Liars, Damned Liars and Statisticians

John DehlinMormon 48 Comments

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?


Comments 48

  1. You are correct that BIC as used here was just a shorthand for raised Mormon, and that those are not the same thing. Good catch.

  2. I don’t know how accurate or scientific it is, but I have plotted church growth for the past 15 years or so. While the church continues to grow in absolute numbers, as the membership increases, there has been a related decline in “Percentage” growth. It actually follows a fairly linear trend from over 3% to below 1.5% today (ie. number of coverts / membership). Using a simple Excel formula to interpolate this into the next few decades, there comes a point around 17-19 million members where the curve flattens out, at which time the people coming into the church equal the number leaving / dying out from the church and there is no net increase in membership numbers

    So, just like there was clearly a “boom” in numbers several decades ago (possibly influenced by “basketball baptisms” and the like), there has clearly been a steady decline in recent years. It may be complete coincidence, as association does NOT prove cause, but as one of the theories above points out, this happens to mirror the growth of the internet.

    My biggest question: is this a) just a statistical aberration that will turn around in the future (ie. a return to “stone rolling forth” era) or b) a fundamental change in how society views the church and a harbinger of growth to come (ie. a “steady state” minority religion)? And if it is (a), what does anyone think is going to precipitate this change?

  3. Let’s put this whole “LDS church growth” issue in context, shall we?

    The LDS church, if we generously include the years back to Joseph Smith’s original organization of the “Church of Christ,” has taken 179 years to reach 13.5 million members, approximately half of which are inactive.

    Meanwhile, the online computer game, “World of Warcraft,” has only taken 5 years to register 11 million monthly subscribers/players.

  4. re 4:

    To put things in perspective, though, Nick, WoW is in a whole different ballgame. The LDS church purports to bring you happiness in the eternity for 10% of your increase every year. Through following the principles of the LDS church, one can hope to avoid grave sins like sexual immorality and so forth.

    WoW will ensure your virginity and bring you happiness immediately for a mere $15 per month. (even less if you buy time in “bulk”)

  5. “WoW will ensure your virginity” LOL! Perhaps there should be a $15 tithing deduction for WoW subscribers. Kill two birds, so to speak.

  6. #3 – I think this is the biggest question. Overall current numbers aside, I think it’s difficult to overstate the effect that the internet and the availability of information today is having and will continue to have on the church’s numbers. I know many people just within my circle of close friends who were born and raised very active LDS and have recently either left the church after lengthy periods of investigation and education regarding the church and religion generally, and many more who are not leaving, but who are nothing close to TBMs. I don’t see how this will not be a significant factor in church growth in the future. If there is an ever increasing number of adults who are leaving the church, then at the very least that is that many people whose children will not be increasing the church’s numbers by being born into membership. Additionally, I believe that future generations will be, by and large, weaker in their faith and produce even more BIC members who will eventually leave. I base this on the number of people who remain in the church, but who will not raise their children with the unflinching premise that the church is absolutely true, which I daresay the majority of active LDS members have been doing for the past 150 years.

  7. Here is an article that discusses some interesting stats, since we are on the subject. Perhaps this has already been shared somewhere on this site. One interesting poll question was how many mormons believe the church is the only true church.

    The church is definitely growing in numbers, but I think it faces some huge hurdles going forward. The bigger it gets, the larger the group of mormons who aren’t really devout grows. When the church was small, being mormon really meant something. But the bigger it gets, the more members who are not that into it there are, the more mormonism will appear to be like any other religion. We all know catholics and jews who are known as catholic or jew but who but don’t really live their life pursuant to the teachings of the gospel. The larger the church gets, the more mormons like this there will be, and that will lead to many thinking of mormons the same way they think of non devout catholics and jews, something they were born into but that doesn’t really affect the way they live their life.

  8. #10: I agree that the church is “definitely growing in numbers”. However, the rate at which it is growing is steadily declining. Following recent trends, it is going to continue to around 17-19 million members and “top out”. What, do you think, is going to change this trend (if anything)?

    And regarding how “devout” someone is, I don’t know that we are more or less “devout” than people used to be. Back in the mid-1920’s, sacrament meeting attendance was around 20-25%. Very few young men went on missions and almost no women. The Book of Mormon wasn’t read or emphasized much. Temple attendance was low. Tithing was low enough that the church was on shaky financial footing. Etc. So I don’t know that we are becoming less “devout”.

  9. I think regarding “devoutness,” we need to ask if it’s about belief or about activity.

    Because I would imagine that many of the people who are active, “checking the boxes” as some will say, may not have the strongest beliefs.

