Tapping into the genius of youth in a church run by old men by Chris Jones

guest Mormon 33 Comments

Chris Jones is a 6th generation Mormon and graduate of Brigham Young University where he studied journalism.  He served a mission in the Sweden Stockholm Mission from 2001-2003.  He is currently living in Valparaíso, Chile and will begin a JD/MA program in law and economics at Duke University in the fall of 2010.

Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Joseph Smith and Jesus.  I suspect this would make for an entertaining dinner party to say the least.  This may sound like a strange collection of ancient and modern figures, but they all have one important characteristic in common.  Their most important achievements happened while they were still young men. 

Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists,” claims author Jonah Lehrer in a Wall Street Journal article from February 19, 2010.  “Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26…At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.”

Lehrer then goes on to make a convincing argument that a dearth of young scientists today presents a problem for innovative breakthroughs in the fields of physics and chemistry.  He based his February article on multiple studies over the past few years on cognitive development.

“Why are young physicists and poets more creative?,” asked Lehrer in the article.  “Mr. Simonton

About the Author

guest

argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise. Because they haven’t become ‘encultured,’ or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more willing to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, however, ‘creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old,’ Mr. Simonton says.”

While Lehrer, Simonton, and the other researchers focus on the implications of youth and creativity in scientific inquiry, this phenomenon has relevance for religion as well.

Take the case of Jesus.  In my hypothetical dinner group, Jesus is the old man.  The gospels report that at about 30 years of age, Jesus began his public ministry.  The pearls he left behind have transformed the world and maintain their power nearly two thousand years later.

Joseph Smith provides another example of creativity of youth in a Mormon context.  By the age of 25, Joseph had already presented the world with a new book of scripture and founded a new church that would see unparalleled growth and perseverance throughout the nineteeth century.  It is perhaps even more remarkable given the many other religious movements of the age that would flame out as quickly as they started.

And it wasn’t just Joseph.  The roots of Mormonism were planted by a group of young and vibrant men.  In 1835, just five years after Joseph’s church began, he called the 1st Quorum of the 12 apostles to join his first presidency.  Those 16 men (Oliver Cowdrey was the 4th member in the Presidency as Assistant President) had an average age of 30 years old.  Compare that to the current group of leadership in the LDS church, which has an average age of 74.5 years.

Certainly times have changed.  I’m confident many members of the church would feel some trepidation knowing that there was a group of 23 year olds to watch over and guide the church.  Yet there were four such young men in 1835, including Orson Pratt.  It is hard to argue against the influence Pratt had over the theological direction of the early church.

I am also confident that the success of Joseph Smith and his young church came in part because of the youthful energy that overflowed from the small group of Saints.  Joseph was unencumbered by conventional wisdom and willing to rebel against the status quo. The young Prophet was brimming with creativity, novelty, and surprise.

What does this mean for the current church?  This isn’t a call for a for a wholesale revolution of the church’s leadership, but I am making the case for an infusion of youth and creativity.  Church growth in many areas of the world is stagnant or declining.  Activity levels hover around 40 percent.  There is a real crisis that the leadership needs to address for the LDS church to be a robust institution in the decades to come.  While the youth often provide valuable service as missionaries, their skills often go underutilized through their twenties.  I am confident that by enlisting the church’s young minds, challenges with retention could be addressed more effectively.  These innovative thinkers could open new doors as well as the church focuses more attention on the fourth pillar of its mission: caring for the poor and needy.

It is often said that the rising generation is the greatest generation the LDS church has ever seen.  It’s time for them to rise to the challenge and show the world why that is true.

Comments

comments

Comments 33

  1. “Mr. Simonton [author of one of the studies cited] argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise.”

    There’s a lot of truth to this. Even withen physicists communities physicists joke that theorists are ineffective when they are older because they “know to much”. (Conventional wisdom.) And joking aside, there is some evidence only the young and naive make the important discoveries: http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/cms/?pid=1000212#2.

    Physicists over the age of 40 often are done in terms of coming up with groundbreaking ideas. Or as you say “Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists”.

  2. Members generally view favorably Joseph Smith’s youthfulness as a prophet. It was necessary, we say, for God to use a boy, because more mature churchmen of the time had their heads and hearts full of the “learning of man,” making them unfit and unable to receive the new revelation.

    However, when Mike Wallace from 60 minutes brought up the charge, “There are those who say this is a gerontocracy. This is a church run by old men,” President Hinckley responded, “Isn’t it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment who isn’t ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine?’

  3. Yeah, I tend to agree with James, and I think it is symptomatic of the cultural shift. Frankly, Mormonism, IMHO, couldn’t handle another Joseph Smith. We are not the revolutionary, rebellious, new church we were in the 1800’s. We are a conservative, stalwart, anchor-like church. Perhaps this is due to the “gerontocracy.” In any case, while I like what the author is promoting, I’m not convinced it will happen anytime soon.

