Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormons gaining ground in the 18 to 29 age group

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute released this helpful infographic as part of its larger study on religious values, diversity, and immigration:


Over at Patheos, Emergent blogger Tony Jones wrote that “Here, in living color, we see the church’s failure to engage an entire generation.” And the declines do look ominous for white Catholics, mainline Protestants, and even evangelical Protestants (who, as Tony rightly notes, have sometimes claimed to be doing better with Millennials than other Protestants).

But other Christian groups are holding on or even increasing their market share. Black Protestants are holding steady; nonwhite Catholics are exploding; and Mormons (of all ethnicities combined) have moved from a 2% share in the 65+ age group to a 3% share among that generation’s grandkids.

Mormonism’s generational growth of roughly 50% doesn’t hold a candle to the explosion of “nones,” or the unaffiliated, who claim just 11% of the 65+ generation but 31% of the 18-29s. As well, it doesn’t account for the trend within Mormonism that if disaffiliation occurs, it often happens a little later in life.

But Mormons can take heart that at a time when other U.S. Christian groups are struggling to reach Millennials, the LDS Church is making that connection, at least on paper. I expect this to be further cemented by the fresh influx of tens of thousands of young Mormon missionaries, both men and women, since changes to the missionary program in 2012 lowered the age for service.

In October 2013, there were more than 80,000 Mormon missionaries serving throughout the world, an increase of 22,000 over the previous October when the age change was first announced. Many of these “greenies” are fresh out of high school and half of them are women, contributing to a better overall gender balance among the missionary force than Mormons have ever seen before. In October 2013 the mission force was 25% female, versus 15% before October 2012. The percentage of women serving is likely to continue to rise.


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • “Mormonism’s generational growth of roughly 50%”. Two questions: one, can you clarify what this phrase means; and two, are you relying on the data from the graph, or a separate data set for the assertion?

    The survey results ( state that of the survey respondents, 97 were Mormon. It does not break out the number of respondents by age group, however it likely follows general US demographics. The graphic takes percentages to a single decimal point. The purpose of the survey was to highlight trends in attitudes towards immigration by age, religion and political preference. The purpose of the survey was not to give an accurate measure of the preponderance of religious faith by type by age.

    Short version, the headline “Mormons gaining ground in the 18 to 29 age group” and the supporting evidence: “Mormonism’s generational growth of roughly 50%” is (a) ambiguous, and (b) unsupported by the data.

    Further clarification would be appreciated.

  • I know this is a really nerdy thing to do, but I looked up the survey methodology, and it reports a margin of error of +/- 1.7% for religious affiliation. The overall percentage of Mormons (i.e., 2-3%) is consistent with other data I’ve seen, but given that margin of error, we can’t really draw robust conclusions about changes in percentage of Mormons across demographic groups. The big takeaway about the “rise of the unaffiliated” is really interesting, though!

    Thanks for the post!

  • How does this relate to other studies which indicate that the Mormons are struggling in this area every bit as much as Evangelicals? That other data seemed to be behind the recent decision of the LDS Church to create singles wards and the lowering of the age for missionary service, both aimed at retaining converts and solidifying connection to the church.

  • Jana:

    My impression is that that this data reflects what really is happening, at least in my area, with young people and church.

    I would be very interested in your thoughts about what old-line Protestants or Catholics could do better to reach youth and young adults? My denomination and congregation (PCUSA) try very very hard to reach youth and young adults, but have virtually no success, if success is measured as getting any response. Having seen both what Mormons and oldine Protestants are doing with youth and young adults, (but with Mormons apparently being much more successful) what things do you see Mormons doing well that our old-line protestant congregations could learn from (that are compatible with our theology) to better raise our kids to be drawn to faith, participating in church, and hungry for God ?

  • I wonder how much these numbers are effected by the fact that Mormons have a load of kids? There are also tons of programs in place to attempt to retain YSA members. Institute, Singles Wards/Branches, and so forth. Kenda Creasy Dean’s looks at this topic in the Christian church, I need to read it.

  • The news to me
    is the ‘unaffiliated’ will be 50% of all people under 30
    within the next generation.

    Religion is dying.

  • From the stories I read at, I feel like that church is losing more and more of its young people. Those stories also suggest a really low retention rate for converts.

  • From my perspective, the actions the LDS church leadership has taken confirm the trends. 5 years ago I believe there was a big push toward member missionary work and fellowshipping to help address the problem of retention and now lowering the missionary age correlates with the loss of young people. I could be wrong.