This weekend a much-anticipated event by many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is happening – the semi-annual conference of the church where church leaders give talks in five sessions over two days. However, there is a problem: Many younger church members are tuning out.
A survey by Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess found that less than half of church members who fell in the age range of millennials watched general conference. That contrasted with more than 60 percent of those who were 55 plus.
Disinterest in watching general conference may have implications for how faithful those younger Latter-day Saints are. At the least, church leaders lose the opportunity to communicate with younger members.
What might church leaders do to bring them back? Clearly, the General Conference format is not sacrosanct. Fifty years ago, conference last three days, not two. Five years ago, priesthood sessions were reduced from twice annually to once and replaced by an annual women’s session. Then, just last year, the church announced the conference would be reduced to four sessions, although that was rescinded a few months later.
Alterations to meet changing circumstances is not new. Indeed, there may be some innovations church leaders will undertake in coming years to reinstate interest in conference viewing.
One could be expanding the type of speaker who talks. Currently, only general authorities and general officers are invited to participate. Younger members might be more attracted to a mixture of church leaders and ordinary members, particularly if the latter are discussing their own spiritual experiences and how they deal with applying Gospel standards in their lives. These could include a representation based on gender, age (conference speakers are rarely under 50), race, nationality and sexual orientation.
Another change might be transforming a session or two into panel discussions where leaders and members can discuss less formally topics of interest to members. These could include issues such as how to handle difficult events or actions in church history, how to be less judgmental of other members (such as dress and grooming, level of faithfulness, or even basic activity), how to disagree civilly over politics, how to become involved in community service, etc.
Yet another addition might be a live, unscripted question and answer session with the president of the church or one of his counselors. Members gathered in the Conference Center could be invited to pose questions for church leaders that can be answered during the session. Younger members would appreciate the opportunity to ask questions that trouble them and receive answers directly from church leaders.
Even more far-reaching would be to adopt the practice used by many denominations of using a general gathering as a policy-making forum. For example, Methodists employ their annual conference (although held on a regional rather than a global level) to decide policy. Southern Baptists hold an annual conference where delegates decide on denomination policy and programs.
More closely aligned with Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ also has a general conference. There, delegates hear devotional talks, but they also vote on resolutions (rather than simply sustain leadership) and determine the annual budget. In other words, these churches use their large gathering as an opportunity to set future policy collectively.
Similarly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints General Conference might announce policy options and allow members at conference to discuss them. Then, at that conference or a later one, after members have had an opportunity to ruminate on potential changes and seek collective revelation, decisions are made by the church in General Conference.
Clearly, that would be dramatic transformation from the formal, unidirectional conference format that exists today. Is this a step too far? Maybe. Maybe not.
Doctrine and Covenants 20:62 states that conferences in the church “are to do whatever church business is necessary to be done at the time.” What that business is or how it is conducted is not specified in scripture. One thing is for sure. General Conference is dynamic, not static, and something will need to be done to bring back members who are no longer paying attention.
Richard Davis, Orem, is author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”