Church Growth Problems Ignored

So I was sitting in Priesthood a few weeks ago when good ol’ Wilford Woodruff was quoted as to saying something about the Church’s amazing growth. This, of course, sparked positive comments from the Elders including the classic false superlative “fastest growing Church.” After a few more comments / proverbial pats on the back for our Church’s amazing growth, I made my comment.

I recently finished reading Creating the Millenium by Kent Huff (father of Times and Seasons permablogger Ben Huff). While I have future posts in the works to discuss some of the fun issues brought up by Kent, I want to focus on the first half here.

Kent sets the stage with a fairly extensive analysis of church growth. The following points stand out the most:

1) Church growth is around 3 percent
2) This growth does not seem to account for deaths or inactivity
3) Church growth is lower than national and world growth (we are shrinking as a percentage of the world population)
4) In 1997, the Church began reporting only births of children and ceased reporting eight-year-old baptisms. This coincided with a large drop in reported child baptisms. Thus, the change, of course, made growth look much better (historically, about 65 percent of children born into the Church are baptized).

So back to my comment in Priesthood:

Trying to be tactful, I gently made mention of items 1 through 3 above and, for good measure, mixed it in with the fact that Woodruff was around for quadruple digit percentage growth and probably wasn’t thinking of our measly three percent when musing aloud.

Two responses arose from the brethren, which side stepped the issue almost completely. The first response used the classic tactic of turn-a-negative-into-a-positive with an extremely general statement of “all the more reason why we should do better in life!” And the second response went something like this, “Well, we ARE a peculiar people after all. We have to remember that no matter how hard we try, we have to realize the fact that everyone has agency and many will choose not to follow.”

Everyone seemed to nod in agreement with these two statements, and that was that; the conversation moved on. Where do we go if we want to bring up an issue like this (we’re shrinking!) and/or study real facts without the Church-is-true bias that, to me, can seem downright damaging (hey everyone, let’s have an uplifting lesson by making up facts that support our interpretation of powerful words spoken by a dead prophet! Am I the only one bothered by this mentality?)? Of course I couldn’t comment again without seeming rude, so I’m posting my thoughts here.

Kent’s done one better; he’s written a book. Are there any other avenues for dispelling falsehoods while spreading truths no matter how painful?

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    While I’m sure that you made your comment with a great deal of tact, I suspect that your comment was unusual enough to generate the knee-jerk defensive response. I wonder if something like this would have fared better:

    “We often talk about how exciting church growth is. But we aren’t promised that the church will continue to grow until the Second Coming–only that the gospel will be preached to the whole world, not necessarily that any one will accept it! It seems likely to me that as evil in the world increases, the church will be less appealing to nonmembers. I wonder how we’ll feel about this issue if the church were declining in numbers–which some scholars think is already happening. I worry that some Saints are beginning to think that the church is true because it is growing.”

  2. MikeInWeHo says:

    If we concede that at the very least Church growth has slowed significantly, the interesting question becomes: why? Julie M’s idea (“as evil in the world increases, the church will be less appealing”) is appealing, but also implies that there’s really nothing the church can do differently.

  3. Michael says:

    Bob,

    The great sifting is occuring. We all know this. Those who make it through the fire will come out stronger in their testimony and be prepared to shoulder the challenges that lie ahead.

    What would have been the purpose of exploring a self-evident truth? Church growth has slowed in percentage terms. In terms of numbers, it continues to grow but not significantly.

    OK. So how does dwelling on that fact help the class increase its faith (remember that the purpose of church classes is to increase faith)? Would it help us feel more important because we are in class on Sunday so apparently we must be one of the ones making it through the great sifting? Or would it make us feel more guilty for not doing our part to get the percentage growth up higher?

    I am not trying to be mean. I am just trying to understand the purpose of discussing the topic. How would it build faith (and I don’t mean the fluffy feel-good twinkie stuff – I mean life sustaining faith)?

  4. Is it possible that the Lord has a work for non-LDS to do in the last days AS non-LDS? There are many, many good people are are living as righteously as they know how with the light and knowledge that they have who have either no knowledge of, no interest in, or no understanding of Our Church. I believe they will eventually accept what we currently understand to be Gospel, perhaps in the next life, but that certainly no blessing will be denied them.

    I know this doesn’t address the question of numbers, but the reaction of your quorum irks me,

    “Well, we ARE a peculiar people after all. We have to remember that no matter how hard we try, we have to realize the fact that everyone has agency and many will choose not to follow.”

    because so often this kind of statement is accompanied by a suggestion of a lot of exclusivity–we’re part of the elite club–and I think that can (and often does) lead to a kind of arrogance that is off-putting to others, ironically, the same people we say we want to accept the gospel. With that kind of attitude, why would they?

  5. OK. So how does dwelling on that fact help the class increase its faith (remember that the purpose of church classes is to increase faith)?

    Faith should be based on truths. The point of Bob’s comments were not to destroy faith, but to point out that the information being used to build faith in his class was incorrect (fastest growing Church).

    I agree that Church is the place for faith building. However, faith built on a sandy foundation is destined to crumble when reality sets in.

  6. Thanks for the great comments!

    Julie,

    Your statement is nice and may have fared better, but it’s still seems heavy on the speculation / relies on Church-is-true rhetoric indirectly. I know it may be too much for Priesthood, but perhaps we should reevaluate the reasoning here rather than always assume “evil is increasing” or “they’re doing something wrong.” The Church itself has gone through many phases and currently is in its most PR happy state of trying so hard to be main stream while unique. I’m just wondering where and when (as members) we can talk about our growth strategies without just assuming it must be THEIR fault because evil is increasing. Not that that theory couldn’t be true, but so could the opposite that we tend to ignore (i.e., we need to do something different; our missionary program is woefully inadequate, etc.).

    Michael,

    Thanks for your sincerity. I missed the memo explaining the purpose of church classes is to increase faith. I mean, that’s a fine purpose and it’s definitely on my list of purposes for attending classes. But I don’t think it holds as much exclusivity as you might think (we may just disagree). But for the sake of argument, let’s say what I brought up wasn’t appropriate for class, as its primary purpose wasn’t to increase faith. So where DO I bring it up? Where do we go if we want to discuss such things? I mean, wanting to help the Church grow by being involved in analytical and/or strategic thinking is a good thing, right? But we don’t even have a suggestion box.

    Artemis,

    Amen!

  7. Thank you, Talon.

  8. Steve EM says:

    I don’t have a complete answer, but here’s my take: A lack of candor and little tolerance for open discussion is the LDS norm, not the exception. As far as our missionary/retention efforts, they were pathetic when I served a full time mission a generation ago, and the program is virtually unchanged today. A guy riding a bike with a dress shirt and tie is wearing very odd 1920’s period clothing, and that’s suppose to make people receptive to us? In all this time, I’ve never seen the full time missionaries employed in training members on how to sensitively do missionary/reactivation work (which methods would be completely different than those used by the full time missionaries). Our leaders are a sleep at the switch and don’t seem to care to change anything. Managing missionary work is a very high mental energy activity that requires active consideration of local trends and customs. We really need a retirement tradition for apostles to break the logjam.

    Now, try expressing that opinion in a Priesthood meeting and see how long you’ll keep temple privileges, let alone membership.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    David Stewart has made himself an expert on Church growth issues. You may review his material at

    http://cumorah.com/

    Look at the growth related chapters on the right of his page under “The Law of the Harvest.”

    I personally think that there is a fundamental flaw in how the Church measures growth, and that is inordinate focus on raw baptism statistics. (This is analogous to a corporation focusing exclusively on short-term quarterly financial results without serious long-term strategic planning.) This focus has long had the effect of putting missionary focus simply on baptism numbers, which in my view is extremely short-sighted given our absolutely huge, stunning problems with member retention and activity. As long as we continue to measure growth in this simplistic way and “spin” the numbers as necessary to make them look positive, it is going to be difficult to achieve true, committed growth.

