In his First Presidency message in the June, 2014 issue of Ensign magazine titled, “Hastening the Work,” Mormon President Thomas S. Monson spoke of the “accelerated rate” at which the Church of Jesus Christ is growing. Monson writes:
“Do you realize that the restored Church was 98 years old before it had 100 stakes? But less than 30 years later, the Church had organized its second 100 stakes. And only eight years after that the Church had more than 300 stakes. Today we are more than 3,000 stakes strong. Why is the growth taking place at an accelerated rate? Is it because we are better known? Is it because we have lovely chapels?”
Monson went on to say that “the reason the Church is growing today is that the Lord indicated it would in the Doctrine and Covenants. He said, ‘behold, I will hasten my work in its time.’”
First of all, an increase in numbers does not necessarily mean a movement, or church, or organization, has received divine approval. While it is expected that the LDS Church will increase in numbers, the percentage of that growth has slipped substantially over the past several years. In fact, it appears that the dramatic growth that Mormons have often boasted about, is now a thing of the past.
In our book Answering Mormons’ Questions, Eric and I discuss this by citing a statement by Brigham Young University professor Daniel C. Peterson. He acknowledged this downturn in recent years, writing,
“Today, we have been allotted tools for sharing the gospel of which [Book of Mormon prophet] Alma could never have dreamed. But we may have become complacent. Don’t we send out full-time missionaries? Isn’t that enough? Aren’t we ‘the fastest growing religion’? Actually, we’re not. Church growth has been falling for many years, and our current rate of missionary success is the lowest it’s been for decades. The harvest is great, but the laborers are still too few” (“The Internet Aids Missionary Effort,” Mormon Times, April 7, 2011).
While I certainly agree with Dr. Peterson that church growth has been falling for many years (convert baptisms peaked way back in 1990), I don’t personally attribute this phenomenon with complacency or even a lack of laborers. LDS leaders are firmly aware that people are leaving the LDS Church in record numbers, and they have implemented a number of new programs to improve this situation. For example, the leadership has encouraged members to be more active in social media and many have responded to the call. However, attempts to defend the faith in this arena can be very risky since it allows people to respond to some of the bad arguments Mormons post on Facebook or blog sites.
Consider also that the LDS Church substantially increased its number of full-time missionaries when it lowered the eligible age for service among males to 18 and females to 19. In an April 26, 2014 Salt Lake Tribune article titled, “Mormon conversions lag behind huge missionary growth,” Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote,
“The stats are staggering. In the year and a half since the LDS Church lowered the minimum age for full-time missionary service, the Utah-based faith has seen its proselytizing force swell from 58,500 to more than 83,000. That’s a 42 percent leap. The number of convert baptisms last year grew to 282,945, up from 272,330 in 2012. That’s an increase of — less than 4 percent.”
That 4 percent increase doesn’t seem that encouraging when you consider that 12 years ago, 283,138 people converted to Mormonism. In 2002 the missionary force totaled 36,196.
Numerous suggestions have been offered as to why the LDS church has been struggling. The secularization of the western world is certainly a plausible explanation. However, I maintain that as many more people have the opportunity to seriously examine the history and doctrinal claims of the LDS church, Mormonism will find fewer people interested in what it offers. To put this in marketing terms, potential “customers” who have become “product savvy” are finding Mormonism to be an inferior product. It only makes sense that the free flow of information on the Internet will continue to shrink Mormonism’s potential “customer base.”
The Mormon church is between a rock and a hard place. It can no longer hide or ignore its past so it is forced to explain the dubious behavior of its founder and the myriad of contradicting teachings among its leadership. In recent months it has been trying to meet this challenge via a series of “Gospel Topic” essays posted on lds.org, but when you have a bad product, how will this new transparency help when it appears that the LDS church is now admitting that its critics were telling the truth all along?
While we are extremely pleased that efforts to expose the error of Mormonism are having a positive effect, this is only phase one in trying to reach the millions of people who are still members of the LDS church. Phase two can, and often is, much more difficult as we attempt to convince disaffected members that the truth claims of Jesus are still worth considering, despite the fact that they were deceived by Joseph Smith.
Even if the LDS church collapsed tomorrow, our missionary efforts will be far from over as we will find ourselves much more engaged in convincing those who erroneously believed the oft-quoted claim that, “if the LDS church isn’t true, nothing is.”
This article is reprinted from the July-August 2014 issue of Mormonism Researched.