LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention: Review and Analysis

Return to Table of Contents

Chapter: IV-01: Overall Growth Trends

Having defined basic terms and having identified core considerations in the analysis of church growth data, I will now critically review pertinent data relevant to LDS growth, convert retention, and member activity from a variety of sources. Although I will make every effort to be objective in the analysis of data, space and time do not allow an exhaustive discussion of each study. An entire article of this length could be written on each of the national censuses and major sociologic studies without fully exhausting their nuances. I have focused on pointing out key considerations which are essential to accurate interpretation of the data. The close convergence of findings from diverse sources corroborates the validity of the range of results and serves to negate claims that minor study nuances not considered here would significantly alter the overall conclusions.

Overall Growth Trends

The rapid growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a frequent and recurring theme in the secular media. The claim that the Church of Jesus Christ is the "world's fastest growing church" has been repeated in the Los Angeles Times,[1] the Salt Lake Tribune,[2] The Guardian,[3] and other media outlets,[4] while sources claiming that the LDS Church is the "fastest growing in the United States" are too numerous to chronicle. Sociologist Rodney Stark's 1984 projection has been widely cited: "A 50 percent per decade growth rate, which is actually lower than the rate each decade since World War II, will result in over 265 million members of the Church by 2080"[5]. In Mormons in America, Claudia and Richard Bushman claimed, "Mormonism, one of the world's fastest-growing Christian religions, doubles its membership every 15 years"[6].

Latter-day Saint media have also lauded rapid church growth. The LDS Church News has described international LDS growth with a litany of superlatives, including "astronomic," "dynamic," "miraculous," and "spectacular." The claim that the LDS Church is the "fastest growing church in the United States" has been repeated in the Ensign and LDS Church News.

Yet annual LDS growth rates have progressively declined from over 5 percent in the late 1980s to less than 3 percent from 2000 to 2005.[7] During this same period, other international missionary-oriented faiths have reported accelerating growth, including the Seventh-Day Adventists, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, and Evangelical (5.6 percent annual growth)[8] and Pentecostal churches (7.3 percent annual growth). Since 1990, LDS missionaries have been challenged to double the number of baptisms, but instead the number of baptisms per missionary has halved. The average LDS missionary in 1989 brought 8 people into the church, while the mean number of annual baptisms per missionary averaged between 6.0 and 6.5 between 1985 and 1999. From 2000 to 2004, the average missionary experienced 4.5 convert baptisms. When one accounts for actual activity and retention rates, approximately 1.2 of the 4.5 converts baptized annually by the typical missionary will remain active. The sharp decline in LDS growth rates occurred even at times with record numbers of missionaries serving. This declining growth comes in spite of the LDS Church entering fifty-nine new nations for proselyting between 1990 and 2000.

For 2004, 241,239 LDS convert baptisms were reported, the lowest number of converts since 1987. The number of convert baptisms increased to 272,845 in 2006, but both missionary productivity and the total number of baptisms remained well below the levels of the early 1990s. Even more concerning is that only a fraction of baptized members remain active. Sociologist Armand Mauss stated that "75 percent of foreign [LDS] converts are not attending church within a year of conversion. In the United States, 50 percent of the converts fail to attend after a year".[9] As 80 percent of LDS convert baptisms occur outside of the United States, this means that only 30% of LDS converts worldwide become active or participating members of the Church. Natural LDS growth has also fallen as the LDS birth rate has progressively declined. LDS church membership has continued to increase, but the rate of growth has slowed considerably.


FOOTNOTES
[1] Lobdell, William, "New Mormon Aim: Reach Out to Blacks," Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2003.
[2] Smith, Christopher, "Saints in Las Vegas: LDS Church Thriving in the Glow of Sin City," Salt Lake Tribune, April 6, 2002.
[3] "Utah's Wheel Greasing History," Guardian (UK), January 25, 1999.
[4] "Atlanta Suburb Flourishes with Church Membership," The Church in the News, citing the Atlanta Constitution Journal, April 11, 2002, lds.org/news/rchiveday/0,5287,10275,00.html.
[5] Stark, Rodney, as cited in BYU Studies, 29/2 (Spring 1989): 61.
[6] Bushman, Claudia Lauper and Richard Lyman Bushman. Mormons in America, Religion in American Life series, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 11.
[7] Annual LDS Statistical Reports in the May Ensign of each year, May 1973-May 2005, library.lds.org.
[8] Mission Frontiers, U.S. Center for World Mission, as quoted in Mennonite Brethren Herald, June 23, 2000.
[9] Willis, Stacy A., "Mormon Church Is Funding Its Future," Las Vegas Sun, May 4, 2001.