Cover image via Wikimedia Commons.
The chance that the people I am thinking about will ever read these words is lower than slim to none, but I want to say them any way: “I miss you. I miss your friendship. I didn’t know when you left the Church that you would take your friendship away. I miss watching your children grow. I miss your comments in Relief Society. Your decision has left a sad space in my heart. Isn’t there a way you can kind of come back?”
A beautiful tethering is disrupted when members leave. It is a loss of community. It’s like a hundred-piece puzzle with a piece gone missing. We search for it. We leave the ninety and nine safely interlocked together and search. “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it” (Luke 15:4)?
The fact that Millennials are leaving the Church is not unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A new study shows that Christian affiliation is declining “at a rapid clip.” The Pew Research Center conducted telephone surveys in 2018 and 2019 and report that “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians…, down 12 percentage points over the past decade…. More than eight-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) describe themselves as Christians (84%), as do three-quarters of Baby Boomers (76%). In stark contrast, only half of Millennials (49%) describe themselves as Christians” (www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace).
This same pattern of declining belief happened in the Book of Mormon. In the book of Mosiah, King Benjamin spoke to the people and explained the blessings and obligations of taking upon oneself the name of Christ. “When king Benjamin had thus spoken to his people, he sent among them, desiring to know of his people if they believed the words which he had spoken unto them. And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts” (Mosiah 5:1-2). King Benjamin took “the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments…. and there was not one soul, except it were little children, but who had entered into the covenant and had taken upon them the name of Christ” (Mosiah 6:1-2, italics added).
Fast-forward twenty or so years and find out what has happened to these little children who are now adults. “Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers. They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ” (Mosiah 26:1-2I).
I have read Facebook posts written by members who detail why they are leaving the Church. Some have doctrinal issues similar to the next generation who grew up not believing King Benjamin’s words. Some have historical and/or political concerns. Some have been offended and blame the Church. Some feel guilt and shame when they compare themselves to others they think are more faithful. Some have sinned and feel they will be ostracized. Some say being a Latter-day Saint requires too much time and energy and is just too hard. Their reasons are complicated and over-lapping.
If being an active Latter-day Saint is too hard, I can share one thing I know for sure: Life will continue to be hard regardless of whether you are in or out of the Church. I quote two men who are not members of the Church. M. Scott Peck began his book The Road Less Traveled with the words: “Life is difficult.” Actor Jon Voight shared a spiritual experience on national television. His marriage, his children, his career, his personal integrity were not going well. He said: “I was in a lot of trouble at one point… and found myself on the floor saying, ‘It’s so difficult. It’s so difficult.’ I said it out loud. And I heard in my ear, ‘It’s supposed to be difficult.’” (https://metrovoicenews.com/actor-jon-voight-open-up-about-hearing-god).
Difficult times began with Adam and Eve and have continued through Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants times. An especially hard time in more recent Church history was during the Kirtland and Missouri periods when many apostatized. A few notable examples are: Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, W. W. Phelps, Thomas B. Marsh, Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde. Some stayed out of the Church for months, some for years, but all returned and died faithful to their testimonies.
When W. W. Phelps wanted to return, he did not know if the Prophet Joseph would accept him back. Joseph wrote: “Believing your confession to be real and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. Your letter was read to the saints last Sunday and an expression of their feeling was taken, when it was unanimously resolved that W. W. Phelps should be received into fellowship. ‘Come on dear Brother since the war is past, for friends at first are friends again at last.’ Yours as Ever, Joseph Smith Jr” (www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-william-w-phelps-22-july-1840/2#15547867323259577246).
One day Joseph Smith and Isaac Behunin were in conversation about apostates who were threatening and harassing the Prophet. Brother Behunin said: “If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.”
Joseph answered: “Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant” (www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-27?lang=eng).
Even those who may appear to have left the Church with no regret have memories. A neighbor who left the Church as a teen had never responded to invitations to come back, so I stopped inviting and was just an ordinary neighbor. One day she came to our home to ask for donations to a charity. One of our daughters was with me. Suddenly the neighbor grabbed my daughter’s hand and said with nostalgia, “A CTR ring. Oh, those were the days.” Another time, a neighbor passed me as I was walking to Relief Society. “Where are you going?” she asked. “To Relief Society,” I answered not knowing if she knew what Relief Society was. “Oh,” she said, “I went once. I really enjoyed it. I should have kept going.” Nearly every week as a docent in the Church History Museum, I meet people who are no longer active members of the Church but who have positive memories.
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s warning verifies that you cannot know what lies beyond a door you haven’t opened. Staying in the Church is predictable; leaving is uncertain. You cannot know what forces may impact your life if you turn away. Fortunately, there are other alternatives to being fully in or fully out. Please consider staying kind of in while you let the dust settle:
- Think about the possibility that the stress you are feeling is not the Church but generalized anxiety and/or depression for which you can get professional help.
- Have a conversation with yourself about how you are no longer on neutral ground, how unsure a future outside the Church is, and how life will still be difficult. These thoughts may give you courage to work through your feelings and get more information inside the Church.
- Reflect on the fact that since so many other Millennials are leaving their churches, it may be the wisest course to use time to your advantage and wait and see how their lives turn out before making such a life-altering decision.
- Ponder how you would advise a person who wanted to become a citizen of the United States. Would you tell him/her to go to the enemies of the United States to find out how? Please consider that reading random sources on the Internet may be like going to the enemy. Consider reading Gospel Topics wherein Church leaders explain pertinent issues with transparency (www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics?lang=eng).
- Have a conversation with your bishop to explain your situation. You could tell him you want to continue attending meetings but need a break from callings or speaking or praying in Church for a time.
- Have a conversation with God. You could ask as the Primary song does: “Heavenly Father, are you really there and do you hear and answer every child’s prayer?”
- Ponder doing as the Bible suggests: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5). You might watch “Ask of God,” a six-minute video about sincere prayer, and follow the pattern (www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/video/2017-01-0100-ask-of-god-joseph-smiths-first-vision?lang=eng).
- Read or reread the Book of Mormon and activate Moroni’s promise: “I would exhort you [to] read these things… and ponder [them] in your hearts…. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:3-4).
- Hang on to the thought that perhaps what King Benjamin’s people experienced can be your experience. They said: “Because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, a mighty change has been wrought in us” (Mosiah 5:2, word order changed slightly).
As you stay in, you retain the protection and promises of your covenants, partake of the sacrament, and continue to have the Holy Ghost as a companion. As you stay in and reverently use the names of Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ in prayer, you will feel closer to Them and gratitude for Them. As you stay in, you may experience a personal restoration because you will be feeding your faith instead of your doubts. As your doubts diminish, you may find many more positives than negatives. As you stay in and serve others, any sense of urgency to sever ties with the Church may dissipate. As you stay in you will have the advantage of a living prophet to guide you in these tumultuous latter days.
That living prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, said: “Now, if you have stepped off the path, may I invite you with all the hope in my heart to please come back. Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there is a place for you in this, the Lord’s Church. You and generations yet unborn will be blessed by your actions now to return to the covenant path” (“As We Go Forward Together,” Ensign or Liahona, Apr. 2018, 7).
Come on dear Sister/Brother since the war is past, For friends at first are friends again at last.