Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Responding To Critcisms About The Growth Of The Church

Negative information about the growth of the Church exists on the Internet, much of which is exaggerated or misinformed. Most of this information comes from Anti-Mormons who use it as a means to try to disprove the validity of the Church, attempting to shake the testimonies of faithful members of the Church while propagating negative attitudes towards the Church from those outside of the Church.

On the other hand there are claims made by some members of the Church concerning its growth which are exaggerated and undocumented while at the same time ignoring problems which may be occurring. The purpose of this post is to provide an accurate summary and analysis of the overall growth of the Church, particularly concerning what the leaders of the Church state concerning it, and dispelling false or biased claims concerning this subject. If you wish to provide any comments or suggestions about this topic, feel free to comment. I do not provide many references in the post, but I can provide desired references to readers upon request as a comment.

Criticisms of Growth

Zero Growth Theory: This attack on the Church is directed towards the growth of Church membership. Critics state that the number of those who join the Church is equal to the number which leave the Church. This theory rationalizes new congregations and stakes organized to membership redistribution and assumes that this results in no increase in congregations due to areas Church members are vacating (unless the number of members per congregation declines). Oftentimes critics site other fast growing Christian groups (such as Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses) to challenge claims made by some members of the Church that it is the fastest growing Church. Many of the other criticisms towards Church growth are derivatives of this one.

Lack of Devotion Theory: Critics claim that in areas where the Church is growing at a rapid pace both in terms of membership and activity that the devotion of the members is not strong. They believe that the Church is poorly understood and if it were properly understood growth would not occur. This theory also supposes that growth will ultimately stop and result in few active members of the Church and the weakening of the Church in the given area. Examples from Latin America are usually used to illustrate this theory.

The Internet Slows Church Growth Theory: Many critics of the Church believe that a rise in Internet usage is correlated to a decline in the growth of the Church. These beliefs stem from the wide body of Anti-Mormon literature available on the Internet, which is available in many of the world's languages. This theory assumes that people become uninterested in the Church as a result of negative information read online, thus becoming unreceptive to the message of the Gospel. This theory also ignores favorable information about the Church on the Internet, particularly in the form of Church owned websites, many online newspapers and personal blogs.

False Assertions By Members of The Church About Growth

All Is Well In Zion Claim: Some members of the Church believe that the growth of the Church has nothing to do with them and just happens. As members of the Church we know that missionary work and the Church itself are in the hands of the Lord, but that does not mean that we do not have a responsibility to share the Gospel. This kind of mentality also results in dismissing important and serious challenges for growth the Church faces in certain areas of the World. When some Church members encounter large wards in the United States, many of which grow rapidly in membership from new move-ins, they justify this thinking.

Exponential Growth Claim: Some members of the Church believe that the Church is growing exponentially and at such a fantastic rate that we as a Church cannot meet all of the needs that such growth merits. While it is true that there are many issues which challenge us with the growth the Church has seen, this claim in inflated and generalized to include the Church throughout the World with the exception of Western Europe.

All of these claims and theories have some truth to them but each one has serious problems with what in reality is occurring in the Church around the world.

Responding To Criticisms and False Assumptions

Church membership has increased every year since 1858. Church membership currently increases by about 300,000 every year and last year increased by 314,510 people. The number of converts that join the Church every year is usually between 250,000 and 300,000. Children on record increase has been around 100,000 a year. If you put all these factors together membership has been increasing at a linear rate for about the past 20 years.

One of the greatest ways to look for growth in terms of activity and devotion of Church members is through the creation of new congregations. In order for congregations to function, particularly wards and stakes, there needs to be a certain number of active members of the Church willing to serve in different callings. For example, most new stakes created today require at least 120 active Melchizedek Priesthood holders that are full-tithe payers. Congregation size can vary from fewer than 10 active Church members to 400 active Church members. The average branch has 30 to 70 active members while the average ward has 80 to 250 active members. While not a perfect indicator, the average number of Church members per congregation can give insight into activity rates. However an increase in congregations indicates that either the needs of the Church membership cannot be met by the existing congregations in an area or that the Church is expanding into areas in which it has not functioned previously.

There were a few periods between the 1970s and the 1990s where we saw many new stakes created. Some years had over 100 stakes organized, such as the years between 1978-1981 and 1995-1997. It is important to note that during these periods of impressive increases in the number of stakes and congregations, the size of the stakes and congregations tended to be smaller than today in order to give members more opportunities for leadership and callings. The number of congregations per stakes continues to increase. For instance in 2000 there were an average of 6.97 wards per stake. In 2008 this average increased to 7.17 wards per stake. If the average number of wards per stake was the same in 2008 as it was in 2000, there would have been an additional 80 stakes created in 2008. During this eight year time period the average number of branches per stake dropped from 1.58 to 1.46 branches per stake. Small stake and congregation size was one of the reasons for why so many stakes were discontinued and consolidated in the early part of this decade in Chile, where 42 stakes were discontinued and either were consolidated with neighboring stakes or turned into districts. Currently we usually have between 25 and 50 new stakes created each year.

As for congregations, the Church currently grows by 250 to 450 congregations a year. During the years we saw impressive gains in new stakes, we also saw impressive gains in congregations. Some years had over 1,000 congregations created such as 1979, 1980, 1992, and 1997. Many of these congregations that were created in the 1990s were consolidated in Latin America between 2001 and 2003 in order to strengthen the stakes, wards and branches, many of which stressed active members and leadership. Large increases in congregations in 1979, 1980 and 1997 were partly due to the Church moving into many areas it had not existed before.

Today there are much stricter standards set forth for new congregations. Instead of branches being organized in areas where the Church has not functioned before, groups or dependent branches are first organized and then allowed to become branches or wards once they become more self sustaining. This was not the case during periods of rapid growth in congregations in the 1970s and 1990s, when many branches organized only had a handful of local members. Groups and dependent branches are not reported in statistics given at General Conference. If these groups and dependent branches were made into independent branches or wards, we would see many more congregations being created a year. The past couple years in particular we have seen many groups and dependent branches organized in Africa and Eastern Europe. If we continue to see these groups and dependent branches organized systematically we can expect to see the number of new wards and branches created increase as older units turn into independent branches and wards.

Some of the strongest growth the Church currently experiences is actually in the United States. There have been at least 150 new congregations created each year in the United States for the past couple decades. The percentage increase for membership and congregations has nearly been the same for the past several years. Membership in the United States has increased by 43.1% from 1989 but congregations has increased by 54.5% since 1989. This indicates that, unless the number of active members per congregation has decreased, retention and activity are remaining constant or are perhaps improving.

In the United States one of the greatest issues I believe that needs greater attention from the general membership of the Church is the issue of youth in the Church transitioning into young adulthood. If people stop attending Church meetings and become less active or leave the Church altogether it often occurs in young adulthood once they are away from parents and Church leaders with whom they have grown up. The greatest way to curtail this problem is by teaching youth how to have their own spiritual experiences as well as habits which will strengthen their growing testimonies of the Gospel. I also believe many parents have neglected their roles in encouraging their children to partake of the blessings of active membership in the Church once they become independent.

As for membership redistribution, this occurs in the United States primarily in Utah and California. Both of these states have seen members of the Church moving away from the larger cities into the suburbs and nearby towns. In Utah only three stakes have been discontinued due to a shift in membership distribution while California has seen a dozen or so stakes discontinued in the past two decades. Currently both California and Utah have more congregations than in 2000, indicating that both Church growth and redistribution of membership are occurring. Most areas of the United States see steady increases in membership and in the number of congregations, evidenced by the steady number of new congregations and members added to the Church every year. The United States typically increases by about 100,000 members and 150-350 congregations a year.

Much of the current inactivity problems, which are most acute in areas of Latin America and Eastern Asia, are the result of converts joining the Church with little teaching and little time to develop regular Church attendance. Furthermore a large portion of the converts of the Church are under the age of 18, which creates great opportunities to have young converts grow up in the Church while at the same time challenging local leadership to take care of so many spiritual needs. These local leaders themselves often have had very little training and experience with leadership, which can result in less effective or non-existent retention programs. It should also be acknowledged that many of these new leaders in the Church are trying their very best and the Church has developed training broadcasts and other means to help educate and train local leaders to reach their full potential as a leader of the Church in an area where the Church is young. Oftentimes some of these areas of the Church rely too heavily on missionaries for the Church's functioning.

It is true that some Christian churches grow more rapidly than the LDS Church in terms of percentages or numbers. Nearly all these churches have a million or fewer adherents or have three-quarters of more of their membership outside the United States. Just because as members of the Church we believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the Lord's one true Church does not mean that we have to be the fastest growing. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles stated “The Lord has never given us a mandate to be the biggest Church — in fact, He has said our numbers will be comparatively few — but He has asked that we commit ourselves to living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

It is difficult to say whether the Internet has had a positive or negative effect on the Church. Missionaries around the world often report of recent converts who learned about the Church through the Internet. On the other hand there are many who become disinterested in the Church once they encounter sites that portray the Church in a negative light. To say that the Church's growth overall has been stunted because of the rise of the Internet is unsupported.


President Hinckley said the following concerning the growth of the Church in the October 2005 General Conference. "The growth of the Church from its infancy to its present stature is phenomenal, and we have only scratched the surface." We can expect the Church to continue to grow. There have been years past which we have seen more stakes and congregations created, more converts baptized and more missionaries serve than present. Church growth in terms of membership and the number of congregations has increased at a linear rate for the past couple decades. Serious challenges remain for the Church in terms of the reactivation of inactive members and convert retention in many places of the world. There also remain many areas of the world in which the Church is not established.


Gnesileah said...

Wonderfully written article and analysis on the growth of the Church, Matt. Great job.

Anonymous said...

Very good article! I´m missing some information about the growth in Europe. In Germany for example is the membership declining. The number of members is constant, but the number of congregations is a lot smaller than in the beginning of the 90's.

The Chatelain's said...

I like the idea of minimum active Melchezidek priesthood holders for stake creation is their an established standard for new wards? Or is it based stake president and area?

Matt said...

In Germany Church membership has increased slowly from year to year. In 2000 there were about 36,300 Church members and at the end of 2008 there were 37,539 Church members. One of the reasons we see slow growth there is because of few converts joining the Church together with many American Church members leaving Germany. Today the sole miltary stake in Germany (which used to have three military stakes) only has five wards and a branch. As for congregations in Germany, the number of wards has remained fairly constant over the past couple decades, but we saw a rise and fall in the number of branches during the same time period.

Yes, there is a standard for how many active, tithe-paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders are needed for a ward to be created. Usually that number is around 15, but I am sure that this number also depends on the Area and Stake Presidencies as well.

Mike McBride said...


I like this blog and subscribe to the RSS feed. Let me make a couple comments...

I think some of the confusion about LDS growth is based on how membership is measured. Official church membership is measured as living persons who have been baptized (and not excommunicated) plus living children of record. But in certain studies that some people refer to in discussing LDS growth, the measure of membership is self-reported religious identification.

Self-reported identification numbers will be lower than official Church membership numbers. And depending on the measure used, the conclusions about LDS Church growth will differ. In particular, growth will look much stronger if you use official Church numbers than if you use self-reported identification. We see this in the U.S. but even to a much larger degreee in other countries, especially in Latin America. There is actually some published research.

Both measures are meaningful, and they capture different things. At first cut, if you want to measure growth in those who at some point (more or less) accepted the Restored Gospel the, the Church's official numbers are appropriate, but if you want to measure those who have made more of a commitment to the Restored Gospel, then the self-identified numbers are better.

The moral of the story is that any number must be interpreted, and people can--and often do--misinterpret them.

Moreover, I disagree with those who criticize the Church for using offical membership numbers, asserting that the Church is overstating its growth. Official membership numbers are exactly that: official. They are the right ones to publish publicly. Other measures of higher commitment, such as temple recommend holder percentages, seem more appropriate for internal Church use and not public attention.

James said...

Great article. Critics of the church like to point out that the membership figures includes all members, both active and inactive, so there are many in the 13+ million members that no longer consider themselves Mormon. That's true. Because of this, I sort of agree with the critics that the overall membership numbers are not the best way to measure church growth.

The best way I think, is number of church units (stakes, wards and branches). Because these need a certain number of active members in order to function.

Looking at numbers of church units, the church is growing, not as fast as membership numbers seem to show, but still growing strong. The number of church units is stagnate or even even shrinking in some countries, but in most countries where the church is in, it's growing.

Exposing the fact that the church is not growing as fast as many members think is a good thing, I believe. It can wake members up out their complacency, to do missionary work.

Matt said...

Thanks for pointing out the self identified numbers for membership, something I neglected to discuss in the post. These statistics are usually provided by the census when quoted by those discussing membership activity and growth and are able to add insight into activity and self affiliation. The assumption made is that less active or inactive members do not identify the Church as their religion. Something we have to be careful with in making this conclusion is who most of the converts are in many areas of the world. Many converts are under 18 and have parents who are not in the Church (part member families). I imagine that the parent's of many of the youth converts of the Church do not indicate a difference of religion between them and their children if one exists. This would result in a lower number of self identified members from those who have collected such data, such as the census. On the other hand, many of these youth do not continue into activity as adults. So like what was said, it depends on what the numbers are indicating for us to make proper interpretations.

Mike McBride said...

Personally, I think that there is not one single best measure of Church growth.

Offical membership stats give a best case scenario.

Growth in units gives a congregational measure. I agree that this is a good measure (it's also why I follow this blog).

Growth in current temple recommend holders is a great measure of committed adult members. SLC has these numbers via new barcoded recommends, but these are, of course, not published.

Self-identified members is another good measure, probably somewhere between offical stats and current recommend holders.

I think the best way to get a good picture of LDS Church growth is to present all of the above if possible and note differences.

A couple other points. First, the US Census is not allowed to ask a question about religious self-identification, but many other countries do it. Census numbers from Lat Amer are particularly informative.

Second, we can compare LDS growth with other churches and see that the LDS Church is not growing as fast as certain religious groups. However, we must keep in mind that different groups measure membership differently, so we are comparing in some sense different breeds of apples.

Anonymous said...

BTW: Is there an age limit (like 115 years) when inactive/address unknown members are automatically deleted from the membership records?

Matt said...

I believe the age that address unknown file names are removed is 109 or 112.

Brandon Plewe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon Plewe said...

Good post, Matt. Unfortunately, semi-official church sources, like the Church News and the almanac, tend to encourage (unwittingly, I think) the All is Well in Zion fallacy. Several months ago in Sunday School, people started to relate stories of exponential growth and such. I laid out basically the same facts you did, about 15 years of linear growth, troubles in Chile and elsewhere, and the desperate need for greater member missionary work and better fellowshipping of new members. I tell no lie: a sister turned around and looked at me and said, "we don't want to hear that; we only want to hear faith-promoting statistics." People like their myths!

On the numbers: if we're looking for "adherents" (whatever that means), the official rolls would be too high, but also, self-reporting surveys (such as censuses in Canada, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere) are certainly too low, due to the way questions are asked and cultural biases against non-traditional churches. Other fast-growing non-traditional churches (SDA, JW) see similar discrepancies.

Speaking of which, one of your comments may not be true (I'm not sure what you meant). There are several countries where the enrolled SDA and/or JW membership is higher (in some cases, much higher) than LDS and growing faster than us too. For example, Brazil has 1M LDS (25% active), 1.3M JW (40% active), and 1.8M SDA (50% active).

Yes, this isn't a competition for numbers, but there is a lesson to be learned here. The main one is that they are driven largely by member efforts, not full-time missionaries. In my experience, the typical SDA or JW member is a more committed, better trained, missionary than the typical LDS.

The Research department in church headquarters has very good detailed statistics about all these things, and although they are not directly reported in Conference, it is clear from what the brethren are saying (i.e., all is not well in Zion) that they are paying attention.

Brandon Plewe said...

Follow-up: My SDA/JW numbers were a bit off: according to their own stats, Brazil has 700K JW and 1.3M SDA (where did cumorah.com get their numbers???). But the point still stands.

Another, very different lesson to be learned from these churches. Both have had so much success overseas that they are in danger of losing their moorings. We learned very early in our history that there is a danger when the majority of members (and leaders) are recent converts. That's why I applaud the Church's recent (last 6 years) approach to growth: more emphasis on real, long-term conversion than on numbers, and more emphasis on training leaders before creating too many congregations.

Jonathan Mahoney said...

Is there a way to contact you? I can't find it on the site.

Matt said...


Thanks for your input. I agree with you about the SDA and JW numbers and growth. In some ways the standards are higher for those who join one of these churches in terms of worship attendance and activity. These churches also have strong member missionary work programs and have many doctrinal similarities with the LDS Church.

Like you said, this is not a competition. We are to teach the restored Gospel. President Packer said something very interesting at the mission president training. The Church News quoted President Packer saying the following:

"It is a new thought to us across the Church that we are not to be duplicating the Wasatch Front out there with the number of buildings and the congregations and the large audiences and activities that go on and on," he said. "We are to establish the gospel."


If you wish to contact me, leave a comment and I will respond.

Anonymous said...

How do you interpret the Church's data on number of wards vs total membership? What is the total membership claim right now? 14 million? And the total number of wards? 30,000?

That's 466 people per ward on average. Is it safe to speculate that more than half are inactive? I have yet been in a ward with more than 250 active members, let alone nearly 500.