *all* of Christianity in America and beyond. I was very annoyed that all anyone wished and wishes to talk about is *Mormon* retention.

    Which is why I’m still a bit annoyed: yes, Mormons have historically had low activity rates. However, those rates rose substantially in recent generations and now seem to be falling again *in a similar fashion to the rates of American Christian churches*. I don’t think the questions should be “Why are Mormons leaving?” or “Are Mormon retention rates different now than they were historically?” but rather, I think the better questions are “Are current Mormon retention rates *related* to Christian retention rates, and if so, how?” and “Why do young people in America today leave organized religions? Are the reasons the same for Mormonism?” I wonder if the reasons that you posit for retention problems in 1961 are now reasons for the larger community of Christians today, Ardis. Perhaps all of us, as Christians, are having more trouble reaching out in fellowship.

    Comment by NoCoolName_Tom — December 3, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  6. I agree with Clark that a simple call or visit from a teacher wouldn’t be enough, especially when the whole family is inactive as Matt notes, but calls and visits are symptoms of caring, and when somebody drops out because they feel invisible or unwanted, a call or a visit is on the right track, no? As long as the interest is genuine and any problems or complaints by the young person are adequately addressed?

    I used to call my Primary kids when they missed, like queuno’s child’s teacher; they so much enjoyed being grown-up enough to get telephone calls, and if they had been sick they wanted to tell me about it, or if they hadn’t come because Mom didn’t feel like going to church they pestered her the next week to bring them.

    zionssuburb, your age would seem to agree with the stats in the 1961 source — the almost 83,000 adult Aaronic men must have been active in their early teens to have been ordained deacons or teachers, but had fallen away in the next few years.

    The magazines for the mid-20th century published stats like this every once in a while, but I don’t know of anything remotely like it made public for the past 20 or 30 years. So much of this detailed record keeping ended in the early 1970s (some of it — like recording priesthood lines of authority — has come back due to a realization that dropping it was a mistake, but I don’t know anything about what stats are gathered).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 3, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  7. I was blessed to grow up in a sort of miracle ward, especially as far as the Young Men leadership was concerned. From a Deacon to an Elder, all of my leaders seemed keenly aware of the need to be inclusive and elastic in our activities. Instead of the usual basketball and scouting we’d simply go out for shakes or get dinner at everyone’s favorite mexican joint. We’d make pizza’s or go caroling.

    I remember a leader who asked me why one of our Teacher’s quorum members was attending functions less. I responded that he didn’t feel like he fit in, and some experiences with past leaders made him feel like he was always judged. He asked me if there was an activity we could do that would include him more; something he’d really enjoy. I replied sarcastically, “not unless we just play video games.”

    “A video game night? We could do that. Could we do it at your house so that he feels more comfortable coming?”

    That activity was definitely not one that would’ve been featured in the New Era. I don’t know how the leaders felt about the violence and gore of the games we played, but my friend came, along with many other less-active youth. Some of them began coming back because that night they formed friendships based on common interests that, without the activity, would’ve seemed far less obvious.

    Comment by Gdub — December 3, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  8. NCN Tom, I read Kevin’s linked article and thought I could see some parallels — and more differences — between the reasons for Mormonism’s inactivity rates and the larger Christian world’s, but I’m not really comfortable commenting. For those who did comment, I’m guessing that it’s easier to talk about personal experience and perceptions than to try to understand anything from a wider view. Tom, if you’d like to explore in more depth the wider question that you find interesting, the results would probably be interesting to us all — I’d be glad to post your thoughts as a guest post if you want to go that far.

    Gdub, your miracle ward sounds like exactly what every ward ought to be. I’m sure many readers could cite specific examples of when they, or their children, were NOT treated with the respect to have their interests honored. I hope we don’t have a slew of comments that are nothing more than complaints about that, no matter how sincere or how understandably painful the experiences. Rather, examples like yours where a ward actually did the right thing would be more helpful, as would be suggestions from readers on how to find out interests and promote those activities in lieu of the too frequent and unimaginative basketball nights.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 3, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  9. Yes, a percentage of the youth have always gone inactive, in that sense there is nothing new. What has changed is the percentage of youth we are losing. I have heard estimates as high as 50% of youth are lost to inactivity for good.

    Comment by Ash — December 3, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

  10. In a leadership meeting a few years ago, a member of our stake presidency (then about 70) commented as we talked about the “decay” rate from deacon to priest (90% active deacons quorum turns to 30% active priest quorum) had been constant most of his church life. I haven’t been around as long as he has, but I’ve observed a similar trend.

