Converts per Missionary

A few years ago in October 2012 the Church dropped the age for missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and 21 to 19 for women. There are various speculations of why the Church did this although I don’t think anyone knows for sure. (A popular explanation is that it cuts down on young men leaving the church when they go to college for their Freshman year) Regardless of why the Brethren did this, at the time I was concerned that it would lead to less effective missionaries. We now have a few years worth of data so we can examine the effect, In my view the most recent Church data in particular tells a story of a drop in missionary effectiveness.

Here’s the data on the converts per missionary for the years prior to the change and after (including last year’s data).



Convert Baptisms
































You’ll note that number of conversions per missionary from the most recent data is virtually the same as the previous year’s. That’s despite the “surge” of missionaries ending due to the changes in age.

One thing that’s important to note is that the number of converts per missionary dropped significantly after the age change. At first there was some thought that the drop was due to inefficiencies due to having to deal with the sudden influx of missionaries. Starting at the end of 2012 there were those age 19 who hadn’t gone yet plus all the ones who were 18 and now able to go. Not to mention an even bigger surge with sister missionaries. However when that surge ended yet the conversion rate did not increase back to the rate it was prior to 2012. This is a difference of nearly 2 baptisms per missionary. (The rate has fluctuated somewhat, dropping to 4.31 in 2003 but reaching a high of 8.03 in 1989 for the era after 1970)

Here’s the data for what I’d term the contemporary era. The peak in the late 80’s probably was in part due to significant growth in Latin America although there are indications that many of these baptisms had poor retention. (I’m not sure if reacting to this and focusing on better conversions accounts for the drop in the early 90’s) The biggest demographic shift in American religiosity starts occurring in the mid 90’s. I don’t know how much of that societal shift accounts for the drop given the difference between American and non-American baptisms. It is a possible effect though. During that era Pres. Hinkley also changed missionary service with more focus on retention, working with recent converts and more service work by missionaries rather than pure proselytizing each day. You can see the big drop that comes with the change in the missionary age though. This is after a relative period of growth from 2004 to 2011.




The other big drop is in the early 80s. This corresponds to the change of the length of a mission from 2 years to 18 months starting spring 1982. Effective in January 1985 the length of service retuned to 2 years. Those already out were able to stay for either 18 months or 2 years. Perhaps in part because of that transition period the rate of conversion didn’t rebound until 1988. As I said though that was also the era of huge growth in Latin America so one has to be careful teasing out the separate influence of different effects. However when you look at the number of missionaries in the 80’s you had around 29,000 from 1979 to 1981. Then in 1982 that drops to 26,000 and doesn’t return to 29,000 until 1985. The numbers don’t really return to trend until 1988.

In 1986 during this same era, the Church introduced new memorized missionary lessons. (These were what I used on my mission) These were used until 2004. It’s hard to tell what effect, if any, shifting the manuals had although not afterwards the conversion rate per missionary starts increasing quickly. It is interesting though that around 2004 when the latest missionary teaching program was introduced we start to see slowly increasing growth in the conversion rate. So It’s quite possible changing lessons and pedagogy had an increase in effectiveness with each switch.




The other interesting thing that pops out looking at the number of missionaries is the huge drop beginning in 2003. This corresponded to increased worthiness and physical requirements for young people planning on going on a mission. Unsurprisingly this led to a significant drop in the number of missionaries in the field. While total baptisms dropped for a few years, conversion numbers returned by 2006. Since a lower number of missionaries were getting the same results the larger number had, this explains the growth in conversion rates in our first chart starting around 2002 until 2009. The drop in effectiveness really starts somewhere around 2009. I’m not sure what, if anything, happened in 2009 to explain the change. It is interesting that around that time the rate of growth in the number of missionaries also starts increasing. So this may just be a population issue.

It’s worth comparing the conversion rate to the number of convert baptisms. After all throwing more missionaries to an area where there’s a limited number of people interested in converting won’t necessarily be helpful.


Convert Baptisms


You’ll note that the big bump in the late 80’s is still prominent. You can also see that growth in conversion actually starts earlier in the 80’s despite the drop in converts per missionary. Likewise the growth is increasing at the end of the graph but that’s mainly because there are many more missionaries out. As the number of missionary drops to more normal numbers the effect of what are likely less effective missionaries becomes quite clear.

My guess given the relative consistency of the new conversions is that the current baptism rate is the new normal. Further given how tied to the policy change it is, this doesn’t appear to be tied to larger demographic changes such as one could argue occurred in the 90’s. We should note that the change back to 2 year missions took a few years to take effect. It’s similarly possible that the missionary system still hasn’t fully come to grips with the changes in the ages of missionaries. However it’s also quite possible that the drop in age to 18 simply means more missionaries with less social maturity. That in turn affects their abilities as missionaries. I don’t say this as a criticism of 18 year olds — I’d hate to imagine what I’d have been like as an 18 year old missionary. I was very shy and socially immature even at 19 – and my parents had me go out towards the end of my 19th year. Different people mature at very different rates. I think by dropping the age to 18 you’re picking up a large cohort who perhaps are more like where some of the other missionaries were at 16.

