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Jana Riess: Why do people leave the LDS Church? Let’s drill down further and find out.

In 2016, we got some excellent starting data about why people exit. Now it’s time to learn even more through a fresh wave of research.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019. The Religion News Service columnist plans to do more research on why some members leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 2016, one of the main questions driving The Next Mormons Survey was the one in the headline: Why do people leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? In particular, why do young people do so?

Just as importantly, why do some people stay?

And on and on. I wanted to know so many things!

I strongly suspected that people weren’t leaving for the reasons that some church members ascribed to them — that they wanted to sin, were too lazy to live the gospel, or were easily offended. But I also suspected that the reasons weren’t confined solely to the Latter-day Saint experience, that it wasn’t just a matter of what the church was or wasn’t doing that caused people to leave or stay. We are living in a historical moment in which disaffiliation from religion is more common with every passing year, and Latter-day Saints are part of that moment.

I was very proud of the research Benjamin Knoll and I did with the 2016 Next Mormons Survey, and with the book that came out of it. But ever since 2016, there has also been . . . a list.

A list of questions we wished we had asked the first time and did not (the “dope slap” additions to the survey).

And a list of the questions our initial findings raised, because in addition to giving us excellent data, the 2016 survey also just incited more curiosity.

It’s been five years, and today Benjamin Knoll and I are commencing a two-week Kickstarter campaign to fund the next wave of this research. You can see a brief video about it here, and decide if you’d like to donate to the project.

Where former Latter-day Saints are concerned, some of the new lines of inquiry include:

• What’s the usual timeline of leaving? How long does it take? Does it happen in fits and starts or all at once? The 2016 survey indicated that for most people who leave, the timeline was at least six months. What happens during that period?

• In 2016, it became clear that the feeling of being judged or misunderstood by church members contributed to many people’s decision to leave Mormonism. What, in particular, were the issues around such judgment?

• What role do post-Mormon podcasts, retreats and support groups play in the exit process? How is this experience different for people who have left within the past 10 years versus for people who left decades ago, before such communities existed on a large scale?

• How (and when) do people who leave the church choose to tell their families? (In my oral history interviews so far, a surprising number of people had actually not told their families yet. Getting real data will help us to know how common that is.)

• How many former church members continue to have positive relationships with close family members who are Latter-day Saints? How many have become estranged from their families?

• What are the circumstances and traits shared by the people who report the “easiest” (relatively speaking) experiences with leaving the church? And on the flip side, what are the circumstances and traits shared by the people who have endured the most pain?

• What, if anything, can current church members do or say to better understand those who have left, and preserve loving relationships?

• How do former members’ perceptions of their exit change over time? Are the reasons they give for leaving at the time of leaving still the reasons they cite years later, or does their interpretation evolve with time?

• Are people more likely to leave the church when their ward or branch (congregation) is struggling to retain members?

• Are converts more likely to leave than people who are born into the faith?

Those are just a few of the questions on Wave 2. The research will also, like last time, try to learn everything we can about current Latter-day Saints, including some new lines of inquiry:

• Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed Latter-day Saint belief and practice in the United States, and if so, how? How supportive are members of vaccinations and mask-wearing?

• How have church members responded to the political polarization of the past five years, including topics such as Christian nationalism, President Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud, and LGBTQ rights?

• How do people feel about recent changes that have been implemented in the church, such as a two-hour block of Sabbath meetings, the ability for missionaries to speak weekly with their families, and the fact that women can serve as witnesses to temple ordinances?

• How does a college education contribute to greater retention of members, and does it matter whether a person attended a church-owned university or just attended college or university in general?

• What are the generational differences among members, including Generation Z, some of whom are now in their earliest adulthood?

As you can see, we have a lot of great ideas for new survey questions. But because the costs of doing the research have increased in the past five years, we need to raise more money this time to make it happen.

If you’d like to be part of this effort, you can receive a range of rewards, from getting your name in the acknowledgments of the “Leaving Mormonism” book that Ben and I are writing to the right to add a question to the 2021 survey or to have access to the 2016 data set for a full year before it becomes public.

I don’t want to spam my readers, my friends or my family members. (This morning I wrote an email to my sister-in-law, who donated last time, to say that if she would like to donate again, then it would count for every family Christmas gift from now through the end of time.)

Because I hate to ask for money and I know you all are busy people, I have compressed this Kickstarter campaign into just two weeks. It will end Dec. 22, one way or the other. If we have raised $35,000, the research will go forward. If we have not, the survey can’t happen. It’s as simple as that.

So I hope you’ll want to be part of this team. Thank you for whatever you can do.

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