SALT LAKE CITY — When Richard Ostler took over as bishop of a Young Single Adult ward near the start of this decade, he set out to learn as much as he could about the 18-to-30-year-old Latter-day Saints in the West Valley City and Magna areas.
He reached out through social media "to get them to talk to me and tell me their stories," he said.
At the same time, Robert Ferrell was serving as a YSA bishop and then stake president in the North Ogden area and launched his own investigation into how young Latter-day Saints interact with their faith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Both were concerned too many millennial members, those ages 22 to 37, according to the Pew Research Center, weren't actively engaged with the church. In their ministry, Ostler and Ferrell refused to accept that it had to be that way, not when 90 percent of Latter-day Saint millennials say they believe in God and 82 percent feel his presence each week, according to research by Jana Riess and Benjamin Knoll.
The biggest issue, Ostler and Ferrell said, is that Latter-day Saint millennials are misunderstood. After years of service, they offered 10 ways that older Latter-day Saints can connect with their younger counterparts.
Ostler's five suggestions:
1. Listen without trying to turn the conversation to your expertise.
Ostler said he conducted interviews by sitting on the same side of the desk, face to face and knee to knee with the millennials he served. Then he listened.
"As they shared their thoughts, I tried not to go into fix-it mode," he said. "I wrote impressions, but I wouldn't share them until later."
Millennials told Riess the top reason they stop attending church is feeling judged or misunderstood. Ostler said active listening helps them feel understood and validated.
2. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this person?
Ostler said once he though this way, he learned more about the world, the church and society, gleaning useful insights that helped him personally.
He came to be known as Papa Ostler, a title he continues to use in podcasts and social media posts, where he emphasizes building bridges.
3. Recognize that millennial members are better wired to see people on the margins.
"They are wired to see the world the way Christ does," Ostler said. "They see him in the scriptures helping all those on the margins. They think, how can our gospel or church first reach the people on the margins, those with tattoos or the divorced or people of other races, etc.? They say, 'He would see them first and want to make them feel welcomed.'"
Practically, Ostler responded by following the counsel of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who said, "There are no height requirements' to attend church."
"I decided to do what I could to make our congregation a safe place for everyone. I wanted everyone to feel like, 'I'm good enough to be here, and I belong.' Belonging is different than fitting in. You are accepted for who you are. It includes people whose testimonies are 'I hope' and 'I believe' and not just 'I know."
4. They are wired to love the temple.
"I think God flooded the earth with temples to help Mormon millennials," Ostler said. "Early on, many of them are mature enough and ready enough to go to the temple, not because of a mission or marriage but because they have faith."
5. They are incredibly gifted.
"I'm not negative at all about our Mormon millennials," Ostler said. "Any of the narrative that they are not as faithful is not true."
Ferrell's five suggestions
Ferrell has taught about millennials and faith at BYU's Education Week the past two years. The bottom line for them, he said, is connection.
1. Focus on the strengths of young adult and youth, not their weaknesses.
"We need to cheer each other on," Ferrell said. "Nobody needs one more person to point out their weaknesses."
Otherwise, millennials take a focus on their weaknesses as judgment, not encouragment. That doesn't mean they are soft or weak or don't want to develop and improve. It means they keenly want to find strong social support networks. They will tune out those who they feel judge or misunderstand them or don't listen to them.
2. Be a coach, not a boss. A mentor, not a preacher. An advocate, not a critic.
In fact, Ferrell said, "This generation is so open to mentoring, coaching, getting help. They want someone at their side helping, mentoring them. Not lecturing them, not condemning them."
It's important to note that millennials hate hearing others talk about how to help them. The right way to reach them is to think about connecting with them, inspiring them, building bridges to them, not thinking they are broken and need help.
3. Focus on growth, not achievement.
Be proud of hard work, not straight A's, the process or principle, not the outcome.
Older people often inadvertently offend millennials when they appear achievement-driven, which in a church setting can include using missionary service and marriage as achievement markers rather than opportunities for growth and development. Many YSA church members feel judged when conversations with older members, who may simply be trying to connect, focus only on missions, dating and marriage.
"I'm proud of you for working hard," is a statement that works well because it is principle-driven feedback, Ferrell said.
Those who worry about those achievement markers would do better to focus on mentoring millennials as they build their personal faith, he added.
4. Inspire instead of shame.
"I think we need to use the doctrines of the gospel to lift and inspire people," Ferrell said. "If the doctrines are discouraging you or overwhelming you, you don't understand the doctrines. The doctrine is designed to inspire. Are we using the doctrine to inspire people, or are we using it to shame, manipulate or pressure? I see that way too much. That just shuts people down."
5. Speak their language, not yours.
"Technology knocks down barriers," he said.
Don't post weird or creepy stuff on their Facebook or Instagram feeds.
"It's just liking their social media posts so they see you following their daily lives, the things they are involved in. Some adults and parents refuse to text with their kids. They say they'll only talk to them face to face."11 comments on this story
Ferrell suggested texting a millennial for a week in casual conversations. Then ask them a transparency question. "Hey, what are you worried about this next semester? How are things going with your relationships at school?"
"You'll be surprised how fast they'll open up when they feel it's a safe environment and it's a very easy way to open up," he said.
Ferrell said people criticize him that technology isn't the way to true, deep connection face to face. He agreed. But he said technology opens the door to that kind of connection.