Why Are the Faithful Fleeing?

February 6, 2009 | 85 comments
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At the blog Text Messages, an interview with Julia Duin, who is the religion editor at the Washington Times and author of the book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What To Do About It. Here are a couple of highlights from the interview.

First, here’s what is happening out there.

The Episcopalians are losing 1,000 people a week. The Southern Baptists, believe it or not, are also showing drops in baptisms and membership. Were it not for Hispanics, which are by now one-third of US Catholicism, the Catholic Church would be in enormous trouble as the numbers of confirmations, marriages in the church, confessions, etc., have dropped horribly. The Mormons and the Assemblies of God show up atop most surveys as groups that are growing.

The author notes that singles and women don’t get proper attention in most churches.

Women are slotted into childcare jobs and maybe ushers or the choir — or the worship team, as it’s called today. But women like me, who are seminary-educated, are given no place to teach. The offer is never extended. Ditto for other women who are lawyers, accountants, etc., who know things that could be of some benefit to the body of Christ. These women are underused at best. Or they are told they can only minister to other women.

How does this (and other items mentioned in the interview) relate to what’s going on in the LDS Church? There are three options here. One is that the LDS Church is still growing because it isn’t making these mistakes. The second option is that the LDS Church is making the same mistakes identified in the interview but, for various reasons, is still growing. The third option is that the LDS Church is making the same mistakes identified in the interview and is losing members like many other denominations, but that the membership losses are not reflected in statistics released by the Church and discussed by the media.

Without spending a lot of time mulling over the issue, I think I lean toward the second choice: singles and women don’t always get the right kind of attention in the Church but, to the credit of both demographics, still seem relatively faithful.

85 Responses to Why Are the Faithful Fleeing?

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 6, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    There is no real correlation between those denominations that put single women in charge and those denominations that keep their membership. Take the Episcopalians, for instance.

    When someone’s recommendation for church growth is ‘Cater to People Like Me,’ I’m a little sceptical.

    We should pastorally care for women and singles (and any other demographic one wants to slice out of the body of Christ) not because its the key to growth but because He requires it.

  2. Julie M. Smith on February 6, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    She writes, “But women like me, who are seminary-educated, are given no place to teach.”

    Um, try your local liberal Christian denomination. (This is also ironic for me, a seminary-educated woman, who has more opportunities to teach in the LDS Church than I can reasonably fit into my schedule.)

    The problem I have with the second paragraph that you quote is that the liberal Christian denominations that DO allow women to take on any ministry role are also suffering huge losses in numbers, so it seems that lack of access to leadership is not what is driving women away, but something else entirely. If this were a feminist issue, we’d see clear evidence of educated women leaving the Baptists and taking up with the Presbyterians or Unitarians or Methodists or whatever. But we don’t. They are all losing numbers.

  3. Bridget Jack Meyers on February 6, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    It isn’t just liberal Christian denominations that allow women to teach; the Assemblies of God is still growing and they’ve been egalitarian forever. Conservative egalitarianism provides a wonderful answer to folks like me who believe in gift-based (not gender-based) ministry but aren’t interested in the other hallmarks that liberal Christian denominations practice.

    It’s hard to isolate one trend that is causing some denominations to grow while others falter. Perhaps Mormonism’s belief in a divine feminine helps buffer its own complementarian practice? That’s about the best I can come up with where gender issues are concerned.

  4. Jacob J on February 6, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    The overall culture is becoming more secular and less religious. I don’t think it is primarily because of some thing that religions are doing. I expect with divine statistics we would see that the LDS church is being impacted as well, but that is not to say that one church may not be fairing better in the current environment than another. Given the statistics we actually have, I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

  5. Peter R. on February 6, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    I don’t know if the LDS Church does a better job than other denominations in maintaining its young single parishoners, but it seems like the Church expends a lot of resources in this area in the form of Institutes, CES programs, YSA programs, Church-funded universities, etc.. Perhaps this is also part of the formula that maintains a higher rate of growth.

  6. Adam Greenwood on February 6, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Only on a Mormon blog would the concept of ‘divine statistics’ be mentioned without a blink. You gotta love this faith.

  7. clark on February 6, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I wonder where they are getting their figures for growth? My understanding is that LDS growth the past 15 years has been pretty flat when you look at self-identification rather than membership records.

  8. Steve M on February 6, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    There’s actually a fourth option as well: It’s possible that the Church is not making the same mistakes mentioned in the article, but is nonetheless not growing, perhaps due to other factors.

    I’m not endorsing this possibility, but for the sake of rounding out the analysis, it should probably be acknowledged.

  9. Tim on February 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I’ve noticed that singles, unless they’re in a singles ward, are often isolated. I saw that in my homeward, on my mission, and I see that now. It can be problematic for both young single adults and for other single adults.
    Isolation often leads to inactivity.
    A branch I served in had a regular FHE for the young single adults. A very smart move–and probably helped by the fact that the branch president and one of his counselors had been, until very recently, young single adults themselves.
    More wards and branches need simple, easy-to-run programs like that.

  10. Starfoxy on February 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    As I recall marriage creates a sticking effect- that is, if you are married (especially within your faith) you are less likely to leave a church.

    I suspect that the LDS church pushes marriage more than (or perhaps more effectively than) other churches. I also suspect that we push in-group marriage more than other churches.

    So it may not be how great we are at dealing with, or treating single adult members, but how little time we give them to be single, and who we encourage them to marry.

  11. sister blah 2 on February 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I believe that in their zeal to “restore” America to being a Christian nation, the politicized Christian Right is to blame for increased secularization. They have badly, badly damaged the entire religion brand in this country. People who were previously sort of vaguely religious but not actively church-attending now associate religious people with the likes of Falwell, Robertson and Haggard. In other words, obnoxious crazies who make a living out of blithely saying objectively false things. Everyone but the “hardcore” have been alienated.

    So I come down on the side of: it’s happening, but not for the reasons listed in the article. Also, to the extent that LDS are more politically insular and greater % “hardcore,” they are less affected. (Note that in less politically isolated areas, church membership is declining–at least this is what the AA70 said about California at our most recent Stake Conf.)

    I just hope that the damage isn’t permanent.

  12. bbell on February 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    The interview is interesting. She sounds like many older LDS single sisters when she talks about how the churches cater to families with children and how there are no single men over 30.

    I also think that the small membership losses in the So Baptists are largely due to a lack of loyalty amongst their membership to the So Baptist church. Many people raised So Baptist in my area go to non-denominational Christian Churches rather then the So Baptists. The worship services and theology are almost identical.

