The clues behind the powerful stories of Latter-day Saint reconversion
English professors gather, analyze narratives of people who have returned to faith to find patterns, lessons of hope
Last week, a Brigham Young University student stood on the floor of the Marriott Center and, while asking a question of a visiting professor after a forum assembly, briefly noted his own journey as a Latter-day Saint through deconversion and reconversion.
Deconversion stories are common in this age of the rise of the Nones — those who say “none” when pollsters ask them to what church they belong. The BYU student said he actively worked against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after he left because of disagreements he felt he had with church leaders and documents, but that he has returned to his faith and now wants to support it publicly.
“More people are leaving (churches) than coming back,” said Ryan Burge, author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.”
Reconversion stories like the one shared by the BYU student aren’t published and promoted as often as deconversion stories, but a married pair of English professors at BYU-Idaho are trying to change that by collecting narratives from people who return to faith and applying narrative and rhetorical analysis to discover patterns and themes.
Eric and Sarah Hafen d’Evegnée said what they’re finding can provide new hope and direction for those who are or have been members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They said reconversion is a relatively new term.
“The common narrative out there on the World Wide Web is that there’s only deconversion, and then people fall off a spiritual cliff,” Sarah d’Evegnée said, “but there are reconversions. We want to celebrate that and then also use the research to help people avoid the cliff or bring them back.”
Their effort began after publication of the book “Faith Is Not Blind,” by Sarah d’Evegnée’s parents, Marie Hafen and Elder Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ. The book was designed to help Latter-day Saints navigate questions about church history, uncertainty and doubt and develop authentic, well-tested spiritual maturity.
To continue the conversation, the Hafens, d’Evegnées and others subsequently launched a podcast as part of a larger Faith Is Not Blind Project. Reconversion stories organically surfaced and the d’Evegnées began to apply their expertise in teaching students how to interpret stories. They listened and looked for thematic and rhetorical patterns in both deconversion and reconversion stories and discovered uses of language that both surprised them and led to hope.
For example, Sarah d’Evegnée found that deconversion stories and the deconversion parts of Latter-day Saint reconversion stories frequently use language that showed the tellers had limited their choices of how they could believe.
“A lot of the stories start off with superlative language, like ‘I was the perfect missionary,’ or ‘I was the perfect mom’ or ‘We had family home evening every week.’ I started to see a pattern, a connection between this language and why they perceived that they had to leave if they weren’t living up to that expectation.”
It isn’t just perfectionism, she said. It’s framing the story as binary — stay or leave. “It’s the need to label it as being an ideal, an expectation. The expectation of the ideal is written within the language itself,” she said.
Changing language can help people find more of a middle ground, something d’Evegnée finds lacking in the mindsets of many of her BYU-Idaho students, who often feel like they can be only completely in the church or completely out of the church.
“It’s this black-and-white thinking, and it breaks my heart,” she said. “I want them to know that they have options. They can deal with the uncertainty of a gray area, and they can do it with hope and with faith but also with an open dialogue about what their questions are.”
Eric d’Evegnée found another lesson contained in a different language quirk of deconversion stories. People often substituted the word “church” instead of actually naming the people or actions or problems they actually meant. That is called metonymy.
“In the narratives, people said things like, ‘the church expected me to do this,’ or ‘the church believed this,’” Sarah d’Evegnée said. “They collapse everything about the church into that word. So the church then became the expectations they felt, not only the belief or theology of the church, but the expectations of church members and the larger culture. All that gets collapsed into the church, but they use it synonymously. So they said, ‘the church made me feel like I didn’t belong,’ as if the church somehow could be personified into an active entity like that.”
The couple has used computer programs to catalogue the language in more than 50 reconversion stories. That data and their analysis of it has led them to some additional preliminary findings. The d’Evegnées specialize in literary criticism and literary analysis and are preparing research papers to be published in two academic journals, the quarterly BYU Studies and The Religious Educator.
People who leave faith often feel alienated
Leo Winegar wrote that when he was “a full-blown doubter, a closet atheist” who felt like other Latter-day Saints didn’t understand him. A year after his faith collapsed, he reconnected with one of his former religion professors and found genuine love, humility and honesty. He challenged his cynical assumptions, balanced his research, resumed praying and felt spiritual fulfillment return along with good answers.
However, he still sometimes feels alone at church, like others wouldn’t understand him as post-faith crisis survivor.
A sense of profound alienation and banishment is common among Latter-day Saints as they go through deconversion and before they return to the faith, the d’Evegnées found.
