Trends in LDS Church Growth
"If you will ponder it in your mind, you will come up, in my judgment,
with the conclusion that we could bring immeasurably more people into
the Church than we are now doing. We could fellowship more than we are
now fellowshipping; in practice this could be five or ten or twenty
times as many as we are now baptizing. Perhaps in due course it should
be 24 times or 100 times as many as at present." Bruce R. McConkie,
Mission Presidents' Seminar, 21 June 1975
During the decade of the 1990s, many rapidly-growing churches,
including the Adventists, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, and
numerous Pentecostal groups, reported accelerating growth trends,
while The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experienced
persistent trends of decelerating growth. The LDS Church is one of the
few Christian groups with a large missionary program to experience
declining growth rates in spite of widening opportunities. An analysis
of annual LDS statistical reports published in the May Ensigns of each
year demonstrates that LDS growth has declined progressively from over
5% annually in the late 1980s to less than 3% in 2000 and 2001.1 There
were 292,612 LDS convert baptisms reported for 2001.1 This is up from
a many-year low of 273,973 in 2000. However, this number of convert
baptisms is still lower than the number of converts baptized in 9 of
10 years during the 1990s. Only 1992 had fewer convert baptisms.
Following several years of declining missionary productivity and
little increase of congregations or stakes, 2002 brought a further
decline with 283,138 convert baptisms, the lowest number in a decade,
as well as the first decline in total stakes (minus five) since 1857
and the lowest increase in wards and branches (+59) since 1950. Over
the past decade, LDS missionaries have been challenged to double the
number of baptisms, but instead the number of baptisms per missionary
has halved. While LDS church membership continues to increase, there
has been a significant decline in the rate of growth.
Media claims that the LDS Church is one of the fastest-growing world
faiths are too numerous to mention. The pervasive myth that the LDS
Church is the "world's fastest growing church" has been repeated by
the Atlanta Constitution Journal2 and numerous other commercial
newspapers. A widely-quoted article in article in BYU Studies noted:
"A 50 percent per decade growth rate, which is actually lower than the
rate each decade since World War II, will result in over 265 million
members of the Church by 2080."3 More recently, the book "Mormons in
America" claimed: "Mormonism, one of the world's fastest-growing
Christian religions, doubles its membership every 15 years."4 Yet the
U.S. LDS growth rate over the entire decade of 1990-2000 reported in
the Glenmary study was only 19%, and worldwide LDS membership is
currently growing at less than 3% per year -- much more slowly than
the entire block of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (7.3% annual
membership growth) and Evangelical churches (5.6% growth per year).5
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing relatively
faster than many large Christian faiths, at least in the United
States. The 1990-2000 Glenmary study6 reports that the LDS Church
ranks twenty-third among the 149 participating denominations in
overall U.S. growth rate but first among denominations with over one
million adherents. The annual U.S. LDS growth rate of 1.9% edges out
the annual world population growth rate by 0.2-0.4%. The Glenmary
study cautions that the main findings are based solely upon the raw
number of adherents "claimed by religious bodies,"7 and activity and
retention rates for Latter-day Saints were not examined.
World trends are sharply different. There are 650,000 active
Seventh-day Adventists in Kenya alone, but only 500,000 Latter-day
Saints (of which approximately 170,000 are active) in all of
continental Europe, Asia, and Africa combined. After more than a
decade of proselyting in Russia with the largest full-time missionary
force of any denomination, LDS membership has risen to only 11,000,
with a fraction of those members remaining active. The same period has
seen the number of active Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia rise to over
120,000, with some 275,000 individuals attending conferences. There
are more active Jehovah's Witnesses in the countries of Georgia or
Armenia than active Latter-day Saints in all of Eastern Europe,
Central Asia, and Russia together. There are less than 100,000 active
Latter-day Saints in all of Europe, including the United Kingdom. In
comparison, there are over 1.4 million proselytizing Jehovah's
Witnesses in Europe, and 2.7 million who attend Jehovah's Witness
conferences. One Austrian saint states, "This is a thing that deeply
concerns me. A friend of mine is a Jehovah's Witness...When he came to
Vienna with his family at age 8, there were forty Jehovah's Witnesses
in Vienna. That was all for Austria. Now, twenty years later, there
are 20,000 active Jehovah's Witnesses. Twenty years ago we had 400 LDS
members in Vienna, and some more in other cities of Austria, and now,
we only have about 750 in Vienna. Whenever we talk about missionary
work in Church, we always hear those saying 'it's so hard, and the
Austrians are an irreligious people.' That can not be entirely true,
or else the Jehovah's Witnesses would not have had such a growth!"
Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone note: "except for the years
immediately following the prophetic disappointment of 1975, Witnesses
growth has consistently out-paced Mormon growth. In 1954, there were
7.7 Mormons per Witness publisher. By 1994, this had been reduced to
1.9. Given that the Mormons are generally viewed as the world's most
successful new religion and had about an 80-year start on the
Witnesses, this is an astonishing achievement."8 It is even more
astonishing when we consider that, since Jehovah's Witness
participation significantly surpasses raw membership alone while LDS
participation is only a fraction of raw membership, the number of
active and participating Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide far surpasses
the number of active and participating Latter-day Saints. In 1935,
there were 56,000 Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide and 746,384 Latter-day
Saints. Since 1935, the number of active Jehovah's Witnesses has
multiplied their numbers by a factor of more than a hundredfold, while
LDS membership has multiplied by a factor of twenty, with only a
fraction of that number representing active members.
While still growing faster than stagnant "mainline" churches, the LDS
Church is one of the slowest growing outreach-oriented Christian
faiths in most of Eastern Europe, the former USSR, and India, and has
one of the lowest penetrance rates in Africa. Latter-day Saints are
not "competing" with other denominations, yet these figures can give
us a glimpse of the possibilities as well as a context in which to
evaluate our own growth rates.
LDS Membership Distribution, Missionary Allocation, and World
In 1996, Bennion and Young wrote: "only on the Christianized or
Westernized edges of the eastern hemisphere has the church established
significant beachheads."9 This is still largely true today. LDS
Sociologist Armand Mauss states, "We like to think we are a worldwide
church, but we're not. We are a hemisphere church...Eighty-five
percent of the LDS Church's membership lives in the western
hemisphere...We ought to be, I think, a little bit more humble about
how we describe our present score geographically."10 An analysis of
2001-2002 LDS Church Almanac data demonstrates that another 10% of
Latter-day Saints live in island nations like the Philippines, the
United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Only 4.4% of all
LDS members live in the contiguous continental landmass of Europe,
Asia, and Africa that is home to 80% of the world's population. The
United States is home to less than 5% of the world's population, but
nearly 50% of all LDS members. The U.S. is served by nearly one-third
of all current LDS missions (108 of 334), and Central and South
America with 8% of the world's population are served by another 30% of
LDS missions (107 of 334).
Reasons for modest U.S. Growth
While the LDS Church is still one of the faster growing churches in
the United States, most of the growth is due to the fact that a full
one-third of all full-time LDS missions are concentrated in the U.S.,
with less than 5% of the world's population, and that U.S. Latter-day
Saints average approximately one more child per family than non-LDS
U.S. citizens. When the LDS birth rate and full-time missionary
efforts are taken into consideration, member-missionary efforts
account for a minority of LDS Church growth in North America. 75-80%
of LDS convert baptisms take place outside of the U.S.
Perspective on Growth
Nor is the LDS Church close to being the fastest-growing religious
movement to come out of the United States. Pentecostal Christianity,
which originated in Topeka, Kansas, in 1901, now claims approximately
450 million adherents worldwide.11 Latter-day Saints claim over 150
thousand raw members in Africa, while Pentecostal groups claim over
150 million adherents on the continent. The Assemblies of God Church
started with a revival movement in Topeka, Kansas, in 1914,12 now
claims over 35 million members worldwide, adding over 10,000 members
each day, or approximately 3.6 million new members a year.7 Lawrence
Young notes: "The Mormon church, which was established nearly
eighty-five years before the Assemblies of God, has only one-fifth as
large of a presence in Latin America."13
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized in 1849 and recently
overtook the LDS Church with 13 million members. Seventh-day
Adventists were adding an average of 3,176 new members each day in
2000,14 and have experienced increased growth since that time. In
contrast, the LDS Church added an average of 989 new members each day
in 2001, of whom only a minority go on to experience meaningful church
activity. The Assemblies of God are growing at approximately 10% per
year, or over three times the growth rate of the LDS Church, while the
Seventh-day Adventists report growth two to three times LDS rates at
5.6-8% per year.
Increasing Opportunity, Declining Growth
"We are not getting the results we ought to get. We are not getting
the numbers of baptisms that in my judgment the Lord expects us to
get. To a degree, at least, we are grinding our wheels without going
forward...Perhaps what is wrong is that we have not desired faith with
all our hearts to bring souls into the kingdom. Perhaps we have not
made up our minds that we can and will bring people into the Church.
Now, very frankly, whether we gain many converts or few depends in
large measure upon our frame of mind." Bruce R. McConkie, Mission
Presidents' Seminar, 21 June 1975
The average missionary in 1989 brought 8 people into the church, while
in 2000 the average missionary brought 4.6 people into the church.
When one accounts for actual activity and retention rates, with the
great majority of LDS convert growth occurring in Latin America and
other areas with low retention and only 20-25% of convert growth
occurring in North America, one finds that of the 4.6 persons baptized
by the average missionary each year, approximately 1.3 will remain
active. This declining growth comes in spite of unprecedented
increase in opportunity. From 1990 to 2000, the LDS Church opened an
additional 59 nations to proselyting.
1. Ensign. May 1973-May 2002. http://library.lds.org
2. "Atlanta Suburb Flourishes with Church Membership." The Church in
the News. 11 April 2002.
3. BYU Studies. Spring 1989. Vol 29, No. 2, p. 61.
4. Bushman, Claudia Lauper and Richard Lyman Bushman. Mormons in
America . "Religion in American Life" series. New York: Oxford
University Press (1999). p. 11.
5. Mission Frontiers. U.S. Centers for World Mission. As quoted in
Mennonite Brethren Herald, June 23, 2000.
6. Zoll, Rachel. "Mormon, evangelical Christian churches growing
fastest, study says." Anchorage Daily News. 17 September 2002.
7. Religious Congregations & Membership: 2000. Glenmary Research
Center. 20 September 2002.
8. Stark, Rodney, and Laurence R. Iannaccone."Why the Jehovah's
Witnesses Grow so Rapidly: A Theoretical Application." Journal of
Contemporary Religion. May 1997. p. 140.
9. Bennion, Lowell C. and Lawrence Young. "The Uncertain Dynamics of
LDS Expansion, 1950-2020." Dialogue. Spring 1996. p.19
10. Babbit, Christi C. "Growth of LDS Church has upside, downside."
Deseret News. 25 November 2000.
11. "Pentecostal." Adherents.com. http://www.adherents.com/Na_495.html
12. "Assemblies of God History." Assemblies of God website.
13. Young, Lawrence A. "Confronting Turbulent Environments." In Marie
Cornwall, Tim Heaton, and Lawrence Young, eds. Contemporary Mormonism
Social Science Perspectives. University of Illinois: Chicago, 1994.
14. "Adventist Church Membership Continues to Climb, says Secretary."
Adventist News Network. 27 September 2000.