Over the past few years I’ve put together an analysis of the cumulative information in the Church’s statistical reports. Three years ago I posted The Implied Statistical Report, 2008, and last year I titled my analysis The Implied Statistical Report, 2010. Over this time I’ve tried to improve my methods and the data available, collecting data from a few different sources. This year I’ve again looked at the data and discovered something unexpected: The Church’s real growth is actually faster in the U.S. and Canada than it is in the rest of the world.
As in past years, I’ve compiled some of the data and made many comparisons in a spreadsheet on Google Docs. That spreadsheet includes church-wide information reported since 1973, along with a number of calculations that I’ve made based on the data. Those who are likewise interested in these statistics are welcome to look at it—and anyone wishing to help maintain, update and improve both the data an the analysis can drop me a message (at Kent [at] timesandseasons [dot] org), and I’ll allow them access to modify the spreadsheet. I also have additional data that looks at regions around the world, and I’m reporting on some of that data for the first time this year.
Here is what I found interesting this year:
- Overall improvement in growth: In 2002 the number of missionaries dropped suddenly, and the number of converts also dropped, presumably because of the drop in missionaries. Until that time the number of missionaries serving had increased basically every year, often by more than 5% a year! This decrease is probably due to demographics—U.S. (and especially inter-mountain west) birthrates had declined a couple of decades earlier, and proportionally fewer missionaries came from the increasing proportion of members outside of the U.S.While the lower birthrate and rate of missionary service meant fewer missionaries initially, eventually the number of missionaries serving should begin to grow again. And, while the number of converts has slowly increased during the last decade, the number of missionaries has stayed level until this year, when it finally increased. I don’t know if this means that the number of missionaries will continue to increase, overcoming the drop caused by lower birthrates, or if it will take longer for the overall number of missionaries to increase in proportion with the number of members. But, the increase this year does look promising, and may lead to faster growth in coming years.
The average number of members per ward/branch is basically the same in the U.S. and Canada as it was nearly a decade ago, but outside the U.S. and Canada, the number has grown dramatically. To me this means that the change in activity rates happening in the Church isn’t due to any drop off in how faithful member of the Church in the U.S. are — instead it is due to the difficulties retaining members elsewhere. [I now feel justified in my skepticism of claims that significant numbers of Church members in the U.S. are becoming less active — if the numbers were truly significant, the average number of members per ward would rise over the long run. The increase in inactivity appears to be all outside of the U.S. and Canada.]
Most surprising in my comparison of data from the U.S. and Canada to that of the rest of the world is that the growth in active members (measured by the growth in number of wards and branches) is actually higher in the U.S. and Canada than elsewhere! From 2002 to 2010 the number of wards and branches in the U.S. and Canada increased from 12,346 to 14,071, an increase of 14% or 1.65% a year. In contrast, the number of wards and branches outside the U.S. and Canada increased from 13,797 to 14,589, and increase of 5.75% (0.7% a year) — less than half the rate of growth in the U.S. and Canada.
In contrast, the growth rate in baptized members outside the U.S. and Canada is double that of members in these two countries. Why? I don’t think it is about missionary work — I suspect that missionary work is done the same whether in the U.S. and Canada or not. More likely, the reason lies with the many social and cultural factors that help people stay in the Church. Elsewhere, these factors are still developing, and are often not there when they are needed.
At least, that’s my theory for why. What’s yours?
Great post. I’m a geek that loves hearing the statistical report in April conference, so I loved this and previous iterations of your implied statistical report.
Re: the dropoff in missionary numbers early last decade, you didn’t account for the “bar raising” in your mostly demographic theory as to why. I was employed at the MTC at the time and we noticed the almost immediate reduction in MTC numbers once the official guidelines for eligibility were changed.
I think new converts outside of the U.S. have less social support for their conversion than new converts in the U.S., and that this often contributes to inactivity.
This isn’t to slam wards outside of the U.S.–in fact, my guess is that wards outside of the U.S., or at least outside of the Western U.S., are doing far more member missionary work than wards in the U.S. But the missionary/active member ratio in wards outside the U.S. is often pretty high (my mission about 12 years ago had six missionaries in some tiny branches and eight in some wards). I served in one ward that had 25 baptisms in one year. Even in the best of wards, it can be hard for new converts to get all the support they need from the ward.
Chris (1), you are right. I didn’t account for that. In the past when I did, it has been pointed out to me that Church authorities have blamed the change on demographics. But I do agree that a sudden significant drop like this can’t be demographics alone — people don’t change how many kids they have on a dime like that; was a gradual increase and then decrease.
Thanks for doing this. Very interesting.
Tim (2), I agree. But I think it also goes beyond just social support. In most areas outside of the U.S. and Canada, becoming Mormon is so radically different that it is hard to accommodate it culturally — and we don’t offer the same cultural supports that we do in the U.S. and in English. I don’t mean to say that I think Mormon culture is wonderful or perfect. Sometimes I think it is quite awful. But I do think that having a Mormon culture makes it easier for many people to stay active.
Is it not also possible that in the past the Church has had different standards for ward and stake creation outside the US and Canada, than within them? It could be that the church is working towards stabilizing existing units over creating new ones. I’d be fairly surprised if inactivity rates were higher now in most places than in the last decades of the twentieth century.
Absolutely. Being an active member of a religion–no matter what the religion, but especially a minority religion–in Europe is significantly harder than in most places in the U.S.
I know the church has been closing down some small branches in far-flung places and focused on creating stronger wards in bigger, more central cities. I think they even have a name for this program (although I can’t remember it), and I believe it started maybe 12 years ago. I know it happened in Africa and, at least to some extent, in Germany.
Another possible factor in the drop in missionaries: President Hinckley’s talk discouraging sisters from serving. Where does that fit in the timeline?
To add to #6:
There were a couple of things you didn’t account for. For one, the number of branches/wards/stakes/districts cannot be assumed to be increasing or stagnant. In many places, there are actually *decreases* in the number. For example, in my mission in Argentina there were something like 13-15 discontinued wards/branches, all opened and closed since the mission’s creation in 1990. In one district alone there were 6 discontinued branches; I served in a district that had four; and I served in a branch that has since been reincorporated into the ward from which it was split and with which it shared a chapel. If you speak to any members in Chile, they’ll tell you that in some parts of the country there are chapels sitting vacant because general authorities came through and consolidated units at all levels of organization. Naturally, this consolidation would mean an increase in the total number of members in a unit – all the inactives are thus consolidated.
And if this is evidence of greater baptism and unit-splitting restraint on a Church-wide level, I’d be very happy to hear of it. Too often I heard of or saw split proposals that confused splitting with growth – when it merely meant, “Hey, we can fill all the leadership positions in a ward already? Obviously, if we divide, more limited geography won’t be a problem, we’ll just be able to grow more! It doesn’t matter if it’ll divide the current leadership into two skeleton hierarchies. More people can just fill them up!”
I wonder how ethnicity and first generation membership plays into the graphs.
I wonder how many minorities outside the Church have a problem being viewed as the cursed descendants of Laban, the cursed descendants of Cain, or other type of Gentile, while in the US, people are typically labeled by Patriarchs as the most chosen and pure tribe of Ephraim (a false and convenient manipulative social construct in my opinion)… and you know, the accompanying attitudes that go with this jolly labeling/division within the community (which Caucasians will readily deny, right?). I know that was a factor in why I distanced myself from the Church and don’t care to be counted among them, and I know many minorities in the same boat. We don’t care to be labeled, we don’t care for our parents to be labeled and we don’t care for our children to be labeled. Furthermore, we don’t care being treated differently and we don’t care Caucasians implying things about our moral character based on these false, convenient and white supremacist system of labeling. If I cannot be a truly equal member because of my race or “lineage” (a beloved term by Mormons), then I don’t think this is the place for me, nor the place for other minorities. I think the Church probably needs to consider their subtle passive/aggressive white supremacist stances.
Second, people tend to stay in the Church more when there is some sort of pressure. I see this here in Utah left and right. The Church is so prevalent that it becomes an intrusive issue everywhere. You have to be a good member because your boss is a Mormon too, and your neighbors are Mormons too, and your parents are Mormons too, and leaving the Church may be more of a hassle than staying physically yet not spiritually. I know way too many people who would leave if it wasn’t for the fact that their parents would hurt and/or their whole social construct would drastically be affected. Members of the Church in the USA are rarely first generation compared to “elsewhere.”
Therefore, “elsewhere” people don’t have the family pressure of being in the Church even when they don’t really feel like it. On the very contrary, “elsewhere” people usually have to hurt their families by leaving their faith, keeping them from wedding ceremonies, etc (all those cutsie little things that are so immensely destructive for converts and that people born members don’t give a sh*t about).
But I agree, it is more difficult to be active “elsewhere” and I don’t blame them, and retention stability is definitely higher in the US than “elsewhere.”
” I know the church has been closing down some small branches in far-flung places and focused on creating stronger wards in bigger, more central cities”.
I am not a numbers guy. But, from what I read, most Black members inside and outside the US, attend all Black Wards/Branches in big cities (???)
In non-Arab Africa, There are about 250,000 Black Mormons, maybe most in all Black Wards/Branches(???)
Since 1902, when the Catholics in this area were less than a million, have grown to about 350,000,000(???)
This is just to say while Kent’s numbers maybe right, But, I am not sure the Narrative is(???)
Interesting. Thanks for you work.
On the drop in number of missionaries from 2002 to 2003–does it have anything to do with E. Ballard’s talk in Oct 2002, and subsequent policy changes on who was allowed to serve? http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/10/the-greatest-generation-of-missionaries?lang=eng&query=greatest+generation+missionaries
If I remember correctly, in Elder Holland’s Q&A at Harvard L.S. the other month he said that demographically in the next few years we’ll be up to 65,000+ missionaries again. (Sorry, don’t want to listen again to confirm the number.)
Interesting the variations in the detail of the numbers over the years. Rounding may make things easier to remember, but it plays havoc with predicting trends. Of course, it is possible they didn’t round, and the 8 years in a row all had an exact ten-thousand count of members. Maybe proof of divine intervention? ;)
I wonder if it would be possible to ask the Church Historian and Recorders Office for exact numbers over the history of the Church. They must exist somewhere.
Also, how to the numbers given in April Conference affect the trends?
Where did you get the data that divides North American and the rest of the world by membership, wards, and stakes? I haven’t seen that data, and it’s not on your Google spreadsheet. Also, I tried emailing you at the email you mention in the post and it bounced back.
OK, I see the other tab with the data by area. What is the source? It says DNCA2010. What is that? Is historical data available?
@15, just listened to Elder Holland’s Q&A. He asserted that demographically they’re expecting 70K within the next handful of years.
Kent, I also tried to email you (I’d love to help with the Google doc), but it bounced right back at me, too. I double-checked my spelling and everything.
Guest (18), the source “DNCA2010” I’m guessing could be deciphered as the Deseret News Church Almanac for 2010. The best line from the order page on deseretbook.com: “Like other almanacs, it is thin on plot but very thick on details.” LOL
Could the availability of internet means members and potential memebers have access to information that they didn’t a few years age? Blogs too.
We have another phenomena in Australia; polynesian invasion. The church in it’s wisdom abandoned wards based on language so we are integrated. Since this 4 or 5 years ago I have always lived in a ward that is 70%+ plus polynesian. This has all sorts of problems.
For those who have tried to email me — it seems that when we moved servers last December the email addresses may not have been created like they should have. I’ll have to look into that.
Instead, send me a message at kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org
FWIW, DNCA is my shorthand for Deseret News Church Almanac. Each year’s volume has data by area for that year.
Thanks for posting these, Kent. I don’t have any theories to offer, but the US & Canada versus everywhere else breakdowns are particularly interesting!
Kent, one factor in increasing membership per ward outside the U.S. might be increasing urbanization and access to transportation. I don’t know if it’s a medium-sized or insignificant factor, but it might be worth thinking about. I know some areas in Idaho, for example, had several small units for a long time that were combined in recent decades once fewer people were employed in farming, everyone had a car, and paved roads meant that living within a few miles of a meetinghouse was not as necessary as it once was. Does any of that apply outside the U.S.? I don’t know. It might.
Remember, pre-car, most farming Mormons lived in Mormon Villages. They lived in town, with the Ward in it’s center. The men traveled out to the farms. This is how my Mom grow up in Idaho. Her uncle was the town bishop for 25 years.
Good post. I’ve been pretty skeptical of a major retention problem in the US too once I started delving into the actual numbers rather than all the various reports. However numbers for outside the US/Canada are much harder to come by.
As for the growth in baptism rate I do think there are a lot of cultural issues at play. Further it seems like retention outside the US is poor. I’m not sure we’ve tailored the form of our message and conversion to all the local cultures terribly well yet. But it’s also definitely true that there are major social evolutionary changes going on in many nations. However I just don’t know much about what’s going on especially in 3rd world nations.
Not much is happening in 3rd world nations.
But what about India_1.2 Billion__China 1.3 Billion?
My perspective is pretty limited, but there were a couple things that I wondered about when looking at the enormous inactive member lists in the wards on my mission in the Dominican Republic 13 years ago. I’m sure your right that a lot of it is cultural issues- there are plenty of obstacles to not being Catholic there.
One factor that stood out to me there was that if you weren’t at least middle class, it was really hard to stay active. Most of the members who had been around for years and years had steady jobs and houses made out of cinderblock on actual roads, and a fair amount of them even had cars. A lot of the poorer members failed to stick around very long, either because they were constantly moving to find work, or having to work second or third jobs on Sundays, or other reasons. I know there were plenty who had joined the church after hearing something about the church’s welfare program, but then left disillusioned that it wasn’t a free meal ticket for the rest of their lives. And on the flip side, it was really easy to drum up people and families to teach if you would just stick around the poorest parts of your area. It was easy to find both parents at home (due to lack of work), and they seemed to be much more accepting of the church, occasionally in spite of illiteracy. Maybe they were just desperate for change or hope, or maybe they had heard about the welfare program, or maybe poverty had humbled them to being receptive to the spirit. Even still, it was ridiculously difficult to keep them active, and it wouldn’t be too long before no one was sure where they lived anymore.
The people that were easiest to baptize were often the hardest to keep active, and often for reasons out of their control. In the US and Canada, there is just such a larger population that fits into middle class and above, and I wonder if that’s not partially reflected in the greater retention there.
I served my mission in Brazil from 2005 to 2007, right in the middle of your data set. It was pretty disheartening when I discovered that the ‘ward’ I was in, which had an average attendance of about 15, had over 500 members on the books. My companion and I went looking for these missing members. Most we could not find. Often those that we did find couldn’t recall who Joseph Smith was. To me the problem is simple, the missionaries are told to visit their investigators every day until they are baptized. Once baptized they are to be visited about once a week. After a change of missionaries they are hardly ever visited. This wont change until the missions start working with the wards on retention and they wont unless retention is made a number they have to report.
azlanja, you are right, of course. I’d only add that high inactivity rates are compounded by the amount of work they cause for those who are active — It is almost impossible for 15 active members to visit 500 inactive members.