Mormonism is No Longer a Missionary Faith

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.


  1. There is one factor that could modify the “slowly shrinking” point, which is birth rates. The design of the Pew survey effectively controlled for differential birth rates in different populations. So we might be growing after all if we have enough babies, relative to other groups.

  2. The good news: US Mormonism is rapidly leaving the New Religious Movement category. Take that anti-Mormon counter-cultists!

  3. JNS: I seem to have anticipated your title excerpt!

  4. Ronan, I’d remind you that a lot of the counter-cultists consider the oldest Christian religious movement of them all (Catholicism) to be a cult. We do indeed seem to be leaving the NRM category — but people will probably still call us a cult, I guess.

  5. Isn’t some of the JW’s high convert percentage due to their very low retention of those born in the faith?

  6. Yeah, Ronan, “not an NRM anymore” is really what I was arguing in the post. But I left out the jargon. When I saw that you’d used it anyway, I just went with it on the title excerpt…

  7. J. Stapley, a good point. Mathematically, that’s right, but it only gets part of the story. Witnesses retain very few childhood members, but they convert enough that they are growing overall — that is, they have the demographic profile of Kirtland Mormonism, say, with lots and lots of departures but even more conversions.

  8. Fair enough, but the Church at Kirtland was old enough to have children born in the faith leave.

  9. Right, J. Mormonism seems to have kept a high-turnover profile for a long time in the 19th century; Kirtland was just an example. The best evidence suggests that we look a lot like the Witnesses in demographic terms in Latin America and Africa today, as well. But in the U.S., we now look more like the Catholics or the Episcopalians on these variables…

  10. Does this explain why the Church is increasingly interested in everywhere other than the US? Maybe Americans just don’t convert as well as we once did (the Protestant-to-Protestant switches, along with my recent sighting of “Picking a Church for Dummies,” suggest this may be the case.)

  11. JNS I essentially agree with you on this post. The key to growth in the US since the 1980’s as I see it is our shrinking birthrate. Without a robust birthrate we shrink in the US. Ours is still more robust than anybody elses but its in decline. I have been hearing now for about 10 years from relatives in the church office building who see the numbers that US missionary work (AKA retained converts) is slowly been in decline since the 1990’s and most growth in the US is now BIC. A quick look at the births vs converts in my stake shows a 4-5 to 1 ratio in favor of births. My own ward would be 10-1.

    I guess though that we do not know that the future will bring but we do not seem in the US to be in a period of massive expansion.

  12. Note that the margin of error in the national identification question is 0.6%. One should be careful drawing any conclusions when the total proportion of Mormon respondents is just three times the margin of error. Also note that the “Mormon tradition” referred to in the survey includes the Community of Christ and other churches, not just the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the Pew Survey is impressive in scope, the data represent the responses of only about 600 Mormons.

  13. I think there are a number of factors that go into this. I can only say I am grateful for the missionary church that sent missionaries to Indiana and taught me. But I do know, as Elder Webb and Elder Anderson recently said in a session of a stake conference here, that Missionary work in the US, particularly door to door tracting, is not as effective as it was 20-30 years ago.

  14. This is a really interesting post, JNS. I told my wife I knew there were people out there who knew what to make of the numbers in the Pew study and I’ve been waiting for analysis like this. Thanks for putting it together for we simple folk!

  15. I anticipate the day when the Church pulls all of its North American missionaries, sends them to other countries where way more people are ready to accept the Gospel and tells the members in North America to pick up the slack, invite their friends to attend church with them and have the Ward Missionaries teach the lessons to investigators. Our home ward has been tracted by missionaries for nearly 50 years, and our growth is going to be dependent on our own involvement.

  16. Ray, now that is an interesting concept.

    I would say that as liberal, emergent Christianity takes out the drive for missionary zeal among evangelicals in America, the LDS Church will run a parallel track.

    I might be wrong, but I think that the LDS movement moves parallel in the wagon ruts with evangelicalism. They don’t steer the trends.

    I tend to think LDS authorities will not be the ones to initiate the separation from America’s biblical scholarship or affluent, lazy culture. It might be LDS zeal from outside America who spark new reformation. Perhaps.

    Especially, when strong bastions of Christianity in other parts of the world began sending missionaries to America.

    Btw, I just had two young fellows knock on my door this morning. My wife and I invited them in. We had a nice chat.

  17. two comments for Ray. It has been prophesied that the South will again become the jewel of the mission field (though I can’t remember from who and hope I didn’t just spread Mormon myth ;-p). Secondly, assuming that we have sufficiently raised the bar as Elder Ballard suggested, a decline in baptisms, but ones with higher retention rates would be a positive thing. I doubt the Pew survey has that information, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the case. I’ve been very impressed with the increased worthiness of the missionaries I’ve seen over the past few years.

    That said I think that there is merit in getting members more involved. There are still some high baptizing missions in the US relative to many parts of the world. I don’t know how the US stacks up against the rest of the world on average, but I do not advocate only sending missionaries to high-baptizing areas. I don’t think that’s what you were claiming necessarily, but it’s an easy step from what you propose.

  18. #17 – It wouldn’t surprise me if the South became the “jewel of the (American) mission field”. In fact, I believe it will happen the minute racism (among all) weakens to the point where it no longer inhibits baptisms and retention to the extent that it does now.

    I described briefly in a thread on that other blog an experience I had in the Stake Mission Presidency while living in the Deep South, and I have no doubt that it could happen. I also have been very impressed by the overall change in missionaries I have witnessed over the past few years. The baptism rate in our stake has dropped slightly, but the retention rate has risen dramatically. The missionaries talk openly now about focusing on quality over quantity, and I love the shift.

    If we as members stopped assuming that “missionary work” was the responsibility of the full-time missionaries and shouldered the initiative to talk naturally about our religion and bring people to church with us, I am convinced the baptism rate would skyrocket – even if there were no full-time missionaries serving in our area. If we did that, the Church could send the missionaries now serving in the US to other areas where they are needed desperately. If we could do that, the title of this post would be inaccurate very quickly.

    At least, that’s my perspective.

  19. Ray, I agree completely with that sentiment. I’ve met more members over time that are in tune with this ideology, but there will always be the timid interspersed with the bold. I doubt a shift will occur without some type of sea change in the general thinking of church members. My guess is that we are heading in this direction in the church. I think that raising the bar for missionaries was the first step. Once members have become truly accustomed to this, and more people start serving ward missions, I think it won’t be too long before we get a raising the bar type of challenge for members in general.

    What part of the deep south? I grew up in SC and had to drive about 45 min to get to church. I was the only LDS person in my school.

    PS – You can call me ArielW, Ariel, AW, or anything else if you wish, and don’t have to just refer to me as a number… ;-p

    PPS – Looking up “sea change” to make sure I was using it properly I ran across this interesting tidbit. Apparently sea change comes from Shakespeare, and was used by the fairy Ariel. I learned something new today.

  20. actualifanonlesbianjew says:

    JNS, may I ask–with respect, and as an outsider– why did you choose to compare the % of Mormons who are converts to the % of Jews who are converts? I get the Catholic comparison, but to someone such as myself, the comparison between Mormons and Jews on this score seems quite odd. Ours is not a proselytizing religion, so 15% actually surprises me for how high it is; otoh, yours is a highly prosyltizing religion. Just curious.

  21. the official records that rarely remove people who have moved on religiously

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Church policy requires persons who have moved on to play an active part in removing their names from the records. It’s kind of like US citizenship–even if you are behaving in a dubios, terrorist-like manner, you still have to explicity renounce it.

    I’ve yet to meet anyone this proactive vis-a-vis their membership records–they’ve moved on, right?–and as a result, there’s more deadwood on the church rolls than a whole passel of bishops, ward mission leaders, and missionaries can shake a stick at.

  22. Ray in #18:

    I believe you are correct–dramatic increases in the baptismal rate are likely to the result of members viewing themselves as full stakeholders in this Zion-building project.

  23. I distinctly remember Freshman Biology at BYU in 1990. Dr. Bradshaw (a god among men) was instructing the masses about laws governing population dynamics. One general rule is that exponential growth is never sustainable in a population. Negative forces (i.e. over-extending local resources, competition with other species) will always slow growth.

    While he was clearly discussing flora and fauna, my mind went straight to exponential church growth. My missionary experience only re-confirmed this postulate for me. It was apparent that member resources for sustaining the high baptism rate were severely lacking.

    I believe the slowing is a healthy sign of a church that has matured past its adolescent growth spurt. However, it is also a harbinger, that we will not achieve the worldwide dominating presence that many believe is our destiny.

  24. Great comments, one and all! I don’t have time to respond to each one, so please accept my apologies for being a bit selective.

    TA Esplin, with big surveys like this, the margin-of-error question is always more complex than the public reports suggest. In particular, there is not a single margin for questions like this. Furthermore, a sample of 600 is actually quite reasonable for statistical purposes. If you do the calculations for yourself, using normal-theory approximation, the slight decline finding is statistically significant.

    actualifanonlesbianjew, I made the comparison between our long-term conversion rates and yours for exactly the reason you mention. We make a gigantic proselytizing effort, and Jewish folks don’t — yet our conversion rate is only about 10% higher. This suggests that our proselytizing efforts in the U.S. are now a bit more symbolic than efficient, perhaps.

    Ariel, I don’t think the lack of growth in the U.S. church can really be attributed to missionary quality. U.S. missionaries are basically drawn from the same pool as missionaries in Latin America and (especially) Africa, where the church continues to experience actual missionary growth — if not at the same rate as nominal, records-based growth. So it’s really about the society, I think, more than the missionaries.

  25. There is more than one current American Mormon experience, and I wonder how that plays into statistics like these. Most American Mormons live in areas where they already make up a significant fraction of the population, and saturation limits on further conversion begin to play. The Pew report indicates 76% of American Mormons live in the West. Yet there are places in the rest of the country like my ward where the bishop has been a member 16 years, one of his counselors is a convert whose wife has never chosen to join the Church, and the current stake president and the last one are both converts.

    Also, look at all the missionaries we send away from home. We’re still a missionary faith, just not a very effective one!

  26. The sociologist Rodney Stark predicted that if Mormons continued to grow at the same rate that they had from the start, they would be the largest American religion by the later 21st century. But the key to that growth was not conversion: it was birthrate. With the birthrate slowing, Stark’s prediction will of course change. Conversions can play a factor, but it is secondary to birth rate. In the sense of growth depending on conversions, we have not been a missionary church. We’ve mostly been a missionary church in the attempt to be a missionary church.

  27. John, the way wards like yours play into the statistics is like this: we convert people like those you mention, but they are a little bit more than offset by the people born Mormon who leave.

    On your last point, I agree that we send missionaries out. And outside the U.S. they convert a lot of people. But, the numbers seem to suggest that, here at home, the work our missionaries do is largely for a purpose other than converting people. After all, our conversion rate isn’t dramatically higher than those of faiths that don’t send missionaries in the U.S. Given these statistics, plus the information we know from official church sources that the vast majority of convert baptisms in the U.S. come from referrals, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that we would have more or less the same number of conversions in the U.S. if we sent no missionaries out as we do today.

  28. Craig, I think your comment is helpful, but only for certain periods. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, there seems to be evidence that the U.S. church did in fact grow due to conversions. Obviously, the same was true for various periods during the 19th century.

    Furthermore, in the Pew data, Mormons still have the largest families of any American faith tradition. So on the birth rate front, there’s still a source of percentage growth. We’re undergoing the demographic transition, sure, but we’re behind everybody else. So this helps to counteract (or perhaps more than counteracts, although the math is tricky and it’s a close-run matter) the fact that our net retention rate (people born in our faith minus those who leave plus those who convert) isn’t as high as some other American faiths, and in fact is slightly negative.

  29. It was Vaughan Featherstone who gave a “vision of the South.” My bishop pulls that out all the time.

    I don’t see it. I’m on the Gulf Coast, and between the oil companies pulling out in the 90’s and the annual hurricane season, our numbers are down and we just dissolved a stake. Non-denominational Christian churches are making huge inroads into the African-American community, second generation members are moving to the corridor to try to keep their kids in the church and almost no young families here are locals.

    I know the South is big, bigger than just my neck of the woods. Check, you can go as far north as Kentucky and people still think they’re in the South. The church is shrinking here in my neck of the woods, and growth elsewhere can be partly attributed to people from here (and places like here) going there.

  30. J. Nelson-Seawright, you’re right, but Stark’s figures are based on average growth per decade—about 40%. So it will certainly vary if you look more closely at specific moments.

  31. Ariel, what part of SC? My son is a sophomore at Winthrop right now.

  32. Ray, my wife, mother, and father got various degrees from Winthrop. I went to the Rock Hill ward and lived in a little city called Chester. I also am an alumni of Clemson.

  33. JNS (#24) – I don’t know which comment to mine you’re referring to, but I agree with your observation. I think that the overall number of missionaries declined following the raise the bar talk, and IIRC, the number of convert baptisms went down slightly. How those numbers played in the US alone, I have no idea, but our retention rate has indeed gone up so far as my microcosm of the church is concerned.

  34. Yeah, I remember the Vaughn J. Featherstone prophesy when I was in Lousiana on my mission. But I think it actually predates him and goes back at least to J. Golden Kimball when he was Mission President of the Southern States Mission – although I’ve not been able to find solid documentation.

    I can’t speak to the last 10 years or so. But in the late 80’s when I was there the African American community of the church was growing like crazy and there was pretty huge growth. We were for a while averaging 100 baptisms a month. Small by 3rd world standards but huge by American standards (and by what had come before). I heard that petered out somewhat.

  35. I live outside a large Eastern city. Let’s just say it’s one with some sort of connection with the Liberty Bell.

    A couple of years ago the missionaries were pulled out of the wards that are on the edge of where the suburbs run into the country. The reason for this is that the missionary work had exploded in the inner city. The explosion of growth coincided with the building of a new chapel on Broad Street in the city. It also coincided with new initiatives on the part of the mission and stake presidents. The wards in the city were baptizing as many people in a week as our suburban fringe wards were baptizing in a couple of years. I heard a few weeks ago that they’re constructing another new chapel in the city.

    It has been very interesting to watch. Stake Conference, which we have coming up this week, is always a very colorful event. Trek was very interesting for all the participants, including some of the kids who had never been outside the city.

    I don’t have any information on retention but I know that the growth requires a lot of work on the part of a lot of people.

    Since the missionaries were pulled out of our ward, the convert baptism rate has gone down to around zero from about four or six a year before, despite lots of effort by the ward mission leader and ward membership. For awhile it seemed like every other sacrament meeting was on the topic of missionary work with no obvious effect. Our ward’s experience has been that the presence of missionaries leads to growth, even if it’s not spectacular. This would not tend to support Ray’s suggestion in #15. (Amazing to finally disagree with something Ray says!)

  36. My recollection of J. Golden’s comment about the Southern States mission is “the only way to convert the South is to burn it down and baptize for the dead.”

  37. Adam Greenwood says:

    your argument about our slightly declining percentage of the population ignores the role of immigration. It would be possible to convert more people than the born-Mormons we lose but still decline if a substantial portion of the population are immigrants and the percentage of those immigrants who are Mormon is lower than the percentage in the already-existing population.

  38. Adam, interesting point. Immigration is always worth keeping an eye on. However, the design of the Pew survey actually ends up controlling for immigration, as well as for birth rates, by making within-individual comparisons for the over-time component of the survey. So, birth rates may drive up our growth compared with the Pew results, but immigration rates may drive it down relative to the Pew findings.

  39. There might also be some regional variation on this.

    I have had to give up far too many Saturday mornings for yet another baptism, so it doesn’t feel like we are not a missionary faith.

  40. I don’t agree with you. My experiance is that the Church is growing most everywhere. According to the US Census website, current US pop. stands at 303,522,368. With a margin of error of .6, the nuber of SELF-IDENTIFYING members in the US stands, with a 95% margin of certanty, between 3.3 to 7.0 million members, with 5.2 being at the middle of the range. Not too far from 6 million member on the records, if you take into account the dropouts. Also, as a Church with a younger age distribution, a survey of adults 18yrs and older only would undercount Mormons.

    But my main argument is this: An imploding Church is one that finds itself in constant need to sell buildings and consolidate congregations to keep going, as some Protestand and even Catholic churches are doing. Instead, my observation everywhere in the US and in many contries is that we have to build more and more chapels, we have to create more wards, and more stakes. Many chapels feel cramped, holding services until 5:00 because we have so many wards meet there. I’ll take my observations, which I am sure many others could also corraborate, over a poor interpretation of survey data anytime.

  41. Naismith, sure, we have plenty of baptisms. The data here suggest that we have basically a few more departures than we do baptisms. They also suggest that non-missionary churches also have conversion rates that are a lot like ours…

    Carlos, please don’t act like a jerk. Disagree with my conclusions if you like, but the “poor interpretation” line is a gratuitous insult.

    The real conclusions here don’t come from the overall number of respondents who report being Mormon, but rather from the reported change in percentage from respondents’ birth to their death. The margin of error for that change is about 0.01%.

    There are areas in the US that feel full and crowded, but there are also areas where chapels always feel empty. The church doesn’t like to consolidate units, and we always have those members-of-record to justify keeping existing units in place. But numbers of units aren’t a good measure of numbers of members, at least outside of the Mormon corridor.

    Finally, if you trust anecdotal experience over systematic data, that’s fine. It’s distorting and prone to all kinds of cognitive biases, but I don’t mind.

  42. I think it is time to put Rodney Stark’s mormon growth prediction out to pasture. It is not coming true. I think the information age has a lot to due with the negative growth of the church in the US and Europe.
    Another observation I have with US converts deals with their ability to cause continued conversions (chain reaction if you will). Here in my neck of the woods (rural northeast) The growth I do see is not supportive of further church expansion. My branch had about 10 baptisms in the past year, but none of the converts has much of a chance of leadership. One could not handle being a library assistant, another is struggling to be a quorum secretary. They are great people, but I doubt many have completed high school, and many are on disability. Not the kind of converts to build sustained growth. I suspect three quarters (or more) will not be coming to church in 5 years.

  43. Carlos U. (#40) said:

    . . . current US pop. stands at 303,522,368. With a margin of error of .6, the nuber of SELF-IDENTIFYING members in the US stands, with a 95% margin of certanty, between 3.3 to 7.0 million members, with 5.2 being at the middle of the range. Not too far from 6 million member on the records, if you take into account the dropouts.

    The problem with the above math is that Pew surveyed only adults. So you can’t just multiply Pew’s Mormon percentage by the total U.S. population. You’d have to multiply it by the total U.S. adult population. And that would only give you the estimated number of adult members in the U.S.

    In short, the Pew survey data cannot be used to come up with an estimate for the total number of self-identifying Mormons in the U.S.

    (Of course, the Pew statistics also included other splinter groups within the Mormon tradition; although these are admittedly small even compared to the relatively small Mormon population.)

  44. #35 -Researcher, I don’t think we disagree as much as you think. I think up to 6 baptisms a year is a legitimate goal for many, if not most, suburban wards in the US with full-time missionaries serving in them. I think if the missionaries are pulled out, the annual rate would drop naturally – unless the members acted like full-time missionaries and talked with most people about their religion at every opportunity (not in a brash, in-your-face way, but naturally in the course of conversations) and ward missionaries did conventional contacting activities at least part-time. Even then, I don’t think many wards would see immediate, skyrocketing baptism rates – but over time I think it would happen in places where it isn’t happening now.

    In our stake, we have looked closely at the numbers, and we average about one baptism for every four investigators who attend Sac Mtg. The variation is slight. It’s quite predictable. If four investigators attend regularly, one of them will be baptized. However, if investigators attend with a member friend, almost half of them are baptized. That’s a baptism rate that is double the other already high percent – and MUCH higher than the rate achieved by the full-time missionaries’ contacting rate.

    Above and beyond that, our units average 6-10 baptisms annually – with two or three companionships serving in each unit. Other areas in the US (often the inner-cities) and around the world have that many per month. If the Church lost ten per year to gain ten per month . . .

    Personally, I think the Church has not done so out of a sense of “mercy” or “equality” – believing that all areas should receive “equal access” to the missionaries and the Gospel in the traditional way. I just see that changing if the numbers remain consistent. After all, it’s hard to continue to justify the disparity and not put the resources where they produce the greatest effect. I see the “raising the bar” focus, in part, as a way to maintain basic stateside baptism rates with fewer missionaries so that more missionaries can be sent to areas of higher growth. Perhaps *all* won’t be pulled out, but I definitely can see most units getting scaled back to only one companionship.

    I might be wrong, but I certainly would do that if I were in position to do so.

  45. JNS (41),
    Woo-hoo! Anecdotal evidence, cognitive bias, and distortion all the way!

  46. Adam Greenwood says:

    Interesting, JNS. In others words, this is a study of the exact same group of people both times, and of those the number of Mormons had slightly decreased?

  47. Thomas Parkin says:

    “if you trust anecdotal experience over systematic data, that’s fine. It’s distorting and prone to all kinds of cognitive biases, but I don’t mind.”

    Data doesn’t speak for itself; it is made to speak and in that is also subject to cognitive bias. I’m not sure where we are with “learning by our own experience” if we don’t place our a priori on immediate experience – what is ‘in front of our nose’, as Orwell has it.

    Note: only tangentially related to the subject matter at hand.


  48. Adam, right. Specifically, the Pew data involves taking a very big random sample of Americans and asking them (a) what religion they were raised in, and (b) what religion they belong to now. Setting aside issues of forgetfulness and misreporting (Which are always real in any survey, but also very, very difficult to deal with in a serious way. Do more people forget having been raised Mormon than would be the case for other faiths, or fewer, or what? We really don’t know.), this is similar to the better but far more expensive research design of interviewing the same very big random sample 20 years ago and again today.

    Anyway, the point is, this kind of within-individual comparison holds constant the composition of society. This is a big advantage because it allows us to look at our retention, conversion, and loss rates among fixed samples, without having these issues confounded with birth rates, immigration, and so forth. But it also means that we have to acknowledge that these other issues modify the results.

    Birth rate almost certainly makes Mormonism grow in proportional terms, because we still have more kids (the Pew survey confirms this, by the way). Immigration probably makes Mormonism shrink in proportional terms, because almost all countries with sizable immigrant flows to the U.S. have a smaller proportion of Mormons than does the U.S. On the other hand, it’s possible that Mormons are distinctively more likely to immigrate than non-Mormons; maybe Mormons take advantage of their ties to Utah or something. Or, what the heck, Mormons might be less likely to immigrate because they have more solid ties to a ward community that tend to keep them rooted. Whatever. Over against the conclusion of slight negative growth from the Pew data, we have a positive factor in birth rate and a negative factor in immigration. How do they all balance out? Hard to say. But we’re not going to be the largest faith tradition in the U.S. any time soon, at least…

  49. Thomas, sure, everything has biases. But survey data are way better than our individual experience because survey data involve the self-descriptions of a large and representative sample of people, while our own experience involves at best the self-descriptions of a small and unrepresentative sample. For survey data, as well, there are neutral and publicly replicable aggregation procedures, which also isn’t true for our anecdotal information.

    If we don’t have any better information, I guess it makes sense to rely on our anecdotal experience. But thinking in Bayesian terms, we ought to regard that kind of prior information as held with high variance, because we know we’re quite likely to be wrong. So any substantial amount of more carefully and systematically collected data ought to totally swamp our priors. This is basically the same argument as for why it’s probably rational to see vaccines as a more effective preventive for the flu than drinking lots of orange juice.

  50. Explosive growth prophecies aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. In my Asian mission 15 years ago we were given an “apostolic” (yes, that’s a quote from the apostle who gave it) prophecy that stakes in the country would double by 2000. Don’t know if it happened, but missions dropped 20% and members certainly didn’t double, so somehow I doubt it. Got us fired up though.

  51. I think the Brethren have acknowledged in some past confernce talk or other this issue of anemic growth in the US (and Canada), so I believe there are some issues and they are aware of it. Other than than, just more anecdotes from my Michigan Ward/Stake – we recently combined two wards into one, and are now “barely” a stake. I do not see any families being baptized – just a few single people who (not meaning this derogatory as I am a single person) tend to be on disability and have mental health issues. They tend to require a lot of attention, further draining ward resources. Also, although I see lots of attempts to get the ward members to be missionaries – it is not working – most of the investigators are tracted out. The other really concerning thing I see here in this stake is large quantities of young people becoming inactive. I don’t know what the answer here is, but I am really concerned. I have really struggled keeping my own kids active, so maybe that is coloring my view, but I know I am not the only one out there who is fighting this battle.

  52. Anecdotal Evidence Alert!

    We’ve often referred to our ward as “the burned over district” as the missionaries have tracted it out so many times. We’ve also seen the “gentrification/urbanization’ taking place in parts of our stake, and in some areas, missionary work getting stagnant.

    Cognitive Bias Warning!

    However, our mission, under a new mission president since last July, has instituted a “church tour” program, where the first invitation is not for a discussion appointment, but to tour the church. Normally a member is involved, and the investigators get to ask questions, find out about primary, relief society, seminary, basketball, the baptismal font, basketball, and then finally ending in the chapel. At that point, if the investigator is willing, then the missionaries do try to do a discussion. We have had a lot of positive experiences coming out of this program, which only started after the new year. The missionaries are all buzzing about it, as it really seems to invite spiritual experiences.

    Proof will come over time, hopefully with better quality converts and higher retention. So far, I would say the quality of the converts and investigators is a mix of what we would term good prospects, and some of the emotionally and physically needy.

    Blatant Distortion Detected!

    I am 100% positive that this program is 75% more effective than the 50% of other missionary programs I have witnessed over my years in the church.

    Or in other words, there’s no harm in trying something new.

  53. Since the same error I made in #12 (which JNS pointed out in #24) struck again, I’ll confess and forsake it. The Pew Forum prints 0.6% as the margin of error on its national identification table, because that is the maximum value of the expression. The standard error for proportions in a simple random sample is approximated by [p*(1-p)/n]^0.5 where p is true proportion and n is the total number of respondents. That expression is at a maximum when p=1/2, and so when calculating the error for the whole table .5 is plugged in for p and the whole result is multiplied by 1.96 to get a 95% confidence interval. (The Pew Forum also corrects for their reweighting, but I think this is an acceptable approximation.) When the proportion is more like 1.7% the standard error will be lower, and the width of that CI will be more like 0.13% than 0.6%.

    The implied number of Mormon adult self-identifiers discussed in #40 and #43 would then stand at 3.9 million +/- 0.3 million. (This based on 226 million US residents 18 and over reported in the Statistical Abstract of the US for 2006.) Multiplying 1.7% by the 270 million US residents 8 and over (and get 4.6 million) would understate the total number of Mormons, since Mormons have more children than average.

    Interestingly, even after correcting for the Community of Christ, Church of Christ (Temple Lot), and the rest, this number is over two-thirds the number of membership records in the United States.

  54. I’m probably just naive, but I think that one of the best ways we could enhance our missionary efforts would be to embrace “the Ammon way” rather than “the Amway” approach. Not that I want to eliminate all forms of cold contact, but it seems to me that the time is right for our non-LDS friends to see more clearly what we are made of. If we focus on real service, rather than on baptisms, I believe that the baptisms will come.

    When I was on a split with a missionary last year he asked me to stop the car and roll down the window. I was curious. To my amazement he shouted out the window at a pedestrian, “We are representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ! We have a message from Him. Would you like to hear it?” The pedestrian looked at us as if we were somewhat insane and made his way quickly down the sidewalk. Well, at least the missionary got in his open your mouth quota. I can tell you, that’s not going to happen in my car again.

    Dignity, service, faith, testimony, the Spirit. This is what we need now. If baptisms slow for awhile during the transition, the end result will more than make up for it. Let’s try the Ammon way.

  55. Kevinf and Aaron, yeah, there’s definitely no harm in trying new programs. And it would be goofy and pointless to claim that they couldn’t possibly change the current situation and increase our missionary success in the U.S. Until it’s been tried for a while, we just don’t know. I’m very much in favor of pragmatic experimentation, especially when there probably isn’t all that much to lose.

    TA Esplin, I think your numbers look about right. A few years ago, working with different data, I reached an estimate that 2/3 to 3/4 of U.S. adult Mormons on the books identify as Mormons. Your back-of-the-envelope calculations are based on different data than my back-of-the-envelope calculations were, so they’re a little bit mutually reinforcing. This fits with the point, in my main post above, that we don’t really have a retention crisis in the U.S. The 1/4 to 1/3 of Mormons-of-record who don’t identify as Mormon are some mix of lifelong Mormons who’ve left the church but not had their names removed and converts who left by the back door.

    These numbers would of course look quite different in Latin America, where best estimates imply that only something like 20% to 30%, and sometimes a bit less, of Mormons-of-record identify as Mormon. There, we certainly do have a retention crisis.

  56. #55: “2/3 to 3/4 of U.S. adult Mormons on the books identify as Mormons.” I have never warmed to this’question'(What Church…)
    I think the better question is: “what church do you attend?” for getting some meaningful information. #1 may get you “Mormon”, #2 may get you none.

  57. Thomas Parkin says:

    “But survey data are way better than our individual experience because survey data involve the self-descriptions of a large and representative sample of people”

    I think you’ve missed my point, a bit. The data is, from our individual perspective, just another fact to be observed, churned and resolved. With little enough regard to the validity of the data as a representation of reality,- we can assume some will be very good, other less so,- how we view it, then speak of it, is as subject to our individual bias as any other bit of information that passes through our transit.

    At least two things are neccesary: first, humility and relentless self-honesty; second, immediate experience with things, and engagement with those things. If I’m not looking first to my own immediate, anecdotal, as you have it, experience with missionary work, I’m prioitizing badly the most powerful tool I have in understanding data like the data you’ve presented.


  58. I’m with 42- I thought that Stark’s prediction was a little far-fetched from the beginning, but now, several years have gone by, and it seems even less likely to occur. I’ve read several of the blog posts on the results of the Pew surveys, as well as a couple that only preceded it by a couple of days, and it seems like lots of people are concerned about the demographics of the Church, particularly in America. Or, I should say, they are concerned about the demographic growth trends of the Church now and looking into the future.

    I have to admit that I am not that worried about what looks like slowing (or even negative) growth for the Church, either now or in the near future. Obviously, we ought to want all of our brothers and sisters to accept the Gospel, but did anybody really think that it would happen? I mean, Nephi said that he saw that the numbers of the followers of Christ would be very few, because of the wickedness of the great and abominable church. So I never understood from the beginning why everyone got so excited about Stark’s 200+ million Mormons.

  59. kevinf, we are trying the church tours in our stake, and I really like what we are seeing to this point.

  60. Bob, a lot of Mormon identifiers surely don’t attend any church at all. You’re right about that. But I think identification is a much more useful metric for measuring our size as a social group than behavior — those who think of themselves as Mormons, even if they don’t attend, are still part of our tribe.

    Thomas Parkin, I just don’t buy it. Your personal, hands-on engagement is a much less powerful tool for understanding other people’s experience than asking them is — and the survey data reflects the latter. The fact that survey data are analyzed using publicly shared and replicable procedures means that it’s also less easily distorted by our own biases. And a person’s “immediate experience” is just exactly the kind of anecdotal and unrepresentative experience I talked about above. Our own experience is certainly our best tool for interpreting our own lives, but it’s one of the worst tools we’ve got for interpreting other people’s lives.

    AHLDuke, it’s dueling prophecies time. Over against Nephi’s idea of us as few, we’ve got Daniel’s stone that grows to fill all the earth, which our leaders have often interpreted in terms of church membership growth.

    I think you’re right that this isn’t a big deal, though. It’s certainly not the only rhetorical trope we’ve modified or abandoned in our history, and whether we’re growing or shrinking as a group, we still have the opportunity to worship, serve each other, and so forth.

  61. Don’t be too vocal about this. We may be submitting a panel on Mormonism to the New Religious Movements section at AAR this year.

  62. #54 – I like your comment, but I couldn’t help but have the following thought:

    Perhaps we could try the Ammon way – threaten to cut off people’s arms if they resist us.

  63. Sam MB,
    It’s tricky, ain’t it? Mormonism is an established religion in the Rockies; a prominent denomination elsewhere in the American west; a minority sect in the US and Canada at large; and a strange NRM elsewhere in the world (with some exceptions).

  64. I think its safe to say that church population regional trends tend to mirror whats happening in the societies they live in. Michigan and the gulf coast is where I would expect to see declining populations of LDS. California would be another place due to high prices.

    JNS my back of the envelope calculation and a phone call to relatives at headquarters indicated 2/3-3/4 will self ID plus another 400-700K kids makes the “base” number somewhere between 3.7MM and 4.5MM in the US. About right were the PEW Study is.

  65. Anecdote: when my sister lived in Virginia 8-10 years ago, her stake/mission actually tried an Ammon approach for many months (I’m not sure whether the poster above was speaking generally or of a specific program; if this has already been discussed, my apologies), which basically focused on service projects and humanitarian help. You known, in the spirit of, I’m going to go live among these people for I don’t know how long, just to serve them. She said that the members and missionaries loved it, and she thought it very effective in promoting good will and feelings. But there was the rub: baptisms went down, and “effective” for the leaders in charge meant baptisms. So it ended. Ironically, in the long run maybe such a program, whose main goal isn’t baptisms, might actually attract more people. Having served a mission in Europe myself, I’ve long felt that humanitarian service is the way to go there, for people would respond far better to this than direct proselyting, and the missionaries would actually feel that they were doing something worthwhile.

  66. Ray,

    You got me on that one. Let’s only implement the Ammon way up to the point of service to those we live among. (Thanks, I needed a chuckle today.)

  67. Sam and Ronan, I pretty much agree with Ronan on this. Clearly Mormons aren’t seen as fully mainstream in the US more generally. At the same time, we aren’t generally seen as in the same category as the Jonestown people or the Children of God/the Family.

    bbell, right, I think those are probably pretty good numbers for the US, since they converge from various data sources.

    Craig, I think the revolution we need to have in thinking about missionary work is to switch from counting baptisms to counting long-term conversions. Alternative programs might look worse on baptisms but better on conversions.

  68. For the Ammon effect to lead to an increase in conversions, those leading the service need to be young noblemen who community leaders will view as peers and offer daughters to, and the service needs to be focused on the community leaders, leaders whose sway over the community is such that when they convert, so will most of the community.

    The service of ordinary people directed at ordinary or even underclass people will just be smiled at as what the good and wise wish religious people would spend their time doing instead of interfering with society. How many Catholic converts did Mother Theresa’s phenomenal service produce? How are the rolls of the Salvation Army doing?

  69. John M, I see your point, but it kind of misses my point. It’s not about public relations and converting the “right people” in order to increase baptisms (though some may see it that way). It’s about doing service for its own sake, like Mother Theresa and the Salvation Army. A consequence might be, I’d like to belong to such a movement? All kinds of women joined Mother Theresa’s order for that reason. But promoting Christian love is the means and the goal, and that’s good enough for me.

  70. CraigH, then why are you bringing it up under a post about conversion and retention. I’ve seen this dialogue before:
    “To increase conversion, we should serve more and proselyte less.”
    “Service doesn’t really lead to conversions.”
    “Well, that’s really unchristian of you to care if service leads to conversions.”

    If you want to promote service because it is a good thing in and of itself, that’s swell. If you’re going to promote it as a substitute for conventional proselyting, then it’s legitimate to ask if it functions as a substitute. And if someone is going to promote service as a missionary activity by using the example of Ammon, they should look at what form Ammon’s service really took.

  71. Actually we haven’t really tried the serve more and proselyte less, so we can’t say for sure that it won’t lead to more conversions. I guess my point is my silly sense, just a sense, that somehow if “convert baptism” isn’t the main goal, then ironically more such baptisms may actually occur. The way I read Ammon, his way of showing the love of God was to serve, and people couldn’t help be attracted to that. It’s ridiculously idealistic, I know. But maybe that’s the nature of religion. Somehow it makes sense to me, both for converting, and “retaining.”

  72. How many Catholic converts did Mother Theresa’s phenomenal service produce?

    I’d argue that this is an unanswerable question, but that the set of potentially reasonable answers might include, “millions.” The chain of cause and effect from service activities to conversion is not direct, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t real. Someone like Blessed Theresa of Calcutta generates a network of good feelings and an aura of spirituality that extends far beyond those who are directly involved in her efforts — in her case generating positive impressions of Catholicism throughout the world, but in less extreme cases nonetheless reaching entire communities. And it’s worth remembering that, while Catholicism has not been a growth religion in Europe or the Western Hemisphere in recent decades, it’s had explosive growth in Asia and Africa. Is that growth due to Theresa’s example? Who knows. I’m just suggesting that we can’t rule out the possibility. There isn’t enough evidence to either accept or reject the claim that service leads to conversions.

  73. SO JNS,

    What we need to figure out now is how to somehow take these recent numbers and compare them to say 1970, 1930, 1900 pick your dates.

    Then we can really see whats going on. I would suspect that the trend lines would look OK. I am not sure that we will ever be able to get historical data like this as good as the Pew Study even with access to the archives.

  74. Some other statistics to consider-

    “Membership records aside, a good indicator of robust Church growth is its chapel-building program. There are currently 8,254 chapels internationally, which shows a 10.0 percent growth rate over the past five years. That trend has also proven true in the United States, where there are 6,361 chapels-or a 9.6 percent growth rate for the same time period. Many of these chapels accommodate several congregations.”

    611 chapels built in the US from 2002-2007=122 chapels per year in one country-the United States- compared to 165 chapels per year being built in all other countries combined. I could be wrong, but the Church doesn’t build chapels to accommodate names on records. They are built when the attendance of “active” flesh and blood members in a given area necessitates additional meetinghouses.

    “During 2006, the number of congregations increased by more than 250 congregations in the United States alone.”

    President Hinckley, in the April 2007 general conference of the Church, said that during his 12 years leading the Church, “retention has increased significantly.”

    Randall said “However, it is also a harbinger, that we will not achieve the worldwide dominating presence that many believe is our destiny.”

    Some LDS members (mistakenly) assume that because the gospel will be preached to “every nation,kindred, tongue, and people” that it will someday become the largest Church in the world. It probably never will.

    “Ultimately, the strength of the Church is really measured by the devotion and commitment of its members,” said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The Lord has never given us a mandate to be the biggest Church — in fact, He has said our numbers will be comparatively few — but He has asked that we commit ourselves to living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    Block quotes obtained from Newsroom article – Church Statistics Reflect Steady Growth April 11, 2007

  75. bbell, right. My sense is that the church really only started measuring self-identification — as opposed to membership-of-record or attendance — over the past two decades.

    It’s outside the U.S. that the trend in membership retention seems to be negative. I’ve had quite a few discussions in recent years about whether the retention rates in other countries are falling fast enough to outweigh new conversions, such that the church is shrinking outside the U.S., is such that the two rates roughly keep balance, or is falling less slowly than the overall growth rate. I don’t know the answer on this, and it seems that the church organization doesn’t, either: I’ve seen leaked internal reports that, using the same data, reach all possible conclusions.

  76. I could be wrong, but the Church doesn’t build chapels to accommodate names on records.

    Yeah, xoxoxoxo, in my experience, you’re wrong. I’ve been in plenty of entirely empty chapels whose units are justified by names of records. The worst was my ward in Lima, Peru, which had a regular weekly attendance of about 15 — two of whom were full-time missionaries.

  77. My sources in the CHQ tell me that retention and activity levels in the US are pretty much at an all time high. The big concern is the slowly declining birthrate in the US will eventually catch up to us and we will stagnate in the US.

    They are also telling me that internation growth can really only be measured a generation at a time.

    Like 1970 compared to 2000. In that regard the growth is positive. But it could be so much better if there was better then 25-30% retention internationally.

  78. bbell, right, my sources basically agree — although it’s important to point out that, before the 1970s missionary boom, international retention was probably much higher; data are bad and imprecise, but they look better back them nonetheless.

    Regarding U.S. activity, the info I’ve seen says that the absolute number of people who attend each week is the highest in history, but the rates aren’t very much different than they were 25 years ago.

  79. I lived for several years in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco. Real estate prices there are too high for typical LDS families with lots of kids and not two full-time working parents. Most of the families were associated with the armed forces–Navy, Coast Guard, and a few Air Force–who lived on a military base that is now finally closed. Those who were homeowners found that they could sell their houses for enormous profits and buy mansions in Utah and live off the balance, so anyone close to retirement age was leaving for a more Mormon-friendly environment. Others were moving to less expensive outlying parts of the Bay Area, like Pittsburgh in Contra Costa County (past Walnut Creek and Concord), which is the end of the BART line. We had hundreds of inactive people on the rolls, who nevertheless did not want their names removed from the records when we would do visit them. My impression was that they had found heaven on earth in their prosperity and didn’t feel they needed to worry about eternity.

    I think it would be worthwhile to study what kind of socioeconomic conditions are most compatible with living an active LDS lifestyle. I know that it is difficult to live as an LDS in Japan because the college education system has unique exams for each university, and the competition to pass makes it almost impossible unless you spend all your time for a year studying. Once you are admitted, you can’t take off two years for a mission unless you pay full tuition to hold your seat. BYU-Hawaii is a much better alternative, that is compatible with serving a mission, and also helps support real fluency in English that is highly marketable skill in Japan.

    Japan is intersting in comparison to Korea. Japan’s level of Christians has stayed around one percent (one million total), with about 100,000 of those on the LDS rolls. Korea’s Christian churches have explosively grown, though I don’t think the same is true of the LDS membership there. Japan has an intense family structure and other social networks of obligation that creates friction and inertia against religious change. The general social viewpoint is highly materialistic. Back in the early 20th Century, Heber J. Grant noted the pride of the Japanese, in their emergence into the modern world, the same pride that led into the disaster of World War II. People were much more humble and willing to listen during the post-war years, but Japan’s pride has returned with its prosperity.

    Professor Rodney Stark’s prediction was made over 20 years ago, and it was the claim that in 20 years the Church would double in membership. It was confirmed. Stark uses the Church as a modern model for how he thinks the original Christian church grew during its first three centuries. He points out that you don’t need spectacular mass conversions, just an accumulation of factors that include a moderate rate of conversion, larger families (due to faithful spouses and parents), and healthier lifestyles (avoiding sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, violence, etc.).

    I think the social conditions in many parts of the US are affected by our general prosperity, and it makes people feel they don’t need to change their religion. Another factor, clearly, is that anti-Mormon propaganda does have a deterring effect for many people. It certainly persuaded many that voting for Mitt Romney was like voting for Satan. The Southern Baptist Convention puts a lot of resources into prejudicing Baptists against Mormons, out of concern that it is losing the equivalent of many congregations each year to the LDS missionaries, without comparable conversions from Mormonism. (Indeed, my recollection is the Pew survey said the Southern Baptists had a surprisingly small growth rate, despite its emphasis on revivalism and calling people to Jesus). I think that the building of LDS meetinghouses and temples in the South is seen as a threat to all professional clergy (It’s not lie they can convert and continue their careers by becoming Mormon bishops).

    As a former full time missionary, and having served in ward and stake missions, I have come to appreciate that each convert is the result of both miracles and hard work. There is no easy road to conversions. The miracles happen through faith and prayer. My conclusion is that, if we are not putting energy and hope into missionary work, if we let other concerns take our church-oriented energies, missionary work will be the first thing to fall off. People will only come into the Church through concentrated effort.

  80. Raymond Takashi Swenson, I agree that there is no easy road to conversions. And the primary reason we don’t have more conversions is because most members of the Church don’t share the gospel with their friends and associates.

    Many hands make the work light. When 80% of the active membership doesn’t do any proactive missionary work the situation is as we have today. When 80% of the active members start sharing the gospel we will see the numbers change.

    Why don’t more members share the gospel? That is a tough question. But I honestly believe that these members who won’t share the gospel don’t have what I have. Church attendance doesn’t equal conversion. When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

    Lets keep these members in the Church, where they can continue to grow and eventually become converted, but lets not kid ourselves into thinking they are converted.

    If we looked at the conversion rate in relationship to converted, born of the spirit, members of the Church, we would find it was quite good.

  81. John Taber says:

    Regarding U.S. activity, the info I’ve seen says that the absolute number of people who attend each week is the highest in history, but the rates aren’t very much different than they were 25 years ago.

    I recently compared the 1982 (first year for quarterly reports at the stake level) quarterly reports with the 2007 ones for my stake. That was the overall pattern, though Primary hasn’t kept up in terms of relative numbers.

    The proportion between Melchizedek Priesthood attendance and home teaching was the same in both years. I thought that was interesting.

  82. JNS

    I hope you understand, but without knowing the extent of your personal experience, I am not confident in accepting your opinion that it is standard practice for the Church to build chapels based on names of record and not actual documented activity. Perhaps if you would be kind enough to translate “plenty of entirely empty chapels” into a specific number I’d gain more clarity.

    The reason I ask is because I wouldn’t normally define a worst case scenario of 15 people as “entirely empty” so odds are we might differ on the definition of “plenty” as well. Thanks

  83. #79:”People will only come into the Church through concentrated effort.”. I think they come because they found what they were looking for. They leave when it no longer fills their needs, and that’s how it should be.
    If it’s numbers you want, think big! I’m talkin’ about a full black leather Book of Mormon Nascar!

  84. xoxoxoxo, when weekly attendance in a full-size chapel is 15 people, counting those on the stand, it feels pretty empty, I think. If you want specific numbers, I’d say that 6 of the wards that I’ve been in over the last 5 years or so had average weekly attendance of less than 60 people. A number of other wards that I’ve visited for a week or two have had quite small congregations, as well, although it’s hard for me to remember exactly how many.

    Admittedly, this is all anecdotal. But there is a convergent systematic argument to be made. You’ve quoted the fact that the U.S. has organized several new units and built a number of new buildings. However, the Pew data discussed in this thread, confirmed from various sources and even second-hand Church Office Building numbers, suggests that attendance has probably not increased dramatically during that period.

    In any case, the central point here is just that building numbers don’t tell us anything about the size of our community. It’s just a measure of the wrong concept. We could build more buildings and be growing in demographic terms, or shrinking, or staying about the same.

  85. By the way, an earlier comment on this thread, which has mysteriously disappeared, complained that my discussion neglected the fact that Mormons are highly regionally diverse in the U.S. The supposition was that most Mormons living in Utah were born Mormon, while Mormonism remains highly conversion-oriented outside Utah. I think that’s obviously probable to some extent, although it doesn’t change the overall picture discussed in the main post. Furthermore, the reality is almost certainly messier, since a lot of Utah families out-migrate (a topic that Jan Shipps, for example, has written about) and more than a few long-term converts from outside of Utah eventually migrate to the Mountain West (just ask people in Salt Lake or Provo about Californians). Geographical mobility mucks up distinctions between “the mission field” and the Mormon corridor — as does the fact that the Mormon corridor sees a respectable number of convert baptisms.

  86. For years, the highest English-speaking convert baptism rates in the world were Utah missions. That might still be the case, but I haven’t seen the figures for a few years.

  87. JNS-

    I’m chuckling again at how differently two people can view the same things.

    For example you define 250 new congregations in one year to as “several new units” and 122 new chapels per year as just “a number of new buildings”.

    Even if 6 wards have only 60 people that attend, the Church has grown by 360 people who need a place to worship, and as chapels are houses of the Lord, even if only “two or three are gathered together in His name” He is “there in the midst of them”.

    I don’t doubt your experience at all, but since my own experience is the antithesis of yours, I have no personal evidence that Church policy is to build chapels based on records and not people.Let me explain-

    When we moved to this community a little over 5 years ago there were two stake centers and approximately 3-4 regular church houses in about a ten mile radius. Since then, two more stakes have been formed (and stake centers built), at least seven more meetings houses have been completed (that I know of), and our ward was split two more times. Each building is shared by three wards and several of them host branches as well.

    Three weeks ago we moved into a new ward AND stake less than a mile from our previous house and as of ward conference last week, this new ward has 648 members, 4 nurseries and 40 Sunbeam aged children. Current attendance on regular Sundays fills the chapel, the over flow area, and reaches the back wall of the gym as do the two other wards in our building.The Stake President hinted repeatedly about “change” and “growth” throughout the day and the sentiment is that the ward will be split at Stake Conference in April-even though several ward members refuse to believe it because they just split this same ward 13 months ago.

    I didn’t see anything in the Pew report about actual “activity” or regular attendance by those surveyed…I must have missed it. Where is that data? And why would second hand sources from CHQ have access to actual attendance records? I would love to see the actual Church attendance statistics if you have them.

  88. #87:Since this post is on missionary efforts, why in your community and not others? Is it your community is growing? Are these all new members, or relocating members.

  89. xoxoxoxo, I think you’re taking stylistic choices too seriously. “Several” and “a number” were intended as synonyms; I used two different terms to avoid unnecessary repetition. Likewise, I absolutely agree with you that the church generally builds new buildings when a particular area has a large increase in Mormon population. My point is simply this: that isn’t the only reason the church builds new buildings. Because the church also builds new buildings to reduce travel time for existing members, as an investment in an area to try to increase activity rates, and so forth, we can’t use the construction of new buildings as a close proxy for growth in our community. The two may be correlated, but not necessarily very well because there are other factors at play.

    Believe it or not, actual church attendance statistics are kept confidential. Almost everyone who has ever seen them either works for the church or has seen leaked documents. I’ve seen leaked documents. I can’t give you precise numbers; that’s why we’ve been working with generalities in the discussion above.

    Note that the Pew data are relevant to the question of attendance and activity, even though they don’t measure attendance and activity (other surveys do, although they usually have smaller samples; for the GSS, for example, the margin of error is large but there’s no significant evidence of change in Mormon church attendance since the 1980s). The reason is that those members of record who don’t identify as Mormon are probably overwhelmingly non-attenders.

    I’m not really sure why this is a debate. Surely it’s clear that building construction is a noisy and imperfect proxy for membership growth. To give a hypothetical example, suppose that at time A, 95% of US Mormons live in one place — so lots of buildings are built there. At time B, 50% of the Mormons have moved to another place. So the church builds more buildings in that second place but probably doesn’t tear down the buildings in the first place…

  90. Note that the margin of error in the national identification question is 0.6%. One should be careful drawing any conclusions when the total proportion of Mormon respondents is just three times the margin of error.

    Exactly. The margin of error of 0.6% is for estimates based on the ENTIRE SAMPLE.

    The margin of error for estimates about Mormons is 4.5 percentage points, as noted on pg. 116, Appendix 4. (I confess that I said 4.2 percentage points in a comment on another thread, but that’s because I guestimated it rather than looking at their methodological details, but it was still pretty close.)

    Re comment 41, I don’t know where you are getting the 0.01% number…

  91. Naismith, the margin of error for the numbers about Mormons is about 0.1% to 0.16 — the 0.01% number is a typo with an extra 0. The margins of error you’re discussing just don’t apply; this has been explained earlier in the thread. If you just do the math yourself, you’ll see.

    There is no such thing as a general margin of error for a given set of survey data. The margin of error for a proportion depends on the actual proportion, and it can vary by huge amounts based on the proportion. Survey write-ups, especially by journalists and non-profits, routinely report the maximum possible margin of error, not the actual margin for a given data set. If you do the actual math for the actual percentages here, the margins are far narrower than you suggest. Basically, insistence on wider margins just shows a lack of experience with statistics.

  92. Just in case some technical details help…

    The standard error for a proportion is the square root of p(1-p)/n, where p is the population proportion in question and n is the total sample size of the entire data set. Since we don’t know p, the standard practice is to estimate it with the sample proportion.

    n for the Pew data is 35556, while the sample estimate of p for the proportion of current Mormons is 0.016. So the standard error is 0.00067. The normal theory margin of error goes 1.96 standard errors above and below the sample estimate of the proportion, so the margin is about 0.0013, or about one tenth of one percent.

  93. We shouldn’t confuse the margin of error for “statements about Mormons” of the form “x percent of Mormons have characteristic y,” and statements like “z percent of the whole population is Mormon.” The margin of error for the former type of statement is based on the sample of only 550 or so Mormons, so it can be as large as 4.5 percentage points. The margin of error for the latter type statement is based on the whole sample size of 35K, so it will be much smaller, as explained by JNS in the previous comment.

  94. I’m not interested in debating anything and we both agree that GENERALLY the Church does not build chapels based on records or names, and that is not their standard practice.

    Given the actual questions reported to have been asked by the surveyors, I don’t see how you can say that the PEW data “is relevant to the question of attendance and activity, even though they don’t measure attendance and activity”(huh?)It is a huge stretch to reach the conclusion that “The reason is that those members of record who don’t identify as Mormon are probably overwhelmingly non-attenders.”

    First-they didn’t ASK them if they were “members of record” or not-and the report states that people were grouped only by their stated religious affiliation “regardless of their specific beliefs and whether or not they attend (or participate) regularly.” This allows for various individual interpretations of what constitutes “affiliation”.

    Second-when asked which “Mormon” religion they most closely identified with, only 1.6 percent of the 1.7 percent of responders who are currently “Mormon” specified that they were affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints specifically. 0.3% claimed the Community of Christ and 0.3% responded with “just Mormon”.

    Also-being “raised” in a Mormon home or Mormon family does not automatically equate with that home being an active LDS one (as opposed to an RLDS or Community of Christ home etc) or with the respondents being baptized into the LDS Church as children.

    Because of those factors alone, the results can be skewed in a number of ways. PEW itself declares that the margin of error for the Mormon subset is +-4.5 percent, and clearly shows that the smaller the number of respondents in a given subset, the higher the margin of possible error.

  95. The main reason conversion rates with in the US are down is because Americans are ignorant about the Bible and hardly know what is in it anymore.

    The two most common traits of a new convert (and even more so in those that stay converted) are the following:

    1: They are “Seekers”

    2: The are regular Bible readers.

    I think one of the things we may have to consider is an adjustment to the Missionary Discussions which are currently almost exclusively focused on introducing the BofM to Bible literates. While the BofM should likely remain the commitment focus of the 1st Discussion, I think that the 2nd Discussion (Christ’s Mission) should perhaps now include the presentation of a free Bible and reading goals from the gospels detailing important parts of Christ’s mortal ministry. Or possibly the Missionaries should start by asking some find out questions about how much they know about Christ and the Bible, and have a prepared optional added discussion about the Bible.

    I think as members we might also need to start reading the Bible regularly, and start thinking about the Bible as a major entry into a missionary discussion with our non-member friends.

    In many places they will know next to nothing about the Bible, and if they come to identify Mormons with knowing the Bible it will help open the door to future missionary moments, and also inoculate against much of the anti-mormon stuff out there.

    An easy way to feel out what people know about the Bible right now would be to ask people what they think about the Biblical allusions in Huckabee’s speeches. A discussion can then follow on Bible imagery. A non-threatening question would be something like: What is one of your favorite Bible stories? (or Bible images).

    If someone admits they don’t know much about the Bible, buy them a Bible. Give it to them with some favorite passages marked. (I recommend a story from the Gospels, and your favorite Psalm).

    Naturally future discussions will come up about religion, and give an opportunity to teach right doctrine, and also offer a BofM.

  96. Basically, insistence on wider margins just shows a lack of experience with statistics.

    Well, please don’t tell my boss, you could get me fired! Writing research technical reports is a big part of what I do for a living.

    Now that you’ve corrected the typo, I don’t disagree with you about the standard error for the identification question itself, which is based on the entire sample size.

    However (and my reason for agreeing with the previous poster who raised statistical concerns), when it comes to the data ABOUT MORMONS which were discussed in the original post, such as what percentage are converts, in which religions converts were raised, etc., then those items have a much wider margin of error because they are based on a much smaller sample size, including Mormons only.

    This is acknowledged by the study authors.

  97. Based on nothing but my personal experience, I think an interesting difference between my friends of other faiths and my Mormon friends is that my friends of other faiths tend to identify with the religion as adults even if they rarely attend services and are generally uninvolved in that faith. By contrast, when my Mormon friends have stopped attending church, they felt that they needed to break their ties with that community in a much stronger way. I wonder…does our faith put so much emphasis on all-encompassing participation that it makes those on the edge feel that they must either participate fully or leave entirely? Is there no middle ground position?

  98. Naismith, there’s a bit more nuance here as well, I’m afraid. The questions about Mormons do have a larger margin of error, but it’s also a lot less important because the proportions of interest are also a lot larger. Consider the margin of error on the 25% are converts estimate. Here, we’re interested in the square root of 1.96*.25*.75/588, which is about 3.5%. So the proportion of present-day Mormons who are converts might be as high as 28.5% or as low as 21.5%, although the best bet is still something in the 25% region. Obviously, this is a narrow enough range not to be substantively very important, which is why statistical issues were not raised in the original post.

    Likewise, the difference between the number of born Mormons who left and the number of convert Mormons today is a difference between two proportions that are independent subsets of the 35K original respondents. That difference is statistically significant.

    xoxoxoxo, I can’t really make much sense out of your comment. Your substantive factors are correct — many of them have been discussed above. But they aren’t a problem, or do you think that people who say “I’m not a Mormon” generally routinely attend church? If you agree with me that they don’t, then self-identification is a clue about activity rates, a proxy measure with noise.

    In fact, I’m sure it’s a better proxy measure than building construction rates, which might in fact be based on a decision rule primarily relying on numbers of members of record, or primarily on geographic convenience, or many other things. We just don’t know how, in practice, these decisions are made — and therefore we can’t really interpret them.

