Review: Phillips, “Rethinking Expansion”

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%.)

October_2006_fig11There 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” [56]. (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” [60]. 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. [53]


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree, and when the numbers become an end unto itself, there is a strong motivation to goose the numbers and to twist them artificially, which is indeed what we do all the time. In substance, the numbers are almost meaningless. I really wish we would not link superficial manifest destiny growth statistics with the truth of the Gospel, because in reality our growth is flat at best these days, even if we don’t want to admit it.

  2. FYI:

    This is part of a series we’re doing for EMSA, to write short descriptions of recent “international Mormon” publications. I thought this one was of worth for the BCC audience. Emphasis is on “short description”; I do not have the training to review the demography. That, I leave up to you…!

  3. My mother sometimes talks about the mentality when Mormonism recognized its limited appeal even shortly after world war 2. There was a strong sense that they were the chosen few and the world would not respond, that Daniel’s stone cut out of the mountain was testimony rather than great proselytizing success. I wonder whether that attitude, to the extent it existed other than in my mother’s mind, will return when the low numbers of self-identified Mormons are harder to avoid confronting. It will be very difficult not to recede into the superiority of small numbers rather than integration into a plural society. These are big decades for us to be experiencing. Kind of exciting, if you think about it, however you feel we ought to be behaving.

  4. Kevin
    Not only is it flat if not slightly declining, it is also greying…

  5. Like anything else regarding institutions, the manipulation of membership statistics is an implication of poorly designed incentives.

    Whether or not somebody is being baptized is left to decision makers that are evaluated by bureaucrats in Salt Lake City. Mission presidents operate without accountability to local leaders. Their status depends on the numbers they report.

    Local leaders are then left with inflated membership records. Worse, the reputation of their organization takes a hit when locals observe that Mormon missionaries are taking advantage of minors, the senile, and imbeciles (and yes that does happen in Austria as well, just at a much lower level). In the process, the actions of LDS missions burden local units (think of home teaching roles, for example) and suck out the energy and the enthusiasm of the members. How many baptisms of someone who will cease to attend within days can you witness without acquiring some measure of cynicism?

    Potemkin’s villages make for a good repuation of return missionaries and mission presidents. The local church and the members have to bear the cost.

    While local Mormons are busy picking up the pieces after the mission organization, evangelical and charismatic protestant competitors organize people to provide self-help to each other. Moreover, the protestants decentralize decision making. As a result, our competitors adapt more effectively to local conditions.

    If you had to chose between Potemkin’s village and an energized charismatic congregation that generates community and services, where would you pay tithing?

    It would be pretty easy to fix that deficiency. If bishops and branch presidents were to conduct the baptismal interviews then baseball baptism and other forms of convert exploitation would decline rapidly.

    Of course, there would be howling and gnashing of teeth when gringo missionaries and mission presidents would not be able to enjoy their illusion any longer. But they don’t have to live with the consequences of their irresponsibility, which undermines the organization and the local members that do not get to leave for BYU after two years.

    Anyways, the institutional principle is simple: those who have to pay the bill ought to make the decision. That’s why local LDS leaders, rather than American visitors, ought to determine whether an investigator understands the baptismal commitment.

  6. MikeInWeHo says:

    What is a baseball baptism?

  7. So … if our numbers are so flat, why is there such demand for temples in so many places in recent years?

  8. I would guess that the temples go only where there is demand for them. The most recent temples in the US are in areas of high church growth like the Salt Lake City suburbs and two upscale areas of Southern California (Coastal Orange County and Redlands/Inland Empire). Like McDonalds, the church does lots of analysis on locations to determine where the customers are and how many are TR holders. TR holders=full-tithe payers. Do the math.

  9. Aren’t we attacking ideas of “growth” that are already on their way out within Church leadership?

    I mean, Pres. Hinckley is already emphasizing retention at the expense of sheer baptism numbers…

  10. (a) I once had a friend who subscribed to Forbes magazine because he heard that 33% of all Forbes readers were millionaires. (b) Abundant data shows that members with temple endowments are much more likely to remain committed to the church throughout their lives than are their unendowed counterparts. (c) How is the church building temples all over the world much like my friend subscribing to Forbes?

  11. a baseball baptism is one that was performed as a trick–i.e. I will take you to a baseball game if you get baptised. These are more common in myth than in fact, IMO.

  12. And this is off topic, but since you are on line MikeInWeHo, I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed your comments on various LDS blogs: I’m so glad that despite your exclusion from LDS culture because of your homosexuality, that you stay in the conversation, reminding us respectfully of those that we should embrace.

  13. Baseball baptisms were very common in fact. They are not mythological. Read Prince’s biography of David O. McKay. Read the biography of Henry Moyle published by Signature Books. Read Quinn’s biography of J. Reuben Clark. It may not happen much anymore, but “baseball baptism” was a fact of life in the European missions of the 1960s. Interestingly enough, since “lost” members stay on church rolls until their 110th b-day, most baptized this way who weren’t purged from church records in the subsequent investigations are probably still counted as members now.

  14. I could be wrong about baseball baptisms in history: I am just familiar with examples from my own mission [South America, the 90s] where this accusation was falsely made. [I was once accused myself of paying to get baptisms–but it was an accusation out of thin air made all the more ironic by my patent poverty [I couldn’t even afford proper clothes for my mission]

    However, having lived through the numbers nightmare that was South America, the 90s, I will say that there was pressure to baptise too quickly. We all knew it, but we tried to have faith that there was an undergirding purpose to it [i.e. that people would get the spirit quicker and get integrated into the wards more quickly and then be more likely to stick it out]

    Another post for another day should probably the psychology of missionaries.

  15. Another quote from the article:

    “For instance, official church statistics report that in the two year interval between 2000 and 2002–the years relevant to the census data used above–Argentina added one stake and 19,500 new members. Venezuela also gained one stake and 16,320 members. Church-wide, however, the average number of members per stake is 4370. In the U.S. there are only about 4000 members per stake. Thus, based on the church-wide mean, Venezuela added over three stakes’ worth of members for its one new stake, and Argentina added the equivalent of four stakes’ worth of members for its new stake. In this same two year span, neither Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala or Honduras added a single new stake, but between them they added 38,185 (or almost 9 stakes’ worth) of new members. Colombia lost a stake through consolidation–going from 23 to 22–but added 6385 members. Peru lost a stake as well, but managed to add 19,731 new members. Finally, Brazil lost 3 stakes and a total of 190 congregations (88 wards and 102 branches) through consolidation between 2000 and 2002, yet added almost 66,000 new members–going from 743,182 to 808,940. The only explanation for the countervailing pattern of stake consolidation and membership growth in these nations is that rates of convert retention in Latin America are extraordinarily low.”

  16. I mean, Pres. Hinckley is already emphasizing retention at the expense of sheer baptism numbers…

    That’s progress. The question is what is President Hinckley going to do about it. Preaching is seldom enough. What’s really needed is institutionalized accountability.

    It isn’t the missionaries’ fault. Salt Lake leaders have the power. They need to take responsibility.

  17. Is the “Preach My Gospel” manual part of a reaction to this? The old purple “Missionary Guide” seemed so overwhelmingly influenced by streamlined corporate-correlative frachise culture, which I think really lent itself to numbers-driven missionary motivation. And of course, the old missionary program, inlcuding the manual, the commitment pattern, the planning materials, etc., was heavily influenced by Covey (he came and spoke to us in the MTC as a member of the missionary committee). Perhaps greater awareness of and attention to retention is a sign of a realization that corporate models can only carry the church so far?

    For example, the commitment pattern (the communication model missionaries used to be trained to use to teach the lessons and get people to commit to living the gospel) seems to me to have been modeled on negotiation techniques borrowed from the business world. But those types of models are geared towards getting someone to sign on the dotted line and fulfil a contract–a contract which, once entered into, carries certain legal ramifications that encourage fulfilment of the contract. It was my experience that, in the context of trying to compel people to make much more significant and long-term personal commitments, far too often the commitment pattern worked to get people to say “yes,” but that didn’t necessarily translate into an enduring spiritual transformation. There was no dotted line for them to sign holding them to their covenant of baptism–leading to a difficult tautological bind: if you don’t have a testimony of the gospel, it’s of no concern to you to breach the baptismal contract because you don’t believe that there’s anyone or anything enforcing that contract beside the two missionaries that might come around and give you guilt trips a couple of times a week for a while.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    FWIW I agree with Hellmut’s comments. There has been progress on this front, and I attribute that to GBH. But, quite frankly, there is much more that can and should be done. Mission success is still judged on raw baptism statistics, which means there is an inherent motivation to goose the baptism numbers at the expense of commitment and understanding. Someone in a position of power needs to put a stop to that. That has to be a top-down action, and it hasn’t happened yet.

  19. Phouchg (9): President Hinckley is not in Salt Lake Valley or in Southern California this weekend. He’s in Helsinki. Take another look at the list of temples in the past few years.

    Even if it were true that we had only a quarter of the membership reported, we still have experienced such growth in active, tithe-paying, temple-worthy members that we have to provide temples in places that couldn’t even support chapels not so long ago.

  20. Sorry for the flawed link.

  21. Actually, Ardis (20), that doesn’t follow. Many of the far-flung temples are just that: far-flung temples. Building a building, Field of Dreams notwithstanding, does not mean the members will come. If you remember, these temples aren’t meant to stay open all the time, but instead have to be scheduled for sessions.

    Moreover, the mini-temples draw away from the established temples. E.g., before the smaller temples were developed, Washington DC had to do overnight sessions from Friday to Saturday. Since then, DC’s draw has been decimated.

    Incidentally, I find this sudden notice of these statistics to be fascinating, since it’s what David Stewart at has been saying for years.

  22. Craig (23), we aren’t talking about quite the same thing. A major part of this report is the conclusion that the church is a North American church. Phoucgh and you are both focused on North American temples — yes, I agree with you that closing in the gaps between North American temples may to some extent redistribute the attendance that might have gone to another North American temple. But I’m pointing to temples elsewhere in the world. Some of these are in places (the Philippines may be a good example) that hadn’t been feeding significant numbers to older temples. The temples dotting Europe may be drawing some who earlier would have gone to Switzerland, but many of them are in places where 30 years ago handfuls of members were renting small rooms for meetings. I don’t care if a temple is operating only a couple of days a month — you don’t build a temple for a dozen members. That suggests growth.

  23. It seems to me that the explosion of temples in the last decade is to give existing members a more convenient opportunity to attend the temple. Like Craig said, temples like DC that(that was built with the capacity to serve the whole of the east coast) are now struggling to fill sessions. True, we experience growth every year but the temple boom has more to do with Pres. Hinckley’s specific vision than it does with growth.

  24. CJ (25): Again, you’re talking about North America. What about parts of the world where there were few to no existing members a single generation ago?

  25. Hellmut —

    I agree totally with your idea that local priesthood leaders should be the only ones authorized to perform baptismal interviews. However, I fear that that alone will not be enough. The standards for baptism must be strengthened. If local bishops and branch presidents are told that attendance at a few Sacrament Meetings and having quit smoking for a week are sufficient to qualify someone for baptism, how many will have the courage to defy those instructions and find that person still unproven as a candidate to receive the ordinance of baptism? The Church’s leaders need once again to take seriously the scriptural injunction that candidates for baptism must “witness before the Church” that they have a “determination to serve [Jesus Christ] to the end” and “truly manifest by their works” that their sins have been remitted (D&C 20:37). Our modern minimal, loose, fast baptismal standards and practices make a mockery of that scripture.

    Interestingly, such an approach will not necessarily reduce our numbers, it could even increaase them. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are growing much more rapidly than the LDS in real terms even though their standards for baptism are much stricter, including putting in months of time proselyting — as well as giving up smoking! People value that which is hard to obtain. We should not be surprised that new converts go inactive when we haven’t asked them to be “active” as a condition of baptism, and usually haven’t even taught them what it is to be active.

    Ardis —

    Craig is right, the new temples are no indicator of growth in the numbers of active Church members. They are the result of a policy decision to lower the requirements for building a temple so that the few scattered Church members in areas where growth would probably never qualify them for a temple under the old standards can at least have one of the newly created basic appointment-only mini-temples available. My understanding also is that the many new mini-temples are generally significantly underutilized.

    Kevin and tluck —

    I am now going on the other side. I acknowledge that the membership numbers do not give a realistic picture of the size of the Church. And I recognize that there has been some consolidation in some places. However, I think that you need a lot more data and analysis to conclude that real growth is declining or that the Church membership is aging. Even at low retention rates some new members always “stick,” and the overall population is aging, so to say Mormons are “greying” you really have to show that they are aging faster than the general population. Certainly in North America the LDS birth rate, although much lower than previously, is still somewhat higher than average so it would take even more aging than normal to yield a net overall “greying” greater than that of the general population.

  26. Okay, you’ve all convinced me. We’re shrinking, we’re dying, we’re blowing vast treasures to build temples for the last active individual Mormon in Helsinki, Manila, Sao Paulo, wherever. Turn the lights out before you go, please.

  27. LOL, Ardis! I was thinking the same thing in your #28. We’re far from done as a faith. If anything, these expansion figures are a welcome thing. Not only is it a wake-up call to spur us to more charity, more faith, more involvement in our communities, it’s a reminder that we’re a new faith, a small one, a young one but one whose future is still in flux. We are the stone cut without hands, rolling down the mountainside; perhaps the slope isn’t as steep as we had supposed.

  28. Ardis's Secretary says:

    Brother Evans: Ardis is not here. She has left on a round-the-world expedition to pick up empty temples really, really cheap, to use as vacation homes and bed-and-breakfasts. Since she may have to wait a few weeks for the last Mormon in Madrid to die, it may be some time before she returns and is able to respond to your kind note. Very respectfully yours, /s/ The Secretary

  29. I agree with the general sentiment that more transparency with regards to membership statistics would be refreshing and probably healthy for the church in the long term.

    However, I also think the skepticism about the mini-temples is being rather overstated. In my current ward as well as in my previous ward, we belonged to temple districts with mini-temples. In both locations, temple attendance was by appointment, but endowment sessions occurred on a regular weekly schedule (every weekday except Monday, and several on Saturday). You had to make an appointment in order to ensure a spot in the session. Sometimes weekday sessions are sparsely attended, but weekend sessions are usually quite full–at least at these two mini-temples.

    Also, it’s my understanding that there are fairly substantial recommended-holder growth stats to warrant the building of a smaller temple.

    Wards in many parts of the U.S. are growing and splitting; that kind of structural growth isn’t supported by phony baptismal numbers. It just appears that baptismal growth is far outpacing enduring growth — in a way that is, quite admittedly, very disturbing to me.

  30. Mark Butler says:

    Two comments:

    1. Membership is measured that way based on a scriptural principle:

    And after they had been received unto baptism,…they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished…
    (Moro 6:4)

    2. The leaders of the Church been aware of these challenges for decades. However the commandment is to take the gospel unto all nations, in their own tongue, and in their own language:

    For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the Comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ.
    (D&C 90:11)

    The preceding verses are of note as well.

  31. Mark Butler says:

    err, “have been aware”

  32. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 30 Cool !
    Maybe I can get inside one now…..

    Thanks for your kind words, Natasha. I’m glad to be here too. In my heart I am still very much a Mormon.

    But back on topic, I do think that the mini-temple boom of the past decade was in response to the retention problem, not due to real Church growth. Looks like a very well thought out, strategic decision to me.

  33. We’ll have to await Kim Ostman’s report (he’s a Finn), but I don’t think that there’s a temple in Helsinki now because Finland has seen an explosion in membership numbers. Instead, its building represents a very smart, intelligent decision to provide a small temple for a core of faithful Finnish (and Baltic) Mormons, thus strengthening their faith in the church. New, small temples are not an indicator of growth per se, but are a happy sign that the church is healthy in an area (where “health” and “size” are not correlates).

    After all, we are to be the salt of the earth, not the earth itself.

  34. The problem with equating temple growth with real church growth (retained as opposed to Baptized) is that the number of temples built in the 80’s & 90’s is when the temples should have been announced. The church isn’t going away, the explosive growth experienced 10 – 20 years ago has slowed, nothing more. Building temples worldwide is an obvious decision, how likely would one be to remain an active member if they had virtual no means of ever going to the temple to attain endowements & progess?

    If a temple wasn’t built in some areas where people couldn’t travel (flying from Ghana to Switzerland or the US isn’t cheap folks! Forget tithing on a small income, affording plane tickets would be prohibitive), the church growth would certainly suffer. Imagine having been baptized, promised you could attain celestial glory, and then, not be able to achieve that glory because the nearest temple was an ocean away?

    With the LDS statistics, as a big fan of stats, I am very dissapppointed. They show the growth statistics, they show the baptisms, the number of temples, the children of record… does no one die in the church? Does no one resign? I’ve heard the stories that in Salt Lake the records office has a goodly number of resignations to process. Maybe I’m wrong, but, why does not 1 single person get removed off of the numbers? They are being massaged, I don’t think that can be disputed. They are not lying, not incorrect numbers, just “growth” numbers, not active numbers. How would people enjoy seeing at April conference that the active numbers were more along the 4 – 5 million mark?

  35. cj douglass says:

    You make a good point as it applies to places like Finland and Nigeria though I’m not sure how it works with places like the Phillipines or Sao Palo. There has been, in fact, many more than a few members in most parts of South America for more than two generations and certainly the Phillipines was burstng well before President Hinckley became president. Ofcourse we are growing every year and we will keep growng but for 3/4 of the temples in the last decade we were playing catch up.

  36. Jonathan Green says:

    This passage from the article troubles me:

    “…Finally, Brazil lost 3 stakes and a total of 190 congregations (88 wards and 102 branches) through consolidation between 2000 and 2002, yet added almost 66,000 new members–going from 743,182 to 808,940. The only explanation for the countervailing pattern of stake consolidation and membership growth in these nations is that rates of convert retention in Latin America are extraordinarily low.”

    The only explanation? I have no doubt that low retention is part of the explanation, but there are at least two other factors that need to be considered. First, has the average unit size changed? In some times and places, the church has decided to aim for larger wards with more complete programs. Related to this is the second consideration: roads and transportation. Where rural farming gives way to better roads and transportation, it’s not necessary to maintain small units within a short distance of most members. I know of similar consolidations in the rural Mormon corridor in the 1980’s, where better transportation made longer travel to church and larger units possible. I have no idea if either factor is at play in Brazil, but you’d have to take a closer look before declaring that low retention is the only explanation.

  37. Preston Bissell says:

    This is a very interesting discussion on a topic that is very interesting to me, for some particular reason. I’ve been examining this topic of religious trends for a number of years. (Although,purely as a matter of interest, not academic research.) Mormonism in particular is of interest because the LDS church keeps such voluminous statistics and has, by all accounts, one of THE most efficient methods of keeping track of its membership.
    But, I find it interesting that one persistently sees comments about “one of the fastest growing religions” in the popular press, and many Mormons apparently believe this. Given that most Christian religions aren’t growing much at all in the US, there is a certain amount of credibility to *any* church that claims to be “one of the fastest growing.” It’s a little like claiming to be the “one of the best dressed people in Mali.”
    What I find interesting is not the LDS claims to growth, but what they do NOT report:
    1. Number of people who resign/year;
    2. Number of people who die/year;
    3. Number of MP ordinations/year;
    4. Number of living endowments/year.

    The first two figures would give us a better idea of how fast the LDS church is *actually* growing, and the latter two would be indicative of “activity” rates (retention) in the LDS church.
    What we do know for *certain* is that in every single country that includes a question on religious identification on their official census, the number of people who self-report as Mormons is far below the number reported by the church. We also know that creation of wards, stakes, and branches does not match the number of convert baptisms.
    The building of temples has been cited as an indication of growth. I note that Finland was cited. According to (the single best source of LDS membership data I know of), LDS membership in Finland grew from 3380 in 1976 to 4496 in 2004. (Those are the *official* numbers.)
    Between 1990 and 2004 the number of units grew from 29 to 32. IOW, the LDS church continues to be a very minor presence in that country, with no indication of significant growth.
    My personal interpretation of LDS growth figures is pretty close to those of the author whose article began this thread. Mormonism continues to be a predominantly North American phenomenon, with “tendrils” reaching out into other countries, and most of the growth continues to be in the “Mormon Corridor.”

  38. jim huston says:

    A couple of things.

    Baseball baptisms:
    This came directly from the top and was done in the ’60s. The idea was to get youth who would grow up to be leaders. Baseball and soccer leagues were formed by the missionaries. To participate there was an “initiation” (baptism). I ran into baseball baptisms when I was in South America in the late ’70s.

    Using the statistics reported by the Mormon Church –
    Take the beginning number and add the baptisms, then subtract the ending number. The difference should represent the deaths, resignations and excommunications. The difference is actually less than the expected death rate for a population of that size. There are reports from unofficial sources that the number of resignations is 100,000 per year. Apparently you can check out, but never leave. If you check the numbers from prior years, you find the same problem. It is evident that they are systematically mis-reporting the numbers.

    One other little boost came several years ago. One year, when numbers were much lower than expected, they made the decision to start counting “children of record.” This means they started counting children of members at birth rather than at baptism. This gave them a significant one time boost.

  39. #27 Jacobus

    Interestingly, such an approach will not necessarily reduce our numbers, it could even increaase them. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are growing much more rapidly than the LDS in real terms even though their standards for baptism are much stricter, including putting in months of time proselyting — as well as giving up smoking! People value that which is hard to obtain. We should not be surprised that new converts go inactive when we haven’t asked them to be “active” as a condition of baptism, and usually haven’t even taught them what it is to be active.

    I agree with that. If it’s harder then it is also more meaningful and rewarding.

    We should also ask ourselves what kind of activity is relevant to people’s life. If we can answer that question then we will have no trouble keeping a lot of people active.

  40. As may of you know, I experienced “Baseball Baptisms” on my mission in the form of “Soccer Baptisms.”

    My story can be read here.

    Or listened to here.

    There is also an excellent audio presentation about Baseball baptisms here.

    In addition, I have received at least 20 emails from people listening to my podcast expressing the same types of experiences on their missions.

    I’m not saying it’s the norm…but it’s definitely common, and definitely a significant factor in our poor retention rates. In fact, I’ve never come across a mission that didn’t have it (either presently, or in its history).

  41. P.S. Another important data point for this conversation is that Elder Holland closed down over 30 stakes in Chile alone during his 3 years there. I don’t know how they made up for the overall stake numbers, but closing 30 stakes in a 3 year period in a single country should have been HUGE news…but few even know about it.

    I have it on very good sources (former MTC president in Chile) that Chile had more than its share of soccer/beach party/grave stone baptisms as well.

    Kudos to the church for working to solve the problem. My concern is that it doesn’t do something to kill the problem–but instead, makes temporary strides (like in the mid-60s), only to have it reoccur again and again over time.

    I think the reason we don’t fix the problem is because we’re still in love with statistical growth, and can’t quite cope with letting that dream die.

  42. Al Christensen says:

    The church’s own published numbers don’t add up. If you go through the annual statistical reports (available online in each May’s Ensign) and do the arithmetic, you come away scratching your head.

    There are only two ways to add members: convert baptisms and baptisms of 8-year-olds. Year-to-year membership increase can’t be greater than the sum of those two. When you subtract deaths, excommunications and resignations, the net should be less. But the year-to-year increases reported have little relation to the other numbers.

    For example, in 1989 the church reported 318,940 convert baptisms and 75,000 baptized 8-year-olds, for a total of 393,940 new members. But the total membership increase reported was 580,000. That’s the worst case so far, but most years the church reported more new members than the sum of converts and 8-year-olds — when it should be slightly less. The exceptions were 1979, ‘92 and ‘97. (The last time I plotted the numbers was 2003, so there might have been another instance.)

    Complicating the quest to make sense of the church’s numbers is their habit of changing what they report. Up until 1982 they reported numbers for Children Blessed and 8-Year-Olds Baptized. Then they changed Children Blessed to Children of Record. In 1989, they dropped Children of Record — until 1997, at which time they stopped reporting the number of 8-year-olds Baptized. Why? Perhaps to mask the fact new children of record each year has dropped almost in half while total membership has tripled? Or to mask the widening gap between children blessed and children baptized eight years later? Who knows.

    So, if these totals are goofy, why should one trust any of the other numbers? How many Latter-day Saints are there, really?

  43. Preston Bissell says:

    Hellmut #41

    We should also ask ourselves what kind of activity is relevant to people’s life. If we can answer that question then we will have no trouble keeping a lot of people active.

    I ask:

    Interesting. Is it possible that the sort of activities which kept a lot of us “active” 25-40 years are no longer “relevant” for a lot of people today? Or, have the activities themselves changed?

  44. Al Christensen says:

    Preston, it’s more than whether the activities are relevant. It’s whether LDS culture is relevant in a broader world. Rather than adapt Mormon life to local cultures, like other successful religions do, the LDS church tries to export and impose middle-class, American, suit-and-tie-wearing, meeting-holding, org-chart-revering, stat-reporting, Utah Mormon culture on the world.

    I don’t remember who said it, but one of the GAs said in general conference that members should shed any cultural attachments that keep them from being proper members of the church. I don’t think it’s a matter of local customs and attitudes being out of harmony with the gospel—they’re just out of harmony with the one-size-fits all mentality of the institution.

    So all over the world, people who thought they were signing on to clean up their lives and worship Jesus discover there’s a whole other layer of stuff that comes with it—stuff no one told them about, stuff that doesn’t interest them and only gets in the way of the Jesus part.

  45. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 45 Would be interesting to know what happens to this large percentage of global converts who drift away. Do they mostly become Evangelicals or Pentacostals, for example? Has anybody looked at what actually happens to all these people?

  46. Left Field says:

    Actually, there are three ways to add members. Former members who have been excommunicated or who have resigned are not counted as converts when they are rebaptized (CHI p. 253; Preach my Gospel p. 207). So for each year, we would have to also add an unknown number of former members readmitted.

    For some years, readmissions could account for the apparent occasional discrepancies. It’s anybody’s guess how many readmissions there were in 1989, but clearly the number was >0. On the other hand, there would need to have been over 200,000 readmitted members that year to balance the (unknown number of) deaths, resignations, and excommunications. That seems unlikely, so how do explain the remaining discrepancy?

    An explanation favored by many is that the church just added a couple hundred thousand to the numbers because they thought 1989 would be a good year to artificially inflate the membership. I suppose that’s possible, but if I were going to fudge the numbers, I’d probably spread it out over several years so nobody would notice. I guess a second explanation would be that there was simply an error in the reported numbers.

    However, given that the 1989 numbers stand as an anomaly compared to other years, a better explanation would be that there was a change that year in how the numbers are reported and counted. How long are children retained on the records if they are not baptized? When is a person presumed dead when no death has been reported? A simple change in policy could move thousands of people on or off the records. Has anyone ever thought to call the membership department and ask?

  47. Re a temple in Finland –

    I have it on pretty good authority (good enough to satisfy my own queries) that the temple is in Helsinki because it was easier to build it there than in Russia (plus, it’s easier for Russians to go visit Helsinki than it is for the reverse).

    Yes, Virginia, the inspiration surrounding temple placement is influenced by practical matters.

  48. So, if these totals are goofy, why should one trust any of the other numbers? How many Latter-day Saints are there, really?

    What no one has bothered to mention is why this has any real practical application to one’s personal salvation. Let them count them how they may (although, I think Mark B’s comment is the most reasonable explanation of why it is); it doesn’t impact you and your testimony, right?

  49. Al: Because being a bean counter is different than being a prophet.

  50. Preston #44:

    Interesting. Is it possible that the sort of activities which kept a lot of us “active” 25-40 years are no longer “relevant” for a lot of people today? Or, have the activities themselves changed?

    That’s a great thought. Somebody should start a new thread about what it would take to enliven Mormon social live at the ward and stake level.

    There are circumstances that have changed. For instance Americans are working much longer hours, which is a challenge to an organization that relies on lay personnel.

    More generally, this question probably requires a variety of different answers depending on local conditions. It’s not reasonable to assume that the same program will work in Mexico and in Poland.

    Moreover, members of each ward and branch master different talents. We are not doing enough to capture the opportunities that present themselves.

    Actually, it’s more precise to say that as an organization we are doing almost nothing to take advantage of local opportunities.

  51. #45 Al

    I don’t remember who said it, but one of the GAs said in general conference that members should shed any cultural attachments that keep them from being proper members of the church. I don’t think it’s a matter of local customs and attitudes being out of harmony with the gospel—they’re just out of harmony with the one-size-fits all mentality of the institution.

    I remember that talk. A couple of years earlier Chieko Okazaki’s gave a talk about culture and diversity that was more thoughtful. You might remember that she had brought a fruit basket to the podium to show what is appropriate in Hawaii.

    To be sure, every culture has elements that are not compatible with the gospel. The problem is that people rarely include Utah culture, which is also a source of adulteration.

  52. A general comment in response to Ardis and others: never draw conclusions about members or active members from numbers of church units. There are Latin American wards with 10 or fewer active members, and stakes with 30 or fewer. When such units divide — due to huge totals of nominal members — the number of stakes goes up but the number of real, on-the-ground members does not. With respect to temples, the expanded number in the third world is surely good, as it does provide access to the temple for people who have otherwise been prohibited in practice from full participation in the church. However, many such temples work restricted schedules or are running at a fraction of capacity. We just can’t generalize from such things as numbers of buildings to actual numbers of active members.

    Nor can we generalize from General Authority travel patterns. David O. McKay spent a great deal of time travelling through the world, even though the church presense outside the Mormon corridor at that time was a small fraction of what it is today.

  53. queno and Blake —

    Perhaps neither of you served missions outside of the US, but this is an important issue that impacts on personal salvation on the local level. Numerous local Church units with small numbers of active members have huge numbers of members of record who were poorly taught, baptized too quickly (because the missionairies control the interview process and for generations have been incentivized to get baptismal numbers above all else), dumped on local units with little or no transistional explanations about the requirements of Church activity, and not surprisingly quickly went inactive. This process continues year after year. The active members would each have to home teach and visit teach tens and tens of families and individuals every month to comply with Church goals for these minimal functions. And what do the high Church leaders do? For a long time they simply ignored the problem. Now that they can not ignore it anymore the high Church leaders’ solution is to continuously BERATE the poor few local active Church leaders to reactivate all of these people, as if the local leaders had never cared about all those local inactive people before. And in the end the problems are all the result of policies and programs estabished by the very high Church leaders who now blame the beleageured local leaders for not retaining new members. All of this is not only morally debilitating to those few heroic local active members but also sacrifices on the altar of statistical growth the real growth that might be obtained by taking the baptismal convenant seriously and requiring that potential converts demonstrate at least a couple of months of “activity” and Word of Wisdom compliance before being interviewed by the local priesthood leader with whom they will serve after they enter the Church. Rather than take these two simple policy steps the high Church leaders can not accept the personal loss of face that they feel they would suffer if they acknowledged that maybe THEY had anything to do with this huge retention problem or that the Church had not grown the way they would like to pretend it had while they led it. This is what the games with the membership statistics are about. I will sustain those men but I will not pretend that all of their decisions are infallible or that “all is well in Zion” precisely because I take it as a responsibility of MY personal salvation to care for what happens to my fellow Saints who are improperly taught the Gospel or overwhelmed by the numbers-obsessed proselyting programs established and controlled by the high Church leaders who appear to be manipulating the numbers to cover up their own stewardship failures.

  54. MikeInWeHo says:

    When the LDS in the hinterlands start to chafe against central control and speak out against it, when SLC starts to struggle to maintain control over a vast membership (a la Rome)….then any skeptics here should know that theirs is now a truly global faith.

    Until then: Not to be in any way disrespectful, but has anybody here besides me noticed that the contemporary, correlated Church seems to be run an awful lot like an American corporation? It’s like the McChurch of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I remember a home teacher back in Ann Arbor ages ago telling me he believed the Church is in “corporate mode” for this dispensation. Kinda think he’s right.

  55. D. Fletcher says:

    Is there any better way to organize millions of members than something akin to a corporate hierarchy?

    One of the things I think the Church does well is make every member in every podunk ward know they’re part of the real Church, not some fly-by-night offshoot.

    It takes a corporation to organize this.

  56. I thought it took the Holy Ghost, D.
    And yes, there are other organizational models out there. I’m sure some co-bloggers here could detail them better than me.

    (HI, btw!)

  57. Al Christensen says:

    D. Fletcher asked, “Is there any better way to organize millions of members than something akin to a corporate hierarchy?”

    Well, there’s the Joseph Smith model whereby you teach correct principles and let them govern themselves. In other words, let the general authorities concentrate on the “what” (doctrine) and let the local units deal with the “how.” That way you can be a member of “The Church” by being a member of the personalized, flexible, semi-autonomous “My Church” where the leaders at the top pop in to ask if there’s anything they can do to help, instead of issuing directives. Remember, it’s the doctrines and ordinances that save and exalt, not the policies and procedures.

  58. It takes a corporation to organize this.

    Yes but some corporations are better than others. It seems like Pentecostals and Seven-Day Adventists are doing a better job of adapting to conditions abroad.

    Is it really necessary to market the LDS Church with Utah kitsch in France?
    Why should Poles sing Methodist hymns?
    And does Jesus have to look like a Viking in the Phillippines?
    Where did Jesus say that Quetzuan women cannot breastfeed their children in sacrament meeting?

    More seriously, the Utah way of doing things is not all that relevant to people in many parts of the world. If church life is not relevant then one can hardly expect folks to stick around.

  59. Rosalynde says:

    With respect, I think comments to the effect of “The Church has become obsessed with numbers and corporate hierarchy” betray a real misunderstanding of our history. Our hierarchical-bureaucratic structure was encoded in the very architecture of the Kirtland temple; names of members were meticulously recorded in Nauvoo. Perhaps we are corporate and records minded, but we are not newly so.

  60. Preston Bissell says:

    I have noted two different trends in church organization that seem to be catching on:
    1. Large “mega-churches”, with multiple programs so that their members can pick and choose among those programs in which they wish to participate;
    2. Small, home-based non-denominational churches in which the “members” (if they can be called that) pick and choose the *people* with whom they wish to worship.
    Mormonism is not adapting to either one of these trends. It continues to be a “one-size-fits-all” type of religion, following the corporate model imposed from SLC. So, to put it in corporate terms, it automatically excludes itself from a significant “market share” of potential members.
    IOW, the world is changing, but things remain pretty much the same under the way Mormonism deals with religious expression.

  61. Jerry B Re: # 52: A prophet is someone who holds keys of the kingdom who recieves revelation for the Church if God has any to give. God is not obligated to give such revelations; but the prophet is obligated to be open to it. It is simple nonsense to expect a prophet to be omniscient, someone who knows the future, someone who solves all the worlds problems as you assume. If that is your idea of a prophet, there never has been and never will be one — but no one ought to think that such a view is anything more than childishness. Was that clear enough?

    queno re: #56: I served in Italy and still attend in Italy not infrequently. I acknowledge the problem of inactive members but fail to see that it has anything at all to do with bean counters getting the numbers wrong — if indeed they do. The solution is simple charity rather than hiring better accountants.

    Preston re: 63: Have you attended a branch in Tagenrog Russia lately? The numbers are small — and there is no one size for all.

  62. I love the tone of some of these posts- (whiny, frightened voice)”Oh yeah? if we can’t trust them about the membership numbers, then why should we trust them on anything, man? (begin hyperventilation) It’s all true or it isn’t, right man?”
    I understand this problem intimately, having served in South America. What a disaster. We went through the membership rolls and a huge number of members had as their address the local chapel. They were people who were basically pulled off the street and dunked, and worse, some missionaries used to fill out baptismal forms with names from gravestones, just to meet their quota numbers.
    That said, those of you who are whining about the organizational structure of the Church being imposed upon these poor hapless converts throughout the world- keep in mind that the organization of the Church works remarkably well, even in the area of retention, when mission and local leadership follow the system and principles the Brethren are teaching.
    Rather than whine and rant about these problems, I think it would be more productive for us to pray for our leadership to have the wisdom to sort out these problems. And then, it would benefit us to work hard wherever we are to befriend new converts and be sensitive to their differing capacities to take in the program of the Church.

  63. Amen, Dan!

  64. Jerry Boam,
    To expand on what Blake said-
    Are your questions about President Hinckley’s prophethood rhetorical, or have you really not settled that question in your own mind at this point? If the latter, then this may not be the place for you- most of us come to LDS websites with the understanding that the basic positions of the Church are true, so how do we make sense of various incongruities we see from time to time?
    If you are coming from the position that the Church is fundamentally not what it claims to be, then you already have all the answers to these various questions, and your time is spent much more productively in other places on the Internet.
    If you have not answered the question of authority and inspiration in the leadership of the Church, then your time is most productively spent seeking answers to those questions before you move on to the kinds of questions you will see on this and other LDS sites.
    I’m not trying to ostracize you and any others who question some fundamental doctrines of the Church; I’m just saying that you can waste a huge amount of time commenting on this site and derive nothing positive from it if you are not approaching these questions in harmony with the constructive, positive purpose of the site.

  65. Preston Bissell says:

    Blake #64 asks if I have attended a branch in Tagengrog, Russia lately.

    I can’t say that I have. I don’t get out that way very often nowadays.
    However, apparently you missed my point. Whether a Mormon lives in Tagenrog, Russia, or Provo, Utah, they don’t have many choices as to where/when they will attend church, or what programs will or will not be available to them.
    In a city in which there is more than one LDS ward, one is expected to attend the ward in which he/she lives, at the time that ward meets. If one is an adult, not involved with other callings, he/she is expected to attend the Gospel Doctrine class at the appointed hour.
    I’m not certain what the point was about Tagenrog, Russia, but I expect that the branch in that city meets in a place selected by local or mission authorities, and uses the *same* instructional materials that are used every other place in Russia, and probably in the rest of the world as well. It’s called “Correlation.”
    My point is that many other churches (including the Catholic Church, fwiw) give people choices about where and when they will attend church, what they will study/discuss, what activities they will engage in, and frequently who their leaders will be. The religious marketplace presents a lot of options, and many churches are responding to this by providing options of their own. The LDS church *does* engage in a “one-size-fits-all” practice when it comes time, place, and method of worship.
    This worked quite well for a long time, but it might not be working as well in today’s world when it comes to attracting and retaining converts. It might not even be working as well as it once did when it comes to retaining those who were BIC.
    To get back to the article which began this discussion: The evidence (as I have seen it) tends to support the author’s conclusion. Now, whether or not the fact that the Mormon church is no longer growing as rapidly as it once did, and the fact that its *actual* membership is nowhere near 12 million people are important is another question.

  66. Mark Butler says:

    This scripture seems relevant:

    And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.

    Now why dost thou cry out aloud? is there no king in thee? is thy counsellor perished? for pangs have taken thee as a woman in travail.

    Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail: for now shalt thou go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field, and thou shalt go even to Babylon; there shalt thou be delivered; there the LORD shall redeem thee from the hand of thine enemies.
    (Micah 4:8-10)

  67. Thomas Parkin says:

    I always just recall Pres Benson’s comment to this effect: unless our testimonies go deep into the doctrines taught in the Book of Mormon, in the heat of the day they will wither and die. I would say that if your testimony is based on the idea that the church isn’t true unless it marches on unimpaired or threatened, brushing aside effortlessly every fiery dart, perfectly bright without spot, never offended or giving offence, never in the least in the wrong, filling the world as if by magic, you’re going to not be a member of the church any longer than you come to see the church as it is.

    One of the things we see happen in the Book of Mormon is that the church isn’t always going from one victory to another, but for various reasons, at various times, ‘fails in its progress.’ I have no idea how long this world is going to last, but it may be that it is going to last some time yet. And that we may see the church wax and wane more than once.

    In the meantime, I hear at conference that the church is growing in “dynamic ways.” Since this is expressed at the same time disappointment is being expressed in numerical growth of the church – at least in North America, I take it the growth is I personally observe emormous, in fact miraculous, spiritual growth in many members, and in the broader church. I constantly hear things being discussed with a candor, humility and understanding that was rare in the church I grew up in. I beleive we, collectively, have a deeper understanding of Christ’s personality and mission than ever before. Things are discussed at conference in ways I’d have thrilled to hear before I left the church … that’s now 16 years past. I think that at some point this reaches a critical mass, that members, including myself, finally begin living deeply Christian lives, and that we attract many people out of a desolate world – but it could be otherwise without it really mattering to what my responsibility is.


  68. Dear Readers,

    You may note that some of the comments refer to other comments that no longer exist, or half-conversations. That is because I’ve deleted some of the more virulent strains of antimormonism on this thread. BCC is not another DAMU or Foyer or exmo board. Thanks for your understanding.

  69. Preston: I think you’re right; if the goal is simply to reatin converts then letting them have it there way (like the old Burger King slogan says) is the way to go. However, the goal is to assist us to become “saints” by rubbing elbows with even those we wouldn’t normally associate with. If the goal is “smorgasboard Christianity” then your suggestions make sense. Frankly, I don’t think Jesus was into the whole “have it your way” culture.

  70. Jonathan Green says:

    Thanks, Steve. It’s hard to discuss an issue rationally when you feel like you’re only feeding someone else’s Schadenfreude.

  71. as to numbers. I agree that they are too big a focus. I do however have a question as to peoples concerns over hasty baptisms and inactivity.

    if a person accepts the gospel and wants to make a covenant and then they fall away is that worse than not baptizing them. I guess I’m hung up on why some think that we must put people through hoops. I agree we shouldn’t coerce, manipulate, or anything like unto it. but if someone wants to dedicate their lives to christ via baptism, great. maybe they don’t like the church in practice, maybe its a let down, but at least they had that ordinance. I figure give it out freely to all who want it. obviouslly we want people to stay, receive higher ordinances, etc. but isn’t something better than nothing. I imagine retention has always been a problem. even with the first apostles and missionaries

  72. Dan #63, I’d love to agree with you, I really would. Only it turns out, if we look a little bit closer, that most of the problems you describe as a “disaster” in South America were direct implementations of programs designed and approved by the leadership of the church. The quotas, rapid baptisms without teaching or before-hand conversion, baptisms of children without parents, and so forth were programs explicitly developed by Henry D. Moyle during the time when he was in charge of the missionary program. For more details on this, see the biography of Moyle by Richard D. Poll, Working the Divine Miracle; see also D. Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power.

    Support for such programs by church leadership is not a one-time phenomenon. The conclusion to Quinn’s Sunstone article on this topic documents some more recent instances of this, and many missionaries have their own stories. The underlying rationale behind all of these projects seems to be to baptize people quickly so that they’ll have the Spirit; conversion after baptism will be easier than it would have been beforehand.

    I find this perspective troubling. When people are baptised, they join the community to which we’ve covenanted to provide special spiritual and temporal care. Hence, the mass defections that follow from the baptize-then-convert process become a collective failure to keep our covenants. Furthermore, the mere fact of mass defection after baptism seems to disprove the hypothesis that conversion is easier or more likely after baptism than it is beforehand. Finally, the quota system, especially when coupled — as in many missions — with rewards for numerical success, creates systematic incentives for baptisms without conversions or even baptisms of the deceased or the imaginary. Nonetheless, others disagree; all of these programs and incentives are created and maintained by deliberate action, after all.

  73. John Taber says:

    A general comment in response to Ardis and others: never draw conclusions about members or active members from numbers of church units. There are Latin American wards with 10 or fewer active members, and stakes with 30 or fewer.

    But not too many. Besides minimum numbers of total members, wards and stakes have to have a minimum number (and in the wards, a percentage) of active, full-tithe-paying, Melchizedek Priesthood holders.

  74. Jonathan Green says:

    JNS, you’re trying to turn intermittent, past and localized problems into the current norm for missionary work everywhere in the church. I don’t deny that too-quick conversions happened, even repeatedly, because the pressure to baptize that has always existed and will always exist–internally, even without any additional extrinsic pressure–can result in problems at any time and place if not kept in check. But it should be clear that general authorities have been aware of the problem and attempting to deal with it for years, probably more like decades. How many gravestone baptisms do you think are possible with the requirement, in place for a long time now, to conduct the confirmation in sacrament meeting? How long has it been since Gordon B. Hinckley first made retention an important issue in conference addresses? I don’t see what part of Dan’s comment there is to disagree with.

  75. HI all,

    Relevant topic.

    In 1993 I was sent to the South Africa Cape Town mission. There was a new native mission president who started about 3 months before I arrived.

    Before this mission president started there were lots of the issues that have been mentioned in the thread above. The new native president stopped all the nonsense. Branches were shut down etc Baptisms went from 50 to 5 a month almost immediatly. New rules regarding 4-6 weeks church attendance prior to baptism among other things went into place. We had very very high retention because we actually made sure that people were converted prior to baptism. By the time I left baptisms were around 15 a month with 90% retention. Since I left in 1995 2 new stakes have been organized and baptisms are approaching 100 monthly. (my brother in law recently returned from the same mission)

    It seems that this mission president had the right ideas and instituted a change that was lasting. From what I have been told he was under tremendous pressure to increase the bap numbers but resisted and took a long term approach to real church growth.

    I think we are undergoing a church wide “correction” like what happened in my mission in the 1990’s

    Locally here in TX we have been having some good success with retention. In fact there is a intact middle class family joining getting baptized in the ward next door that has been taught the right way. 3 months attending church, Anti-lit exposure, Missionaries transferred out, callings pre-baptism.

  76. I’m not sure that massive inactivity is something the Lord has never had to deal with before. And I’m pretty sure that he saw this coming. It’s not like he hasn’t seen ALL of His people go through these same issues. How long did it take for the Nephites to apostatize after massive increases of baptisms after Christ’s birth? A few years, max? The numbers don’t reflect the true nature of church growth. The gross baptism numbers don’t reflect ward maturity (which takes time, and mature wards retain better then immature wards). The members are always going to be in flux, it’s always going to be hard to retain anybody, and the apostasy rate will, for a while, exceed the active baptisms rate. That’s just what happens in a true religion. If it was easy to be in the Church, and Satan really didn’t care if you were a member, then we’d be about equal numbers-wise with everyone else.

    I do wonder how many inactive people are really inactive precisely because they weren’t taught correctly. Everyone that I’ve seen go inactive in the past 5 years has just stopped being obedient. Most had the choice and chose to knowingly go off the deep end and give in. That was as true in Colombia as it is in any place I’ve been. So I think blaming the big international inactivity rates on bad programming or lousy missionaries is somewhat unfair. I think it has much more to do with the relative newness of the church and the time it takes for the gospel to really be established anywhere.

  77. Kevin Barney says:

    In your example, bbell, the problem I have is with the intense pressure from above to increase the baptism numbers. That MP had the backbone to resist the pressure, but many do not. (We are not acculturated in this church to stand up to GAs.)

    I remember that my second MP tried hard to remedy number-related excesses that occurred under my first MP. Naturally, the baptism numbers went down as a result. In my view this was a short term necessity for longer term stability. But a GA, a member of the Twelve (who is now deceased and whom I otherwise have tremendous respect for, so I will not mention his name) absolutely reamed MP #2 publicly in a stake conference for the lower numbers. Totally tore him a new one. How many men in the Church have the stones to stand up to that kind of pressure? I suspect they are rare.

    The Church is still measuring mission success by raw baptism statistics and way over-relying on that one, very misleading, statistic. This is absolutely a top-down problem, and until the Church fixes this at the highest levels it will continue to reap what it sows.

  78. Preston Bissell says:

    A good friend of mine, who served a mission in Finland back in the 60s, complained to me in a letter at that time that the leadership of his mission persisted in imposing “generic solutions for specific problems.” This is what I was referring to when I referred to the “one-size-fits-all” mentality. I think that mentality is the dominant paradigm in LDS leadership, at all levels.
    Perhaps, given the size of the LDS church (no matter how one chooses to measure it), that is inevitable.
    However, I believe that there is a different and individual reason behind each and every one of the disengaged/disaffiliated former members’ decisions to leave the church. Unfortunately, as has been indicated by some people commenting on this thread, the reason(s) why people leave the church has been reduced to two overly-simplistic themes:
    1. He/she was “offended.” (Re: Elder Bednar’s talk in the most recent GC.)
    2. He/she couldn’t “keep the commandments.” (Re: DMike #77.)
    If you allow yourself to consider that there *might* be more to it than that, and consider that there *might* be other reasons why people disengage/disaffiliate, then it *might* be possible to actively engage with those people. However, there is a caveat: Not all problems have acceptable solutions.

  79. Kevin #78, Amen.

  80. I haven’t read all comments, but wanted to say that the idea that most retained members are from children is a little disengenuous. Being a Convert Myself, and knowing many converts, I’d say that converts do have a challenge with retention, but it is not as astronomical as portrayed here. Not all lasting Church growth is children. That is false. We had stake conference this week, and I was pleased to hear the convert baptism stories of over 50% of the Bishops who spoke.

  81. Kevin,

    I think they are aware that is needs to change and that IT IS changing.

    I recently had a 45 Minute conversation about retention with 4 elders returning home from Chile in the Dallas Airport about retention. They told me that there was a GA? Holland? who had been in Chile and put a stop to all the nonsense with baptisms.

    I mentioned that I had a friend who had literally baptized a couple of hundred people in Chile in the 1990’s. They all laughed and said that they were all probably inactive and that they had personally spent lots of time chasing down the inactives from this period. They all said that baps were way down but retention was way up in Chile.

    I think we are undergoing a serious and needed course correction regarding this issue.

  82. Ronan, I was interested to read this post both because the content is interesting and because (on a personal level) a bit of investigation revealed the article you referenced to be written by someone I grew up with (same ward, school) whom I haven’t seen in years.

    I generally concur that pressure for baptisms is (or at least has been until very recently) both systemic and strong and may have much to do with poor retention numbers, but I do wonder if this isn’t an example of a theory that explains too much. In other words, pressure for conversions is presumably similarly strong throughout the church (even if particular excesses like baseball baptisms didn’t necessarily occur everywhere), so a complete theory should be able to explain why conversion and retention rates differ so much from place to place.

    Al (#43), a specific point on the flow numbers (new baptisms plus rebaptisms minus deaths minus excommunications, in a given year) not seeming to add up to the change in stock (of baptized members) from my perspective as an employee of a government statistical agency. One other possibility might euphemistically be lumped under the terms “statistical discrepency” or “other adjustments.” Specifically, if someone was baptized in 1950, but information on that baptism was somehow was not discovered by the church’s recordkeeping system until 2005, then it well could be that this 1950 baptism does not appear in the 2005 baptismal statistics, but that it does implicitly become part of the data on change in membership from 2005 to 2006. (I don’t intend to assert here that this must be the reason for any or all of the apparent disconnect in the church’s reported numbers, only that it is a possibility.)

  83. Dan Y., I disagree with your assumption that the pressure for conversions is constant throughout the church. Expectations differ for complex reasons, but a missionary who serves in Germany, for example, and goes through her whole mission with no baptisms won’t face even a small percentage of the pressure that a missionary in Chile would face. Some areas are “known” to be full of golden investigators, and in such areas the pressure for converts is much higher than in areas that are “known” to be dead.

  84. I should also add that the Philippines, where I served my mission, has an activity rate of about 10 to 20%, I believe. This is in part due to problem missionaries and in part due to the transient culture. Anyway, the point is the 10%-20% who are active are 95% converts. This is in line with the children of members not being the major area of groeth. Granted, the 80-90% not active are also converts.

    Retention is a major problem in the church, and I think that one major issue is getting converts over the hurdle of moving from the LDS Faith being a sunday activity to being a way of life. The only way to do this is by inviting new members into our lives. I don’t think I would have made the transition otherwise.

    I know one of my main problems is I am always thinking that I’m not the one to do it for that certain new member, or whatever. If I’m not the one, who is going to be the one? Sometimes, we as members are just like President Hinckley has called us out to be, Stagnant in our Faith.

    So, enoguh of that rant, sign me up to be a ward retentionary.

  85. I don’t know what this adds, but having served in a mission where annual converts never reached triple figures, I can say that even then, our retention wasn’t brilliant.

  86. Also, the article isn’t about retention of converts per se, it’s about the reporting of accurate membership numbers.

  87. I agree with JNS. I felt very little pressure to baptize for baptisms sake in South Africa. Instead the pressure was to find and retain families that would make and keep commitments and not make mistakes in the process. My friends in South America wre under tremndous pressure for baptisms.

  88. But a GA, a member of the Twelve (who is now deceased and whom I otherwise have tremendous respect for, so I will not mention his name) absolutely reamed MP #2 publicly in a stake conference for the lower numbers. Totally tore him a new one. How many men in the Church have the stones to stand up to that kind of pressure? I suspect they are rare.

    Kevin, did you serve in Australia? My second MP was also rebuked in a meeting for changes he had made to try and imporve retention.

  89. Eugene V. Debs says:

    A relative of mine who was a corporate executive and then became a mission president in a high-numbers, low-retention part of the world, often said that missions proved that if your sales people were not responsible for customer service, there would be big problems…

  90. JNS & bbell,

    Perhaps I oversold my case. I agree that pressures on individual missionaries and MPs differ, largely depending on the historical performance of the areas in which they serve. I served in Thailand, a very low baptism area, and felt little pressure myself. (On the other hand, how much more excited would a missionary in such an area get when he/she thought a baptism was within reach than would a missionary in a high baptizing area?)

    I would suggest, however, that the current lack of pressure in such areas is a function of historical results, and that if these areas showed any hint of promise the pressure would be, or would have been, there. Thus, the question is not why the pressure varies so much, but why the results vary so much.

  91. Kevin Barney says:

    No, jjohnsen, I served in Colorado.

  92. Dan Y., without better data, your hypothesis that results vary a great deal is hard to test. It’s relatively clear, from looking at the original post, that high conversion rates are associated with large discrepancies between official and self-reported membership counts. This suggests the possibility that retention of new converts is low — perhaps even uniformly low — everywhere. The higher rates of correspondence between official and self-reported membership in some contexts could well be a function of the church’s composition in those places; in countries where almost all members are multi-generation Mormons, there might be higher correspondence because the church does a better job retaining born-in-the-covenant types — not because converts are retained at a higher rate in some places as compared with others.

  93. Dan #90,

    I don’t know why the results vary so much internationally. There are a couple of plausible hypotheses.

    a) The willingness of an individual to convert to another religion indicates instability. There are many things that cause instability.

    One can probably group causes of instability into personal and societal reasons. Personal reason may include: A family might have moved. You might suffer from a disease. One might have been divorced.

    Societal reasons may include: endemic poverty, urbanization and other manifestations of modernization, political instability.

    Keeping a convert active means to replace instability with stability. That’ll always be a challenge. It’ll be easier though, if there are personal rather than societal causes. Therefore, it will be easier to stabilize a convert in the context of a stable society where people make a living wage and enjoy a reasonable quality of life.

    b) There are limits to the capacity of a group to absorb new members. Therefore, more converts will remain active in countries where there are fewer baptisms.

    For example, if a branch has the capacity to fellowship four converts of which half will remain active then one third of the six German converts will be active but only 1.5% of the 200 Argentinian converts (these numbers are not stats, just for illustration).

    To be sure, one can increase capacity. That requires nimble management and investment, such as the hiring of community organizers.

    The latter is essentially what Pentecostals do. Whenever they generate demand for one more congregation, another minister gets paid. The minister has to keep folks active because otherwise he won’t eat.

    To me, the Pentecostal approach is problematic. There is too much pandering such as get rich with God. Nonetheless, it raises interesting questions

    Why are some of our competitors more successful internationally. They have to deal with the same challenges.

  94. Rick Phillips says:

    It is always nice to see that people are talking about something you’ve written. Thanks to those who’ve alerted me to this discussion. I am sorry that my paper isn’t freely available, because while certain missionizing strategies are part of the reason why convert retention are less than optimal, they are not the main reason that I give in the paper. I believe that the primary reason why growth rates and retention have such a strong negative correlation is that rapid growth areas have a pronounced dearth of leadership. Sex ratios in places like Latin America exacerbate this problem. Seasoned Melchizedek priesthood holders take time to cultivate, and when units are flooded with new converts, there simply aren’t enough pastors for the flock. It is also important to note that I don’t think the church is being dishonest about its membership totals. Everyone on church rolls was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and so in this sense the numbers are accurate. I am proposing, however, that social scientists might be wise to use different criteria for determining who is or is not a Mormon. Finally, while the church may have data on such things as sacrament meeting attendance and tithing, they had no way of knowing the disparity between self-identified members and members on church rolls until these census data came out. Hence, church researchers discovered this discrepancy at the same time as social scientists like me. Based on my conversations with researchers in the RID, I think it is fair to say that they were surprised. I think it is also safe to say that now that the problem is readily apparent, the church is taking appropriate steps to fix things. I suspect that the 21st century missionizing strategy will be one that recognizes that growing large and growing strong are not synonymous. “Raising the bar” for missionaries is part of this process. Building temples all over the globe is too, as is the publication of Preach My Gospel. However, reorienting a large bureaucratic organization like the church is a bit like turning an aircraft carrier around, and it will take time. I predict that we are entering an era of slower growth while local leadership builds in strengh, which will alow for more rapid growth in subsequent years. Also, I think it is important to note that, ceteris paribus, one would expect the LDS church to retain fewer of its converts than, say, the Pentacostal church. This is because retaining a Latter-day Saint is a much more intensive enterprise. Even the Savior acknowledges that few seeds are sown on fertile soil.

  95. Thanks, Rick, for your insightful research and for posting here. I am most intrigued by your concluding sentence. Could you elaborate on why you think retaining a Latter-day Saint is a more intensive enterprise than retaining a Pentecostal? Would you say the same about retention of Seventh-day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses?

  96. Rick Phillips says:

    I think the time and money demands of Mormonism are quite unusual, and quickly (or eventually) screen out the marginally committed. To be sure, there are Pentacostal congregations that make VERY high demands on their members, but if I, as a new Pentacostal convert, find these demands too onerous, I can switch to a low demand Pentacostal church. Under these circumstances, I’m still a retained Pentacostal. As for the JWs, I guess I just have to give credit where credit is due. I wonder what the response would be if church leaders directed Latter-day Saints to canvass their own neighborhoods like witnesses do. (Romans 1:16.) I might also point out that being perceived (rightly or wrongly) as an American church is a boon when the world loves America, and a bummer when it doesn’t. This may be a factor inhibiting missionizing right now. Since the JWs fastidiously avoid alliegance to any government, they are not currently encountering this problem.

  97. Rick,

    How much of the disparity might be caused by different understandings of what it means to be a “self-identified” Mormon? That is, I know people who tell others they are not (or are no longer) Mormons–not because they have resigned or had their membership terminated (usually they have not), but because they do not wish to or cannot live the high demands of Church membership, or because they no longer believe foundational stories of the restoration. They would likely not self-identify as Mormon on a survey. Others in the same situation self-identify as lapsed or less active Mormons, and would check the “Mormon” box. I wonder what the numbers would look like if there were a category for inactive Mormon.

  98. Rick Phillips says:

    The census questions are slightly different for each country, but basically amount to asking, “What religion are you?” It is a measure of one’s subjective religious identification. What is significant here is that in Mexico less than 25% of those who are formally members of TCoJCoLDS claim to be members on census forms. They either claim to be something else, or nothing at all. Inactive Mormons in this instance could claim to be Mormon, or could claim no religious affiliation, depending on their affinity with the church. This is not good news, however, because it means that of the 23% of Mexican Mormons on church rolls who actually affirm their affiliation, some unknown percentage is inactive. The LDS church is among those denominations that do not drop inactive members from its rosters. Others, like the Lutherans, will drop you if they haven’t heard from you in a few years. It is interesting to note that “none” is the second most common religious affiliation in Utah, and it is easy to believe that many (most?) of these people were raised LDS.

  99. ed johnson says:


    Did you adjust for children? At least some of the censuses only surveyed adult members, which makes a big difference. If I’m not mistaken, published church membership numbers include unbaptized children under eight as well.

    Also what is RID, and why were they surprised by these findings?

    Too bad it’s not easier to read your article…

  100. Rick Phillips says:

    For certain nations I had to estimate the number of LDS children. Tim Heaton’s article “Vital Statistics” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism has some data that helped with this. When I did estimate, I tried to make liberal estimates that erred in the chuch’s favor. Chile was the most problematic case. In the article I try to be appropriately tenative with my conclusions because of these issues. Were it not for copyright restrictions, I’d be happy to email you a copy of the paper, since Nova Religio is not as widely circulated as some other journals in the field. :-(

  101. Rick Phillips says:

    Oh, and RID is the church’s social science research information division–a group of skilled, intellectually honest, and genuinely friendly scholars. (At least the ones I know …)

  102. Preston Bissell says:


    I was not aware that the church had a social science information division. That is interesting information.
    I’m going to assume that the leaders of the LDS church are *very* aware of the level of activity in every part of the world. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that they, and the people who do the research, are the *only* ones who know the true picture.
    Based on what the rest of us can gather from reading tea leaves and examining pigeon entrails, it would appear that the level of “activity” in general is far lower than many people would assume, and certainly much lower than what the leadership would prefer. One can see hints of this in comments in GC.
    What I am wondering is *why* the leadership chooses not to share this information with stake and local leaders. ISTM that the people working in the trenches might have some pretty good ideas.
    I’ve read Dave Stewart’s lengthy essay on his website (, and found that he has some pretty good ideas. I wonder if anybody in SLC pays any attention to him.

  103. Rick —

    What do you make of the positive spin that David Knowlton and Mark Grover put on the census data in the Summer 2005 issue of Dialogue? As I read them, their perspective was that while the number of self-professed Mormons was undoubtedly much lower than shown on the Church records, nonetheless the censuses showed that there were substantial numbers of people, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, who were willing to self-identify as LDS to possibly intimidating government investigators, which indicated that Mormonism had in fact really taken root in these countries.

  104. Rick Phillips says:

    JWL – It is complicated. Clearly the church has a secure foothold in Latin America. Two million (plus or minus) active members is nothing to sneeze at. However, as Armand Mauss has noted, outside North America there is no place where wards are primarliy anchored by an indigenous second generation raised in the church. This is particularly true in Latin America, where many wards are overwhelmingly comprised of new converts despite the fact that the church has been operating in some of these nations for a very long time. I am not a prophet, so I don’t presume to know what should be done about this. However, I think many of the insights in the comments above are apropos.

  105. Al Christensen says:

    Re: Rick Phillips #96

    “I think it is fair to say that they were surprised.”

    I’m surprised the experts were surprised. What active Mormon doesn’t know there are a lot of names on the ward roster that never show up in church? Who doesn’t at least suspect that a portion of active members in their ward don’t really believe and would rather not be there? So why would professionals, who probably know LDS activity rates run from a high of about 50% in Zion to lows nearing single digits in other parts of the world be unprepared when the data confirms it? Is it that they assumed most inactive members still considered themselves Mormons?

  106. Al, my understanding from reading other articles of this type (the one I am thinking of particularly is the EoM article) has been that studies have in the past shown that many people do return. I think this may be the cause of the surprise.

  107. When I did estimate, I tried to make liberal estimates that erred in the chuch’s favor.


  108. Rick,

    Focusing on the difficulties of being a Mormon is analytically off the mark. Rather the question should be is it worthwhile to be a Pentecostal, JW, SDA, or a Mormon.

    People don’t mind to invest as long as there is a return. People are willing to sacrifice for a cause. Looking at the costs of a decision is meaningless unless one includes benefits.

    The reason why converts do not remain Mormons is that it is not worthwhile. Rather than suggesting that Mormons have to be more virtuous than other religious people, it is more useful to ask why our organization is unable to meet people’s needs.

    (Notice that your hypothesis also implies a superiority claim about Mormons).

    The LDS Church is not set up to appreciate foreign conditions. Unless Salt Lake figures out a management model that engages local challenges and exploits local opportunities, our ability to function abroad will remain compromised.

    Notice that this is closely related to the lack of leaders. Movements have no dearth of leaders. From the French revolution to the labor movement, we have seen that effective leaders emerge even among the poorly educated if they are allowed to do their job and are held accountable.

    Instead of asking locals to get the job done and holding them accountable, the LDS Church has merely extended its bureaucracy abroad. That stiffles leadership rather than nurturing it.

    Mormon bishops and stake presidents have to work long hours but have no budget authority, there are limits to how much they can accomplish. Pentecostal leaders don’t have that problem. They are required to organize their parishioners to solve communal problems. Our people cannot do that.

    That’s why there is no dearth of Pentecostal leaders but we cannot keep up even though our numbers are contracting. If you want people to sacrifice then you have to respect them and allow them to make a difference.

  109. Rick Phillips says:

    Re: 107 – They were surprised because they thought that most Latin American Mormons are inactive. Turns out they aren’t inactive. They have defected completely.

    Re: Hellmut – I didn’t mean to imply in #96 that Mormons are better than anyone else, just that theirs is a high demand church. All else being equal, high demand churches will always have lots of membership turnover, because most peoples’ desire for this type of religion waxes and wanes throughout the lifecourse. For instance, many studies show that members of high demand churches are more likely to convert their friends than retain their children. This is because friends are usually like-minded, but intergenerationally, the desire for religious goods tends to regress to the mean. This is why high demand churches (like TCoJCoLDS) tend to aggressively evangelize. (Of course, this is how I see it as a sociologist, and sociology is agnostic …)

    Your comments on whether or to what extent the LDS church should decentralize its authority are very interesting. In fairness to the church, I think they are decentralizing some things, but such change in huge, complex, bureaucratic organizations takes time.

  110. Thanks for your reply, Rick. No doubt, if one proselytizes in the developing world then there will always be high fluctuation. Nonetheless, we see other churches that are quite demanding sustain greater growth rates.

    That indicates that there are obstacles for the LDS Church are homemade.

  111. As to the temple in Finland, I can confirm that it has not been built because of a membership boom.

    As noted in a comment above, LDS growth has been very slow in Finland for a very long time. So even though Finnish Mormons have been exceptionally enthusiastic templegoers ever since the 1960s (first to Switzerland and then more lately to Stockholm, Sweden), there just isn’t enough of a membership base to justify a temple. Even the (inflated) official membership number of about 4,500 gives the wrong idea; extrapolating from membership data that I have “exact” knowledge of, I would estimate that there are a bit over 2,000 active LDS in the whole country.

    Russia is probably one of the largest reasons that there is now an LDS temple in Finland. There has been and there is potential for some more significant growth in Russia, even though there are no stakes in Russia or the Baltic states as of yet. The Helsinki Finland temple district contains a total of around 25,000 to 30,000 Latter-day Saints (using official church-distributed membership numbers), which even that is a fairly small number.

    Another important reason for the temple being built in Helsinki, Finland, instead of somewhere in Russia, is probably that governmental and other conditions tend to be more stable in Finland.

  112. Regarding “Baseball Baptisms” (for those more interested in reading than in listening), I created a page that includes the text of the audio presentation I linked to above.

    You can access it here.

  113. “Turns out they aren’t inactive. They have defected completely.”

    I think it only means they have “defected”, or become sufficiently “inactive”, so that they do not self-identify as Mormon.

    I think there are lots of levels of “defection”:

    Nonattendance, but continuing to believe
    Attending, but disbelieving
    Nonattendance and nonbelief
    Requesting no contact
    Joining or regularly attending another church Focusing one’s life on anti-Mormonism

    I suppose one thing the research department is exploring is what types of defection are reflected in the non-self-identification statistics.

  114. Al Christensen says:

    Re: DavidH #115

    Perhaps the researchers’ perception had been influenced by a Utah model of LDS membership where, I’m guessing, there is a higher percentage of nonattending-but-believing Mormons — the classic I’m-not-worthy jack Mormon. Or maybe it was colored by the prevailing LDS folk wisdom which holds that everyone who is no longer active secretly believes the church is true.

    Why wouldn’t converts who no longer participate in the LDS church return to their former faith and culture rather than hang in social limbo? In the Mormon corridor there are certain social and financial benefits to maintaining a minimum connection to the predominant religion/culture. Not so in those places where the LDS church is a tiny minority and membership is a social liability.

  115. Jonathan M. says:

    Fascinating discussion (what I’ve had time to read of it thus far).

    As an Englishman living in Australia, I must say that I think the latest available census figures here(for 2001)are a surprise (approx. 48,700). Equally surprising are the figures from the UK census for that year which indicate less than 13,000 Mormons resident there (I think the “religion” question was not asked in Scotland).

    In both countries the question was optional. I haven’t checked the exact format,but I am assuming(perhaps wrongly)that the wording was not substantially dissimilar. Both figures seem an inaccurate(in the case of the UK, highly so)indication of those who consider themselves LDS or Mormon. Obviously, some of those listed will be children of members who presumably had no say in the completion of the question. If there really are as many self-identifying Mormons as indicated in the Australian census, and as few as indicated in the UK, then I’m a Dutchman!

    My guess for what it’s worth (excluding children who had no input into the answer)is that at most, 35,000-37,000 current Australian residents would identify as ‘Mormon’,
    while in the UK I estimate the number at most, 50-55,000. If I am anywhere close, then what is the explanation? Reticence on the part of the English, perhaps a fierce commitment to privacy?

  116. Rick Phillips says:

    The question on the British census was voluntary, and new to the 2001 census. The question was: “What is your religion?” and included boxes to check for “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Jewish,” “Hindu,” and “None” with a write-in blank for “Other.” Given this question, I suspect many British Mormons simply checked the “Christian” box. Since the question was voluntary, I suspect others didn’t care to answer at all. At any rate, I don’t think these data can be used to accurately estimate the number of self-identified British Saints.

  117. Jonathan Green says:

    Rick, thanks very much for showing up and fielding questions. Your answers have been very helpful. What you say about high-demand churches having low rentention of members’ children makes sense. But wasn’t there a recent study–sorry, the best reference I have is “I thought I read about it somewhere, maybe in the newspaper”–of youth retention rates that found they were miserable all across the board, but that LDS youth are actually more active than any other church’s?

  118. Let’s see if the thrid time is the charm for submitting this comment. Not sure why it hasn’t been working.


    With each comment you provide additional information of great interest to me. Your post #111 fascinates, to wit:

    For instance, many studies show that members of high demand churches are more likely to convert their friends than retain their children.

    Can you point me to the studies that show this? It’s an astonishing thought to me. Does this mean that if a family in a high demand religion has 6 children, and, say 3 of them are retained, that the parents are likely to convert 4 of their friends? Or does it simply mean that the family is more likely to convert a friend (or more than one) than it is to retain any one of their children?

    This is why high demand churches (like TCoJCoLDS) tend to aggressively evangelize. (Of course, this is how I see it as a sociologist, and sociology is agnostic …)

    I wonder if you have looked at the church’s evangelizing efforts over time. It seems that, historically, in the early days there was zealous evangelization but in the early to mid 20th century this had waned before picking back up again in more recent decades. I wonder if such fluctuations in the intensity of evangelization correspond with fluctuations in the level of demands placed on members in the church (i.e., do periods of lower intensity proselytizing correspond with lower levels of expected participation in church activities)?

    In fairness to the church, I think they are decentralizing some things,

    Can you elaborate? It seems almost conventional wisdom that the church has steadily centralized and bureacratized since correlation was commenced in the 1960s. Can you cite specific examples of decentralization recently? Do you sense a reversal of the trend toward centralization and consolidation?


  119. Rick Phillips says:

    Re: 120 – Sociologists think about aggregates of people, so it is probably best to state the “converting friends vs. retaining children” hypothesis to account for this. Hence, ceteris paribus, for any given high demand congregation, if n friends are converted, then less than n children will be retained. This acknowledges that their are other significant variables associated with retianing children, and skirts the issue of whether or not YOUR children will fall away. This is summed up nicely in the following article: Ploch, Donald R. and Donald W. Hastings, “Effects of Parental Church Attendance, Current Family Status, and Religious Salience on Church Attendance,” Review of Reigious Research 39(4):309-320.

    Of course, this begs the question in #119 about high levels of activity among Mormon youth. This is because there are two species of Mormon in the United States. When religion becomes intertwined with kin and community networks, these networks act as a safety net to mitigate against fluctuations in peoples’ desire for high demand religious goods. This is why Orthodox Jews and the Amish do a good job of retaining children. I suspect that if you factor out Mormon youth for whom Mormonism is a part of their “religio-ethnic” heritage, then you would see that Mormon involvement in religion looks much more like that of Baptists of Pentacostals. (That’s my hypothesis.) The sociologist who is doing this work is John Bartkowski at Mississippi State–a much better sociologist than I. I asked him about this very thing at a meeting last year, and he acknowledges that his inability to disaggregate “ethnic” Mormons from 1st generation converts limits the explanatory power of his conclusions, but there is no way to fix these problems in the data sets that he is using.

    Of course, it bears repeating that the foregoing is my impression based on sociological data, and sociology is agnostic.

  120. Rick Phillips:
    Maybe this is tangential, but what does the the data how as being contributive to retaining youth? retaining converts?

    Sorry if this is beyond scope or already addressed.

  121. Rick,

    You are a wealth of info my friend.

    How does one ID a kid as a “ethnic mormon” I know that I would qualify as one being 7th generation but would my mom? Her mother was a “ethnic Mormon” but her father when she was born was a Polish Roman Catholic who later converted. It makes it hard to tell in a academic study who is who. When studying other faith traditions like say So Baptists is their such a thing as a ethnic Baptist?
    This reality makes me think you just need to take all the LDS kids and ID them as LDS and not try and split us into two different classes. Whcih from what you are saying is what you are already doing :)

    Also please post on retention for kids raised in the church. Your input would be greatly greatly appreciated.

  122. Rick Phillips says:

    Re: 123. I think it is probably best to think of “ethnic” and “non-ethnic” as a continuum rather than an either/or dichotomy. If you are a 7th generation Latter-day Saint named LaVerle Sorenson and you–along with all of your extended family on both sides–were born and raised in Cache Valley, then you’re on one end of the “ethnic” continuum. If you recently immigrated from Greece and you and your mom were baptized last year in Hartford, CT, then you’re on the other end of the continuum. The extent of kin networks in the faith, the strength of one’s claim to pioneer ancestry, and ties to the Mormon Culture Region all combine to produce Mormon “ethnicity”. It should be easy to see how, all else being equal, young LaVerle is tied to the faith with stronger, thicker cords than his Greek counterpart. I think the same thing would work for Southern Baptists as well.

    I know of no specific data on retention of more “ethnic” Mormon youth vs. 1st generation converts, but every indicator of Mormon religious activity would suggest that the former are retained at higher levels than the latter. I saw a paper presented at a professional conference two weeks ago that isn’t even published yet that conclusively shows that the greater the LDS church’s “market share” in a given locale, the lower the likelihood that any given individual who is or has ever been Mormon had either switched into or switched out of the faith. The relationship was as linear as any I had ever seen in social science data.

    If you believe that retention rates and activity rates are correlated, as I do, then you should know that LDS adults who were raised in the intermountain west who now live outside the region have higher church attendance rates than Saints who were neither raised nor now live in the intermountain west. I suspect that it is the “ethnic” factor that explains this. And, of course, abundant evidence shows that Latter-day Saints in Utah have far higher levels of religious participation–no matter how you measure it–than Latter-day Saints elsewhere, and this has probably been true for at least 40 years. (The motivations for their high church activity is subject to interpretation.) Moreover, within Utah itself, the larger the percent Mormon in a given county, the higher the level of LDS church participation in that county.

    Hence, if LDS youth behave like LDS adults, and activity and retention are correlated, then it is virtually certain that, ceteris paribus, “ethnic” Latter-day Saints are retained at higher levels than 1st generation converts to the church.

  123. Rick, I’d still love an answer to 122, but your last post raises enven more questions.

    First let me say I am a convert, and genuinely hope and feel I am an outlier in your demographics (I have missed church twice in 8 years, once for a hurricane, once for a blizzard. Both times Church was cancelled and I found out in the Hurricane by reading the flyer pasted to the window of the church.)

    That said, does it stand to reason that 1st gen. converts hold better retention rates in more LDS populous areas? Does Population LDS per Capita make a difference, and could this be analyzed for ward size? If I am house shopping in San Antonio, should I look for the Ward boundries that have the most LDS is the smallest area?

    Personally, I think I have been helped by adopting my wife’s “pioneer ancestry” – (She is 3rd generation Texas LDS, but they have some of the best conversion stories I’ve ever heard.)

  124. Inequality says:

    (I have missed church twice in 8 years, once for a hurricane, once for a blizzard. Both times Church was cancelled and I found out in the Hurricane by reading the flyer pasted to the window of the church.)

    Matt, dude, chill. Remember what the Prophet Joseph Smith said: a bow that is never unwound will lose its spring. Unwind the bow, my man!

  125. Actually, I am fairly certain that the Prophet Joseph would be moved by Matt’s devotion. I am. Perhaps you aught to think about winding yours up.

  126. And, of course, abundant evidence shows that Latter-day Saints in Utah have far higher levels of religious participation–no matter how you measure it–than Latter-day Saints elsewhere, and this has probably been true for at least 40 years. (The motivations for their high church activity is subject to interpretation.) Moreover, within Utah itself, the larger the percent Mormon in a given county, the higher the level of LDS church participation in that county.

    That makes sense. Any community organizer can tell you that unless you can pay staff, you have to rely on people’s personal relationships to get them to work.

    Relationships define people. If there are few alternatives to Mormon relationships then you won’t have status, sex, or access to resources unless you attend Mormon activities.

    Of course, nobody thinks that way. But people are seldom aware of the incentives that shape their behavior.

  127. Inequality, your statement reminds of Mohammed’s
    “A reed that never bends breaks”

    I think going to church doesn’t have much to do with how “wound” one is.

    Church Attendance is really easy. It’s like paying tithing or obeying the word of wisdom.

    J. – thanks for the compliment.

  128. How many people started out as followers of the Savior when he was on the earth, but then turned away? I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t increase our efforts in activation and retention, just that sometimes we can do everything right and people are still going to fall away. It’s called agency.

  129. Well said Dave.

  130. Dave, I do agree with you, but I do think we could imporve our effotrs to “do everything right” nonetheless…

  131. And I agree with you Matt.

  132. I think the problem is we worry about the wrong people sometimes. That is we’re so worried about offending tender hearted spirits who are offended at any trial of faith that we might drive away those who, with a little counseling, would be the strong.

    Personally I think Church history and the scriptures suggests a little winnowing is a good thing. We can proclaim the gospel and help people gain a testimony. But ultimately it is an individual thing what to do with that testimony. Ultimately religion is a very personal and self-motivated endeavor. I think we err when we make religion seem so passive.


  1. […] The Mormon weblog, By Common Consent, has posted a brief review/description of Rick Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” Nova Religio 10(1):52-68, August 2006. […]