Gen Zers leaving LDS faith find community on social apps like TikTok

Church leaders have countered with a class aimed at helping young adults get answers from reliable sources.

(Hope Orr) Jillian Orr poses in her graduation gown for Brigham Young University on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Her sister, Rachel Orr, sewed a pride flag inside of it for Jillian to express her identity on stage after years of feeling like she had to hide being bisexual at the church-run school. A video of her graduation ceremony, and her reveal of the rainbow flag, earned 7.5 million views on TikTok.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in media through student journalism.

Nearly a year ago, Jillian Orr, with help from her sister, stitched a rainbow pride flag to the inside of her Brigham Young University graduation gown.

Orr filmed the process to post on the social media app TikTok. The video ended with Orr walking across the stage at her commencement ceremony last April and flashing the bright colors to the audience.

The video went viral, garnering 7.5 million views.

(Hope Orr) Jillian Orr walks across stage in her custom graduation gown for Brigham Young University on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Orr created the video in protest of BYU’s Honor Code — in which students and faculty pledge to create “an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Among those principles is that same-sex relationships are not compatible with church teachings.

In the months since that first viral post, Orr has amassed a following of nearly 39,000 followers. Another video, with the title “Homophobic Assignment,” drew another 1.3 million views.

In that video, Orr shows viewers a quiz question from a marriage and family class required for her psychology degree. The multiple-choice question asks students to finish this idea: “One who truly loves LGBTQ people will …”

Orr explained in the video how her choice — “...love them unconditionally and accept whatever they want as what is best for them” — was graded as incorrect. The correct answer, she was told, was “… love them unconditionally while continuing to realize that their greatest happiness will come through living the gospel plan.”

Orr said TikTok is providing members of Generation Z “the information so they can choose and think for themselves. When given all the information and allowing people to learn, question and challenge, that is when people can make decisions for themselves.”

One of the hashtags Orr attached to her first viral video was #exmormon — a term that refers to someone who has left the Latter-day Saint faith. The hashtag began trending well before Orr used it, and its use has expanded since, catching the attention of younger audiences, especially those in Gen Z, with tagged videos receiving more than 1.4 billion views as of January 2023.

‘My favorite sins’

(Annie Sorensen | Special to The Tribune) Podcaster John Dehlin, speaking at a conference in St. George in 2022, is offering a sense of community to former Latter-day Saints.

Layah Kou, a student at Salt Lake Community College, left the Latter-day Saint faith as a teenager, and without that association, she said, she found herself feeling lonely.

“My entire life I was taught to believe in God and that my purpose on Earth was to be with him again,” Kou said. “But now that I don’t, it feels like I don’t know anything anymore. I didn’t know my purpose.”

Kou said she found a sense of community on TikTok, watching videos of former Latter-day Saint creators like psychologist John Dehlin, who hosts the “Mormon Stories” podcast and interviews individuals on topics and personal experiences relating to the church.

“Seeing their experiences … and how relatable and similar [they were] to mine,” Kou said, “made me feel validated.”

Samantha Shelley and Tanner Gilliland, best friends and former students at BYU-Idaho, had left the Latter-day Saint faith and were processing that loss. In 2016, they created the web platform Zelph On The Shelf, making parody song videos and humorous responses to church blogs on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and elsewhere. The tag line: “post-religion discourse but make it fun and cute.”

In a 2018 video, “My Favorite Sins,” Shelley and Gilliland take the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic song “My Favorite Things” (from “The Sound of Music”) to list things considered unholy by faithful Latter-day Saints: “Coffee for mornings and whiskey on weekends, hiking on Sunday with all of my dear friends. Exposing my shoulders and my stomach skin, these are a few of my favorite sins.”

“Gen Z is probably the first generation in Mormonism to have access to others to validate what they are going through,” Shelley said. “If you have doubts about the church, you can always find a community [on TikTok].”

As a creator who uses the tag #exmormon on TikTok, Shelley said the goal extends beyond just having a laugh with other former Latter-day Saints. “A lot of [creators],” she said, “are trying to give [viewers] an opportunity to consider whether their beliefs or ways of looking at the world might be skewed or wrong.”

In a talk at the church’s General Conference in April 2021, on Easter Sunday, President Russell M. Nelson told members of the faith to take their questions “to the Lord and to other faithful sources.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ young adult education program, called institute, introduced a new class last year, “Answering My Gospel Questions.” The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the class is aimed at helping students examine and discuss specific questions they have, and learn how to find answers from sources church leaders regard as reliable.

Exit is part of a national trend

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson, speaking at General Conference on Easter morning, Sunday, April 4, 2021, urges Latter-day Saints to take their questions “to the Lord and to other faithful sources.”

Some young adults, like Jill Morrison, a Utah Valley University film student, are fine with going to outside sources. “Accounts like Zelph On The Shelf let you actually explore those questions and find answers,” Morrison said. “It’s important for members of the church to really explore the history and maybe [the] negative sides of their religion.”

In March 2022, the American Survey Center found 34% of Gen Zers — roughly, people born between 1997 and 2012 — are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 29% of millennials (people born between 1980 and 1996). According to a study by the Pew Research Center, adults who are religiously unaffiliated stand at 29%, 6 percentage points higher than 2016.

Membership among younger Latter-day Saints has followed the trend, according to researcher Jana Riess’ book “The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church.” The book notes the church is retaining 45% of its young people in the United States, compared to 80% in generations past.

Orr, the BYU grad whose rainbow graduation gown went viral, said, “previous generations are told to obey, and I believe we have a new generation that is choosing to reflect on what they feel is right rather than what they are told is right. [Gen Z] is finally getting accurate information and choosing for themselves.”

Shelley added that, because of social media, younger people have greater access to information.

“In the past,” she said, “a Mormon in Salt Lake in the ’70s would have to go to a scary bookshop to get some forbidden book about the truth of [church founder] Joseph Smith.”

Shelley, who has created content for nearly every social media platform, said she believes there has been a cultural shift among the faith’s practicing and former members regarding views about those who decide to leave.

“Over the last 10 years, there’s been so many more people leaving the church, and they’re not doing it in the shadows anymore,” Shelley said. “It feels like the culture has shifted — the church itself seems like it’s made some kind of effort to not demonize people who leave.”

Nicole Spearman wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.