Author’s Edit 8/18: The purpose of this article is to help Latter-day Saint leaders and members understand why a large number of Millennial members are leaving the church (I personally see Millennials leaving the church as a negative thing, and something I would like to prevent). This article does not suggest that the LDS church should change its doctrines or lower its standards to cater to Millennials. But, I do suggest that the Church can change some practices (not doctrines and/or standards) to better engage Millennials and improve the retention of Millennials. An example of how the church recently changed a practice to cater to and improve the engagement of a certain demographic group is they began allowing women to say prayers in General Conference. This was a change in practice and not a change in doctrine or standards. The suggestions in this article are similar in nature. My hope is that all members of the church will work together to help all who need the atonement of Christ to feel comfortable coming unto Christ by worshiping him within the walls of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
About six months ago, as part of ward conference, my ward held a special ward council, with stake leaders also participating. The primary topic we discussed was what the ward could do to better support young adults and youth. As the discussion progressed, I made two observations. First, I observed a large age gap between those in the meeting and the demographic group being discussed. Most of the individuals in the meeting were from the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964), a few were from the Generation X generation (born between 1965 and 1979), and I was the only individual that was from the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 1996). Second, it became clear that most in the meeting did not understand the needs and perspectives of young adults and youth, and were thus not in a great position to support, serve, and reach them in a meaningful way.
The purpose of this post is to help leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand why Millennials are unique, what their needs are, how their needs and philosophies may clash against Latter-day Saint tradition, and what Latter-day Saint leaders can do to better support, serve, and reach a generation that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have a hard time relating to and understanding.
What makes Millennials
Before answering this question, it is important to point out two things related to research on Millennials. First, not all Millennials fit the “Millennial” mold or stereotype. While generational research focuses on the averages/generalities associated with different generations, there is great variation across Millennials. Second, while Millennials are unique from older generations, some of the differences are due to the difference in age common to different generations. Stated differently, while the needs, interests, and thought processes of Millennials are currently different than older generations, in many ways, the older generations had similar needs, interests, and thought processes while in their twenties and early thirties. For example, Millennials are currently more likely to change jobs than older generations, but that is a phenomenon that has always been the case for those in their twenties and early thirties, regardless of their generation. This is primarily the case because Millennials generally have fewer ties to others than older age groups.
The following summarizes some of the primary ways Millennials are truly unique from other generations. Millennials:
- Have worse health than prior generations at the same age (e.g., more obesity).
- Have a lower level of general knowledge coming out of high school (National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education).
- Need and want greater supervision and support (in general, but particularly in the workplace).
- Are less loyal – Millennials will not hesitate to seek opportunities to better themselves.
- Are impatient – Millennials have grown up in a world of instant gratification, and many have not learned social coping mechanisms.
All of these factors together have led to the general perception and reputation that Millennials are tough to manage, narcissistic, entitled, self-interested, unfocused, and lazy. But, these factors are not all bad. Because Millennials are less loyal and impatient, they are quite prudent.
Millennial’s View on Religion
Across Religions. Studies show that Millennials are the generation that is the least interested and active in religion in modern history. For example:
- Only two in ten Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
- Thirty-five percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
- Fifty-nine percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
- Of these, the most common reasons for dropping out include:
- Church’s irrelevance
- Church’s hypocrisy
- Church’s moral failures of its leaders
- The perception that God is missing in church
- Legitimate doubt is prohibited at church
While Millennials are less interested in church in general, those who do attend church demonstrate a different relationship with their churches and religions than prior generations in at least three ways:
- Millennials put more weight on a religion’s beliefs than they do a religious affiliation. Older generations that go to church identify quite strongly with their religious affiliation and are quite willing to align themselves with that religion’s beliefs. Millennials, on the other hand, are more likely to identify with certain beliefs and then align themselves with a religious affiliation that supports those beliefs.
- Millennials want to align themselves with religions that put greater emphasis on caring about others, while older generations have aligned with religions that emphasize moral values and pillars. Millennials see a focus on moral values and pillars as too onerous, unnecessary, or more hindering than helpful in caring for others. Older generations focus on moral pillars and values because such pillars and values help them to “combat the adversary.”
- In general, adults seem to be aware of their spiritual needs, but they are increasingly dissatisfied with their church’s attempt to meet those spiritual needs. While this affects all generational groups, statistics suggest that not only are Millennials more dissatisfied with their church’s attempts to meet their spiritual needs, but they are also more likely to turn elsewhere when those needs are not being met.
Within the LDS Church. There is not a lot of publicly available information and research related to Millennials specifically within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I did find two studies. First, statistics from the Pew Research Center suggest that Millennials are being retained at a lower rate than older generations. Specifically, the Pew Research Center has found that the retention rate of those raised as Latter-day Saints in the U.S. has been decreasing substantially. In the 1970s and 1980s, the retention rate was 90%. In the early 2000s, the retention rate was 72%, dropping to 70% in 2007. Currently, only 64% of those raised as Latter-day Saints in the U.S. are still actively participating in the church. Second, in a study conducted by Jana Riess, a religious scholar, Jana found that many Millennials who leave the Church leave because they do not feel like they belong, not necessarily because they do not believe. According to Riess’s research, the top three reasons Millennials leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are:
- Disagreement about LGBT issues
- Feeling judged
- Not trusting leaders “to tell the truth about controversial issues”
(Author’s Note: The second point stood out to me when I substituted in a 16-year-old Sunday School class. I asked the class what were three things they would change about their religion to make it a perfect place for them. All the women in the room (including my wife, who was helping me) said they wished people in the Church were less judgmental.)
Reflecting on these reasons leads me to two observations. First, reasons one and two revolve around inclusivity – something Millennials value to a greater degree than (1) those of older generations and (2) moral pillars and values. Second, the third reason likely involves more than just not trusting leaders. This perception may reflect the large generation gap between Millennials and the top leaders of the Church. There has perhaps never been such a large age difference between the Apostles and those in their twenties and early thirties.
Why it’s important for church leaders to understand Millennials and their philosophies and tendencies?
Millennials are leaving the Church at a higher rate than previous generations, and there is little to suggest that this trend is slowing. To retain Millennials, leaders need to better understand them and adapt their leadership to more fully meet Millennials’ needs, which may require acting differently than traditional Latter-day Saint norms.
Millennial philosophies that contradict traditional Latter-day Saint philosophies. Latter-day Saint Millennials feel torn between seemingly contradictory philosophies and beliefs in their religious experience. This puts them in a position where they feel they must choose one or the other, or find a way to ignore the tension. The philosophies Millennials struggle with are of great importance to them, making the issues hard to ignore, and forcing Millennials to take a stance. I will discuss four such seemingly contradictory philosophies.
Upholding Moral Values vs. Inclusivity. The LDS Church is known for having many “rules” to support and promote moral values that are foundational to a healthy lifestyle. For example, we are encouraged to not engage in sexual relationships before marriage to promote chastity and virtue and we are encouraged to not drink alcohol to promote treating our bodies as a temple. Now, rules and moral values are good and important; but, it is important to recognize that whenever a “rule” is in place, that rule creates a distinction between those who follow the rule and those who do not. If a rule means the difference between being an upstanding member of the Church or not, the Church decides whether that individual should be allowed to fully participate or not. A topic related to this is the Church’s position on LGBT issues. If a member of the Church is engaged in a same-sex relationship or is a child of someone engaged in a same sex relationship, the rules of the Church suggest that they are not welcome to participate fully in the Church (e.g., engage and participate in ordinances).
While it is easy to see why morals, values, and rules can play a beneficial role for a church and its members, the fact that they create a division between those on the outside and those on the inside rubs against a strongly-held Millennial philosophy: inclusion. Millennials see inclusion as being like the second Great Commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Millennials have a hard time figuring out how to simultaneously (a) love others that are not living up to the morals, values, and rules of the church and (b) say to such others that they are not welcome to fully participate in and with the Church.
