I led a discussion in a high priests group today about personal apostasy and how we can help by sharing the gospel over the internet. I asked for people to share their personal experiences regarding why people leave, and I shared some figures from a 1988 study that is summarized by Kevin Barney here. With regard to reasons people become inactive in the Church, the study reported the following:
- 54% wanted to spend their limited time and resources on other interests and activities.
- 40% indicated that they didn’t feel they belonged
- 25% reported feeling it didn’t matter to anyone whether they attended or not.
- About a third gave contextual reasons (movement to a new community where they didn’t get involved, work schedule conflicts, etc.).
- 23% reported problems with specific doctrines or teachings,
- 20% reported problems with other members of the congregation
- Some said the church demanded too much of their time and money
- Others said it no longer was a help in finding the meaning in life.
- Female respondents in particular were affected by marriage to a nonmember spouse.
As I opened it up for discussion, the idea was expressed, and I agreed, that a fundamental reason for loss of faith was a loss of the Spirit. So many of the factors listed above can be tolerated if an individual feels a strong connection with God that is associated with activity in this Church (prayer, scripture reading, Church and temple attendance, etc.)
I was a little surprised, however, by the extreme position taken by one member of the group who commented to me after the lesson that he has never known a person to leave the Church who is not engaged in some serious sin. He further argued that it is not rational argument over the internet, but one-on-one ministering that converts people. Thus, our efforts on the internet are not helpful. (He later admitted that effort made on the internet might be of some use.) He entirely disregarded the findings of the study cited above and further forcefully argued that if people had real testimonies by the Spirit to begin with, they would never leave.
I told him that his experience must simply be different than mine, and that I have known people who at one time had strong testimonies but later left, and that I have been unable to discern any “serious sin” in their lives. I do think that in each instance, if these individuals would have continued to cultivate a relationship with the Spirit, that they would not have left. But the reasons they did not continue in a close relationship with the Spirit may have been due to some combination of any of the various factors listed in the study above.
A testimony must be nourished with great care, and should not be neglected. Otherwise, when exposed to difficulties, our testimony can slowly diminish and finally leave us. (See Alma 32:37-38.) Those difficulties may take the form of a desire to play golf on Sunday, or lack of friendship in a ward, or some doctrine or historical aspect of the Church that seems troubling. Clearly, adultery can drive a person from the Church, and such a person may even look for doctrinal or historical problems to justify leaving the Church when the root cause is actually adultery. However, in teaching a lesson on how we can help prevent people from leaving, it struck me that in forcefully (even contentiously) advancing the argument that it is serious sin, and only serious sin, that causes people to leave, this man may be creating an atmosphere in his ward that may create difficulty for someone who is struggling with a doctrinal issue and, ironically, accelerate that person’s exit from the Church. And in taking a contentious approach to his view, he may be driving away the very Spirit that is essential to building faith.
A person should feel free to share concerns with other members of a ward regarding doctrinal or historical problems without fear that their neighbors will jump to conclusions about adultery or methamphetamine use. There are solid answers to nearly every doctrinal or historical issue I have confronted. (There are still some that make me scratch my head as I faithfully wait for further light and knowledge.) However, it is usually only on the internet, in a fairly impersonal and anonymous forum, that I am asked about these issues. I wonder how many people could be helped in a personal way by a neighbor who can follow-up and help strengthen a person who is struggling if they were not made to feel that in expressing concern, their personal worthiness would be questioned.