How NOT to keep people from leaving the Church

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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.

19 thoughts on “How NOT to keep people from leaving the Church

  1. Pingback: What happens when Mormonism ceases to be relevant? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  2. Immovable11

    “A fundamental reason for loss of faith was a loss of the Spirit.” I completely agree with this thought. For example; when doing honest, in depth research on the Church someone can come across facts or evidence that may be potentially troubling (I.E. something that they never learned in Sunday School growing up)…..the natural response to that situation is to distance yourself from what you are now investigating (a person found something potentially wrong with the Church so now the Church is under their own personal, research). The fatal error in this type of research means that they have also abandoned reading their scriptures and saying their prayers (because those simple acts are associated with the topic of investigation)…..the two things that the scriptures warn are the very things which lead to loss of faith, leaving one vulnerable to Satan and eventually straying from truth.

    These scriptures validate this stance; “Pray always lest that wicked one have power in you, and remove you out of your place.” D&C 93:49 “Pray always, and I will pour out my Spirit upon you” D&C 19:38 and “Some have wrested the scriptures, and have gone far astray because of this thing.”
    Alma 41:1

    I believe that there can be unfortunate stigmas in the Church which allow for members to view people, situation, the world etc. as being simply black and white. Either they are good or bad, you stay in the Church because you’re good you leave the Church because you committed some sort of heinous sin……In the case of the brother you mentioned, I believe he fits into the black/white category. His mind won’t process (due to being raised with the stigma of black/white mentality) that people can and do leave the Church for numerous reasons…

  3. opinionscount

    I didn’t grow up in the church. My husband and I joined when we were in our 30s. Two years after joining we had our one and only child. We had been married for 10 years. Being in this church has been a great blessing in our lives. My husband was inactive for a few years, but he never stopped believing in what this church has to offer. He kept the Word of Wisdom and when we moved to another state he became active again. I was suprised I remained active when he was not going to church with me and our child. I didn’t want to stop going because I felt the spirit even if I didn’t read the scriptures and pray daily. It was the spirit that kept me active. It’s not even the doctrine of the church that keeps me coming back every week. I’ve been to many churches and this one is the best I have found. I enjoy hearing from members of the congregation every week. I feel like you get to know the members and we don’t have to depend on a minister to give a sermon. We get to hear real life experiences and how they apply to the gospel in our daily lives. When I share this joy I feel with non members it is not to try to convert them it is simply to offer them the opportunity to feel the spirit work in their lives as it has in mine. It seems more people are telling me what they like about the LDS church than what they don’t like. I have discovered that missionary work is not about trying to convert people to this religion. It is simply sharing the gospel and allowing that person to feel the spirit in their lives. My mother had the discussions from the missionaries three years before she was ready to make the committment to join the LDS religion. Everyone needs the freedom to choose their own path in life even if we think we know what is better for them.

  4. RFB

    Since I’m an older, lifelong member, I think I have some perspective on this issue. I have come to the point where I can say I don’t need to know all the answers, at least not right now. I do know the core messages are true: God lives, Jesus is the Christ, the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph Smith was a prophet, and the priesthood was restored. But there are a lot of things I wonder about. I am willing to withhold judgment on some of those questions for now since I know the basics. Insisting on knowing the answers to all questions and knowing them now is a problem that is bound to frustrate. I don’t know why the revelation on the priesthood was, in my view, so slow coming. I am baffled by the polygamy issue (and I have ancestors who were polygamists.) I tend to think the earth is a lot older than 7,000 years, yet I believe Adam as the first “man,” although I’m not sure exactly what makes up that definition. I know eventually we’ll know the answers to these and other questions. But to those who question, I say be at peace. Find the parts that are true and exercise faith. Be patient.

  5. log

    I remember in the days of my conversion asking myself, “If all members of the church felt this way all the time, how could any fall away?”

    Long after that event, now that I am older and wiser, I understand precisely how they can fall away. We don’t feel like that all the time, because our eye does not remain single to the glory of God. Years may pass wherein we feel nothing, receiving no word, leading busy and care-full lives.

    It is not due to gross sin that someone has questions. It is, however, due to sin – darkness of mind, of heart – that someone uses questions (or offense, or lack of community, &c.) to transition out of the church.

    But here’s the kick: if they are asking questions, there is still hope.

  6. Pingback: 7 May 2012 | MormonVoices

  7. deila

    If you look at the history of the Church there were many who left because they became discouraged or questioned Joseph Smith’s ideas (Kirtland Safety Society for one) and later came back. It is not always about some grievous sin. Thinking that way, will drive more tender souls away, and is very presumptuous.

    I was inactive for a few years after I married, mainly because I did not have much of a testimony, having grown up in the church and never studied it out. But, a good friend in the ward began picking us up for activities and I got back. For me, I love the gospel because there is so much to learn, to think about and to figure out. Hugh Nibley turned the light on for me.

    As for the internet, I think it is a great resource to help others and I have had people lost from the church email me and say thank you. It does make a difference.

  8. brettogden

    “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.”

    That is such a GREAT statement and so well put! Thank you for writing it!

    Regarding the survey – it was done 24 years ago. That’s before the internet age. If there is not a more current, scientific study on the subject, then maybe FAIR should consider commissioning one.

  9. chris

    Are you familiar with the study Mormon Stories did last year? They had about 3000 respondents.

    Here are the top 5 factors:

    1. I lost faith in Joseph Smith
    2. I studied church history and lost my belief
    3. I ceased to believe in the church’s doctrine/theology
    4. I lost faith in the Book of Mormon
    5. I re-evaluated what it means to believe/know, and realized that I never really believed.

