The LDS Church is still growing, but its recently released figures from 2017 show that its rate of growth has slowed considerably over the last few years, and is now just under 1.5%.
|Year||Total membership||New converts added||Percentage growth|
And that’s saying nothing of the intoxicating growth of the 1960s through the 1990s, when a bad year might have seen growth of just 3% or 4%, and a good year more like 6% to 8%.
“This is the fewest converts we’ve had in 30 years,” said Matthew Martinich, founder of the LDS Church Growth blog, which tracks Mormon growth and retention internationally, and project manager for Cumorah.com. “I think that’s a big concern.” The Church added 233,729 new converts in 2017, when that figure was closer to 300,000 just four or five years ago.
Another area of concern is ward and branch creation, which is stagnant. “The increase in congregations was the lowest we’ve had since 2011,” said Martinich. “That’s mostly because of the U.S.”
The growth rate in the United States has declined to .75%, down from .93% in 2016. The U.S. growth rate is therefore half of the already modest overall growth rate around the world, a downward trajectory Martinich calls “pretty significant.” U.S. growth has not been this low “in approximately 100 years or longer,” he says. (For U.S. growth patterns since 1920, see the Cumorah website.)
Martinich says that once again, there was no net increase of congregations in the United States.
Martinich noted a particular drop in California, which had “50 or 60” wards and branches discontinued in 2017, due to congregations “getting smaller and smaller” that have been consolidated. He said this has happened throughout the state and is not isolated to any one particular area.
While “the Church in California is still strong, with 7 temples and 20 missions, membership hasn’t noticeably increased in 25 years even though the population of California has increased.”
In sum, then, conversions are declining and the number of “children of record”—small children who are counted as members but have not yet been baptized—has remained largely flat around the world.
Some decline has also been the result of an aging membership. Martinich says it is not due to people removing their names from the membership rolls. (In Mormon statistics, everyone who has been baptized will continue to be counted as members until age 110 unless their death date is known or they go through the formal step of officially removing their names from the records.) “The numbers of people who actually leave the Church are very small,” says Martinich, and aren’t enough to move the needle much in global membership trends.
There are several bright spots in the report, despite the big picture of reduced growth. Martinich highlighted four major positive developments:
1) More stakes were created. “Stake growth continues to be a lot higher than in the last decade or so,” says Martinich. “And that’s encouraging.” How is that possible, if new wards and branches aren’t being created? Martinich says the answer lies in a more robust activity rate among people who are already members. “For example, in the last 10 years, sacrament meeting attendance in the Philippines has increased by about 50%, from about 100,000 to about 150,000,” he said. “Granted, activity rates there are still only around 25%, but still, that explains why we are seeing new temples and missions in the Philippines.” Another possible reason for the creation of new stakes is that some stakes are now smaller than they used to be, with fewer local units.
2) Missionaries are coming from all over the world, not just the United States and Canada. In Central America, according to Martinich’s research, the number of local members serving full-time missions in the last 10 years has nearly doubled. So too the number of Central American couples that are sealed to each other in the temple. “Remember, these are areas that supposedly have the lowest activity rates in the world, and they are also areas where raw number growth and congregational growth has been very slow,” Martinich said. But missionary service and temple marriages are not captured in the raw numbers of the Church’s annual statistical report.
3) Wards are getting stronger abroad. It used to be that “there was a huge disparity between how large the congregations were in the U.S. compared to around the world,” said Martinich. In the last 5 to 10 years, however, “in most countries with the largest church memberships, the congregations there now are about as large as congregations in the U.S.” This is another sign of vitality that’s not reflected in the statistical report.
4) West Africa is a source of robust growth. Nations such as Liberia and Nigeria are “driving a lot of” the growth the Church is experiencing.
Martinich obtains his data not only from the Church’s official reports but also from “thousands and thousands of surveys completed by church members, leaders, and missionaries,” detailing congregational attendance, missionary service, and retention. “We can really accurately estimate what the activity rate in each country based on what people there are reporting about how many people come to church versus what the raw numbers are about membership.”
Much of this data is available in the almanac he published: Reaching the Nations: The International Church Growth Almanac: 2014 Edition. He’s also working on a new book that will update the information in more of a narrative style. A Stone Cut without Hands “is a more abbreviated version of our almanac, going through growth, and where things have gone well and have not gone well. There’s a lot of really cool stuff in there about challenges and new opportunities for growth.”