    Equating the truth of the Gospel with a manifest destiny vision of unrelenting, substantial, unfettered growth is in my view very dangerous, for what do we then do when the growth slows (even based on the raw baptism stats, not taking into account inactivity), which unquestionably has happened recently? Does it then follow that the Church is not true or in a state of apostasy because our rate of growth has slowed? Do we get pencil pushing numbers crunchers in the Church office building spinning the numbers as if they were a quarterly financial report, only to have the whole house of cards eventually tumble down around them, a la Enron?

    We love to tout our phenomenal growth to the media, but I really wish we wouldn’t. If it were up to me, I’d “true up” our membership rolls, get rid of the over one million names in the longstanding “lost” file in SLC, slash and burn the roles, so that instead of 12 million we would have 4 million members, and stop pushing ultimately counterproductive baptism goals as the ultimate measure of missionary success. This is why I will never be in a position to do anything about this, which I’m sure is a good thing for all concerned. (g)

  10. Nice post, Bob. In my experience, Church growth is always considered to be “out there,” that is, I have never lived in a growing Ward (in England, Austria, Maryland), but have taken conmfort in the fact that the Church is growing somewhere else. But you’re right, I can see no correlation between size and truth, and all the “we’re growing” rhetoric does is make us complacent.

  11. Kevin,

    I agree with everything you said up until your last sentence. I think it is a bad thing that someone like you isn’t and probably never will be involved. And why not? The short answer most likely revolves around inadequate Church structure.

    Not to take the business analogy too far, but being members of this Church should give us some sort of privilege to help make things better (in this growth context) even if it were only via quarterly shareholder meetings. As it stands now, we’re shareholders that can’t really sell our stock (if we really believe what we believe in this Church), all while having no voice while corporate fudges growth numbers to boost image and/or squanders resources that provide no growth fruit. And no matter how true the Church is, this is still frustrating.

    Don’t read too much into this analogy. It sufficeth to say, I think people like Kevin Barney should be listened to rather than ignored.

  12. Fratello Giovanni says:

    We love to tout our phenomenal growth to the media, but I really wish we wouldn’t. If it were up to me, I’d “true up” our membership rolls, get rid of the over one million names in the longstanding “lost” file in SLC, slash and burn the roles, so that instead of 12 million we would have 4 million members, and stop pushing ultimately counterproductive baptism goals as the ultimate measure of missionary success.

    There’s one hitch with that: baptism is an eternal ordinance and so the Church has an obligation to acknowledge all the baptized members. As for the “lost” file, I wish 1) local units would be less afraid to send records there, 2) Salt Lake would be more proactive in trying to pare that file down (including checking American “lost” members over, say, 70 against the Social Security Death Index), and 3) Salt Lake would at least occasionally ask the stakes if they have any clue where people are whose records they had, say, five-plus years ago that are still sitting in Address Unknown.

    As stake membership clerk I have suggested #3 more than once to Salt Lake.

    Yes, baptisms are a raw measure. I wish the Brethren had come up with confirmation being the binding ordinance, administered by the bishop, long before they did. It is my observation that many of those who never come out either 1) wouldn’t have been confirmed had they joined in 1998 or later, or 2) would have reinforced their commitments and would be a bit more active now.

    The Church tries to track who does make the transition, with the Quarterly (formerly Member Progress) report. The problem is, by the time any meaningful benchmark can be reached (say, three or twelve months) the missionaries who taught that member are long gone.

    As for long-term growth: it doesn’t come from baptisms. It comes from those converts serving missions or sending their children on missions, and those returned missionaries coming back and strengthening their home units.

  13. Bob, thank you for this post — I think. Sheepishly, I have to admit that I have never thought about this issue before. I have always bought in to that line that we are the fastest growing church in the world, our growth is exponential, the church will eventually fill the whole earth, etc. I feel like I have been naive, and misled.

    I agree with the comments of others about re-thinking the missionary program. If it were up to me, I would convert our entire missionary force into a community service corps. Have them bring work gloves and jeans rather than white shirts and ties. I am convinced that this would do more to benefit the Church and the missionary efforts (not to mention the missionaries) than any other thing. Unfortunately, thinking outside the box is not something that the folks in the big white box in SLC are particularly good at.

  14. For (I assume) the same priesthood lesson that prompted Bob’s wonderful post, I was the instructor. The way I approached this was to take some time to review the official membership numbers so that we could see the slowing growth rate of baptisms. Then, we also went through the best publicly available evidence about the number of people who actually attend church at least once a year. Multiple lines of evidence converge on an estimate of about 3.5 to 4 million people — which is almost exactly the same as the estimate in 1990. So the growth rate in raw baptisms is positive but falling, and the growth rate in terms of active members is approximately zero (although in actual fact it may be either slightly negative or slightly positive).

    Like Ronan, I have never lived in a growing ward. Instead, I have lived in shrinking wards in Utah, California, and various parts of Latin America. In my priesthood meeting, we talked about that and other people volunteered similar experiences. (Nobody in the room had ever lived in a growing ward, either.) This led into theology.

    1) Do growth rates have anything to do with the truth of the church? Everybody wants the answer to be “no,” because the growth data is now negative. And in fact a negative answer may be plausible. However, such an answer requires some serious consideration. Descriptions, by the highest church leadership in particular, of the church as the stone cut from the mountain without hands that will grow to fill all the earth have often emphasized growth rates as a form of evidence. So falling growth rates are not theologically irrelevant; they call for reconceptualization of what has been an important teaching by our leadership. That in turn raises issues about prophecy and foreknowledge, etc. No easy answers here, but that’s life.

    2) If the church is facing an activity crisis, as Jan Shipps among others has commented in discussing these data, what does that mean for us? In particular, the data suggest that the activity crisis is geographically clustered. While activity rates in the US are certainly not high, they are quite high in comparison with most other parts of the world. Latin America seems to have dramatically high inactivity rates, and Asia’s inactivity rates are evidently also quite high. Inactivity rates in Europe and Africa evidently fall somewhere between US activity rates and Latin American/Asian activity rates. What can US Mormons do to help with an activity crisis that is primarily located quite far from us? Again, this led to an interesting priesthood discussion.

    3) Part of the activity crisis is demographic. The most active segments of the church, which is to say multi-generation US members, are going through a demographic transition in which our birthrates are falling dramatically. This is offset by extensive baptisms among very poor people in developing countries which have not gone through the demographic transition — but these families are much less likely to be active or to baptize their children when they turn 8. (This accounts for the drop in child baptism rates that Bob mentions.) Social scientific demography suggests that there is virtually no possibility of reversing the demographic transition among US members. Do we nonetheless have a moral duty to have the 6+ child families that once defined Mormonism so as to help reverse the activity crisis?

    My approach in teaching priesthood is to talk about this stuff openly and to try to avoid ducking the evidence. To my surprise and joy, that hasn’t yet led to my release as an instructor — much less to my excommunication!

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Porter, I was absolutely thrilled when the church started allowing missionaries to spend up to 20 hours per week on community service, and I was correspondingly disheartened when I learned that that program had been scrapped. I agree with you that there should be a much stronger component of community service in missionary work.

  16. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Julie M’s idea (”as evil in the world increases, the church will be less appealing”) is appealing, but also implies that there’s really nothing the church can do differently.”

    No, I am sure it is a combination of factors and that there are a variety of ways that we could do more effective missionary work.

    “Your statement is nice and may have fared better, but it’s still seems heavy on the speculation / relies on Church-is-true rhetoric indirectly.”

    I don’t see the speculation–you’ll need to spell it out for me–and I am happily guilty of believing that the Church is true. That said, you are right that a good direction for my statement might have been ‘What can we do to be better missionaries?’.

  17. I think this is a very interesting topic, and I just wish we had some better data to discuss. The church collects data on sacrament meeting attendence, but it never seems to leak out for some reason. Doesn’t anyone at the SL Tribune have an inside source?

    RT, I’m interested in your evidence that real growth is near zero or negative. I’ve long been interested in this issue, and my conclusion would be that worldwide real growth is positive. The best evidence I see is the growth over time in units (stakes and wards), which seems to have a slow positive trend beneath the noise caused by rapid expansion in the late 90s followed by contraction in some countries (Chile, the Philippines.)

  18. rleonard says:

    I have lived in both growing and shrinking wards in the US. Housing prices seem in my limited exp. to be the main issue in the US suburban wards. In wards where the average home is far far to expensive for the average young family to buy in noboby ever moves there. The opposite is also true.

    In all of my wards I have actually seen baptims of complete families that stayed active.

    Also housing prices do seem to have an impact on the birth rate of US members in my limited exp. Areas where is cheap to live seem to have more babies born.

    I do agree that church growth has slowed down. This needs to be put in context though. Most major christian denominations in the West are experiencing membership losses at worse rates then the US. Most US wards see 40-60% activity rates. If you take a look at Catholic parish activity rates its usually in the 20% range on a weekly basis. Are the 80% not catholics anymore?

  19. When a post on church the slowing of church growth comes up there are always comments to the effect that truth growth does not equal church truthfulness and that our message is a hard one and not many people will accept it. There is truth to this, church growth is surely not the best measure of truthfulness, but this is too easy an answer. I agree with RT that there is more here that we need to grapple with. If the church is to fill the whole earth, and if our mission is to bring as many souls into the kingdom as possible, and that’s not happening, than that is a problem. I do not think the church was restored so that 4 million active Saints, a miniscule proportion of the world’s population, could live out their faith and make preparations for the millennium. The Lord wants us to bring everyone we possibility can into the kingdom. I think that repeating the mantras about being the fastest growing is harmful because it keeps us from having to think outside the box about how we can start changing things to convert more people. One thing our Christian brethren I think do better than us is that they are always thinking about new ways to reach the “unchurched.” Granted, this sometimes leads to a watering down of theology, ala the megachurch, but at least the issue of how to reach more people is continually at the forefront of their agenda. We need to get creative and find ways to reach more people without weakening our theology.

  20. Everysooften the Church slows down growth on purpose. No one discusses it, but it generally comes from Salt Lake deciding we are having issues with the growth outstripping the ability to generate leadership.

    Interesting stuff, as the trends are hard to predict and hard to get any real read on.

  21. a random John says:

    Ethesis,

    What is the mechanism by which they do this? Do they tell the missionaries not to baptize people? During my mission I got the distinct impression that growth rates varied wildly from mission to mission, stake to stake, and even ward to ward. I didn’t see there being much central control of it.

  22. RT/JNS, great comment. I think your focus on demographics is quite important. I recently attended a training meeting where the Area-70 presented a new pilot program that focuses on YSA. He offered the current YSA Activity rate in the US (strait from SLC) of 13%. I think crisis is an understatement.

  23. Count me among those who think an increase in community service from missionaries is a must. When I was on a mission, no more than four hours was the rule. I couldn’t stand it and subsequently broke it often.

    Julie,

    I too believe the Church is true. The speculation I was referring to was that of “It seems likely to me that as evil in the world increases, the church will be less appealing to nonmembers.” The correlation between an increase in evil and our falling growth rates is almost purely speculative. How could one even begin to gather data with extremely-difficult-to-quantify numbers such as “amount of evil in the world?” And then to take that number that we have almost no access to and run a regression analysis with falling growth rates in our Church? But your speculation has the mark of being both logical and convenient even if ignoring the data we don’t have. Logical and convenient while ignoring real data, as has already been mentioned, is part of the problem of Church lessons (that I attend, at least).

    RT/JNS,

    I’d like to use the same authority I don’t have to help fix growth problems within the Church to bring you to my ward so that you can guest teach. Pardon me as my jaw drops, but I have never had a teacher teach anything remotely close to what you described to be your lesson. Bravo!

    Ethesis,

    Wow! Do you have a source for your very bold statement of “the Church slows down growth on purpose?” That opens up a whole other can of worms. In some ways, if it were true, I would give the Church more credibility in regard to growth strategies. But please don’t take this the wrong way if I say that, based on your one comment, I’m not ready to assume this.

  24. I am reminded of Spencer W. Kimballs counsel to not limit our families. Ezra Taft Benson said that much of Kimballs counsel was not heeded. I wonder what our numbers from children of record would look like if more families followed that counsel (I know this is a touchy subject. Not every family that is “smaller” should have had more and I never give it a second thought. It is strictly between the family and The Lord. Also, I might be guilty of assuming that family size was part of the counsel ignored. Benson did not specify what was ignored when he made his statement. Not at least in what I read. But from what I have seen overall, it seems to be true. I am also open to any correction).

  25. Are the 80% not catholics anymore?

    rleonard,
    I think they are. Catholics are Catholics whether they go to Church or not. But, Mormons who go inactive are Mormons only if they have Mormon ancestry; a convert who goes inactive is very unlikely to still consider themselves Mormon. “Mormon” is not something you are, it’s something you do.

    I echo the thoughts about community service. Mormon missionaries could really raise their profile for good if they became synonymous with community service.

  26. rleonard says:

    On my mission in Africa we intentionally reduced baptisms by 80% from one year to the next and then the next year they went up again.

    It was very intentional and was a wise move…..

  27. Seth R. says:

    Responding to the original post …

    I don’t see what you’re wringing your hands about. You witnessed a Sunday School moment where people whip out the same treasured homilies and sound bites.

    You pointed out some problems. Everyone seemed to accept them and decided to take a positive spin on things, then they moved on.

    This is problematic, why?

    Unless your motivation in making the comment was to deliberately upset people and make yourself into an Elders Quorum pain-in-the-keister … In that case, yes, you failed. Nobody got upset or bent out of shape about it.

    Horrors.

    Maybe it seems like the points you raised didn’t really sink in. But give your fellow church goers some credit. They’ll remember the info later if the subject comes up later. And when they come across this data presented much less politely by some anti, it won’t upset them at all. If your goal was to inform, mission accomplished.

    But really, you seem to be upset that there wasn’t some sort of classroom crisis in response to your remarks. Isn’t this a little self-important?

  28. Seth R.,

    Perhaps you had to be there and just reading the comments that others made in the class doesn’t illustrate the situation.

    The basis for the instructor’s lesson was false. His whole lesson seemed to revolve around positive Church growth notwithstanding my comment. In other words, he continued to focus on positive Church growth even after my comment. Sure, he dropped the superlative, but it was replaced with gems like, “If the Church wasn’t true, then sending out nineteen-year-old boys as missionaries wouldn’t work!”

    This kind of rhetoric along with the glossed over, generalize and pretty much useless “let’s be better” comment are steps in the wrong direction.

    And I’m sorry, but I’m not in the habit of giving people credit for something they might do at some point in the future. That might be an added bonus but really wasn’t the point of me bringing it up. Just like the point of me bringing it up here isn’t to have someone like you say, “big deal, interesting info, I might think about it later.” In all honestly, we’re passed that point in the conversation here and most agree it’s something worth discussing (rather than your focus on reasoning as to why not discussing it isn’t a big problem).

    I wanted (in Elders Quorum) to politely correct a blatant falsehood and then — heaven forbid — face the issue rather than ignore it (ala RT/JNS’s lesson type). I was in a bit of a delicate situation, of course, as I wasn’t the instructor. But I was trying to gently steer (at least for a few minutes) a lecture-like lesson that was false to an open-discussion lesson based on truth. If “self-important” is another way of saying I was a mix of bored and frustrated, then you may be on to something.

    But I’m not interested in being a hero (or a villain, perhaps in this case), just interested in having a discussion that isn’t based on falsehoods. You just blow it off as “treasured homilies and sound bites” as if everyone should sit complacently and realize, without complaint, this is just how it is in Mormonism.

    What about those of us who are uncomfortable with this and/or downright frustrated by it? We’re “self-important” if we point it out only to be annoyed when those listening prefer to turn back to falsehoods instead of face truth?

  29. The church is, to some degree, addressing the retention crisis. The efforts that Elder Oaks and Elder Holland made in the Philipines and in Chile were a start. I know several missionaries who served in different parts of the world (Chile and Korea for startes) who shifted the entire focus of their missions from proselytizing to member identification/reactivation. One friend in particular was given the list of known members in the area and told to go to work. Hopefully more missionaries around the world will focus more on trying to reach out to those that once were baptized instead of rushing through new converts for numbers.

  30. Jonathan Green says:

    Yep, Bob, real dilemma there. There’s just no place at church to escape that whole “Church-is-true” bias. Shocking! (Civility pledge? What civility pledge? I must have missed that one.)

    Look, if you’re sitting in a lesson you don’t like, you’re entitled to raise your hand and make your point. That’s what you did. Good for you, pat yourself on the back. However, if you’re not the instructor and not in the quorum presidency, that’s about the limit of what you can expect. You can’t change the format of a lesson from lecture to discussion if the instructor doesn’t want to. You can’t change the topic from the lesson the instructor has prepared to one where you’re the only person in the room in possession of the truth. And while the sobering facts about growth are well taken, the message you wanted to make–“we’re shrinking!”–does not seem self-evident from them.

    But in initiating an interesting discussion here, you’ve been quite successful. Count your blessings.

  31. Nice positive spin at the end, Jonathan. I do think the discussion here has been interesting and am thankful. But I’m confused by the other part of your comment.

    Please clarify if I’m misreading, but it seems like authority was the basis for your point. Since I wasn’t the instructor or in the presidency, everything from my point of view should be just fine and dandy. So are you saying that if I did have authority then I would be entitled to my frustration?

    Please understand, I really am not the type of person who must draw attention to himself needlessly every Sunday. But I tend to speak up when falsehoods are taught. I’m also human and can get annoyed when I’m ignored and falsehood continues.

    And, “we’re shrinking!” is self-evident within the context I setup. Did you not read point 3 in the original post?

    Also, your reference to the civility pledge is out of place.

  32. My current ward in SLC is slowly shrinking, but our stake is experiencing an interesting growth phenomenon. We have a Hispanic branch in the stake composed entirely of members who live within our stake boundaries. The branch was formed about 2 years ago and will be made into a ward within months. They are experiencing incredible growth, with about 15-20 baptisms each month! (with good retention rates, too.) At the current rate, they will have to split into 2 wards within about 3-4 years. So while the area is going through a decline among the caucasian population, the growth among hispanics is booming. I would not be suprised to see my stake turned into a hispanic stake with a few english wards attached within 10-15 years.

  33. Also, your reference to the civility pledge is out of place.

    Yeah, JG, I agree with Bob. I do not see what is uncivil about this post. Mr. Caswell is one of the most civil people around here. And (be civil Ronan!) I hope this doesn’t signal a tendency to beat people with the civility stick every time they exhale even the very slightest of frustrations.

    I think Bob has adequately expressed what he means by the “church is true bias.” Of course that is the governing assumption in the Church. But inasmuch as it leads us to an “all is well in Zion, yea Zion prospereth” mentality, then it’s a problem. Whether the Church is growing or not is largely irrelevant to the central “Church is true claim” of the Church: that Joseph was a prophet of God. What is up for friendly discussion (IMO) are those programs of the Church which can influence our growth or not. Here, a “Church is true bias” might not always be helpful. Of course, neither is ark-steadying, but hey, what would the ‘nacle be without a bit of that?!

    Anyway, JG, I wish you much love and respect. See, I’m being civil! (Aren’t I?!)

  34. Where do we go if we want to bring up an issue like this…

    To the Bloggernacle, of course.

  35. Jonathan Green says:

    Ronan: In this thread, I and JG are two different people.
    Ronan and Bob: The incivility bit referred to my own initial comment, not anything Bob wrote. Sorry about the confusion, but I’m still not going to sign the civility pledge.
    Bob: No, everything doesn’t have to be fine and dandy. You just have limited means to do anything about it.

  36. No, everything doesn’t have to be fine and dandy. You just have limited means to do anything about it.

    Well gee, Jonathan, isn’t that obvious?

    Bob: “There is this problem in EQ.”
    Jonathan: “Just so you know, you’re not the president so there’s nothing you can do about it.”
    Bob: “But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a problem.”
    Jonathan: “Yeah, well, you have limted means to do anything about it.”

    Not a very helpful point.

  37. You may be interested in a previous post I did on church growth in the last 30 years. Specifically, it charts only convert growth.

  38. Jonathan Green, thanks for the clarification. The whole civility pledge thing just seemed to come out of nowhere. You didn’t sign it. I didn’t sign it. Here we are having a totally unrelated conversation. As an aside, I hope no one feels pressure to sign a pledge in order to participate here; all civil people are welcome, even those of us that don’t sign pledges.

    Now back to the really interesting stuff… Your “limited means” point makes us come full circle (as Rusty kind of pointed out) to my larger point/inquisition: So I (we) have limited means to do anything about these issues at hand. Not only that, but presumably there are a certain amount of members who pretend many issues do not exist and/or have been misled. Are we ok with that? What are our options?

  39. 1. “…It seems likely to me that as evil in the world increases, the church will …”

    On a completely random side note, I have problems with the assumption that society becomes more wicked with each generation. An easy-to-fall-into trap, in my opinion.

  40. What are our options?

    1. Blog about it. We have that one covered. I find it can be somewhat relieving and horrifying all at the same time to blog about these frustrations. In one sense, blogging about it is preaching to the chorus. In another sense, for me at least, I don’t want anyone to see what I wrote about it. So why blog? I dunno. Because nobody else listens?

    2. Raise holy hell in Elder’s Quorum: This can actually be pretty fun. And it yields benefits in that you may be able to avoid getting too much responsibility at church, so that you can enjoy yourself more at home with the family. Of course, the overriding “church is true” mentality (even though it is!) will cause some people to doubt your testimony just for pointing out a fact about growth and trying to engage the others in a useful way to figure out how to solve growth problems, or at least to discuss whether or not the growth issue is really that problematic given the “sifting” of the last days.

    3. Make a mild comment, see who listens, and discuss it with them later: This might be the best approach- and it seems to be what you did. Unfortunately, it seemed to spark interest in nobody. Maybe they were all looking at the clock wishing for the lesson to be over- I know I often do- so that they could go home to a nice Sunday meal, naps, and games with the kids. Depending on the proximity to the end of the meeting with which your comment was made, the deflecting comments may have been meant to intentionally squelch any discussion so that the quorum meeting could end on time or even early.

    When you use this approach, you can often tell who feels engaged/challenged by the notion, and it opens up an opportunity for further discussion over dinner sometime (if you invite the people over), a game night among friends, or in the foyer. The others wouldn’t care anyway, since you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

    4. Sit back and keep quiet: This is probably what I would do, simply because 1) I wouldn’t feel confident enough to say anything and 2) because the quieter I keep, the earlier the meeting might end…

    My comments, for what their worth (not much…) But since you asked…

  41. Jonathan Green says:

    5. If it bugs you long enough, mention something to the elders quorum president after class. Everyone’s allowed to do this–once.

    6. If the elder’s quorum president ever asks, in or after a meeting, “What can we do to improve our quorum meetings for everybody,” it’s his own fault for asking. Anything is fair game.

    7. Get called into young men/primary/nursery.

  42. Jonathan Green says:

    Bob: I’m not sure if you’re asking what we can do about a) elders quorum lessons that just aren’t getting the job done, or b) about church growth, or c) about discussing church growth in elders quorum. But I’d suggest

    a) #1-7 above are a reasonable way to start
    b) doing missionary work and home teaching
    c) It depends on how you approach the topic, and how you’ve dealt with other topics in the past. No one likes to listen to a crank, even when he’s right. If you’ve got a record of thoughtful, intelligent responses, people will listen. Contrast: “No, the church is not growing, and I’ve got a chart right here in my bag that proves it, and let me tell you exactly how the church should reorganize the missionary program to change that!” versus something truthful and earnest but genuinely uplifting in intent. Perhaps: “The church’s growth has slowed down a lot recently, and the prophet has discussed our retention problems in conference. We can’t get complacent or self-congratulatory, or further growth isn’t going to happen. We need to do more to help the missionaries in our area and to help people feel welcome at church.” Suggesting local action will do much more to help a quroum than bemoaning worldwide policy.

  43. “5. If it bugs you long enough, mention something to the elders quorum president after class.”

    What if I am the elders quorum president?

  44. Re #28 Bob,

    Well, that’s what I get for skipping all the comments and responding to the original posts.

    I’d second Jonathan’s “positive spin.” At least you got me thinking about something I wasn’t previously aware of.

  45. But we don’t even have a suggestion box.

    Even without a formal mechanism to get your input, the Church somehow gets by!

  46. gst,

    Your definition and my definition of “get by” may be different here. But that’s not the point, the point is why is “get by” good enough?

    And it’s not my input that I’m worried about it, it’s the input of others (some here in this very thread!) that, though invaluable, is ultimately ignored.

  47. Kevin,
    I had a question about your commment concerning the missionary service allowance of 20 hours per week–that program was scrapped–when was this, and any explanation as to why??

    Thanks,
    Matt

  48. I think Stephen is right. I actually heard one of my Stake Presidents, in a leadership meeting, state that one of the local leaders (either a Bishop or a Stake Pres. I forget which) had been told by a GA to cease and desist on baptisms entirely until the retention rate had been fixed.

    My entire mission in Japan was focused almost exclusively on active members, inactive members, and the regulars at my local free English classes. Of course, my baptism and new investigator numbers were abysmal and I got regluarly reamed for it, sometimes publicly.

    I’ll be the first to admit that the primary motivation of my 21 year-old brain was to avoid talking to scary people I didn’t know. The idea of street contacting hostile individuals was utterly terrifying to me. Existing members and contacts seemed like a much less threatening option.

    But now that I look back on it, I don’t feel even half as apologetic about my approach to missionary work as I did then (I always considered myself a failure as a missionary). I helped a lot of people who really needed the boosts I was giving them.

    But, in the end, there was simply a disconnect between my missionary efforts and the members. I worked in relative isolation (just me and my companion), with little correlation with the branches I served. And I was one of the more member-focused missionaries in my mission …

    In fairness though, the current indicators are that this is changing for the better. In my last ward, I sat in on weekly Priesthood Executive Committee meetings with my bishop and “the Elders” were in attendance at every single one. Their efforts, and investigators, were always discussed in detail. There was a real attempt to correlate between missionaries and members.

    Of course, the longer I frequent the bloggernacle, the more I start to wonder if that last ward wasn’t simply abnormally righteous …

  49. In my opinion the most certain way available to members to grow the church is to have more children. Having said that my family is likely done with three children.

  50. I think our sense of growth in comparison to other churches might come from more than just the number of baptisms or growth in the membership. From what I read (and this is very general and superficial, as I’m no expert on the subject) my sense is that the evangelical world is very fragmented, that the Catholic Church is closing down churches, etc. At the same time it appears to me that we are building more and more chapels and temples all the time. If the Church is not growing, is our building program a farce? I don’t exactly get the sense that we have empty chapels sitting around. I also feel that our unity and centralized hierarchical organization is greater as a church … I get the sense that Christian churches are splintered and that the loyalty of local churches to their overall organization varies quite a bit. Again, I’m no expert on the subject — I’ve just read the occasional newspaper article that describes how a local diocese in any particular area wants to maintain its independence. I also get this impression from what I saw of evangelical churches during my mission. I saw a lot of growth … but it seemed like a lot of independent franchises. I didn’t get the sense that tithes and collections in these churches were being gathered and sent to a larger organizational headquarters. Again, this factor (in my mind, if it is true) would point towards a significant difference in the strength, growth and unity of a worldwide church.

    My overall instinct or feeling of what I have observed is that we are in fact growing — but that there is still a great great great ways to go.

  51. Ethesis,

    What is the mechanism by which they do this? Do they tell the missionaries not to baptize people? During my mission I got the distinct impression that growth rates varied wildly from mission to mission, stake to stake, and even ward to ward. I didn’t see there being much central control of it.

    Generally by where missionaries are assigned (i.e. which missions get the assignments, which ones get split, etc.).

    You will get outside commentators who have written on the subject.

    What is really interesting is that historically, every time a temple was built, membership numbers and activity levels in the area where it was built went up dramatically.

    The recent surge in temple building has not produced that kind of result.

    I do know that the consolidated meeting schedule, vs “the church is your community” of the 60s and 70s, reduces the cultural context of the Church. The ward chapel is no longer also a community center the way it was.

    We are also living in a post-Christian world, more and more. You see it in Europe, and the same trend is spreading to the United States. People who see God as irrelevant to them. “Fine results you and God have gotten on that field” “Ah, but you should have seen it when God had it to himself.”

    Kind of like the Rhodes scholar I saw interviewed, when she was asked if she thought feminism had made a difference, she insisted that she got the scholarship through merit alone — completely ignorant of the fact that Rhodes did not like women and excluded them from the original grants. Only feminist legal challenges opened the scholarships up to women.

    Anyway, getting back on topic. The Church is moving to trying to measure membership by congregations rather than other statistics. It seems a better measurement.

    It is also searching for ways to get more leadership out of women (I have that from the long time chair of the BYU Womens Conference, who I knew long before she asked my wife to speak, and who found that the most interesting part of her interview with the Prophet). The institutional church sees a vast need for leadership and leaders.

    There is always a tension between leadership and growth. I do know that in parts of Africa the Church slowed things down because of problems getting leaders who understood the Church (though it was interesting that they had preserved the traditional division of labor by ordaining all the women to the aaronic priesthood so that the men would not have to bless or pass the sacrament, which they saw as womens work).

    So, I don’t have any direct access. I’ve read outside analysis of past times when growth was throttled back. I know that leadership is a real issue. I know of specific instances. I know that things that usually cause dramatic growth in activity and membership have had much more modest impacts.

    On the other hand, I see thriving wards where the demographics support them (e.g. the wards just to the west of our stake are exploding — they are what I think of when I think of traditional wards — while the one I am in grows old, much like my wife’s did. Lots of High Priests, few children).

    Overall, unit numbers continue to go up.

  52. The church is, to some degree, addressing the retention crisis. The efforts that Elder Oaks and Elder Holland made in the Philipines and in Chile were a start. I know several missionaries who served in different parts of the world (Chile and Korea for startes) who shifted the entire focus of their missions from proselytizing to member identification/reactivation.

    Which reduces numbers baptized. I should have read more before my prior post and I’d have seen the comment from someone who served a mission in Africa, which is in accord with what I know of it.

    Community service makes dramatic reductions. When I was our ward mission leader, we had more baptisms than they have now with significant community service efforts. It may very well have long term impacts.

    It is an interesting thing to watch.

  53. “the Elders” were in attendance at every single one. Their efforts, and investigators, were always discussed in detail. There was a real attempt to correlate between missionaries and members.

    … I start to wonder if that last ward wasn’t simply abnormally righteous …

    Probably. In ours, the sister missionaries attend. ;)

    Actually, that is standard procedure, at least for the PECs I’ve been on and the one I’m in now.

  54. To danithew re: #50

    You are correct that those Pentacostal and evangelical churches are not nearly as centrally controlled as our Church. However, their combined growth rates surpass ours substantially, very substantially. And we should note that their moral requirements are as strict (sometimes stricter) than ours, which rebuts the “we’re not growing because the world is getting more evil” excuse. Some suggest that it is precisely their lack of centralized control that accounts for this continuing growth while we stagnate — local congregations have more autonomy and thus more flexibility in adjusting their programs to accommodate local conditions and societies. It is true that we are building a lot of chapels and temples, but a lot of that brick and stone is under-utilized. We need to ask ourselves if we are more concerned with the appearance of institutional prosperity or actual numbers of souls brought to Christ. Leaving aside theological differences, there are many Christian churches who are now doing a much better job of reaching the “unchurched” than we are. BTW, anyone who is interested in or concerned about this topic has to look at the excellent work collected at http://www.cumorah.com.

    As for what we do about it, we stop repeating false outdated feel-good bromides, and
    we talk about it openly and honestly. The question is not what one can or can not do in one Priesthood class. I consider that aspect of the original post an unnecessary distraction from a very important issue. The more we talk about this topic and the more places we talk about it, the greater the chances that the excellent thoughts on this thread will eventually percolate up into the hierarchy to have effect, perhaps not in the current administration but under some future leaders.

  55. JWL, while they may be as strict, my experiance growing up in the Bible belt and in the state that is the home of the Assembly of God Church, is that premerital sex (and marital infedelity), pornography and alcohol and tabacoo use are quite common. No one is denied fellowship and confession is not a sacrement. Times have changed alot since the 50’s. Equating them to Mormonism in regards to strictness is demonstrably mistaken.

  56. JWL,
    You make an excellent point, but it’s also why most thinking members have given up. In the absense of a retirement tradition for apostles, we’re talking about 50 years before any meaning change, and it will be 50 years out of date when it happens. Why bother?

  57. “The question is not what one can or can not do in one Priesthood class. I consider that aspect of the original post an unnecessary distraction from a very important issue.”

    JWL,

    I agree. The Priesthood class example was merely the context by which the “false outdated feel-good bromides” hit me smack in the face. But I should have known that such an example would be a melting pot for ad hominem attacks…

  58. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt #47,

    As recently as a few years ago missionaries in the Chicago North Mission were encouraged to do 20 hours of community service a week. I thought that was a church wide thing, but I may be mistaken in that assumption. They typically did this in the mornings, which are almost completely unproductive for proselyting anyway.

    Within the last year or two we had the elders over for dinner and I asked them about their community service, and they informed me either that they don’t do it anymore or are limited to something like five hours, I forget which. And they reported that this crackdown on community service hours came from above the mission level and apparently is church wide (but I’m getting that from an elder, so take it with a grain of salt).

    The presumptive reason for the change in policy was a decrease in the number of baptisms. (Again, I personally think that focusing on baptism numbers alone is short-sighted.)

  59. To J. Stapley re: #55:

    I defer to your firsthand knowledge about the Assemblies of God. However, looking more broadly it seems that the rapidly growing Protestant churches are socially conservative and, if they’re not all teetotalers (after all they don’t have the WoW) still strongly advocate moral standards like ours that contradict prevailing mores (such as abstinence from drugs and pre-marital, extra-marital, and homosexual sex, many practice tithing, spend a lot of time on religious activities, etc.). No doubt they don’t follow them all in practice, but then LDS are not 100% perfect either. And this phenomenon is not limited to Christians — the socially conservative versions of Islam and Judaism are also growing. Now I know that these are complex issues with a lot exceptions and subsidiary issues. However, I think that the point holds well enough in general that I am uncomfortable with using increasing evil in the broader society as an excuse for our lack of missionary effectiveness.

    To Steve EM re: #56:

    If anyone is making the motion, I heartily second the proposal that we ask the Lord to OK an emeritus program for apostles. However, even without that I am not quite as pessimistic as you. All of my highly reliable sources (rumors, third-hand stories, and Mike Quinn) indicate that the agenda for the Church is set by only the 3 or 4 most senior apostles (1st Pres incl). I believe that there are some junior apostles currently sitting who could be open to major new ideas if they are out there floating in the LDS air. And there is always a holy serendipity to these things — no one expected Spencer W. Kimball would turn out to be a Spencer W. Kimball kind of a prophet.

  60. Random impressions (avoiding packing for vacation):

    – So what? The Church isn’t any less true and the danger is that the Church may actually have fewer wards (but save money on not building new buildings), and that people who base their testimonies on Church growth may fall away.

    – Of *course* the Church limits “growth”. There are any examples in Eastern Europe where the Church progressed VERRRY slowly and delayed the opening of areas until there was the formation of an established leadership base nearby. Look, the South American mission presidents were too successful in the 80s baptizing everyone who said yes. And look where that got us…

  61. I should mention that I am an EQ instructor. If you’d brought it up in my class, I’d have actually let you have your 5 minutes to make your point. So you’re just living in the wrong ward. :)

  62. jonathan n. says:

    Others have discussed the correlation between declining baptisms and activity rates with the spread of the Internet. I know in many places, missionaries report that second visits frequently fail because after the first visit, the investigators do their own investigating on the Internet. Kids who grow up in the Church also check things on the Internet and are surprised and in some cases angered by what they learn (things they had never been taught in Sunday School).

    Seems to me that unless and until the Church addresses the issues commonly raised on anti-LDS sites, and better prepares the missionaries to respond to these objections, there is little likelihood that the trends in Church growth and activity rates will change.

  63. Seems to me that unless and until the Church addresses the issues commonly raised on anti-LDS sites, and better prepares the missionaries to respond to these objections, there is little likelihood that the trends in Church growth and activity rates will change.

    This is something I’ve wondered. Information that someone previously couldn’t get without research is now available within 30 seconds through Google. Things like Joseph Smith and polygamy, changes in the temple ceremony, these are things that people never would have heard about before. Could the internet factor convince people without strong testimonies that their church is not all it claims to be?

  64. At the MHA last year in Vermont, the Church History Dept. people said that the Church was very concerned about the difficulties missionairies were encountering with people doing web searches after the first visit. They said this was the reason the Church launched http://www.josephsmith.net. Of course, in addition to the very substantial point made by jonathan n. about better preparing missionairies and members to deal with the anti-Mormon issues, the Church obviously still doesn’t “get” the internet or Google. josephsmith.net still only comes up 11th on a search, and you don’t get another friendly site until jefflindsay at 21st. Now if thousands of independent ward, stake and auxiliary websites still existed, and linked to the Church, FAIR, FARMS sites, etc. we might overwhelm the antis, but no-o-o, the web has to be correlated.

  65. Twenty years ago, members referred to “anti-mormon literature” with the same tone reserved for pornography. Now everything is in-your-face, from Google searches to South Park episodes. It’s a very different world, but I don’t see that the church has adapted to it much. The Evangelicals have done a tremendous job of adapting and have the results to show for it.

    As a friendly outsider (yes, we exist!), it’s kind of sad to see. I wonder if the church is reaching some kind of historical fork in the road: either it addresses the historical problems and makes any necessary adjustments, or sticks its head in the sand and hopes for the best. The former could lead it to become a major global faith to really challenge Evanglicalism, Islam, et. al., the latter (no pun intended) to withering over time. One suspects it’s difficult to think in these terms looking out the windows of the one, true, take-it-or-leave-it church, though.

    Hmmm, that sounds a little harsh. I certainly don’t mean to offend here. The LDS communal experience and theological vision are unique and compelling. There are lots of people (probably including myself) who would be members if there were a bit more intellectual wiggle room.

  66. Steve McIntyre says:

    I don’t know if or when the church will directly confront our history through mainstream channels such as general conference, the Ensign, etc. It sometimes seems as if we’re moving in the opposite direction. Neither the new Joseph Smith film in the Legacy Theater, the Joseph Smith exhibit at the Church History Museum, nor http://www.josephsmith.net seem to mention anything of plural marriage or other frequent concerns concerning the life of Joseph Smith. Instead, we have a polished, PR-friendly representation of Joseph.

    When members learn that church history isn’t exactly the same as it’s presented in Sunday school, they frequently have to undergo some kind of a spiritual paradigm shift. Their testimony is not necessarily shaken, but it typically has to undergo some adjustment, at least. I think it is difficult for many to entirely avoid a bit of disenchantment.

    Openly and objectively confronting concerns that many outside the church have can have positive results. I think it would answer questions and concerns that a lot of members entertain but typically keep to themselves. But then there’s the problem of selecting an appropriate forum in which to address these concerns. Under current Mormon cultural conditions, it’d be difficult to present such ideas in sacrament, relief society, or priesthood meetings. If you present any non-mainstream sentiments, you’re liable to be looked at as a weirdo or someone with a weak testimony. In either case, people don’t take you seriously, or you’re met with the type of comments described in the original post.

    I’m convinced that if we are to approach this issue as a church, it will have to come from the top down. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    I think that fostering an atmosphere where differing viewpoints about the gospel, the church, and our way of doing things can be comfortably expressed would only be beneficial. We could really become a more dynamic church, more capable of meeting the needs of a quickly-evolving world.

  67. I really appreciate where this conversation has taken us. The Church does seem to have a problem adjusting to this thing called the Internet. Some good starts, but I agree that inquisitive people thinking of joining the Church would likely not join if they did the unthinkable… actually researched it online!

    But really, do we just hope that non-members use the Internet for all those other good purposes but NOT for Mormon inquiry?

  68. MikeInWeHo says:

    “….inquisitive people thinking of joining the Church would likely not join if they….actually….researched it” ??? (I removed the word Internet intentionally, because ultimately all the Web does is facilitate communication and sharing information.)

    Am I the only one here who thinks that Bob C’s statement is really quite provocative?

  69. I too have read Kent huff’s book. It’s quite sobering.

  70. Does anyone remember reading about sociologist Rodney Stark’s prediction that Mormonism would grow to be between 70 to 250 million members by 2080? I seem to remember an article by him titled “The Rise of a New World Religion.” Was he a quack? Outdated research? Anybody know? I just wondered if those predictions matter in this discussion.

  71. Not to kill too much provocativeness from my statement, but I was specifically referring to the imbalance of materials available to the avid researcher (perhaps either online or off). Quoting zeezrom from the comments:

    “…the Church obviously still doesn’t “get” the internet or Google. josephsmith.net still only comes up 11th on a search, and you don’t get another friendly site until jefflindsay at 21st. Now if thousands of independent ward, stake and auxiliary websites still existed, and linked to the Church, FAIR, FARMS sites, etc. we might overwhelm the antis, but no-o-o, the web has to be correlated.”

    If “research” by an individual turns up so much anti- material with limited positive and/or response material… Why would inquisitive people join? You’d need some pretty strong convictions with a hefty dose of the benefit-of-the-doubt factor. This, of course, is possible but probably is quite the limiting factor for membership from such individuals.

  72. Derek L,

    Kent Huff actually makes quite a few references to Rodney Stark in his book. But alas, I can’t quite remember the context. I may try to get in touch with Kent and get back to you.

  73. Recent (2002) study of Stark’s analysis compared with actual trending here.

  74. Thanks for the link, Mark. Also, for those interested, here are some excerpts from Kent’s book regarding Stark’s predictions:

    p.22

    Sociological Studies
    Rodney Stark is a sociologist who has looked at Christian church sociology and growth in general, and the LDS Church in particular. His estimates of early Christian church growth rates,4 and his study of the church’s growth in England in the 1800s5 are among his most interesting work. Any continuous growth of a religion is of interest to him, since it is the mechanics of the conversion process that seem to be his main focus. He has postulated some rough possible growth ranges for the church, 30% to 50% per decade6 (2.65% to 4.13% per year), and then watched to see what actual numbers were reported.

    pp. 149-150
    Church growth rates

    Many have celebrated the Church growth rates of recent decades. One noted sociologist, Rodney Stark, used rates of 30% per decade (2.65% annual rate) or 50% per decade (4.13% annual) to predict Church growth. Starting in 1998, at the 50% per decade rate, the Church was predicted to reach 267 mil­lion by 2080.3 That sounds like plenty of growth to satisfy any Church leader or even be overwhelming.

    However, those rates seem to be far more theoretical than real these days. What is valuable to the Church is the number of living, active members of the Church who can keep the program moving along. Records of the deceased or inactive are of little significance to Church progress. For the last ten years, 1991 to 2000, the number of converts each year has been almost flat at about 300,000, which translates into the reported Church population continuing upward at about the 3% rate. That annual number of converts even shows a downward trend starting in 1996. (Compare the slopes of two attached graphs.) Something seems amiss. One might speculate that the number of real effective Church missionary program participants, missionaries and members, has not advanced at all in the past decade.

    I have examined the growth statistics as published in Church sources such as the Ensign or the Deseret News Church Almanac, and the results are not very encouraging. In recent times those official Church growth rates have been low: 3.88% in 1997, 2.82% in 1998, 3.85% in 1999, and 2.94% in 2000. A linear trend line starting in 1975 predicts a worrisome decrease in future growth rates, reaching zero in 2039. Even the rates just given are probably misleadingly high since they do not appear to take into account deaths or in­activity. For example, if we adjust the 2000 figure down for an assumed death rate of 1.33%, implying a stable population with an average life span of 75 years, the new growth rate is 1.6%. If only one-half of the converts stayed active, the effective rate would drop to 0.8%. The surrounding societies grew at least at a 1% rate, meaning that the relative growth is -0.2%. A lower re­tention rate could make the relative growth rate go further negative.

    Here are some growth rate projections using these rates: at the optimistic 2.94% annual growth rate it would take 76 years to reach 100 million and 131 years to reach 500 million. At the more realistic 1.6% rate, it would take 139 years to reach 100 million and 240 years to reach 500 million. At the (gener­ous) effective 0.8% rate it would take 277 years to reach 100 million and 479 years to reach 500 million. Using the relative rate, which is negative, we would shrink in influence over time.

  75. Derek L. says:

    Mark and Bob,

    Thanks for the update on the predictions of Rodney Stark. I guess at present growth rates, the “New World Religion” label won’t fit. Well at least not for 479 years or so.