This is a deep issue and one for which I do not have an easy solution. But, it is important for those of older generations to realize that Millennials struggle with the pull between the seemingly contradictory philosophies of upholding moral values and being inclusive. It is also important that those of older generations recognize that they tend to value upholding moral values more highly than being inclusive, and Millennials may have the opposite tendency. Each philosophy has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Bureaucracy vs. Having a Voice. A bureaucracy is a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by non-elected officials, usually without the voice of the people. While we believe that Christ is at the head of the Church, it is largely a bureaucracy, being governed by non-elected officials. And, to a great degree, the bureaucratic structure is repeated at the stake and ward levels. This makes the Church a very top-down hierarchy, and it is a form of government and organization that older generations are more comfortable with and accepting of.
There are positive aspects of a bureaucratic form of government and organization, but it is a form that does not sit well with Millennials. This is primarily because it leaves those at the bottom (regular members of the Church) without a voice. Having a voice is something most Millennials have always had. Most of the changes in corporate structures over the last decade or so have been designed to flatten organizations and allow for greater employee voice. Organizations and organizational leaders know that if employees have a voice and can make decisions for themselves, they are more engaged, invested, innovative, and effective. When Millennials find themselves in an organization where the structure limits “their voice,” they tend to disengage and find institutions where they can have a voice.
Focus on Faith Promotion vs. Authenticity. For over 175 years, the Church has been fighting against adversaries to the Church. Knowing there have always been forces on the outside fighting against the Church and attempting to pull members away, the Church and its leaders naturally and understandably have sought to emphasize and promote all the positive aspects of the Church and its history. Simply stated, an understandable mindset within the Church has been: leaders and members of the Church should not speak negatively of the Church or bring up information that could be construed as being negative (particularly in a public or church meeting). There has been little incentive for the Church and its leaders to be anything but faith-promoting.
But, a focus on only what is good and faith-promoting goes against an important philosophy of Millennials: being authentic. This means that one is genuine and behaves in a way that is congruent with one’s values, preferences, and abilities. But, it also means that one owns both the good and the bad about oneself, and is willing to be open about one’s strengths and weaknesses, being both transparent and vulnerable.
Millennials understand that no one person (other than Christ), and no one organization is perfect and only good. Everyone and every organization has both its strengths and weaknesses and everyone and every organization has elements that they are proud of and elements they are not so proud of. When an organization focuses only on the good and its strengths, without simultaneously acknowledging and being open about the bad and its weaknesses, the organization, and its leaders come across to Millennials as inauthentic.
Preaching “Doctrine” vs. We Need Support. We are taught that church meetings should focus on “doctrine” (the core message of Jesus Christ as the Messiah) or preach “nothing but faith and repentance.” Further, there is quite specific guidance that only certain sources (e.g., scriptures, General Conference talks, and approved handbooks) should be relied upon within church meetings. Some of the rationale behind this guidance includes:
- Ensuring that false-doctrine or beliefs are not perpetuated
- Ensuring that members understand and espouse the core beliefs associated with the Church and the gospel
- The belief that the gospel and the teachings within the Church encompass all that is needed to gain salvation in the next life
It is plain to see the value and the importance behind this guidance. However, it is important to recognize that Millennials are individuals who have a lower level of general knowledge coming out of high school, and need and want greater supervision and support. Stated differently, Millennials need help with more than just their spiritual needs. In fact, for many Millennials, their spiritual needs come quite low on their priority list. Acknowledging this, Millennials are looking for and need people and organizations that can help them better navigate life and work through their emotional, social, financial, and spiritual needs. Millennials see churches as being able to help them with these various needs. It is important to recognize that the LDS Church is developing programs to help with a variety of Millennials’ needs (e.g., Pathway). But, Millennials have needs that are not likely to be met if there is a strict focus on preaching “nothing but faith and repentance,” and if leaders, speakers, and teachers are limited to certain “approved” sources.
Summary: In presenting these seemingly contradicting philosophies, I intended to demonstrate that there are contradictions and that they each have their own positive and negative aspects.
