First Third Conversations

Lessons in Faith Formation

This post was originally published on 7/12/2012

By Paul Cannon, MDIV CYF graduate of Luther Seminary

The LDS (Latter-Day Saints) church is often referred to as the quintessential American religion, and despite misgivings about the faith on the part of many mainline Protestant Christians (MP), the description is apt.  Regardless of how you feel about the beliefs, structure and mission of the Latter-Day Saints, their success is quite undeniable.  Though the LDS church is perhaps known best for their missionaries, wealth and rising political power, its true strength lies in its ability to pass on faith to its young people.

Measuring Faith Development

The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which attempted to measure faith development in adolescents across denominations and religions, consistently found Mormon youth to be at the top of various measures of faith development. 52% of Mormon adolescents reported that faith was important in helping shape major life decisions, compared to only 19% of MP youth reported likewise.  In addition, Mormon adolescents reported participating in faith disciplines (prayer, devotions, etc.) at much higher rates.  Not only did they score higher marks across various categories of faith development, but Mormon youth were generally far more articulate about their faith than their mainline Protestant counterparts.   The findings from the NSYR all point to a very basic truth about adolescent faith development among American teenagers: Mormons do it better.

How do they do it?

There are a number of practices that the LDS church participates in that contribute heavily to these numbers.  Three in particular stand out.  First, the LDS creates intentional space for their young people to be leaders in the church (and not leaders in name only).  They have opportunities to speak in front of the congregation, participate in committees and lead other youth.  The LDS church is also very intentional about locating key ministries outside of the church for their young people.  They focus this energy in the home and in schools (the two places where kids spend their most time).  And finally, the LDS church sends its young people (mostly the young men) out into mission in the world.  Such experiences prove to be formative times in the faith development of Mormon adolescents and a key reason why they have better success bringing their young people back to faith post high school.

How can we be true to our tradition while learning from another?

While it is true that there is a lot to be learned from the LDS church, that truth should come with a warning for Lutherans and all Christian denominations.  In the midst of finding new and different ways to impart consequential faith to its young people, the Lutheran church needs to be wary that it doesn’t lose itself.  As always, it must remain true to the Trinity as testified to by Paul, Martin Luther, and all the saints that have gone before us.  The church needs to remain authentically Lutheran as it adapts to new challenges posed by this post-modern era.  However, we also know that God works in and through the stranger—in and through people from a variety of faiths.  And if God is speaking to us in and through the LDS faith, then perhaps our best course of action would be to listen.

Read Paul's full paper:

See an interview with Paul:

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