Mormonism’s growth figures—what can you believe?

Screaming front page headline in Wednesday, May 2, 2012’s Salt Lake Tribune (in bold, no less):

“Multiplying Mormons expand into new turf”

Subhead 1: “2010 census: LDS Church is fastest-growth Christian faith in 30 states, report shows

Subhead 2: “Only Muslims, with 67% jump from 2000-2010, outpaces 45% LDS increase.”

Anyone picking up the paper on Wednesday received several messages:

1. The Mormons are a Christian faith.
2. The church grew by 45.5% over the past decade.
3. The church grew from 4,224,000 US members to 6,144,000 from 2000 to 2010.

These are amazing numbers. The problem is, the numbers were cooked. A person who only looked at the front page and the major headlines on Wednesday probably missed the follow-up article on Thursday. Instead of the front page, a story was placed in Section B of the Utah section next to the page’s main article, “Dry winter portends a busy wildfire season.” The one-column article next to it had a much smaller headline, reading, “LDS Church growth really near 18%.” The subhead: “Only 40% of Mormons attend church regularly, says researcher.”

Wait a minute. The day before, the number was 45%. The next day, it’s 18%? And then some new information—only 4 out of 10 Mormons go to church regularly. What’s going on? Was this story meant to be a retraction?

Journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack, the author of both articles, wrote Thursday’s lead this way:

“If you suspected the newly released U.S. Religion Census overstated the LDS Church’s growth rate, you were right. That’s because, this time around, the Utah-based faith changed the way it reported its membership to the researchers.”

In her lead, Stack makes it appear that the error (a word she never uses) is the fault of the researchers. Dale Jones, a Religious Census researcher, says he “wished the LDS Church had alerted him about the change in its reporting methods.”

So the church used numbers in a different way than they had done in the past…and nobody caught it? Where was the journalist, Peggy Fletcher Stack? Why did she take the numbers at face value when she had ready access to the information? After all, she could have easily looked at the Deseret News Almanac, printed every year by the church. If she had just taken two minutes and looked closer at the 2001 edition, she would have seen that the U.S. number given by the church was 5,113,000, not 4,224,000. In fact, if she went back to the 1991 edition, she could have also observed that the number in 1990 was closer to the 4,224,000 number that Wednesday’s article said the church had in 2000.

These numbers should have been an immediate tip-off that something was awry, especially since the Mormon Church is completely anal when it comes to reporting numbers.  And Scott Trotter, the LDS Church spokesman, would have been better off to direct Stack in the right direction. Instead, he’s quoted in Wednesday’s paper as saying that “the church is growing and we are grateful that people are embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

So how well did the church—currently at 14 million—grow worldwide during these past two decades? Brigham Young University professor Daniel Peterson writes for a church newspaper how his people have become “complacent”:

“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).

According to a Reuter’s article, Church Historian and Recorder Marlin Jansen addressed a religious studies class at Utah State University in the fall of 2011. Answering a student’s question about whether or not he knew that members were leaving in droves, he said he was “aware” of the situation.

“And I’m speaking of the 15 men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church. They really do know and they really care.” Jensen said that “not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the 1837 failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church.” The article also reported that “census data from some foreign countries targeted by clean-cut young missionaries show that the retention rate for their converts is as low as 25 percent. In the U.S., only about half of Mormons are active members of the church, said Washington State University emeritus sociologist Armand Mauss, a leading researcher on Mormons. Sociologists estimate there are as few as 5 million active members worldwide.” (“Mormonism besieged by the modern age,” Jan. 30, 2012)

And, in Thursday’s newspaper, an independent researcher is quoted as saying, “We estimate that only 40 percent of LDS Church members in the U.S. attend church regularly” (Salt Lake Tribune, “LDS growth really near 18%,” May 3, 2012, p. B4).

When it comes to numbers, during the first half of the 1990s, the church consistently grew by more than three percent per year. However, beginning in 1998, the rate of growth never reached three percent again, even dipping under two percent in three of the six years between 2005-2010.  Compare the LDS Church statistics with another nineteenth century American religious movement, the Brooklyn, New York-based Watchtower Bible and Tract Society whose members are known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unlike Latter-day Saints, the Watchtower Society considers all members to be missionaries who are expected to go door-to-door and evangelize on a regular basis.

In 2010, this organization—which is about half the size of the LDS Church—grew by 294,000 converts (as compared to Mormonism’s 272,000 converts in the same time frame). This is a 4 percent increase from the previous year’s numbers, doubling the total percentage of LDS growth as listed by the LDS Church.

I admit, the LDS Church is still growing in numbers, much more than I would like. But at the same time, they are certainly not growing at the pace they were before the days of DSL Internet. The information is much easier to get. I just wish the LDS Church PR department as well as a Mormon journalist would do their homework and get their stories straight.

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9 Responses to Mormonism’s growth figures—what can you believe?