    However, another idea is to infuse the leadership with different kinds of people, albeit still aged ones. Many of the leaders are businessmen, or administrators. Perhaps getting some engineers, scientists, artists, etc. in there would shake things up.

  4. Chris, it sounds like your real problem is with lifetime tenure of senior LDS leaders. Similar “gerontocracy” issues are evident in other lifetime tenure institutions, such as the US Supreme Court. But even if appointments were for a fixed term rather than for life, I really don’t see 30-year-old apostles in the mix. You don’t need 30-year-olds in office to get a different approach to church governance, you just need individuals who take a different view of church governance.

  5. I think the biggest problem isn’t necessarily age – it is a philosophy of supporting the status quo at all costs. The classic example is only teaching things that are faith-promoting and not all things that are true. The people who have bought into this get promoted by the other people who have bought into this, making a self-selecting group of leaders.

    I do think the Church needs to do something radical, and soon. The whole “young generation” are leaving in droves. The YSA activity rate on the Wasatch front, putatively the “bastion” of the Church, is down around 20%. This isn’t good, but the current policies (not doctrine) are driving people out.

  6. The thought of this idea gets me excited. Maybe there could be some kind of “committee” set up in stakes & such formed by these younger & more innovative types to relay messages & needs of this generation out there. Imagine the difference (good or not so good) it could make to take in some new voices & perspectives? Wow!

  7. I doubt very much you will see any change in the hierarchy soon. The way church leadership operates — especially choosing a president — is the “sacred custom” of elevating the senior apostle to that post. That has worked extraordinarily well, giving us 160 years or so of trouble-free transition from president to president to president. However, it does mean that we will have a church run by a gerontocracy for the forseeable future. I can’t say whether our aged leadership is the reason, but I too have noticed a distinct lack of vitality in the church with many good people just drifting away. We hear the same talks on the same subjects year after year; we don’t get inspiration in our classes, we get indoctrination. There is, in short, very little to get excited about. Would that it were not so….

  8. There seems to be thinking that the older guys at HQ have the greatest impact on activity in the Church. I would maintain that local leadership is the main drivers as well as families. And they tend to be younger than the GAs.

    So, it is really inherant in the local leadership to be concerned about what is happeninging locally to their membership and in particular, the young people.

    I would maintain that the world had many of our young people by the throat and they are being led astray. They are going very willingly because the world is much more exciting than the Church and our current over-stumulated generation can’t handle it. The Church need a video game.

  9. #8: “The Church needs a video game.”

    First-person shooter (how ’bout “Wheat,” echoing Porter Rockwell’s supposed war-cry? Nice echo of “Doom,” itself created by a nice Mormon boy!) or god-game like SimCity?

    I vote the latter (“SimZion”?), but then I’m probably not the target demographic.

  10. I agree that the local leadership has the most direct influence, but they are somewhat hamstrung by policy. Simple example: among young people, tattoos are extremely common. It is a very generational thing. A local leader may not honestly care about whether someone has a tattoo. But because of a talk where President Hinckley said he didn’t really like tattoos, this has been elevated to near doctrinal status. So, while the young person has likely never met President Hinckley, because of the hierarchal model and strict obedience required to those “above” you, the older guys at HQ definitely DO have a great impact.

  11. As one who serves within the Young Mens’ program I certainly feel positive about the rising generation and feel that the Church will be in good hands.

    It appears to me that the Lord gives those in their twenties a period to focus on building a family and career rather than the Kingdom (although a good family and career do a lot for the the Church).

    I also have witnessed that who the Lord calls, he qualifies both spiritually and physically. I know that I would struggle to keep up with the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve!

    David

  12. Mike S.

    “But because of a talk where President Hinckley said he didn’t really like tattoos, this has been elevated to near doctrinal status.”

    Doctrinal status? Really. is it a Temple recommend question? Does it get asked in a Priesthood advancement or calling interview? Is it a requirement for baptism not to have any tattoo? Has it been added to scripture? No to all of those.

    It was an opinion. A good opinion, I think, but that’s it.

  13. I mentioned “near doctrinal status”. When Elder Bednar gives a talk in a following General Conference about a young person who broke off their engagement because the person wouldn’t take out an earring – all based on President Hickley’s opinion about how many earrings or tattoos someone has, I would say that is being elevated to “near doctrinal” status. Technically, we haven’t changed our “doctrine” – meaning canonized scripture – very much since Joseph Smith’s day.

    But on a practical basis, I would say that yes, tattoos and earrings have been de facto elevated to a NEAR doctrinal status in the Church.

  14. 13 Mike S
    “When Elder Bednar gives a talk in a following General Conference about a young person who broke off their engagement because the person wouldn’t take out an earring. ”

    Elder Bednar must look back and squirm at some of the things he has said. I would like to think he isn’t purposely promoting shallowness but he should’nt put so much emphasis on something so very silly.

    Elder Bednar – on Thomas B Marsh http://mormonstories.org/?p=258 another very poor object lesson he has promoted.

  15. I wanted to respond to Dave’s comment about lifetime tenure of senior LDS leaders.

    I actually do have concerns about lifetime tenure (both in the church and in the SCOTUS), but that’s tangential to the thrust of my argument. I don’t think the church necessarily needs young people in the Qof12. But young people, both men and women, need to have access to the top. I bet you could go through any student/young family ward along the wasatch front (or any other region) and get hundreds of really good ideas about how to improve the church experience. That could cover curriculum, welfare services, missions, meeting structure, etc. Right now, there is ZERO incentive for innovative thinking. Conformity to established policy is all that matters in terms of organizational effectiveness, and that is true at the local level. An innovative Bishop can only do so much within the confines of the current structure. A creative missionary probably won’t try to step too far outside the box to think of new ways to serve.

    We live in an innovative world. A few examples from Google could illustrate this. Google employees can invest 20% of their time to any project they want. Anything. Some really good ideas have come out of that. Google also invests a lot of capital into buying start-ups and seeing how to incorporate the new technologies. They put out so much effort to remain relevant and groundbreaking. The result is a fantastic web experience for anyone who uses their products and services.

  16. I agree with Chris (#15) I don’t think there’s much incentive for innovation, but there’s plenty of incentive for conformity. The church is structured in a way that promotes this. Many members believe the Qof12 and FP speak directly with God. I’m guessing most of the people that the 12 and FP counsel with are faithful and active members and other GA’s who are essentially “yes” men because why would you propose an alternative way of looking at issues. It’s way too top down. IMO, revelation should be a process of consulting with people with various and assorted points of view that both support and are against my point of view. Then it’s up to me to sort through all of it to see what feels right to me. I think revelation needs to be a combination of top down and bottom up.

  17. Chris
    “Conformity to established policy is all that matters in terms of organizational effectiveness”

    Inspiration comes only from the wise and conservative gerontocracy not rank and file!!

  18. I tend to think the gerontocracy creates a few problems, mostly because there is a generation gap in a few key areas: feelings about authority, black & white thinking, reliance on technology, the role of women, less social conservativism, feelings about diversity. The other issues that are complicit are related to groupthink (as described above – rewarding conformity), unanimous decision making required which favors status quo, focus on obedience, and the correlation committee. All of these are similar in that they promote status quo and outdated modes of thinking. There’s a difference between what is timeless and what is outdated. But I would say that many of the Q15 do get it. A few do not. Because of unanimous decision making, that means the status quo will prevail. And the status quo is in some areas inadequate to the challenges of today.

  19. #18 Jake: Reason #43 on the list of “Why I Am Glad I Am Not A Liberal” is that I don’t have to be on the same side as the sack of lying slime who wrote that article.

    Yes, I have to put up with being nominally allied with the odd Christian militia in the Michigan backwoods, but at least my side keeps them safely hidden away in the attic. They don’t get opinion columns in major newspapers.

    Just one gem:

    “When Benedict dies, he will have the pleasure of standing before whatever furious God he believes in, to answer for how it was that he knew for undeniable fact that one — if not dozens — of his priests repeatedly molested, abused and/or raped young children for decades, and he did nothing to stop it.”

    Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, did nothing to “stop” Father Murphy, because by the time his crimes came to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed by Ratzinger), there was nothing to stop: Murphy was a dying old man, and the only question was whether he would be laicized for his earlier acts of abuse. Ratzinger’s deputy let him die a priest. Not the call I would have made (I think I would have been reviewing canon law for any precedent for reinstituting burnings at the stake), but absolutely, completely 180 degrees different from what that Morford schmuck said. What a colossal liar.

  20. 18 Jake = Interesting Thoughts

    Let us instead deliver one overarching message to all these old men of pain and confusion. It is this: The next generation, a generation of mixed breeds and gay parents and Facebook transparency, a generation that’s been exposed to more variations of love and relationship, more fluid notions of gender and identity than any generation in history, this generation, simply put, does not care about you.

    We have but to momentarily recall the voting demographics of Prop 8. The matrix was simple enough: the older the voter, the higher likelihood they would harbor extant homophobia and inbred generational bias, and the more likely they would be duped into voting for Prop 8.

    Conversely, the under-30 set was effortlessly, fearlessly against the insidious proposition by such a huge majority, it was shockingly clear it’s all just a matter of time until the culture shifts again, for the better.