    And even in my own active family I haven’t figured out the magic, particularly for the boys, though having friends at church seems to be a key. And having (and acknowledging) one’s own spiritual experiences plays a role. Which is more important probably depends on the boy involved.

    This post reveals a common issue with statistical data. We often look at today’s condition and assume it is a new development.

    As for #3′s comment on a teacher’s call — by itself it might not be enough, but it is a huge deal. Just because it is not enough is not a reason not to do it. I say good for the teacher who is willing to make that effort.

    Comment by Paul — December 3, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  11. Ash, we don’t know that at all — without credible statistics from credible sources, the numbers floating around the blogs, whether DAMU or ‘nacle, aren’t reliable. Nor is the claim that those who drop out in youth are gone forever — experience indicates that many come back when they are older, often when they are raising families. It’s way too soon to claim that the current generation of dropouts won’t come back in numbers more or less comparable to trends in the past.

    Thanks, Paul. Historical statistics can help put current events in perspective. The other side is that there’s no guarantee that past trends will continue — although I have just implied to Ash that they might continue. Inconsistency, thy name is Ardis.

    Whatever the drop-out rate is, it matters. Addressing it, though, means understanding causes that may be very old ones and not wringing hands over current conditions that may not be as important as speculated.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 3, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  12. #6 and #10: I must have come across wrong, since my intention was never to say that a teacher’s visit isn’t worth making; only that it is a first step up a long ladder to activity. But I wholly agree that its a good and important first step that needs to be made.

    In my experience, the steps go something like this:
    1) show sincere interest in the boys well being (not just his attendance) This goes for leaders and youth.
    2) followed up with making him feel accepted and welcome at activities,
    3) GOOD activities that are not only fun, but have a spiritual component, which leads to
    4) Experiences that lead to an independent testimony.

    Comment by Clark — December 3, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  13. FWIW, Pres. Monson gave a talk on this very subject more than 10 years ago. (Apr ’99 Gen Conf)

    Picture in your mind a river of water gushing into the pool. Then consider a trickle of water emerging from that stagnated pool—a trickle which represents those going forward into the Melchizedek Priesthood. The pool of prospective elders is becoming larger and wider and deeper more rapidly than any of us can fully appreciate.

    And I had thought that the majority of the “falling away” occurred during the college years. Silly me.

    Comment by Clark — December 3, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  14. This may sound corny and a little self servicing since I’m a temple worker… But if the youth have a temple recommend and use it once a month or more their average adult activity level later is in the high 80%.

    I know that is not a solution for every member of the church since there are some that have long distances to travel, but I know there is help from their ancestors on the other side when they spend time in the Lord House surrounded by that strong spirit. Why try to raise an active LDS youth on your own?

    Comment by Jim B — December 3, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  15. Keepa is a place that welcomes that kind of comment, Jim B; thank you. So is this behind what seems a fairly recent push to have youth temple trips regularly? In my teens, we went once every two years, mostly because of distance I guess, but nobody thought of going more often even when the distance was only 1-1/2 hours. Some youth would resist and not qualify for a recommend, I suppose, and some wouldn’t use it, but that seems a simple enough thing to strengthen ties for the large numbers who *would* use it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 3, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  16. This may sound corny and a little self servicing since I’m a temple worker… But if the youth have a temple recommend and use it once a month or more their average adult activity level later is in the high 80%.

    Our youth get 2 trips a year.

    Comment by queuno — December 3, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  17. I like the generating of ideas to help the youth. Every idea helps and probably has its place. (And, I’m sure someone can document a case why it doesn’t work, too.)

    In the end, we will hopefully do all we can and hope the Lord will do the rest. Alma the elder’s prayers were answered and his son returned. Lehi and Sariah, I suspect, also prayed and had a different result.

    But that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) stop us from doing everything we can do. Certainly temple trips, quality activies, a teacher’s love, parental example, strong friendships all play a role. And yet, some will still fall away. Hopefully some of those will come back, as Ardis suggests.

    I know one of my sons who had great friends, went on youth temple trips as often as he could (our temple allows for them about quarterly), had good friends and even attended EFY a number of years told me, “Yeah, I felt the spirit, but I didn’t like it.” He was a quirky kid who knew that a testimony meant he would have to act a certain way. At the time he was not willing to act that way and so he left. Hard to fault him for his integrity, at least.

    Comment by Paul — December 3, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  18. I’m currently at BYU, and I’ve lived with a wide variety of roommates who were either inactive, struggling with their testimonies, or are trying to get back into being able to hold a temple recommend.

    The one thing I’ve noticed that they all have in common, despite being raised from different parts of the country, with a wide variety of family circumstances, is that they do not know Christ well enough to trust Him. This usually comes from never having done the fundamental things to gain their own testimonies–not understanding that unless you read your scriptures, say your prayers, and make daily efforts to have a relationship with Christ, you just won’t have one that you can recognize.

