Swiping for salvation: Why Mormon singles put their faith in a dating app

More than 100,000 Mormons have used Mutual, a dating app for the faithful.

(CNN)Benjamin Brown is a glasses-wearing lawyer who flavors his language with words like "heck" and "gosh." He has also been punched in the face in an altercation over dating, one of the few subjects that can rile Mormon men.

Growing up, Brown was taught that marriage was his raison d'être. "I had fantasies of being married since basically as young as I can remember," he said. Mormon doctrine holds that intrafaith marriage -- a union to another Mormon inside the church's temples -- is essential for salvation in the highest level of heaven.
Brown, 31, said he "often went on multiple dates a day" while a student at Brigham Young University. Nonetheless, he graduated single.
    Six years ago, he began flying cross-country in search of a wife. On weekends, he created elaborate dating strategies for new cities, filling his calendar with singles events he heard about through the social media grapevine. On Sundays, Brown attended multiple church congregations called "Young Single Adult Wards" that aim to help Mormons ages 18 and up socialize and, ideally, get married.
    "I literally flew all over the country to date. I was booking red-eyes just to attend church somewhere and meet new people. Some weekends, I would go to three, four, or if I was really ambitious, five wards in one Sunday," Brown said. "Singles wards often feel like meat markets. So much of church revolves around dating."
    Inside these chapels, marital concerns and sexual frustration (Mormon doctrine prohibits premarital sex, regarding it as "second only to murder in its seriousness") figure prominently into the service. Curious eyes wander the pews, scoping out the well-groomed singles while hymns are sung and the sacrament is passed. In the pulpit, leaders announce upcoming social events planned to help teetotaling Mormons get to know each other. The latest in Brown's ward: "Pictionary with Pudding."
    Now, however, singles wards could be considered a secondary social venue -- the place you may run into the match you chatted with the night before on Mutual, a dating app created exclusively for Mormons and monitored by members who ensure only faithful users participate. Mutual has collapsed the singles wards onto a digital platform, providing an alternative to the church-sponsored matchmaking venue.
    Dating apps writ large have been blamed for tectonic social shifts, from delayed marriage to relaxed sexual mores. Vanity Fair hyperbolically credited Tinder as the source of a "dating apocalypse."
    But Mutual contradicts this trope. To swipe through the app is to get a glimpse inside a cultural enclave antithetical to the modern dating landscape.
    One user, Brandon, who is 28, captures the ethos of the app in his "About Me": "(I) would like to be married and raise children." Another, Kolton, 21, of Rexburg, Idaho goes even further, telling prospective matches, "If you're on here just for fun, unmatch me!"
    Cooper Boice, the founder of Mutual, says that while some people are just on the app to date, he considers marriage to be the "ultimate success." In total, he says, more than 100,000 Mormons in more than 100 countries around the world have swiped through the app more than 250 million times.
    Boice proudly cites dozens of marriages that have resulted from Mutual, including international unions from the UK to the Philippines.
    In the face of declining millennial religiosity, Mutual, which is named after an old church program that brought Mormon youth together, may have another benefit: ensuring the longevity of Mormonism. One swipe at a time, Mutual is uniting the Mormon diaspora, perpetuating lineages, and addressing the anxieties of youth facing familial and cultural pressure, as well as a personal desire, to marry within their faith.
    Mutual is a dating app exclusively for Mormons.

    Heavenly resources

    Growing up, Jillian Sewell spent Sundays dreaming of her perfect spouse. "In (church) we would do this thing where we would write down all the things we wanted in our future husband," she said. When she enrolled in Brigham Young University, Mormonism's flagship school, Sewell expected to get married right away.
    "One of my friends got married in the year right after we graduated," the 23-year-old said. "Everyone had boyfriends. When I didn't, I thought I wasn't good enough."
    Upon returning from her Mormon mission in New Hampshire, Sewell felt unable to break into the "competitive" dating pool at BYU, where appearance is paramount. After a semester, Sewell returned home to Arizona, where she prayed for help finding a husband.
    Mutual was the answer to her prayers, she said.
    "I felt like I was guided to go on Mutual that night. I feel like Heavenly Father, he has so many resources -- and Mutual is one of them."
    Sewell met her husband on the app soon after joining and the two were happily married this year. "I never would have met him without Mutual because he was in a different city," she said.
    For the majority of users, though, their endings aren't so neat.
    Mormons today face longer tenures in singledom and a skewed gender ratio. There are 150 Mormon women for every 100 Mormon men, according to one study, creating a statistical dilemma that complicates church leadership's bold project to ensure all youth attain a temple marriage. In total, 51% of Mormon women over age 18 are single, according to internal statistics cited in a church public relations video, which leaked on the website "MormonLeaks." For these women, the dream of previous generations -- 87% of married Mormons have a Mormon spouse -- may not be statistically attainable.
    In late July, local church leader Wayne Janzen held a conversation with women in a Washington, DC singles ward, asking them to air their dating grievances. He validated their frustration with what one woman said was a "lack of options." Janzen said the regional church leadership was focusing on "reactivating single men" to balance the gender ratio of faithful, church-attending singles.
    Though you'll rarely hear about it from a pulpit, Mormon leaders are concerned with the continuity of their religion. While Pew reports that 64% of all people raised in the faith still identify as Mormons, the church's internal records reveal a bleaker picture.
    As of 2008, only 25% of Mormon youth worldwide stayed active -- or attended church regularly -- into their "single adult years." As the "MormonLeaks" video reveals, top officials have held private meetings to discuss this problem, as well as the troubling gender disparity.
    Their solution was to continue investing in singles wards, creating stronger nuclei for Mormon singles to congregate outside of Utah. They even created a church building in Arlington, Virginia exclusively for singles, a first for the faith. Today, the singles community in the DC metro area comprises its own "stake," the Mormon term for a group of congregations, similar to a diocese. It has grown to roughly 5,200 members.
    Janzen is the stake president of this singles community. In his meeting with single women this summer, he said leadership became especially concerned by unmarried Mormons about a decade ago. "The trends they saw in the church weren't very encouraging, you know, delaying marriage, temple attendance, general activity, and the youth said the church wasn't meeting their needs."
    Janzen said Mormon singles know they should be seeking a spouse, and professed faith that all who seek shall find. But he didn't say how. At the end of the conversation, he implored the women. "Don't give up -- don't think any of this is for naught."
    The founder of Mutual says that while some people are just on the app to date, he considers marriage to be the "ultimate success."