Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Journalist praises Mormon singles wards: “We are going to treat you like grownups”

Got religion smallerNaomi Schaefer Riley‘s new book Got Religion? looks at one of the big questions of religion today: Why are 20somethings dropping out of religious institutions?

Because many are, in record numbers, across various religious traditions. But Riley’s book is a glass-half-full look at the ways some religious communities are working hard to stem that tide.

The most successful, she says, will do several things for 20somethings:

  • Provide stability during a period of transience (nobody moves around as much as these folks)
  • Give them Actual Important Stuff to Do to make the religious community work, and
  • Help them form spiritual habits to last a lifetime.

One chapter looks at Mormon singles wards as providing crucial help in all three of these areas. I followed up with Riley with questions about Mormon dating and marriage, leadership opportunities, and the pros and cons of the singles ward system. — JKR

RNS: How has the overall trend toward later marriage affected Mormons in their 20s and 30s?

Riley: It looks like the Mormon age of marriage is starting to creep up as well.

During the 1990s, the General Social Survey found an average age of Mormon first marriage of 21.6. In a survey I conducted in 2010 for my book on interfaith marriage, it was up to 23.

This age may not seem high yet, but if the Mormon population follows the trend of the rest of the American population (albeit at a slower pace), it could have a significant effect on rates of religious observance and retention across generational lines. In that survey I found also found the later the age of marriage the more likely people were to marry someone of a different religion.

RNS: You make the point that religions that don’t provide leadership opportunities to young adults are doomed. The success stories are religious traditions that are enlisting 20somethings into service. How does Mormonism fit in to that?

Riley: As we are living longer, healthier lives, some church members start to get a little territorial, staying in the same volunteer position for years or even decades. Young adults who show up often feel as if their presence is superfluous.

This is one of the things that really impressed me about Young Single Adult wards. The LDS church was willing to say to 20-somethings, “Even though your parents may treat you like children because you’re not married, not done with school, don’t have full-time employment, etc., we, the church, are going to treat you like grownups — putting you in charge of collecting tithes, religious education and a variety of other important functions.”

The church came to what I think is the correct conclusion — if you treat 20-somethings like adults, they will act like adults.

RNS: Yes. On the other hand, you say that dedicated singles wards “can also encourage some of the self-centered tendencies to which young adults may already be prone.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Naomi Schaefer RileyRiley: I think there is a lot to be said for the multigenerational church experience–you don’t want 20-somethings to get the impression that the world revolves around them or that the project of the church is to address only their concerns. (This has been one result of the college church experience that many young adults are getting with Campus Crusade, etc.)

And many young adults told me they do miss the experience of being around older people (to mentor them) and children too. I think the Mormon church avoids some of the problems that could come with a YSA arrangement because many of the young people are still living close to large extended families. So they get the multigenerational experience outside of church.

RNS: Some of your interviewees complained that young Mormons don’t know how to date, only “how to hang out.” What changes are occurring to the traditional concept of dating?

Riley: The bishop who made that observation explained, “It used to be in the old days that people would date in order to find out if there was somebody they liked enough to marry. Today, no one will date you unless they’re sure they want to marry you.”

I think the dating culture among Mormons is getting more similar to the one in the general culture. There’s a lot of hanging out and then people just pair off rather than a clearer “courtship” process.

RNS: You talk about the poignant transition when YSAs age out, Logan’s Run style, after age 30. What are the pros and cons of such a system?

Riley: I think the pros are that these young people are able to take more responsibility and that the services and messages of religious leaders can be more closely tailored to their needs.

I think the cons are that the ward itself has a very transitional feel. People are constantly moving in and out. Whether they age out or get married, it can feel very impermanent. Which is how a lot of 20-somethings feel already. Every time you force a young adult to make a transition, you risk losing him or her and so adding another step to this process can be risky.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Sounds like an interesting book. Does it also discuss the other programs affecting LDS youth and young adults, like missions for men and women, seminary and institute of religion, the three Brigham Young University campuses and LDS Business College? The LDS suppirt for education? What about the role of temple covenants promising to keep sexual relations within marriage? And the goal of eternal marriage and the belief that children are waiting in heaven to be born to them?