From the data I suspect that with the new age policy we should expect a drop in the number of conversions each year to be more on par with the rate in era from 2002 – 2004. If the issue were just about conversions, it would seem plausible that allowing more men to go on missions, increasing proselytizing time and increasing the age for missions would be of great benefit. That’s not to say that’s the right thing to do of course.

Whether the church maintains this policy or if they change it remains to be seen. I suspect they’ll wait for a few years more data to see if conversion rates per missionary return to the numbers of say 2010. If the change in the 1980’s is any indication when something isn’t working the Church soon modifies it. However the Church isn’t merely focused on conversions but also young adult retention and convert retention. These statistics simply don’t tell what’s going on with those questions of retention. We don’t really have data that tells us much there.

I confess I’m skeptical this will have a large impact on retention of young adult males. There are many demographic shifts in the US working against such an effect. If the Church maintains the current missionary age though I would lay good odds it’s because of retention of these return missionaries.

56 comments for “Converts per Missionary

  1. Thanks for this Clark. I like numbers. I do wonder if convert baptism is the right metric for conversion success. The high baptism rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s were imperfectly correlated with real growth. Perhaps a better measure would be to figure out at any given point in time how many missionaries, i.e. 2 year or 18 month missions, it takes to create a stake.

  2. I think that you also have to consider whether or not the members rose to the occasion to the same degree as the youth did when they answered the call to serve. More missionaries without the increased support of local members really just means more missionaries. Parallel to this was the initiative from the brethren for leaders and members to answer the same call. From my own experience, living in several different stakes in the southeast US during this timeframe, I did not see any difference in member attitudes or efforts related to their own missionary involvement – a lot of excitement and pride because of the increase numbers but not much else

  3. Yes this is imperfect and misses out on a lot of other trends. Retention is a big one as is the effect of a mission on a missionary for the rest of their lives. Other things I didn’t mention were changes in technology (the recent move to iPads), programs by members, and then media attention.

    What’s interesting to me though is that while we often talk of the effect of secularism, the Internet, history controversy and the rise of the Nones there’s a surprising amount that can be seen to be the effect of basic changes in the mission program.

  4. As you imply, it would be so helpful to have stats regarding retention rates for the converts and returned missionaries. Do we know if the Church tracks these? I would be surprised if they don’t, but it is frustrating as a ward mission leader that they are so secretive about such things because it feels like we are always functioning in a cloud of ignorance about what actually contributes to a successful outcome in the long run.

    Also a lot of RMs from the 1980’s and since have reported unethical ‘baseball baptism’ strategies entirely about numbers and not retention being encouraged by aweful mission presidents and it seems to be sinking in now that a lot of the reported growth over that time in Latin America was an illusion.

    Personally as a member growing up in the UK I have lived with the aftermath of the original baseball baptisms scandal and ‘too fast to be real conversion’ policies which filled our ward lists with dead wood and we are now wading through the huge ‘address unknown’ files in Europe trying to locate large numbers of the official membership. I have been on a mission in late 80’s early 90’s when we still had one foot in God’s plan and one foot in Satan’s of manipulative sales practices and one size fits all approach to teaching ‘discussions’. I rejoiced when Pres Hinkley brought in an ethical and respectful approach with Preach My Gospel which is meant to allow missionaries to be much more flexible and guided by the situation and questions and needs of the investigator and spiritual promptings in teaching.

    And then I have been horrified and heartbroken to see mission presidents and zone leaders turn PMG into a Talmud, akin to scripture that has to be obeyed to the letter and the flexibility and spirituality has gone out the window and we are back to incredible pressure and target setting all about numbers and little about retention. They just don’t get how to let go obedience / control culture and do ministering. What on earth are missionaries doing when they bear their testimonies of…..Preach My Gospel?!

    We had a mission president who emphasised retention above all else and his memory has been besmirched somewhat because the baptism numbers fell under his leadership and since then there has been pressure to pick them up again, but I would bet a lot of senines that more members from his era are still active than the MPs before or since. That’s what we really need to know and we are not being told.

    I’ve found the 18 year old missionaries excellent so far – I was 18 on my mission as was typical for Brits so we find it a bit funny that Americans think the world has changed when that’s been our normal for decades.

    It’s also crazy that missionaries stay indoors studying for hours every morning and only emerge into the world when nearly everyone with an education and a job is busy at work. Who then do they have left to meet? Moving study time to the afternoon and getting out and about when people with stable incomes and lifestyles are are also out and about would change everything. Why is this not obvious to everyone in mission leadership?

  5. Interesting stuff, Clark. Love the charts. I would be interested to see the figures of converts per missionary by regions of the world. I wonder if growth has slowed significantly in the US, and if it has (which I’m assuming it has), at what point does it begin to slow? I ask this because it is commonly held assumption by many that there is a correlation between growth in social media and slowed growth rates. But there doesn’t appear to be enough data to make a strong correlation.

  6. Good piece of work, Clark. Yes, I would like the breakdown per region as well, but we do need much more figures in addition to these published ones, for a more profound analysis. It does illustrate, though, what I said earlier, on the notion of the ‘second harvest’, a concept discussed by Armand Mauss. I think we in Europe have had our second harvest already, in the 80’s and maybe that is world-wide the case. One needs an array of factors: missionary age, length of mission and quality of teaching, plus a missionary culture aimed at retention. And yes, less baseball (or beach baptisms in Latin America). But I suspect that the internal factors, as mentioned above, have to be set against the macro-factors. These are the status of the USA (which is severely less now than in 1980), the level of secularisation, the denominational picture and the general level of the economy. The church is doing poorly in rich countries (but there all churches are doing poorly, except the pentecostals), absent in the poorest countries, and doing well in middle income countries where there is some substance to life and hope for improvement. The gospel of hope – as we have been characterized – is doing well in an economy of hope. I suspect that those external factors are much more important than the internal ones, however interesting they are.

  7. I ran two models of of the logistic equation. It shows that not only is the church growth moving from what appears to be e exponential growth to linear growth. It it also predicts that the church will reach steady-state population of around 18 to 20,000,000 people somewhere in the years of 2025 to 2030. At that point the growth will be largely due to children of record. There will still be convert baptisms but they will be offset by deaths and resignations. In fact The normalized growth rate of the church in 2015 was 1.7% the lowest in church history. Based on my calculations on the data since the 1990s the normalize growth rate has decreased significantly and appears to be decreasing further. Linear extrapolation indicates zero growth rate by 2020 . However I believe it will move to some steady-state growth rate related to children of record. The logistic model includes nothing about numbers of Missionaries. Rather using growth rate it’s simply predicts the capacity of the system to contain the control group. In this case Latter Day Saints. Based on this model number of Missionaries will make no difference in the growth trajectory of the church. And in fact that has now been born out by the last several years of data. We will have to see how the data comes out over the next 15 years to see how well the logistic model predicts predicted the church growth. But so far the logistic model is slightly over predicting church growth.

    One other interesting aspect of the logistic equation is that it’s based on population dynamics and caring capacity of the system. Part of that theory includes the fact the populations will become weaker as time marches on. Relating that to church growth provides an explanation for the poor retention of church members in the past 30 or 40 years. They are a weaker population. “From the holes in the rocks”

    If The brothren want to change the growth rate of the church and thereby the growth trajectory they are going to have to do something for more fundamental than just simply sending out more missionaries. Based on recent events it doesn’t appear there interested in doing that. We may be in a hunker down time.

    Therefore other explanations such as better retention of the 18 and 19-year-olds might be a better reason.
    Thanks for listening.

  8. Clark, fascinating stuff.

    Being a statistics guy myself (now retired) I have spreadsheets and graphs of these types of data back to 1974 (derived from the Annual Statistical Report each year.) But, I haven’t paid any attention to it since June 2011, so I am interested when someone does.

    Beyond that brag, I have a thought regarding a factor that is likely contributing to the ongoing decline seen in the converts numbers and the calculated “per missionary” metric. In the U.S. or other regions with a long history of missionary effort there is likely a decline in new non-members–put awkwardly. Missionaries need new “wheat” to harvest. In any particular geographic* area, the longer the FTMs have been working it the higher the incidence of non-members who have already heard their message, been referred, had an interaction at the door, etc. And the higher the incidence of members who have fully worked their network of friends and have no more referrals. Hence, there is, statistically, over time, less fresh “wheat” for the “thrusted sickles” to find. This supply is increased with natural turnover of the local population of both non-members and members–but this factor likely plays a role.

    If we had all the data in the U.S. by state, this diminishing returns hypothesis could be better evaluated.

    *And, with the long-term trend to smaller wards, and more missionaries per geography, the “field” available to harvest has lower numbers.

    Just a thought

  9. Ah statistics! Now, will missionary work cause cancer?

    My mission president once told me (this was in the late 80’s) that if he could get rid of 80% of the missionary force and just have the “top” 20% he could get more done in half the time and the Church would grow faster, but “the guys upstairs” kept telling him that the mission was for the missionary. The idea was to keep the missionaries active and retentive through their lives. I really do think a mission’s primary purpose is not to grow the Church through convert baptisms as much as it is to grow the Church through providing a solid foundation for the missionaries in their future lives. In this aspect, I believe retention of new members is more important than numbers of new members.

    I think it impossible to say where the Church growth rates will go because so much is tied up with it (politics, economics, culture and culture trends, etc.). How will a global financial collapse affect baptism rates? How will, god forbid, another global war affect such things? How does the long, slow march of secularization affect such things?

    It is terribly unrealistic to believe in the projections of a couple decades ago where people were producing massive growth statistics. I read one article that tied growth rates to the world attitude towards America, as Mormonism was seen as an American religion. When America is popular there is an uptick, when it is unpopular a downtick. I have no idea. Meanwhile, I always liked Harold Blooms comment that in a few decades the world would be Mormon. Well, that hasn’t worked out.

  10. I understood the drop in missionary age was due to the boys not taking their freshman year (at BYU) seriously because they’d be leaving on their mission in a year. This was an attempt to get them to focus and not be distracted. Also to retain more of them in the church.

  11. Yes, baseball baptisms and their South American equivalents in the 80’s are troublesome. As I said in the naughts you had a decreased emphasis on baptisms and an increased emphasis on worthiness of missionaries, charitable service, and retention. That’s reflected in the graphs and I think accounts for much of the “slowdown” some attributed to people discovering controversial history on the internet. (I’ll do an other post on the internet theory hopefully next week)

    I think we have pretty good data on retention in the US but not for the rest of the world.

    fbisti (9) Yes practices that increase baptisms initially but have reduced effectiveness over time is very significant. I’d originally had a paragraph on certain approaches that were used in the US in the late 80’s tied to this and whether that accounted for the bump. I figured it was so speculative though I deleted it. My personal feeling, although I can’t back it up with fact, is that there was a lot of low hanging fruit in terms of conversions available in the late 80’s. Once those people were contacted then those sources quickly dropped in effectiveness.

    Realistically a big issue today is that there are few Americans that haven’t had a chance to meet with the Elders. Now any missionary will tell you that circumstances can radically change how open to hearing a person is. However overall I think conversions will be much harder than they were in the 80’s and early 90’s.

    What’s so interesting is that despite 40% of US growth coming from immigration (and often not the protestants or Catholics Mormons often have success with) Mormon growth has kept up with American population growth. Now part of that is the higher birth rate among Mormons. (I believe Mormons now have the most children beating out Catholics) However a significant part of that is due to reasonably high retention rates (surprisingly high when consider how much our religion demands of us) and conversions.

    John (10) Yes the predictions in particular of LDS growth rates in the 90’s were nonsense and depended purely on unrealistic curve fitting – largely from the initial era of international growth when there was a lot of low hanging fruit. I tend to think extrapolating much from recent trends is also uninformative – especially given significant changes affecting growth rate such as missionary effectiveness.

    Mark (5) Mormon growth, with a slight exception for a short time in the 90’s (possibly due to large immigrant increases), has matched American growth. While the three main sources of data don’t agree on our relative population (Aris has us as 1.4%, Pew at 1.6% and Gallup at 2% with Gallup having the largest sample size) most data tends to have us not varying much statistically from those numbers. However US growth has fluctuated quite a bit. As I mentioned the growth rate was particularly high in the 90’s. it’s dropped a fair bit the last decade to postwar lows. Some of that is decreased immigration, particularly from Mexico, since the Great Recession. An other issue is decreased child brith rates since the Great Recession. Whether that persists is or more part of the slow recovery and particularly it’s effect on Millennials is unclear. Right now US growth is at 0.78% per year or thereabouts.

    Peter (4) I grew up in the New England area (on the Canadian side of the fence) not long after the baseball scandals. There still was aftermath when I was young. You’d think people would learn from that but it wasn’t really that long after that something similar happened. So far as I know we’ve been relatively good about that since the mid-90’s, perhaps due to increased technical proficiency in business and statistics in the Church. I’m sure the Church has data on some of this. There is a department that deals with it. Although I often wonder how accurate some of the data submitted to the Church is. From what I’ve been told they also do interviews to get qualitative data as well as statistical data.

    Regarding when missionaries meet people, by and large tracting is among the worst ways to meet people. I assume it still is. I confess in my most successful area we simply stayed out late past curfew because that was the only time we could teach. Things were pretty dead until after 7. Still there’s lots you can do in various places if you follow the spirit.

  12. That’s interesting. I’d never heard that. I confess my Freshman year (done at Dalhousie) was much easier than my Sophomore year (which I did at BYU). That’s because when you don’t use math you forget it fairly quickly. That first year of doing physics was brutal. Sadly (very sadly since it’s my love) I’ve forgotten most of my mathematical skills over the years. My dream is to earn enough money I can study physics again.

  13. Are there similar stats available for other churches that are big on converting people to their churches? Is it an ineffective Mormon missionary problem, or is it something that’s happening everywhere and not just among the Mormons? My gut tells me that it’s the latter, but I have nothing to back that up with.

  14. Could the percieved bigotry of the church be a factor? There seems to be a surge after 1978, although it starts in 1974, and growth flattens in 1990 when the church started its anti gay marriage campain. Has been falling ever since.

    There is talk of low hanging fruit. Could there be another crop of such, if we were not tied to conservative politics (Trump might help that disconnect), and could get rid of the homophobia, and sexism (generational change in leadership)?

    I could see a revival if we were teaching Uchtdorfs version of the Gospel instead of Oaks.

    What we have to offer now has limited appeal!

  15. My impression is that missionaries spend significantly less time actually proselyting than they used to. When I served as a missionary 25 years ago almost all of our time was spent trying to find nonmembers to teach and teaching them. Less active members were not our responsibility. Today missionaries seem to spend a lot of time working with less active members. I actually think this is a good change but I can see how it might contribute to fewer convert baptisms.

  16. The number of new converts attending church at least once a month three years after baptism would be a much better metric of missionary program success. A similar metric would count the number of new converts who pay any amount of tithing during the third calendar year subsequent to their baptism.

  17. Mark I agree, although I suspect with this noticeable of a drop I’d expect similar drops in convert retention – although admittedly that’s more affected by ward culture than the missionaries.

    E, I mentioned that focus on retention which tends to entail more time with recent converts and I actives. I also think that a very good policy. I believe the drop in the late 90s reflects that change in focus more than external factors.