  10. #10: Also, I agree with you that the church faces some big hurdles as we go forward. However, I don’t think that it has anything to do with becoming more “mainstream” as you suggest. I think an even bigger problem is almost the opposite. We actually DO need to become mainstream in many ways.

    We need to focus on:
    – Message of Christ
    – Acknowledging historical facts about the church that people are going to find out anyway

    We need to NOT focus on:
    – What color shirt you wear
    – How many earrings you have
    – Whether you (like Christ or Joseph Smith) have a glass of wine
    – All of the other inane things that have unfortunately become a part of “mormonism”

    Of all of these, I think we need to acknowledge reality most of all if we are going to return to a growth phase in the setting of information being available on the internet. It goes back to the basics. Just a simple example: We teach that Joseph Smith “translated” the BofM from plates as essentially the “core” of our message (ie. keystone, etc). I would argue that for 99.9% of humanity, translation means actually looking at the plates, determining what the different characters mean, and rendering that thought in English (or whatever language you are translating to). When people find out how the BofM was written, it causes immense cognitive dissonance.

    Why not just say that Joseph Smith received some plates. With the plates, he was inspired by God to bring forth what we now know as the Book of Mormon. We revere this as the word of God. We appreciate its teachings. And for everyone who might claim that this wouldn’t work, that people wouldn’t accept it, hundreds of millions of Muslims would prove you wrong. They accept that Mohammed was inspired to bring forth the words of the Qu’ran.

    This approach wouldn’t detract from our basic message. It would be honest. It wouldn’t involve the stretching of the mind that equating “translation” with “looking in a hat while the plates were covered in another place” requires. If we did all of this, we would be more successful.

  11. RE: #12

    I think people WANT to believe. I think they are having a hard time resolving the “white-washed” version of our church as presented with the historical facts as they are becoming more widely spread. Because they WANT to believe, they are settling for “checking the boxes” by following all of the tenets of the church, as they don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    I think if the church wants the church to become stronger in the future, they need to do their part to help resolve this cognitive dissonance. They need to tweak the nuances of the teachings to focus on the true message and the essence of the gospel. They need to not focus on the outward. Christ had a beard, didn’t wear a white-shirt, drank wine, and hung out with an “undesirable” crowd. Would He be accepted in our correlated organization today?

  12. I don’t want to repeat everything I wrote on a comment on Matt’s blog, but here’s one snippet…

    When you compare the Church’s numbers with, say, the Pew, you will get different pictures. The Church uses official membership numbers, while surveys like the one done by, say, Pew, only identify as Mormon those who self-report as Mormon. Thus, the Pew numbers will look different from official stats. This can lead to different ways of measuring growth and retention (e.g., someone might be classified as a former Mormon by Pew but not by the LDS Church). Each measure is meaningful in its own right. One is not more right than the other. We just have to be careful in how to interpret them.

    But the bigger picture is that your assessment of those different theories listed by Matt can differ according to the data you use. Slower growth and lower retention is found with survey or census (esp in Latin Amer) than in offical numbers.

  13. #13. This seems like one of the most reasonable things I’ve seen around here in a long time.

    My heart tells me that if the Church is true, then it will be introduced to the Muslim world, India, and China at some point, and it will be interesting to see how the Lord intends to do that, and what the result will be. I’ve studied world religions a bit and when one religion is introduced and embraced into a foreign land, it’s interesting to see how the religion changes. Different things become issues, other things that were once big deals fall by the wayside. Yet, many religions that flourish get a foothold in lands not their own (Christianity taking Europe… Buddhism moving to China and SW Asia). If the LDS Church gets a “second wave” in different parts of the world, it might look quite different when it’s said and done.

    Then again Christianity is a swear word in the Muslim word today, and the last time China was exposed to anything resembling Christianity, they had a little scuffle called the Taiping Rebellion which led to the deaths of around 20 or 30 million people. Still, I think if Mormonism is to survive the next millenium, barring a visit from Christ Himself, it will have to find a new voice with a new people. And my guess is, they will be a lot more concerned with what the Book of Mormon SAYS and how the religion “works” than anything else.

  14. The question I keep coming back to is… Why does it matter? Why is the success of the church measured in conversions? If the Catholic (Methodist, Assembly of God, etc) church gets bigger or smaller, does that tell us anything about whether what it teaches is true or right or approved of by God? If we weren’t so hung up on numbers could we focus more on real service, kindness, and friendship with those of others faiths without being obligated to convince them that we’re right?

