More millennial Mormons are choosing a middle way — neither all-in nor all-out of the faith

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Not long ago, an upside-down coffee cup and a sleeveless blouse signaled to those in the know where a Latter-day Saint stood with Mormonism.

The cup’s position expressed obedience to the faith’s health code, which prohibits coffee, while bare shoulders flaunted the absence of the temple undergarment worn by devout Latter-day Saints.

These days, though, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — especially the young — do not see those outward signs as either essential, on the one hand, or suggestive of disbelief, on the other.

Indeed, recent surveys show that an increasing percentage of churchgoing Mormons report having downed alcohol or coffee in the previous six months, or not wearing their garments as mandated.

“Millennials who are wearing garments less and have a flexible view of the Word of Wisdom are less concerned with things they see as simply ‘good Mormon badges,’” says Mormon podcaster Rosemary Card, of the “Q.MORE” podcast. “I’m more concerned with bigger issues like the treatment of refugees, the LGBT+ community and women than I am what is in someone’s cup.”

Adds Card, author of “Model Mormon” who also runs a Latter-day Saint temple clothing store: “No member of the church is perfect. These choices are just more visible than some that earlier generations may have struggled with.”

Others opt not to obtain a “recommend,” necessary to enter the faith’s temples and participate in its highest ordinances. They take a pass on temple attendance to protest some of the church’s policy stances.

Does being half in/half out of their faith affect these members’ long-term religious and spiritual experience in a community based on “activity”? Are they treated as second-class citizens, either constantly judged or always in need of “rescuing”? Do these “middle-way Mormons,” as one man put it, reap the same benefits as those who are all-in or are they risking their spot in the highest heaven?

Apparently, growing numbers of members are finding out.

Surprising statistic

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, Mormon writer and editor.

For the past couple of years, writer Jana Riess has been studying the lives and practices of young Latter-day Saints — those currently participating as well as those who have left — as compared to earlier generations.

Riess and co-researcher Benjamin Knoll — whose book, “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” is due out in March — discovered that among more than 1,100 members they surveyed, those they describe as “faithful and obedient Mormons,” 10 percent and 18 percent, respectively, report they have had either alcohol or coffee in the past six months, both of which the Word of Wisdom forbids.

Among members they classify as “relaxed but engaged” — most of whom still attend church either weekly or monthly and describe themselves as either very or somewhat “active” — only about 1 in 10 say they keep the Word of Wisdom faithfully (with 46 percent and 58 percent saying that they’ve had alcohol or coffee in the past six months).

“We are living in a culture where coffee has boomed in the American experience in a way that it wasn’t 40 years ago,” Riess says in a recent episode of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “It has become an identity marker for being with your friends.”

Church leaders and members “should keep in mind that about a quarter of those in the pews every week are ‘relaxed but engaged,’” Knoll writes in a recent Religion in Public blog. “That means that there is a sizable minority who find value in the social aspect of the church but who don’t believe wholeheartedly in LDS Church teachings, don’t pay tithing, don’t hold a temple recommend, and who drink coffee and alcohol and take the counsel of church leaders with a grain of salt.”

So how does it feel to be one of these members?

A pattern in the paths

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Debra Jenson (center) chats with Jeffrey Smith while trying to gain admittance to the priesthood session of the 183rd Semiannual General Conference, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013.

Carolyn Homer of Washington, D.C., says she is “squarely in the ‘half-in’ camp.”

She attends church every week and has three "callings” (volunteer staff assignments), including teaching in the all-female Relief Society.

But Homer hasn’t renewed her recommend because, she says, she finds the temple ceremony “irredeemably sexist.”

She does not wear temple garments but is “deeply committed” to the “personal covenants with God [she made in the temple] about loving my fellow sisters and brothers.”

In the end, Homer says, “no one else has the power to decide what being Mormon means except for me.”

Recognizing that the Utah-based church is an institution like others — while attending multiple religious services with her Catholic fiancé and working for a Muslim organization — has made Homer “far more forgiving of [Mormonism’s] flaws,” she says, “and far more loving of its beauties, particularly surrounding community and service and volunteerism and kindness.”

Utahn Debra Jenson stepped away from the church after the November 2015 policy emerged dubbing married same-sex couples “apostates” and barring their children from baptism until they are 18.

Three years later, Jenson has returned to her Latter-day Saint community but in her own way.

“I have searched many times and many faiths and this is where my spiritual home is,” she declares. “But I am not interested in being an institutional Mormon. I will not pay tithing. I do not sustain the general authorities. I don't want a calling, and I don't attend classes.”

Still, Jenson says, “I am a Mormon. I am my kind of Mormon, and that kind of Mormon is just fine.”

Jenson is a strong, independent woman, though, and worries about others who try to do the same thing.

“We are a community that throws up a lot of roadblocks for people who want to continue with the church or gospel but want to do it on their own terms,” she says. “We value people who are all the way in, or all the way out, but we are not sure how we deal with people half in.”

At temple weddings, for example, it is difficult for middle-wayers to “sit on the couch of shame” in the lobby, Jenson says. “You are part of your family and community, but you are clearly outside.”

Susan, a member in an East Coast urban area, describes herself are “fully active.” She is in a Young Women presidency and teaches the Mia Maids (14- and 15-year-old girls). Yet, she doesn’t go to all church services, has stopped wearing garments and also drinks coffee and alcohol.

Susan, who asked not to use her last name since her family in the West doesn’t know about these choices, has been “surprised at the lack of attention from our leadership and seeming unawareness of church members in general. … No one seems to notice that we don’t attend sacrament meeting very often. No one has pointed out that I am not wearing garments.”

Her motto is “fly under the radar.”

“I suspect that my ward leadership is just grateful for someone who can get the job done,” Susan says, “and doesn’t want to have a confrontation with someone who is not causing any issues.”

It may not be so easy to escape church consequences in other places — like church-owned Brigham Young University.

A recently returned missionary, who asked not to be named for fear of school reprisals, no longer wears her garments.

“Garments have always made me feel physically uncomfortable and emotionally insecure,” the young woman writes in an email. “They make me feel ashamed of my body … ugly and ashamed to be a woman.”

After she stopped wearing them, her mental health improved, she says. “Can I covenant to live a Christlike life and yet not wear the physical symbol of my covenants?” If a married woman finds her wedding ring physically uncomfortable and damaging to her self-confidence, she asks, can’t she stay married without it?

When the BYU student told friends about discontinuing garment-wearing. she says, “all of them were disappointed in my disobedience.”

She likes her campus bishop a lot but can’t tell him for fear of losing her ecclesiastical endorsement to stay in school, but she has shared her experience with others, including her returned-missionary boyfriend, who is supportive.

She still considers herself a Latter-day Saint and was encouraged when her dad said a person could have “a fragile relationship with the church and still have a strong relationship with God.”

The Latter-day Saint community “is my home, I want to be a very integrated part of it, but it also hurts to be a member,” she says. “I used to believe you had to be all-in or all-out, but there are a few others like me, and they make it possible to stay.”

The student wants to follow Christ, living a life of “radical empathy, love and self-sacrifice.” But can she sustain that within Mormonism without being all-in?

Cost-benefit equation

Christian Kimball was a Mormon bishop in Boston as a 30-something, and, after his service was finished, this multigenerational member went through a painful period of self-examination and distance from the only church he had ever known.

Since then, Kimball settled into his middle-way life — choosing not even to sit for a recommend interview but attending Sunday services regularly. He has seen firsthand how this has played for him as well as others.

“If an adult, formerly all-in person (returned missionary, endowed, prior temple recommend, callings) chooses to stay involved but without a temple recommend, life is interesting,” Kimball writes in an email.

It is often “a calm and stable place, apart from the second-class tensions,” he says. Those who remain there “feel relatively free of cultural requirements and don’t worry (too much) about the temple admission standards — belief or behavior.”

Well-behaved folks, he says, can serve in a number of callings.

