In a recent post, I presented excerpts from a text that showed how the RS has evolved from an autonomous, economic organization to a correlated organization focused on inward spirituality and family. A surprising consensus emerged in the comments–this transition was probably inevitable, not based on sexism.
Whereas in early Utah, women’s organizations could own property and run stores because members remained in communities that were encompassed by the church, today such a model would be infeasible. We live in a society where people move far too frequently to sustain such grand collective projects. Church is no longer co-extensive with the communities we live in, which in the typical case include far fewer members than non-members. In fact, community is often scarcely felt even within a ward–we see most members in passing on Sundays; those of us without children or large callings get to know only a few.
Kevin Barney’s post got me thinking about why members leave. What I want to suggest here is that we can understand the general phenomenon of members leaving the church in part as a product of the general decoupling of church and community. RS might be one example of a general church pattern: An organization that was central to its community’s economic life evolved into an organization that now primarily supports sisters in sustaining a shared belief (combined with behind the scenes help to individual families).
And it is telling, I think, that the beliefs most emphasized–beliefs, for example, about family–are about the few things that we all have experience with. It is now rare to hear a discussion about, for instance, Joseph Smith’s economic visions. At the moment, church seems decoupled from any vision of a literal gathering or building of a Mormon community, content to dwell on universally accessible issues of sex, family, and general moral principles.
But communities that are sustained on the basis of shared belief rather than shared community activities are unstable, prone to splintering when people who have little else to unite them disagree. Although we are all told the importance of developing our own testimonies, the reality is that beliefs change and evolve. Our testimonies might conflict.
What keeps me connected to organizations over the long-run is not unwavering belief in them, but my connection to the people within those organizations. We stick together as families, for example, not because we always get along, but because we are engaged in shared economic and life goals. By contrast, when communities are sustained primarily on the basis of shared belief, they are vulnerable as beliefs shift.
The reasons people cite again and again for leaving the church–concern about stances on gender, not feeling welcome, feeling that no questions can be asked–all have to do with thinking that one’s beliefs are unacceptable in the group. Did people in previous generations not have their doctrinal issues? I doubt it. But maybe the difference is that doctrinal belief never was the primary factor keeping most people in the church–maybe it was community and family that did. And churches connected to local communities are ceasing to exist.