As Mormonism rounded the bend of the early 20th century, children who had not known Joseph Smith or experienced the pioneer trek came to adulthood—and many of them began leaving the church, earning for themselves the nickname “the lost generation.” These were people who didn’t experience the miracles of early Mormonism, nor did they understand their parents’ testimonies against the gritty reality of the industrial age. The old shoe didn’t fit.
One hundred years later, a second “lost generation” is emerging, a group for whom the feel-good narratives of the past conflict with the transparency of the internet age. To the first generation of lost children, their parents and church leaders probably seemed like zealots who lacked an understanding of a changing world. But to this generation, the conflict between the narrative they grew up with and the scholarship which contradicts it leaves many thinking their parents are fools and Church leaders, liars. To complicate matters, this lost generation is accused of experiencing a crisis of faith, even though it was their faith that brought them to study. To me, what they experience looks more like a crisis of trust.
There’s an important difference between a faith crisis and a trust crisis. A crisis of faith faults this new lost generation with a lack of willing belief; a crisis of trust shifts the onus from the disaffected to those who severed the trust. It calls the trust-breaker to repentance, rather than shames the person experiencing crisis.
I know about trust crisis. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gone topsy-turvy. Where once I was encouraged to pursue light no matter where it’s found, I’m now cast as disobeying a modern prophet because I won’t forsake my decades long interest in Mormon history. Over the weekend, President Dallin H. Oaks, while speaking to young married couples in Chicago, advocated against the kinds of study for which the School of the Prophets was created, telling attendees to stick to prayer and scripture.
I’m all for prayer and scripture and, as he recommends, pursuing a testimony of Jesus ahead of a testimony of the Church. But he makes an assumptive connection between those two things, one that suggests infallibility of the Church. Of course, Church leaders admit their fallibility, but that doesn’t stop people like me from being cast out of the Approved Class of Latter-day Saints for noticing it. I remain an active member, despite my trust crisis, because of a lesson learned when, as a young mother, I cared for another woman’s children.
As is common, a friend and I regularly swapped babysitting so each of us could run errands without them. My friend’s four-year-old daughter experienced severe anxiety when her mother left. Time after time, I’d hush her, tell her not to worry, her mother would return. Even so, the little bugger would cry the entire time her mother was absent.
Then I changed my approach. When her mother left and the child’s tears began, I listened to her cry and then said, “You’re so sad and I don’t blame you. Your mother left you so she could do things without you. That’s hard. If I were you, I’d be just as sad.”
The child’s breath caught, she stared at me for a couple beats, and burst into an anguished howl like none I’d ever heard. I thought I’d really messed up.
But a minute or two later, her arms were around me. Her tears soon cleared, and, for the first time, she willingly joined the other children. I repeated this each week her until her anxiety was replaced with trust in me and forgiveness of her mother.
Obviously, a caretaker/child analogy is flawed when applied to the Church and its adult members, but this event taught me the effectiveness of compassionate listening, acknowledgement, and validation when applied to those suffering emotional trauma. Human nature remains ageless, and so I offer it as a better guideline for retention than President Oaks’ “don’t look” strategy.
My point is, people experiencing a crisis of trust have legitimate complaints and understandable anxiety and anger. Telling them not to worry because God will work it out, or to avoid study not sanctioned by the Church, or to have faith that the Brethren won’t lead them astray—the very people they see as betraying them—will never resolve the tension. The covenant path must be, above all else, honorable and forthright. This requires transparency and accountability, particularly without concern for the Church coffers or fear of apology.
If the Brethren want to stop the bleeding, they can, though this new lost generation may emit a howl like none else when their suffering is validated, a shriek that lasts longer than is comfortable for the hierarchy. But this is the top leadership’s only hope of forging renewed confidence with those in a crisis of trust, as well as with the broader society. If they cannot find their way to this, I fear I may have attributed the moniker of “lost generation” to the wrong demographic and for reasons no Latter-day Saint finds pleasure in suggesting.
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For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12: 2, 3)
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