Why is LDS Church Growth So Flat? Because We're No Longer Unique.

In 1996, the number of LDS converts was just over 321,000. In 2004, 80,000 fewer people were converted to the Church. I was surprised to learn that in 2008, the numbers were only about 265,000--still a far cry from the trends of previous decades. What gives? There are many reasons. But I have a theory that most people probably haven't thought about. It's called "we don't live our religion very well anymore."

Various estimates in the last few decades projected that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have between 75 million and 175 million members by the year 2030. At previous growth rates,

That's our biggest problem. It's not that it's hard to be a Mormon. It's not that people are spreading lies about our doctrine. It's that we don't have anything unique to offer. Mormons have become just like everyone else, and in doing so, we have become our own worst enemy.

this goal would still seem probable. At the current rate of about 1 million new members every three years, including baptisms of 8-year children from already-LDS families, the possibility of reaching 30 million members of the Church by 2030 seems quaint.

Although it could still happen.

Sociologist Rodney Stark
made some bold predictions about the LDS Church in 1984:
Stark was astonished to discover that the LDS Church's growth rate from 1940 through 1980 was 53 percent. He estimated that if it continued to grow at a more modest 30 percent, there would be 60 million Mormons by the year 2080; if 50 percent, the figure would explode to 265 million.

He famously predicted that the LDS Church "will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths."

Latter-day Saints were on the threshold of becoming "the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert," Stark wrote.
Oops! What gives?

Sure, we get persecuted. Joseph Sitati, the first black African called as an LDS general authority, said he saw a particular persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in his home country of Kenya. Interestingly, the disparagements of the LDS Church in Kenya were never home grown.
Most of the current anti-Mormon attacks are imported from America, Sitati said. "Some people who are trying to protect their own faith spread bad stories about Mormonism. There is no indigenous hostility to the church."
Additionally, I suspect the requirements for membership in the LDS Church are a bit (a lot?) more stringent than are those of other faiths. In a world of increasing wickedness, fewer and fewer people would be attracted to the Church. On the other hand, in a world of increasing wickedness, more and more people who are looking for something better should be attracted to the Church.

Why aren't they? Because Mormons don't live their religion very well anymore. Brigham Young warned members of the Church that if we don't live our religion,

If we simply were to live the forgotten half of our religion, which is to help our brothers and sisters to become self-sufficient--instead of trying to get and stay ahead of them--our Church growth problem would take care of itself.

our religion will fail. It might just be doing that.

Beyond preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the religion of the Latter-Day Saints is to help each other succeed. But I dare say most Mormons are too busy helping themselves to succeed to notice how much they could help the many that are in far more dire temporal circumstances than themselves.

Robert D. Hales's discussion in April 2009 LDS General Conference of the importance of being a provident provider hit me right between the eyes. What is a provident provider? It's someone who is not consumed with their own life, but instead someone who can look outward to see how they can be of help to others. Based on this definition, I'm at best a semi-provident provider.

A provident provider has little or no debt. President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley admonished Church members 11 years ago in General Conference to get out of debt. How many members of the Church heeded his advice? Not many. The housing boom and bust has been just as great in Utah as in any other area of the globe. Foreclosures and bankruptcies continue apace.

Brigham Young warned that
the Latter-day Saints will never accomplish their mission until...inequality shall cease in the earth.
The whole point of temporal life is to help ensure that everyone (not just ourselves) has what is sufficient for their needs. Yet most Americans, including most American Mormons, believe in the opposite--cutthroat capitalism. In our perverted just-like-everyone-else Mormon way of thinking, we assume that the free market is embodied by boards of directors who give themselves and their CEOs multi-million-dollar bonuses while firing thousands of employees in order to make their companies profitable. The free market is so-o-o not that.

Elder Sitati talked of the real problems facing the LDS Church in Kenya:
The bigger problems are unemployment, poverty and illiteracy, which make it tough to be completely involved in Mormonism's all-volunteer organization.