    I agree with #2 entirely. There are far larger losses amongst the mainline churches. its not from lack of ability for women to serve. The head of the US Ep church is female

  13. bbell on February 6, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I agree that LDS membership in CA is on the decline. Its mostly due to economic reasons though. Home prices being issue #1

  14. Mission Bay Runner on February 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Episcopalians / Anglicans are seeing severe drops as their church is torn apart by two issues – ordaining gay priests and ordaining women priests.

    These and other liberal policies are causing flight by their conservative members. The article probably is missing where whole congregations are leaving the main denomination on the gay priest issue.

  15. sister blah 2 on February 6, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    #13, very much agreed, decline is in large part families moving from CA to cheaper quarters in UT, ID and OR. I think LDS strength is mostly attributable to the “hardcore” factor, as I outlined. But decline of other churches–I stand by my branding diagnosis.

  16. Mission Bay Runner on February 6, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    #13 -About Membership decline in California –

    California overall is suffering a drop in its middle class population – white flight to other states.

    A major factor is liberal anti-family politics and state legislature and also big influx of illegal immigrants that are swamping local resources – especially the public schools. They also undermine the labor market.

    I know of several families that moved to Idaho, Colorado and Utah to enjoy better schools, home prices and labor opportunities.

  17. Kylie on February 6, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I just glanced at the article and should no doubt read it in depth. Are these solely U.S. numbers? and hence U.S. reasons? or does she also talk about international growth?

  18. Jeremiah J. on February 6, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    One standard answer in sociology of religion to the phenomenon of declining church membership in liberal denominations characterizes it as a free-rider problem. Specifically, “strict” religions demand more of their members, and so have more to offer the members. Liberal denominations, so the argument goes, demand little (resource-wise–the argument doesn’t seem to say anything about orthodoxy) and therefore have little to give.

    One could expand this argument and ask: What exactly is it that churches are offering, and why aren’t people coming to get it as they once were? It seems there are forms of devotion, enjoyable activities, and social opportunities you can get elsewhere, that used to be largely provided by churches. Moreover, if it’s true that social capital and connectedness has declined as a whole in the U.S. then perhaps churches are just one of many institutions that have suffered as part of that decline.

    There may also be something to what sister blah says. The number of people identifiying as atheists has seen a significant increase over the past decade, and there could be a culture war cause to that. Would it cause a previously religious person to leave church and become secular? I’m not sure.

  19. Catania on February 6, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I’m not totally sure what I think, but it is important to consider that people are staying single longer than they have in the past – which obviously has posed a problem for activity/membership in the LDS and other churches.

  20. Adam Greenwood on February 6, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Catania, you’re turning the argument on its head, but you may be right. Instead of churches being less hospitable to singles, its singles who are less hospitable to churches. There is quite a bit of evidence that people’s religious attitudes tend to change when they get married.

    Not only does this dovetail nicely with our theology, but it also underlines Dave B.’s point that we should be grateful for the singles ( or women, or whoever else) who stick to the Kingdom.

  21. Jonovitch on February 6, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    In contrast to Jacob (4), I will hazard a guess: the LDS Church continues to grow, and I have the solid statistic to prove it.

    It’s the number of units, especially stakes, that’s significant. Raw membership can increase by orders of magnitude, but if people don’t keep attending, the number of units stays put.

    Every April, the Church releases a few morsels of statistical data (and I gobble them up). The numbers that everyone talks about are the total members and convert baptisms. But I’d guess the upper leadership are looking more closely at the number of stakes.

    Every year since 1973 (as far back as my records go), the number of stakes has increased — except one.

    At the end of 2001 the Church had 2,607 stakes, but at the end of 2002 the Church reported only 2,602. (The number of wards/branches follows a very close 10:1 ratio with the number of stakes, but during this year the number of wards/branches still slightly increased, despite the slight decrease in number of stakes.)

    One can speculate on what caused the decrease (warning — pure hearsay: I’ve heard that an apostle or two went into some over-zealous baptizing areas and started collapsing stakes left and right because there wasn’t any leadership to sustain the wards that were popping up like popcorn). But that’s another debate for another post.

    My point is that other than that one blip in 2002 (and it’s worth noting that if you add the number of districts to the number of stakes, that blip disappears), the Church, as viewed from the number of active units (i.e., stakes), has continued on an upward trend from the beginning.

    Jon

  22. Jonovitch on February 6, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Upon re-reading Jacob’s comment (4), I’m afraid I might have misrepresented what he wrote. He simply said the Church might be “impacted” — in light of the entire conversation and the decline in other churches’ membership, I took it to mean more than it probably did. No harm, no foul, right?

    FWIW, based on my understanding of wards and branches (an average of about 200 and 50 attendees, respectively on any given Sunday, worldwide, right?), I’d peg the current active membership of the LDS Church at around 3 million to 4 million, or roughly 25 to 35 percent. Semi-actives might add another million or so.

    But again, this is probably a debate better left until April, when the next round of statistical breadcrumbs are tossed our way.

    Jon

  23. sister blah 2 on February 6, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    To follow up on my own comment, another contributing factor to LDS not suffering as much is that we avoid some of the more egregious faults of the Christian Right. Hinckley wasn’t out there blaming Katrina and 9/11 on feminists. Our leadership takes a much gentler tone on gays than many (Prop 8 being somewhat of an exception but even then the discourse was more muted than it could have been). We don’t do silly stuff like try to ban evolution. And the list goes on….

    In the end, those of us who are faithful can point to the inspired nature of our leaders that helps them avoid many of these pitfalls. Our leaders are true disciples of Christ in showing love and kindness to all. We take a very hard line on things that matter (e.g., chastity). But people can live up to high expectations when they are the right expectations.

  24. Adam Greenwood on February 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    The same might be said of the Catholics, sb2, but how are their membership numbers looking sans immigration?

  25. Adam Greenwood on February 6, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    It’s the number of units, especially stakes, that’s significant. Raw membership can increase by orders of magnitude, but if people don’t keep attending, the number of units stays put.

    This assumes that the average active membership in a stake remains constant. My impression is that the Church accepts smaller stakes than it used to do.

  26. Catania on February 6, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks Adam.

    oh – and another thing, I think that this situation is dependent on which ward you are in, and it depends on the single person or woman. When I was single, I got plenty of attention from my fellow ward members – maybe a little too much! (not really). I was a single mother, so I didn’t go to the singles’ ward. I went through a divorce, and I’m a woman. It seems like I may have experienced every “strike” a Mormon could go through; however, I resolved that I wouldn’t let people put me in a corner or into a stereotype. I didn’t apologize for my choices – I had made them prayerfully and knew they were right. I didn’t explain why I needed a divorce. I didn’t worry when I went to YSA activities – that I was the only one there with kids. I just let my faith speak for itself. I was confident that the Lord knew my situation. There would be people who would judge, but I didn’t really need their acceptance anyway.