    And the bottom 3:
    – I wanted to engage in behaviors viewed as sinful by the church.
    – I was offended by someone in the church.
    – Lack of meaningful friendships within the church.

    I think times have changed since the 1988 study. Any doubt the internet has something to do with it?

  10. Mike Parker


    There are so many problems with the methodology behind John Dehlin’s “survey” that it’s impossible to discuss them all here. In brief:

    The primary issue is that his “survey” was not conducted randomly and impartially—it was an opt-in survey by people who follow his podcast and who generally agree with his approach to Mormon things. The answers, therefore, represent a very specific narrative that has been crafted by Dehlin and the people in his circle—a narrative that is likely to be a post hoc explanation for people’s motivations.

    Because of this, the “survey” results are enormously biased and, therefore, worthless for telling us why people leave the Church. It may tell us why a select group of Dehlin’s followers left the Church, but that is in no way representative of the group as a whole.

    The “survey” is therefore, anecdotal and should not be relied upon in any scientific sense.

  11. chris

    Hey Mike, thanks for the follow-up!

    An opt-in survey is no simple random sample, but 3000 people is still a pretty decent amount of people to learn from. According to the link above, the 1988 survey had 59 respondents – which is also seems to leave it pretty unreliable.

    So, do we have any other data at all to look at?

    Nonetheless, it seems that the church has recently acknowledged that the internet has had a substantial effect on people leaving the church.

  12. chris

    Whoops, I take it back! It said the disengagement part of the study had 1,800 people, and the disaffiliation part had 59.

    Anyhow, it’s still really old.

  13. Mike Parker


    3000 sounds like an impressive number, but from a statistical standpoint the total number is inconsequential. Let me give you two examples that explain this, one hypothetical; one actual.

    1) The Utah Eagle Forum is a very politically conservative organization of Republicans in (you guessed it) Utah. Let’s say that Forum president Gayle Ruzicka asked Forum members to take a survey on their beliefs on abortion. It would not be accurate to pass off the results of this survey as indicative of Republicans as a whole — Eagle Forum members are more conservative than your typical Republican, and survey respondents are more likely to have opted in because they have strong feelings on abortion.

    2) Following this year’s Republican presidential debates, the hosting TV networks frequently posted oonline polls asking which candidate won the debate. Candidate Ron Paul overwhelmingly won every poll, usually by significant margins. One could assume — incorrectly — that Ron Paul had broad support among voters, and yet the results of actual state primaries have shown that is not the case. Paul won the online polls only because his passionate supporters flooded the online polls.

    What does this tell us about Dehlin’s survey? That we have no idea if the results are indicative of feelings among the larger population of disaffected Mormons. Dehlin’s survey only tells us about one specific, passionate group who share common views and a common group narrative. And that narrative contaminates the results. The survey is anecdotal only.

    Does it represent actual feelings of actual people? Of course. Does it represent the feelings of a larger group of the disaffected? We have no way of knowing. I suspect not, though.

  14. Mike Parker

    Also, I am not aware of rigorous surveys of disaffected Mormons whose results are publicly available.

    Elder Marlin Jensen recently commented in public on rising rates of apostasy. He did not say whether this was due to problems with Church history being more widely available, or because of growth in secularism, or other reasons.

  15. chris

    Well, it’s a bummer that we have zero good data.

    And Elder Jensen was answering a question about Google and people who find out about church history and leave, and he said, “…maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now; largely over these issues.” He went on to say “we realize that people basically get their information through Googling,” and how they’re trying to create more offerings online to get people to the right information.

    So it sounds like probably is a fair amount of truth to it.

  16. Mike Parker

    Now that you mention it, I do recall him saying that. Thank you for the correction.

    I am of the opinion that the problem is not difficulties in Church history, but in having them presented openly in a context of faith. The Church has invested a lot of time and energy on the fundamentals of our faith — understandably, because of the high percentage of new converts it has — but the information age has caught up with it.

    The Joseph Smith Papers Project is a good example of reclaiming and owning our history, even the messy parts. I hope that trickles down to Sunday Schools, priesthood quorums, and Relief Societies. My understanding is that is what we will soon see.

  17. Logophile


    The discussion in your HP group sounds much more interesting than what typically happens in my HP group. In a word, my HP group is boring.

    And I would suggest that boredom may be a significant reason why people become inactive.

    According to the study you cited, more than half (54%) of those who become inactive in the Church do so because they want to “spend their limited time and resources on other interests and activities.” Anyone who has attended the HP group in my ward can understand that sentiment.

    The problem is not limited to the high priests. The Church has too many meetings that drag on too long and accomplish too little.

    My stake president unintentionally highlighted the problem when he canceled all church meetings (other than the three-hour Sunday block) during the first week in July. This was designated as Family Friendly Week. What does that say about the other 51 weeks of the year?

  18. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    When I have sought interesting new information or lively discussion at church meetings, I have usually been disappointed. When I have gone focussed on worshiping God and serving others, I have usually come away feeling uplifted and spiritually strengthened. Once I recognized this, I have tried harder to appreciate and experience the connection with God that I feel at church through prayer, hymns, ordinances, service, studying scriptures, expressions of love, and through the sharing of personal spiritual experiences and testimonies. I have also tried to help other people to view their church activity in this way as I believe fewer people would leave the Church if they did so.

  19. alien236

    This case study article looks at the ten countries with the highest percentage of internet users and the ten countries with the lowest, and their respective church growth rates. Although the countries with higher usage almost all have much lower growth rates, the article concludes that overall secularism is more likely to blame, and that the effects of pro-LDS and anti-LDS information on the web seem to cancel each other out. However there are also many countries that have almost no pro-LDS internet content in their native languages. It is a short but worthwhile read.

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