A good friend of mine is an elders quorum president here in Utah, and he was talking to me about an idea he had for an “object” lesson in church: have people arrive for sacrament meeting to find that nothing is prepared; no speakers, no sacrament prepared, no chorister or organist. Nothing. Then he said he would let people sit awkwardly for 15 minutes or so and then talk about how the ward requires the participation of its members to function.
What spurred this lesson idea? My friend is frustrated at the lack of commitment and participation among members of his ward. Roughly ten years ago when I was in his shoes as a young elders quorum president, I noticed that the same small group of people were doing everything in the ward. If I asked for help in a service project, the same people always showed up. We used to joke that ward council was just musical chairs because the same people traded callings every few years.
To me, this problem is a sign of waning commitment and faith within Mormonism. I suspect that the experience of these two elders quorum presidents is pretty standard. As my friend put it, “Too many people are sitting in the foyer.” They are in the church but not of it. They attend their meetings and go to the activities, but they aren’t dedicated enough to sacrifice for their religion.
Of course, there are millions of dedicated and faithful Mormons around the world, but if our experience is at all representative, they are in the minority. And if the trend is toward less commitment, the future doesn’t look good for Mormonism, a religion that demands commitment if there ever were one. Oddly enough, many of the former Mormons I know are the type of people who were extremely dedicated (I know I was), whereas a lot of the active Mormons I know are the ones telling me that they don’t take their religion seriously and neither should I.
So, how is the church going to increase dedication and participation? I would submit that their current efforts aren’t working very well. What they seem to be doing is having more meetings and more guilt-tripping. If you are or ever were actively involved in Mormonism, you have sat through countless priesthood, leadership, and training meetings designed to help you be more effective and committed in your church work. The problem is that these meetings are by and large mind-numbingly boring and devoid of anything that would help you commit more of yourself.
I think this lack of dedication is what’s behind the current fad of “pioneer trek re-enactments” wherein teenagers spend a few days discovering just how miserable the handcart experience was for our pioneer ancestors. My two oldest children spent four days in Oklahoma for their trek, and both came home exhausted, sick, and sunburned. Neither described it as a faith-promoting experience, and in fact my son came home feeling like “miracles” are based on deception.
I don’t know what the church can do to fix things, but my guess is that if they keep on doing what they’re doing, more people will be in the foyers, and more will be gone entirely.