  15. #17 – The short answer to this is no, Mytha. The fact is that conversion is one of the three missions of the church. Sure you can argue that you can proclaim the gospel without necessarily measuring conversions, but that’s not going to happen. I agree with you that cold hard numbers aren’t the end all be all measurement of proclaiming the gospel. But I can also tell you from serving a mission that it’s not likely the numbers aspect of the church is going away.

  16. Mytha – “Why does it matter?” Actually, I think that was Matt’s ultimate point of his post. Personally, I think the ones to whom it matters are the statisticians. Growth proves nothing really, nor does the lack of growth.

    To the faithful, church growth is evidence of scripture fulfilled, the stone cut without hands that rolls forth and fills the earth. To the faithful, lack of growth is also evidence of scripture fulfilled, that many are called but few are chosen and that in the last days even the very elect will be deceived. To the critics, church growth is a meaningless illusion, because either 1) the stats are not measuring the right things, or 2) it’s insignificant if you look at it another way, or 3) there are more members, but they are less devout. To the critics, lack of church growth must mean that more and more people are finally seeing the things they saw that caused them to leave or not join. IOW, no one is objective.

  17. Numbers SHOULD mean nothing.

    Missionary work, however, is a very fundamental philosophy of the church. This includes all of the temple work which is essentially missionary work for the other side. Every member a missionary. The church’s PR department. Sending missionaries out. Teach my Gospel manual. Advertisments. Etc.

    And so is tracking things. The church lives on statistics. What percentage of sacrament meeting attendance do you have? What is your home teaching percentage? What is the efficiency of a member referral vs tracting vs …? How many BofMs did you give away? What is your ward’s baptismal goal this year? What is your stake’s baptismal goal this year? How many discussions? What is your goal? Etc.

    This is somewhat self-inflicted. How quick was the church in latching on the “210 million members in 2070” a few years back? Many members saw a fulfilling of Daniel in this.

  18. I respectfully disagree with those who say the numbers do not matter. They are an important tool for both administration and for pastoring.

    Any organization that wants to assess how well it is doing in its mission must make some effort to make that assessment. This is true for churches as well as any organization (whether non-profit, voluntary, for-profit, etc.) That is the sense in which the statistics matter: they are a way to make a messy, albeit still useful, assessement of certain things.

    A high rate of church membership growth is not one of the Church’s goals in and of itself, but bringing people to the restored gospel is. And if the Church wants to assess how well it is doing on that front, then it makes perfect sense for the Church to look at numbers. If, say, growth is high in one stake in California but not high in a neighboring stake, then it makes perfect sense for Church leaders to note it and then investigate why. Especially if doing so can help people in one stake change their methods. Note: growth could be too high (baseball baptisms) or too low (a lack of member missionary work). The numbers help in identifying which.

    Unfotunately, people get caught up in the numbers and inappropriately interpret them as evidence of the Church’s truthfulness. But that is a matter of interpretation and not an indictment of the usefulness of statistics more generally–especially for administration or pastoral concerns.

  19. re 21:

    I was going to comment, but you basically said what I would have.

    Any organization that wants to assess how well it is doing in its mission must make some effort to make that assessment. This is true for churches as well as any organization (whether non-profit, voluntary, for-profit, etc.) That is the sense in which the statistics matter: they are a way to make a messy, albeit still useful, assessement of certain things.


    Unfotunately, people get caught up in the numbers and inappropriately interpret them as evidence of the Church’s truthfulness. But that is a matter of interpretation and not an indictment of the usefulness of statistics more generally–especially for administration or pastoral concerns.

  20. RE: #14

    Mike S. wrote “Christ had a beard, didn’t wear a white-shirt, drank wine, and hung out with an “undesirable” crowd. Would He be accepted in our correlated organization today?”

    Answer – Yes, because he’d likely show up at church wearing a suit, and he wouldn’t be drinking wine because of the Word of Wisdom, which He Himself revealed to Joseph Smith.

    The robes Jesus wore in His day represented the standard attire of the era just as the suit does in our era. Furthermore, the lack of sophisticated modern municipal water treatment systems, running water, and sewage disposal and treatment systems during His era meant the water supply was unpredictable…and often unsafe. To compensate, people drank wine, which wasn’t always prepared in its strength, and wasn’t marketed by a multi-million dollar advertising cartel designed to hornswoggle you into buying it.

    Jesus would still hang out with “undesirables”, though, because He would want to help them become “desirable”.

