The wavering of millennials in America’s religious landscape may not only be an issue, but also a question begging an answer. Where is everyone going? And what’s working to bring them back? To find answers, a team of Universe reporters spent a semester talking to religious experts around the country and to millennials themselves. What they found is presented in ongoing articles.
Last in a series. Part one deals with the rise of the ‘nones.’ Part two examines why millennials leave religion. Part three discusses the efforts religions make to appeal to millennials. Part four looks at the millennials who stay.
As a 26-year-old returned missionary, Devin Willie attends Sunday services at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he does not necessarily embrace all LDS principles.
He openly admits he struggles with the practice of polygamy by the prophet Joseph Smith, with his perception that women are less valued in the church, and with his idea that fear and shame drive LDS practices. These struggles have created what he calls his faith transition.
“You can question aspects of your faith and not have to give up on the entirety of your faith,” Willie said. “I tried leaving the church and I didn’t like it. I felt far away from God.”
LDS millennials like Willie are some of the least likely to completely abandon their religious membership. Pew Research’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found 64 percent of people who were raised in the LDS Church remain Mormons as adults. In November 2015, Pew reported that Mormons are some of the most religious people among all religious denominations. Seventy-seven percent of Mormons reported they attend church every Sunday compared to 45 percent of those affiliated with other faiths.
In spite of these findings, the LDS faith still has its own generation of “nones,” those who mark the “none” box when asked to indicate religious affiliation. Like many others of their generation, some LDS millennials choose to abandon the religion for what they term a “spiritual lifestyle.”
Why they leave
Some leave because they disagree with the church’s stance on social issues. Others encounter questions they cannot resolve. That was the case for Connor and Samantha Snyder, whose LDS marriage started out in the most traditional of ways: with a marriage sealing in an LDS temple.
Connor grew up in an LDS home and served a two-year LDS mission. He met Samantha upon returning home, who converted to the church in England and moved to America to attend BYU-Idaho. Questions began to arise in their minds as they started studying certain elements of church doctrine and history.
“The entire journey for me was in the name of keeping my faith,” Samantha said. “If I hadn’t have cared so much about keeping my faith and about the church then I don’t think this ever would have happened to me.”
But Connor and Samantha couldn’t find the answers they sought. Ultimately, they decided to leave. Samantha said she believes access to Internet-based information had an impact on her experience. She never sought out anti-Mormon sources; often the LDS Church’s own published documents created the confusion in her mind, she said.
“If you grew up in Utah in the ’60s you would just have no real way to — you would not be exposed to — any instances that would make you think the church isn’t true,” Samantha said. “Eventually media starts coming in a bit more, but now with the Internet if you have a question you can look it up.”
Connor said most of his friends responded with sympathy and compassion when he announced he was leaving the church, but some comments were also negative.
“You feel like you’ve done something based in your morals and you really feel like you did the right thing, even though it’s really hard to hear from other people that you’re being foolish or stupid or you didn’t try hard enough to make it work,” Connor said.
Why they stay
Although some LDS millennials are finding reasons to leave the church because of what they find on the internet, many others use it as a way to share their faith and to show why they stay.
When Connor left the church, his friend, Ari Rees, saw his announcement on Facebook. Within a month, seven of Rees’ friends posted that they were also leaving the church. As she saw all of her friends leaving, she asked herself why she was staying. Rees expressed her thoughts on her personal blog in a post titled, “Why I Stay Mormon When So Many Friends Have Left.”
“It came down to thinking about how many times I’ve seen the Atonement work in my life and how that’s something that you just can’t find in the world,” Rees said. “It’s so hard to recognize that the Savior is there for you and that he has done all that he can to sacrifice for you and to show how much he knows and loves you.”
Millennials like Rees are often faced with questions about their faith. In a Utah South Area regional conference last September, Elder M. Russell Ballard emphasized there is nothing wrong with asking questions.
“When someone comes to you with a question or a concern, please do not brush the question off. Do not tell him or her to not worry about the question,” Elder Ballard said. “Please do not doubt the person’s dedication to the Lord or His work. Instead, help the person find the answers to their questions.”
The LDS Church’s openness to questions was part of what drew Alyssa Hansen to the faith. She converted at age 18 after feeling like the Catholic Church stifled her questions. Since Hansen’s conversion, she describes her activity in the church as a roller-coaster.
“At one point during a low period, I had a friend who had helped me during my conversion say to me, ‘Then leave. If it’s so hard and you don’t really care, leave.’ And I told him I didn’t want to leave,” Hansen said. “When asked why, I responded with, ‘Because I know it’s true.’ And that is what has kept me active, even when I feel alone in the church or overwhelmed at the things the Lord requires.”
The hub of LDS millennials: Brigham Young University
Many LDS millennials decide to strengthen their faith by attending church-owned Brigham Young University, or its sister campuses in Rexburg, Idaho and Laie, Hawaii.
Even though 98 percent of students at BYU are LDS, the school is not exempt from its share of faith crises. Questions and doubts are sometimes hidden from public view because BYU students who are members of the LDS Church are expelled if they decide to leave it.
“Excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the withdrawal of the student’s ecclesiastical endorsement and the loss of good Honor Code standing,” states BYU’s Honor Code, which students are required to sign. “Disaffiliation is defined for purposes of this policy as removal of an individual’s name from the official records of the Church.”
The policy was officially adopted in 1993, according to the Deseret News.
Caleb Chamberlain almost lost his eligibility to attend BYU when he decided he no longer believed. However, he waited until his graduation to formally disassociate, avoiding the loss of two years of non-transferable master’s work.
After graduation, Chamberlain left the church and founded FreeBYU, an organization that advocates changing the policy so LDS students can change their faith and still remain a student at the university.
“Experiencing a change of faith is already a very traumatic experience for a lot of people; to evaluate the faith you grew up with and to decide for whatever reason it’s not what you want to pursue anymore,” Chamberlain said. “There are huge family implications. There are social implications and worldview implications.”
BYU students don’t only lose their religion when they decide to leave the faith. Without an ecclesiastical endorsement, students can no longer attend the university, live in BYU-approved housing, or hold an on-campus job.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the policy is explained when students apply for admission and is available on BYU’s website.
“Prior to entering BYU, all students agree to uphold the BYU Honor Code,” Jenkins said in a statement. “BYU’s website pertaining to the Honor Code explicitly states the principles students are expected to follow. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this includes following the values and standards of their religion. Because of covenants and commitments members of the LDS Church have made, they can no longer remain in good honor code standing if they choose to formally disaffiliate from the LDS Church.”
Even though there are a few students at BYU who choose to leave the faith, most enjoy the spiritual environment. Brent Top, dean of religious education at BYU, has researched the power of religion in the lives of young Latter-day Saints. His research has found the most influential religious factor is the undeniable spiritual experiences.
“For me personally, I choose to believe,” Top said. “Does that mean I have resolved every issue of concern? Not necessarily. The experiences I’ve had and the blessings of the fruit of my belief far outweigh my disbelief. Millennials are sometimes willing to toss away all the good because they can’t resolve some issues.”