Is the church growing or shrinking? Is it even possible to measure church growth accurately? Is this a case of statistical confirmation bias? Read on to find out more.
Matt at the site LDS Church Growth puts forward several different theories that statisticians tend to have about church growth. He groups these into two categories: critical theories and false assertions by the faithful. Here are the theories he identifies (quoted from his site):
Critics of Church Growth
- Zero Growth Theory: Critics state that the number of those who join the Church is equal to the number which leave the Church. Oftentimes critics site other fast growing Christian groups (such as Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses) to challenge claims made by some members of the Church that it is the fastest growing Church.
- Lack of Devotion Theory: Critics claim that in areas where the Church is growing at a rapid pace both in terms of membership and activity that the devotion of the members is not strong. They believe that the Church is poorly understood and if it were properly understood growth would not occur. This theory also supposes that growth will ultimately stop and result in few active members of the Church and the weakening of the Church in the given area. Examples from Latin America are usually used to illustrate this theory.
- The Internet Slows Church Growth Theory: Many critics of the Church believe that a rise in Internet usage is correlated to a decline in the growth of the Church. These beliefs stem from the wide body of Anti-Mormon literature available on the Internet, which is available in many of the world’s languages. This theory assumes that people become uninterested in the Church as a result of negative information read online, thus becoming unreceptive to the message of the Gospel. This theory also ignores favorable information about the Church on the Internet, particularly in the form of Church owned websites, many online newspapers and personal blogs.
False Assertions by the Faithful:
- All Is Well In Zion Claim: Some members of the Church believe that the growth of the Church has nothing to do with them and just happens. As members of the Church we know that missionary work and the Church itself are in the hands of the Lord, but that does not mean that we do not have a responsibility to share the Gospel. This kind of mentality also results in dismissing important and serious challenges for growth the Church faces in certain areas of the World. When some Church members encounter large wards in the United States, many of which grow rapidly in membership from new move-ins, they justify this thinking.
- Exponential Growth Claim: Some members of the Church believe that the Church is growing exponentially and at such a fantastic rate that we as a Church cannot meet all of the needs that such growth merits. While it is true that there are many issues which challenge us with the growth the Church has seen, this claim in inflated and generalized to include the Church throughout the World with the exception of Western Europe.
The post by Matt goes on to tackle each of the above theories. I recommend a review of his post.
The recent Pew Forum survey (U.S. only) shows mixed indicators:
- 70% of BIC continue as Mormons throughout their life, a much higher percentage than most other denominations, with Catholicism at 68% (the next highest). 15% of those raised Mormon changed religions and 14% became unaffiliated. Among the general population, 45% of people leave the religion of their childhood (30% to other religions, 15% to become unaffiliated).
- Mormons comprise 1.7% of the total population currently. They used to comprise 1.8%. This means that despite church, the U.S. numbers are fairly flat as a percentage of population.
- Religious conviction within Mormonism runs an opposite trend to other faiths. The higher the education level, the higher the religious commitment. However, converts to Mormonism tend to have lower education levels and possibly lower levels of commitment. 68% of converts attend weekly (vs. 79% of BIC and 39% of the general population), 46% consider their religion the one true faith (compared to 61% of BIC and 24% of the general population). However, converts are much more likely to share their faith with others (38% share it weekly vs. 19% of BIC and 23% of the general population).
So, what do you think? Is the church growing, shrinking, or static? Is it possible to have a meaningful measure for growth or is it always colored by a bias?