Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Leaving in Droves?, Really?

In a November of 2011 Fireside at Utah State University Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a General Authority Emeritus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, engaged an attendee in the following conversation (Stephan Smoot.  “Reports of the Death of the Church are Greatly Exaggerated,” January 15, 2013)

Q: Has the Church seen the effects of Google on membership? Have there been…is the Church leadership aware of—and, I don’t know, maybe I’m overstating what’s going on, but it seems like the people I talk to about Church history are people who find out and leave, quickly—

A: Yes.

Q: Is the Church aware of that problem? Is there anything…I mean, the new manuals would help, I guess, “inoculation” within terms of youth would help. What about people who are already leaving in droves?

A: We are aware. Maybe I’ll just say this: You know what, I often get this question, “Do the brethren really know?” They do.

A cottage industry of writers misrepresenting this interchange has arisen.  Carrie Shefield (“Why Mormons flee their church,” June 17, 2012), makes such a misrepresentation.

This year, Elder Marlin Jensen, the Mormon Church's outgoing official historian, acknowledged that members are defecting from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "in droves" and that the pace is increasing.

Jensen did not use the word droves nor did he suggest that the pace was increasing.  He did state the event was significant, the largest apostasy since Kirtland.  He answered a question from a person that used the word droves.  Why would he answer such a question?  Why didn’t he respond by insisting that members were not leaving in droves?  Two reasons come to mind.  As a college professor, I often answer questions from students who use exaggerated language because I want to focus on the meat of the question rather than its expression.  The meat of the question posed to Jensen was, “is the Church leadership aware…” that people are leaving the Church due to unflattering historical presentation on the Internet.  Jensen responds that they are.  Second, and more importantly, the worth of a soul is great, not only to the Lord but to his servants in the Church and Jensen clearly states that the First Presidency and the Twelve are concerned and will commit resources to explain complex historical events in a balanced fashion and defend it against critics grasping any cudgel with which to damage the Church. 

Seminary Institute graph

Shefield focused on young adults leaving the Church.  There may be a method to use Church data to measure the defection of this demographic.  The Church publishes an annual report on Seminaries and Institutes which reports the number of students enrolled in each program.  Students aged 13 to 18 who are enrolled in seminary provide a control group for older students aged 19-25 who enrolled in institute.  To my knowledge, nobody has claimed that seminary aged students are leaving in droves.  The argument is that they are taught church history poorly and when they leave the home and encounter questions, their faith is shaken and many leave.   

If this is the reasoning, then data should find fewer seminary students relative to institute students.  The first graph, “Institute and Seminary Enrollment: 1984-2012” plots seminary enrollment lagged four years and institute enrollment.  Seminary enrollment is lagged because todays institute students largely come from yesterday’s seminary students.  Ordinary least squares regression indicates that the variables are statistically related.  Seminary enrollment follows the birthrate with a 13 year lag and institute enrollment by an 18 year lag.  Seminary and Institute enrollment did plateau as family size shrunk, but clearly the gap between the two is closed.  More LDS young adults are attending institute relative to seminary now than in the past. 

Seminary to Institute Enrollment ratio

The second graph, “Seminary to Institute Enrollment Ratio: 1984-2012,” recasts the data from the first by dividing the number of seminary students by the number of institute students and confirms the finding of the first.  The ratio rose between 1984 and 1992, fell sharply between 1992 and 2002 and has remained steady ever since.  More LDS young adults are attending institute relative to seminary now than in the past.  Inaccurate presentation of LDS history by anti-Mormon Internet sites may cause some defections but membership among young adults as represented by institute enrollment is not collapsing.  The Church will address the causes of the defections and slow the bleeding from this wound.  The gospel will spread and the Church will continue to grow.

1 comment:

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