Now that the latest Church statistics are out everyone is putting up their analysis. I’ve not written a lot on statistics of late so I thought I’d retouch some of the topics I’ve discussed in the past. The short summary is that missionary effectiveness is up slightly but overall growth is decreasing, partially driven by birth rate drops. The year over year growth of the Church was only 1.21%. The lowest rate since the 1930’s and well below the 3 – 4% growth seen during the rise of the international Church.
The growth in absolute numbers was less than 200,000 for the first time since 1978. Some have tied the two eras together seeing LGBT issues as a significant driver of the slowdown in Church growth akin to how racial issues affected Church growth in the 70’s. I think that can be overstated though. One main driver is a much reduced birth rate. While it’s dangerous to use Utah as a proxy for the Church, it can be informative as a first order approximation. Utah has the second highest birth rate in the country, but it is now (2017 data) only 2.12 with 2.1 needed just to meet replacement. The birth rate started dropping after the recession of 2008 but had been low throughout the period from 1990 – 2006. (See the graph below) Really from the late 70’s when the birth rate was 3.3 to the early 90’s when it hit 2.65 there was a near continual dropping rate. Those demographic changes likely are not unique to Utah and are affecting general numbers as the children of that era reach adulthood.
Of course not only are many members outside of Utah, many more members are outside of the United States. While some live in low birth rate regions such as Europe or Asia, others live in high birth rate areas like Latin America or Africa. So it really is difficult to gauge the exact value of the birth rate. Many scholars do think though that the significant drop in numbers for so-called mainline Protestant sects happened starting in the 90’s due to their birth rate dropping significantly in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s just that only now is the same phenomena affecting Latter-day Saints, Evangelicals and other more conservative forms of Protestantism. People still are debating exactly how much the relative success of these groups in the 90’s through mid teens is due to birth rate and how much is due to other effects (such as their very conservative nature).
We can see the effect of birth rate by looking at the number of children of record. In 2000 the figure was 109,797. (Going by Wheat and Tares figures) In 2018 it was 102,102. Not only did it not grow, it shrank. Note that in 2012 the figure was 122,273.
The other figure that has received a lot of attention is the number of people taking their names off the rolls of the Church. Calculating this is difficult and requires various assumptions. Some critics put the figure up around 80,000 for 2018. Others put the figure much lower at about half that. I don’t want to even begin to try and figure out that figure. It’s high though and much higher than in the past.
The good news is a slight improvement in missionary efficiency. The bad news is that it’s only slight. The rate has been horrible since the “surge” as the mission age dropped. The clear indication as I’ve noted before is that 18 – 19 year olds simply are not as effective as missionaries as 19 – 20 year olds. This is born out by various anecdotal accounts as well as stories that the number of missionaries returning home early has increased substantially. While I suspect the age drop had more to do with retention and changes in college preparedness, by all appearances it has hurt the number of conversions. In 2009 there were 280,106 converts. In 2018 there were only 234,332. That’s despite having many more missionaries out.
Now one theory is that there is only so many people ready to hear the gospel at a time. Thus the efficiency of missionaries simply is low because we have more missionaries than there’s work for. I’m very skeptical of this idea. It may well be that the work is much harder than even a decade ago. I have a hard time believe that it’s that much harder with that many fewer people willing to listen. Interestingly if we assume an average baptizing rate of 5 per missionary, as was typically before 2012, the growth rate of the Church would have been much, much higher the past six years.
I tried to model this simply in the following table. The “theory number of converts” is just 5 * missionaries. That’s a bit unrealistic as while I don’t think there’s an upper boundary on missionaries I do think the surge intrinsically made life harder. So I’d ignore somewhat 2012 & 2013. This is also lower than the actual rate from 2011 and before. Consider this more a qualitative hypothesis against an ideal.
