Activity in the Church
Author: Cunningham, Perry H.
For Latter-day Saints, activity in the Church involves a broad range of public and private religious practices intended to enhance the spiritual well-being of the faithful and accomplish good works. When Latter-day Saints speak of being "active in the Church," they have reference to observing a full religious lifestyle of attendance, devotion, service, and learning. As one measure of their rate of activity, 48 percent of adult Latter-day Saints in the United States in 1989 reported that they attended church services weekly, compared to 38 percent of adult members in other denominations.
The religious practices of active Latter-day Saints include attendance at worship services and religious education classes on Sunday; donation of tithing and other financial contributions; service in a variety of Church callings; performance of temple ordinances on behalf of the deceased; personal and family prayer; scripture study; religious discussion with other family members; adherence to moral standards of personal honesty and integrity; genealogical research; service in the community; and development of habits of thrift and self-sufficiency. General surveys show that even though private religious practice is strongly encouraged by the Church, only 67 percent of active adult Latter-day Saints pray daily, compared to 83 percent in other denominations; and 41 percent reported reading the scriptures daily or several times a week, compared to 52 percent in other denominations (Research Division; cf. National Opinion Research Center; Princeton Religion Research Center).
Religious activity may fluctuate over the course of a person's lifetime, depending on a number of personal and situational variables. In general, the rates of public and private religious activity are somewhat higher among women than men. This gender difference in religious activity is found within every denomination. In addition, the religious activity of adult Latter-day Saints is influenced by (1) religious background, including parents' religious activity, home religious observance, and religious activity during childhood and adolescent years; and (2) current life situation, including marital status and educational or occupational status. Church members who are most likely to have lower levels of religious activity include adults married outside the faith, adults who are divorced or have never married, adults with less than a high school education working in blue-collar jobs, and adults without a religious background.
Age also has an important effect on religious activity. In the United States, 85 percent of Latter-day Saint children under age ten attend Church meetings three to four times a month, but the percentage of frequent attenders declines over the next fifteen years to 55 percent during their mid-twenties. It then rises to 60 percent at age forty, falls to a low of 50 percent during the mid-fifties, and rises again to 60 percent by age seventy.
The process by which people discontinue active participation in the religious life of their church for a period of time is called "disengagement." Disengaged Mormons are usually referred to as "inactive" or "less active" members. While they do not regularly attend church or participate in other public religious practices, inactive Latter-day Saints usually retain a strong identification with the Church and value that identity (Albrecht, Cornwall, and Cunningham). Research has shown that religious socialization in the family is an important predictor of the likelihood that a person will experience a period of inactivity during adolescence or young adulthood. This finding accurately describes the experience of Latter-day Saints. Church members from homes in which both parents are LDS and attend church frequently, pray, read the scriptures, and discuss religion with their children are much less likely to have a period of inactivity than those from homes in which one or neither parent attends church regularly nor practices religion in the home.
About 75 percent of lifelong Latter-day Saints experience a period of inactivity lasting a year or more. The process of disengagement most commonly begins sometime between the ages of fourteen and twenty. Of those who leave, 60 percent return to active participation between their mid-twenties and late thirties, when they marry and begin a family. Some Latter-day Saints who had stopped attending church were asked to list the reasons why they had left. Lifestyle issues and problems of social integration were mentioned most frequently. More than half said they had found other interests that led them to spend less and less time in Church-related activities; 42 percent reported that they felt their lifestyle was no longer compatible with participation in the Church; 40 percent said they did not feel as if they belonged or fit in; and 25 percent said they felt it did not matter to anyone whether they attended or not. Less frequently mentioned reasons included moving to a new community, work-schedule conflicts, poor health, marriage to an inactive member or marriage outside the Church, and conflicts with Church members, programs, or doctrines.
For those who convert to the Church as teenagers or adults, the period of greatest risk for inactivity is the first year or two after joining the Church (see Conversion). About 70 percent of the new Latter-day Saint converts in the United States who do become inactive stop attending within three to five years after joining the Church. Of those who drop out, 45 percent return to active participation in five to ten years. Activity among these converts is influenced by (1) the personal characteristics of the convert, such as religious background, age, and marital status; (2) how personally involved the convert was in the investigation process, such as experiencing the Spirit of God and attending Church worship services; and (3) the extent to which the convert developed social relationships with other Latter-day Saints both before and after baptism.
In any religious tradition, social relationships are critical in developing and maintaining religious activity. People's religious lives are acted out in the context of a network of social ties within the family, the congregation, and the community. In addition, social relationships are the means by which religious traditions are transmitted from one generation to the next and the medium through which religious practices are shared and expressed. LDS religious activity is centered in the family and in the congregation (see Ward). In these settings, children and new converts learn by instruction and example what it means to be an "active" Latter-day Saint (see Values, Transmission of).
Albrecht, Stan L. "The Consequential Dimension of Mormon Religiosity." BYU Studies 29 (Spring 1989):57-108.
Albrecht, Stan L., Marie Cornwall, and Perry H. Cunningham. "Religious Leave-Taking: Disengagement and Disaffiliation Among Mormons." In Falling from the Faith, ed. David G. Bromley, pp. 62-80. Newbury Park, Calif., 1988.
Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. National Survey of Families and Households. Madison, 1987.
Cornwall, Marie. "The Social Bases of Religion: A Study of Factors Influencing Religious Belief and Commitment." Review of Religious Research 29 (Sept. 1987):44-56.
Cornwall, Marie. "The Influence of Three Agents of Religious Socialization: Family, Church, Peers." In The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas, pp. 207-231. Provo, Utah, 1988.
Cornwall, Marie. "The Determinants of Religious Behavior: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Test." Social Forces 68 (1989):283-99.
National Opinion Research Center. General Social Survey. Chicago, 1988.
Princeton Religion Research Center. Religion in America. Princeton, N.J., 1982.
Research Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Surveys of Church Members (1981-1984), unpublished.
PERRY H. CUNNINGHAM