Looking back on what we have learned from our survey of published data from the National Survey of Youth and Religion (part 1
, part 2
, part 3
, part 4
, part 5
), we can draw the following conclusions:
- We are doing a much better job than other religions at keeping our youth. We must be doing something right. We are probably doing many things right. There is still room for improvement but we should not let our desire for improvement undercut the things that we are doing right.
- Of those youth that we keep, more are active and faithful than any other religion. We have over twice the activity rate and close to four times the faithfulness rate of the next closest religion. Again, we are doing some things right.
- We lose just over a third of our youth. Almost three quarters of those are lost to secularism. Sectarianism, while it is some threat, is a minor threat compared to secularism.
- Most of the reasons why youth leave the Church have to do with either events that disrupt routines (e.g. divorce, moving), or behaviors (e.g. drugs, drink, sex, or sin), not intellectual issues.
- Doubts generally only play a role when combined with other factors. Specifically listed are (a) a lack of commitment and importance of the Church in the teenage years on the part of the parents, (b) a lack of commitment and importance of the Church by the youth, (c) a failure by the youth to do one or more of the four statistically effective factors for retaining their faith.
- The only four statistically effective factors in individuals retaining their faith are: (a) daily prayer, (b) regular scripture reading, (c) weekly Church attendance, (d) keeping the law of chastity.
- Intellectual issues have more to do with accepting superficial counterfeits to the gospel rather than the gospel itself. Matters of history do not figure at all.
- Various forms of relativism figure largely into intellectual underpinnings of arguments undermining faith.
Based on my readings of the NSYR data, I think we, as a Church, are doing the following things right:
- At the beginning of the 1970s, the Church began to emphasize the family heavily. One can see this emphasis, among many things, in the Homefront ads, blocking out one evening a week (Monday) for Family Home Evening, and the Proclamation on the Family. Since no other institution has as much impact of shaping the lives of youth, this emphasis has to be considered something that we have been doing right.
- Along with the emphasis on the family, the Church has also emphasized not postponing marriage unduly. (The Church has been very careful with how it treats this very personal, intimate, and important decision.) The NSYR literature does point out that marriage in the early twenties tends to correlate with retaining faith and postponing it tends to correlate with losing faith. It also points out that Latter-day Saints tend to marry earlier than the national average.
- Basing the Sunday School curriculum for everyone in the Church over the age of eight (and the Seminary curriculum as well) on the scriptures and emphasizing reading one's scriptures started in the 1970s and has been a very good thing for the Church. Regular scripture reading is one of the four things statistically proven to help youth (and others) retain their faith. The NSYR statistics show that we do not follow national trends in this area.
- Emphasizing daily prayer. When President Hinckley was asked by the General Primary Presidency what one thing he wanted the primary children of the Church to know, he told them "Don't ever forget to pray." Daily prayer is also one of the four things statistically proven to help youth (and others) retain their faith.
- Encouraging weekly Church attendance as well as attendance at Mutual, Seminary, Institute, etc. Those who attend Church weekly are more likely to keep their faith through their college years. Those who attend more than once a week are even more likely. The NSYR statistics for Latter-day Saints appear very different than other religions.
- Emphasis on chastity before marriage and fidelity after marriage. This is also one of the important things that help youth retain their faith. Semi-annual interviews with the youth, temple recommend interviews, continuing ecclesiastic endorsements all help in this regard. This is one area where the LDS statistics in the NSYR run very different from national trends.
- Involving adults in the lives of the youth as teachers and youth leaders. Starting at the age of eight every child should have at least biweekly contact with two adult Sunday School teachers, two scout or activity days leaders. Every teenager should have at least weekly contact with two Sunday School teachers, a young men/women presidency member, a young men/women teacher, and a Seminary teacher. The NSYR emphasizes that getting other adults in the congregation to have a mentoring relationship with the youth is beneficial to the youth. The Church program is not structured explicitly for this end, but it is a good (unintended?) consequence.
- Emphasizing agency and accountability. It is not just the right or ability to choose but the responsibility for those choices that is important. Many so-called intellectuals in the Church will emphasize the choices but the Church emphasizes the accountability along with the choices. That emphasis makes a huge difference.
I think that we are doing other things right as well, but I am limiting myself to items I found backed by the NSYR data. I am also sure that I am missing some things that deserve to be on the list. Amid all this discussion about ways to improve the situation, it is worth remembering what we are doing well already.