Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

“Which church is true?” isn’t the right question anymore

I’m going to the Hill Cumorah pageant this weekend for the first time (follow-up post to come soon). The cast-of-hundreds pageant is going away after next summer, the victim of a 2018 edict that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is phasing out four of its seven major pageants.

The major reason seems to be dwindling attendance at Cumorah and other pageants, which were once a vital missionary tool as well as a source of family fun. The president of the “Mormon Miracle Pageant” in Manti, Utah, which just shuttered production last month after more than fifty years, told the Deseret News that younger audiences have more entertainment options, and therefore aren’t that interested.

That’s definitely true—Netflix, anyone?—but I also wonder if the attrition doesn’t run deeper, stemming from the production’s message and not simply its medium. The Hill Cumorah pageant is a pastiche of Book of Mormon stories and the history of Mormonism’s beginnings in upstate New York, when a young Joseph Smith asked God which church to join and was eventually led to uncover the plates of the Book of Mormon and found a church of his own.

I’d like to think that the Church’s origin story is as compelling and timeless for young adults today as it was for me when I converted to Mormonism in my early 20s. But as someone who researches religion and generational change, I don’t think the story itself has the same pull that it used to.

We are still behaving as though “Which church is true?” is the question most people are asking. Our missionaries tell the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in which he asked that question and the Lord clarified that none of the existing churches were true. Missionaries today affirm that this was because priesthood authority had disappeared from the earth, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true religion because it still has that priesthood authority.

Fair enough. That’s church doctrine. But it no longer speaks to the questions young adults (in this culture, at least) are actually asking.

“Which church is true?” is a question that’s predicated on certain cultural assumptions. For starters, it assumes a situation of Christian pluralism, but not interfaith pluralism. In the 1820s, when Joseph Smith was a teenager, nearly everyone he knew was at least nominally Christian. The only confusion was about which kind of Christianity was optimal—Congregationalist or Catholic? Methodist or Baptist? If Baptist, the freewill folks or the footwashers?

Our culture still has a proliferation of Christian choices, but they’ve been joined by world religions that were not a part of daily life in America in the 1820s. Today Islam is growing faster in this country than Christianity. Buddhism, while still a small minority of the population, is also on the rise, from both immigration and conversion. And the fastest-growing religion in the country is . . . not having a religion.

That last point is important. More Americans, especially young adults, are opting out of religion altogether. As one of them said to me recently, “Why do I even need religion? Like, at all?”

Why, indeed?

Such general pondering about the core reason for religion is a far cry from a pointed question like “Which church is true?” The latter presupposes not only a quaint club in which everyone is Christian but also that propositional truth is something that is a) discoverable and b) potentially salvific.

The non-LDS young adults I speak with today—the very people the Church wants to reach through missionary work—inhabit a different set of assumptions. To them, your perception of the truth is determined by where you’re standing and the tribe you belong to, but truth itself is neither contingent upon, nor exclusively owned by, that tribe. In other words, life isn’t about finding the “right” church so that you can pledge your loyalty to it and congratulate yourself ever after for being among the righteous few who hold correct doctrinal beliefs.

This makes reaching them both more difficult and more basic. Missionary efforts that begin with a promise of propositional truth (which Millennials don’t care about) and end with an assurance of exclusive priestly authority (which they also don’t care about) are going to go over like a lead balloon. Those approaches are asking the wrong question for this people in this age.

What, then, are better questions?

In addition to “why religion?” we could be asking ourselves, for a generation that privileges making the world a better place, “How does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bless the world?”

For a generation that focuses more on lived experience than propositional correctness, we could be asking ourselves, “What experiences do we have to offer that will help individuals flourish?”

And for a generation that still believes in heaven and the supernatural despite declining involvement in organized religion, we can say, “What hope does our religion provide people of a better life to come, even if they aren’t members of our faith?”

We don’t need to change our doctrine to do this. We need to listen to the questions that people are actually concerned about.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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