  21. #23 – This is silly. Joseph Smith drank alcohol his entire life, and it was a continuing source of friction with Emma. He had a bar installed in the hotel in Nauvoo, for goodness sakes. This is a relatively unimportant issue, but don’t play the old “wine in the bible wasn’t alcohol, etc., etc.,”. The fact is, the word of wisdom didn’t take on its modern significance until well into the 20th century.

  22. I think the post and discussion have been a bit too free with nonspecific words like “bias.” It seems clear to me that there are two different classes of claims: first, estimates of LDS membership and growth, for which considerable data is available, and pure speculation unsupported by any data (at least as presented here), such as the idea that information available on the internet is slowing LDS membership growth.

    With regard to the first type of question, the Pew survey is one of several surveys of American religious affiliation that have been conducted repeatedly in recent years. A couple others that come to mind are the ARIS 2008 survey (sample size 220,000, Mormon estimate 1.4% of adult population), and a 2004 ABC News Poll available from (sample size about 1000 total, Mormon estimate 0.9%, with a large relative margin of error because of the small number of Mormons surveyed). Wikipedia’s LDS membership statistics page indicates that the church’s own 2007 figure claims 1.95% of the entire population, larger than any of the survey estimates which however apply to the adult population. Mormon demographics are somewhat more youthful than the population in general, but not by a large percentage, so it seems that the Church’s official figures not larger than those obtained from surveys, as might be expected for the reasons Mike laid out in #15.

    My point is that these are general surveys of religious affiliation with no special interest in the LDS denomination, conducted by different organizations at different times, and although they suffer from some difficulties of interpretation that are inherent in all surveys, I do not think there is any sense in which it is fair to describe them as biased against LDS growth or membership. All tend to find that the number of US adults who will self identify as LDS in response to a telephone question like “What is your religious affiliation, if any” is somewhat smaller than the total claimed as members by the church. As Mike pointed out, the methods of counting for the official statistics are different, but the surveys are very clear about what they measure, more so in fact than the official numbers, at least as far as I can tell.

    The more speculative questions are legitimate topics of conversation, but I don’t know of any equivalent source of facts that bear on them. For membership totals, though, I don’t think anyone should feel that the issue is murky and plagued by bias.

  23. Sorry, “the Church’s official figures not larger” should read “the Church’s official figures are larger.” This is what comes of writing too long a comment.

  24. May I ask a question? I’m just curious if the church has actually done well in any country or culture that is not already Christian? Does anyone know? I mean Buddhist/Taoist Asia, Muslim Middle East, Hindu India etc. Christianity was embraced by Jews who did not have to let go of all their beliefs, they just had to add to or update them. It’s easier to adjust your beliefs rather than embrace a whole new philosophical system. The Pagans embraced Christianity because there was much that was already familiar to them that seemed similar to many cults in the Roman religious marketplace. Also after Constantine’s conversion, there were other status related reasons for joining. We always seem to be hopreful that we will penetrate the other corners of the earth but has Mormonism had any noticeable impact on any area or people who are not already familar with Christianity?

  25. Re#27: The only possible example I can think of is polynesia 150 years ago, where today nearly 30% of the population is LDS. There were, however, christian missionaries there before the Mormons.

    Africa is currently experiencing a wave of converts (previous religion unknown) and I recall seeing a post on this site about how the Church is trying to adapt to worshippers who expect drums and dancing in Sacrament Meeting.

  26. Chris, I was talking to a guy who served a mission in France. He told me that it is church policy that we will NOT baptize any Muslim, even if they desire it. The reason for this is for fear that a family member will issue a fatwah and have them killed. So, there is zero growth in Muslim countries, or even non-Muslim countries like France. Now there are some exceptions to this rule, but by and large there is no emphasis to baptize Muslims. He said that on his mission, they would not even approach a person if they knew he/she was Muslim.

    I can’t really speak for the other groups you listed. I have heard that Japanese missionaries will try to convert Buddhists, Taoists, etc, but with the completely different religious background, conversion to any form of Christianity is difficult.

  27. When I was in Japan we had the same rule for Muslims. I knew of one elder who was teaching 3 who wanted to join the church, but my mission president had to stop it.

    Regarding Buddhists and etc., I didn’t talk to many who were devout Buddhists. It was always more of a cultural thing… like a Japanese Buddhist coming over here and trying to convert our resident cultural Mormon, Andrew S., to their religion. Most people just didn’t care, in my experience, to get into any form of religion. I don’t know if it’s the difference in religion, per se, that makes it hard in Japan.

  28. Hmm, I baptized a muslim (from Morocco originally) in San Francisco (2001). Yousef and I talked quite a bit about his families reaction to his baptism, and my mission president visited with him too. We were told from the Area Presidency that it was a matter for the mission president to decide, so we went ahead with it. Yousef’s faith was incredible, especially after he had an answer to his prayers about Joseph Smith being a prophet. I also taught 2 other Muslims from Uzbekistan who also, after gaining a testimony of the BoM, had incredible faith in God. They didn’t get baptized because their father didn’t approve (these men were in their 50s but Uzbekistan still has a strongly patriarchal society).

    I believe that when/if we are allowed to teach Muslims, we will find many many people of good character who will perhaps teach us what it means to truly trust in God (even if they don’t join the Church).

  29. #25 Badger – The post was a re-post from another site (Matt). Matt’s post was about the biases in how people evaluate growth data and the suppositions they make. Our post added the Pew Forum data to give an example of some current stats that are out there. I don’t think there was any intention to call the Pew Forum data “biased.” It is limited in that it only includes the US. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  30. Mike S.:

    Mathematically the signal you’ve seen is a sign that the Mormon church is approaching the saturation level of an “S-shaped” curve. There is a limit to the number of people who are receptive to the Mormon message. The limit can change, in principle, in only two ways: by changing the message or by events changing the willingness of people to accept it.

    The Community of Christ reached a saturation level in LEADERDSHIP in 1880. Thereafter, because of particular features in the way we track membership, we appeared to grow in membership linearly for another 75 years or so, but our true growth in activity and ministry was in a zero-sum equilibrium.

    After WW2, something about North American society changed so that it became less receptive to our message, Then, baptisms began an “inverse S-shaped” collapse. By about 1980 membership was falling in absolute terms in North America, although we were able to delude ourselves for a while that we could grow overseas fast enough to make up for it.

    We responded by trying to change our message. Without my suggesting anything about whether or not the new message was “truer”, all that happened was that we changed the social and political composition of church membership. The S-curve collapse has gone on merrily undisturbed. Liberals came in; conservatives never joined.

    Because you are 96 times or so our size, you may interact with the larger society differently than we have in terms of membership. But I would strongly recommend that you separate issues of truth from issues of success in figuring out how to respond to the looming saturation in membership.

    Worrying about success probably won’t lead to success. So worry about truth.

  31. Hawkgrrl at #32: Thanks! I didn’t mean to defend Pew (which I agree no one has attacked) so much as to draw a distinction between ideas like the ones about the internet and lack of devotion, one the one hand, and membership and growth rates on the other. I think the information to draw objective conclusions on membership and growth is very likely there if someone does the necessary work (which I barely started to suggest in my comment). In response to the final question, “Is it possible to have a meaningful measure for growth or is it always colored by a bias?”, I was saying the “always biased” option looks dubious to me. This may be quite different from the situation for the internet issue, for example. I guess I could have been clearer. Perhaps that applies to this comment, too!

    In any case, no offense taken. I don’t work for Pew or anything.

    Tom at #34: that’s a good question, which I have not tried to find the answer to. I also wonder if the LDS birth rate has declined in recent decades, as has happened for Americans in general, on average.

  32. Re: #34

    Here is the growth rate for the last decade+, in various categories, along with what percentage of the membership it entails:

    Notes on data:
    Total: Membership as reported in April conference for the prior year
    Converts: Number of converts as reported in April conference for the prior year
    Child: Number of children born into church as reported in conference for the prior year
    Growth: Difference between Total for one year and Total for the prior year (IE: Net NEW members of all types)
    Other: Number “leaving” the church, whether through “writing out” or “dying” – calculated by taking “Growth” and subtracting Converts and Child
    Net New: “New” members to the church, calculated by taking number of Converts, and subtracting “Other”. This essentially takes Child our of the Growth number and gives a good idea as to how much of the growth comes from “converts” as opposed to “children being born”

    I hope this formats correctly when it’s posted.

    Year Total Converts Child Child% Growth Growth% Other Net New
    1996 9,694,549 321,385 81,017
    1997 10,070,524 317,798 3.28% 75,214 0.78% 375,975 3.88% -17,037 -0.18% 300,761 3.10%
    1998 10,354,241 299,134 2.97% 76,829 0.76% 283,717 2.82% -92,246 -0.92% 206,888 2.05%
    1999 10,752,986 306,171 2.96% 84,118 0.81% 398,745 3.85% 8,456 0.08% 314,627 3.04%
    2000 11,068,861 273,973 2.55% 81,450 0.76% 315,875 2.94% -39,548 -0.37% 234,425 2.18%
    2001 11,394,522 292,612 2.64% 69,522 0.63% 325,661 2.94% -36,473 -0.33% 256,139 2.31%
    2002 11,721,548 283,138 2.48% 81,132 0.71% 327,026 2.87% -37,244 -0.33% 245,894 2.16%
    2003 11,985,254 242,923 2.07% 99,457 0.85% 263,706 2.25% -78,674 -0.67% 164,249 1.40%
    2004 12,275,822 241,239 2.01% 98,870 0.82% 290,568 2.42% -49,541 -0.41% 191,698 1.60%
    2005 12,560,869 243,108 1.98% 93,150 0.76% 285,047 2.32% -51,211 -0.42% 191,897 1.56%
    2006 12,868,606 272,845 2.17% 94,606 0.75% 307,737 2.45% -59,714 -0.48% 213,131 1.70%
    2007 13,193,999 279,218 2.17% 93,698 0.73% 325,393 2.53% -47,523 -0.37% 231,695 1.80%
    2008 13,508,509 265,593 2.01% 123,502 0.94% 314,510 2.38% -74,585 -0.57% 191,008 1.45%

    Interesting conclusions, although I could be misinterpreting them:
    – The “Net New” percentage is steadily decreasing. It has gone from 3% to less than 1.5%. Numbers before 1996 suggest it was even higher then (ie. basketball baptisms, etc.). If this trend continues, the “Net New” growth will reach 0% in 2021, at which time as many people will be leaving the church as joining. There will still be growth because of children born in the church, however.

    – The “other” category (ie. people leaving the church or dying) is on a very gradual negative trend. If both this and the children rate continues linearly, the “growth” of the church will plateau.

    – As mentioned in #33, unless something changes about our message, or some external event in the world changes such that our current message makes more sense to more people, things will stagnate with a membership in the 15-18 million range.

    I am NOT a statistician. If anyone has any better insight into how to interpret these numbers, I’m obviously interested in that.

  33. Helping make sense of the format (as it was changed in fonts and doesn’t look as clear)

    Taking the last line:
    2008 13,508,509 265,593 2.01% 123,502 0.94% 314,510 2.38% -74,585 -0.57% 191,008 1.45%

    2008 – Year
    13,508,509 – Total membership
    265,593 – Number of converts
    2.01% – Number of converts as a percentage of total membership
    123.502 – Number of children born into church
    0.94% – Number of children as a percentage of total membership
    314,410 – Growth (ie. difference between 13,508,509 reported for 2008 and 13,193,999 reported for 2007 on the line above)
    2.38% – Growth as a percentage of total membership
    -74,585 – Other (ie. number of people who left the church or died. This equals Growth – (Converts + Children) )
    -0.57% – Other as a percentage of total membership
    191,008 – Net new (equals converts added to other – or 265,593 people joined and 74,585 either left or died – ignores children to get an idea of effectiveness of “message”)
    1.45% – New new as percentage of total membership

    Hope this helps

  34. Finally, here is a linear interpolation of Child trends and Net New trends going forward, showing their effect on total membership

    The number of Child as a percentage continues to rise, but by 2032 can’t keep up with the Net New.

    2009 13,782,683 110,101 0.82% 164,073 1.21%
    2010 14,058,210 114,210 0.83% 161,316 1.17%
    2011 14,313,692 118,407 0.84% 137,074 0.98%
    2012 14,575,837 124,232 0.87% 137,913 0.96%
    2013 14,830,757 129,599 0.89% 125,322 0.86%
    2014 15,081,422 131,244 0.88% 119,421 0.81%
    2015 15,330,381 133,515 0.89% 115,444 0.77%
    2016 15,563,447 139,024 0.91% 94,043 0.61%
    2017 15,782,983 144,572 0.93% 74,964 0.48%
    2018 15,985,590 148,455 0.94% 54,151 0.34%
    2019 16,174,713 151,423 0.95% 37,700 0.24%
    2020 16,355,647 152,410 0.94% 28,524 0.18%
    2021 16,529,525 158,615 0.97% 15,263 0.09%
    2022 16,690,106 162,075 0.98% -1,495 -0.01%
    2023 16,838,106 165,346 0.99% -17,346 -0.10%
    2024 16,969,771 168,419 1.00% -36,754 -0.22%
    2025 17,086,437 171,673 1.01% -55,007 -0.32%
    2026 17,187,547 175,194 1.03% -74,084 -0.43%
    2027 17,273,466 178,262 1.04% -92,342 -0.54%
    2028 17,345,838 180,784 1.05% -108,412 -0.63%
    2029 17,404,073 183,322 1.06% -125,088 -0.72%
    2030 17,447,847 186,029 1.07% -142,255 -0.82%
    2031 17,475,968 188,709 1.08% -160,588 -0.92%
    2032 17,487,554 191,196 1.09% -179,610 -1.03%
    2033 17,482,757 192,982 1.10% -197,779 -1.13%
    2034 17,462,416 194,955 1.12% -215,296 -1.23%
    2035 17,426,658 196,763 1.13% -232,520 -1.33%
    2036 17,375,914 198,376 1.14% -249,120 -1.43%

  35. brjones, the Word of Wisdom picked up steam right around the time cigarettes started using a tobacco cured in a way you got nicotine through your lungs instead of dissolved in your mouth’s saliva. Before then, Brigham Young University students smoked cigars (though they got mocked for it).

    And regarding how “devout” someone is, I don’t know that we are more or less “devout” than people used to be. Back in the mid-1920’s, sacrament meeting attendance was around 20-25%. Very few young men went on missions and almost no women. The Book of Mormon wasn’t read or emphasized much. Temple attendance was low. Tithing was low enough that the church was on shaky financial footing. Etc. So I don’t know that we are becoming less “devout”.

    People seem to forget this. /Sigh.

  36. Mike S.:

    Thanks for doing this work. I know how hard it is from working on my own denomination’s statistics.

    Some of the components will not stay linear, because there will be interrelationships that will become apparent as the relative sizes of the components change. I expect you’ll need to look at things on a national level to see what’s happening after about 2020. S-curces composed of component S-curves can do different things after the major curve saturates and the behavior of one or more of the components dominate.

    However, you have the basic idea, and the basic dilemma your church is going to face. What happened to the CofChrist and in many mainstream protestant churches is that a decline in growth unleashes tremendous demands for reform in order to fulfill the mission and yet preserve the truth — with many thousands of different opinions about what that means and what the church should do.

    We’ve been groping our way through these issues for nearly 50 years. Bring a lunch.

  37. FireTag:

    Thanks for your feedback and suggestions in how to interpret data. I do think we are a long way from the projections of 210 million a couple of decades ago, which looks like the “up-turn” of the S-curve as opposed to the start of an exponential growth phase.

    I realize that this is just one of a “thousand different opinions”, but I think we are going to have a hard go of it in the LDS church. I think the problem is the church’s approach to the inevitable clashes between church culture and the cultural trends in general. The general reaction of the current church leadership, raised in an era of Ezra Taft Benson, J Fielding Smith, BRM, etc., is fairly rigid in clinging to historical baggage in the church. And the way you progress up the hierarchy is to espouse this same philosophy. Anyone who doesn’t is, directly or indirectly, branded an “apostate”. Thus, a self-reinforcing mechanism is in place.

    Again, it’s my opinion, but I think we need to follow a different approach, started as far back as Paul when he grappled with bringing the gospel to the “Gentiles”. There were disagreements, but at the end of the day, the only way the church could go forward was to jettison the nonessential parts of the gospel, such as circumcision. For some reason, the LDS Church leadership is still clinging to the white-shirt, clean-shaven, centrally-correlated, etc. approach that seemed to work in the past, but which no longer seems to be working.

    It is unfortunate, but I think it’s going to be a long, long time before we even see something as simple as a General Authority wearing a blue shirt or a goatee in General Conference. And with that rigid philosophy in place towards such completely nonessential parts of the gospel, I find it hard to see how they will make any real cultural changes. Perhaps it will have to be like polygamy or blacks and the priesthood, and it will require waiting until the harshest critics of any particular change die off and a new generation takes its place.

  38. Mike S:

    As an outsider, I certainly can’t do any more in suggesting what the LDS should do than simply providing a case study of what we did and how it worked statistically. I’m, of course, speaking from my own theology and not yours, so I’m even less qualified to comment on what is essential to the gospel from the LDS viewpoint.

    So, with that qualifier, let me note the following from your last comment.

    Your leadership lives a long time compared to the “years to maximum membership” you are projecting. They don’t go “emeritus” or are moved out of the 12 and into new callings by the President/prophet at normal retirement age as our leadership does. The demands for reform will come too quickly, if your projections are correct, to wait for a new generation of leadership to arise.

