“but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:35)
If you’ve spent any amount of time dealing with the Disaffected Mormon Underground (DAMU), you’ll know that a favorite old chestnut of conversation is disputing the membership numbers of the LDS Church. Most of us have had the distinctly Mormon pleasure of listening to some old guy drone on at the pulpit in General Conference about the Church’s growth numbers for the year. We’ve also heard the breathless reports of “the fastest growing religion” and how there are more Mormons outside the US and Canada now – proving the international character of our faith. Some of we faithful aren’t shy about strutting a bit over this either. You’ll hear members proudly (and sometimes even smugly) declaring how the rapid growth just goes to show that this truly is God’s chosen Church. Even President Hinckley and others seem to take a great deal of pleasure in these figures (and why shouldn’t they?).
Well and good… But surely such posturing surely must present an irresistible target to the more jaded among us – whether current or ex-members. The only thing more fun than strutting about self-importantly, is taking a self-important strutter DOWN! You think you’re all that, but you’re not!
Thus we have the helpful folks who feel obliged to point out to us that LDS inactivity rates are fairly high – especially in those coveted international markets. In my own mission of Japan, I recall that inactivity rates ran somewhere around 80% (1994-96). I’ve heard similar discouraging news from our vaunted Latin American numbers. If anyone has any solid and verified numbers on this, by the way, it would be appreciated.
And never mind the fact that it seems well-nigh impossible to get off the Church membership lists once you are in. You can stop coming to Church, but we still have your data, and chances are that you are doomed to entertain hapless Mormons (we call them Home and Visiting Teachers) on your doorstep for the rest of your natural life. You can ask nicely, you can plead, you can yell and rant to no avail. We will keep bugging you until you come back. And then we’ll send you out to bug other people. We’re tenacious like that.
In short, the DAMU (and several evangelical countercultists – who, by the way, really ought to shut-up, since this is frankly none of their business) point out that our numbers are, how shall I put it… full of it.
Now, I’m not really a fan of touting our numbers. As far as I’m concerned it’s something nice for your gee wiz collection, but it doesn’t really signify much of anything. I don’t think truth is a function of popularity. Truth is truth, whether it has 10 followers or 10 million.
But it does seem a wee bit relevant to the grand Mormon narrative of the Gathering of Israel, does it not? Even I’ll admit that I’m not entirely indifferent to the progress reports. There’s certainly something comfortingly tangible about them. And we all like to hear good news don’t we? So if there is good news to report, we’d hope that our leadership isn’t shy about reporting it. But how to report it? What is the proper way to keep track of Church growth?
Well, just so happens that the LDS Newsroom just released an article addressing the problem of membership records titled “Looking Beyond the Statistics: The Souls Behind the Numbers.” Apparently the article is a response to some heavy hitting religious affiliation studies reported in Christian Century. LDS Newsroom makes a few points:
1. There is no universally accepted methodology for measuring church growth numbers;
2. LDS membership records are deliberately, and appropriately inclusive rather than exclusive; and
3. It is important not to get hung up on numbers, statistics, and methodologies at the expense of ministering to real people.
The article also contains the following interesting remark: “Though growth may be captured by statistics, success cannot be. The Church does not claim to be the fastest-growing religion and does not measure its success by that standard.” Well, one thing you can say for having critics, they do keep you honest. Another excerpt that seems to me, to sum up the article:
Since there is no universal standard for compiling statistics among the various churches in the United States, the Church remains as inclusive as possible in its membership rolls so as not to preclude any potential return or change of heart of a member who has become inactive. Taking such individuals off the records does no one any good. No particular statistical methodology should serve as a means for the spiritual write-off and disfellowship of any member. Statistics do not operate in that realm, nor do they aim to.
In the realm of online LDS discourse, it is easy to hear too much of a particular viewpoint – in this case, embittered ex-members who wish we’d quit bugging them. It’s easy to lose sight of the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t fair to give up on people either.
(Note: sorry for being AWOL for so long. I finally came to the conclusion that it’s better to just post something rather than wait until it’s perfect, footnoted, or even marginally-researched)