20 Years of Statistical Reports, Visualized #ldsconf

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.

20-year membership

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.

20-year baptisms

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!

20-year full-time missionaries

 

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?

Wards and Stakes

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:

20-year converts per missionary

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.

20-year converts percentage membership

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.

20-year percentage children of record

 

Finally, the graph that I find most interesting: the percentage of church members serving full-time missions:

20-year percentage of members on mission

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.

Comments

  1. John Harrison says:

    The missionary surge didn’t even produce the numbers one would expect (we had two years of a double cohort) and it will subside this fall. I would be very surprised if the numbers do not drop substantially (perhaps to lower levels than before which I would not have guessed at the time) but church leaders say they will continue to climb. I will be interested to hear the numbers announced this time next year and the year after that.

    One would think that the lowered age would make it easier to serve a mission and thus lead to greater participation but the numbers right now would have to be even higher for that to be the case.

  2. John Harrison says:

    Also, that first graph is so consistent as to look fake. Not sure what to make of that but the total lack of variation is suspicious to me.

  3. John, I thought the same thing originally about the first graph. I suspect the problem, though, is one of scale: every line is 1 million people. If I could make the graph a lot bigger, so the ticks were at the 10,000 range, I suspect the line would be a lot bumpier.

  4. This is great, Sam. Thanks.

  5. Great stuff, Sam! Thanks for putting these together. I only wish the statistical report still had all the fun line items that it did back in the 70’s, like counts of people holding different priesthood offices, and numbers of temple ordinances performed! Think of the speculation we could do with that! :)

  6. Holy crap, I left on my mission twenty years ago?! Thanks, now I feel old.

    Interesting stuff, particularly the crunched numbers. I also note that the average ward/branch size has increased from 411 members to 518.

  7. Ziff, as I did this, I felt bad that I wouldn’t provide the analysis you could. But I comforted myself with the thought that I could compile the data into a spreadsheet that’s available for your magic, if you want it. Also, thanks!

  8. Thanks for providing the data, Sam! But really, your analyses include lots of stuff I never even thought of looking at; I don’t think I would do it any better. :)

  9. There’s similar data, since the organization of the church, found here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints_membership_history

    Interesting to note that 2014 saw the lowest % growth rate since 1946.

  10. Angela C says:

    Interesting stuff. Of course, the purpose of a mission isn’t convert baptisms so much as training future lay leaders, and bringing in so many young women as we did with the missionary age change for women implies that the church hopes to prepare more women for their leadership roles in the future.

    But the fact that converts are a smaller percentage than ever is a shift worth paying attention to. When I returned from my mission my homecoming talk was about how we are the envelopes in which the gospel message is encased. If we look like we are selling something slick or deceptive or that we aren’t buying what we sell (aren’t living the gospel), then we are gospel envelopes that will not get opened. We will be the ineffective direct mail advertising of missionary work.

  11. Geoff - Aus says:

    Someone said in a conference talk that those leaving is decreasing. how factual was that?

  12. Ahem. I believe you mean “mocktail” party conversation. FWIW, I make a pretty good Shirley Temple.

  13. To Geoff – Aus:
    Apostasy always occurs in spurts and then declines. The problem with people who leave the church is that 1,000 people can make a great amount of noise and some headlines, but as a proportion of membership, 1,000 is relatively small. I’m much more concerned about member inactivity or passive activity, and I think that’s a larger problem than those who actually leave.
    Bro. Brunson, this was very nice work, helpful in many ways to understand the statistics.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff, Sam, thanks.

  15. Geoff-Aus,
    I think that the number of people leaving the church is affected by other factors. First of all, 2/3rds of the members are outside the US, many have joined the church despite much more stigma or have grown up in the church with the same. The recent high profile mostly US members leaving is not a big deal in many other parts of the world.
    Also, I think that subtle changes in unofficial church policies (directives from above) can have a large impact on the number of members leaving. 20 years ago, our ward canvassed all of the members on the records of the church within ward boundaries. Those that said “get lost, I do not want anything to do with you ever again” were invited to withdraw their name from the membership records. If those invites are fewer now, there are fewer members leaving.
    As far as the %s mentioned in the same talk, there are fewer areas of the church with very rapid growth. One result is that it is easier to integrate new members into the ward or branch. Fewer fall away and a higher % have temple recommends, callings, pay tithing, etc.

  16. Jason K. says:

    Geoff-Aus: Elder Cook footnoted that claim. Partly it depends on the expanding growth, which, he says, means that the percentage of people removing their names is decreasing as a percentage of Church members. The possible issue is that not everybody who leaves the Church goes to the trouble of writing the letter and all that. To get a better sense, we’d need to look at something like sacrament meeting attendance as a percentage of Church membership over time.

