Dave, over at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry has started an interesting discussion on the recent news article in the Salt Lake Tribune reporting that Church growth seems to have flattened out over the last decade. Part of that decline in Church growth is caused by a serious problem we are having with retaining in activity those that we do baptize. Members are dropping out as fast or faster than they are coming in. What is the solution to this problem? Whose fault is it anyway?
Dave seems to think that running the Church as a corporation is part of the problem, and that things would improve if there was a mandatory retirement age for our General Authorities. One of those who commented on Dave’s post writes, “I can’t see how SLC isn’t the principle blame for the current trends.” Another commenter disagrees, saying that the membership is to blame because they are struggling with an increase in spiritual problems that distract them from missionary work.
I tend to agree that the problem lies not with the leadership but with our failure to follow their counsel more carefully. In my comment to the thread I said:
I like Brent’s thoughts on this matter. I have also thought that the problem might be the rank and file membership rather than the leaders. I think that the members need to follow their leaders more closely, especially when they are asked to pray more, pray more fervently, and search the scriptures more.Elder Holland gave a conference talk on the retention problem a number of years ago. He pointed out that many members who become inactive are simply not being spiritually fed in our Church meetings. He said that “theological twinkies” are not an adequate substitute for the scriptures in our talks and lessons. By “twinkies” he meant the cute little stories that we hear so often in our meetings.
If the members knew their scriptures better, they would do a better job of incorporating those scriptures into their talks and lessons. Then the Holy Ghost would be more likely to testify to the congregation that what they were hearing is true. The result would be much more spiritually satisfying meetings. We must preach the gospel when we speak and teach lessons, and we can’t do that unless we know the scriptures better.
A related stumbling block that is interferring with the spirituality of our meetings is personal worthiness. I’ve been doing some research on the impact that Internet pornography is having on the Church membership; and if we can believe Internet usage statistics, and the counsel of our Church leaders, pornography has become a terrible problem among active members, largely because of the Internet. Needless to say, this is going to have a negative impact on our personal spirituality that will inevitably be reflected in our Church meetings. Without the Spirit, we cannot learn what we should from the scriptures even when we do study them. And the Spirit is not going to abide with us if we are using pornography.
Add to that the influence of television, much of which is pornographic to a degree. Americans don’t read as much as they used to, largely because of the proliferation of nonprint media. We are becoming a nation of vidiots or video idiots, and this is just as true of Mormons as Americans in general. Young people especially do not read as much as those in previous generations. Is this going to impact our reading of the scriptures? Of course it is. And unless we really love and learn the scriptures, our talks and lessons are going to be shallow and uninspiring. And the result? Those who attend Church are going to find our meetings boring and otherwise unfulfilling. All we get is going to be milk, because hardly anyone is qualified to give us the meat. Why even bother going to Church when that happens?
I think this is a problem with the membership, not the leadership. I have heard our leaders constantly ask us to study the scriptures more, to avoid pornography, to seek the Spirit in our lives, to preach the gospel using the scriptures when we speak in Sacrament Meeting, to turn off our televisions and read more. It is not as if we were not being taught these things. We just aren’t following very well, and we can do much better. If we don’t, the problem of retention is only going to grow worse. And the Church will continue to struggle in its missionary work. When investigators and new members come out to Church, we have to have something for them. If we don’t, they will stop coming.
I think that one of the benefits of blogging, if we stay focused on the gospel, is that it motivates us to dig through our scriptures looking for doctrines and principles that buttress our opinions. If we can’t find it, then maybe we ought to rethink our position. For every person chopping at the root of our Church problems, there are a thousand hacking at the leaves. The scriptures can point us to the root.