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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
A group of Utah millennials pose for a photo.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gentle, soothing piano and violin notes softly cascade from her iPhone at 4:30 a.m., lancing the dark stillness of a St. Louis suburb and rousing one of the youngest millennial members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Zoe Thatcher, 22, sighs and rolls over. She is tired, groggy and minutes from the start of 6,000 yards of swim practice that are part of her quest to qualify for her second U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020. She taps the screen of her phone to silence "Heartbeat," a slice of the score from one of her generation's favorite anime movies, "Howl's Moving Castle."

She has left herself no time to waste, so she sits straight up. In fact, she has slept in today, stealing just an extra minute or two of sleep. Instead of dressing she slips right into her swimsuit, grabs a soft-baked Nature Valley oatmeal square and walks out into the cool, humid morning to her alien-green Kia Soul.

Wade Rackley, Auburn Athletics
Auburn University swimmer Zoe Thatcher competes against Texas on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, in Auburn, Ala.

Inside the car, Thatcher collects herself, pauses and prays. Prayer is a daily practice for her and 65 percent of self-identified Latter-day Saint millennials. Afterward, she tears open the wrapper on her oatmeal square, and the smell of honey drifts through the car. She drives and eats, fueling up for practice. Today, like every other weekday, Thatcher will sandwich two elite swim practices around her new full-time job as an assistant designer at a dance costume company.

Lazy? Entitled? The stereotypes offend her — and everyone else between the ages of 22 and 37. The Pew Research Center defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996, like her. Other demographers say she is part of the next generation. If that sounds like a complicated place to live, the story of Latter-day Saint millennials is more so. Are they devout, among the best their faith has ever seen? Or does a significant percentage of them struggle, creating lower retention rates for the church than previous generations?

Courtesy Zoe Thatcher
Zoe Thatcher, 22, poses with her Latter-day Saint Institute teacher, Mark Beesley, and his wife Carrie, at an Auburn University swim meet.

The answer is both are true.

What is happening and why? How can older generations build bridges to millennials and better connect them to the church? And why is the church's new book on its early history — "Saints" — an opportunity for everyone to better understand today's millennials?

Feeling judged

The modern Latter-day Saint millennial is far more diverse than past generations.

In fact, in 1980, 65 percent of Latter-day Saint young people ages 18-34 lived in the United States. Today, just 38 percent do, according to statistics supplied by the church. Many cultural and generational forces are similar for many millennial-aged Latter-day Saints beyond U.S. borders, but some are very different.

In Kenya, for example, where faith is pervasive and the church and the entire population are very young, most Latter-day Saint bishops are in their 20s and 30s.

Elisa Tittle
Jason Carroll, a BYU professor of marriage and family studies, is an expert on the school's team for Project READY — Researching Emerging Adults' Developmental Years.

Young European members, on the other hand, have a front-row seat to a rapid increase in millennial-aged people who report no religious affiliation — similar to what their American counterparts experience.

"Latter-day Saint millennials have to deal with and are experiencing what it means to be a religious minority," said Jason Carroll, a member of the BYU team on Project READY — Researching Emerging Adults' Developmental Years. "Society labels them as intolerant, even though they are tolerant and charitable. They're confronting what generations in the church before them haven't, when societal standards were more similar to theirs."

On the one hand, there's no question active American Latter-day Saint millennials are strong in number and devotion.

For example, the 600,000 millennials who have served church missions represent an outsized number — 40 percent — of all the missionaries who have served since 1830, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve said during a Face-to-Face event last month.

"They're believers, and they are practicing their faith, but it's not going to look exactly the same as it does for older Mormons," said Jana Riess. She is the author of "The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church," which Oxford will publish in the spring.

On the other hand, the church retention rate for previous generations was higher. The retention rate for Latter-day Saints born after 1970 is 61 percent, down from 71 percent for those born before 1970, according to Darren Sherkat, who derived the data from General Social Survey results between 1972-2012.

Courtesy Jana Riess
Neylan McBaine, Fiona Givens, Margaret Blair Young and Jana Riess pose together after speaking at the Colorado Faith Forums event in Denver in September 2017.

Riess conducted the Next Mormon Survey that is the core of her upcoming book in October 2016. It shows the retention rate for millennials dropping. Her survey, conducted with Benjamin Knoll, asked a sample of those who had left the church what precipitated their decisions.

The top reason was that they felt judged or misunderstood. Women said this twice as much as men, Riess said.

Judgment and misunderstanding can happen naturally as millennials in the Information Age balance the world with their beliefs and try to talk about it with older Latter-day Saints, said Taylor Christensen, 25, a returned missionary and recent Utah Valley University graduate who lives in Orem.

"Sometimes the way we talk about things in the church can appear very black and white," he said. "The more common response among millennials is to look at a question or a piece of history and evaluate it. Sometimes when we vocalize that, we feel judged. We feel people are judging us for questioning our testimonies or the church, even though we aren't. We are looking for truth."

Remarkable power

Church leaders at all levels know firsthand the strengths of millennials in the church. They seek to be "intensely informed" about their challenges, President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency told married young adult members in Los Angeles in August.

Courtesy Robert Ferrell
Robert Ferrell, a self-described advocate for millennials who served for 10 years as a Young Single Adult stake president and bishop, conducted 8,000 interviews with Latter-day Saint millennials and annually shares the lessons he has learned during BYU's Education Week.

[Robert Ferrell](https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-ferrell-4393a1102/) and Richard Ostler haven't met, but each spent years serving as Young Single Adult adult leaders. Today, despite being released from their callings, they consider themselves millennial advocates. Each is engaged in personal ministry to large numbers of millennials — and to the older Latter-day Saints sometimes baffled by them.

In a generation known for rejecting authority and institutions, Riess said her research showed Latter-day Saint young adults have remarkably strong connections to local leaders.

"They have very close relationships with their bishops, and positive ones," she said. "The grassroots local level is a very interesting place to be when reaching millennials. I think that's where it has to happen."

Ferrell has taught a weeklong class on millennials at BYU Education Week the past two years. Ostler hosts events and has a podcast that address complicated issues openly and faithfully, including building bridges to young LGBT Latter-day Saints. Both men hope to reach across generations to harness strengths noted by President Henry B. Eyring in January:

Courtesy Richard Ostler
Richard Ostler, known as Papa Ostler, is a former Young Single Adult bishop who hosts the Listen, Learn and Love podcast and works to build bridges to millennial and LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.

"There's a power coming in this millennial generation that is in fact remarkable," he said at the press conference introducing the church's new First Presidency. "I thought I had faith when I was 18, but I'm seeing some 18-year-olds now and some 20-year-olds and 25 that have a rock-solid faith, a love of the Lord and are willing to do everything they can to serve him and each other, other people. I think it's the best of times of the millennials. I know there's a lot of folks who like to talk the other way: 'How are we going to hold onto them?' I think the thing is, how can we hold onto them and not be left behind from what I've seen among millennials that I spend time with."

Ferrell, a dental surgeon who spent 10 years as a Young Single Adult stake president and bishop and estimates he conducted 8,000 interviews with millennials in the North Ogden area, said misunderstandings develop when older Latter-day Saints misdiagnose the issue.

"We're so achievement-driven instead of outcome-driven," Ferrell said. "We think if we can just send them on missions, get them married, they'll be fine. We have to connect them to Jesus Christ. If we connect them to Jesus Christ, the rest will take care of itself."

So, what does that look like?

Millennial connection

Courtesy Taylor Christensen
Taylor Christensen, a returned Latter-day Saint missionary, said listening and understanding is the key to helping the church's millennials avoid feeling judged and misunderstood, the top reason people their age leave the faith.

A couple of years ago, Christensen grew tired of a fusillade of negative comments about the church posted on social media by one of his former high school classmates.

He struck back. A "huge Internet quarrel" broke out, and Christensen realized he'd made a mistake. He reached out to the man and they began to talk.

"I decided I'd really try to understand," Christensen said. "I started listening and realized he wanted to talk about valid issues. Over the next few months as we talked and I listened and became more understanding, I saw his tone go from someone bashing the church to someone who actually became more understanding as well."

Active listening is key. Ostler said he conducted an estimated 3,000 interviews as bishop of a West Valley/Magna area YSA ward by sitting on the same side of the desk as those he interviewed. But both he and Ferrell said there is another nuance to their suggestion:

"I listened without trying to turn it to my expertise or knowledge, without trying to fix it as they shared their thoughts," Ostler said. "I wrote down impressions, but I wouldn't share them until they were done or even later."

That can be crucial for any Latter-day Saint millennial, devout or not.

Courtesy Briana Fisher
Briana Lindsay Fisher, an active Latter-day Saint mother in American Fork, Utah, who said she often felt misunderstood and judged growing up as a millennial, poses with her husband Tyler Fisher at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Briana Lindsay Fisher, 25, a young mother in American Fork, said she struggled in some wards because she wanted to talk about how something would affect her or the women in the ward. Instead of listening, she said, others stereotyped her as "the raving feminist who was trying to change the church."

"I felt belittled," she said. "It was difficult to express my thoughts that may not have been the standard and not feel judged."

She said one bishop told me he didn't know what to do with her.

"It was so dismissive and hurtful that I actually switched wards," she said. "I didn't want to be secondary, but it was difficult to voice my opinion. You feel alone for having those thoughts. You wonder, are you wayward?"

Ostler said one way for older Latter-day Saints to avoid creating the frustration Fisher experienced is to accept that there is much to learn about the world from their perspective. Ferrell suggested seeking to inspire rather than shame.

Nobody expects the issues to get easier.

"As the values, standards and doctrines of the church become increasingly at odds with the secular society," said Carroll, the BYU researcher, "the rising generation of Latter-day Saints gets told by the world, 'You're not very tolerant, you're not very accepting,' and that's really tough to be for this generation, to be seen as intolerant. They're a very compassionate generation. They love the gospel of mercy. They see struggles and respond to them with a lot of compassion and mercy."

President Oaks discussed the same difficulties in August.

The married millennial demographic in the church, he said, faces "what must seem to be insurmountable obstacles. You are raising children in an environment with overwhelming information and attitudes that are hostile to the mission and teachings of the church."

He said young adult Latter-day Saints face challenges in their personal relations "such as marriage, childbearing, adoption, child-rearing, challenges to faith such as questions about church history, same-gender attraction, transgender issues, etc."

Marriage and education

The percentage of single church members rose from 7 percent a decade ago to 18 percent, according to national studies from the Pew Research Center.

Research also shows that the median age at first marriage for young adults in Utah has steadily increased during the past decade — from 22.1 in 2005 to 24.3 in 2015, according to the Gardner Business Review, which assessed marriage and fertility rates.

Courtesy Zoe Thatcher
The Auburn Plains Branch turns out to support Zoe Thatcher before a swim meet.

That's obvious to Fisher. Most in her circle of friends are not married. Some say they feel judged when they attend family wards and get asked about dating or marriage.

"By the time I turned 20, I had relatives and people in wards asking, 'Are you dating anyone? Is it serious? Do you think you'll get married?'" Fisher said.

An older marriage age is also contributing to the growth in young adult wards. In 1983 there were 156 wards dedicated to young adults. By 2018 the number had grown to 1,696, according to church figures. That's led to a healthy debate among young adults about whether to attend the young adult wards or the traditional "family" wards. Even the name family ward can lead to misunderstanding or feelings of exclusion.

Nationally, the median age for marriage is now cresting toward 30, Carroll said, as secular society perceives marriage and having a family as a transitional loss of freedom rather than a desired addition to life. Some millennials, he added, have turned young adulthood from a time to learn how to navigate individualism, preparation and maturity to a decadelong personal pursuit filled with secularism, materialism and in some cases, hedonism.

Some millennial church members worry about marriage because they were disappointed by their parents' marriage or that they should be educated, out of debt and fully mature before they marry.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
A group of Utah millennials pose for a photo.

Church leaders teach that marriage and family are the foundation of adult life, not the culmination, and that deep happiness can be in family life. The church did not comment for this story, but in January, President Oaks said marriage is a positive for millennials.

"The young men and the young women are stronger when they marry and when they are a companionship that the Lord has ordained and which it is our responsibility to teach," he said, "and they go forward, strengthening one another and in that capacity, many of the things that the world cites as problems with the millennials disappear."

President Oaks was single after the death of his first wife, then married Sister Kristen M. Oaks, who had been single into her 50s. In 2016, he told mid-singles they are important and loved and encouraged them to have faith in the Lord and his timing.

"Singles are such an important part of the church," he said.

Carroll said millennial Latter-day Saints can use a longer emerging adulthood well when they continue to prepare themselves spiritually, and their education and personal pursuits are rooted in preparing interdependence in marriage and family.

Courtesy Zoe Thatcher
The Auburn Plains Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathers for a photo in Alabama.

Church leaders also continue to counsel young adults to gain as much education as they can. They back it up with subsidized tuition at church schools, helping students graduate with less debt and form families earlier. The Church Educational System serves 450,000 young single adults ages 18 to 30 every calendar year in Institute programs and at five universities and colleges.