  1. falcon says:

    So the Mormons are cooking the books. What’s new?
    I’ve been reading about this for several years. The facts are that more people are going out the back door than coming in the front. However Mormonism is like the Hotel California. You can check in but you can never leave!
    For years the word on the street was that it was mission impossible to get your name removed from the rolls of the SLC denomination. You can go to any number of websites that give step-by-step instructions on how to do it. It shouldn’t be that difficult but the folks in Salt Lake City are very numbers conscious. Then to get them to leave you alone once you’re off the list is a whole other challenge.
    It’s interesting, the number of “inactives”. I’ve seen where fifty percent of returning missionaries drop out.
    What would the numbers look like if only those who were converted were counted. I have the sneaky suspicion that children of life long Mormons get counted as “new members”. These are not converts.
    There’s an underlying thread of dishonesty that permeates Mormonism. The religion was founded on a lie and it’s perpetuated by lies. So then why should anyone be surprised as to how the SLC bunch report their growth.

  2. Mike R says:

    Loss of members will translate into financial problems . That will cause the Mormon
    hierarchy to ask the rank and file members to give more. I sense a revelation coming
    about tithing being raised to 20% , and it will be revealed by God’s mouthpiece that this
    is a new rung to be built onto the Mormon gospel ladder of requirements for eternal life .
    Who knows ?

  3. falcon says:

    Here’s an article from the last few months dealing with the Mormon numbers. I believe the author (Joanna Brooks) is a member of the LDS religion. I thought her conclusion was kind of interesting.

    “Today, after decades of institutional emphasis on orthodox belief and behavior, it may be difficult for some in the highly observant Mormon core to imagine a cultural Mormonism that enfranchises the less observant. But as the 2012 presidential contest brings increased scrutiny and self-awareness of Mormonism as a culture (complete with its own foodways), perhaps the time is right for Mormons to explore how to nourish and strengthen Mormon identity, even if our twenty-first century numbers don’t live up to the projections.”

    What exactly does this mean:

    “……perhaps the time is right for Mormons to explore how to nourish and strengthen Mormon identity, even if our twenty-first century numbers don’t live up to the projections.”

    Is the author throwing in the towel on the projected growth figures? I would think she’s sort of figured it out and saying, “Look folks we’re not going to attract large numbers of people so lets just hunker down and become more into Mormonism ourselves.”
    I think she’s realizing that there’s a lot of people streaming out the door and with intense scrutiny, SLC LDS Inc. is not going to grow all that much. Also personally I think it’s going to be hard for Mormons to attract people to the religion because it’s a drag. Not only are the beliefs strange but the practices and expectations are off-the-wall appearing to those who come into the group.
    Even life time Mormons who go through the temple are turned off to the rituals and don’t return.
    There will always be those Mormons who like the program and get their temporal needs met through it.

  4. Mike R says:

    Falcon, based on what appears to be happening with significant numbers of Mormons becoming
    inactive I feel ( and have for a some time now) that the time is not to distant when there is going
    to be big splint in the Church. Right now there’s disillusionment in the hearts of many members
    who are still in the Church because of family or the all the good activities provided etc. but
    these people have come to see that some important doctrines promoted by their leaders in
    the past are now being down-played as having been important , and this is being done in large
    part by BYU professors and apologists . When enough people agree with them then the hierarchy
    is going to have to make a decision , and it’s going to cause problems. Most of this is lingering
    just under the surface so far , but a sizable shift is coming . I think those new ads that the Church
    aired on t.v. last year speak volumes at how the leadership is trying to gain members , they’re
    tried to get the message across that Mormons are just ordinary people . Why would they even
    have to do that ? Answer: because the general public has become more aware of some of the
    “unique ” doctrines espoused by Mormon prophets .These are interesting times .
    May those Mormons who have come to see the truth about their leaders being just religious
    men devoid of any special annointing to represent God not give up on realizing that a
    true relationship with Jesus is available outside the walls of their Wards. People disillusioned
    by false prophets can find the answer they were looking for before they were detoured by these

  5. grindael says:

    I don’t think there will be a tithing revelation. But I do believe they will start closing temples and Branches and Wards. The big massive ones, have to cost a fortune to upkeep. And I believe that there will be a reckoning, for the Mormon Church is not really a charity, and therefore “tithing” should not be allowed to be used as a tax write off. As Bill Maher put it this weekend,

    “The real issue is, when Mitt Romney gets a deduction for giving to charity, the rest of us taxpayers have to cover the loss. Charitable deductions reduce the pubic coffers by about 60 billion dollars a year, they take more out of our budget than the Buffett Rule would put in. So it is fair to ask what should constitute a charity. Now the way it works when you’re a Mormon is you give ten percent of your income … they send it to Salt Lake City… where it’s counted… If Mitt Romney gave ten percent of his income to the Red Cross, or Doctors without Borders, I would be the first to say good … but he gives it to the Mormon Church, which spent millions here in California in a political battle … and public dollars should not be subsidizing that. People come up to me and say, “But Bill, the Mormon Church performs good deeds, how can you say they’re not a charity?” Look, I’m not saying that the Mormon Church does not do some good things, they provide food during famines, and wheelchairs for the lame, but that’s not their main concern, which is, like any business, growing the business. Opening more branches, selling more product – putting [people] in tabernacles. General Electric plants a tree now and then, it doesn’t make them Johnny Appleseed. Real Charities only care about THE CHARITY. This is the Hollywood Sunset free clinic. It provides healthcare to poor children. From an architectural standpoint, not much to look at. This is the Mormon Temple in San Diego. Either that or Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Someone has to explain to me why Mitt Romney gets a tax write-off to the people who already own this. A good rule of thumb for telling the real Charities from the fakes – is real Charities don’t have castles!” (Real Time with Bill Maher, May 4, 2012)

