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Op-ed: Listening is the first step in speaking to Mormon millennials

Editor's note: This commentary by Collin College philosophy professor Adam S. Miller is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.

To speak to Mormon millennials, we must begin by listening.

As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wasn’t very good at listening.

I spent most of my two years knocking on doors and often felt like I was trying to saw wood with a hammer. I was trying to answer questions people weren’t asking. I worry that, speaking to young Mormons today, we face the same basic challenge.

A lot of contemporary research suggests that some ways of posing religious questions have less resonance today than, say, in the times of Joseph Smith. For Joseph Smith, hip-deep in the charged, sectarian atmosphere of New England’s Second Great Awakening, everything boiled down to one question: "which of all the sects was right"?

But, as has been widely reported, the Pew Research Center recently found that "while the U.S. public in general is becoming less religious, the nation’s youngest adults are by many measures much less religious than everyone else. Indeed, one of the most striking findings in the recently released Religious Landscape Study is that millennials (young adults born between 1981 and 1996) are much less likely than older Americans to pray or attend church regularly or to consider religion an important part of their lives."

More, when surveyed, many millennials cited a wide-ranging distrust of religious institutions as a key reason for their disaffiliation.

It seems to me that, in a world far removed from New England’s Second Great Awakening, our common human problems may infrequently crystallize today, at least at first, as a question about which church to join.

I don’t think this means that our deep problems are that different. Death, sickness, loss, loneliness and failure remain stubbornly universal. And I don’t think this means that we don’t need vibrant, principled churches and institutions. In some ways, we need them more than ever.

In short, I don’t think this difference means that the Mormon practices, scriptures, rituals and communities that have so deeply affected me and that unfolded in response to Joseph’s original question are now powerless to address the suffering of this generation.

It’s my conviction that the door is the same.

But the lock on that door — the specific shape into which each generation’s experience of these same troubles crystallizes — isn’t always the same.

This isn’t just a matter for missionaries. This is a generational problem. The question isn’t just: how do we talk to those that don’t share our faith? The more basic and urgent problem may be: how do we talk to young Mormons that do?

Knowing the answers isn’t the hard part. Mormons have long been confident in the answers that God revealed in Christ. The really difficult thing is to recover the question.

The difficult thing is to feel our way back into the question’s full force, to remember what it is like to live without an answer, to remember in our bones why we need an answer. And, more, the difficult thing is to recognize that it is not enough to do this once or for ourselves alone. This must be done again and again, both for ourselves and those we love. It must be done again and again because the question’s specific shape — the specific shape that captures the full force of life’s troubles in that particular historical moment — is a moving target.

In this sense, an important part of our work as individual Latter-day Saints is to make what’s become obvious feel strange again, to make what is too familiar less familiar, and to recover Mormonism not only as an answer but as a question. Doing this will position us to recognize what, in their frustration, millennials are trying to show us about the specific shape that their own very real, very human problems have taken.

To help them, I don’t need to show up at their door to tell them what ought to keep them up at night. I need, instead, to listen. I need to let them tell me what keeps them from sleeping. I need to let them tell me what worries and frightens them. And, in response, even if I don’t share that worry, I need to be ready and willing to mourn with them as they mourn.

If I’m willing to both listen and mourn, then I may be able to recognize, and even help embody, the very specific shape that Christ, at that very moment, aims to take in response.

This kind of hard work isn’t just the price of reaching a particular generation of young Mormons. It is, at bottom, the perpetual work that falls to any religious person that claims to be a part of a church that is not only true but "living."

Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, and the author of seven books, including “Letters to a Young Mormon.”