Women are responding at record rates.

"This is by far the most highly educated generation of women in church history," said Sam Sturgeon, director of research at Boncom. "That's not true of men. Boomer men are the most-educated generation of men. More men are going to school, but fewer men are graduating."

It is education and their life experiences as digital natives who grew up in a world of smartphones that make it important to talk through issues related to doubt, church history and LGBT policy, because millennial members will talk about them inside or outside of the church.

"This is the Information Age," said Christensen, who took two years on a deep dive to confront church history issues he saw discussed. "We will find the information, no matter what. We need to not be afraid of anything. I've felt a responsibility that when we come to understand something ourselves, to share that, because it provides another perspective out there to consider."

Young history

Joseph Smith was 24 years old the day The Church of Jesus Christ was organized in April 1830. By then he was a relatable figure for most people. His own major mistakes and failures left him feeling humiliated. Haters had tarred and feathered him. Even God had chastised him.

All around him, his fellow 20- and 30-somethings struggled. Many left the church. Others suffered unimaginable losses.

" One thing we sometimes forget is the early church was a church of young people. "
Matt Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department

But he and many of them also picked themselves up, pushed forward and built cities, cared for people on society's fringes and changed the world.

All of those feelings and experiences are on display in a new book from the church designed specifically for millennials. "Saints: The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846" is the first of a readable, four-volume history rich in personal stories. It's immediately clear that the first 20 years of church history is a story of adolescents and young adults struggling to learn to live the gospel and what is expected of them.

"One thing we sometimes forget is the early church was a church of young people," said Matt Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
A group of Utah millennials pose for a photo.

"And look what they did. If you look at your own life, how much did you change between 15 and 24, then 24 and 30 and 30 and 38? So Joseph is really developing and maturing. You can see these early years as this period of maturation, of being spiritually tutored by some pretty good tutors, and really becoming stronger, more spiritual throughout the course of his life."

The historians and narrative writers intentionally focused on portraying struggles and progress, Grow said.

"We don't want to leave someone like Joseph when he's 15. We want to see that growth over time. That's one of the reasons we try to focus on characters who recur. We want characters who can be in multiple scenes so we can see that growth.

" The Latter-day Saints of the past faced the same issues. We should be able to find some strength in their stories. "
Matt Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department

"We really hope the history can be inspiring, that people can identify with these characters. You never know who is going to identify with what character, right? So we want to have a broad range of experiences. We want people who struggle with family issues, people who struggle in their faith, people who suffer depression, the whole gamut of issues that we face as humans.

"The Latter-day Saints of the past faced the same issues. We should be able to find some strength in their stories."

Ferrell said part of his mentoring is to talk about failure with millennials.

"The failure in our lives is how we find and experience the mercy of Jesus Christ," he said. "We need to talk about how failure is part of life and leads to mercy and connection to the divine."

New horizon

Another encouraging sign among Latter-day Saint millennials is the growing number of returned missionary women. Thatcher watched her Auburn University branch grow stronger as women returned soon after the missionary age change, which caused the number of women serving missions to more than double.

Courtesy Zoe Thatcher
Zoe Thatcher, left, poses In front of the American flag with fellow Auburn University swimming teammate Bailey Nero.

"They knew what they were about," she said. "They said, 'Give me a calling, I've got this.' The branch is still small today, but we went from three to five kids my freshman year to 15 or 20 coming every week when I was a senior."

She graduated in the spring and moved from Alabama to St. Louis. She has to make a special effort to find time for scripture study because of her heavy schedule, which keeps her on the go from 4:30 a.m. until her second swim practice of the day ends at 7 p.m. She is in bed by 9 p.m. She cannot attend Institute, so she uses FaceTime to join her mother's seminary lessons for her sister back home in Ohio.

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She also attends church each Sunday. According to Riess' research, 9 in 10 self-identified Latter-day Saint millennials believe in God, and 82 percent feel God's presence each week.

After her 1-mile morning drive the other six days of the week, she arrives at Lindbergh High School, opens a side door and walks down a long, dimly lit stairwell to the basement pool. On this day, a Bon Jovi song blasts in the hallway. She warms up and puts on her goggles.

Wade Rackley, Auburn Athletics
Auburn University swimmer Zoe Thatcher competes at the SEC Championships on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in College Station, Texas.

Finally, Thatcher slips into the pool. As she begins to power her body through the first of today's 6,000 yards, her future stretches brightly before her.