LDS Growth and Retention

The September 20th issue of Apologia Report included an interesting summary of a recent article by John Dart on LDS growth and retention. With the permission of Apologia Report’s author Rich Poll, the summary follows.

“Counting Mormons” by John Dart, news editor for Christian Century — a valuable independent update on official LDS membership tracking practices and their reliability. Dart begins by reporting that “many researchers say that the official figures of Mormon membership in the U.S. — as well as the church’s claims of having 13 million members worldwide — are greatly inflated or overstated. At fault, studies say, is the church’s policy of counting as members nearly all baptized Mormons, including those who are lapsed in membership or who cannot be located.

“If more customary church tallies and membership estimates were used, scholars say, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have to cut its publicly announced [U.S.] figure nearly in half — to just a little over 3 million. …

“Officials of the LDS Church admit that there are plenty of non-practicing Mormons, but they do not want to give up on them. … But everyone who has been baptized Mormon — usually at age eight — is included in official membership totals, which undoubtedly include some who have died. …

“[A]ny unaffiliated Mormons who cannot be located are still counted as members until they would have reached the age of 110. Only then is their membership dropped because they are presumed dead.”

Dart reports on another segment. One study showed that “from 1999 to 2004 conversions roughly equaled ‘defections and apostasy.’ As a result, more than three quarters of Mormon growth in the U.S. was due to the high Mormon birthrate, which outpaces the rate of deaths.

Then there is “the question of whether the LDS Church uses social statistics to promote itself in public.” Sociologist Rodney Stark has “projected that exponential growth rates could give Mormonism 267 million members by 2080. ‘The church bought into that prediction hook, line and sinker, and made it central to its ‘juggernaut’ public relations,’ said Jan Shipps of Indianapolis, who in 1980 became the first non-Mormon president of the Mormon History Association.

“Mormon sociologist Rick Phillips concurs. Speeches by church leaders cite the expansion ‘as evidence of the validity and legitimacy of church doctrines and programs,’ wrote Phillips” who, according to Dart, was quoted in The Rise of Mormonism, by editor Reid L. Neilson.

And as for membership estimates from non-LDS sources, “‘Growth stagnated in the 1990s and has topped off at about 200,000 new members per year over the last decade or so,’ says Ryan Cragun, who is completing his doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati. ‘Growth has fallen in many countries around the world to about the level of population growth generally, around 2 percent,’ said Cragun. ‘The implication is that most of the new members are actually children of members,’ said Cragun, an ex-Mormon who joined the University of Tampa faculty this year.

“One factor in lowered growth rates, LDS officials and social scientists agree, may have been the decision by the church in 2002 to ‘raise the bar’ for those who qualify as Mormon missionaries.”

A helpful source for statistical measurement which may indicate correlation popped up in the south. “The shift toward seeking higher-quality missionaries came as two national censuses in Latin America asked people to identify their specific religious affiliation. …

“The census reports in Mexico and Chile, after accounting for the different ages included, both listed Latter-day Saints in their nations at numbers only about 25 percent of what the church counted, according to Knowlton, a specialist in religion in Latin America.

“Another specialist, Henri Gooren, formerly of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, concluded last October on the basis of his field work in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua that ‘anyone joining the LDS Church in Central America had a 50 percent chance of becoming inactive in the first year.’ In addition, ‘core members’ who meet all the expectations of LDS membership ‘made up no more than about one-quarter of all registered members.'”

Regardless of the inflation, LDS growth cannot be discounted. “Eventually, because of birth rates and a special Mormon focus on the region, ‘most Mormons will be Latin Americans by 2020,’ predicted Gooren, who now teaches at Oakland University in Michigan.” (Christian Century, Aug 21 ’07, pp26-29)

About Apologia:

What tools do career apologists find most helpful in their research? One is Apologia Report. Its author, Rich Poll, first began writing semi-weekly apologetics news updates for the research staff of Christian Research Institute in 1985. He has been at it ever since, although now he does this for a larger audience through the ministry of Apologia which he began in 1995. Apologia Report surveys a wide range of print and online sources (from academic journals to popular secular media to publications from cultic organizations) in order to harvest information that will help Christian leaders keep up to date in defending the Christian faith.

Further Reading

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.

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10 Responses to LDS Growth and Retention

  1. Michael P says:

    Very interesting.

    I’d love to hear the response…

  2. Michael P says:

    No responses?

    Any other thoughts?

  3. Seth R. says:

    Sorry. I don’t have much to say about it. I’ve always thought it was silly to equate popularity with truth to begin with.

  4. Michael P says:

    Fair enough, but then, perhaps this is only my impression, why does it seem that the LDS church absolutely touts its numbers and growth?

    Seems it is used to claim their legitimacy or their influence…

    Am I off or do you think the church is mistaken in its focus on them?

  5. Seth R. says:

    I think they might be overdoing it. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with being publicly pleased with success. As long as the numbers are actually reflective. I’ll concede that the publicly released numbers probably don’t tell the whole story though.

  6. Michael P says:

    You’re right, there is nothing wrong with celebrating success. Its when it is manipulating data to show succes when it is an issue.

    I am not accusing, and am only looking to get an insider’s point of view on the article above.

    I appreciate your candide responses.

  7. Eric the Red says:

    I have in my files a fascinating article on LDS church growth written by David Stewart. It can still be accessed at the following site, http://www.cumorah.com/lawoftheharvest.html I think he is an active member. I believe he gives a candid description of the Mormon church’s over emphasis on numbers and the pressures on missionaries to “get decisions.” Like I said, it is worth reading. As to numbers proving legitimacy and truth, I agree with Seth. That is silly. Yet, Mike is true when he states that LDS use their numerical success to validate the truth of their church. Numerous Mormon missionaries have told me the following, “How can 12,000,000 people be wrong.” This mantra has been repeated often enough to lead me to believe that more is involved here than some one’s own personal opinion. If Mormon missionaries from different backgrounds, different time periods, and different locations are rolling out the same statement, is it not possible they are learning it from higher up? Worth thinking about.

  8. Megan says:

    I think when LDS missionaries say “How can 12,000,000 people be wrong”, the proper response should be, “how can X amounts of orthodox Christians or X amounts of Muslims be wrong”? If they want to use numbers to prove the veracity of the church’s message, one could easily point out that the numbers in other religions far outshadow the adherents in their own church. I’ll have to remember that response the next time the young men in suits come to my house.

  9. Michael P says:

    Megan, trouble is, to my knowledge neither Christians nor Muslims spout out such numbers…

  10. Natman says:

    My wifes family is baptized Mormon, and out of 7 kids, non of them go to the Mormon church and I know at least 3 are still considered members and likely the other 4 are also. How many of those “members” are there?

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