    Most public reports like the Pew one fudge on the statistical details and are very imprecise. This is the same story. You’re wrong in claiming that smaller proportions have bigger errors; it’s actually the other way around. Smaller proportions are farther from .5, which is the point at which a proportion has maximum variance. So very small proportions (like very large ones) have less variability and are thus easier to estimate — and have smaller margins of error — than proportions near .5.

    I teach all this stuff in my undergraduate stats class, and quite a lot more in my graduate research methods seminars, but if someone’s commendably unwilling to accept my personal authority on the claim that sqrt(p*(1-p)/n) is the standard error for a proportion, just google “standard error for a proportion.” For the sake of precision, it’s worth pointing out that the Pew results probably involve some weighting. There are two kinds of weighting: pre-sample weighting, reflecting the clustering in the sampling design, and post-sample weighting, which relies on very dubious assumptions to try to correct for differential response rates by various categories of respondents. People who do stats but aren’t involved in peer review processes often do both, but only the first set of weights is unambiguously a good idea. Applying the sampling weights might either increase or decrease the size of the margin of error, although the fact that estimates published in the report are very close to raw, unweighted proportions strongly suggests that the change would be substantively small.

  99. #95 – It is an interesting paradox that someone who believes in the Bible often doesn’t believe the Bible. (much like Robinson’s “Believing Christ” thesis) It also is an interesting paradox that most of the truly unique Mormon doctrines are not found or taught in the Book of Mormon but rather the Bible. I agree that figuring out how to address that issue is perhaps the central one in missionary work among American Christians, but I also think the current track of the lessons is perfect. The central issue is that relatively few young missionaries are mature enough doctrinally to understand the nuances.

    One of the biggest issues is that it is almost impossible for many who have been indoctrinated with other interpretations to look at the Bible and parse the big picture – to break away from their former teachings and see what the Bible (especially the Gospels) actually teaches. I know this is a broad generality, but most of Protestantism doctrinally is Pauline- and creed-based, while Mormonism is much more Gospels-based. Ironically, the best way to break that Pauline-/creed-based paradigm for many people is to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon, join the Church, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and then start seeing and reading the Bible with a different light. I have seen it over and over and over again, and it fits perfectly with Mormon 7, especially verses 8-9.

    If someone is a Bible believer and a seeker, and if that person is open to a thoughtful discussion of the Gospels as the foundation of Christian theology (rather than the creeds and Paul), then it is not hard for someone who knows the Bible well to help them begin to see the Gospel in a new light and understand the need for a Restoration. However, they still need to read and accept the Book of Mormon in order to gain a testimony of the restoration through Joseph Smith.

    Most young missionaries just aren’t doctrinally mature enough to tackle both of those approaches, so the lessons are structured to focus on the second (gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon and THEN start to understand the Bible correctly once you are a member of the Church). Therefore, the responsibility to “nurture new members in the good word of God” falls on the members in most cases – not the missionaries.

  100. #99: Ray, you and I were raised in a missionary system with different “rules of engagement”, than Cicero in wants #95. The Bible was not to be used as the main door. That was because all Christian churches could make the Bible work for them, and this just lead to a shoot out, (or shout out).

  101. #99 and #100

    I served my mission in a southern state, so I full understand what you are saying. A focus on the Book of Mormon is the best way to approach those who have already accepted Christ and are suffering from the false doctrines of the creeds.

    My point is that I discovered that even in the South, lots of people claim to read the Bible, but large numbers do not. They have a Bible, but they never read it. They are like Jack Mormons who have never read the Book of Mormon.

    Because of this teaching them is difficult- not because they have false ideas from the creeds, but because they have no idea about biblical Christianity at all. Just some vague understanding that Jesus died on the Cross so that they can be saved.

    We as Mormons are more Biblically literate than most Protestants. We make assumptions about what people already know. I’d guess about 30% of the people I taught in the heart of the Bible belt had no idea how to pray. Not that they have false ideas, but they just never thought about prayer before. It’s much worse in other parts of the country, as evangelicals tend to be pretty biblically literate. (Any surprise they are the main source of converts in the US).

    So I’m just making the point that I think we need to reconsider our current model of:

    Mormon missionary bringing the message of the restoration to a Bible reading Christian following the creedal doctrines of the Protestants/Catholics.

    Instead a better model would be:

    Mormon missionary bringing the message of Christ’s Atonement to people who have heard about Christ, but don’t really know much about him.

    Use of the Bible, particularly the four Gospels is vital for preaching in the second model. While in the first model it’s just assumed that people already know all this stuff.

    I’m not suggesting that the Bible supplant the Book of Mormon as the center of the gospel message. I’m just saying we need to get people to start reading the Bible in addition to the BofM if we want them to understand what we are teaching them.

  102. Additionally I’d like to point out that the main method of conversion is not doctrine, but is due to the Spirit.

    People often feel the Spirit when taught correct doctrine, or when reading the BofM and the four gospels. If we encourage people to read the Bible, they will associate the Spirit that they feel while reading with the Church.

    This helps retain converts as it focuses the convert on doctrine and scripture as the primary source of spiritual strength. Converts whose main connection to the Spirit is through friends and social activities at church are more vulnerable to a lack of retention in my opinion.

    I found one of the biggest indicators of retention was whether people started reading the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants in addition to the Book of Mormon.

    Of course, a lot of converts hardly ever read the BofM. I tell you, that was the hardest thing to get people to do. Far harder than committing people to be baptized.

    If I were to list the in order things that were hardest to get people to do it would be:

    1: Read the BofM (or the Bible even!)

    2: Come to Church

    3: Stop Smoking

    4: Commit to be Baptized

  103. #102: The human ear is a funny thing: It seems useless as a thing to talk into, but is only good at taking things in it wants to hear. I think the hardest thing is to get people to open their ears to the cries of their own ‘souls’.

  104. Thomas Parkin says:

    JNS – from way back.

    I think the strength and direction of this discussion proves amply enough the importance of individual experiences in understanding the meta-view the stats provide.


    Your thoughts on the Bible echos the edge of my own thinking and help focus those thoughts. Thanks!


  105. Thomas, I’d say the discussion really shows the hazards of individual experience as a distraction from systematic reasoning. Relying on anecdote leads us astray because our brains are hardwired to prefer more vivid but less reliable information. Choosing anecdote over systematic information just because we observe that others prefer to do so, though, is simply a bad choice; it’s deliberately choosing bias and distortion.

    Individual experience is justified when it’s the only thing we’ve got. Systematic information, whether quantitative or qualitative, is always better because it’s less prone to self-deception of various kinds.

  106. Thomas Parkin says:


    I don’t buy it.


  107. Thomas, that’s fine. I’d recommend a healthy reading list of experimental research on humans’ cognitive biases, starting with the various books by Kahneman and Tversky and continuing on until you’ve seen enough evidence to change your mind, but I’m guessing you won’t play along. There are more important things to do in life.

    Anyway, I do love the fact that we have people on BCC who are willing to argue against the scientific method. It’s fun!

  108. #105: I call it a tie.

  109. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Church policy requires persons who have moved on to play an active part in removing their names from the records. It’s kind of like US citizenship–even if you are behaving in a dubios, terrorist-like manner, you still have to explicity renounce it.

    I’ve yet to meet anyone this proactive vis-a-vis their membership records–they’ve moved on, right?–and as a result, there’s more deadwood on the church rolls than a whole passel of bishops, ward mission leaders, and missionaries can shake a stick at.

    This is a bit off topic perhaps but – the church seems to be interested in working on this. Recently we had a missionary couple in our stake who were sent here specifically to get rid of dead weight on the rolls.

    They visited every single address/name in our Stake (unless they were obviously active – Bishops were asked to mark the list beforehand indicating those who are participating and fully active) – when they came across those who were less active they asked if they would like home teachers to come visit them or they invited them to church – if the response was “no thanks” they asked them if they considered themselves to still be members of the church (not sure how they worded it – probably better than I am here) – if they indicated that they did not still consider themselves to be members or if they were antagonistic in any way, they handed them a letter that was already typed up for them requesting removal from the records, told them all they needed to do was sign it and put in an the envelope that they provided for them, which was already stamped.

    I don’t know if we are doing this church-wide or if there’s a realization that we had a problem locally (in our ward we were able to completely eliminate 60 names who had either moved, or no longer identified themselves as mormon).