    It was remarkable. The experience was difficult, but I didn’t feel alone. I felt love from ward members, and I felt like people understood who I was – based on my testimony and actions – not based on my circumstances.

    It is difficult, but it just requires a bit of stubbornness and a testimony.

    Additionally, this experience as a single woman in the church was one of the most spiritually strengthening times in my life. My attendance at church wasn’t because of convenience, friends, or social pressure. It was because I wanted to worship God and renew my covenants. This is still why I attend church actively.

    Oh – and we women have PLENTY of opportunities to teach – we have female institute, seminary, relief society, primary, and gospel doctrine teachers. Women speak in church and at general conference. We have sister missionaries. Women do not preside in Church government, but that does not get them off the hook when it comes to teaching.

  27. John Mansfield on February 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I have the idea that membership in organizations of all kinds (Elks Club, Oddfellows Lodge, Mafia) isn’t what it used to be. I blame TV. And drugs.

  28. Blake Ostler on February 6, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I don’t think the issues have to do with liberalism or women’s issues or political orientation. Participation is down across the board and growth of the LDS church has slowed considerably. We are seeing fallout still from 9-11 where the excesses of religious zeal and the steep downside of religious fanatacism cause us all to question the rationality and moral merit of the enterprises we are engaged in.

    The stepped up attacks of Dawkins and others for atheism and the irrationality of religion in the face of science are a direct reflection of the general judgment — religious folks are both scary and dangerous. It is of course and unfair bigotry, a prejudicial over-generalization. However, belonging to a religion that produced the Mt. Meadows Massacre must cause us all to pause and place our commitment under the microscope of: “could I have been persuaded to to that?” It is of course unfair that when Hollywood addresses Mormonism it is always our worst moments and instead of seeing us as an oppressed minority that is beginning to come out of its isolation, we are unfairly portrayed as oppressors and nut cases. Who would want to belong to a religion like that?

    So I think that the post makes assumptions that are too narrow and fail to take into consideration the overall malaise of our culture in light of the atrocities committed by religious zealots.

  29. Carborendum on February 6, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    I believe it is two things:

    1) A core set of values that we do not deviate from.
    2) A belief that we have inspired men as earthly leaders.

    The AoG also have “written constitutions” of their founding principles. They tend to stick to them. They also believe that men are inspired when they speak in tongues. They often do.

    We have the Standard Works, the Articles of Faith, Gospel Principles, Manual after manual that does not change the core principles of the Church. We believe each of our leaders is inspired in the capacity of their stewardship.

    The Catholics have their Catechism. But I can’t tell you how many Catholic priests have said regarding things in the Catechism,”Yah, but that isn’t really right”.

    All these other faiths change depending on who is at the pulpit.

    I’ll give you proof that the Church is the same all over:

    When you get up from sacrament, what do you see on the floor? Cheerios. I’ve rarely been in a ward where that didn’t happen. And I’ve been in a little over 100 wards in my life.

    I’m kidding about this being proof. But the fact is that wherever you go, the same principles are taught. With others . . .

    I also believe Sis Blah2 made an excellent point. We don’t get all outspoken about EVERY little issue. We pick and choose very carefully. It is only the very core principles that we maintain and are vocal about.

    We’re constantly teaching about tolerance, witholding judgement, forgiveness. When we have leadership that is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, it is absolutely necessary.

  30. Ray on February 6, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    Fwiw, I’m looking at the numbers presented by the 12 to the 70 to the stakes. “Relative growth” in the US and Canada in 2007 was about minus 1%. That doesn’t mean the Church’s numbers declined there; it means there were about 1% fewer baptisms in 2007 than in 2006. Internationally, the relative growth was about 5%, producing more baptisms than in 2006.

    Those numbers are affected directly by the drop in total missionaries since the “Raise the Bar” decision in 2003, when the total number of missionaries world-wide dropped by about 16%, and baptisms dropped about 14% overall. Preach My Gospel was introduced in 2005, and baptisms have increased significantly since then – essentially stabilizing in the US and Canada, and jumping almost 15% (2006) then 5% (2007) internationally. In 2007, for the first time since 2003, the total baptisms internationally and in total passed the level of 2003 – with about 13% fewer missionaries in the field than in 2003.

    Baptisms per missionary have increased each year since 2003 (staying almost exactly flat in the US and Canada for the past three years), as has retention and overall membership – and that’s the basis for the article’s characterization of the LDS Church as an exception to the general decline.

  31. sister blah 2 on February 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    #24: How do our membership numbers looking sans immigration? In our stake, the Spanish branch accounts for the vast, vast majority of convert baptisms.

    Also, Catholics have had been hit hard lately by the fallout from the child abuse cases.

  32. kevinf on February 6, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Singles are a big problem in the church. There is a huge emphasis on singles, single adult activities, and providing more resources to young single adult wards and regional YSA councils. Based on what I have seen and heard, that really only touches about 20% of the singles between 18 and 30 who are members in the church. These singles are more often “lost” in a family ward, marry later, and are more isolated from other LDS singles. Because of later marriage trends in the US and the US LDS Church, there seems to be a greater issue of “unworthiness” which leads to further isolation and lack of activity. I have heard our stake president say that the church actually doesn’t know where half of the 18 to 30 year old singles even live, limiting the ability of the church to minister to them.

    We continue to grow, but it would also seem that we have a greater percentage at risk of being lost to the church, which could have a huge impact in the next generation or two. Not to mention a declining birth rate in LDS families compared to earlier generations (at least that is true outside the Wasatch Front). Our previous rates of growth are not likely to be equaled anytime soon, unless convert baptisms increase at a much higher rate than in the last 20 years. Ray’s figures do point to a different mentality about missionary work that the church is trying to foster.

  33. Adam Greenwood on February 6, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    When I see the faithful fleeing from a church, I know its because of zombies.

    The undead don’t respect the Sabbath.

  34. clark on February 6, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    It seems to me participation in large organized religion is down. However so-called non-denomenational groups seem to be doing quite well. And those that do best are those that are most conservative.

    I also agree with Kevin’s points in #32. I think the way Adam put it is unfortunate. Singles look for a social life that people who are married don’t look for. (Often, I’ve been finding, simply because they are overwhelmed and exhausted by kids) Often you can be faithful and single with a fairly boring and lonely life or you can be less faithful and single with a more “fulfilling” social life. The fact is that despite FHE and the like that the Church can only do so much to alleviate that problem.

  35. KpL on February 6, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    There is an emerging scholarly literature suggesting that the church’s official statistics dramatically overstate the number of self-identified members–something that does not seem to be the case with JW or SDA, with whom Mormons are often compared. We may have reached a point where the number of self-identified active Latter-day Saints is holding steady or shrinking. The church return on missionary dollars invested is not good. Moreover, I recently reviewed a paper using a nationally representative data set that showed a striking increase in disaffiliation in the mountain states–a traditional church stronghold. Here are examples of the kinds of things scholars saying in peer reviewed studies. Re: Latin America:

    “For instance, official church statistics report that in the two year interval between 2000 and 2002—the years relevant to the census data used above—Argentina added one stake and 19,500 new members. Venezuela also gained one stake and 16,320 members. Church-wide, however, the average number of members per stake is 4370. In the U.S. there are only about 4000 members per stake. Thus, based on the church-wide mean, Venezuela added over three stakes’ worth of members for its one new stake, and Argentina added the equivalent of four stakes’ worth of members for its new stake. In this same two year span, neither Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala or Honduras added a single new stake, but between them they added 38,185 (or almost 9 stakes’ worth) of new members. Colombia lost a stake through consolidation—going from 23 to 22—but added 6385 members. Peru lost a stake as well, but managed to add 19,731 new members. Finally, Brazil lost 3 stakes and a total of 190 congregations (88 wards and 102 branches) through consolidation between 2000 and 2002, yet added almost 66,000 new members—going from 743,182 to 808,940. The only explanation for the countervailing pattern of stake consolidation and membership growth in these nations is that rates of convert retention in Latin America are extraordinarily low.”

    And similar things are being said about U.S. Mormonism:

    “In addition, the Mormon emphasis on evangelism, coupled with historically lax requirements for baptism, makes comparing Mormon growth with that of other denominations dif?cult. … If such a missionary corps produces large numbers of convert baptisms, is this necessarily evidence that the LDS Church is more vital than other faiths? How vital would Mormonism appear if success was measured not in raw numbers, but rather in member contributed dollars per convert, or proselytizing hours per convert? Further, given that half of new converts drop out within a year, how much is spent in dollars or hours per retained convert? How would Mormon growth be affected if the LDS Church scrapped its system of discussions—which can be completed in two weeks’ time—in favor of a program with waiting periods and time commitments like those imposed by the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which admits new Catholics only once a year? The point here is that any model using membership growth to argue that Mormonism is more vital than some other denomination must consider the processes behind the numbers. Depending on how religious vitality is operationalized, the LDS Church may not challenge the logic of de facto congregationalism, and increases in retained, fully integrated Mormon converts may persist as much in spite of as because of its centralized missionary system.”

  36. queuno on February 6, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    The overall culture is becoming more secular and less religious.

    The new tagline is “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Spiritual = more secular?

    My head hurts.

  37. Ray on February 6, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    sources, KpL. If you can quote that extensively, you can provide sources.

  38. queuno on February 6, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    @21 –

    Elder Holland went to Chile and got rid of about 20% of the stakes. I think this was widely reported in legitimate media sources.

    They are also consolidating wards and stakes in Utah.

  39. Ray on February 6, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I ask specifically because of the horrendous assumptions and mis-characterizations in the quotes.

  40. Ray on February 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    queuno, I’m not questioning the numbers. I want to see what organization put the spin on them, especially in comparison to other religions.

  41. Ray on February 6, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Sorry, queuno. Somehow I completely missed the reference to #21.

  42. L-d Sus on February 6, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    All this talk has inspired me to be a better home teaching partner for my new-member companion. I can’t do much to help the global percentages, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing that I tried to help one person.

    Still, the percentages are interesting.

  43. Matt Evans on February 7, 2009 at 1:22 am

    Ray, which assumptions and mischaracterizations did you sense from the quotes in #35? Everything there gels with my own experience, having served in mission areas with 5-20x more members on our roles than in our Sunday meetings (Spain), and having visited countless members on our roles who didn’t consider themselves Mormon and, when we asked about the church, acted as though their association was a fond six-week stage of life and said that they still smile remembering Elders Brown and his companion whose name they’d forgotten but who couldn’t speak Spanish but really tried.

    About a year ago, a member of my HP group (former SP, MP) on the Public Affairs Committee told us they’d had a meeting with the Missionary Committee and had been told that the median number of sacrament meetings new converts attend post-baptism, world-wide, is TWO. He said that’s why there’s been such an emphasis on retention.

    Anyway, the conclusions from both paragraphs sound reasonable to me (very low retention in Latin America; LDS growth hard to compare with other churches given ease of entry and high drop-out rates).

  44. Jonathan Green on February 7, 2009 at 1:25 am

    Ray, KpL’s source for the first quote is probably http://www.mormonwiki.org/Population_and_growth_rate
    (citing Rick Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” Nova Religio 10(1):52-68, August 2006). Mormonwiki seems to be an anti site, judging by the list of topics and the stated mission of evangelizing to Mormons, and I judge KpL’s intent and reliability accordingly. The second quote turns up no hits. (I’d guess it’s copied and pasted from a PDF file, as the fi-digraph in ‘difficult’ didn’t paste correctly.)

  45. James on February 7, 2009 at 1:38 am

    To answer Adam’s thought in #25. A stake can be organized with 1800-2000 members in five to six wards depending on the needs of the local members. In my area last year, we took three stakes with about 5000 member each and broke that up into five stakes with about 3000 members. Queno commented in #38 on consolidation in Utah. I suspect the reason for that is similar to the reason that in a area about 20 miles away from where I live there are wards and stakes being merged. People move into areas and they move out of areas. In my neighborhood, there is a continuing influx of members. In the other part of our metro area, people are moving or dying and the wards are falling below viable levels.

    As an assistant stake clerk, I’ve participated in the design of a few wards and even a multi-stake reorganization. In the U.S. at least, a new ward needs to have a minimum of 300 members. There have to be enough members attending meetings to ensure that core leadership positions are filled. That usually means that attendance at meetings needs to run at least 45% for a ward that small to be authorized. 300 is a nice round number that also fits nicely in the smaller (16,224 sq. ft.) buildings where most wards meet. Larger wards with higher activity levels are wonderful from a spiritual and social standpoint. But, they are a challenge from administrative and facilities views. It’s hard for a bishop to find something for everyone to do when a ward has 625 members and runs on average 65% attendance at meetings. (We have one of those in our stake.) The facilities issue is that size of ward crowds a 16224 sq. ft. building to bursting and is even a tight fit in a 24460 sq. ft. stake center. The ward this size in my stake is at permanent 2:00 p.m. meeting time in the stake center until we get a new building finished this fall.

  46. Mark D. on February 7, 2009 at 2:33 am

    Queno (#36), I think the author was using “religious” in the sense of organized religion. There are far more people that believe in God than participate in organized religions, of course.

    I think the problem is primarily a crisis of belief in the legitimacy of religious authority. Without such belief, a denomination is a very tenuous association indeed, as the history of Christianity since the Protestant Reformation amply demonstrates.

    So you have uncountable numbers of people who are quasi-religious, who stand at the borders of organized religion because they share common beliefs in the main, but do not recognize religious authority in the particulars, whether it be minor points of doctrine or not so minor points of morality.

    The modern world typically legitimizes authority through democratization. Easier said than done. How does one democratize a church without destroying is essential character, without secularizing it, or dividing it? Sometimes I wonder if a denomination can adopt a representative structure on policy questions while maintaining a hierarchical authority on doctrinal questions.

  47. Bookslinger on February 7, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Hopefully, the contraction in stakes/wards in South America and the Philippines was a one time event, and that it reflected a correction in formulas used for stake creation, ie basing the creation of a stake on stable and endowed priesthood leadership, and not just Sunday meeting attendance (the latter can disproportionately reflect “short term” members).

    Also, with new “unit creation formulas” in place, future corrections will, hopefully, not be needed. A slower and steady growth will end up adding the same number of active members to the church rolls as will faster growth with periodic corrections. Instead of an oscillating wave trending upward (a roller coaster, but still trending up), a smoother curve ending at the same place is a more comfortable ride.

    Central and South America, and the Philippines are the homes to many humble people, the type who are easily influenced by missionaries who might apply a little too much pressure to get baptized. I think Preach My Gospel is a response to that, making the desires of the investigators more important than non-spiritual influences (eg, salesmanship) of the missionaries.

    Based on what a Regional Representative of the 12 said at the mission home back when I served in South America in the mid 1980’s, the Brethren were aware of the low-activity problems back then. But the RR also gave to believe that the Brethren weren’t aware of what was causing it, such as what was contained in John Dehlin’s famous “Dear Elder Oaks” letter.

  48. Jonovitch on February 7, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    L-d Sus (42), a couple years ago our stake presidency analyzed some numbers and noticed in each ward as the rate of home teaching increased, so did the rate of sacrament meeting attendance. (The reverse was also true.) That’s some pretty good incentive, too, if you ask me.

    We have a very cosmopolitan ward, with some immigrants and refugees and new families and students, which means a lot of moving around. At a very minimum I try to make sure the contact information for everyone on my list is accurate each month.

    Jon

  49. Mark D. on February 7, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Bookslinger, I have never heard of that letter. Can you supply a link or other reference, please?

  50. Jonovitch on February 7, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Matt Evans (43), our ward baptizes more than any other in the stake, but as you pointed out not everyone sticks around very long. Our former ward mission leader said it’s part of the pattern: out of so many contacts will come a lesson, out of so many lessons will come an investigator, out of so many investigators will come a baptism, and out of so many baptisms will come an active and contributing member.

    Obviously we do our best to keep the retention rate as high as possible. And part of that, I think, has to come from keeping the baptism rate lower than some would have it.

    As I told the missionaries last night, “we want to baptize active members; we don’t want to baptize inactives — that does our ward (and them) no good at all.” Luckily it seems their mission president agrees with that sentiment. And I think our bishop requires an investigator to come to church three times, rather than the bare minimum one time. If it were up to me, I’d add a measure of consistency (so many times in a row, perhaps?).

    This reminds me that last week a large black man, raised in a Baptist family, shared his testimony with our ward — about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and everything else the missionaries have been teaching him. He also remarked how great it was that so many people remembered his name at church the week before (“I felt like I had a nametag on last week. As a kid, sometimes I thought my father, who was our minister, forgot my name: ‘Come over here, Boy.'”) As he closed in the name of Jesus Christ, his testimony garnered a noticeably vibrant and slightly louder-than-usual “Amen!” from the congregation.

    I hope he keeps coming (and keeps bringing his wife and teenage son) because I think they would be a great addition to our ward.

    Jon

  51. Bookslinger on February 7, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Mark D., the letter from John Dehlin, which Elder Oaks answered (I _think_ it was addressed to Elder Oaks, but not 100% sure, maybe it was addressed otherwise, and he was the one who answered) , was on http://www.MormonStories.org, which has been taken down now. It might be on http://www.MormonMatters.org, which JD helped start or inspire, and it might be on http://www.staylds.org, which I think JD is still involved with. You can email him at his addy listed at the latter, the admin, I believe.

    The letter I refer to is where John sort of blew the whistle on his mission’s (Guatemala) stealth baptisms, soccer baptisms, take ‘em swimming baptisms, all the lessons (or no lessons) and baptize them in one day, coerce/cajole/wheedle-em-into-the-water kind of thing that went on in his mission, and that his DLs and ZLs all approved of, and which his MP either tacitlly approved of or conveniently looked the other way.

    I was in South America in the mid 1980’s, and I didn’t see unrighteous baptisms as bad as the outright fraud he saw, but there was a lot of use of the “power of personality” or bullying people into getting baptized. Lots of meek people got baptized as a matter of giving into the pressure applied by the elders. A general attitude in my mission was that understandings of the basic and minimal gospel items (God as Father, Jesus as Savior, JS as prophet, Book of Mormon as scripture) , and knowing what it was they were committing to (tithing, WoW, 10 commandments, meeting attendance) were pooh-poohed as not necessary, even though they were requirements as far as the baptism interview went.

  52. Rameumptom on February 7, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Our Church also is going through issues. Right now, we’re struggling with an ever shrinking group of 19 year olds. Our active families are having fewer kids, our converts tend to be older. And of those who are 19, many are going inactive by the time they are deacons. While the Church isn’t discussing lowering the bar for missionaries, they may have to adjust some of its expectations and requirements to keep at 50K in the field.

  53. Ray on February 7, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    #44 – Thanks, Jonathan.

    As I said, I don’t question the numbers – only the obviously biased conclusions, especially the statement that our “return on missionary dollars invested is not good” and that the LDS Church would be better served by treating conversion like the Catholic Church. Given what’s happening in Catholicism, that’s laughable.

  54. Bookslinger on February 7, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    I think immigrants, Hispanic and other, are going to be a big factor in the growth and makeup of the LDS church in North America, just like they’ve become a factor in the Catholic church.

    I believe that the huge number of immigrants in the US in the last 20 years, not just Hispanics, but Asians and Africans, is part of the fullfillment of the gathering prophecy in the Book of Mormon: “I will gather my elect from the four corners of the earth”. That’s not just a specific gathering to the city or land of Zion or the city or land of Jerusalem, but a gathering to the stakes of Zion. And the US currently has the most stakes of Zion. There currently are no stakes in China, or India, or Senegal, or Ethiopia, or Mali, so I think the Lord is gathering them here.

    And in some countries where there are stakes, and even temples, there are still vast areas without a church presence.

    The Lord has “gathered” thousands of Africans, East Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, and other Asians to Indianapolis, and every major US city. And I mean thousands from each of those areas/countries just to Indianapolis alone, not merely thousands in the aggregate.

    And, in order to gather “the elect”, (whoever they are) the Lord also has to bring in others with them. The Lord didn’t say he will gather the elect and ONLY the elect. I think that their brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, children, uncles, aunts, neices and nephews are coming along with them too.

    I visited the local Spanish branch last week. It’s been 7 years since the formation of a spanish group that was dependent upon the ward in that building, and 4 or 5 years since the formation of the branch with their own branch president. I noticed a big transformation: the members of the branch have “taking ownership” in terms of thinking of it as their branch for which they have responsibility.

    That “taking ownership” is likely a knee in the curve of something. Pretty soon, that branch will be sending out full-time missionaries who grew up in the branch, or at least started at some point in primary, and spent their entire youth years in the church, and there’s another cohort of younger children watching and taking cues from those about to go on missions.

    It takes a while. I’m learning from that branch how the church grows. The Lord doesn’t call just adults as converts to do his work. Like President Kimball said, “The Lord sends babies to do his work.” But at some point he needs adult converts of child-bearing and child-rearing age to create families and wards and branches where he can send those babies.

    I admire those Spanish-speaking converts who’ve maintained their sense of awe and wonder about the gospel, and have been righteously raising children in the gospel, and have “taken ownership” of their branch, and not expected church leaders or “the branch” to raise their kids and be the sole source of gospel teaching to their children.

  55. KpL on February 7, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    and that the LDS Church would be better served by treating conversion like the Catholic Church

    Who’s saying that? The author is saying that if a church lets people join after 3 weeks of discussions, before their smoking addictions are fully resolved, before they are familiar with the theology, etc. etc., you can’t compare the church growth rates for this organization and say that this church is more robust than a slower growing church with stricter standards for joining. Here’s the article: Rick Phillips “‘De facto Congregationalism’ and Mormon Missionary Outreach” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47(4):628-643. It’s a completely sterile, social science analysis of how to measure church growth.

    And the comment on return on missionary dollars invested holds. The JW and SDA are growing at least as fast as TCoJSoLDS, retaining a higher percentage of converts, and spending less on outreach. While the number of self-identified Mormons is far smaller than the number claimed by the church for various nations that ask about religion in their censuses, the number of self-identified JW and SDA is very close to what the denominations report. This work is being done by Ryan Cragun at the University of Tampa, and Ronald Lawson of CUNY. Either would be great for a guest blog post on this site. There is a whole conversation about church growth going on among scholars that is not polemical, and is being played out in refereed journals. The fact is the LDS church is not a stark exception (no pun intended) to the rule that this post identifies.

  56. Aaron on February 7, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I think she also says something about boring meetings, irrelevant lessons, a lack of fulfillment. Mormons would do well not to feel superior here. We should be asking ourselves how well we are feeding the flock.

  57. Sterling on February 7, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Here are the numbers that have been presented in General Conference, with the calculated rate of change noted in the third column:

    Year Wards and Branches Annual Growth Rate
    1996 23528 N/A
    1997 24670 4.85%
    1998 25551 3.57%
    1999 25793 0.95%
    2000 25915 0.47%
    2001 26084 0.65%
    2002 26143 0.23%
    2003 26237 0.36%
    2004 26670 1.65%
    2005 27087 1.56%
    2006 27475 1.43%
    2007 27827 1.28%

    After near-zero growth around the turn of the century, it looks the introduction of _Preach My Gospel_ has contributed to a modest growth rate in the number of local units, but still nothing like what we were apparently experiencing during the mid-1990s.

  58. KpL on February 7, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I’d be more interested in the rate of stake formation. Lumping wards and branches is rather imprecise. Stakes require a certain number of Melchizedek priesthood holders, and so I think stakes are a better metric.

  59. Matt on February 7, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    This discussion is something I have written an entire blog on since December of 2007. Check out

    ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com

    It is true that the growth of the Church declined dramatically in terms of new congregations and stakes created worldwide, but not so much in the United States where many Spanish and YSA units have been organized. Much of slump in unit creation internationally was due to the fact that many of these congregations and stakes really did not function like the should. Rentention in much of Latin America has increased dramatically even though only Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and recently Peru are seeing greater increases in congregations. For instance, there were five new stakes created in 2007 in Peru and 15 new stakes created in Brazil that same year. Last year the number of new stakes only increased by 28 for the whole Church, but keep in mind that a lot of times there is an ebb and flow to unit creation and missionary activity.

    Furthermore, I have heard that the standards for new branches created have changed from at least two families (with one Aaronic Priesthood holder), to five familes and five Aaronic Priesthood holders. Standards for districts become stakes has also increased, usually from 100 active Melchizedek Priesthood holders to 120. This has been part of the reason for some districts in Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago for now maturing into stakehood in the past year.

    Matt

  60. Jonovitch on February 7, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Ask and you shall receive:

    Year … Stakes … #chg … %chg
    1973 … 630 … n/a … n/a
    1974 … 675 … 45 … 7.14
    1975 … 737 … 62 … 9.19
    1976 … 798 … 61 … 8.28
    1977 … 885 … 87 … 10.90
    1978 … 990 … 105 … 11.86
    1979 … 1,092 … 102 … 10.30
    1980 … 1,218 … 126 … 11.54
    1981 … 1,321 … 103 … 8.46
    1982 … 1,392 … 71 … 5.37
    1983 … 1,458 … 66 … 4.74
    1984 … 1,507 … 49 … 3.36
    1985 … 1,582 … 75 … 4.98
    1986 … 1,622 … 40 … 2.53
    1987 … 1,666 … 44 … 2.71
    1988 … 1,707 … 41 … 2.46
    1989 … 1,739 … 32 … 1.87
    1990 … 1,784 … 45 … 2.59
    1991 … 1,837 … 53 … 2.97
    1992 … 1,919 … 82 … 4.46
    1993 … 1,968 … 49 … 2.55
    1994 … 2,008 … 40 … 2.03
    1995 … 2,150 … 142 … 7.07
    1996 … 2,296 … 146 … 6.79
    1997 … 2,424 … 128 … 5.57
    1998 … 2,505 … 81 … 3.34
    1999 … 2,542 … 37 … 1.48
    2000 … 2,581 … 39 … 1.53
    2001 … 2,607 … 26 … 1.01
    2002 … 2,602 … -5 … -0.19
    2003 … 2,624 … 22 … 0.85
    2004 … 2,665 … 41 … 1.56
    2005 … 2,701 … 36 … 1.35
    2006 … 2,745 … 44 … 1.63
    2007 … 2,790 … 45 … 1.64
    2008 … ???

    Jon

  61. Jonovitch on February 7, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Matt (58), your sites/blogs are fantastically thorough! Where do you get your information?

    Jon

  62. queuno on February 7, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    While the Church isn’t discussing lowering the bar for missionaries, they may have to adjust some of its expectations and requirements to keep at 50K in the field.

    Does it really suggest that the Church is less healthy if the number of missionaries drops?

  63. KpL on February 7, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Does it really suggest that the Church is less healthy if the number of missionaries drops?

    Exactly. I’ve been in wards where the congregation would have been “healthier” if the missionaries had baptized fewer people. Home teaching in such wards is not fun. I think Latter-day Saints should quit looking at growth rates as some sort of evidence of the truthfulness of the gospel. That way there will be no temptation to run missions with an eye on the bottom line. Not all mission presidents have gotten the message of _Preach My Gospel._ Most of the people on T&S don’t think this way, but I still hear the “fastest growing church” meme invoked all the time. Jesus specifically states that very few are sown on fertile ground.

    Jon, thanks for the stake formation rates. Matt, your blog is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Where has this blog been hiding?

  64. Jonathan Green on February 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

    While I’ve become more cautious about growth-rate manifest destiny, I’ve also become a bit jaded toward the Doomsday Statisticians Brigade who discount the church’s official statistics entirely but take wild speculations at face value, as long as they are dismal enough. People will tell you that everyone who joins the church will soon leave it, as will all the children born in the church; reducing wards and stakes represents shrinking numbers, while increasing wards and stakes are statistical manipulations; and other churches’ membership numbers must be taken at face value, especially if membership typically expresses itself twice in a lifetime, while true Mormon membership is no more than the number attending meetings each week. There are certainly some interesting discussions to be held, but a certain percentage of the discussants are more interested in discovering that the church is, alas, doomed. Like I said, I’ve become somewhat jaded towards that kind of thing.

  65. Jerry on February 8, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    I have looked very closely at the numbers reported in the Ensign about new stakes. If you add the baptisms at 8 and converts minus the deaths you would see the need for 2-3 times as many wards and stakes than what is being created. We should not just look at Catholics but also at the Seventh Day Adventist and JWs. They are growing worldwide much faster that we are. Don’t kid yourself that we are doing it right. We have a very aggressive missionary force and that leads to a lot of useless baptisms. Very few convert baptisms last beyond the person that did the teaching either moving or not being involved any longer. The few I’ve seen that work out are the ones with many friends in their ward. We do a very poor job of connecting the right people together in HT or VT.

  66. Ray on February 8, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    “We should not just look at Catholics but also at the Seventh Day Adventist and JWs. They are growing worldwide much faster that we are.”

    They report attendance numbers (NOT baptism numbers) – AND they count all who don’t ask to be removed officially, just as ALL denominations do. If we did that (reported attendance numbers), our reported numbers would be much higher than they are. Let’s at least be accurate in our comparisons.

    “Don’t kid yourself that we are doing it right. We have a very aggressive missionary force and that leads to a lot of useless baptisms. Very few convert baptisms last beyond the person that did the teaching either moving or not being involved any longer.”

    World-wide, the activity rate has gone up since 2003, when the bar was raised for missionary service and the lessons stopped being memorized and began to be presented in the missionaries’ own words. Some people are stuck in the past and continue to present old problems as current problems. Even then, historically, the activity rate (measured as Sacrament Meeting attendance) has hovered around 40% – and that’s nowhere near abysmal. I wish it were higher, but for a religion that demands so much the fact that our activity rate is every bit as high as the Southern Baptist Convention says something.

    “The few I’ve seen that work out are the ones with many friends in their ward.”

    Duh. The ones that work best are the ones where the ideas in Preach My Gospel are followed and the members do the finding. No surprise there, but should we then ignore the harder ones to find? MANY of those who are converted with no existing support system become and remain strong, faithful members; the challenge simply is greater for them. Tell them we are failing just because one leaves for every one that stays.

    “We do a very poor job of connecting the right people together in HT or VT.”

    That varies radically from unit to unit. It’s part of the downside of local, unprofessional leadership – but I wouldn’t change that leadership formula or scrap HT and VT because it doesn’t work in many areas. It does work in many others, and it works beautifully whenever it is understood deeply and performed as intended.

    If anyone is interested, the following post addresses some basic misconceptions and erroneous charges against LDS reporting methods:

    http://mormonmatters.org/2008/07/16/the-mormon-church-a-good-model-of-how-to-report-membership-numbers/

    To get a fuller picture of the issue, the two articles linked in the post should be read.

  67. Jerry on February 8, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Ray you sound angry, The numbers reported by independent third parties are good as a comparison as you can find. But according to you All is Well and no need to try anything different. So just ignore any of us that see issues that should be addressed and keep doing the same old things.

    The LDS church is doing well but not as well as others. Why do you think the first presidency has changed things up a bit?

    Try dividing the number of new members by the number of new wards and stakes. Is that the number of members in your ward?

  68. Bookslinger on February 8, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Jerry, God bless the Catholics, SDA’s and JW’s for raising/leading people up from a Telestial level to a Terrestrial level. They’re doing 1/2 of our work for us. Our missionary paradigm, traditionally, seems to require people to already be at the Terestrial level when we start our evangelizing work with them teaching them about the restoration, and the fullness, adding to the basics of Father-Son-Holy-Ghost that they learned elsewhere.

    Although there are plenty of exceptions, traditionally speaking the church has not been good at helping people get from square Zero (atheists, agnostics, and non-Judeo/Christian cultures), to the fully restored church in one process.

    Granted, those other Christian churches also put up some stumbling blocks that actually prevent many of their members (and non-members who get a distorted idea of true Christianity from them) from progressing to the restored church. But my point is that the net influx of members to our church is likely greater than if there were no other Christian churches giving us “competition”. I believe that they prepare (for us) far more people than they hinder (from us).

    Mark D. The comment with my answer to your question is in moderation, likely because there was more than one link in it. The short answer is to contact John Dehlin, on Facebook, or at staylds dot com for a link to the article. He’ll share it individually, but doesn’t want it publicly on line.

    KpL and Jerry, the large number of inactive members and those who leave the church may be evidence of the Lord’s parable about the gospel net bringing in all kinds of fish, but only a few fish are actually kept.

    There is nothing inherently wrong about large numbers per se. Scriptures and modern church history document hundreds and even thousands of people joining the church at once, or in a very short time span.

    The crux is two-fold:

    1. Is it a righteous baptism? Does the person understand the basic beliefs as presented in the missionary lessons/discussions? And do they understand the committments, and “sign on” to the committments? IE, do they “pass” the baptism interview? Which is basically the same as a temple rec interview, minus a couple questions that assume one has already gone through the temple.

    2. Can the ward support them as Pres Hinckley outlined: a) nurturing, b) friends, c) a calling ?

    Ya know, this is the same gospel and same church as when the apostles baptized thousands in England in the 1840’s, sometimes bringing in whole congregations of hundreds of people at once.