  76. Of course, the problem with projecting current growths rates, whether high or low, out over long time periods is that they change. Rodney Stark’s projections were quite defensible based on extrapolating high Church growth rates that had been holding for decades, at least 1950 to 1990. I don’t think anyone would have foreseen the fall off in growth rates described here. However, this is not the first time this has happened in Church history. Growth rates were definitely lower in the period 1900 to 1950 than in either the 1800s or 1950 to 2000.

    That the fall off is happening is beyond dispute even using the rose-colored official Church stats. However, the fall off is not some unchangeable law locked in granite. What I think is critical is understanding why it is happening and what can be done to change it.

    One factor is demographic — declining LDS birth rate. However that does not explain the decline in converts. It does reduce the potential number of missionairies, but the size of the missionary force has not declined that much yet, and baptisms per missionary are down also.

    Another is an increase in dissonance between the Church’s mores and those of the larger society. As noted above, this has not stopped other conservative religions from growing.

    Another is the much greater availability of anti-Mormon propaganda through the Internet and the Church’s inadeqaute response to that. While there is much validity to this point, especially with regard to its affect on new investigators, and the Church would do well to be more open about controversial subjects, in the end you don’t convert or keep anyone simply by refuting negatives. We have to present strong positive reasons for anyone to adopt or stay with the challenging LDS belief system and accompanying lifestyle.

    I wonder if the modern PR friendly Church image gives people these strong positives. We are far from being the only church presenting itself as socially conservative, family-oriented, and Christ centered. I know that there was a time in living memory when investigators were unapologetically taught the principles of the King Follett Discourse, when the Book of Mormon was the primary focus of missionary work in all its complexity and weirdness, when the ways we differed from other reilgions were presented as an argument rather than being minimized. Those times corresponded with the decades of high growth rates. Coincidence or cause and effect?

  77. Bob, on Jan 8th this year I had the same experience, only I remain silent. I took the occasion at the time to write the following on FAIR’s Message board: http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?showtopic=12656&hl=

    Question: What do you think…should I bother to print out his book and hand out to my good friends in the Elder’s Quorum?

    Last Sunday in priesthood there was a discussion regarding the growth of our Church? With the greatest respect, most of what was said was pure myth. It is commonly purported among LDS that “the growth in the LDS Church is phenomenal…that it is the fastest growing Church…or…according to reports by 2080 membership will be 265 million!…”

    All these common sentiments just are not true. Those who make such claims mean no harm, and of course, love the Church and are excited about its growth naturally.

    The reality, however, is that Church growth has significantly slowed from 5% to 3%. What is more, other Churches vastly out grew the LDS Church by significant, if not breathtaking, numbers.

    However, I did not have the heart to dispel the illusion held by all members of my LDS Elders Quorum. No one likes to be corrected, especially in front of others, more especially if the illusion is something commonly held in belief by many others, even more especially if somehow the illusion is tied to faith, love, loyalty and a type of sign which buttresses their faith in the Church they so love and know beyond doubt to be true. Sometimes it’s just better to keep things to ones self until a better opportunity presents itself.

    The URLs below contain a book written by Dr. David Stewart, 32 year old physician who served a mission in Russia. He is an exceedingly faithful LDS who loves missionary work, statistics, and facts; he is not afraid of facts & stats & reality when it comes to Church growth. His work is extremely insightful and very valuable to the LDS community.

    I’m thinking of printing out his book and distributing it. Facts are our friends and ought not to offend us!

    HTML online book:
    The Law of the Harvest
    Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work
    By David G. Stewart, Jr.
    Email: dgstewart@yahoo.com
    Copyright 2005
    Version of August 21, 2005

    http://www.cumorah.com/harvest.html#introduction

    MS Word version of the book

    http://www.cumorah.com/report.html

    Home page:

    http://www.cumorah.com/

    About David Stewart & cumorah

    http://www.cumorah.com/about.html

  78. MikeInWeHo says:

    When the Church was widely perceived as radically apart from the broader Christian world, it grew. Zeezrom may be right; the PR-friendly approach is proving counter productive. As a non-member (but good friend), I’m amazed at how much things have changed over the past 20 years. Y’all used to be DIFFERENT, but now you’re perceived as a bunch of Republicans with some extra scripture. That may be unfair (at least here in the bloggernacle!), but it is the public perception. I wonder if last Sunday’s interesting statement from the leadership about political involvement is in recognition of that problem. (Somebody needs to start a string on that, btw)

  79. MikeInWeHo,

    I like your take even if you think it may be potentially unfair here in the Bloggernacle (but I think you’re fine).

  80. MikeInWeHo says:

    There should be liberal wards. Or at least non-Republican wards. If there were here in Southern California, I’d start going!

  81. Is the sky falling
    Well maybe not. In business, the leadership of the company is paid to worry about problems like this. Running to the membership with every worry or fret is very counter productive. Can we assume that Church Leadership is aware of this “Problem” and:

    Might consider this a time of retrenchment, to consolidate training and “catch up” with the earlier spurt of growth?
    1. the lawsuit over a Bishop being slow to take action in that molestation case involves a lot of retraining of bishops and other leaders.
    2. rapid growth in latin america means lots of inexperienced leaders.
    3. “Raising the bar” is good, but means fewer qualified missionaries.
    4. As was mentioned by others, attacks on the church practices and doctrine are becoming more sophisticated and are not the same old sameold.
    5. We are at the end of Br. Hinkley’s term of office, and his health and energy is declining.

    But that said, it is still a good time for the Church. We are about to see Mitt Romeney savaged by the anti’s, the church history visa vi the pologamy issued savaged by TV. And Harry Reed is there preaching we are not all conservative republicans, and Pres. GBH just agreed. We will soon be back to defending the faith, while other religions continue to dilute the message of Christ. I don’t know if TSM will turn it around after GBH. Monson seems not to be very nice”. But you never know.

    Personally, it is not a sports thing to me. I live in a good ward, activity is high, spirituallity is good, the leadership is experienced and working on the right issues. I can spend years in this mode just learning and practicing my religion.

  82. Opps didn’t mean to type

    Monson seems not to be very nice”, take out the not.
    Dang wireless keyboard keeps acting up, and I have to retype a lot.

  83. cchrissyy says:

    MikeinWeHo,
    if you have a liberal town nearby, try their ward. I’ve attended many Northern Cal wards and when the city is liberal politically, or more racially diverse, the ward reflects it. Or likewise, if you’re in a very monolithic town, remember every congregation will be composed of those monolithic residents. I don’t think it’s a “mormon” thing.

  84. Adam Sorensen says:

    I thought for a long time about the churches lack of growth, and I still believe that the best way to stimulate growth is to encourage large families as was done in the past. As the lds birth rates slip closer and closer to the national average, I believe we will cease to exist as a people with any cultural force in the world.

    Does anyone know of any long-lasting, dominant religious movement that has not become dominant in their cultures and/or states through either military conquest or political adoption of said religion? I could very well be wrong here, maybe there are some (If you know, please respond). Perhaps we lack the ability to become a dominant religion.

    Also, I think that Mormonism may be to hard to follow completely. for us to ever be dominant as a culture. Perhaps if it were more compulsory, such as Islam seems to be in some countries.

    We do define Church growth in terms of activity and temple attendance as well sometimes. If Catholics did this, I’m sure their rates of activity would be equally low. Most people seem to think that Religion is only moderately important in their lives. However, as C.S. Lewis recently reminded me, religion can only be of no importance or of infinite importance.

    Mormonism is shrinking. It may dissappear someday or at least become obscure.

  85. Mark Butler says:

    Behold, I will hasten my work in its time.
    (D&C 88:73)

  86. My understanding is that Roman Catholicism became dominant in Ireland from missionary work rather than military or political conquest, and that Islam similarly became dominant in Indonesia from missionary work rather than conquest.

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