This theoretical calculation would still have Church growth lower than in the past, but more on par with growth from the prior decade. Again I wouldn’t take this calculation too seriously. There are a lot of variables here. This is just a way to think through what could have been had there not been such a precipitous drop in 2012-2013 in missionary effectiveness that remains with us. Put an other way, while birth rate is a significant driver of the growth of the Church, the loss of effectiveness of missionaries since 2012 is an even bigger driver.
Looking at children, if the number of children hadn’t started dropping in 2013, we’d have only slightly more members. Around 10,000. Contrast that with the much larger number of converts.
Now of course the driver of the numbers most people are talking about are people who leave the faith. We hope to review Jana Reiss’ The Next Mormons which focuses in on retention. That’s why the calculation of people who renounced their membership is so interesting, whether it was 40,000 or 80,000. If it was the higher figure that’s higher than the number of converts leading to a net loss of members. If it was the lower figure that’s still worrisome, although by some measures up to 80% of converts leave the Church within 10 years. If Jana’s figures are accurate, Latter-day Saint retention remains high, but no longer as high as it once was. Certainly well below the typical “ethnic” religious retention of religions often associated with immigrants such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. Typically such faiths have a retention of 75% or higher.
If retention is dropping, then that can account for a considerable fraction of the drop in growth. How much this is responsible isn’t completely clear. As I said different people come to differing calculations due to missing information in the data set such as deaths. In any case looking at the Wheat and Tares figures, it seems that since 2014 resignations has increased significantly. This is a very recent phenomena, and thus not easily tied to broad trends such as internet adoption or anti-Mormon rhetoric. Again going by the Wheat and Tares calculations the increase in resignations corresponds to the controversy over LGBT issues starting with the Prop-8 battle in California. How much of the numbers is due to that isn’t at all clear. Nor is it clear, given the drop in numbers of all religions and the rise of the Nones, that a different LGBT policy would actually increase numbers. Still that does appear to be a major effect and one I don’t think we can or should dismiss.
The other way to look at the data is that we have a lot of children who start as members but just don’t make it to their 20s or so as members. That’s the interpretation the LDS Church Growth blog takes. This is resignations by an other name I think though. The rise of the Nones is accelerating for each generation. Church just isn’t important and is an actual negative. People seem to want personal acceptance and service to them but don’t think of religion in terms of a call or duty. If this rise is what the mission changes were design to solve I don’t think it worked.
2. See 2016’s “Converts per Missionary” along with 2017’s “Converts per Missionary Revisited” and “On Those Latest Missionary Numbers.” Although we’ve done many stories over the years here at T&S and I did several at my private blog such as 2015’s “Mormon Demographics: Canadian Edition.”
3. The main problem is that Utah is only around 60% Latter-day Saint and not all of them are active. Further the birth rate of members outside of Utah may not match those within Utah.
4. See for instance the table at Wheat and Tares that puts it at 42,000.
5. Anyone who has been on a mission knows that the majority of converts fall away after the missionary leaves. It’s unusual for many to last a year truthfully. To the point it’s hard to say how many were truly converted. That’s long been a struggle in the Church affected by pressure on missionaries for numbers, a failure of wards to fellowship new members well, along with the innate problems of when a member has to live the gospel over time which can be difficult even for those raised in the Church. The 80% figure may be wrong – I’m going by memory. But I suspect it’s close to the actual figure.
6. The reasons for the high retention isn’t completely clear although many speculate that the sense of community as a support mechanism simply is more valuable. It’s also possible that religious identity is seen as important against a world of those of differing culture and views. It’s possible that in the 90’s and before that Mormon retention was high due to being so different from the Protestant majority that we had a similar phenomena at work.
This is a longer term look at baptisms per missionary with the line from before 2012 thrown in.
This is comparing converts to the number of missions rather than missionaries. It’s a much more stable relationship.
This is a longer term look at the absolute number of converts going back to 1967. You’ll see that it peaks in the very early 90’s and then stabilizes with a fairly linear slightly downward trend.
This is a look at the number of children of record which is a good proxy for the growth of the Church in terms of children born.