    How do her findings relate to the assertion of the authors of The Triple Package that Mormons are currently one of the subgroups within the USA that engenders financial success by its members? How about its relationship with the study discussed in the book Almost Christian that Mormons do a better than average job of persuading their teenagers to adopt the faith of their prents?

  • What is missing in this discussion is that more and more areas in the Mormon Church do have programs, activities, and ward (congregations) specifically just the 30-something Singles crowd (aka Midsingles) after the 20-something Young Single Adults. Some areas will have joint activities that includes both the 20s and 30s crowd.

    So while the “aging out” by appear to be difficult when people turn 30, know it’s not the end of the world either, since there are now Midsingles program too… 🙂

    Feel free to check out the Midsingles Blog for more details…

  • Raymond — since the book focuses on religion primarily for people in their twenties, and since the Mormon chapter is just one part of a longer book that deals with a number of different religions, the answer to most of your questions is no. She does explain Institute a bit but does not dwell on it. I would have liked to see more attention to the missionary experience since that is so foundational for many Mormons in their late teens and early twenties, and since the program has exploded in the last two years. But no one book can do everything.

  • Matt, yes, for people in areas where there is a significant Mormon population this is indeed true. This particular book, though, focuses mostly on people in their twenties. Thanks for the link to the blog; I’ve not seen it before.

  • “Why are 20somethings dropping out of religious institutions?”
    With the age of the internet it is possible for young adults who have left home to investigate some of the claims of the religious organizations they have been raised in…and find honest answers.
    A couple of examples are the doctrines taught by the Mormon church that unless you practice and support polygamy you will be damned, and that if blacks were ever allowed into the priesthood that it would be the end of the Mormon church and the Mormon church would be left to its own destruction.
    But the most important is the hypocrisy of the desire of Mormonism wanting to be considered Christian. That doesn’t line up with the very foundation of the introduction of Mormonism and the restored gospel. Joseph Smith said that the Lord told him that all of the teachings of the religions (that would include Christianity) that existed in his day were an abomination to Him. (Abomination: something that causes disgust or hatred.) Here is a quote from Joseph Smith, “Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

    – Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church, v. 1, p. xl

    For Mormonism to now want to make the claim that they are Christian too is to erase the very foundation of Mormonism.

  • Thanks, Jana! I’m a big fan of YSA wards, for just this reason: they transition from the idea in the young men/young women’s groups that the church is there to provide instruction and entertainment to the grown-up idea that we are all called as disciples.

    Sometimes YSAs want to stay in the family ward, because they think joining the singles somehow admits that they need help finding a courtship interest. That’s really too bad; the ward isn’t intended to be the LDS equivalent of a singles bar. (Well, sure, it can serve a meet-and- mingle function, but it’s far from the only purpose). Members benefit from significant leadership opportunities and invitations to provide spiritual instruction usually reserved to much older members in conventional church settings.

  • Don’t think so downtown…worldly temptations are strong and very likely to pull our children and young adults away. Would you not agree that “the world” is full of temptations that are void of Christian principles. I suppose you are much more of a Christian than us Mormons are, how, please explain. You love your neighbor more, you follow Gods commandments, you pay tithing, you pray to a loving God, you hold fast that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world better? If we do the same we are not allowed in your rank, funny you are the pot calling the kettle black as they say. Either Joseph Smith was right or he is wrong and for us he is right and we know this for ourselves. You are allowed your freedom to think as you do, and your opinions truly don’t bother us much. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the true church of God upon the earth. The way to know is by commandment, to ask and receive by revelation as Christ taught. It is almost that simple, direction and revelation from God, pure, amazing truth.

  • I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for several decades — born into the church to active parents. I was also very active, and was married in the temple and was active in my ward.

    By studying the history of the church I learned that Mormonism is a fraud, perpetuated by a con artist. I bear testimony that the LDS Church is false. I bear testimony that it is not the “true church.” I bear testimony that it’s run by regular men who aren’t even that good, or that smart. And I bear testimony that anyone who is *really* interested in the truth, and who is willing to study the facts without prejudice or bias will come to exactly the same conclusion.