    Translation: To the old, powerful men of the various churches and archaic institutions, to those that hold us back and demean the spirit in a thousands different ways, the message is clear enough: You will be gone very soon, right along with much of the enormous black cloud of fear and joylessness you carry.

    And the world, it’s safe to say, will only be the better for it.

  21. James,

    “the older the voter, the higher likelihood they would harbor extant homophobia and inbred generational bias, and the more likely they would be duped into voting for Prop 8.”

    I’m afraid you can’t paint with such a broad brush and accuse older folks of those things. For some it is absolutely true, for others, just an attempt at expressing their own values which may not reflect any negative view of Gay people per se. And duped? No more than those voting yes were duped into thinking it was an answer to anything really.

    “And the world, it’s safe to say, will only be the better for it.”

    That certainly remains to be seen. i am not quite ready to fully buy into that based on what I see of those younger folks.

  22. To add to Jeff’s comment with a twist, I’ll take an old conservative over a young zealot any day. The old conservative will be tempered and tired. But the young fanatic still believes he can set the world on fire. It all boils down to whether I want the world set on fire or not. I don’t like powerful idealists whose ideals are bad.

  23. Re: #18, this Gen-X whippersnapper is not inclined to take seriously the division of people into smiley happy rainbow unicorn riders vs. dour old men carrying enormous black clouds of fear and joylessness, from a person who is demonstrably a lying sack of digestive byproducts.

    Also, the notion that all we have to do, in order to secure a sexual utopia where consent is the only measure of morality, is wait for the older generation to die off and leave the field to the enlightened twentysomethings. But that of course implies that the young people will never grow up, and get sufficiently smarter in the process to see how much of social progressivism is based on mere emotion and deliberately unthorough thought.

  24. This is a great topic. I find it interesting that many Bishops being called are of a younger age. However as Mike put it in #10, they are hamstrung (and hogtied) as to what they can do. If the church were to let some of these young Bishops cut loose in certain aspects of their callings…say youth programs..I think they would find some wonderfully innovative and inspired practices.

    Dave says “whom the Lord calls He qualifies” apparently that only works at a higher level. Those lower must be held on a tight leash.

    The church is in need of changing its approach to its members as a whole (especially the youth). Communication is higher between members than ever before. Members also have more access to outside information. This is an issue for the church. Rhetoric from HQ in the form of church policy on child abuse, prop 8 etc. that is not supported by the actions of the church leaves the church looking like very un-church like.

  25. “Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Joseph Smith and Jesus. I suspect this would make for an entertaining dinner party to say the least.”

    Yeah, Newton drops his apple, Einstein says its a relative fall, Joseph Smith claims to he saw a vision of the falling apple and Jesus says ‘I told you not to eat them apples…?

    Obviously I have nothing better to do tonight!

  26. Hawkgrrl #23: I’m getting older myself, but I’d love to see some younger Mormons setting the world on fire! What an exciting idea.
    Chris #15 mentioned the incentives available to Google employees, and I was just wondering what that might look like in the Church. How could innovation be rewarded/encouraged on the local level?

  27. RE: James #21

    “Let us instead deliver one overarching message to all these old men of pain and confusion. It is this: The next generation, a generation of mixed breeds and gay parents and Facebook transparency, a generation that’s been exposed to more variations of love and relationship, more fluid notions of gender and identity than any generation in history, this generation, simply put, does not care about you.’

    As someone who’s old enough to regularly get medicare adds, offers for hearing aids and information about cremation services, let me ask you something. Just what is it that you’ve done? What difference have you made? What is better because you’re here? People in my generation can answer those questions. Some things worked out and some didn’t but we’ve owned up to our mistakes and tried as we’ve been able to do things better not just for ourselves but for you, my young friend. And in case I missed something we’re all in this together so in case you want to engage in a generational conflict you’ll lose, step back, take a breath and tone it down.

  28. #27 Bored in Vernal

    Excuse me for using another tech analogy to illustrate how local level leaders can innovate. Apple’s App store has been incredibly successful. They are essentially outsourcing programing to third parties. Yes, there are a number of ground rules (no porn in the App store), but there is broad freedom to create, and there is more being created than the folks at Apple would have the resources for.

    Think of a ward like an App, where a Bishop/RS Pres/etc. have the freedom to tailor the church experience. Whether that means teaming up with other congregations in new ways to promote poverty programs or integrating scouting with other troops or giving teachers the means to teach things that matter to the youth. To revert back to my Google analogy, give the wards freedom (their “20%” to try new things).

    If something works in a ward in Seattle, that can be reported UP the chain and other areas could try it.

  29. “The old conservative will be tempered and tired. But the young fanatic still believes he can set the world on fire.”

    I guess that is the downside of having young men leading the church they could make it more fanatical than before!! I do get tired of young EQ presidents Ward Mission leader, Activity Presidents that are out to make a name for them selves,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *