Despite recent calls to ‘hasten the work’, the church does not seem to be growing in the UK. While there may be pockets of growth, on average, it seems like the number of people baptized is not growing when contrasted with the attrition we are also observing. What is particularly striking is that the absolute growth in membership is substantially lower than what we would have expected if we just followed the increase in membership due to baptisms. This implies that we are both failing to convert new people and appear to be losing some of those who were already members. These statistics do not tell us why this might be happening; it could be due to emigration, death, or resignation. All of these are important but I suspect that there has been at least a small uptick in the number of resignations per year over the last 5 years. Since 2000 the church has not been growing in the UK and this seems unlikely to change in the near future. Taken together, the future looks pretty dim.
All of this is worrying but there is something else that, for me at least, is of greater concern. It is less tangible than church growth statistics but could be part of the reason that the response to this call for ‘hastening’ has been somewhat underwhelming. The root of this challenge is with the ‘old guard’, my parent’s generation. These are the people who joined the church during a period of real growth during the 1970s and 1980s. Since those early years there have been important changes.
First, the church is no longer expending so much energy trying to meet the social needs of its members. This move away from community-building is keenly felt by the old guard. They know what it is like to have swimming galas, stake sports, and regional holidays (like EFY but for everyone over 14). Not everyone loved these events, and they probably were irritating at the time, but I frequently here these folks speak of these events with great fondness. They experienced both the richness of Mormon life and the blessings of Mormonism. Now, we have all the same meetings but less community-building. The church has reduced the social dimension of church life (activities) while maintaining the ecclesiastical dimension (meetings).
Without that social dimension, church life is less fulfilling. Few would claim that our meetings are exciting and they are often not spiritually energised. This becomes even more apparent when we are not connected to (through friendship) the speakers, teachers, and leaders. This feeling becomes even more apparent when we are tired; when we have been serving in the same responsibilities for many years because no one else has come along to replace us. In many wards, the same people have been consistently sitting in ward council for 20 or 30 years after they were first called to these positions. Insufficient conversion and retention among new converts coupled with the large-scale defection of my generation means that my parents’ generation are still running the church.
This might not be devastating in itself but it is coupled with another problem. The baby-boomer converts of the 70s-80s raised their children in a church promising eternal families; but this is a promise that will likely never be fulfilled for them. If they were faithful (scripture study, family prayer, home evening, etc.), they were promised that their kids would be sealed to them. These families did it all and their kids still left. Those who left frequently married well (or at least as well as those who married in the church) and they are still happy.
The church is not growing in the UK. Baptisms are slowing and the younger generation – those raised in the church here – are not staying. The converts of the 70s-80s are still running the church but are now less socially tied to it. More than all of this, the old guard are carrying the weight of the unfulfilled promise of eternal families to mundane services every week; and that is not sustainable.