Did you know that, as of December 31, 2014, the church had 3,114 stakes with 29,621 wards and branches? Of course you do: every April during Conference, somebody reads the church’s annual Statistical Report from the prior year.
The thing is, though, that, standing alone, the Statistical Report is so much cocktail party fodder: it’s interesting (because numbers!), but ultimately doesn’t tell us much at all. Put it into some kind of context, though, and suddenly the numbers start to tell a story.
So here’s some context:
I looked at 20 years of statistical reports, from 1995 to the present.[fn1] I took all of the data (except for the number of temples rededicated) and put it into a spreadsheet.[fn2] I then used that data to graph certain trends over the two decades. And those graphs told a handful of really interesting stories.
The first several graphs are straightforward: I just took the numbers reported by the church and graphed them over time.
The number of members has risen at a relatively steady rate over time; when I left on my mission, the church had nearly 10 million members, and today it’s somewhere north of 15 million.
How does the church grow? Basically, convert baptisms plus baptisms of children born into the church.
Over the twenty years, the number of children baptized has risen pretty consistently, while the number of convert baptisms fell and rose; while more children of members were baptized in 2014 than in 1995, the number of converts baptized has just about returned to its 1995 level.[fn3]
Who’s baptizing these new members? Why, the missionaries, of course!
There’s some rise-and-fall; the church announced it was raising the bar for missionaries in 2002; that seems to correspond to a drop in the number of full-time missionaries. And then the 2012 lowering of missionary ages unsurprisingly corresponds to a huge increase in the number of full-time missionaries.
At the same time, new members have to attend church. Where do they attend?
The number of wards and stakes in the church appear to be rising pretty much in tandem.
So far, though, the story’s not terribly interesting. It becomes fun when we start crunching some numbers. Here’s some of what I ended up with:
While the number of convert baptisms today is roughly the same as the number 20 years ago, the number of baptisms per missionary has fallen by almost half.
Also, while the number of converts has stayed approximately the same, the number of members has grown. As a result, the number of converts baptized each year as a percentage of the total number of members has dropped precipitously. That is, on December 31, 1995, a little more than three of every hundred members had been baptized in the previous 12 months. In 2014, it was under two of every hundred members.
By way of comparison, though it has pinballed up and down, the number of children who were born into the church as a percentage of the total membership of the church is about the same today as it was 20 years ago.
Finally, the graph that I find most interesting: the percentage of church members serving full-time missions:
If we look at the missionary force as a percentage of church membership, rather than as a raw number, we see that the explosion in the missionary force isn’t actually an explosion; rather, it’s returning us to the proportion of missionaries we had twenty years ago.
Ultimately, these graphs don’t have any substantive religious valence. The truth-claims of the church don’t depend on the number of members, the proportion of new converts, or the proportion of missionaries. Even the expanded information is, in many ways, still a cocktail party conversation. At the same time, though, I find that looking at the trends over time provide a richer, more interesting story, rather than the white noise of a point in time.
[fn1] Why 1995? Two reasons. One is, I left on my mission in the summer of 1995, so it seemed interesting to see how the church had changed since then. The second is, it took enough time to go back 20 years; I didn’t have time for, say, 40.
[fn2] You can download the spreadsheet here.
[fn3] If convert baptisms are roughly flat then how is the church growing at the rate it is? My guess: mortality is down. Members—like everybody else—are living longer than they used to, meaning the the subtraction side of membership counts is getting lower, even while the addition side keeps chugging along.