Actually, this post’s title overstates the case a little bit. Mormonism in a general, worldwide sense is still very much a missionary endeavor. U.S. Mormonism, however, now has the demographic profile of an established intergenerational church more than a missionary one. These are the conclusions that I draw from Chapter 2 of the recent Pew Forum report on the U.S. Religious Landscape.
There are several more specific points of interest about the dynamics of Mormonism in the U.S. to be found in this report. Let me run through what I take to be the most important. First of all, there is evidence that the proportion of the U.S. population that is Mormon — measured by people’s religious self-identification, rather than the official records that rarely remove people who have moved on religiously — is slowly shrinking. 1.8% of respondents in the Pew Forum survey report that they were raised as Mormons, while only 1.7% describe themselves as being Mormons today. This suggests that our total net percentage growth over the last generation (an imprecise term that can’t be made any better since respondents to the survey are of various ages) is negative — as respondents have grown from childhood to adulthood, our losses due to failures of retention are enough larger than our gains due to conversion that we are losing ground. In fact, on this measure, the survey data suggest that we are losing ground — proportional to our share of the population — faster than any Protestant denomination other than the Baptists and the Methodists.
Second, our long-term conversion rates (that is, people who are not only baptized but who continue to think of themselves as Mormons up to the present) are about double those of the most established religions, but are substantially lower than those of the really vibrant missionary faiths of America today. Of people who presently report themselves to belong to a given faith tradition, 26% of Mormons were converted rather than raised in the faith, in comparison with 10% of Hindus, 11% of Catholics, 15% of Jews, and 23% of Orthodox Christians. Thus, compared to most old, established faiths, Mormonism still retains somewhat more of a missionary impulse — although not necessarily that much more in comparison with Orthodoxy. However, Mormonism is now much less of a missionary faith in the U.S. than is Islam, which has 40% converts, Buddhism (73% converts), or the Jehovah’s Witnesses (67% converts). These figures suggest a reconceptualization of U.S. Mormonism as primarily not a missionary faith, and perhaps as being in transition to increased similarity with the Catholic church and other well-established faiths in terms of conversion profile.
Third, in comparison with other U.S. faiths, we don’t have a retention problem. 70% of survey respondents who report having been raised Mormon claim still to be Mormon (although possibly not active). This is basically similar to most other major faith traditions in the U.S. For example, Catholics retain 68% of those raised in the faith, Orthodoxy retains 73%, Judaism 76%, and so forth. Buddhism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have much poorer retention rates (50% for Buddhism and a shocking 37% for Jehovah’s Witnesses). For Protestantism, the case is much more complex. American Protestants have a well-known tendency to switch around among Protestant denominations a lot. The Pew data suggest that about half of those raised in a Protestant denomination have stayed in that denomination, so about half have switched to something else. 28% of the switches were to other Protestant denominations, though, so if we consider Protestantism rather than specific denominations as a category, Protestantism has a retention rate of about 80%. In any case, Mormon retention rates seem quite in keeping with those of other established American faiths.
In combination, these three points suggest that a revision in the self-image of U.S. Mormonism is in order. We are no longer a fast-growing missionary church rapidly integrating new converts into the kingdom but worried about a disproportionate loss of established members. Instead, we are a slowly shrinking (in population-share terms) church that has a retention pattern in keeping with establishment churches such as the Catholics and mainline Protestantism, and a conversion rate somewhat higher than Judaism or Catholicism but clearly lower than more dynamic missionary movements like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.