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The Latter-day Saint FAIR Conference, BYU Education Week and the misperception of declining faith in America

National conversations about declining religiosity are missing part of the story

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Y Mountain at sunset during BYU’s homecoming.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

As I was rushing out the door earlier this month, I explained to my 7-year-old that I was heading to a conference where a bunch of adults were speaking on religious topics. It’s a credit to his concern for my feelings that he tried to hide his disgust. Thousands of kids will have the same reaction, undoubtedly, as their parents descend upon Brigham Young University for its annual Education Week gathering. 

Some kids aren’t outgrowing these impulses. In September of last year, Pew Research found that “if recent trends in religious switching continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades.” As recently as 1990, 9 out of 10 Americans identified as Christian, but the last three decades have been dismal from a religious standpoint. 

Drawing on a recent book, “The Great Dechurching,” Jake Meador writes in The Atlantic, “Forty million Americans have stopped attending church in the past 25 years. That’s something like 12% of the population, and it represents the largest concentrated change in church attendance in American history.”

Fears of a post-Christian West have fed Christian nationalism on the right, while some leftists wag fingers and blame empty pews on Christian dogmas and judgmentalism. The real reasons for declining worship might not be what you’d expect — with Meador suggesting many Christian faiths simply aren’t asking enough of adherents. 

A more demanding faith, however, might mean creating the kind of culture where adherents are compelled to, in the words of New Testament scripture, provide a reason for the faith within them. This is where conferences like FAIR and BYU’s Education Week have something important to offer. 

A Latter-day Saint conference for believers

“It’s not what you’d expect” was a common refrain throughout a three-day FAIR Conference held earlier this summer in Provo, Utah, exploring contemporary scholarship and inquiry regarding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faithful thinkers and religious seekers come to the conference to hear from others swimming against the tides of secularism and disbelief. 

Historian Don Bradley, a former atheist who reconverted to the church, explained how his research, once critical of Joseph Smith, over time led him to the conclusion that “on historical grounds alone, Joseph Smith ... was a sincere seeker after truth and a magnanimous soul.” 

Latter-day Saint historian Keith Erekson described how one woman, Louisa Bingham Lee, was promised a gift of healing for her sick son and the unorthodox, seemingly numinous healing process eventually healed her son, Harold Bingham Lee, who would eventually preside over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jennifer Roach, a survivor of ecclesiastical abuse, shared hundreds of hours of research on sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America. In contrast to the popular assumption that abuse rates are higher in all communities of faith, her research demonstrates that Latter-day Saint scout troops in particular were more protective against abuse. 

Ty Mansfield, a therapist and BYU professor, reflected on the poignant feelings when he first began reconciling his faith and his experience with same-sex attraction. He became tearful as he explained how the sources of worry and fear that once felt all-consuming have given way to magnificent blessings he never could have expected. 

This week, on the campus of Brigham Young University, hundreds of presentations and learning opportunities are taking place at Education Week on an array of religious and secular topics. You can go to presentations from the Church News or from scholars about an “artistic meditation on the crucifixion” or on “how to foster emotional fitness in children and adolescents.”

The need for higher demand religion

National conversations about religion feel increasingly focused on narratives of failure: failures to protect the innocent, failures to respond to the times, failures to keep parishioners in the pews. But in his Atlantic article, Meador writes, “What if the problem isn’t that churches are asking too much of their members, but that they aren’t asking nearly enough?” Acknowledging instances of abuse or corruption that the authors of “The Great Dechurching” agree have driven some away from faith in America, Meador notes that they find “a much larger share of those who have left church have done so for more banal reasons.”

It looks as though people just get busy and slowly drift away. As the obligations of modern survival mount, Americans find themselves disinclined to make time for low-demand worship services. When churches function mostly as social clubs or emphasize emotional validation above transformation, people eventually realize they can get these things more easily somewhere else.

While some might herald America’s dechurching as evidence of progress or even just a deserved indictment of our religious institutions, Americans are not better off for it. “Participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity and more stable families — all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness and alcohol and drug dependency.”

Driving home after the FAIR conference, the radio played Billie Eilish’s melancholy “What Was I Made For?” Next, Taylor Swift sang, “I wake up screaming from dreaming, one day I’ll watch as you’re leaving, and life will lose all its meaning, for the last time.”   

Optimism about the future of faith

Many of the individual presentations at the FAIR conference this year were fascinating in their own right. But what really stood out was the demand that’s required when one is called to stand up for one’s faith or present about one’s faith or teach about one’s faith, even into the granular particulars of their theology or in messy examination of their faith at the intersection of more secular ideas. Some of this may seem parochial or insider baseball to those outside a given faith tradition, but seeing believers rigorously engage their faith intellectually filled me with optimism and hope. 

Apologists and defenders of faith, of all people, know what Christians are up against. Yet the overall mood was not of resignation or embattled resistance, but of strength and opportunity. Wherever the finger of scorn is pointed at believers, the quiet work of diligent scholars look for answers. Those answers might not be what’s expected, but the call to find answers requires faith, and it may even help build it. 

And while religious activity may be waning among some Americans, many within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other faith traditions are acting in ways that may not be expected. When professor Justin Dyer at Brigham Young University recently compared attitudes among high school seniors across generations, he was heartened to find that Latter-day Saint millennials and Gen Z were at least as likely — and sometimes more likely — than prior generations to say they went to church and and that religion was an important part of their lives. 

That contrasts with broader American trends but aligns with higher numbers and percentages of young people signing up for mission service, as Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, previously reported. At the FAIR Conference, BYU Pathway President Brian K. Ashton shared how the church continues to expand low-cost education to students worldwide. Across the globe, students are earning degrees and certificates and being connected remotely to jobs in higher-wage nations. 

Young people are called by their faith to two years of church service. They are called by their church to gain an education. They are called to serve and build families and communities. Temple-building hasn’t slowed. The 79 temples currently announced will make 315 temples worldwide. This work is making demands of us. 

More are answering those demands. The story of Christianity is richer than mere numbers can suggest. If you believe, as I do, that “God knows what he’s doing,” you might feel confident the story of American faith will unfold in the days ahead far better than many expect. 

Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint convert and writer who studied philosophy, French and Latin at BYU. She lives in Utah with her husband and four sons. She writes on Twitter @TresClare.