I took the recent congregation numbers by continent reported by the Church and extrapolated the growth by continent to look at the likely composition of the Church in the future. Now, this is not a sophisticated projection (to put it gently). All I’m doing is estimating the starting point in 2010, deriving the percentage change to 2021, then applying this percentage change across multiple 11-year increments.
With enough elbow grease I could get more precise (I have to estimate the numbers from eyeballing the figures), but for basic take-aways it would probably look close enough to what I have here. A growth rate extrapolated this far is undoubtedly an oversimplification. I suspect that proselytizing a country follows a similar epidemiological dynamic as a pandemic (not that religion is a virus). At some point proselytizers have been in an area long enough that most people who are susceptible to conversion have done so, and the high, initial growth “burns out.” Also, if Africa becomes more developed economically that may affect its baseline religiosity, which would affect conversions. It’s anybody’s guess, but these extrapolations are a fun, simple look at what the Church will look like globally if current rates are extrapolated forward.
If we do this, then Africa will surpass North America in terms of congregations around the year 2050. This is pretty far in the future, so it’s highly speculative, but the globalization of the Church, and the shifting of its center of gravity elsewhere, has potentially interesting implications. For example, it isn’t written anywhere that the Church’s iconic institutions have to be based out of the United States. Maybe at some point in the next half century we’ll be broadcasting General Conference from Accra. Additionally, it may become more difficult to justify subsidizing non-technical/applied education at BYU for a well-off minority of US Church members when the population center is shifting elsewhere. (I suspect the drive to internationalize the Pathways program is part in anticipation of these shifts, but that’s just conjecture on my part). Whatever the exact numbers, it’s hard to see a situation where Africa does not become a significant part of Church culture and institutions in the long run.
I try to spend 2 months a year in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in the East, in Uganda and more recently in Ethiopia and Kenya. I obviously enjoy the continent. The Church is doing well there. But membership retention is a problem. The Church has obvious challenges there. And I would like to see it do a lot more to meet those challenges. The payoffs could be huge.
One place where the Church could certainly help is with education. Many, if not most, of the African new members are poor. We need more programs for members and non-members alike that assist Africans to grow financially as well as spiritually. Quality high schools and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa are needed. The Church needs to invest in people.
Your analysis is at least as sophisticated as Rodney Stark’s.
Extrapolating to the end of the century: 3,000,000 congregations. I can’t wait!!
@ SCH: Yes, as noted in the OP eventually growth rates shelve off after high initial growth. Even so, it’s not hard to see a crossover in my lifetime with the plurality of the Church moving from North America to Africa.
I paused at the last sentence (“it’s hard to see a situation where Africa does not become a significant part of Church culture and institutions in the long run.”) I’m not sure that the church’s missionary effort is enough of a two-way street in order to make that so. Has the church’s large following in South America made a dent on the culture and institution? It seems to me that missionary work (across Christianity and including LDS proselytizing) is an imperialist and capitalist effort. The church will try to impose its culture on others, but I don’t see SLC being open to modifying policies or values to be more in line with others. Similar to how McDonald’s might offer a few different menu items in franchises overseas, but they rarely make their way onto American menus.