Mormon Stories aired a live podcast earlier today regarding a review of a case study I posted on cumorah.com at the end of December entitled Top 10 Encouraging and Discouraging LDS Growth and Missionary Developments in 2016. I listened to the podcast and I was initially excited for this discussion about church growth between John Dehlin, Ryan Cragun, and Rick Phillips. However, I was disappointed with the podcast as a whole given the negative focus of the podcast regarding the participants' views of the LDS Church. More specifically, the analysis and discussion was characterized with disparaging and condescending undertones of active church members and general church leadership. The podcast primarily discussed the participants' view of the Church as a corporation, increasing secularism around the world, problems with inactivity and convert attrition, a reduced birthrate among American Latter-day Saints, the possible influence of American politics on international LDS growth trends, and the assertion that the Church will one day experience stagnant growth and ultimate demise as a religion. This negativity should not come as too big of a surprise given that all three participants in the discussion are former members or critics of the Church, and that similar approaches and themes have emerged in other Mormon Stories podcasts.
I appreciate the interest and time given by participants regarding this topic and raising its awareness to their audience despite their negativity. The participants clearly emphasized problems with member activity, convert retention, quick-baptism tactics, and declining receptivity to the LDS Church due to secularism as significant contributors to current LDS growth trends. However, there were several additional areas that were not explored in the podcast that warrant discussion in order to provide a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of LDS growth. My purpose in this post is to highlight some important areas that were not discussed in the podcast that significantly affect current growth trends in the LDS Church.
First, the Church's long-term struggles with member-missionary participation constitutes its greatest challenge to sustain and accelerate its growth. Thousands of surveys and interviews that David Stewart and I have collected and conducted over nearly the past 20 years substantiate this claim. Even locations where populations exhibit little interest in the LDS gospel message can become productive if ordinary members are involved in member-missionary activity. It is clear that member involvement in proselytism and mentoring new members and investigators has been and continues to be a worldwide problem for the Church to achieve growth. The frequency of General Conference tasks that address this topic suggests widespread problems with member-missionary work. It appears that despite efforts from church leaders to improve member-missionary participation, most members are uncomfortable or unsure of how to engage in effective and appropriate proselytism with acquaintances, friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. Some of the problems with lackluster member-missionary participation appear attributed to LDS cultural views of proselytism. David Stewart noted in our presentation to the Miller Eccles Study group in April 2014 that missionary work in the LDS Church has been regarded as something that one goes out to do in a far away place for a specific period of time rather than a daily activity of vital spiritual importance such as scripture study or personal prayer. I would argue that many recent struggles in the Church to accelerate growth center on a lack of desire, interest, vision, and know-how of ordinary members to appreciate their role in missionary activity, and local church leaders' struggles to likewise train, educate, and mentor members within their stewardship regarding member-missionary tactics and strategies. As a result, many active Latter-day Saints appear to have increasingly limited social interaction with those who are not members of the Church, resulting in social entrenchment of LDS congregations that further challenge effective proselytism programs.
Second, the centers of strength policy has significantly affected LDS growth trends worldwide. The most rapid growth in the Church occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when vast areas opened to proselytism and many major cities around the world were more thoroughly saturated with full-time missionaries. Although receptivity was high to the Church during these decades, the strategic vision for expanding the Church appears to best account for this surge of growth. Starting in the 1990s, the Church began to purposefully restrict its operations to only a handful of cities in most newly entered countries in order to better establish centers of strength. The logic of this approach centers on the development of a self-sufficient core LDS membership within a less dispersed geographical area in order to one day help prepare for expansion of the Church into surrounding areas. Unfortunately, this approach has yielded mixed results as the Church is limited to only a few selected locations - some of which may experience lower receptivity to the LDS gospel message compared to unreached areas. As a result, some of these pre-selected center of strength never growth and mature into a center of strength. The implementation and conservative interpretation of this policy has appeared to reduce the growth of the Church in locations such as Tanzania, northern Brazil, Angola, India, Malawi, and Ukraine - to name a few - due to a more limited field of proselytism.
Third, nominalism in traditional religious faiths and strong ethnoreligious ties to a traditional religious faith is another significant challenge for growth. The Church has experienced some of its slowest growth in countries where the majority of the population exhibits strong ties to a traditional faith. Notable examples include Roman Catholicism in Poland, Greek Orthodoxy in Greece, Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, and Buddhism in Thailand. Ethnoreligious ties wax and wane given changes in culture, politics, and society. For example, resurgence of religious activity and identification, such as in Central Asia and the Caucasus, has appeared to diminish receptivity to the Church in these nations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union as Turkic peoples have explored and rekindled their Islamic roots.
Fourth, the Church has struggled to adapt its teaching methods to meet local cultural needs and individuals from diverse religious backgrounds. There are no specialized materials to teach individuals who affiliate as atheist, nonreligious, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, or followers of traditional Chinese religions to name a few. As individuals raised from Roman Catholic or Protestant backgrounds interact less frequently with members and full-time missionaries, there is an increased need and urgency to tailor proselytism approaches to the relevance and need of their intended audiences.
In conclusion, the purpose of this post was to identify significant areas that influence LDS growth trends that were not mentioned in the Mormon Stories podcast that aired earlier today. Although secularism, inactivity, declining birth rate, and convert retention have significantly affected recent LDS growth trends, low member-missionary participation, a conservative interpretation of the centers of strength policy, nominalism, strong ethnoreligious ties, and the lack of teaching approaches and resources tailored to those who do not come from a Roman Catholic or Protestant background constitute just as significant influences on LDS growth trends in the United States and worldwide. There were many positive developments in 2016 that suggest that the Church is making good strides in its growth - such as increases in the number of stakes, expansion and rapid growth in West Africa, improving LDS growth trends in Central America, and congregational growth in Canada and certain states in the United States. However, significant LDS growth problems persist - including in traditional strongholds such as the United States and Mexico. Furthermore, the expansion of the Church in many of the most populous nations remains at a frustratingly slow or stagnant pace - such as in India and Indonesia. Time will tell what 2017 and beyond will hold in regards to evolving LDS growth trends.