The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends tens of thousands of enthusiastic young adults — carefully trained in sales strategies — all over the world. Why don’t people want what they’re selling? On the flip side, if the prospect of joining Mormonism is so obviously unappealing to the average person, how did the LDS missionary program enjoy periods of tremendous success in the past?
As a long-time insider/outsider observer of Mormonism, I’ve been fascinated by these questions, and also by the question of how long the CoJCoL-dS can continue with this absurdly outdated and ineffective marketing strategy. (Note: no successful company today relies on a door-to-door salesforce — I don’t think anyone besides the really elderly remember a time when it was considered reasonable to listen to a pitch from some random stranger who shows up at your door.) The solution to the riddle isn’t entirely about their marketing strategy — it’s more about what Mormonism adds to your life (and what it subtracts).
Many people speculate that the highest leaders of the CoJCoL-dS know it’s a fraud. I disagree; I think they really believe the God exists and that He’s at the head of the church. My evidence is their random and incoherent strategies for marketing the church and running it. The leaders can’t just ask themselves how Mormonism functions in people’s lives and then (cynically) use that information to craft their program and materials to maximize members’ positive experiences in Mormonism, to inspire them to stick with it. They think they really do hold the keys to salvation and exaltation (which is a valuable enough selling point all by itself!) — and since God is running things, if they could be doing things better, then God would tell the prophet what changes they should make.
As far as retention is concerned, so much of the discussion of the church centers around whether or not the church is true. This makes sense because if its central tenets really are true (especially the claim that there’s an afterlife, and the only way to ace it is through LDS temple ordinances), then it’s a good idea to practice Mormonism. The converse, however, doesn’t necessarily hold: If the truth claims aren’t true, there may yet be reasons to continue to believe and practice Mormonism.
A lot of faith crises begin when members start wondering why Mormonism isn’t working for them; why they’re so miserable in this culture that is supposed to bring eternal joy. When that happens, it can be a relief to discover that it’s not true, and that you can stop pounding your head against the wall of trying to make it work. Of course not all faith transitions begin this way. The people for whom Mormonism “works” are somewhat less likely/motivated to start asking the questions that will lead them out the door, but sometimes they do. Such people are often inclined to construct a more nuanced faith — perhaps pick an alternate definition of “true” — in order to continue in the Mormon community and lifestyle they value.
The people following these different paths can have a hard time understanding each other. One side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to keep believing and practicing this stuff — it’s not true!” while the other side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to give up Mormonism just because it’s not literally true!” As I’ve said, the real question is whether you want to.
Mormonism clearly appeals to some people and not to others; it works for some people and not for others. Please join me in this bi-weekly series exploring what the CoJCoL-dS has to offer!