  18. Nice post Clark. A quick thought from an economist regarding the logic of the diminishing converts-per-missionary ratio.

    If you assume that missionaries are allocated to where they will gain the most converts and that all missionaries are of identical teaching effectiveness, then a one-time shock increase in missionaries will lead to a lower average converts per missionary as less-productive areas are given missionaries.

    Whether missionaries are allocated to maximize converts is debatable. We understand they are allocated by inspiration to be sure, but in practice that inspired allocation looks to me like it is balancing multiple factors aside from convert maximization, such as keeping missionary safety high, retention, showing support from HQ even in areas of low converts, etc. But, crucially, if the same balancing of factors were used to allocate missionaries during the surge as it was during non-surge times, then again we should still see a decline in converts-per-missionary ratio with missionary quality unchanged.

    The same prediction about the declining converts-per-missionary ratio could even hold if the quality of missionary increased, as long as the allocation rule is different enough from maximization of converts.

    A more realistic assumption is there is variation in missionary effectiveness. A surge increases both the number of effective missionaries and the number of less-effective missionaries. If the effective ones get sent to where their effectiveness is best used, then the surge could result in an increased converts-per-missionary ratio, but it depends on how well that effectiveness is leveraged in those areas and is not automatic. A declining ratio seems more realistic, especially because it does not look like maximizing converts is the allocation rule.

    As an aside, my own ward is in one of the missions newly created during the surge. But my part of the world is not a high-baptizing region. (My ward received a second pair of missionaries, even though we hardly find investigators for the first pair. The second pair was then designated as “service missionaries” to spend much if not most of its time doing service–they were not even to do much proselytizing! The mission president, a very good man, was innovating in ways to keep the missionaries busy, and maximizing converts did not seem like rule he was following.) I was told that our area received more missionaries because our area could accommodate them, i.e., we could find housing, help feed them, etc. I don’t know if that is true or if such logic was widespread if it was true, but it does fit the idea that the surge missionaries were not assigned to maximize converts or the converts-per-missionary ratio.

  19. I agree with the comments that the conversion rate is probably relatively independent of the number of missionaries, within a fairly wide range of the missionary numbers. It seems likely to me that other factors are much more potent, including social networks and trends inside and outside the church, and changing social trends and perceptions of doctrine. So I think that per missionary conversion rates tell me little to nothing about missionary effectiveness or quality. I realize this runs counter to much of the narratives we tell about great missionaries. And counter to the measure-the numbers culture that many missions and missionaries have been exposed to over the years. Note that this doesn’t mean there is no such things as a great missionary. In scriptural terms, I could say that Ammon and Moroni were both great disciples of Christ! Even though the number of “converts per missionary” was radically different between them.

  20. Joseph (19) I think that’s true although as I said when the church makes a change and there’s an abrupt change in converts per missionary I think that’s a strong indication the change made the change in baptisms.

    So I’d never want to say this is all that’s going on. But I think the graphs do tell a pretty strong story about the change in the age of missionaries having a strong effect on baptisms.

    Mike (18) That was my initial thought, but now that the surge is returning to normal numbers wouldn’t you expect the rate to return to trend? Perhaps our stats are a year early and next year will show something else. The issue of more missionaries being allocated to service rather than proselytizing is an interesting one. Again though I’d expect as surge numbers decrease that such issues would shift out.

  21. A couple of observations about the statistics. First, the significant drop in convert baptisms per missionary in 2013 is a statistical aberration and should be tossed out. The aberration occurred because the number of missionaries used was an end-of-year number, and the massive influx of missionaries due to the age change didn’t start until summer of 2013, so the large number of missionaries was not an accurate reflection of the entire year, while convert baptisms were spread throughout the year. The rapid influx threw that average off. If you looked at it week by week during the year, it would show a different picture. Unfortunately, we don’t have those numbers. I suspect it would show a gradual and not terribly significant decrease in baptisms per missionary per week.

    Second, the decrease in missionaries in 2003 was only partly due to raising the bar. The other, and perhaps more significant, factor was a demographic shift in the Church. An employee of the missionary department warned me of this a couple of years before it happened. He said there were many fewer (can’t remember the exact number, but 15,000 to 18,000 sticks in my mind) 15-18-year-olds in the Church at that time than 19-22-year-olds. So they expected the numbers to drop dramatically. Raising the bar just amplified that effect.

  22. I scrolled down to make this exact point (missionaries being assigned to less-productive areas). Also, fellow economist! :)

    To your points, this is a very complicated question with many variables, other than missionary effectiveness.

  23. I didn’t know that about the demographic switch in 2002 – although it’d make sense. I’m not sure that changes the effect mind you.

    Regarding the other point, I’d be sympathetic to that except that the rate has stayed relatively constant the past few years. Maybe I’m jumping the gun on my concern and it’s just more an effect of the bias of my priors. However it really does look like something significant has happened and that the effect isn’t reverse as the surge ends.

  24. I definitely agree conversion rate only tells us limited things. That said, I think the graphs to me at least suggest that factors external to the church are far smaller than those internal. I recognize there’s a narrative that says the rise of the internet brought controversial history and is affecting retention and baptism rates. However when I look at the above I just don’t see it. Admittedly the above figures are worldwide figures and not American + EU + Canada + Australia figures where one would expect that to be more impactful.

    The whole thing that was surprising to me when I did these graphs was just how much seems tied to changes within the church rather than these externals changes.

    Now what constitutes missionary effectiveness is clearly not just baptisms per year. I’m trying to emphasize that. Clearly there are also other goals – and arguably these other goals have become more significant – especially starting in the naughts. However if we view missionaries as missionaries I think baptisms are a pretty key statistic. It’s not the only statistic – retention after two years would be much better to know. But we don’t have that.

  25. In the 80’s I would talk to friend about the Church. Since the bigotry has returned (this time gays) I can no longer proudly share the Gospel. Am I the only one?

  26. You are definitely not the only one. I’m much more hesitant now for the same reasons. And ironically I’m a ward mission leader desperate to put the best spin on things that I can and grow my Church I love. The bee in my bonnet is making the Church safe for reasonable, tolerant, educated middle class people like myself. These should be people we hoover up by the multitude because there is so much in Mormonism that can work for such people socially and intellectually with a theology that copes with the scale of the universe and is so ambitious for individual potential. But I would be horrified and embarrassed if they sat through a single General Conference session because despite the occasional gems they will hear really odd rhetoric about archaic attitudes to the nuclear family, emotional manipulation, intolerance both overt and subtle towards non nuclear families, bizarre mangling of Elizabethan English (particularly in prayers), women who seem to be slightly airhead Stepford Wives with Primary Voices, and an increasingly sinister and delusional culty obsession with only trusting the GAs as sources of reliable truth because the Internet is not a library that intelligent people can navigate to research for truth like we do with every other aspect of our lives. According to these old white American / occasionally German men with the weird breathy speech patterns, it is a dangerous conspiracy of lies, even though they are now admitting that a LOT of what they as reliable guardians of truth used to say to us was lies.

    How am I going to expect my non member colleagues to take any of that seriously? My 14 year old pupils would have a field day pointing out all the contradictions between what they are saying. I am a teacher. My adult colleagues are teachers. It is our mission in life to teach young people to find truth by listening to all the points of view about something, including the best counter-arguments available, question each source for potential bias to filter out propaganda, then use their ‘Personal reasoning and wisdom’ (Oaks) to reach their own conclusions with an open mind. I now feel utterly sabotaged by where the apostles are going with their rhetoric and American culture war obsessions. The religion I have been proud of all my life because of how much it encouraged study and learning and pondering and thinking for yourself to arrive at truth is now absnsoning all of that and I am hearing my apostles one after the other preach an ideology of totalitarian anti-educationslism, saying their propaganda is by far the most reliable source of truth. Surely they should trust their truth enough to let people investigate and discover for themselves if that is right rather than telling them not to bother with the journey and just take their word for it.

    They are no longer speaking to me and many of my internet literate generation about my real life, which is built on the foundation of Restoration doctrines and scriptures, and they certainly have so little of use to say to my non member friends it seems pointless trying to start selling them as modern prophets, seers and revelators.

    Its nearly all about ‘stay in the boat and hunker down and ignore the uncomfortable truths out there, we are scared of the world you are comfortable in and not feeling threatened by, so you should join in our fear.’

    Why should sensible, happy, tolerant, unconditionally compassionate families sign up for our gospel and start discriminating against gay people and their children, and signing up for attitudes of hostility to whole sections of society and aspects of normal life when they are already better at being Christ-like than our religious culture is? How on earth did we get to this?!

    It has to change.

  27. “making the Church safe”

    Anyone who feels the church is not safe as is, very likely will lack sufficient faith to accept God’s “role” in the world as is. The the attitude that a “safe space” is not possible when there are contrary opinions to the philosophies of the day with regard to the commandments of God is highly correlated with same kind of people who insist there is no God because #poverty #rape #etc.

  28. Mike, I concur with your analysis and made a somewhat similar reply on the Conference Theme: No Trouble Here, Move Along post from a couple weeks back. Also, my observations here in Northern Virginia match with yours. We have more missionaries here than we’ve ever had, but, according to our mission president, our stake didn’t give the missionaries a single referral in 2015. While I am willing to bet that that statement isn’t the whole story, it does seem to be clue that we are dumping resources into areas with poor results because those areas can more easily handle the logistics (if not the missionary efforts) of more missionaries. Also, I’m more interested to see what happens from 2016-2021 as the Church missionary program adjusts to the new larger baseline of missionaries. I can only assume by the end of this decade that we will see more missionaries moved into higher baptizing areas as the ability to absorb those missionaries increases.

  29. We are a miniscule church in a world of 7 billion. Luckily, God has decided to give us, the 0.05%, all of the truth that had been lost from the world for millenia. Since we’ve got all the truth, we should encourage others to listen to us, and not waste effort trying to learn from the 99.5% around us. Everything you need to know about God and life is contained in inspired manuals of the church, which we have the good fortune to read together on Sundays.

  30. This perfectly illustrates a larger point. We are at a stage now where ideas, both correct and incorrect, are spread so rapidly and adopted so quickly in areas with easy internet access, that I think we’re seeing groupthink radically impact the numbers (in the short term). In the past, this still occurred, but not at the pace of today. Additionally, it’s even easier to reinforce others who share our opinions, while simultaneously disagreeing with (or even vilifying) those who share opposing opinions.

    Otherwise stated, the Sherems and Korihors now have megaphones and jet planes. Couple that with less accountability, more popular support, and an equal or greater incentive to continue in spreading falsehoods, and you have a recipe for a downturn in church growth. Again, this isn’t new, but it seems to be accelerated and spread over a larger area than in the past.

  31. FGH, you’ve been warned about snarky comments and fake email addresses in violation of the commenter policy. Shape up.

  32. While the demographics on views of LGBT issues is changing fast by generation, we should note that the country is still very divided on these issues. While I completely understand why some would see this as an issue of bigotry I think the issues are far more complex than that. Complicated by how rapidly views have shifted in the US. A view that was mainstream less than 10 years ago as still progressive is now often perceived as bigotry. (Think what HRC was saying as late as her last election against BHO)

    That said clearly there are huge rifts in the US and often those rifts are significantly regionally located. So people in urban areas in the northeast or west coast have very different views than much of the rest of the country outside of a few urban areas. This in turn means that sharing the gospel is trickier because of these issues – particularly in places like California. This seems like an inevitable consequence of Prop-8 support.

    Whether this is affecting missionary work in significantly quantitative ways is a bit trickier to discern. Sadly the latest data we have from Pew on these issues is 2012 – before the legalization of gay marriage nationally and before the even faster national shift on these issues. However when gay marriage was in the news between 2007 to 2012 there wasn’t much of a shift on how Mormons were viewed by non-Mormons and what shift there was tended to be positive rather than negative.. Whether that’s changed a lot the past 4 years isn’t clear.

  33. Not just snarky but also more than a little of a strawman. I think it undeniable that God doesn’t see having the gospel here and not as key to mortal development given history. My sense is that part of the reason the church is the way it is, is to prepare us as missionaries in the spirit world.

    Regarding learning from others, of course we do learn. That’s why at BYU that motto of the “Glory of God is Intelligence” is so important. We’re encourage and outright commanded to learn. We don’t have all truth by any stretch of the imagination. But of course if we do have truth we should share it. Why would we not?

  34. Again these numbers are not surprising.The number that we should be looking at is the number of converts per member of the church which is been steadily dropping since the 90s maybe the 80s. The decline in growth rate of the church is at an all time low On the per capita basis based on my mathematical models and looking at the data I predict the church will grow at a rate of about 1.6 percent in 2016. This prediction includes converts and children of record less deaths and resignations. For the 2014 2015 time The church grew about 1.7% iand was about 1.8% the year before. My predictions take no account of the number of missionaries. Unless something else fundamentally changes the church growth will be limited due to external pressures such as the system carrying capacity, with factors that include lack of interest, competition from other churches, resignations. Additionally the church posted an article showing that many mainstream churches are having a decrease in population growth. We are in a time where people don’t feel the need to be a part of organized religion or a mainstream religion. The church is using the same techniques to try to gain Converts that they’ve been using throughout its history. What was good 1960 or 1860 doesn’t seem to be working today. That’s my opinion anyway.

  35. Clark,
    The decision to lower the missionary male age to 18 is also about curbing the “delayed adolescence” trend.
    Freshman year for the guys was fun time before their two-year mission–real life wouldn’t start until post mission. But when they returned, they went back to their old habit–having fun.
    So now we have 28 year- old males claiming they’re still kids and too young to marry. Yes, we’ve always had them but not in the large numbers of today–‘affluenza’ allows for fun.
    The Church’s reasoning in lowering the age is, keep the boys focused on important things from the time they graduate high school so they will stay focused and on track to adulthood instead of getting distracted and delaying it.
    Let’s hope it works.
    (And of course, there are lots of young guys who are adults.)

  36. That could be although I’m a tad skeptical *that’s* what accounts for the extended adolescence. I think it’s a general societal trend combined with the way the job and education market has developed. Which isn’t to say that perhaps this is a theory the brethren have but I think they analyze these things more carefully than most wish to admit.

  37. I calls ’em like I sees ’em, Ivan. I’m far too unorthodox to be allowed a voice over there. You’d think all them straight arrows talking to each other would get kind of boring, but I guess they don’t see it that way.

  38. A few quick thoughts.

    1.) Thank you for this analysis, Clark. I’m sure the top brass at HQ are aware of trends and stats like this, but to echo what Peter (#4) said, on a local level as someone who works with the miniscule statistics I’m given on a ward level, it’s tough to really see where there are opportunities for growth.

