A Guest Post by Sharon Lindbloom
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is experiencing a declining growth rate. Journalist Andy Larsen at The Salt Lake Tribune, calls it an “LDS Church membership stagnation,” saying, “we’re in a Latter-day Saint ebb in America.” 1
But it’s not just America that is experiencing LDS church growth stagnation. For example, The Cumorah Foundation, in its June 2022 newsletter2, reported that an LDS church stake (i.e., an organizational grouping of congregations) was discontinued in the UK for the first time in history, attributing the closure to “stagnant membership growth rates combined with probable decreases in member activity in the area” – an LDS membership assessment that can be applied to many parts of the world.
Some of this decline is due to a lack of success among proselytizing missionaries, and some is due to disillusioned members who are choosing to leave the LDS church. Yet the membership statistics only tell part of the story. A substantial number of Latter-day Saints who stop believing in Mormonism nevertheless choose to remain members of the LDS church.
These are Latter-day Saints who are, in the words of active Mormon and newspaper columnist Gordon Monson, “faking it.” He writes with incredulity,
“They go to church, they fulfil congregational callings, they pay tithing, they socialize with believers and participate with family members in every aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, except for one. They do not actually believe it to be the truth. Call me naïve, but this whole concept is tough to fit into my brain.” (“Gordon Monson: If you’re faking your Latter-day Saint faith … why?”, The Salt Lake Tribune, May 16, 2022)3
Dr. Matthew Bowman, associate professor of history and religion and Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, doesn’t find it hard at all. He published an article a month later that defends the idea of cultural Mormonism, where people understand their “religion” primarily as ritual rather than a set of beliefs. He argues,
“There are many religions around the world that place little or no weight upon what one believes. Polling regularly shows that very few Japanese people say that they ‘believe’ in any given religious tradition. Only 6% of Japanese people say that God or a divine being is important in their life. And yet large majorities of Japanese people say that they practice Shintoism or Buddhism, and participation in religious rites is quite common. In short, in Japan being religious is about behaviour, what you do, more than it is about what you believe.” (“Matthew Bowman: Why religion is about more than belief — a defence of cultural Mormonism,” The Salt Lake Tribune, June 26, 2022)4
I don’t doubt that Dr. Bowman is right. However, the “many religions” of which he writes are not Christian religions. The idea of being involved in a “cultural” religion bereft of doctrinal belief — or one in which doctrine is of little importance — is foreign to New Testament Christianity.
For example, in the New Testament followers of Christ are warned against false teachers who do not confess the truth about Jesus, who instead hold to conflicting doctrines (2 John 1:6-11). “Believers” are contrasted with “unbelievers” and given clear instruction to remain separate (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Following “good doctrine” is presented as the mark of a “good servant of Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy4:6-7).
In the early Christian church “all who believed were together” as they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42-44). Doctrinal truth is central to New Testament Christianity. But this is not necessarily so when it comes to Mormonism.
Though Latter-day Saints place much emphasis on their testimonies consisting of a set of beliefs (“I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God, I know Joseph Smith was and is a true prophet, I know the church is true…”), in practice, LDS church membership is more concerned with behaviour than with belief.
Go Along to Get Along
To join the LDS church people must affirm certain beliefs (e.g., belief in God, belief in Christ, belief in the LDS church as the Restoration of God’s true church, etc.), but holding on to those beliefs is not necessary for retaining church membership. This was made clear in the excommunication of life-long Mormon Lyndon Lamborn 15 years ago.
Mr. Lamborn had lost his faith in Mormonism and was called to a church Disciplinary Council meeting. James Molina, the Stake President who presided over the meeting, explained that the problem wasn’t that Mr. Lamborn had ceased to believe in Mormonism. “It is one thing for you to believe, you are certainly welcome to believe what you would like,” Mr. Molina said. But the necessity for church discipline arose when Mr. Lamborn talked to others about what he believed (or perhaps what he didn’t believe).
If he had kept his concerns to himself, he would have been welcome to remain an active LDS member regardless of whether he believed in Mormonism, or even whether he believed in Christ. If he chose to attend his meetings, fulfil his church callings, and pay his tithing, he could remain a member in good standing and continue to enjoy the community found within the church.5
This is how a number of Latter-day Saints today approach their church membership. They don’t believe, but they choose to stay and fulfill the obligations of membership anyway. This keeps peace in their LDS families. It keeps peace among LDS friends and co-workers. It keeps peace with their LDS spouses who mistakenly think their successful temple marriages will grant them eternal celestial glory.
These unbelieving Mormons stay in the church to keep peace. They go along to get along. But this fleeting peace they might achieve is no substitute for the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Mormonism, with its merit-based doctrines of eternal life that require endless effort to win God’s favour, has poisoned the well of faith for Latter-day Saints. Those who no longer believe have had enough. Privately, they may want nothing to do with God and what they see as His enticing but never attainable, a carrot-on-a-stick promise for eternity. Publicly, they are willing to feign faith while embracing a purely cultural Mormonism in order to maintain the status quo. They are willing to live a lie.
Faith Not Ritual
What I would like Mormons to know – both believing and unbelieving – is that Jesus came to upset the apple cart of ritualistic merit-based religion. He didn’t come emphasizing the right performance of rituals; He came emphasizing truth.
Jesus said that if we know Him, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32). He said the work of God is to believe in Jesus (John 6:29). He said whoever believes has eternal life (John 6:47). He freely offers an amazing gift to those who trust in Him (Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus spoke the language of faith, not ritual; of truth, not deceit; of peace, not dissonance.
What I would like Mormons to know is that taking Jesus at His word — believing that He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6) — will set them free from the empty ritual and endless striving of Mormonism. Jesus will give you peace – lasting and eternal peace with God, and deep peace in your soul.
May this truth woo both cultural and true-believing Mormons to the biblical Jesus Christ, that they may then live authentic lives grounded in true and saving faith in the One whose yolk is easy and whose burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
Sharon Lindbloom has loved and served the Lord Jesus Christ since 1979. Though never a Mormon, Sharon’s interest in Mormonism — and her great love for the Mormon people — began in 1987 when a family member started investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This led Sharon to study Mormonism through reading the Mormon scriptures as well as the writings of LDS prophets and apostles. Sharon’s research led her to become the director of a Minnesota-based outreach ministry to Mormons. She served in this capacity for 18 years before joining the staff of Mormonism Research Ministry as the moderator of MRM’s blogsite, Mormon Coffee. In 2016 MRM traded Mormon Coffee for Sharon’s regular website feature, Mormonism in the News. She continues to serve prayerfully with MRM as a full-time volunteer lay-apologist.
- Andy Larsen’s Salt Lake Tribune article:
2. The Cumorah Foundation June Newsletter: https://ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com/2022/07/june-2022-newsletter.html
3. Gordon Monson: If you’re faking your Latter-day Saint faith … why?:
4. Matthew Bowman: Why religion is about more than belief — a defense of cultural Mormonism:
5. Info on Lyndon Lamborn excommunication:
Church Newsroom April 2022 statistical report:
https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/2021-statistical-report-april-2022-conference growth statistics april 2022
Salt Lake Tribune growth rate analysis May 2022: