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

Return to Table of Contents

Chapter IV-08: Latin America

Mexico, Brazil, and Chile were the countries with the second, third, and fourth largest LDS populations a in the world at the time the censuses were conducted, although Brazil has since overtaken Mexico for the number two spot. The inclusion of religious affiliation data on the national censuses in these nations and several others is highly significant and provides a crucial window into the state of the LDS Church in nations were only limited data is available.

2000 Mexican Census

The 2000 Mexican census found that 205,229 Mexicans age five and above identified the LDS Church as their faith of preference, compared to nearly 850,000 members in Mexico claimed by the Church at the time.[1] This group included 94,132 men and 111,097 women, and included 23,851 of both sexes age 5 to 9, 26,875 age 10-14, 27,267 age 15-19, 23,128 age 20-24, 20,276 age 25-29, 17,602 age 30-34, 15,836 age 35-39, 13,766 age 40-44, 9,915 age 45-49, and 26,713 age 50 and above. The age distribution of LDS members closely parallels the age demographics of Mexican society as a whole. There are slightly more females in the self-identified LDS population (54%) than in the Mexican population as a whole (51.5%), with gender parity between age 5 and 14 but with women holding a slight preponderance among all other age groups.

2000 Brazilian Census

The 2000 Brazilian census reported that 199,645 individuals identified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as their faith of preference, or 26.8 percent of the 743,182 claimed by the Church at year-end 1999.[2] The Brazilian census recorded religious affiliation for children of all ages as well as adults. The LDS cohort included 92,197 males (46.2%) and 107,448 females (53.8%), with a skew towards urban areas: only 2.2% of the LDS respondents (4,446) lived in rural areas, compared to 18.8% of the overall population.

2002 Chilean Census

The 2002 Chilean census reported that 103,735 Chileans over age fifteen (0.92 percent of the population) identified themselves as Mormons or Latter-day Saints.[3] In spite of strong encouragement from the pulpit to LDS members to identify their religious affiliation on the census, this number represents fewer than 20 percent of the 520,202 individuals claimed on official LDS membership rolls. Individuals under age fifteen (who were not asked for religious affiliation) represented 25.7 percent of the Chilean population. As for the population of youth ages fifteen to twenty-nine, 1.1 percent identify themselves as Latter-day Saints, compared to only 0.5 percent of the population over age 75.

Analyzing Methodological Differences among Latin American Censuses

Methodological differences in the inclusion criteria among Latin American censuses shed further light upon data analysis. The Brazilian census recorded religious affiliation for people of all ages, whereas the Mexican census queried individuals aged five and above, and the Chilean census had the highest minimum inclusion age for religious preference at 15. The Brazilian census, which was completely inclusive, has the highest correlation between official LDS membership claims and self-identified religious affiliation at 27%; whereas the Mexican and Chilean censuses with their minimum ages of 5 and 15 correlate to official LDS membership at rates of 24% and 20%, respectively.

The correlation between results and inclusion ages would caution thoughtful analysts against concluding that the true correlation of self-identified and official membership, and by extrapolation member participation and activity in general, is any higher in Brazil than in Chile. The cohort of children under 15 excluded from religious reporting on the Chilean census constitutes 25.7 percent of the population; we can therefore estimate (ignoring potential differences in religious preferences among cohorts of various ages, which we have no way to calculate for young children) that the 103,735 individuals who identified themselves as Latter-day Saints represent 74.3% of the true LDS cohort, and that 139,600 individuals would have identified themselves as Latter-day Saints if younger children had been included. This would bring the correlation between self-identified religious affiliation and church-reported membership number up to 26.8%, which is nearly identical to the Brazilian census correlation. The 0-4 age demographic on the Mexican census constituted 11% of the population, leading to a similar corrected correlation ratio of 27%.

Other Data on the Church in Latin America

Census data harmonize closely with wide-ranging data from other sources. Peggy Fletcher Stack reported: "According to several Brazilian leaders, the LDS activity rate here is between 25 percent and 35 percent. That means for every three or four converts, only one stays."[4] Former Eastern Europe Area President Wayne Hancock noted at a conference of the Russia Moscow Mission in December 2000 that in some parts of Latin America, 30 to 40 percent of new converts do not even return to church after baptism to be confirmed.[5]

Brigham Young University professor Ted Lyon, who served as a Chilean mission president and the president of the Chilean Missionary Training Center, noted that of the nominal 535,000 Latter-day Saints in Chile, only 57,000 attend church on an average week.[6] More Latter-day Saints attend church each week in Provo, Utah, than in the entire nation of Chile with the world's fourth largest LDS membership.

The problem of inactivity reaches crisis levels across Latin America. Deseret News religion editor Carrie Moore wrote: "Although the church does not provide statistics on activity rates, the number of inactive members in some areas eventually outpaced those who were active by a substantial margin."[7] Brigham Young University Latin American Studies professor Mark Grover acknowledged "a wide gap between the number of people baptized and the number attending church."[8] Former Brazilian mission president Brad Shepherd observed: "Before we arrived (in 1996) there had been a lot of youth baptized without family support. While some of them have gone on and done great things, many others had slipped away and retaining current members was a challenge. We spent a lot of time working on retention and reactivation. In fact, there was time spent every week by missionaries just devoted to that effort. The result was kind of a mixed bag with reactivation. There were some great success stories and others were very challenging."[9]

Rushed baptism of inadequately prepared investigators represents a major reason for low retention rates in Latin America. Dr. Lyon noted that low activity rates arose at least in part because "too many people were baptized before they had made the commitments to pay tithing or to attend church."[10] John Hawkins, who has studied LDS growth in Guatemala, noted: "There has, in the past, been this notion (among missionaries) that if they are not willing to commit to baptism in two weeks, you drop them and keep going ... Members found that oppressive because conversions were happening so rapidly that once the missionaries moved on to other areas, the people they baptized were left without a support system and the local members were overloaded trying to keep up with all the new converts. Many simply gave up and waited to see 'who the good ones were' that would come to church on their own and make a contribution without a lot of nurturing from the congregation."

Growing awareness of low retention has led to some institutional changes. Deseret News Reporter Tad Walch wrote: "In April 1999, President Hinckley visited Chile and delivered a strong message to missionaries on their new area of focus. 'The days are past, the days are gone, the days are no longer here when we will baptize hundreds of thousands of people in Chile and then they will drift away from the church,' President Hinckley said. 'When you begin to count those who are not active, you are almost driven to tears over the terrible losses we have suffered in this nation.'"[12] Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland confirmed that combating low activity and convert retention rates was a major goal of his assignment in Chile, stating: "Every LDS general authority is aware of the challenges that skyrocketing church growth has created in Latin America in the past 20 years. The list includes a large percentage of LDS converts who initially embraced the faith and then fell away shortly thereafter ... We know we have the baptisms. We want to make sure we have the church growing proportionately in strength right along with it."[13] While overseeing Church efforts in Chile from 2002 to 2004, Elder Holland "revised policy to insist that converts attend church three weeks in succession" and taught missionaries to focus on building the Church rather than simply adding numbers.[14] He noted that these efforts have led to substantial improvement, with more converts remaining active and greater numbers of Chileans serving missions.

[1] Censo general de población y vivienda 2000, Instituto National de Estadística y Geografía,
[2] 2000 Brazilian Census, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica, Censo Demográfico 2000,
[3] 2002 Chilean Census, Chilean National Institute of Statistics,
[4] Stack, Peggy Fletcher, "Brazil Leaves Impression on LDS Church," Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 2003.
[5] Russia Moscow Mission Conference, December 2000, as cited by Ivan Makarov.
[6] Stack, Peggy Fletcher, "Building Faith. A Special Report: The LDS Church in Chile," Salt Lake Tribune, March 31, 2006.
[7] Moore, Carrie, "Flood of Converts Alters the Face of LDS Church," Deseret News, October 5, 2002.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Moore, ibid.
[10] Stack, Peggy Fletcher, "Building Faith. A Special Report: The LDS Church in Chile," Salt Lake Tribune, March 31, 2006.
[11] Moore, Carrie A., "Flood of Converts Alters the Face of LDS Church," Deseret News, October 5, 2002.
[12] Walch, Tad, "LDS Surge in Latin America," Deseret News, March 21, 2003.
[13] Moore, Carrie A., "Elder Holland 'a Student' in Chile," Deseret News, October 13, 2002.
[13] Ibid.