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The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church. Riess, Jana. Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 2019. 312 pages. Reviewed by Ashley Alley and Kenneth Jeng.

The Next Mormons by Dr. Jana Riess seeks to uncover and address generational differences in religious beliefs, religious practices, and religious experiences among members and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While previous research has been conducted on religious devotion based on generational lines (see the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) [1] for an example of one such study), most of this research has been broadly focused, surveying individuals from a wide array of religious affiliations. Dr. Riess, alarmed by the “quietly rising tide of disaffiliation from the LDS Church in the United States” noted by both the Pew Research Center and the General Social Survey (GSS) [2], collaborated with political scientist Benjamin Knoll in the creation of a major national study focused specifically on members of the LDS Church (previously referred to as “Mormons”). [3] The study surveyed “1,156 Mormons and 540 former Mormons . . . [seeking to] understand who Mormons are, what they believe, and what generational differences may pertain among them.” [4] The data was collected through the administration of a public opinion survey, referred to as the 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS). [5] Qualtrics, “an online data collection company based out of Seattle, Washington, and Provo, Utah” was contracted to gather responses using “a ‘panel matching’ technique to acquire sufficient responses” from within the United States specifically. [6] Data was collected from current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ “across four major generational patterns: 35 percent Millennials (born between 1980–1998), 25 percent GenXers (born 1965–1979), 25 percent Baby Boomers (born 1945–1964), and 15 percent Silent Generation (born 1928–1944).” [7] The predetermined ratio-quotas were based on both population distributions among Church members as reported by the Pew Religious Landscape Survey (RLS) and the tendency for online surveys to be “biased towards younger generations.” [8]

Stephen Cranney has already crafted a thorough assessment of the limitations of this particular study in his review of The Next Mormons. [9] Along with praising Dr. Riess for taking a “large and substantive step into the field” of social science within the LDS context, he discusses issues with sample size, representativeness, and claims of generational trends without the use of a longitudinal study. [10] We invite those interested in better understanding academic concerns and research vulnerabilities to read his more technical review which has been cited in the notes below. For our purposes, we feel it is sufficient to say that this survey and subsequent study is far from fool-proof; conclusions and the accompanying recommendations made by Dr. Riess must be taken with a grain of salt, understanding that her data could be reasonably interpreted in ways other than what she presents. It is not that her interpretations are necessarily incorrect or poorly conceived, but her lack of longitudinal data dilutes the persuasiveness of any argument or conclusions indicating that the various findings denote specific trends over time.

As two Millennial members of the Church, we have approached our review of the book in a very particular way. We are seeking to add another voice, perhaps a more intimate voice, to the discussion of The Next Mormons’ legitimacy and relevance as a source of information among both lay members and Church leadership. Throughout her work, Dr. Riess seeks to interpret the data and provide insights to help Church leadership better retain Millennial members. We wanted to discuss if, as members of that targeted cohort, we felt her conclusions held any validity, regardless of perhaps less-than-flawless data collection methods and data interpretation.

We are two vastly different individuals with very different backgrounds, so we further felt it was important to keep our voices distinct and separate as we answered the questions. Ashley is a white American female in her late 20s who was raised in the military and born into the Church as a third-generation member. Following educational opportunities across the country, she has experienced YSA congregations in multiple areas of the United States including Washington, Utah, Texas, and Florida. Kenneth is an Asian-American male in his late 20s who was raised between the United States and Taiwan. His parents converted to the Church in his early childhood. Educated in Boston, Kenneth has attended congregations across the United States and Asia, including in Japan, Mongolia, Thailand, and Taiwan.

What follows is a review formatted through a series of questions with answers provided by both reviewers.

Q1.) Is this book useful for a faithful member/leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Ashley: I found it interesting that the organization of the book seems to imply an expectation that it could be used as a reference or resource guide. The Next Mormons is divided into three distinct sections: I.) Foundations, II.) Changing Definitions of Family and Culture, and III.) Passages of Faith and Doubt. Each section focuses on particular and specified elements of Church culture, doctrine, and experience among the generational cohorts. Bishops, Relief Society Presidents, Stake Presidents, or anyone else for that matter, can open up to a particular section or use the index to find information about a specific topic. Depending on the topic of interest, a reader may be presented with survey data, charts and diagrams, personal first-hand experiences from in-person interviews, and the author’s personal analysis and conclusions. The book is jam-packed with information that members and leadership may find useful for broadening their perspectives on contemporary issues facing the rising generations and their subsequent religious experiences within the context of the Church. Casual readers may not find the book to be a page-turner and struggle to read it in its entirety. However, this is not necessarily a weakness as the strength of the work stems from its ability to address specific areas of interest as needed/desired by the reader.

