When he was eight years old, my son Jonah joined me on a trip to Salt Lake City. I was meeting with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about religious liberty questions that concerned both of our communities.
I thought Jonah would be bored, but I needn’t have worried. Everyone treated him with such kindness that I told my wife, “We have to get home soon. Jonah’s having such a good time that I’m afraid he’ll soon be on a bicycle handing out Books of Mormon door to door.”
I was joking, of course. But it was true that the other children showing him such hospitality would one day spend two years somewhere in the world on a mission that the church expects of them.
For a long time, this struck me as a misguided use of time and resources. After all, have you ever met someone who embraced the teachings of Joseph Smith because a pair of barely-out-of-adolescence Latter-day Saints showed up at their door? But I was wrong in my evaluation, because I misunderstood what these missions are actually about.
In his book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, Stephen Bullivant recalls a conversation with a couple of young Latter-day Saints just back from their missions. Neither had seen a single person converted to their faith.
“Yet interestingly, from the perspective of the LDS Church, this doesn’t mean that their mission trips have failed,” he writes. “The experience of spending two years trudging around rainy England, living in each other’s (name-badged) pockets, and trying to strike up meaningful conversations with secular Brits is nothing if not character building.” More importantly, he notes, “the odds of them returning home even more deeply committed to being upstanding lifelong Mormons … will certainly have risen appreciably.”
Bullivant contrasts this devotion with mainline Protestantism, which has bled out over the past 50 years—especially with youth. A key, he argues, is the eclipse of an emphasis on equipping young people to do personal evangelism. “If a church doesn’t inculcate in its members the feeling that what they have is something that’s worth sharing with others ... then it sends the message that perhaps it’s not so essential for me either,” he writes. “Conversely, actively trying to evangelize others cements the value of it for oneself.”
The same is true for our evangelical Protestant world, regardless of how much we think we are committed to personal evangelism. The 2022 Census of American Religion by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that the median age of both white mainline Protestants and their evangelical counterparts was around 54, in contrast to a median age of all Americans of 48.
With these sorts of numbers, many will attempt to ramp up the same market-driven ministry to young people that’s failed for decades. But what if that’s not the solution and is, instead, a big part of the problem? Are we sending an implicit message to the next generation that we see them as consumers of a ministry product? Compared with the Latter-day Saints, are our expectations for the next generation way too low?
I am committed to Nicene Christian orthodoxy and I, of course, reject LDS theology on the most important matters of the faith—the Trinity, the Incarnation, the way of salvation, and so on. But when it comes to the sociology of high expectations for youth, I find something that resonates.
We may equip our young people to defend themselves intellectually—from naturalistic materialism, sexual hedonism, and so on—with a “Christian worldview.” But we are not doing as well at training them to authentically and persuasively share their faith as genuine good news and to expect that the Spirit actually can and does change hearts.
The biblical model of the church is one body with many members—and a critical aspect of membership is the use of one’s gifts to build up the church (1 Cor. 12). Too many of our young people are seeing a flawed vision of Christianity, not because they’ve concluded that they don’t need the church but because they’ve concluded that the church doesn’t need them. We need to communicate to our children that we will not only train them to carry on the faith but also trust them to do so. Our expectations for the next generation are just not high enough for these “latter days.”
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