    The Mormon Church will continue to fudge the numbers, to try and fool their members (and potential converts). But they are not fooling anyone else. They are a corporation, and when the money stops coming in, they will do what any corporation does… downsize. I think Mitt Romney’s failed Presidential run will hurt the Mormon Church far more than it will help them. People are now taking a closer look. They will not like what they find. That is why Romney, former Bishop and Stake President, acts like he knows nothing about his own church, and won’t answer any questions about it.

  6. falcon says:

    I think you’re right. When a church has to run ads that basically say, “We’re not weird, really we’re not” there’s something wrong. Of course Mormons would counter that they have to do this because of all of the lies that have been spread about the one true church.
    The fact of the matter is that even the Mormon people, except for the hard core minority, aren’t going to get into full-blown Mormonism. It’s a hassle and society is way too open now for the odd things about Mormonism to stay secret.
    Converts have as much hidden from them as possible. But not being raised in Mormonism makes them a whole other category. They don’t have the life long orientation or the family pressures to remain in the fold.
    My guess is that there’s a different type of Mormonism practiced in Happy Valley as opposed to the rest of the world. So there very well may be some sort of subtle or dramatic shift. Remember, there are already a hundred different sects of Mormonism so in effect, Mormons do have a choice. I don’t know if people belonging to the SLC sect would join another group or not. It seems that the disaffected just fade away.
    The Amish probably get zero converts a year. They depend on home-grown members. Maybe that’s what Mormons are going to have to depend on. Given the number of Mormons that go inactive, the numbers of recruits can’t keep pace with those leaving.

  7. Kate says:

    What would be interesting is if the LDS church would put the real number of people leaving out there for the public to see. I’d be interested in just how many people have bailed over the past 10 years or so. It would also be nice if they would minus those who have left from that 14 million number. I know I have resigned and so that number should be 13, 999,000 right? Just a thought.

  8. falcon says:

    It’s interesting that to Mormons “leaving the church” is such a huge deal. We read stories of the unbelievable pressure that’s put on people who have slipped-out the door. Again I think that pressure would be dependent on where someone lives but it’s obvious that Mormons don’t take kindly to folks who aren’t into Mormonism any more.
    It makes me wonder what it is about Mormonism that makes these folks take leaving so personal? I suppose it’s like that with some other religious groups who practice shunning if someone leaves. Mormons might be a little more unique because they have a reputation of tracking people down and bugging them.
    It’s obvious that the SLC bunch are hemorrhaging members. The bottom line may be that some find out that the Mormon church isn’t “true” while others just don’t want to do Mormonism. Mormonism isn’t just a set of beliefs but it’s a life style. It’s one that, by design, keeps members busy with church work in order to occupy (members) time.
    Without some sort of pressure or leverage, someone who wants to leave is going to leave. The leverage comes with family or job/income. Once someone figures it out, going to “outer darkness” loses the fear factor.
    I think Joanna Brooks may have hit on something. Maybe what SLC Mormonism should do is work on solidifying its base and slack off on its missionary efforts. Retention being so bad, it hardly seems worth the effort. But then again, the missionary rite of passage isn’t paid for by the LDS church. The financial burden is picked-up by the families. If it were a dollar and sense issue hurting the bottom line of the organization, you can bet that it would be seriously curtailed. It’s really not resulting in long term growth.

  9. falcon says:

    So as I see it, Mormonism faces four problems related to growth.

    1. How do they attract new members?
    2. How do they retain current members?
    3. How can they get the inactive/lapsed members to become active?
    4. How can they get those who have resigned to return?

    If we looked at this as a business decision, which of these groups would be “low” priority status? Which would be placed as high priority and so forth?
    Of course Mormons would say that it can’t be looked at from a business model because they are concerned about the person’s soul. That’s the idea behind the missionary activities, right? The idea is to win the lost and bring back wandering sheep.
    Setting aside the “soul winning” claim, let’s focus on how to get members and retain members. If the Mormon church wasn’t so concerned about pumping up the new numbers, the natural constituency for their efforts would be inactive members, right?
    How many presentations of the Mormon missionary lessons does it take to get one new member? How many new converts are active five years after signing up?

    Maybe what the Mormon church should do is promote a multi tier system of membership . They could go silver, gold and then platinum.
    Think of it. Silver could be for folks who just want to access the programs the church offers. They aren’t really into callings and they certainly aren’t into the temple program. They don’t want to or maybe even believe in becoming gods. Word of wisdom optional.
    Gold could include all of the “silver” features but add in callings and maybe one trip to the temple. A modified ritual could be performed and a temple recommend not needed.
    Platinum would be the whole deal; silver, gold plus many added features. These would include priesthood and all temple rituals.

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