Mormonism, a global counter-church? (Part II)

by Walter E.A. van Beek
Chair, Anthropology of Religion, Tilburg University, The Netherlands

Part I here.

2.1. Case: inactive members in the Netherlands

In order to answer this question (what processes of identity construction does the church generate in various types of religious adherence?), I shall concentrate first on “the International” church, i.e. a part of the church outside ” Deseret” as this is the main arena for the Mormon Church to become a “Church for all the World”. The case is from the Netherlands.

For some context, let us visualise a mean Dutch Mormon unit, ward or branch, the mean of a 10 unit Dutch stake, half branch, half small wards. The composition of 1998 is as follows:

Members of record: 198

Mean sacrament attendance: 56

Families: 143 (of which 18 visited by Home Teaching)

Melchezidek Priesthood: 24 (of which 10 inactive)

Non-ordained “future elders”: 44 (of which 43 inactive)

Women 100: (of which 76 inactive)

Young men: 7 (of which 3 inactive)

Young Women: 5 (of which 2 inactive)

Children: 18 (of which 4 inactive)

The activity rate of 28% is considered normal in the Netherlands, reflecting a similar reality elsewhere. This means that 72% did not attend once in the past three months, a sign of inactivity for Mormons. For the moment we assume that the 28% reflects self identifying Mormons, a reasonably safe assumption that we shall return to later anyway. But the large majority of the members, the ones who never show up, or the “Fleeing Flock” as Decoo characterises them, how about them? To what extent do these 72% define themselves as Mormons? If they consider the margin, how is this composed? The general answer to that is quite straight forward: they do not consider themselves to be Mormons; but some nuances are called for. What is the pattern of disaffiliation, and conversely, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Mormon identity construction in this area?

About a quarter of them, 20% – 30% hardly recall anything about being a member anyway: they have been blessed or baptised as a child, entering with their convert parents. When their parents opted out, often soon after baptism, they left the church, never to return again. They hardly remember, they do not know about the church, and they routinely do not want to get reacquainted with the church. It holds no interest to them. They sometimes asked to be struck from the record, but are seldom motivated enough to write an actual request.

A small fraction, 5-10% has been a “baseball baptism”, during the “Dyer Days” of the European missions. They are aware of their baptism, and on the whole resent it. They do not even want to write a letter asking the removal of their names from the records. Another similar fraction, very difficult to ascertain, seems to consist of “social drifters”, migrants, some psychiatric patients. They drifted into and out of the church, as a survival routine.

One sixth has a personal memory of one particular missionary; they investigated the church-cum-missionary and were baptised by that missionary, if allowed. When that missionary was transferred, they gradually, or even immediately, drifted out of the church. In some cases, they took a personal interest in more than one missionary and then stayed in longer.

One single 65 year old man had a huge collection of missionary photographs in his home, showing this only to his home teachers. He had started as a new convert with one special elder that was replaced by another one, when his “baptism -elder” left”. When he grew older, his attachment to the boys did not diminish, but his resentment that they inevitably left increased, and he started complaining about unjust mission rules, transferring these “wonderful boys” ever so often (each 3-5 months). Eventually he stopped coming and left the church: the emotional strain became too much.

It is not only the converts who opt out when someone else leaves. Instances in which a second generation member leaves when a
convert leaves in whom he had put his trust, are known as well.

Another quart, 20-30% has been a full member of the church for a considerable stretch of time, but after some changes in their course of life, opted out. The majority of them married outside the church and followed their new spouses to another church, or to a secular existence. Usually the latter. The minority among them felt itself disaffiliated by the church, when they experimented with drugs, became pregnant before marriage, followed their homosexual leanings or became a single mother. Some of these disaffectations resulted from divorce, a phenomenon on which I shall return later. Not always these changes were so dramatic: when people move to another city, at a much larger distance from the chapel, they tend to lose their links with the church.

On the whole this group felt that their life course had taken them out of the church; theirs was not so much a conscious choice as a “growing away from” the church. For a few of them it was the farewell to a youth, often a very satisfying one: “I have had wonderful years as a young women in the church”, one of them said, “but now I have found my husband, and I am back in my old church, together with him. But I did have a great time in the church”. And in fact, she had been very active, in her ward and in the Young Women’s organisation of the stake. But she never came back to the church.

The remainder, another sixth, offers the most complicated picture. This is the group of the “disenchantment”. Decoo distinguishes between normal and serious disenchantment; here, the latter is meant: a thorough revision of the ideas and ideals operative at baptism. Clashes with – or between – members, some rows, conflicts or quarrels were totally unpalatable for them. Often they cited these incidents, plus some doctrinal problems, often the black prohibition on priesthood. When told that this not longer holds, they seem to be hardly interested. These people usually want out of the church, their names struck from the records. When asked, they often follow up on it. They tend to be quite unsympathetic to the church, due to bad memories or long cherished grieves against (people of) the branch they were baptised in.

The second part of this category could be classified as “overexposure”: children from former leaders, returned missionaries and leaders of small branches with too many tasks, they often have opted out. Theirs is a very definite choice, often not in pain or grudge, but a conscious choice, manifesting some anger tempered with the relief of not having to deal with the pressure. Often they do not want out, but still consider themselves nominally Mormons, or do want to remain on record as their parents would be hurt otherwise. Here, also, is the phenomenon of “leakage at the top”: some of the disenchanted have held leadership positions, such as branch president, bishop, counselor of stake president and stake president.

Not on the records, evidently, are the excommunicated members, though disfellowshipped are. My impression is, conform the literature on the US, that this is but a minute fraction of the total drop out of the church. As a rule of thumb, the three Dutch stakes excommunicate not more than one person per year.

2.2. Comparison with the disaffectation in the US

Before going into the identification processes, some comparison of the Dutch/European leave-taking processes, with the US ones. Some patterns are obvious. Doctrinal matters are very secondary, conform to what Bahr and Albrecht have found for the USA. If mentioned, they seem to serve as a post hoc rationalisation. Also, very few people leave the church for one reason only; it usually is a compound of factors. What is dominant is the idea of biographical reconstruction: their lives have taken a different turn, on a course in which the church had no longer a viable part. The first variant is after a more or less involuntary membership, our first category. They, in fact, cannot be considered to have been members at all. Postulating their number against the Dutch membership, some 1800 members of record should not be there. But their names will never be removed, and they number only slightly less than the active Dutch membership! The most active and conscious reconstruction of their lives is in the second category, those who have “lived themselves” out of the church. They do include a fair number of rapid baptisms, reminiscent of the old battling point between missionaries and members: the missionaries have an interest in baptism, the receiving members in activity, in retention. Their internalisation of the norms and rules of the church has been less than complete, but more importantly, they never developed a Mormon network among their peers.

Another commonality is the difference between disbelief and rejection. Disbelief in the church teachings is often cited as a factor. In retrospect it might play a larger role than in the actual process of leave taking, and it may serve as a rationalisation. But it does fit in with common element in Dutch society, where disbelief in religious teachings is a normal phenomenon, well respected and accepted.

One inactive member of 76 years of age, told that she had been a member long ago, some thirty years ago. She had had a good time, no problems with the other members. But some of the elements of doctrine seemed not right (she had forgotten what it could have been), and as her education was above the church average (using her own words) it was hard for her to accept on authority. She then returned to her Dutch Reformed church, but not in an active way. She is interested in Evangelicals (EO), but does not attend church any longer. Maybe, when in an old age home, where she hopes to go soon, she will attend the Reformed services again.

Disbelief need not lead to a change in self definition as a Mormon, but it does block church attendance. If people disbelieve the teaching, for whatever additional reason, they stop going to church, but they sometimes want to remain on record. It is hard to assess to what extent they define themselves as Mormons vis à vis a third party; my guess would be that they will no; but faced with active members, especially the ones they know, they will still define themselves as “members of the church” (though not as Mormons, nor as “Latter Day Saints).

Rejection is different; the category of those who feel to have been “tripped into” the church is very rejective. Also some of the “bleeders at the top” or “overexposed” actively reject the church. Yet, often they do remain on record, while emphatically denying to be a member. They have a kind of “love-hate” relationship with the church, struggling with it, but never free, each with his or her own story. Like a divorce.

One returned missionary explained that the church had “destroyed him”. After his – prematurely released – mission, the devil had attacked him, he explained. Christ had allowed the devil to mark him, to lay his hands on him. The brothers in the church had not given his case enough attention; they did, in fact, give him a priesthood blessing, but then did not follow it up in an intensive way. They had disappointed him. He now considered the Mormon church as “one of the schools that educate towards Christ, not the only one”. In fact, though he did not come to church, he still was a missionary, teaching his people ( Surinam immigrants in the Netherlands) about the church.

What is clearly different from the US situation is the importance of family matters in church affiliation. Bahr and Albrecht note that divorce is one major motive for disaffiliation, as one of the divorcees tends to opt out of the church. This seems less the case in the Dutch church; though divorce seems on the rise, a minority of the partners takes his or her leave. Moving to another branch or ward is standard (sometimes not even that), with the concomitant irony that stake conferences become meetings places for ex-partners. In the relatively small units, a divorce in an active couple is a disaster, for which the unit has no set behaviour pattern. Nor have the unit or stake leaders.

The main difference is the non-return of the inactive member. Whereas in the US the inactive members, often dropping out at adolescence, pick up church attendance when they have to raise a family. In the US the majority of the disaffectation seems to be short term. Thus, the authors distinguish between engaged and disengaged non-believers, and between engaged and disengaged believers. In their data of 100 LDS on record 26% remain life long in the church (of which 4% as non-believers), 64% move out, of which two thirds move back in again at some time. This seems the largest part of the church actives: the people who have taken dip into the “outside”.

In Europe, at least in the Netherlands, this is not the case. People do not return on their own steam, and people who move out, stay out. The “Fleeing Flock” does only with exceptionally return to the fold. Several factors account for this non-return, most having to do with the general structure of European social life. In the USA raising a family is considered the primary reason for opt for or return into a church; a church environment is considered good for bringing up children. This is not the case in the Netherlands, nor in most countries of Europe. Having children is no reason to join a church. The insistence on family values of the Mormon church is not a sales pitch in the Netherlands, neither among the members nor among the disaffiliated. In fact, it is closely associated with the Christian Democrat Party (CDA), which has moved out of power and is moving out of fashion. So the adolescents who leave the church, often as children of active parents, usually do not return. They marry someone from outside the church, sometimes from another religion, and for the great majority do not affiliate to any church. This tendency has nothing particularly Mormon: in the Netherlands people who move out of a church, do not move in again. At present, this amounts to the great majority of the population, at present more than 70% of the population does no longer count itself member of a church. So, the Dutch ex-Mormons follow the pattern of the general population. In order to assess the impact of the non-return, the drop out of children is of relevance. Our impression is that half of the children from full-member families stays active, and one third in half-member families, with a greater drop out in more socially vulnerable categories, such as minorities. Marriage is a reason to leave the church, slightly more for girls that for boys. The relatively few “returnees” in the Netherlands, is found in this category.


  1. Peter LLC says:

    Thanks for this informative post.

    For the moment we assume that the 28% reflects self identifying Mormons

    Does the Dutch census ask about religious affiliation? It seems like that might also be a way to determine self identifying members. I know Austria asks (one of the requirements for official recognition is that 0.002% of the population self identify as a member on the census), and with 2,236 members checking the LDS box, it’s significantly less than the official church figure of 4,215.

  2. Fascinating work. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Steve G. says:

    sounds similar to my experiences as a missionary in Germany.

    I met one inactive member who claimed membership in 2 churches (mormon and New Apostolic), though he was inactive in both. I wonder how often that occurs in Europe. Probably more often than in the US.

  4. Thanks for posting this. What a great recap. This differs quite a bit from my experiences in the Canary Islands, but it is quite similar to what I have heard from missionaries who served in the northern European missions. Frankly, Netherlands probably skew left within Europe, all of which skews left of the US’s left pretty substantially.

    I have long felt that the LDS message is going to be problematic in Europe if the extreme political conservative culture is not effectively addressed. For those who equate righteousness with republicanism (e.g. welfare = tool of the devil to reduce accountability), it will be difficult to sell the theology to politically left nations. How to do that is another matter. You can take the people out of Utah (and send them elsewhere as missionaries), but you can’t take the Utah out of the people. I suppose sending local members on missions is one approach, but as the OP points out, that’s difficult in countries with so little investment in the church and such a poor value proposition.

  5. In my view the biggest issue for us in Europe is that its a post religious society. Our missionaries who baptized my convert ancestors were speaking to people who lived in a religous environment and culture. You can have a meaningful conversation about religion with fellow believers in Christ but its much harder when its been 2-3 generations since the change into a post religious society. For a quick view google the activity rates of the Lutheran churches in Norway, Sweden etc. You will see 5-7% activity rates. The only growing religious demographic in Europe is Islam which is mostly driven by immigration but there is a conversion element as well.

  6. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    Well, brethren & sisters, accepting all that has been said as substantially true, the Church is essentially dying in the western industrialized world. The birthrates among the young are hardly sufficient to replace themselves much less add any growth to Church membership in these areas.
    Here in the Rocky Mountain “Zion” the same situation exists among the great grandchildren of the pioneers. Those Saints who were tried so sorely and gave up nearly all for their Faith now see their descendants discard it with utter indifference. Materialism, secularism and social causes have trumped receiving a witness from the Holy Spirit, loyalty to your Creator, and enduring to the end. I am glad that I am the age I am because it tears my heart out to see the Gospel and the Church trammelled upon by those who should have carried the sacred flame into Millenium.

  7. I’ve recently been reading about potential connections between the issue of church/state separation and its effect on American religiosity compared to nations where the separation has not been defined in similar ways. Stark is one of the fellows who talks about this phenomenon. Interesting posts, thanks.

  8. Here’s an interesting but non-academic piece on the 7th Day Adventist movement and activity issues:

  9. Steve G,
    I’m still surprised at how similar our faith is to theirs. I taught an eternal investigator in Germany who was thinking of joining that church because it’s very similar, but not so hard to live. I’m not at all surprised that someone would say they were members of both.

  10. I think this isn’t just a problem in Europe. Activity rates in Japan, Mexico, and other areas after also very low (in the 15-25% range). There has been nearly 0% net growth in Norway over the past 20 years. Even in the United States, where an “American” church should ideally be the best fit, the number of converts has been approximately 70k in 10 years, or around 7k / year. Assuming 5 million US members, this is a growth rate of around 0.14%. Quite small.

    If you put the membership statistics in a spreadsheet and extrapolate the current declining growth rate out for 20-30 years, it suggests the membership will flatten out at approximately 18-20 million members on the roles of the church at which point the numbers converting and being BIC will balance the number leaving. As this post suggests, the “active” population will be less than that.

    I have my own theories as to why this is so, but that is a whole different discussion. In any event, it is different from the projections of 270+ Million we heard a few decades ago.

  11. Sterling Fluharty says:

    The above-cited study suggests that two-thirds of less-active members have been coming back into activity. Is it realistic for us to think that 1.5 to 2 million less-active members in the United States will come back to church? Or are we witnessing the fulfillment of 1 Nephi 14:12?

  12. Fascinating stuff!

    I’d be interested in reading that material–got a link? I served my mission in Finland, and saw first-hand what happens when a culture rejects its own official state church. It definitely makes it tough for non-state-sponsored churches to gain traction if the people reject even the church they pay taxes to support.

    Velikiye Kniaz:
    It doesn’t follow from this data that “The church is dying in the western world.” We need historical data to see what the trending looks like. Has the “churn rate” always been this high, or is a higher percentage leaving now than left 40 years ago, or 100 years ago?

    The closest these numbers come to talking about “shrinkage” is saying that the activity rate is 28%. But I didn’t see anything saying whether the church is growing or shrinking. And 28% may be low by U.S. standards, but who knows? Maybe, when compared with activity rates of competing local churches, that percentage qualifies the Dutch LDS church as a marvelous work and a wonder.

    And anyway, that 28% is an incredible group of people. There are still good branches on this ol’ olive tree.

  13. #12:

    Re: whether the church is “growing or shrinking”, here are the statistics for the Netherlands for the past 30 years:

    1978: 7486 members
    1988: 6600 members
    1998: 7500 members
    2008: 8548 members

    Average activity rate for country: 30%


  14. Interesting analysis. The decline in traditional religion in Europe can be traced to at least three events.

    First would be the immigration of the more religious types to the U.S. over the past 300 years.

    Second would be the general loss in faith in god due to two very destructive wars in the 20th century.

    Third would be the rise of the State in taking care of everyone’s needs. God is a great emotional fall-back mechanism for those who worry about the present and the future. Now, the state takes care of everything: food, shelter, retirement, health care, child care. When Europeans lost faith in a traditional god, they found faith in a new god, the State. The new god provides more than the old god.

  15. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    RE: Kyle M. #12
    I fully agree that the remaining 28% are some truly incredible people. One of the reasons that I frequent the ‘Bloggernacle’ is that I find a good many of the contributors to be both deep thinkers and profoundly spiritual. It is frequently spiritually uplifting to read what is written by the contributors on these sites. They give me hope and refresh my tired spirit.
    Perhaps it is my convert zeal that has me expecting more of contemporary Latter-day Saints. Living in Utah within walking distance of Temple Square and having a strong sense of history, I cannot shake the utter awe and deep respect I feel for these pioneer Mormons who settled here and built the commonwealth of Deseret. I doubt that I would have been equal to the task, had I been of their generation. (Perhaps that is why I heard the Gospel when I did, in the 20th century.) I can fully empathize with Saints who struggle to live the Gospel as it ought to be lived because I am one of them. But I when I joined the Church I did not look upon the decision as being a casual one. I felt that I was making a commitment to my Father in Heaven and to my Saviour and it wasn’t taken lightly. Due to particulars of my own situation, it hasn’t always been easy to remain in the Church, but I will never leave it. (They can throw me out of the Church, but they’ll never throw the Gospel and Church out of me.) That is why I find it so hard to understand the other 72% who once freely elected to join us and now who thoughtlessly turn away.
    As for myself, I will die a Mormon. I love my Heavenly Father and the Saviour. I love the Restored Gospel through whose principles I have come closer to my Creator than I ever believed possible. I love this Church and it’s people. I am certainly not a candidate for ‘best Mormon’, but Mormon is what I am and what I will remain. All those others will continue to have my empathetic concern, compassion and prayers.

  16. Please, Andrea, nobody in Europe considers the state divine. I like the remainder of your post but that divine state hypothesis is out there.

  17. There are not many Europeans that take Republicanism seriously, Hawkgrrrl, but there is a deficit in adaptation. For example, there are Mormons that are following prophetic advice that really does not apply to Europe and in some cases may turn out to be ruinous.

  18. The best way to disillusion active European Mormon is to send them on missions. The generation preceding me did not go on missions. They did not believe that a mission was compatible with an academic career.

    They completed their degrees and served as Bishops and Stake Presidents. Uchtdorf is the prime example. There are another dozen like him in Germany.

    Many of my generation went on missions. My estimate is that less than 20% of us remain active. Some of us are in jail. Many others are divorced.

    The numbers game and the bureaucratic chicanery was just more than any of us could stomach. In Germany, and I suppose that the same is true of the Netherlands, the Congregationalist roots of Mormonism are a lot more important.

    The inefficiency and authoritarianism of the correlated Church was more than any of us had bargained for.

    It took my peers and us more than ten years to figure our why we were so miserable but in hindsight, all of us agree, the full time missions set us on a path that led us straight out of the Church.

  19. hi..
    I read this article ,three times but I think abuse of children in christanity or any religion is done from more than 500 years by priests ,fathers malas .It can’t finish any religion ,but this is our duty to stop abuse of the children by sexuality or any work .This is the problem of most of the countries with different religions.Join September 1 to make a genuine difference through a first day for humanity’s children .
    Sept 1–Sept 1

  20. France M says:

    Mike S points out nominal growth in membership, which is also true in France. However, from what I’ve observed most of that growth is among immigrants, especially from Africa. I suspect this is also the case in the Netherlands and other European countries. In a congregation I attended in Paris a couple of years ago (don’t remember if it was a ward or branch), native French were a minority. The bishop or branch president was an American businessman.

  21. 12: I was reading about it in a book and don’t have it handy right now. I am not sure if it is available online or not.

  22. diligentdave says:

    Good article. It addresses apparent groups or categories of members, former members, and tendencies among them. When I served in France 35 years ago (it is not as long ago as it appears), I found the cultural difference between US (or at least Utah) and Europe (or at least France) to be HUGE! What typified the “group think” / “herd mentality” of Europe (at least France) to be apparent in the Bastille Day celebration (July 14) when they did the fireworks display. The ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of the first fireworks from members of the crowd was quite comparable to that in the U.S. And quite spontaneously natural. But, after that, everyone remembered they were in public, and became instantly worried about what all of these others thought of their natural response. So, they stood afterwards in complete silence.

    In some ways, I came to appreciate the European sensitivity for considering what others thought, inasmuch as it led one to not engage in annoyingly bad behavior.

    However, tradition has its negative points too. Political correctness has been important in Europe for millennia, I would suppose. Independent thought is encouraged as much as among European youth as getting piercings and tattoos is among American youth, supposedly demonstrating their “individuality”, as they all get tattoos and piercings in places I can’t help but think have to be bothersome and problematic, to show their “bravery” to each other (Ouch!).

    I long have done and continue to do all that I can to steep my own children (and wife) in the scriptures and doctrine, and having a clear and complete understanding of it as possible. The foundationless great and spacious has an increasingly greater allure to those of little understanding (but the relevancy of that symbollicaly charged dream has as much bearing on the world 2600+ years later as it did then). In Europe, the “traditions” (practices) of the world have very long held great sway. As Jesus pointed out nearly 2000 years ago, if it were possible, even the very elect shall be deceived. (Of course, proof positive of the ‘very elect’ is that they are not deceived).

    This said, I felt the ‘Monsieur Durant’ “discussions” (in which my mostly Catholic friends in France never seemed to have memorized their Protestant replies to that script), showed that the (LDS) Church put no thought and little appropriate effort into adapting their message for each segmented audience.

    While I am an engaged and true believer (in ‘The (LDS) Church’), I feel that the Church’s “brethren” (in SLC) and bureaucracy are often slow and reluctant to respond appropriately to what different parts of the world need as far as adaptation of teachings and responses to localized needs.

    Calvin Grondahl’s “Marketing Precedes the Miracle” title for his Mormon cartoon book put out a quarter century ago always sounded like a sacreligious spoof on President Kimball’s “Faith Precedes the Miracle” book. (It was). But in another vein, truth often makes humor funnier (or there often is some amount of truth in most/much humor).

    Canned messages and solutions won’t help too many. But a better understanding of the scriptures and of the world today as it is (and not as it is or should be) would be helpful.

    As an institution, the Church is both trying to help members and non-members repent (turn to correct practices – which draws them toward God). Church members everywhere need to greatly increase and develop their understanding of the things of God (much of it coming, at the core, from the scriptures), as well as from/through prayer and revelation with/from God.

    We need a spiritual renaissance in the Church. Remember, a spiritual renaissance/awakening basically began with one man, Abinadi, in a remote portion of the “vineyard”, influenced one man, Alma, who rose to the task, influenced others, and brought them back to the main body of their culture and Church.

    We need such a miracle today!