After finishing the book, I actually used social media to promote it as recommended reading for local Church leadership. My current Young Single Adult (YSA) Bishop (who was a bishopric counselor at the time) took my recommendation to heart. After reading it himself, we had an opportunity to discuss it together and found that the book was an incredibly effective and efficient tool for generating important conversations between us, both within the context of our friendship and within the relationship dynamic between us as a member and her local priesthood leader. Together we reviewed in greater detail the section outlining the experience of young adults in YSA congregations. I was able to confirm that the majority of negative feelings expressed through the survey and interviews were accurate to my experience. [11] I confessed my deep-seated frustration over the “infantilization” of young single adults, where leadership seems to feel that young single adult congregations are merely an extension of youth programs and that full maturity is unattainable until marriage. As one respondent observed, “I think the church acts like once you get married, then you’ll be treated as adults. I went to a dance once where the chaperones were only eighteen or nineteen, a couple younger than I was, but they were married so they could be chaperones.” [12] Furthermore, why do supposed adults even need chaperones at an activity? This emphasis on required supervision enforces the perception that unmarried adults are untrustworthy and immature. We also discussed my concern (rooted in personal experience) that Sunday church attendance in a YSA congregation appeared to be less about one’s personal relationship with the Savior and more focused on the desirability of individual members in terms of dating and relationship potential. Church, in this context, becomes a “‘meat market’[ . . . ]fostering unhealthy competition for dates and a relentless round of gossip.” [13]

While the book was invaluable in jump-starting some crucial conversations between myself and my local leader, I would not recommend it as a faith-promoting tool or source of spiritual enlightenment. Dr. Riess never portrayed the book as either of those things, but I feel it is important to recognize that an individual experiencing a faith crisis may find the unfavorable experiences and feelings explored throughout the survey jarring, perhaps placing an unfair emphasis on negative themes with which the individual may already be struggling. Such themes may be useful in validating an individual’s personal experience, but taken too far in excess may also hinder an individual’s ability to positively work through those concerns and experiences. Overall, I feel that Dr. Riess does a fine job of balancing negative and positive experiences, feelings, and reactions to various circumstances, situations, and aspects of being a Millennial within the Church. Throughout the book, I found her explanations and accompanying analysis to be very even-handed, offering appropriate criticism while still acknowledging positive and/or beneficial elements. But, once again, a potential reader’s bias will play a large role in what they choose to focus on. A reader conditioned by current negative circumstances and experiences may be less likely to see the balanced presentation for what it is intended to be and instead focus solely on the negatives, potentially exacerbating their current struggles.

Individuals who feel stable in their own religiosity and gospel understanding could potentially use this book as a tool for building sympathy and understanding of diverse, individual experiences. I found the first-hand accounts from the in-person interviews to be particularly eye-opening. In many ways I found that these stories helped me better understand members of my own cohort, especially those who have had experiences vastly different from my own. Sections on the experiences of LGBTQ+ and racial minority members were particularly important to my personal development and understanding of others’ viewpoints, since I myself am not a member of those particular groups.

Kenneth: The Next Mormons is meant primarily as an academic work—while perhaps useful for members of the Church looking to contextualize their own experiences and understand broader trends in the Church, it is not meant as a guide for personal development or a roadmap for institutional reform. To its credit, the book does not purport to try to do either, and neither should readers approach the work with those expectations in mind. Rather, what the book attempts to do—and in my opinion largely succeeds at doing—is providing data and case studies that paint a colorful picture of the increasingly diverse experiences of (American) Millennials in the Church. In its attempt to explain why things are the way they are today, the book discusses the history and policies of the Church and its transformation over the course of the 20th century in relatively blunt terms. As an academic work, its matter-of-fact approach may be appealing to religious scholars, but for the member approaching these topics for the first time, the structure of the book may be somewhat off-putting; the book is organized around the analysis of a series of wedge issues that pose challenges to Millennial members of the Church and the reasons why they disaffiliate themselves from the Church. That being said, the diversity of stories covered in the book that go beyond the standard narrative generally offered in Sunday School can be a stepping stone in developing deeper understanding and compassion for those who struggle with their faith in the rapidly changing norms of our time. Similar to Ashley’s answer above, my sense is that the clearest practical application of The Next Mormons is perhaps as a conversation starter—something for local leaders to read and ask themselves if the young people in their congregations are facing similar challenges as those outlined in the book. If used in this way, I believe that the book can be effective in helping to uncover deeply felt needs and struggles by the emerging generation of Church members. Issues related to the role of women, unmarried members, LGBTQ+ members, and racial minorities in the Church, while all sensitive, are indeed salient issues in which generational gaps likely require bridging.

Q2.) How successfully does this book fill a gap in knowledge/understanding of current trends among younger members?

Ashley: From my understanding, this is the first survey of its kind in terms of specificity. While other religious surveys have been conducted, members of the Church have usually just been designated as a subsection within the general Christian cohort. It is exciting to see research specifically seeking to better understand members of the Church outside of the generalized Christian umbrella. Of course, because it is such a narrow focus, the sample size is an element that must be recognized as potentially problematic for drawing hard-and-fast conclusions of any kind. However, I would consider this survey truly ground-breaking and certainly worthwhile. I am hopeful that we can see this type of survey expanded and fine-tuned in the future!

And while the sample size may pose some problems for making truly conclusive statements, the trends and patterns reflected in the data collected should still cause us to pause and evaluate ourselves, our families, and our congregations. In particular, one of the first parts of the survey, which is presented in Part I: Foundations, Chapter 1: The Continuity of Religious Belief, indicates that the level of faith and confidence in foundational gospel doctrines is potentially waning in younger generations. On questions regarding the living reality of God, Christ’s role as the Savior of the world, and God’s plan for our lives, there was a nearly 20% drop in respondents who answered that they were “confident in and know this to be true” between the Boomer/Silent Generation and their Millennial counterparts. [14] Regardless of whether we believe this data is completely accurate or not, the recent reemphasis from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve on the rising generation seems very appropriate. Dr. Riess states that Millennial Mormons should not be written off as simply unbelievers; there is nuance that must be considered. She explains further that “Millennials do affirm [their] belief to varying degrees; they’re just less sure about it than older Mormons . . . [n]otably, the growth in the middle category (“I believe this might be true, but I have my doubts”) has grown exponentially.” [15] Dr. Riess further explains that because this is a snapshot, Millennial members may grow more certain of their beliefs as they age and mirror older generations once they have reached a similar age. She further addressed the possibility that only the most believing members remain with the Church throughout their life, therefore the sample of older generational cohorts may be skewed in that way as well. But, despite this, it is still an important, eye-brow-raising finding, one that should cause us to ask ourselves what we can be doing to create a more supportive and enriching environment where members of the Church can strengthen and solidify their beliefs in and testimonies of foundational gospel doctrines.

Kenneth: My sense is that The Next Mormons organizes in a single volume a number of observations and trends that many people have noticed and commented upon over the last several years, such as changing attitudes towards marriage, racial diversity, and Church authority. While few of these trends came as a huge surprise to me, the data illustrating the magnitude of the differences between each generation (Silent/Boomer, Gen X, Millennial) was particularly illuminating. Given that we don’t often talk frankly about some of these topics at Church in public (at least in my experience), it certainly provides a good platform for discussion and a means by which to further our knowledge.

While the survey data and analysis certainly have their limitations, I applaud the effort to sum up the experiences of the emerging generation of members of the Church—given the increasingly diverse experiences and heterodox ways of relating to the Church, perhaps the information contained in this book will be useful in guiding members and leaders alike in ministering to the younger generations of the Church. The individual interviews and case studies provide a compassionate look into the personal challenges and stories of members and former members grappling with living their faith in the rapidly changing social mores of our time.

Q3.) Do we feel that our generational cohort (“Millennials”) are accurately and fairly represented through the data and anecdotal accounts? Do the case studies presented by the book resonate with/reflect our personal experiences?

Ashley: While I cannot speak to all experiences, I found that the majority of expressed opinions, mindsets, and experiences seemed accurate, at least in terms of areas of personal experience. I am basing this off of my limited personal experience and the experiences of friends and family members as shared with me by them. I found the descriptions of young women struggling with the temple ordinances, as they specifically relate to the perceived roles of women in the marriage/family relationship personally poignant and relatable. [16] I have watched many close friends recoil from the previous version of the endowment ceremony in which women were instructed to hearken to their husbands, Eve was seemingly “portrayed as subordinate to Adam” and everything appeared to be mediated through the husband figure. [17] It has been heartening though to see how quickly Dr. Riess’s work is already becoming outdated, despite being published earlier this year. These previously, potentially troubling aspects of the ceremony have since been removed and there was great rejoicing among many members following the adjustments.

However, I believe it is important for readers to understand that these personal experiences, while completely valid and deserving of respect, may not represent the majority of experiences of Millennials within the Church. It may be too easy to equate some of the more extreme negative (or positive) experiences as representative of the whole Church when the presented sample size, especially in terms of interviews conducted, is in reality quite small. Along with this, I believe that there are many concerns and experiences not expressed in the book. Commentary, data, and experiences that are included appear to be accurate, but they do not illustrate the picture of Millennial membership in its entirety. In particular, the experience of Millennial members outside of the United States is not addressed at all. This makes sense, as the survey was conducted solely within the United States. However, a commonly cited statistic is that more membership (in terms of sheer numbers) currently resides outside of the United States than within it. [18] Dr. Riess simply did not have the necessary funding to conduct a world-wide survey and should not be faulted for this limitation, but we must be mindful that this sample is not truly representative of the Millennial experience in its entirety because, arguably, more than half of entire cohort was not included in surveying efforts. Having served my mission in Thailand, I would love more insight into how my YSA experience compares to the experiences of Thai YSA members. Cultural differences in dating/marriage practices and expectations would most certainly influence our perceptions of what it is like to be a young, single Millennial member of the Church. It is unfortunate that at this time, those nuances and variety of experiences/perceptions have not been explored more fully. There are large gaps in the literature of and research within the LDS context that are certainly worth considering!

Kenneth: Yes and no. As mentioned previously, the findings outlined in the book largely reflect my personal experience and also much of the discourse that I’ve observed online and otherwise amongst members of my generation. Many of the issues and challenges that the subjects of the survey cite are ones that I have experienced to varying degrees in my own life—but only in the United States. The book itself makes note of its limitations relating to international members of the Church in particular, and to a lesser degree, the experiences of minorities. My personal experience attending congregations in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and Mongolia is that members in those geographies have very different concerns and are engaged in a completely different conversation regarding their relationship with the society and culture at large compared to members in the United States.

Whether the survey is truly representative or not in the United States is also a question given the small sample size for each generation surveyed and the lack of longitudinal data. I note also, that while the issues outlined in the book are familiar to me, my experience as a member in the United States has been confined to congregations in coastal cities with college educated members that may have sensibilities that differ significantly from the bulk of the membership. For instance, the experiences—and challenges—of those attending non-English congregations may not have been adequately represented by the survey.

Q4.) What do we feel are the most pressing/concerning gaps within the book?

Ashley: While Dr. Riess acknowledges many, if not most, of the limitations within her survey, it is important to understand that we continue to lack data on and understanding of the global impact of the Church, particularly as it relates to the Millennial experience. Especially as the Church continues to more fully embrace its positioning as a global enterprise, Church members must be more concerned about how experiences within the gospel context are shaped by different cultures and backgrounds. As an American Millennial, the work felt very accurate and relatable, but I have a feeling it would not be considered very representative of the experience of my brothers and sisters in other areas of the world, particularly in non-Western cultures and communities.

Another major concern is that because the survey is a “snapshot” rather than a longitudinal study (which would be significantly more helpful but also perhaps hundreds of times more expensive), it is sometimes unclear if attitudes and behaviors are actually reflective of Millennials as a cohort or are more representative of attitudes and behaviors associated with that age level, regardless of generational cohort.

Kenneth: In addition to the limitations mentioned by Ashley above, I would have liked to see some additional exploration of the causes of the generational gap present in the Church—while the book provides some context in describing the broader societal milieu relating to the decline of religiosity in the United States, the actual causes of the phenomenon described in the book to me remains somewhat unclear to me. I also would have liked to see an exploration of the differences between members from different geographies with a greater degree of granularity as well—while there is an attempt to do so in some chapters, it is broken down simply as members in Utah and those outside, which strikes me as a relatively crude way to categorize the membership of the Church given the broad cultural differences between the different geographical divisions in the United States. Lastly, given the increasing diversity of the Church membership, I would have liked to see an exploration of certain subsets of the Church membership—such as those attending non-English speaking congregations and immigrant congregations—as a point of reference in the discussion.

Q5.) Are the conclusions drawn by the author worthwhile? Supported by outside evidence? To be taken seriously?

