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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : The Numbers Game » The Numbers Game

The Numbers Game

Seth - January 17, 2008

“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)

29 Comments »

  1. Another LDS Newsroom release on this subject notes that while membership numbers are in dispute, the more reliable indicator of LDS chapel-building shows around a ten percent growth rate in the US:

    A good indicator of robust Church growth is its chapel-building program. There are currently 8,254 chapels internationally, which shows a 10 percent growth rate over the past five years. That trend has also proven true in the United States, where there are 6,361 chapels or a 9.6 percent growth rate for the same time period. Many of these chapels accommodate several congregations.

    Comment by Seth R. — January 17, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  2. Very interesting, Seth. I was actually discussing this with some friends the other day -mostly about how every world religion out-numbers Mormons by tens of millions of people. Kind of ties into what you’re talking about.

    I think it’s great that the LDS church doesn’t give up on people. Ex-Mormons and those who go inactive might be annoyed, but every one I’ve met that has come back has said that it was because of their “annoying” home or visitng teacher. So, I say, annoy away!

    Now, if we could just get all the mission presidents to focus on retention rather than numbers…Wait. Is that fair? From what I understand, are more missions now emphasizing retention?

    Comment by Cheryl — January 17, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  3. I suppose one could take Pres. Hinckley’s emphasis on retention over conversion for the last couple years, as evidence that the Church has been aware of this problem for some time now.

    Comment by Seth R. — January 17, 2008 @ 10:14 am

  4. I swear I made a comment about chapel building as a sign of growth sometime ago (back when one of THOSE people were touting how the church is supposedly shrinking) Maybe I just made the comment in my head.

    Good post, Seth. It makes me think of a few people I baptized that I wish I hadn’t (and grateful I did NOT baptize a few others) and also the ridiculous rumor in mission that California had more members of the church in it than Utah:)

    Comment by Bret — January 17, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  5. I agree with the Church’s stand to be inclusive when reporting our own membership. Outside research groups are free to accept our numbers or use other numbers as they see fit. And I’m sure we’re not the only religion which counts people who haven’t attended church in years in their numbers.

    I’m curious if anyone knows how long people who are lost (ie. their records are in Salt Lake waiting for them to appear somewhere) are included in the membership count. I thought I heard once the age which seamed very old, but I could be remembering wrong or have been told wrong. I don’t want to spread rumors, so I won’t mention the number I remember.

    Comment by Mike L. (fka Horebite) — January 17, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

  6. A good indicator of robust Church growth is its chapel-building program. There are currently 8,254 chapels internationally, which shows a 10 percent growth rate over the past five years. That trend has also proven true in the United States, where there are 6,361 chapels or a 9.6 percent growth rate

    The use of the word ‘rate’ implies that the number of international chapels has increased 61% and the number of U.S. chapels has increased 58% over the last five years, and that is clearly far from the case.

    I think we can be quite certain that both of these figures refer to total growth over a five year period, and not to yearly growth rates. The word rate should be stricken in both cases. The actual year-over-year growth rates corresponding to such net growth are more like 1.92% and 1.85% respectively.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 17, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  7. A good indicator of robust Church growth is its chapel-building program. There are currently 8,254 chapels internationally, which shows a 10 percent growth rate over the past five years. That trend has also proven true in the United States, where there are 6,361 chapels or a 9.6 percent growth rate for the same time period. Many of these chapels accommodate several congregations. (emphasis added)

    The use of the word ‘rate’ implies that the number of international chapels has increased 61% and the number of U.S. chapels has increased 58% over the last five years, and that is clearly far from the case.

    We can be quite certain that both of these figures refer to net growth over a five year period, not year-over-year growth rates. The word ‘rate’ should have been stricken in both cases. The actual year-over-year growth rates corresponding to such growth over a five year period are 1.92% and 1.85% respectively – rates which are far from unhealthy.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 17, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  8. Editor: please help, formatting out of control…

    Comment by Mark D. — January 17, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

  9. The use of the number of new buildings as a symbol of growth only works if average ward size and average number of wards meeting in each building remains constant (or rises). Otherwise, it could just be indicative of a population shift.

    For example: They keep splitting wards because of growth in my native North Texas. No one is under any delusion that this growth is coming from conversions, which are pretty low. The area just attracts a lot of people from other places, because the cost of living is shockingly inexpensive. So one would assume that in other places, the average number of active members per ward is falling, or fewer wards are meeting in each building.

    Not that it really matters, but assuming more buildings = more members ignores the very relevant fact that because ward buildings have to be in proximity to the members, new ones might have to be built, even if no growth has actually occurred.

    Comment by Meg — January 17, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  10. The use of the number of new buildings as a symbol of growth only works if average ward size and average number of wards meeting in each building remains constant (or rises). Otherwise, it could just be indicative of a population shift.

    For example: They keep splitting wards because of growth in the area my parents live in in North Texas. No one is under any delusion that this growth is coming from conversions, which are pretty low. The area just attracts a lot of people from other places, because the cost of living is shockingly inexpensive. So one would assume that in other places, the average number of active members per ward is falling, or fewer wards are meeting in each building.

    Not that it really matters, but assuming more buildings = more members ignores the very relevant fact that because ward buildings have to be in proximity to the members, new ones might have to be built, even if no growth has actually occurred.

    Comment by Meg — January 17, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

  11. Meg,

    You are right about the growth in our area and the reasons for it. Its move ins and births. What you are missing is that in the older areas of Utah and in older areas in general its not uncommon for the church to discard (sell) buildings when the members move away to newer areas. In a drive thru the old part of Ogden you would see a few old LDS building that are now owned by other denominations. In fact my sister at one time dated a guy in Mesa Arizona whose family had bought an old LDS church building and converted it into a large really large house. In addition there is a building in the Arlington TX stake that is currently for sale in a really old area

    Those sold buildings would be subtracted from the total number of LDS buildings because they simply are not ours any more. So there is still a true increase in buildings hence growth.

    Comment by bbell — January 18, 2008 @ 8:12 am

  12. You’d also have to factor in the demographic of those LDS moving where the best cost of living is.

    For instance, it’s a safe bet that my folks, no matter how high the cost gets in their home of Provo, and no matter how good the cost of living gets somewhere else, aren’t going anywhere.

    Young families, and those fresh out of college however, will be looking at such factors. This may mitigate the impact of any “ward drain” or even reduce it to almost a non-issue – maybe…

    Comment by Seth R. — January 18, 2008 @ 8:52 am

  13. We have kicked this topic around quite a bit on the bloggernaccle.

    My observations after reviewing the data.

    1. US growth is about 80% due to high birthrate not conversions. 70% of LDS kids end up active as adults. Only 30% are active their whole lives and most spend some time inactive. The key to the health of the US Church is babies. A further dip in LDS birthrates would be quite bad for the US Church

    2. LDS US Activity rates hover somewhere around 45% which is higher then most denominations. The trend in activity rates in the US has been positive since about 1930. From 1890-1930 activity rates were as low as 15-20%.

    3. International retention rates are really dismal. 25%-30% at best

    4. Other denominations are doing much much better Internationally in the third world.

    5. Nobody is doing well in Europe

    The bretheren recognize the problems and are trying to fix things internationally.

    Comment by bbell — January 18, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  14. We have kicked this topic around quite a bit on the bloggernaccle.

    My observations after reviewing the data.

    1. US growth is about 80% due to high birthrate not conversions. 70% of LDS kids end up active as adults. Only 30% are active their whole lives and most spend some time inactive. The key to the health of the US Church is babies. A further dip in LDS birthrates would be quite bad for the US Church

    2. LDS US Activity rates hover somewhere around 45% which is higher then most denominations. The trend in activity rates in the US has been positive since about 1930. From 1890-1930 activity rates were as low as 15-20%.

    3. International retention rates are really dismal. 25%-30% at best

    4. Other denominations are doing much much better Internationally in the third world.

    5. Nobody is doing well in Europe

    The bretheren recognize the problems and are trying to fix things internationally.

    Comment by bbell — January 18, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  15. bbell,
    I’ve seen you use these numbers (or similar) a number of times; do you mind sharing their provenance? (Please note that I’m not challenging the data or your analysis; I’m just curious from whence came your numbers.)

    Comment by Sam B. — January 18, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  16. 5. Nobody is doing well in Europe

    Not so. I’m doing quite well in Europe. ;)

    Comment by C. L. Hanson — January 18, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  17. Sam,

    I do not have the links handy. I am sure I could given enough time. Some of the data can be found in the links in the original post.

    The data on the international situation come from a academic study from Wilfried at T&S. I think they are pretty indisputable and replicated more then once.

    Current activity rates come from similar type recent acedemic studies and have been broadly replicated in multiple studies. I averaged them cause they range from 40-50%

    The data on historical activity rates comes from a paper published either at BYU or one of the Utah historical publications.

    Child retention rates come from a BYU study. Kevin Barney uses the same data when discussing the topic

    Comment by bbell — January 18, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  18. bbell,
    Thanks.

    Comment by Sam B. — January 18, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  19. Here is an example of the religious situation in Europe

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Sweden

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Denmark

    2-5% activity

    Comment by bbell — January 18, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  20. Terminating the block quote…

    Comment by Mark D. — January 18, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

  21. Seth, interesting post. Thanks for posting it.

    Comment by BrianJ — January 20, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  22. David Stewart puts together some really interesting numbers in his book, The Law of the Harvest which is available online. He points out that congratulating ourselves for our growth can lead to complacency in missionary work. Thus, he points out some really hard numbers. For example, he shows how other denominations (like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists) are doing better in missionary work than Mormons are.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — January 20, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

  23. Although building of new chapels may be indicatory of growth, its significance should be discounted to some degree. Our chapel was built approximately 8 years ago. Since then our particular ward’s population has declined to a point where we have perhaps 3 active AP members, YM/YW numbers are likewise small and we are not experiencing growth either from move-ins (more move-outs) or baptisms of converts vs. existing families.

    Given same new chapels do not reflect (to me) what active membership is within a few years of the chapel being completed and in use.

    Sam Kitterman Jr.

    Comment by Sam Kitterman — January 22, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  24. bbell – I don’t know that you quite understood what I was getting at. I’m aware that old buildings are sometimes sold, or torn down. That doesn’t have anything to do with the point that if buildings that are IN USE are not being used at the same rate as they were previously (for example, same number of wards but smaller ward size, or two wards instead of three), then more buildings is not indicative of growth.

    If real numbers help… say there are 3000 members that meet in 3 buildings in an large area. Over time, the area experiences a lot of moveouts, and now, the three buildings are still in use, but only 2,000 members are meeting in wards across those three buildings. All of them are still fully in use, and to tear one down would mean that some members would have to travel a great distance to get to church. However, if those thousand extra memebers were to move elsewhere and create a need for a new building, then one one be built, even though there aren’t any new members.

    Comment by Meg — January 22, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  25. er, one would be built…

    Comment by Meg — January 22, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  26. Meg,

    I know what you are getting at and it makes sense from a theory perspective. When you look at the increase in buildings, units, and other measurable indicators it looks like to me and most observers that there is a annual increase of about 2% in LDS growth which to be honest is the fastest rate of any church in the US over a million members. That being said a 2% growth rate in the US is pretty slow by LDS historical standards.

    I personally believe that organized religion is in the decline long term in the US. As a result we as LDS have seen a slowdown in our growth rates especially when combined with lower birth rates. The key to our long term situation to me is clearly in the US. Without the excess tithing dollars and the missionaries and senior leadership for the rest of the world we would be in trouble

    The international situation is most troubling to me. A new strategy is clearly needed. I would base my new strategy on what worked in Samoa and Tonga. IE church institutions like high schools and colleges

    Comment by bbell — January 23, 2008 @ 10:21 am

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