  • I studied these things before I joined the Church as a mature adult and have paid considerable attention to them since. You’re entitled to your own views, obviously, but the idea that your opinions are the only possible conclusion is simply a mistake on your part. It is not “prejudice or bias” to be willing to recognize the Holy Spirit when the Spirit testifies of the truth to you.

    My own experience is one of having been raised as an evangelical, born-again Christian. (I’m still a born-again Christian, but no longer a self-identified evangelical.) My parents and my church instilled in me a love for Jesus and His sacrifice for us. But as a young adult of college age, I was attracted by scientific materialism/atheism. This seemed not only intellectually defensible but it had its own beauty, but a form of beauty that I now regard as unsatisfyingly sterile. When introduced to Mormonism (re-introduced, I should say, since I had long since been told it was a cult that made many unbelievable claims) I poo-poohed the whole thing on the grounds of my atheism and the implausibility of the whole thing.

    But, you know, that reaction didn’t last. The more I looked, I found:

    1. The love for Jesus and the Bible that I learned at my parents’ knees was even more strongly present in Mormonism than in my former evangelical theology and faith.

    2. Mormon theology made use of, and explained, whole passages of the Bible that my evangelical pastors would skip over or wave away. On the other hand, there was much in conventional evangelical theology (and in Catholic and other Protestant theology) that I could see was self-contradictory, incoherent or contrary to plain teaching in the Bible.

    3. I could not rule out on scientific grounds the existence of a Creation that transcends and includes the world we know now. Such a world, and such a Creator, could exist and their existence could not be ruled out by any scientific means or methods. All of a sudden, the idea of simply relying on a burden-of-proof argument (a la Occam’s Razor) struck me as inadequate and facile.

    4. The Holy Spirit, a member of the Godhead, could, would and did speak directly to me once I opened myself to the possibility and sought answers. James 1:5.

    One of the very evident facts of Church history is that some of its former members have been among its most bitter adversaries. There really isn’t anything new about that. It is of interest that some of them, not all but some, find their way back eventually.

  • Does that “testimony” nullify the promises you made to God of your own volition or are you proffering that Joseph Smith somehow tricked you into entering into those covenants?

    I won’t dispute that the church is run by regular men who aren’t that good or smart. The arm of flesh is weak.

  • @downtown dave – As a fellow minister in the gospel (Ordained, and Doctor of Divinity), I am surprised at you. You know very well that you are clouding, twisting, and misrepresenting Mormon beliefs for your own benefit.

    Mormons believe in something called “continuing revelation.” That is, their canon is not closed. And their understanding of their own scriptures grows over time with each prophet, who they believe is called of God to speak specifically in their time. This has the very practical effect of overcoming the common objection that youth often raise that “those old words/standards don’t apply to me nowadays.”

    As to your specifically mentioned “gotcha!” passages: regarding polygamy, the Church taught then, and teaches now, that what their people must participate in or be damned is “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” That is, marriage in one of their holy temples. Polygamous marriages were an appendage to this, but monogamous ones were as well. How could they not be? Only a certain percentage (estimates vary widely from 3 to 33 %) of their membership ever practiced polygamy. Would they really establish a a doctrine that excluded 97 – 67 % of their people from ever having a chance at fulfilling it?

    I know that any reference you could ever produce regarding the Mormon Church teaching it would be “destroyed” by black priesthood would be the opinion of some racist who might happen to be Mormon, but any weight of authority you might think it had would be nullified by the revelation principle I explained above. I would also refer you to the Official Declaration – 2, easily accessible on the website. (Also, I’ll take a wild guess and say your unprovided source is dated in the 1800’s. Just how racially accommodating was America in general in that time, before you judge all Mormons of the 21st century?)

    Your problem with the Mormon Church “wanting to be considered Christian” is the most hypocritical of all. Since you quoted Joseph Smith, so will I: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 121). Joseph Smith did feel that all religion was corrupt, and that Christianity needed to be brought back to basics and restored, but that did not make him any different than any of the Restorationist preachers of his day. From the Shakers to the Campbellites, they all saw the religion of their day as needing reform. Are they not Christians? The first Protestants, the Lutherans, reformed the Catholic Church. Are they not Christians?

    I hope this is enlightening to anyone who is truly curious.