    But my personal belief is that the Lord isn’t going to give us hundreds at a time when we consistently drop the ball with one or two at a time.

    The Lord isn’t scared of big numbers. We are.

  69. Jerry on February 8, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    2002 to 2007
    188 new stakes
    1684 Wards
    1,472,451 additional members of record
    Gives 874 members per new ward 7832 people per stake.

    Anybody out there in a ward with 874 active members?

    7K per stake = 18 400 member wards per stake.

    This of course is great growth but not as good as we can do.

  70. Jerry on February 8, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Bookslinger I just read your comment. You are correct nothing wrong with big numbers. I do not mean to infer anything really wrong. I am encouraged by the fact so many are looking for more.

  71. KpL on February 8, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    They report attendance numbers (NOT baptism numbers) – AND they count all who don’t ask to be removed officially, just as ALL denominations do.

    Ray, you are mixing apples and oranges by confusing “retention” with “activity.” With respect to retention, the data used to establish that the SDA and JW have more reliable membership numbers and faster growth are based on comparisons of the number of self-identified members in a given ecological unit with the number of members the denomination claims for that unit. If denomination A claims X members, but only Y are self-identified, then this disparity constitutes the degree to which denomination A is over-reporting its membership. Those who joined denomination A, but who now say they are something else or nothing at all are “unretained.” This is the best measure of retention there is, and the gold standard for data that facilitate using this measure come from the national censuses of various nations that ask people about their religious affiliation.

    It cannot be disputed that in every nation for which we have such census data, the LDS church reports many more members than self-identify with the church. This is not the case with all denominations, and it is not the case with the JW or SDA, whose self-identified membership is very close to their officially reported numbers. Hence, to address another commenters concern, no one is trusting anyone’s “in house” statistics here.

    One active Latter-day Saint who analyzes these figures wrote a book designed to exhort people to debouble their missionary efforts. You can find the text online here: http://cumorah.com/index.php?target=law_harvest. Read section one. He sees it much as social scientists (both LDS and not) do.

    Now, with respect to activity, (and this is where your linked blog post comes in) it is true that self-identified Latter-day Saints have comparatively good rates church activity, but this is after all the unretained are filtered out, because each person reporting their church attendance is also almost always self-reporting their religious affiliation in the same survey as well. In sum, the unretained are those who are on church rolls as Latter-day Saints, but don’t say they are church members to census takers or sociologists handing out surveys. LDS retention rates are cause for concern, and the Brethren have frankly expressed these concerns over the pulpit and in print. Among the retained, church attendance varies considerably by region, and on certain demographic variables, but we hold our own against most others.

  72. KpL on February 8, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    According to the General Social Survey, the most analyzed social science data set in the world excepting only the US Census, between 1997 and 2006, 63.9% of self-identified Latter-day Saints in the intermountain west (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT and WY) reported attending church once a week or more. Outside the intermountain west, the figure is 46.5%. That ain’t shabby, as Ray suggests. As soon as I figure out the *&%# codes for the JW and SDA, I’ll post their attendance figures as well.

  73. KpL on February 8, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Gives 874 members per new ward 7832 people per stake.

    The churchwide mean is 4729 members per stake. In Utah, it is 3486 members per stake.

  74. Carborendum on February 9, 2009 at 12:07 am

    For a bunch of people who keep saying that the numbers don’t matter, you sure seem to be arguing about numbers a lot.

  75. Jerry on February 9, 2009 at 12:40 am

    I learned on my mission that the church uses numbers at least as much as any company. The focus on HT and missionary work is all about the numbers.

    I only used the new members and new stake and ward numbers. This of course assumes existing membership stays static.

  76. KpL on February 9, 2009 at 12:57 am

    I only used the new members and new stake and ward numbers. This of course assumes existing membership stays static.

    I added my numbers for effect, Jerry. I’m saying that in the years you provide, the church baptized 7832 people for each new stake. But the churchwide mean was 4729 members per stake, even after you factor these people in. In other words, the church added 311 stakes’ worth of members to go along with the 188 stakes they added. That’s using the charitable figure. 1,472,451 is 422 Utah stakes’ worth of members.

  77. KpL on February 9, 2009 at 1:22 am

    General Social Survey aggregate church attendance, 1972 – 2006. Percent of self-identified members saying that they attend church once a week or more:

    Seventh Day Adventist: 46.7%
    Jehovah’s Witnesses: 62.4%
    Mormons: 55.2%
    Southern Baptists: 32%

    Percent of self-identified members saying they NEVER attend church:

    Seventh Day Adventist: 11.3%
    Jehovah’s Witnesses: 8.5%
    Mormons: 8.1%
    Southern Baptists: 8.6%

  78. Ray on February 9, 2009 at 8:42 am

    #66 – I sound angry? That’s a first. Thanks for the laugh.

  79. Ray on February 9, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Oh, and Jerry, try reading just about anything I’ve written in the Bloggernacle. There isn’t a famine when it comes to my comments. Your characterization of me is so far off base as to prove you know nothing about me.

  80. JamesM on February 9, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I’ll vouch for Ray on that one.

  81. Rob Perkins on February 9, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    “Why do you think the first presidency has changed things up a bit?”

    It was certainly not to have better numbers than the AoG or the JW’s.

  82. Jonathan Green on February 9, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Wait, Ray, didn’t I manage to irritate you once? I was pretty proud of that accomplishment.

  83. Ray on February 9, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    James, vouch for which statement – that I’m not angry or that there isn’t a famine of my comments? *grin*

    Nice, Jonathan. When you get me angry, I’ll send you a prize – or ask Adam to bestow it.

  84. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 9, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    According to the Southern Baptists, they are losing about 40,000 members a year to the Mormons. The report for their 2007 membership actually showed the net membership was down from 2006–by 40,000 members!

    A spokesman for the SBC was quoted in the Atlanta newspaper saying that Baptists have a reputation for being judgmental of others, which is a turnoff for people who might consider joining their church.

    Anyway, at least one reason for declines in the membership of other churches is conversions to our church. The SBC seems to be pretty sure that it is not making much headway converting Mormons into Baptists.

    On the decline of membership in California: I lived in Marin County for several years. During that time, several members of the High Council where I served and the Stake Presidency moved their families to Utah, selling their overpriced homes, even though some of them continued working in the San Francisco Bay Area and flying to Utah on weekends. When I myself moved to Utah, one of my home teaching families had a dad who was working in Fresno during the week.

    California real estate is often only affordable for younger families if both spouses work and devote one of their incomes totally to housing. That is not a model that appeals to most Mormons. My guess is that you could chart a very neat inverse relationship between real estate prices in a county and LDS membership in that county.

  85. Paul S on February 9, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    That sounded angry