Ashley: Dr. Riess presents very valid points and her research and analysis is both impressive and commendable. Yet, I feel the power in her research lies more in the information and stories presented than in the conclusions she draws. Local and stake leadership should be encouraged to review her findings but I believe it would be more beneficial for leaders to draw their own conclusions and applications based on their particular circumstances and as directed by the Spirit through personal revelation. And while information and data certainly precede revelation, I believe that we should be consciously careful about superimposing our own conclusions over the revelation, guidance, and direction that Church leadership is receiving directly from the Lord.

Her overall conclusion is presented as two-fold: first, that the growing polarization within the Church will continue and that the Church has only two choices moving forward, either to entrench itself in its current subculture or to accommodate societal trends into its culture. [19] In the first part of the conclusion, I find myself nodding in agreement. I believe it is logical that the polarization, though certainly lamentable, will indeed continue. In fact, it can be considered a fulfillment of prophecy related to the latter days in which the faithful will begin to dwindle in numbers and even the very elect will be deceived. [20] However, I find myself at odds with the second half of the conclusion, the posturing of the Church as having only two options before them. My main qualm with this part of the conclusion is that it appears to remove divine guidance and direction from the equation, it presents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a man-driven institution that is entirely susceptible to the whims of mortal leaders. This makes sense to the extent that the book is presented as an academic work, but removing Christ from the head of His Church and implying that Church leadership holds the entire fate of the restored Kingdom of God in their fallible hands goes against my foundational understanding of the hierarchical structure of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. Of course, leadership directs and leads the Church to a certain extent, but they are doing so in response to and in acknowledgement of God as the ultimate decision-maker for His Kingdom. So, to imply that leadership has a tough decision in front of them, that only two choices are possible, seems to remove Deity from the Church. And while perhaps academic and logical, I find that a precarious stance to take in regards to what I full-heartedly believe to be a heaven-directed institution.

Kenneth: In my opinion, the book is worth reading as a primer on salient trends and challenges that face the emerging generation of members of the Church. The study takes a significant degree of effort in attempting to create a sample that is broadly representative of the membership as a whole and is transparent where it falls short. I agree with some of her conclusions, namely that our collective success as a faith community in addressing the issues raised in the book will have an effect on how Millennials relate to the Church in a time of rapidly changing social norms and increased exposure to diverse beliefs and religious practice. That being said, in the concluding chapter of the book— “A Mormonism for the Twenty-first Century,” she seems to imply that failure to change course will inevitably lead to a significant loss of the active Millennial membership—seems a tad bit fatalistic and prescriptive to me. Religiosity historically ebbs and flows over time, and given the increasingly international membership of the Church—with a different set of social and religious concerns—it’s hard for me to conclude that the issues that we are dealing with today will necessarily be the defining issues of this century.


NOTES:

[1] https://youthandreligion.nd.edu/ --- [Back to manuscript].


[2] Jana Riess, The Next Mormons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 4.
--- [Back to manuscript].


[3] Riess, The Next Mormons, 7. [Back to manuscript].


[4] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].


[5] Riess, The Next Mormons, 237. [Back to manuscript].


[6] Riess, The Next Mormons, 237-238. [Back to manuscript].


[7] Riess, The Next Mormons, 240. [Back to manuscript].


[8] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].


[9] Stephen Cranney, “Book Review: The Next Mormons,” BYU Studies 58, no. 2 (2019). https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/next-mormons-how-millennials-are-changing-lds-church) --- [Back to manuscript].


[10] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].


[11] Riess, The Next Mormons, 87–89. [Back to manuscript].


[12] Riess, The Next Mormons, 88. [Back to manuscript].


[13] Riess, The Next Mormons, 88. [Back to manuscript].


[14] Riess, The Next Mormons, 17. [Back to manuscript].


[15] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].


[16] See Riess, The Next Mormons, 55–60. [Back to manuscript].


[17] Riess, The Next Mormons, 58. [Back to manuscript].


[18] See current, official Church statistics here: https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/facts-and-statistics/
--- [Back to manuscript].


[19] Riess, The Next Mormons, 233–235. [Back to manuscript].


[20] See Matthew 24:24 [Back to manuscript].



Full Citation for this Article: Alley, Ashley, Kenneth Jeng (2019) "BOOK REVIEW: The Next Mormons," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 3 (Fall 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleAlleyJengNextMormons.html, accessed <give access date>.

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