Related Posts: Is LDS (Mormon) Church Growth Decelerating? (2014)
One point of interest among Mormons and non-Mormons is the growth rate of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many Mormons are confidant in the “fact” that the church is the fastest growing church in the United States and expect to see enormous increases in membership. This notion is fed by predictions from a few sociologists. Rodney Stark made the following observation in 1984:
If growth during the next century is like that of the past, the Mormons will become a major world faith. If, for example, we assume they will grow by 30 percent per decade, then in 2080 there will be more than 60 million Mormons. But, since World War II, the Mormon growth rate has been far higher than 30 percent per decade. If we set the rate at 50 percent, then in 2080 there will be 250 million Mormons. (Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” Review of Religious Research, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 18-27)
This number has been repeated often. One reporter wrote in US News & World Report: “If current trends hold, experts say Latter-day Saints could number 265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman Catholics among Christian bodies. Mormonism, says Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and religion at the University of Washington, ‘stands on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on Earth since the prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert’” (Jeffery L. Sheler, “The Mormon Moment,” 11/11/2000). At one time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the fastest growing denomination among those with more than a million members. It is now just barely the second.
In this post I will examine simple LDS growth statistics. I will also examine the scriptural predictions about the size of the church in the last days. The data is from the Church Almanac and church statistics reported every April General Conference.
Growth of the Mormon Church
Figure 1 shows the church membership plotted against year. The red line is an exponential fit to the data. The data (black dots) clearly reveal the characteristic pattern of exponential growth.
As you can see the red line fits quite well. If the growth of the church remains exponential (as shown by the red line) then by 2050 the church will have 73 million members–not very different from Stark’s lower prediction. The problem with such an analysis is that exponential growth is only realistic during the earliest stages; later on the dynamics become more complicated.From Figure 1 it is obvious that the rate of growth increased substantially after 1950. Plotting the membership from 1950 to 2006 and fitting an exponential curve to the data we get Figure 2. If church membership continues to grow according to the fit in Figure 2 then by 2050 the church will have 113 million members. But again, exponential growth is not realistic. And as you can see the red line is over predicting membership beyond the year 2000.
A second and third order polynomial was also fit to the data. (See Figure 3 for 2nd order.) Doing those fits and extrapolating to 2050 we get predictions of 39 and 36 million members respectively–much more realistic numbers.It can be seen from Figure 3 that the church has been growing at a relatively constant rate since 1990–shown in Figure 4. The red line is a fitted linear equation (y = ax + b): A very good fit. If this rate of growth is maintained then by 2050 the church will have about 27 million members. This is at a constant growth rate of 320,000 persons per year. (Note: this is not converts per year!) However, this does not take into account the accelerating rate of membership growth. So next I shall consider changes in the rate of growth.Accelerating growth
Plots of the first differences of the membership are given in Figures 5, 6, and 7.
[The first differences give the rate of change in membership during a given year. For example, if the membership at the beginning of 1950 was 800,000 and at the beginning of 1951 it was 830,000 then the rate of change is 30,000 persons per year for 1950.]
Figure 5 is the growth rate over the church’s history. Again, there is an obvious increase in the rate of change around 1950. The three red points in Figure 5 mark the rate of change during 1940, 1989, and 1990. These points were omitted from my analysis.
First, a closer look at the pre 1950 data–shown in Figure 6. According to the fitted curve (2nd order polynomial), when the church was organized there were about 1,800 new persons per year coming into the church. By 1950 the rate had grown to 23,000 new persons per year.
Next, the rate of change from 1950 to 2006–shown in Figure 7. The data is approximated well by a straight line. According to the linear fit there were approximately 39,000 new persons per year coming into the church in 1951. By 2006 this had grown to 356,000 new persons per year.
Assuming this change of rate is maintained, then by 2050 the church membership will be increasing by 610,000 new persons per year, and overall church membership will be approximately 33 million. (Please note, this is not converts per year.)
But what about year to year variability? The residuals can be bootstrapped to get an idea of what that variability is like. These fits can be extrapolated to 2050 to get a distribution of the membership and new persons per year. Having done that I can say with 95% confidence–based on the extrapolations from the bootstrapped regressions–the growth rate of the church by 2050 will be between 584,000 to 661,000 new persons per year; and projecting church membership to 2050 we will have overall membership of between 32 million to 35 million. Though there are factors that might lower that number.
The fit shown in Figure 4 (1990 – 2006) projected a church membership at 2050 of 26 million, this is assuming a constant growth rate of 320,000 persons per year. However, that treatment of the data did not take into account the accelerating rate of growth. A simple linear fit to the change in the growth rate (Figure 7) gave a growth rate at 2050 of 610,000 persons per year and a membership of 33 million. The bootstrap method gave nearly the same numbers: 623,000 persons per year and a membership of around 34 million.
Some other comments about the data
It’s worth taking a look at the number of new convert baptisms since 1950–see Figure 8. A local polynomial fit (red line) to the data reveals the underlying structure. One thing that stands out is the large dip after 1997. However, if those last four points are omitted then the downturn from 1997 to 2002 is more congruent with natural variability; it is not necessarily a long term diminishment in the number of converts per year. The last four data points are low. The likely explanation is the “raising the bar” policy implemented in 2002. This policy increased the standards of worthiness for LDS missionaries (Elder L. Tom Perry, “Raising the Bar“); reducing their numbers by about 10,000 over a period of two years (Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Unintended consequence of church’s ‘raising the bar’,” Salt Lake Tribune).
If we look at the number of baptisms per missionary in Figure 9 we can see there are three peaks in the early 60’s, 80’s, and 90’s when it was above 7 converts per missionary. After 1990 it dropped precipitously to lower than 5 converts per missionary. But after raising the bar in 2002 the number of converts per missionary increased over the next three years. In part this is likely due to diminishment in the number of missionaries: The number of baptisms remained relatively constant (about 300,000 per year) but the number of missionaries decreased–increasing conversions per missionary. The overall average of baptisms per missionary is 5.8 (σ = 1.3).
With the exception of the last four years, the number of missionaries has been increasing steadily: 43,000 in 1990 to 62,000 in 2002, while the conversion rate remained steady at about 300,554 converts per year (standard deviation of 17,000 converts). The long term decrease in baptisms per missionary is largely due to the relatively constant conversion rate and the increasing number of missionaries.
Looking again at the overall rate of change–with the last four data points removed–we get Figure 10. When the raising the bar downturn is removed, the dip after 1997 is more in line with natural changes in variability. I make this point because my extrapolations are based on the assumption that the increase in the rate of change will be linear up to 2050. But I also believe that the raising the bar downturn is limited in its duration; eventually the rate of growth will normalize.
There are scriptural reasons to believe that in the last days the church will be comparatively small.
And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the whore of all the earth, and she sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people. And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw. (1 Nephi 14:11-12)
One verse of scripture that predicts remarkable growth is D&C 65:2: “the gospel [shall] roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.” That passage is referring to a prophecy in Daniel which reads,
And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure. (Daniel 2:44-45)
The mountain from which the stone is cut could be several things. I believe it is the Mountain of the Lord’s House (Isa. 2:2; Mic. 4:1), which is commonly interpreted as being the church. The prophecy in D&C 65 says, “as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth.” That is, D&C 65:2 is a like/as type of comparison; it predicts remarkable growth but does not say when the gospel will fill the earth: Before or after the Second Coming? Whereas the passage in the Book of Mormon is in the context of the last days.
History has taught us that opposition to the church can be fierce. As the church grows opposition to it will also grow. For example, Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president has generated a great deal of interest in the church; but possibly greater resistance to a “Mormon in the White House.” (See Mitt Romney and Mormonism: A response to Damon Linker’s article “The Big Test”.) Or the recent movie about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, September Dawn, starring John Voight–which I haven’t seen because it’s rated R.
It’s easy to take a punch at a Mormon. Our early history has some strange aspects to it–Blood Atonement, polygamy, Adam-God Theory, the blacks and the priesthood issue, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, to name the biggies. I believe it’s a miracle that the church has even survived and continues to grow.
One challenge the church has is in preventing individual apostasy as well as inactivity. Retaining new converts is a challenge. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports that about 14 percent of US LDS remain “disengaged nonbelievers” and 22 percent remain active throughout their life. Weekly attendance in the US is about 40 to 50 percent; but lower in the rest of the world. (“Vital Statistics,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism)
It can be seen from the rapid increase of conversions after 1950 that missionary policy is an important factor in the growth of the church–It has been noted that the most reliable predictor of church growth is the number of missionaries. Recently there has been an emphasis on quality over quantity and a greater emphasis on retention. There is no reason to doubt these efforts will assist in maintaining the long term growth of the church.
I believe in the Mormon church. But some of the predictions about church size that have been posited (60 to 200 million) are rather unbelievable. I believe that until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ the church will remain small compared to other world religions, but influential.