  17. Interesting post and thanks for the spreadsheet. It is also interesting to plot the number of members that leave the church each year. This number can be computed from the spreadsheet as follows:

    Members Removed = (Members From Previous Year) + (Members Added This Year) – (Members from Current Year)

    This number is made up of (1) those who died and whose membership clerk reported their death, (2) those who reached the age of 110 (i.e., those who are probably not active and who reached the age of 110), and (3) those who are excommunicated or have the name voluntarily removed from the church records.

    For 2014 we had 15,082,028+115,486+282,945-15,372,337 = 122,903

    I wonder if the “longevity” mentioned in footnote 3 is related to a higher percentage of members who are “inactive” and only removed when they reach the age of 110.

  18. Thanks to Sam for a clear and interesting post.

    Pursuant to Mike’s comment at 7:49 AM…I wonder about the underlying accuracy of the numbers–perhaps due to the church’s growth in less “developed” countries (poor reporting?) during the past 40 years. I have also kept a spreadsheet of the annual Statistical Report (and since I am older, since 1974). There are several anomalies in the data. In the few minutes I have…

    There are several years (’80, ’93, ’98) In which total membership (less reported births) did not increase as much as convert baptisms. Some plague killed about 10K members and/or Excommunications/Resignations were WAY up!

    Assuming the accuracy of Convert Baptisms, 1997=318K. And assuming the accuracy of the increase in Total Members, 1996-97=376K; One can calculate 58K births in 1997 (and that is net of deaths and record cancellations!), but the increase in the reported Child of Record was 75K (a very high number of convert families with <8 year-old kids?). Maybe that is why, in 1989 through 1996, the "Increase in Child of Record" was not reported. The calculation for 1989 yields 261K births!

    I think the reported stats do not hold up well to such granular analyses. However, the top-level numbers such as # of FTMs, # of convert baptisms, are likely accurate and useful.

  19. Jeanine says:

    I live in Europe and for a long time I thought that it was mainly in the mormon corridor that an increasing number of people is leaving the church – by resigning or simply stop going. Recently I found out that there are quite a few people leaving here as well. It seems that the largest number of people who are leaving come from the ranks of sisters who have been really really active for a long time. This is the tendency not just in my stake but in the entire country. Ofcourse I don’t know about other areas but this does show that it isn’t just in the USA. I guess it hits us later because internet developments here are slower than in the US and we speak a different language. Most materials about the ‘difficult issues’ are in english and there are no translations available.

  20. Ryan Mullen says:

    Sam, I attended a fireside last year by Matthew Martinich, a blogger at LDS Church Growth, who convinced me that the real measure of church growth is the number of wards and stakes, since new units are not created unless there are enough people attending to populate them. I would be interested in seeing your last three plots per the number of wards instead of per member.

    Interestingly, Matt notes on his blog “There were several indicators that “real growth” accelerated in 2014. The net increase for the number of stakes was the highest the Church has experienced in 16 years and the net increase for the number of congregations was the highest the Church has reported in eight years.”

  21. Alf O'Mega says:

    Note, however, that the definition of the figure being reported for children of record changed in 2008. Before that, the category was “Increase in Children of Record.” Since then it has been “New Children of Record.” Since the latter is consistently about 30,000 higher than the former, it’s obvious that the accounting methods behind the two categories are different. Probably “New Children of Record” is gross, while “Increase in Children of Record” is net (subtracting out children of record who reach adulthood without being baptized). In any case, they should be treated separately, not as a single category.

  22. Looking at the number of missionaries as a percentage of members, I note that it has taken a significant influx of Sisters to match the numbers from decades ago. My first thought was, “oh this slacker young men.” But then I thought about my family and those around me. U. S. mormon families are following the general U. S. trend of getting smaller, so I have to think young adults in general are a smaller proportion of total church membership. I have no idea how global trends affect this number. I would love to see how these numbers have changed over the years.

  23. Nate S. says:

    I think average unit size is also an interesting statistic – 411.5 in 1995 and slowly creeping up each year until it hit 518.96 in 2014. Does that indicate a slowly increasing level of inactivity within wards/branches?

  24. it's a series of tubes says:

    Deelightful, I seem to recall that the average # of children per LDS household was down by nearly 2 full children since about 1980. I will do some digging and see if I can find that statistic again.

  25. To avoid producing a “misleading” graph you should always start the “y- axis” at zero. For example on your graph the number of missionaries appears to have quadrupled and the similar problem with “percentage of members serving missions appears to have more than tripled between 2010 an 2015 both misconceptions because the Y ax is not at “0”. Thanks however for more “bad examples” to add to my GE math lecture. (Math/Stats teacher)