Any time one reads an article or sees a documentary on the Mormons, the LDS church is almost always introduced as the world's fastest growing religion. The authors of these articles need to check their facts however. The LDS church is not the fastest growing church; in fact, it is currently in a decline!
Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church, stated that “the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear…” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 4)
As bold as this claim is, the facts tell a different story. If one takes an objective look at the numbers published by the church, it is clear that not only are most other religious groups growing much faster, but that the growth of the LDS church is currently in a decline.
With a reported growth rate by the church of about one million new members every three years, which calculates to 1,000 new members per day, the numbers seem impressive. But compare that to the Assemblies of God, who bring in 10,000 new members every day. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, with membership numbers very close to those of the Mormon church, have brought in 900,000 new members each year since 2000.
With one of the largest missionary forces in the world, the number of convert baptisms is surprisingly low. It was reported in General Conference that there were 321,385 new converts in 1996. In 2004 there were only 241,239. That is about a 3% decrease a year or 25% over 8 years! 2005 showed a slight increase at just 243,108. Please refer to the following chart:
The numbers in this chart are taken directly from the churches General Conference in April where annual numbers are reported each year. They are published in the May Ensign of the corresponding year. Notice the difference in converts between the year 1996 and 2004, which is very close to 60,000. Also notice the number of missionaries serving in 2002 versus the number serving in 2004, a difference of more than 10,000.
The church hasn’t always had such growth problems. In fact, from 1940 to 1980 there was a 53% growth boom. It was projected that if such numbers continue, there would be 265 million Mormons by the year 2080! These are exciting numbers for the church but it appears that it won’t be happening any time soon.
The church currently lists a membership of about 12 million. Even if this number is accurate, how many of these are regular church-goers? A world-wide estimate is that only 35% are active. This is only 4 million active Mormons, which is only 0.001% of the world’s population.
While activity numbers are low, retention is also a major problem for the church. About 75% of new members never become active or stay active only a short time. Many of the First Presidency messages in the Ensign and Liahona (two church published magazines) focus strongly on staying active, especially to new members. President Hinckley: “To those of you who are new, I plead with you to continue with us. We need you...” If the leader of the church himself has to beg new members to stay, there is obviously a retention problem.
What has caused the churches recent decline in activity and new converts? Most experts agree that it is the internet. With a vast array of information available at any computer with internet access, some of the churches better kept secrets are now broadcast to the entire world, including temple ceremonies and shady moments in church history. Investigators are turning to the internet to learn more about this very enticing religion, and many of them end up asking the missionaries not to come back.
The church has recently released a program called “The More Good Foundation”. This program is designed to offset the churches negative publicity online. Members are encouraged to start blogs and web sites which share their testimonies, experiences, and other positive aspects of the church. The hope is that an investigator will find one of these sites instead of an “anti” site and will go on to join the church.
Another possible cause for the decline in Mormon baptisms is a recent drop in the number of full time missionaries. The churches new policy, which they call “Raising the Bar” has upped the ante for missionary service. Potential missionaries are no longer allowed to engage in forbidden activities and then repent shortly before they leave for service. “The day of the 'repent and go' missionary is over,” said M. Russell Ballard in his “Raising the Bar” speech, given in General Conference of October 2002. The number of missionaries who served in 2002 was 61,638 and this dropped to 52,060 in 2005. “In raising qualification standards for missionary service, the church anticipated some decline in the number of missionaries serving,” said Dale Bills, LDS spokesman. The drop in the number of missionaries has definitely had an impact; however, convert numbers were already dropping before this new policy was put in place.
One final problem for the church is the number of people who resign each year. Although the church does not report such numbers, it is estimated that approximately 125,000 people officially resigned from the church in 2006.
The official membership numbers for 2006 have not yet been released (I wrote this article for a school assignment in early 2007), but if they follow suite, there will be about 240,000 new converts, 95,000 children born, and 125,000 resignees, which is a net growth of 210,000 new members, of which only 52,500 will remain active. This is a growth rate of one million active members every 20 years! Doesn't sound like it's growing very fast to me!
Church leaders have not commented on this loss of numbers and do not seem to even notice, at least not in the public’s eye. In fact, they continue to preach that all is well and that the church is still rapidly growing. “Today, the Church grows in 170 nations throughout the earth… This expansion of the Church means many of us will have opportunities to serve those who are new converts.” This quote was given by Anne C. Pingree in the April 2006 General Conference and published in the Ensign the following month. It is clear the church is not alarmed by these statistics. They either don’t care, or prefer to keep the general membership uninformed.
The church believes that, ultimately, no matter what the opposition, it will continue to grow. According to the numbers made public by the church, the number of convert baptisms is dropping every year, and of those who are converted, 75% become inactive right away. It is clear that the church is definitely in trouble. Something needs to dramatically change if they wish to continue claiming to be the world’s fastest growing religion.
Ballard, M. Russell. “The Greatest Generation of Missionaries.” Ensign Nov 2002: 46.
Hinckley, Gordon B. “A Perfect Brightness of Hope—to New Members of the Church.” Liahona Oct 2006: 2-5.
History of the Church Vol. 4, pg 450
More Good Foundation. 8 Feb 2007
“More On Real LDS Growth Numbers.” Mormon Curtain. 8 Feb 2007
Pingree, Anne C. “To Grow Up unto the Lord” Ensign May 2006: 74-76
Stack, Peggy. “Keeping members a challenge for LDS church” Salt Lake Tribune 22 June 2006.
Stack, Peggy. “Unintended consequence of church's 'raising the bar'.” Salt Lake Tribune 22 June 2006