Sunday, March 22, 2020

COVID-19 and Church Growth Predictions

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the Church's operations in essentially every country of the world. Public sacrament meetings have been suspended, approximately 60 temples and all of the Missionary Training Centers have temporarily closed, proxy ordinance work in all temples has been suspended, and General Conference in two weeks will be significantly adjusted to have sessions include a handful of individuals to avoid concerns with the spread of the virus. Furthermore, the Church has announced plans to return full-time missionaries to their country of origin and have these missionaries complete their service in their home nation or to end their missions early if they are close to the end of their service. The impact of these changes appears unclear given that the duration of this pandemic is unknown. However, examination of previous incidents in which Church operations have been disrupted may provide some useful insight into what may occur for the future.

Significant disruptions in Church operations has yielded a mixed bag of results, but generally the long-term findings are mostly positive in regards to self-sufficiency for the Church on a local level. For example, the "the Freeze" occurred in Ghana between June 1989 to November 1990 when the government banned all activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a result, annual membership growth rates decelerated from 30-42% between 1985 and 1989 to 5.1% during 1990 and 1991. The number of branches in the country also declined from 50 to 39. Annual membership growth rates never exceeded 20% after this incident, albeit this appeared primarily due to increases in the number of members that made geometric growth of this magnitude difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, the Church in Ghana has consistently reportedly moderately high growth rates since the end of the Freeze. Also, the Freeze appeared to help prepare local Ghanaian members to operate stakes, as the first two stakes in the country were organized just six months later in April 1991. Isolation from Church leadership can help improve self-sufficiency in local leadership as there are no outsourced leaders or missionaries to occupy these roles. At year-end 1991, there were 9,800 members and 39 congregations in Ghana, whereas at year-end 2018 there were 83,651 members and 314 congregations.

Another noteworthy example of positive growth after disruptions in Church activities is in Liberia and Sierra Leone when the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis occurred. Prior to the Ebola outbreak, the Church in these two nations generally experienced intermittent periods of rapid growth punctuated by slow or stagnant growth that appeared caused by local leadership development problems and civil wars. Church growth rapidly accelerated immediately prior to the Ebola outbreak in both nations, with annual membership growth rates nearing 16% in Sierra Leone and surpassing 20% in Liberia. The Ebola outbreak slowed annual membership growth rates in both nations (8.4% in Liberia in 2015, 9.3% in Sierra Leone in 2015), but these rates have gradually increased since the outbreak ended. However, most importantly, the Church in both Sierra Leone and Liberia has experienced unprecedented growth in the number of congregations and higher convert retention and member activity rates. Local leaders have indicated that much of these improvements have been due to increases in the number of returned missionaries serving in leadership positions. However, the evacuation of all foreign missionaries and mission leaders required local members to undertake missionary and leadership roles more independently. As a result, the number of congregations in Liberia increased from 24 in 2015 (at the height of the crisis) to 48 in 2018. In contrast, the Church in Liberia grew from 12 to 24 congregations between 2009 and 2014. Congregational growth rates in Sierra Leone appeared unaffected by the Ebola outbreak as the number of congregations increased from 22 in 2009 to 45 in 2015 and 69 in 2018. Lastly, the Church in both countries has reported unprecedented growth in the number of stakes since the resolution of the Ebola outbreak. For example, in 2015 there were no stakes in Liberia and one stake in Sierra Leone. Today, there are seven stakes in Sierra Leone and five stakes in Liberia.

There are other examples when significant disruptions in Church operations have set back progress. The Church in the Republic of Georgia is a prime example of when such disruptions resulted in significant convert attrition and leadership voids. The Church evacuated full-time missionaries for three months during the brief war between Russia and the Republic of Georgia in 2008. Perhaps half of the active members became inactive, which resulted in the merger of the two Tbilisi branches and the appointment of a foreign senior missionary as the branch president. It took approximately one decade for the Church to return to its previous status with two branches, approximately 100 active members, and local branch presidents presiding over each branch. The Church in Sri Lanka was also significantly affected by the removal of full-time missionaries from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s although there was no disruption to Church meetings or operations for local members. The removal of the only senior missionary couple from the Central African Republic in the mid-1990s, as well as persistent political instability and war, rapidly reversed the rapid growth the Church originally experienced in Bangui in the early 1990s, culminating in the merger of the two Bangui branches and resulting in only one branch in the entire country as of early 2020. Political instability, economic turmoil, and the mass exodus of many active members significantly set back Church growth in Venezuela in the 2010s. There are also additional examples where long-term Church growth trends did not appear affected by significant disruptions to missionary work or Church activities, such as with political instability and its impact on the Church in Serbia and the Church in Albania during the late 1990s/early 2000s, or periodic viruses that limited missionary work or church meetings in industrialized East Asian countries in the 2000s.

The current COVID-19 crisis is unique in regards to the speed it has spread across the world and its significant disruption to everyday life in developed countries. It is likely that many active members may become inactive and not return to regular Church attendance or follow Church teachings once the crisis abates due to isolation from fellow Church members and falling out of habitual Gospel living standards such as weekly Church attendance and daily scripture study and personal prayer. However, the current crisis could also present as an important catalyst to change societal conditions and perhaps improve receptivity to the Church. Furthermore, such crises can also result in a revitalization of member-missionary work and fellowship with less-active and inactive members by helping alleviate distress and need.

My prediction is that the Church in countries with a solid leadership base and seasoned Church membership (i.e. the United States, Canada, Western Europe, industrialized East Asia, Oceania) will likely not experience long-term negative consequences from the current crisis, although 2020 will likely be a year for very low membership growth and congregational growth rates due to the suspension of church meetings and limited missionary activity. Instead, growth trends in these nations will likely remain the status quo or perhaps slightly increase in the coming years after the crisis is resolved. Growth trends in countries with developing Church leadership, a sizable body of Church members, and more dynamic growth (i.e. Philippines, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa) appear more unclear, but past experience has indicated that growth rates usually significantly decrease during the crisis, and then rapidly increase after the crisis ends. Thus, I predict membership and congregational growth rates in these areas will likely increase, at least temporarily, due to the COVID-19 crisis. Countries with fledgling Church membership and limited or no local leadership appear most vulnerable to the shock of evacuating foreign missionaries and the suspension of regular worship services due to the current crisis (i.e. Sub-Saharan African nations with fewer than 1,000 members, countries in East Asia with a recent Church establishment, Eastern Europe).

The current crisis may also present opportunities for the Church to reconsider some of its missionary and growth strategies and paradigms. For example, sacrament meetings held in member homes may serve as an important catalyst for the Church to more seriously consider a more aggressive expansion into previously unreached areas in the coming years with isolated members, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where conditions for growth appear most favorable. Heavily reliance on internet and technology during the crisis presents opportunities to better refine and develop online teaching approaches to make them more effective and commonplace. Standardization of regular videos from Church leadership that share doctrinal messages or teachings suggestions may also present ideas for the future online proselytism and Gospel learning.

In conclusion, the current crisis is only in its beginning stages and the consequences of it on the world economy and society will be devastating. There has not been a recent event in world history that comes close to replicating the current situation on a global scale. As such, it is unclear how the Church will respond to the current pandemic albeit the trend has consistently been one of exercising caution to minimize potential harm to its members and the general public. It will be interesting to see how the Church uses the crisis in a constructive manner to help build the faith of its members and forge a sense of community in the wake of social distancing. I imagine General Conference will have many messages that address this challenge and strive to make the most of the situation to strengthen the faith of its members, alleviate suffering, and prepare for rebuilding the future.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

New Stakes Created in Cote d'Ivoire, Georgia, and Utah; Stake Discontinued in California

Cote d'Ivoire
The Church organized a new stake in Abidjan on March 1st. The Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire Selmer Stake was organized from a division of the Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire Niangon South Stake, Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire Toit Rouge Stake, and the Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire Yopougon Attie Stake. The new stake includes the following six wards: the Andokoi, Foncier, Nouveau Quartier 2nd, Selmer, Sideci 1st, and Sogefiha Wards. Mission leadership report more than 1,000 attended the special conference to create the new stake. The new stake is the Church's 13th stake to be organized in the Abidjan metropolitan area. Several additional stakes in Abidjan are ready to divide and additional stakes in the city will likely be created later this year.

There are now 15 stakes and 17 districts in Cote d'Ivoire

The Church organized a new stake in the Atlanta metropolitan area on March 1st. The Winder Georgia Stake was organized from a division of the Athens Georgia Stake and the Lilbum Georgia Stake. The new stake includes the following eight wards: the Braselton, Collins Hill, Commerce, Cornelia, Dacula 1st,  Dacula 2nd, Fort Yargo, and Winder Wards. The new stake is the Church's 12th stake in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

There are now 18 stakes in Georgia

The Church organized a new stake in Bluffdale on February 23rd. The Bluffdale Utah Blackridge Stake was organized from a division of the Herriman Utah South Stake. The new stake includes the following six wards: the Alpine View, Aurora Vista, Juniper Crest, Lookout Ridge, Patriot Ridge, and Province Point Wards. There are now 10 stakes in Herriman.

There are now 608 stakes and one district in Utah.

The Church discontinued another stake in California. The Granada Hills California Stake (organized in 1936) was discontinued and the seven wards in the former stake were reassigned to the Canoga Park California Stake or the North Hollywood California Stake. The Church has had a long-term trend of stake discontinuations in California since the 1990s. The Church has discontinued stakes in California at a rate of one per year since the mid-2010s, and most recently discontinued the Torrance California Stake (discontinued in 2019), the Garden Grove California Stake (discontinued in 2017), and the San Diego California Sweetwater Stake (discontinued in 2016). In contrast, the last time the Church organized a new stake in California was in 2013 which was the Lake Elsinore California Stake.

There are now 152 stakes in California.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

20+ New Stakes to be Created in West Africa in 2020

Church leaders in West Africa report that at least 20 new stakes will be created later this year in the Africa West Area. Specific locations for where these new stakes will be created have not yet been announced. One new stake has been organized in West Africa thus far in 2020 - the Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire Selmer Stake on March 1st. It appears the size of current stakes and districts that most of these stakes will be organized in Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

New Temple Predictions - March 2020 Edition

I have updated my temple prediction map in preparation for General Conference in April. Data used to identify probable locations for future temples include the size of the Church in a specific geographical area (i.e. number of stakes and districts, the number of wards and branches), the age of the oldest stake in a specific geographical area, church growth trends, distance to the nearest temple, number of endowment sessions scheduled at the nearest temple, and member and missionary reports regarding member activity, temple attendance, and convert retention. In September 2019, I divided prospective temple sites into more likely and less likely categories. This change appeared warranted given recent trends of temple announcements in remote areas of the world with few relatively Latter-day Saints, such as Cobán, Guatemala; Budapest, Hungary; and Okinawa, Japan, that appear less likely to receive temple announcements given historical trends.

Locations added to the temple prediction map include:
  • Bo, Sierra Leone (less likely)
  • Bluffdale/Herriman/Riverton, Utah (more likely and proposed by the Church originally in 2005
  • Clearfield/Syracuse/West Point, Utah (more likely)
  • Spanish Fork, Utah (more likely) 
Additional changes include the transfer of Santiago, Dominican Republic to the more likely temple list from the less likely temple list. Also, Olongapo, Philippines is provided as an alternative site for the probable Angeles Philippines Temple. Altogether, there are 137 potential temples on the map (47 more like temples, 90 less likely temples).

The following 10 locations appear most likely to have temples announced this coming General Conference if any new temples are announced. You are welcome to provide your top 10 picks for temple announcements in the comments below.
  1. Benin City, Nigeria
  2. Santa Cruz, Bolivia 
  3. Monrovia, Liberia 
  4. Angeles or Olongapo, Philippines
  5. Tarawa, Kiribati
  6. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 
  7. Missoula, Montana
  8. Colorado Springs, Colorado 
  9. Santiago or Tuguegarao, Philippines 
  10. Lubumbashi, DR Congo
See below for the map of likely and less likely new temple sites: