The following is a brief review/description of Rick Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” Nova Religio 10(1):52-68, August 2006.
Just how secure are Mormon membership figures? Mormons take it for granted that many of their church’s members are not “active” participants in church life, but how many “inactive” Mormons even consider themselves to be members? Phillips uses recent census data from Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and New Zealand to attempt an answer to this question. According to the data, the number of self-professed Mormons is between 23-58 percent of the number claimed by the church. (Australia 47.5%, Austria 57.1%, Canada 58.4% (lower outside Alberta), Chile 27.3%, Mexico 23.2%.)
There is a significant correlation between growth rates and self-identification: the countries with the highest growth rates have the lowest self-identification numbers, and vice versa (See Fig. 1). Phillips argues that, “proselytizing strategies emphasizing quick conversion are partly to blame for the LDS Church’s problems with convert
retention” . (One wonders, however, if it is really the “strategies” that are the problem: do Mormon missionaries in Latin America have a different mission plan than those in Europe? It is not that missionaries in Mexico offer quick conversion but those in Austria do not; it is that the Mexico missionaries actually achieve it.)
Using source material published by others, Phillips also shows that areas with low convert retention numbers also exhibit low church participation (19% Melchizedek priesthood ordination in Mexico compared with 52% in Canada).
Phillips tries to extrapolate church-wide conclusions from this limited data. (Africa remains a big question mark, however, and there is no equivalent data for Asia. I think it is safe to say that Austria, Chile and Mexico are probably pretty representative of Europe and Latin America respectively. This is also Phillips’ view.) The Canadian case (coupled with other US data) suggests that whilst only half of the church’s members are in North America, the majority of its self-identified members are North American. For Phillips, Mormonism is not “an incipient world religion” but a “predominantly North American church with tendrils in other continents” . This emends even Mauss’ view that Mormonism is primarily a “western hemisphere” phenomenon (as Latin America’s active Mormons are a fraction of those reported by the church), and blows Stark’s famous prediction (that Mormonism will be the next world religion) out of the water.
Although he doesn’t explicity draw this conclusion, Phillips quietly suggests that this fact, if accepted by the church, might pose theological problems:
The church now uses its rapid growth as evidence of the legitimacy and efficacy of church doctrines and programs–both for members of the church and for the larger public. Lowell C. Bennion and Lawrence Young observe: “More than ever before, the LDS Church seems to measure its milestones in terms of numbers.” Rapid growth is offered as an objective measure of Mormonism’s global appeal, and is an important feature of the church’s public relations strategy. In short, growth has become an end unto itself for the LDS Church.