    So a lot will depend on the internal cohesiveness of the current leadership in responding to the issues that emerge. Perhaps your D&C will have to start growing again to focus on less cosmic issues; a lot of the early revelations did deal with practical issues for the church of the 1830’s. Maybe there are going to have to be some more revelations dealing with the practical issues of the 2030’s. “If any of you lack wisdom…” is still one of the first thing both of our denominations are taught.

    Is that going to be comfortable? No. Even Peter and Paul argued with each other. But if God doesn’t transform society to be more accepting of your message first, the demands for reform are going to come, and the church will have to deal with those demands by saying yes or no.

    If you plan to do more with your statistical studies, drop a comment on one of the “ABOUT” pages on my blog and I’ll send you a paper with the CofChrist data that may help with some of the statistical issues you’ll face with the LDS data.

  39. (Thread hijack warning – but promise it’s brief)


    I know smatterings of CofChrist thoughts (having been taught that RLDS was “apostate” despite our common background). Any recommendations for a good book or two to get a basic idea of what you are all about? Afraid anything I randomly chose might be too biased one way or another.

  40. Mormon Heretic has a thread earlier on this site called “Interview with the Community of Christ” that’s a good place to start as well as a few more relevant threads on his own site.

    From there or my site you can find links to whereever you want to go. The only thing to be wary of is that there is a LOT more diversity of belief tolerated by CofChrist among its members. If you are old enough to remember the Muppets, with us the score is always “Frog 99, Chaos 98.”

  41. Methinks that the focus on number (whether by faithful or skeptic) belies the prophetic nature of a slide in numbers. From a doctrinal standpoint, the Church has predicted that there would come a time when the Gentiles would reject the gospel (let’s put ourselves as Church members in that category to be fair) and that when this would happen, that the gospel would be taken from the Gentiles and go to the House of Israel.

    From the skeptic standpoint, if one is attempting to quell the expansionist enthusiasm that we often see in GC, here is your explanation when things do NOT expand, be it true or not true. I marvel at the quiet fervor this topic produces because we all know the rate of growth has slowed. The cultural Mormons see this as a wake up call for ecumanicalism and a joining of social progressivism on values that our American world view is locked into at least culturally. I don’t see past results as proof of future returns, FDR, Dr. King, Timothy Leary, and Harvey Milk be damned.

    Read 3 Nephi and the Savior’s comments on this (I’ll let you hunt for it). He repeats himself three times.

  42. Peter:

    It is clear not only from 3rd Nephi but from many other places in the BofM that the Restoration gospel will be handed over to the seed of the Lamanites. Period. The gentiles get grafted on to them, not the other way around.

    So if you believe in BofM historicity, or if you even believe in 19th Century inspiration, you have to ask how that is going to happen. As a gentile, I hope the process involves living so righteously that it happens by example.

    But I certainly accept that Plan B may be what will happen. If the descendents of the Maya expand into a declining USA, I wonder whether they would increasingly embrace a book that predicted their rise and our fall.

  43. 46: That’s what I’m trying to say, albeit clumsily. Isaiah is also somewhat cryptic about this, but Ephraim is a mess in Isaiah and as a type represent not only America but the Gentile Church. There is a weeding out and cleansing process that separates the Gentiles (the righteous from the wicked) as we read in Isaiah but more focused and pronounced in 2 Nephi. Those that remain righteous or repent, are grafted in with the Lamanite Church, as you correctly stated. This is not a slow process but one that accompanies a drastic political and economic shock, at least if you study prophecy. We are talking about a black swan event that takes place in a matter of 3 to 7 years.

    Now, to view demographic numbers to one who studies prophecy would only indicate that we are nearing the point of no return when in D&C 88, we see that “87 For not many days hence and the earth shall tremble and reel to and fro as a drunken man; and the sun shall hide his face, and shall refuse to give light; and the moon shall be bathed in blood; and the stars shall become exceedingly angry, and shall cast themselves down as a fig that falleth from off a fig-tree. 88 And after your testimony cometh wrath and indignation upon the people. 89 For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes, that shall cause groanings in the midst of her, and men shall fall upon the ground and shall not be able to stand.”

    If we have a demographic collapse due to unnacceptance, THIS is what Jesus Christ via Joseph Smith stated would happen. AFTER the testimony is only evident because the testimony has been rejected.

    To march along in some sort of Protestant re-imagination of a ecumenical Millennium is curious but damning to Mormon doctrine. To cast aside the 10th article of faith would seriously undermine the religion–I do not think it would survive. On the other hand, the view of a demographic loss in the Church, while evidence of its failings to some, are evidence of the world’s wickedness to others.

    I don’t’ think we have to wait very long to flesh out who will be right.

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