“Most of the callings labeled ‘priesthood’ or ‘men only’ are not open (by practice, even if there is no clear rule)” to men without a temple recommend, Kimball says. “For a man, being involved without a temple recommend functions a lot like being a woman in the church in terms of callings and participation.”

How involved such a person can be depends on what is known as “leader roulette.”

Where local lay bishops “lean liberal, or the needs are great, or both, there’s a sense of finding a place and encouraging participation from everybody.” Kimball says. “There are many stories and experiences of nonmember spouses, and out-and-proud LGBTQ members, and outspokenly heterodox middle-way folks, being actively involved in the full range of activities at the ward/branch level.”

In areas with conservative bishops, or where there are plenty of members to fill the “important” callings, he says, such members are more of an afterthought: “‘If we think of something, we’ll call, but don’t wait by the phone.’”

A new way of thinking

Matt Cashore | University of Notre Dame Patrick Mason

Flipping a coffee cup or covering one’s shoulders as a sign of obedience, some millennials say, has come to mean less to younger Mormons than larger symbols of belief.

This generation has “internalized the truth that their faith and divine worth are reflected less by outward expressions of obedience than they are by a sacred, inner sense of Christ’s unconditional love,” says Salt Lake City resident Drew Stelter. “In other words, how we treat other children of God is more important than whether or not we drink coffee. The focus is on people, not things.”

Millennials see spirituality as a journey, not a resting place.

“Faith isn’t having everything figured out. Faith is acknowledging that there are things you don’t know or understand,” says Card, the “Q.MORE” podcaster. “Continuing to come to church when there are things you don’t understand, disagree with, don’t like is pretty bada-- faithful, if you ask me.” There are a “million ways to Mormon,” she says, “and I’m comfortable with that.”

A 25-year-old in South Jordan, who goes by the Twitter handle Poetic Kate, believes those in her generation are less critical and self-righteous than some older Mormons.

“We don’t tend to judge others for those outward signs of obedience,” Kate says in a Twitter message. “I want people to feel welcomed, loved and accepted as they are, and it’s not my job to judge their temple worthiness.”

She hopes Latter-day Saints are “getting better at including anyone who does not want to be ‘all-in,’” Kate says. “We still have a way to go with that, but I do think it’s getting better.”

Claire Woodward, who recently launched a blog for millennial Mormons, says she has seen some of her peers “who are somewhere in between being Mormon and being not-Mormon.”

Obedience as a virtue “may have been more important 40 years ago,” she says, “whereas [authenticity] is one of the leading virtues for many millennials.”

Woodward, in a graduate program in Bloomington, Ind., has not seen members who don’t live every church “standard and commandment” treated as “inferiors.”

Mormons may “have their weaknesses,” Woodward says, “but I feel like we are growing in compassion and understanding and are willing to take people where they are.”

Members do need to be all-in to receive all the benefits of a church community, she says, but being all-in “means something different to every person.”

For her, it means being “willing to wrestle with unresolved tensions rather than having a strong testimony of every part of LDS doctrine,” Woodward says. “Faith requires us to invest thought, feeling and time. Religious communities are there to help us give our all.”

Still, she respects those “who may disagree with a church policy but continue to try to make a place for themselves,” Woodward says, “and serve in whatever ways they can.”

Of course, such half-in members may not enjoy the same benefits that all-in members do.

There is value in being integral to a close-knit community, says Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. “When something goes wrong, the all-ins know they can trust their community will be there for them.”

Beyond that, Mason says, are religious advantages.

“We should never discount the strictly spiritual benefits — the expectation of salvation,” he says. Fully obedient members “are willing to make sacrifices for a long-term payoff.”

In the end, it comes down to a person’s view of God, Mason says. Is God a taskmaster, an enforcer of rules, who doles out blessings conditionally, based on obedience? Or is God more forgiving and generous, who is not going to hold anyone to a set of seemingly arbitrary rules?

As Mason’s aunt once asked him: Will God keep a person out of heaven for drinking a cup of coffee?