What do church leaders need to do to better support and retain Millennials?
While understanding and supporting Millennials is the responsibility of the entire LDS community, LDS leaders set the tone in this effort. I believe there are three ways LDS leaders can create a community that does a better job of supporting and retaining Millennials.
- Be open to breaking away from traditions and church “culture” In saying this, I am suggesting that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the traditions or “culture” of the LDS Church are often not the same. Millennials need the gospel of Jesus Christ and the emotional, physical, and spiritual healing powers of the atonement. However, Millennials may need the gospel and the atonement delivered to them in ways that differ from the traditional delivery methods within the Church. Traditional delivery methods revolve around being rules-focused, top-down, arguably inauthentic, and narrowly-focused (i.e., focused on preaching “nothing but faith and repentance”). Millennials respond better to delivery methods that are heart-focused, bottom-up, authentic, and inclusive of truth and light regardless of the source. When leaders only allow for traditional philosophies and delivery methods, without giving much thought toward Millennial philosophies, the message Millennials receive is that their leaders and their community is not supportive of them, and perhaps even against them. Such a perception is disastrous to a generation that is impatient and not loyal when the value is not being received. I am not suggesting that LDS leaders need to adapt everything they do to meet the needs and demands of Millennials, as Millennials represent just one generation within the Church. I believe LDS leaders need to be open to fact that LDS traditions may not be meeting the needs and desires of Millennials, and prayerfully and strategically identify adjustments that can be made to better address the needs and desires of Millennials. I recently heard of a singles ward in Southern California where a woman was called to attend all ward leadership meetings, including bishopric meeting, PEC, and ward council. This example represents a breaking away from “tradition” in a way that promotes Millennial’s values of inclusivity, the voice of all genders, and authenticity (male leaders may not always get it “right”).
- Understand the voice of the people, particularly Millennials. On one level, LDS leaders that come from older generations need to understand that Millennials have different perspectives and philosophies than they have. Thus, LDS leaders need to make the effort to understand how Millennials’ perspectives and philosophies differ from their own, without discrediting those perspectives and philosophies just because they are different. Perhaps this means admitting that you are out of your element with Millennials, and talking to them before they ask themselves “what am I still doing here?”On another level, LDS leaders should determine how they can allow Millennials to have a greater voice in their ward. If Millennials feel ignored or that their voice is not respected, they are going to feel like outsiders, and will likely find different social groups that will allow them to have a voice. My personal experience is that LDS leaders are reluctant to allow Millennials to express their authentic voice because it differs from the voices of older and more established members of the Church and this may result in conflict. In such instances it is important to remember the following from Elder Holland: “I would ask us…to remember it is by divine design that not all the voices in God’s choir are the same. It takes variety…to make rich music.”
- Strive to prevent judgment amongst the flock. Feeling judged is the number two reason Millennials are leaving the Church. LDS leaders must help members understand how their words and actions can cause others to feel judged, explaining that difference does not equal deviance. A recent blog post on LDS.org entitled “How I Learned My Worth Isn’t Measured in Checkmarks” is an excellent treatise on this topic. Collectively, we need to do a better job of focusing on the inward heart and recognize that outer actions do not always portray the state of our heart. My experience is that most everyone is trying her or his best with the tools and perspectives she or he has, yet it seems common that members are recognized (or criticized) more for doing exceptional “visible” things than they are for trying their best.
Most of the leaders in the LDS Church are either Baby Boomers or Gen Xers, and within their flock is a generation that is quite different from them: Millennials. Compared to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, Millennials have different needs and different philosophies. Millennial mindsets and retention statistics suggest that unless the LDS Church and its leaders (at all levels) understand Millennials and make changes to meet their needs and philosophies, Millennials are likely to disengage from the Church emotionally, spiritually, physically, or in any combination of the three. This article is an effort to help leaders understand the uniqueness of Millennials, how their philosophies differ from traditional LDS philosophies, and the actions they can take to better support and retain Millennials.
Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and the Assistant Director of the Center for Leadership at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University, and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies.