Related Posts: Growth of the Church (2007)
Summary: Is the growth of the church decelerating? I would have to say no. First, the acceleration the church experienced from 1950 to 1990 was small. Only 6,290 persons per year^2. So a change is not too surprising. From 1991 to 2013 there appears to be a very small deceleration, but this can be said with only 63% confidence. In other words, there is a 37% chance the apparent deceleration is not real. Otherwise, the growth rate is constant.
If we look at convert baptisms the number in 2013 is about 8,500 higher than in 1992. And for the last eight years has been fairly constant at about 275,000 per year. Non-convert baptisms is holding steady at 46,000 persons per year.
Baptisms per missionary have decreased due to a fairly constant conversion rate combined with a dramatic increase in missionary force.
The number of stakes has increased on average by about 62 stakes per year. From 1950 to 2013 this rate has gone down by 0.5 stakes per year^2. However, for the past 14 years the rate has increased by 1.7 stakes per year^2.
Since 1991 the church has experienced steady membership growth with no acceleration. The fact that it has accelerated for 40 years but has been flat for the past 23 is unusual. I believe the most likely explanation is a change in church policy, possibly focusing on quality converts over quantity—but I can’t say this for sure. But, given that the church has many tools at its disposal to maximize the conversion effort, I am not worried about the current trend. Small changes are easily reversed.
Some people focus on church trends expressed as a percent. But it should be remembered that linear growth when expressed as a percent always trends down and tends to look worse than it is.
I must also conclude that the size of the missionary force is not a good predictor of LDS conversion rate.
About seven years ago I wrote a post on the growth of the church (Growth of the Church). From studying the available data I concluded that predictions of 250 million Mormons by 2080 (or any similar prediction) were wildly unrealistic. I predicted that by 2050 there would be between 26 and 34 million Mormons. The 26 million prediction assumes no acceleration in growth and the 34 million prediction assumes a modest acceleration in the Members of Record (MOR) of about 6,290 MOR per year^2.
These large predictions go back to sociologist Rodney Stark who predicted in 1984 that by 2080 there could be between 64 million and 267 million Mormons. The higher number got reported in the media. (See Deseret News article at end of post.)
First, some background for those who aren’t familiar with rate of change concepts. The change from last year’s number is the rate-of-change. If there were 300,000 more MOR this year from last year then the rate of change is 300,000 MOR per year. The acceleration is the change in the rate-of-change. For example, if last year’s rate-of-change was 300,000 and this year it is 310,000 then the acceleration is 10,000 MOR per year^2. If the rate of change is increasing over time there is acceleration. If it is decreasing there is deceleration. If it is flat there is no acceleration.
Some people focus on percent change which can be misleading. When a constant growth rate is expressed as a percent it decreases over time. For example, if growth is constant at 318,000 MOR per year it is exactly a straight line (Figure 1A). But when expressed as a percent it looks like its decreasing (Figure 1B).
Figure 2 below is a plot of church population from 1950 to 2013. The rate-of-change is shown in Figure 3. Remember, if the rate-of-change (Figure 3) is increasing over time there is acceleration. If it is flat there is no acceleration. If it is going down there is deceleration.
In Figure 3, from 1950 to about 1992 there was a fairly constant acceleration of 6,290 MOR per year^2. From 1990 to 2013 the acceleration is nearly zero, indicated by the horizontal line. In actuality the trend from 1990 to 2013 is decelerating at a rate of 890 MOR per year^2. However this number has only a 63% confidence. That is, there is a 37% chance this result is not real. At any rate, it is very small.
Figure 5A shows convert baptisms from 1950 to 1991. During this time convert baptisms increased by about 7% per year. From 1992 to 2013 the trend has been going down by about 1,758 persons per year. However, the number of convert baptisms in 2013 was slightly higher (about 8,500) than those in 1992 and it has been steady at about 275,000 for the past 8 years.
If we look at non-convert baptisms—baptized persons born into the faith—Figure 6 shows no visible trend. The overall average is about 46,000 persons per year. (Note: This number was calculated by subtracting convert baptisms from the increase in members of record.)
BAPTISMS PER MISSIONARY
Figure 7 shows baptisms per missionary. The decrease starting in 1990 is due to a constant level of convert baptisms and a dramatic increase in missionary force. Convert baptisms in 2013 was only 8,468 higher than in 1992. However, the number of missionaries increased by 37,000 over the same time period. Consequently, converts per missionary decreased from 6 in 1992 to just over 3 in 2013.
Some people look at new stakes as an indication of growth. A new stake is formed only when there are enough active members to justify it.
From 1970 to 2013 the church has been adding about 62 new stakes per year. From 1970 to 2013 this rate has decreased by 0.5 stakes per year^2. However, for the last 14 years (1999 to 2013) it has increased by 1.7 stakes per year^2.
The belief that there will be 250 million Mormons is still around–I encountered it when I was on my mission (91-93). For example globalmormonism.byu.edu
Using an exponential growth model, sociologist Rodney Stark predicted in 1980 that if future growth continued at the same rate as in the past, membership would reach 23 million by the year 2020, and between 265 and 267 million by the year 2080. These projections were based on estimates of 50% growth per decade (4.14% per year). Revisiting his initial estimates in 1994, Stark found that growth between 1980 and 1994 had actually surpassed his projections, and prospects for continued growth looked good. (“Globalization,” Global Mormonism Project, accessed 20141005; http://globalmormonism.byu.edu/?page_id=899)
In 1984, a prominent non-LDS researcher estimated that our membership would top 265 million by 2080 and said we would be the “first ‘new’ major world religion since Islam.” So far growth has exceeded his model’s predictions. (“Church Growth,” mormonwiki.com, accessed 20141005 < http://www.mormonwiki.com/Church_growth )
The Deseret News has a more careful approach.
Actually, Stark made two general predictions. The first was, as stated above, that by the year 2080 there would be 267,452,000 Mormons. That was the high estimate. The other was a low estimate: By 2080 there will be 63,939,000 members of the LDS Church. Either way, Stark described it as the emergence of a world religion. (Michael De Groote, “14 million Mormons and counting,” Deseret News, accessed 20141005; http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700103390/14-million-Mormons-and-counting.html)