Most other religions would be thrilled to witness a 1.7 percent increase but Mormons feel quite otherwise as this depicts the slowest growth rate for the denomination in any year since 1937, when it was 0.93 percent. However, there are still some silver linings to this apparent cloud of despair. Matt Martinich, founder of the blog Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church Growth— who has recorded almost every aspect of Mormon growth and loss, including baptisms and retentions for over eight years now—spoke with Atheist Republic about the hopes of the Mormon Church.
Question: What do you understand about the 2015 Statistical Report, which reveals a falling rate of LDS growth?
Answer: Yearly membership growth has steadily dropped over the last 25 years. It used to be 4 to 5 percent each year but now it has dropped to 1.7 percent only. However, in my opinion, it will not drop lower than 1.5 percent.
Question: According to the report, convert baptisms have dropped by over 13 percent. Why is that?
Answer: The primary reason for that is the Church wants to develop centers of strength, a policy which has been in place since the start of the 1990s. Even though not much is known about it, the policy allows the Church to intentionally limit its missionary activities to only a select few places in the world.
Before the 1990s, the Church used to set up new areas for missionary work very aggressively and almost indiscriminately. Most of the quick growth in Latin America and other places was because of the missionary work; but soon after, the idea started to change. Apparently, the Church wanted to establish a center of strength to be visible enough in at least one city so that it would be able to find enough leadership to run the denomination’s administrative work.
However, a problem emerged as many of these areas never grew into centers of strength. In a number of cities—where the Church had existed for some time—no new branches or wards were created unless existing ones split on their own, and this did not prove very fruitful for growth.
During the 1980s and 90s, the Church had very low standards for baptisms; changing that also played a significant role in the slowing of the growth rate. Low qualifications for baptisms led to a lot of converts, who did not visit church or donate much.
Some would say rising secularism has played a role in this trend. I believe the Internet has nothing to do with it. While the Internet has helped increase the growth rate in some areas, in some others, it has failed to do so. It may have something to do with the function of secularism but not whether negative or incorrect information about the Church is circulated among people.
Question: The number of missionaries serving the Church has also dropped by 13 percent but that does not seem as shocking as the drop in convert baptisms. Has the surge in the number of missionaries that took place after the age change in October 2012 run its two-year-course?
Answer: Yes, the double cohort has almost disappeared now so it appears like the number of missionaries has dropped significantly in the past year, but that is not true. What may be more accurate is to compare today’s number of missionaries with that of 2012, which was before the surge, and the difference is approximately 15,000. That is a pretty sizeable increase in a rather short period of time.
Question: Many of these surge missionaries have served in the United States. Was there a simultaneous spike in the number of baptisms here to mirror the number of missionaries?
Answer: Not particularly, that frustrated me; the surge. The reason they sent that missionary group is because most of its members were Americans, and the United States had the resources to accommodate such a surge as compared to other countries where it would be difficult to secure housing, obtain visas, etc. The United States has 124 missions, the most in any country in the world. Some good was achieved in certain areas, especially if you consider the reactivation in southwest America. That was good news and in my opinion there was a lot more development in the long run than simply baptizing new members.
Certain countries witnessed a significant increase in the number of missionaries. In the Philippines for example, the number of Filipinos serving various missions doubled. There are other countries that have typically sent very few individuals on missions, like Micronesia and certain nations in Africa, where more people are serving today than ever before.
Question: You say in your blog the good news about the statistical report is the setting up of new wards and stakes, which have recorded the largest increase since 2005. What does that mean?
Answer: Congregational growth and stake growth are the two factors that help assess the actual increase of active members. Those numbers truly reflect active membership and leadership. There happens to be a net increase of 60 stakes, which is the most number of new stakes that have been created in any year since 1998, even though some other stakes were closed at the same time. This increase has taken place across the world.
In the year 2016, an unprecedented growth in stakes occurred, with a second stake being created in Kenya in March and two new stakes being created in Hong Kong in April. But despite these reassuring developments, most of Latin America has remained stagnant.
Question: So you are saying, despite baptisms remaining low, the rate of baptized Mormons who continue to be actively involved is growing?
Answer: In certain areas, it is. For example, the Church in Mozambique has achieved positive results in bettering covert retention and member activity rates. That actually led to the organization of the first two stakes in the country in 2015. The Church has also achieved slight marginal progress in some other countries with a sizeable population of Latter-day Saints; such as Guatemala, Brazil and Taiwan. Rapid growth is currently taking place in West Africa. However, there are other countries with equally large populations of Latter-day Saints; such as Peru, Chile, Ecuador and the United Kingdom that are experiencing essentially stagnant growth.
With Martinich’s observations in the foreground, P Hales (secretary to the First Presidency) said last month that the LDS Church had as many as 15,634,199 members by the end of 2015. Hales revealed the figures while presenting the Church’s yearly statistical report at the 186th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 2.
The Church announces its total strength once every year. This figure typically represents the number of church members at the end of the most recent calendar year. Last year, the Church announced its strength at 15,372,337. By the end of 2015, there were 74,079 full-time missionaries as opposed to 85,147 in 2014. Apparently, the Church’s leadership had expected this reduction of 13 percent. According to the report, the number of missionaries remained 27 percent higher than the 58,500 missionaries that were serving in October 2012, when Thomas S Monson (LDS Church president) announced an age change; which permitted missionaries to serve at a younger age. That announcement resulted in a surge in the total number of missionaries, which peaked at 89,000, since suddenly eligible 18 to 20 year olds decided to rush into the field of missionary work. According to Church leadership, that surge has now subsided.
Elder Brent H Nielson, executive director of the Church’s missionary department, said however that the number of missionaries would slowly rise again.
“As that surge passed, we're now down to around 75,000 missionaries, which is where we think we'll stay for a period of time as that gradually increases,” he said.
As the number of church service missionaries went up form 30,404 to 31,779, Hales confirmed that the Church has as many as 3,174 stakes and 55 districts. The number of wards and branches also rose from 29,621 to 30, 016 by the end of 2014. He noted that the Church had 418 missions by the end of 2015.
Since the start of this year, the Church has set up a new mission in Vietnam and two in Africa, bringing the number of missions up to 421. The number of operating temples also increased from 144 to 149; with some of them being built in Cordoba in Argentina, Trujillo in Peru, Payson in Utah, Tijuana in Mexico and Indianapolis in Indiana. At the end of 2015, the Provo City Center Temple became the Church’s 150th operating temple.
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