    It has been a blessing to me to see how Christ’s hand still remains in their lives despite their struggles.

    I also find it interesting that the friends of mine who are currently in part member families–whether newly so because a parent has recently gone inactive, or because the parent has been inactive for many years–one of the things they have in common is that family scripture study, family prayer, and FHE were not important or regular activities in their home.

    I’ve been out of YW for only two years, and I attended in very small areas where most of the girls were usually inactive. I genuinely believe that if the girls had meaningful ways to contribute to and serve in their own church organization, they’d be more active engaged in the gospel and would actually come closer to Christ by coming to Church. It always really bothered me that we didn’t teach our own lessons, few of us ever had formal responsibilities of any kind in the Church… and yet it was this big mystery every Sunday why young people were not excited about sitting in a chair and listening to a talking head every Sunday, saying “the same thing I’ve heard a million times before.”

    Young people do not need more classroom instruction. They need more ways to do something meaningful with what they know. That’s what Elder Bednar means when he says we need to act instead of being acted upon. The purpose of YM and YW leaders is not to run the show–it’s to help young people run the show, in the service of their God.

    Comment by Paradox — December 3, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  19. Well said, Paradox. You reminded me of my teenage years in our small branch… I knew I needed to be there because if I didn’t show up, who would play the piano? I had a personal investment in helping the work of the Lord along, and it meant much to me.

    I’m still in the middle of raising teenagers; my kids have always liked being needed. For example, the night before last, our son made a point of stopping at a less-active youth’s home on his way to Mutual, and he waited in the dining room while the other fellow finished his bowl of ice cream. Then they went together, and did a service project of moving furniture (one family in the ward had gotten a new set, and had donated theirs to a financially struggling family).

    Here’s my $0.02: during my kids’ teen years, what tended to throw them for a loop worst would be ward boundary realignments. This happened twice so far while my kids have been Mutual age. IT SUCKS. And every time kids are lost. It would help if they’d quit realigning the universe every few years it would be really nice!!!)

    Comment by Coffinberry — December 3, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  20. Young people do not need more classroom instruction. They need more ways to do something meaningful with what they know. –Paradox (comment #18)

    I couldn’t possibly communicate how strongly I agree with this! By far, my best experiences in my youth were found as I was contributing and doing something.

    I’ve come to realize that a large portion of the purpose for this mortal experience is because there are things which we cannot learn abstractly and must actually be experienced. I think we’ve all noticed the emphasis in President Monson’s accounts of church life as usually involving hands-on experiences like visiting the sick, serving the needy, or going out, finding, and inviting the lost sheep to return. I believe that as our gospel teaching becomes real and tangible through experience then we will see greater understanding which equals greater activity.

    Comment by Gdub — December 6, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  21. As for activity ideas, one simple activity that changed me forever occurred when I was a teacher. We met at the church building for Mutual. We were told we were going to clean the sacrament implements and then have some pizza and hang out. Our leaders made it clear that it would be a simple thing to do and wouldn’t take the whole evening.

    As we cleaned they talked to us about the importance of the sacrament and expressed gratitude for us helping to honor our priesthood and that ordinance by cleaning it all. The spirit of that service stuck with me the rest of the week until Sunday. That time, taking the sacrament assumed a whole new level of meaning for me.

    Comment by Gdub — December 6, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  22. Something I read this weekend pointed out that “works” is paired with “faith” not solely for the typical Sunday-School-answer (to be obedient) — rather, it’s because no skill of any value is developed without practice. Just as you don’t become a concert pianist or a decent typist or a competent driver only by learning *about* those skills, so being godly — or religious, or even active, apparently — is a talent that needs to be developed. How? Not only by hearing about it, although being taught is part of it. It’s by practice and practice and more practice — meaningful (not busy work) practice. Works.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 6, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  23. That correlates with what I learned several years back at a Cub Scout training in Philmont, NM: real lasting personal change happens when Head, Heart, and Hands are involved in the learning. The “Head” has to know what it is to be done, the “Heart” has to feel why, and the “Hands” (or feet, as the case may be) have to actually do the thing to learn and experience how to do it.

    Comment by Coffinberry — December 6, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  24. Ardis:

    That brings to mind the teachings of James in the NT about faith and works. The examples he used as demonstrations of faith were not of obedience, but rather of service to others. Seems we get so hung up on obedience that we fail to progress past it into actually *doing* things.

    Coffinberry:

    That sounds remarkably like the “heart, mind, and strength” of the scriptures.

    Comment by Gdub — December 6, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

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