“We need to offer greater compassion and sympathy to those who are going through a faith transition,” Sarah d’Evegnée said.
The decision to return to faith
What mattered most in virtually all reconversion stories is a personal relationship to God and Jesus Christ, the research found.
One woman withdrew her name from church records as a teenager and was rebaptized as a college freshman. Receiving general conference talks from family and friends didn’t help. Neither did the scriptures. In her case, she heard missionaries teaching her roommate in another room. She started to sit with them.
Finally, she recalled, “They invited me to pray. As soon as I said the words, ‘Heavenly Father,’ I could feel his presence, and I knew I had to come back.”
This finding is good news, said Burge, the author of the book about Nones.
His research shows that while nearly 1 in 4 Americans no longer affiliates with a church or religion, about 90% of Americans still say they believe in God at least sometimes. That’s remained consistent over the past decade, he said.
The first thing that goes is church-affiliating behavior, such as attending church meetings. But a total loss of belief in God is rare.
“The share of Americans who are none-none-nones — they don’t believe, they don’t behave and they don’t belong — is only about 6%,” he said. “So, the vast majority of Americans — 95% of Americans — are religious in some way, shape or form. We’re still a very spiritual people if we’re not a very religious people.”
The d’Evegnées were thunderstruck by this one common thread through nearly all of the stories.
“In almost every case, those who reconverted said something about re-finding God, rekindling their relationship with God. My husband and I kept saying to each other, ‘We need to make sure that people know that this is the most important part of anyone’s faith journey, their relationship with God.” I mean, it was astounding and just so sweet.”
Several Latter-day Saint leaders said during the faith’s most recent general conference that God and Jesus Christ love each person profoundly and perfectly.
For example, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “The first great truth in the universe is that God loves us exactly that way — wholeheartedly, without reservation or compromise, with all of his heart, might, mind and strength.”
A welcoming gesture
Burge preached caution about looking for too much commonality in deconversion stories.
“There are 60 million nones in America. They have 60 million stories of why they left,” he said. “It’s not ever the same thing.”
For most, though, there is no epiphany that ends their religiosity.
“It’s more often just, ‘I moved and I couldn’t find a new church’ or ‘I went to college and I just stopped going to church,’ or ‘I married someone of a different faith and we couldn’t figure it out, so we just stopped going to church at all.’ Those are kind of the things that lead people away from church,” Burge said.
“It’s rare for people to have some sort of theological reason or cultural reason. It’s more often just, it was easier to not be part of church than it was to be part of church.”
Some who leave say they were hurt by another person’s words or actions. The reconversion stories showed that some were grateful for another person’s kind words or actions.
“I would argue that it’s never that one thing that brought them (out of the church) or back, but it’s that one thing that kept them coming back or not coming back,” Burge said. “It’s a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back situation. If I’m still very committed to my faith, and someone says something mean to me, I’m not going to leave the church. But if I’m already looking for reasons to leave, and you just give me one more, that one more might be enough to walk away.
“That goes the other direction, too, right? So if I was away from the LDS church for a long time for all these reasons, and I come back one time to dip my toe in and someone’s kind to me and welcomes me back, that’s all I need. But really the bigger step was coming back to the church. That’s where the work happened. It was just when you got there, you got the affirmation you needed to stay there.”
That affirmation was another common theme found by the d’Evegnées.
For example, Tina Phillips left activity as a Latter-day Saint as a young girl. As an adult, she was curious about returning to church but intimidated by a sense that it was a place for “perfect people,” until she and her husband were invited to a Halloween trunk-or-treat activity. Everyone treated them kindly.
“That gave us the comfort and courage we needed to go on Sunday, where we experienced nothing but welcoming and kindness,” she posted on Facebook post and then shared with the d’Evegnées. “That was a good start. From that point on it was a long road of testimony-building experiences, learning and studying and coming to an understanding of the gospel. One thing I realized was we had to put in the work.
Returning to church activity usually comes after a someone makes a conscious effort to go back, said Burge, who on Friday consulted with pastors trying to understand how to help those who have left their flocks.
“You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get dressed, you’ve got to drive, you’ve got to get there, you’ve got to sit in the right spot, all those things, so when people come back, they’re really wanting to be welcomed, they’re looking for times they are welcomed and that’s enough affirmation for them,” he said. “Those are kind of the people that to me are the easiest ones to win back. You can tell they miss that thing.”