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. Simontonargues 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.