Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trending Toward Religious Disengagement

A couple of evenings ago, I attended a meeting of church leaders at my LDS stake. Perhaps it is my perception, but after years of attending these meetings, it seems that attendees can usually expect to be chewed out for falling short. Then they wonder why turnout is low.

The purpose of these meetings seems to be mostly to call leaders to repentance than about lifting them spiritually, at least in my neck of the woods. Paradoxically, those that are diligent enough to attend the meetings are likely to be the ones that are also diligently fulfilling their leadership callings, however imperfect their performances might be.

It sometimes seems as if the faithful leave these meetings feeling berated and burdened rather than enlightened. Those for whom the messages were likely intended weren’t there to be admonished. Perhaps they glide along in blissful ignorance.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the principle that “he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy” of the kingdom of God (D&C 131:31). That’s why I work my schedule to be at these meetings, why I take notes, and why I earnestly try to improve my performance. But sometimes I feel disheartened when leaving these meetings.

One item of discussion at the recent meeting was our stake’s trend in declining Sacrament meeting (weekly worship service) attendance over the past few years. We used to average 62% annually, but have dropped to 54%. The stake president opened up a discussion about why this was happening and what could be done about it.

While I am not certain of all of the factors for declining worship service attendance in my stake, it would seem reasonable to assume that we are not immune to broader societal trends. Almost three years ago, I wrote about the growing drift toward civic disengagement, which has been documented by political scientist Robert Putnam.

Due to the advent of in-home entertainment technology, the expansion of women into the outside-of-the-home workforce, social trends away from conformity and formality, the crowding out effect of government social services, the ability to rise socially outside of traditional institutions, and a variety of other societal changes, there has been decreasing involvement in civic institutions over the past four decades.

This is not to say that all of the factors mentioned are purely negative. It’s just that costs are blended with the benefits.

The Pew Forum published an interesting study earlier this year titled Religion Among the Millennials. Religious attitudes and practices of the Millennial generation were compared with Generation X, Baby Boomers, and older Americans. Researchers tracked how Millennials stacked up against previous generations at the same age. They also did a good job of tracking the evolution of religious attitudes and behavior among these older generations.

Millennials are less religiously affiliated than previous generations, but they tend to pray more regularly than those who were the same age 10 and 20 years ago. One-fourth of Millennials are non-believers, compared with one-fifth of the previous generation at the same age. While it has been fairly common for Americans of all currently living generations to switch religions, Millennials switch to no religion at a much higher rate than previous generations.

Besides religious affiliation, Millennials attend worship services at a lower rate than previous generations. But this is simply part of a longer trend where each succeeding generation attends church less frequently than their parents’ generation. Millennials attend church at less than half the rate today’s seniors did at the same age.

This is a bigger issue for the LDS Church than for most other denominations, because Millennials make up a larger proportion of LDS Church membership than is common for most other churches.

The whole Pew study is quite interesting. It includes a number of surprising tidbits, such as the fact that religious convictions among practicing believers are just as strong among younger generations as older generations — even stronger by some measures. But the overall picture is clear. Religious affiliation and church attendance are steadily declining with each succeeding generation.

Given the rate of demographic turnover in my area, the decline in Sacrament meeting attendance noted by my stake president is not out of line with overall societal religious trends. I do not doubt that active church members in my area could be doing a better job of reaching out to neighbors and inviting others to worship with them. But it is unrealistic to assume that members could significantly counter a broader cultural trend.

Perhaps I am one of those of “little faith” (Matt 14:31), but it seems to me that the worship service attendance trends we have seen over the past decade or so are going to continue despite our best efforts. That’s no excuse for complacency. It’s just a recognition of cultural realities.

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