"Because of poverty, most Africans are highly interdependent, they tend to share the little they have," Sitati said. "That obliges them to adopt social norms that might not fit with church practices."
Sitati's statement drips with irony. If we simply

In our perverted Mormon way of thinking, we assume that the free market is embodied by boards of directors who give themselves and their CEOs multi-million-dollar bonuses while firing thousands of employees in order to make their companies profitable.

were to live the forgotten half of our religion, which is to help our brothers and sisters to become self-sufficient instead of trying to get and stay ahead of them, our Church growth problem would take care of itself. Everything is spiritual to God, including providing for the temporal part of our natures. Helping the poor is every bit as spiritual (and doctrinal) as are the Plan of Salvation, baptism, and the sacrament.

Somehow we have forgotten that. We're fabulous at showing up with our helping hands for the cameras when a hurricane or a tsunami causes a catastrophe. This is important, too, but how much do we actually help the rest of those in need when no one is looking? Are we even in a position to be able to help them, our are we still squeaking by paying off our new mansion, a motor home, and an armada of four wheelers?

Zion is made up of the pure in heart who support each

If enough of us can get and keep ourselves out of debt long enough to begin looking outward to those who need our help, then perhaps we can yet instill in the rest of the world an understanding that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has something unique to offer.

other so well that the poor eventually cease to exist. By contrast, in Utah, the Mecca of Mormonism, the irony is that paltry donations to Scouting for Food drives barely keep the public pantry shelves from being empty.

That's our biggest problem. It's not that it's hard to be a Mormon. It's not that people are spreading lies about our doctrine. It's simply that we don't seem to have anything unique to offer anymore. Mormons have become just like everyone else, and in doing so, we have become our own worst enemy.

While so many in the world ascribe the deepening divide between rich and poor as a natural consequence of the free market, Mormons--of all people--should decry such lies from the rooftops. If enough of us can get and keep ourselves out of debt long enough to begin looking outward to those who need our help, then perhaps we can yet instill in the rest of the world an understanding that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has something unique to offer.

If not, we may not have even 265,000 converts in the year 2030.





Comments

  1. Church growth is impacted by several factors, and you mentioned a couple.

    First, many Americans used to view Mormons as disciplined, frugal, abstemious, and hard working. In most respects, Mormon personal behavior today isn't much different than anyone else's, except for regards to alcohol and tobacco. Mormons are certainly no more responsible in their own personal finances than anyone else. Sexual activity among Mormon teenagers and unmarried young adults isn't much different than the American norm.

    Second. many of the values OFFICIALLY taught by the church and largely ignored in practice by its members are no longer considered important anyway. Chastity before marriage is seen as a joke by most Americans, and fidelity during marriage is seen as a nice-to-have. The Church's opposition to gays is seen by a growing number of Americans as bigotry, especially among the young which Mormons have always targeted for recruitment.

    Third, the Internet has had tremendous impact on recruitment and retention. Missionaries used to be able to baptize converts without having to discuss the fraudulent origins of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon. Or Polygamy. Or Blood Atonement. Or Blacks and the priesthood. Or becoming Gods. Or temple ceremonies. Or "funny" underwear. Or many other things. Now, truth seekers are googling "Mormonism" the second the missionaries leave, and many of them aren't giving the missionaries a second shot. Why would they?

    As America becomes even more secular and "free thinkers", agnostics, atheists, "spiritual but not religious", become even more common place in the public square, it's only a matter of time before traditional religions like Baptists, Mormons, Catholics either dramatically change their ways or end up like the Amish, Mennonites or Orthodox Jews.

    The only way traditional religion will be saved is if Jesus really does come back.

    ReplyDelete
  2. After reading my comments, I realize that someone may think that I agree that the BOM and BOA have fraudulent origins. That's not what I am saying. I'm saying that's what people read when they google "Mormonism" on the Internet.

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  3. One other point. The Mormon tactic of "milk before meat", in which less orthodox doctrines such as becoming gods is discussed AFTER eternal families and salvation are taught, is nearly impossible with the ubiquity of the Internet.

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  4. The biggest threat The LDS Church faces is this growing trend to worry what the world and mainstream Christianity thinks of us. We have become defensive when people claim we are not Christian. We have always been a unique church and that is one reason it attracts many. If we downplay our uniqueness or turn away from it then we will become just another "Christian" religion.

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  5. Registered Independent4/18/2009 09:42:00 PM

    Regardless of the reason for the plateau in church growth, this post is a needed reminder.

    Before last year's election, one of my friends said that she couldn't vote for some of the national and local candidates because they didn't believe in capitalism. And she BELIEVED in capitalism. She said it with the same sort of zeal she would have used to bear her testimony of Jesus Christ.

    It's nice to know that we're in touch with reality to believe that capitalism exists. But taking it farther than that by believing in it as morally right, or as a means to help or to improve us as human beings is risky business.

    I don't think God is a capitalist. If He were, He would have used his omniscience advantage to sucker and exploit all of us long ago.

    Thanks so much for this post. You said something that's been on my mind for quite some time.

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  6. I apologize for not having the link. -- I read shortly after October's conference that the numbers of individuals baptized is not as accurate as the number of stakes because of the attrition rates found in any faith.

    The number of stakes in the church more accurately depicts church activity and there have been hiccups from year to year, but for the most part the growth rate hasn't slowed all that much.

    Regarding helping others:

    Another factor to consider: Many refuse to accept help.

    This is not the virtuous "I don't accept charity" attitude of previous generations. Instead, it is laziness. We've all heard the Lord helps those who help themselves. I've extrapolated this with a seasoning of charity.

    Example:

    Instead of just giving people some food storage, I scoured the internet and stores for the cheapest food that is fit for long term storage. I did the research on price, nutrition requirements, storage, and quality. I offered myself to be the taxi for the food. I made a deal with all the vendors for a volume discount. Then I brought this deal to my ward. It was enough that the poorest family (and we live in a poor area) in the ward could have at least one month's supply. How many responded? ZERO. Even some of the wealthier people didn't take me up on the offer.

    I have many more examples of where I tried to help (both in and out of the Church) in a way that helped up instead of handing out. In 8 years of doing these things, I've had one family express interest, then flake out on me at the last minute.

    I went through many hoops to help people help themselves. NO ONE TAKES ME UP ON IT.

    People just don't do their part.

    They're more than happy to take a hand out. And I have had occasions where I was able to do so. But more often than not, it does more harm to their spirits than if I didn't help at all.

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  7. Another reason for slower growth might be the decrease in the missionary force due to "raising the bar."

    Full-time missionaries have gone from 61,000 around 2000 to only 52,000 today. That's got to have something to do with it.

    Also, the Church has focused more on retention lately. I think you make good points, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of it has to do with these two factors, and it might be for the best since too much growth is not best.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Fantastic observation, Frank. While I'm not particularly concerned with how fast the Church is growing per se, I do agree that our ability to truly live the Gospel (or rather, to make a sincere attempt--none of us completely live the Gospel, being fallible mortal beings) has a number of serious consequences, growth levels being one of them. I wholeheartedly agree that the embrace of the mainstream gospels of consumption, materialism, and self-interest have seriously hindered our ability to live Zion. It embarrasses me that according to the last statistics I saw, Utah was fourth worst in the nation regarding food insecurity for families. And I know of one foreign convert who was eager to visit the heartland of Zion. He was incredibly disillusioned when he traveled through Utah and saw the social stratification, the opulent houses on the benches and the poor on the urban fringes. I don't think his zeal for the Gospel ever recovered. While I wish his faith had been strong enough to look beyond the local realities, part of me cannot blame him for being so impacted by the faithlessness of such a high concentration of the members.

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  9. I don't live in Utah and the closest area where the church is well established is over one hour away, but the little branch we have here has not grown in attendance in the fifteen years I've lived here and I can tell you why. I have brought a number of families into the church but they all leave because of the squabbling, backbiting and malicious territoriality exhibited by the members. The power plays for callings is ridiculous, the rich snob the poor and they reject and harass anyone who refuses to join them.
    I agree with Frank's discourse, we as members are the ones responsible for church growth, missionaries are there to teach them but we must bring and retain them.
    When people start living their religion in their wards and branches and only then, will the Spirit of the Lord dwell amongst them and draw His people in. If the Lord is not in it - it will fail.
    The church leaders teach us correct principles, it is up to each individual to internalize and apply these principles. I don't believe it is any more complicated than this.
    Thank you.

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