    2.) I don’t mean this as a slight against what you did here, because it’s really good stuff, but I wonder if we are hitting a point with the church that we need some advanced analytics in how we measure “success” or opportunities within the Church. Convert Baptisms / missionary sounds a lot like the current discussion happening in the MLB regarding Runs Batted In. While it’s a statistic, and it does show a lot about how a player performs in one area of the game that does have an impact, it’s not a perfect statistic (player performance vs. lineup performance, dependent on base-runners, the weight of offensive heavy teams vs. weaker teams plays a factor). I think the same can be said for some of these KPI’s that are being used on a ward level (in a quarterly report) and on a missionary level (lessons taught, baptisms, etc). Someone in the comments above mentioned retention, or how many missionaries it would take to make an entire stake. Which leads me to…

    3.) I really wish there was a movement for advanced analytics in the Church that could be done on local levels, both for wards and for missionaries (and in conjunction with each other). Perhaps others out there are doing it. As a missionary, I never knew if we were maximizing our effectiveness for the sake of statistics or if it was actually making a difference, and I don’t believe anyone had the latitude to attempt anything different to see if it resulted in a positive effect. Sure, one could make the argument that convert baptisms do help, but does it help for the right reasons?

    4.) Perhaps the other discussion that will probably never take place at places above my pay grade will be the role and purpose of missions. Depending on who one talks to, it is either to work on converting people to Christ / the church, spread the gospel, or a rite of passage for males and females (if they choose to take it), or a mixture of all three. If the rite of passage is an equally important part of it (which I would contend unofficially it is), should the overall emphasis be on the effects of missionary work, or the effect of the mission on the missionary (do they stay active, generational membership families, # of family members sealed, etc).

    Great stuff to chew on. Thanks Clark.

  39. But using somebody else’s blog to cause inter-blog friction is kind of irritating. Maybe you could use the comment section here to address the topic at hand, and save your thoughts about other Mormon blogs for a more relevant post?

  40. Like others mentioned, I think the ideal statistics are self-identification figures, meeting attendance, and activity two years after baptism. All of those I’m sure the Church has. Some of those we can get for the US via ARIS and Pew studies. I’m going to try and alternative between analytic posts and more scriptural posts. But I do have one partially written that will get into these other issues.

    As for right reasons, I think ultimately it’s about helping other people. I baptized far fewer people than my friends, but I saw huge differences in the lives of some of the people I baptized. At least half of the people I baptized are still active now after 20 years. (I was just contacted on Facebook recently by one convert)

    That said it can sometimes be discouraging looking at effects. When I was on my mission in Louisiana we had great success in the black community. One ward went from basically no blacks to being half black just in the time I was there. Yet I see the Pew data and only 1% of the Church is black. That suggests to me that despite some success in the late 80’s that overall we as a Church have hit a wall. In my opinion there really are many people ready for the gospel but we may have to modify both how we do things but also perhaps to a degree how we do our meetings. While I tend to look askance at complaining about a “Wasatch Front cultural church” I do think one size fits all for all communities can be a problem.

    All that said I have been impressed with how the Church does pay attention. They seem like they’ve become far more sophisticated in things. For instance some of David Stewart’s suggestions at from several years ago have been adopted. Much faster than I’d have suspected. We had the missionaries over for dinner a couple of weeks ago (hard to do in Provo given the number of members) and I was impressed at how they are using technology. (They had iPads to show presentations) I think there was more than a little room for improvement (the speakers on iPads are insufficiently loud for instance – they should carry portable speakers) But I’m impressed at how the church is being nimble on these issues.

    I just find these demographic topics fascinating. I’ve been interested it ever since the first batch of analysis in the 90’s started coming out. As I said I found those very questionable. (Extrapolating exponential growth in unrealistic ways back then) Even though I’ve not been blogging as much the past years, I do often comment on demographic issues.

  41. Thanks Mike. I was just about to post a link to that. If you are Matt Martinich then I’ve long been a fan of your blog. I definitely agree with his/your view that little of the decrease in baptisms is due to the internet but is tied to larger trends of secularization.

    The point about record growth in stakes and wards is worth considering too. While it’s not as good as having activity statistics for baptized members, I suspect it’s a loose proxy for activity statistics. I am touching on that in my next demographics post.

  42. Clark (20), I am still puzzled by your comment that making the change in age eligibility for missionaries has had any effect on baptisms. Looking at your graph of convert baptisms per year, I think the 2013 increase and 2014 drop may be within statistical equivalency, and they certainly aren’t anywhere near as large as the change in number of missionaries. So the # of converts per missionary dropped, even after accounting for the temporary artifact of 2013 (21). A lot more missionaries, about the same number of baptisms. The same number of baptisms simply got spread out over more missionaries.

  43. Joseph, I think 2013 and 2014 are more or less the same in terms of efficiency and baptisms and fairly close in number of missionaries. The key argument is when the effect takes place in 2013. Does the roll out only take place in fall, undermining the thesis that it’s immature missionaries makign the effect? Or is it something else? To my eyes the key event is 2015 with the significant drop in the number of converts despite a drop of 10,000 missionaries. Again though the question is what the figures would be like per month – we just don’t have that level of detail.

    While we don’t have the data to establish it I think there is a narrative that explains the data well. Not everyone will agree with it of course. That is that as the immature missionaries come out in 2013 they are spread among companionships with the older and also experienced missionaries. Mixed in with the 2013 are older new missionaries. I think the drop is partially to not having enough work for the influx of missionaries. (According to many reports the western US got a disproportionate number of them and they were primarily used for reactivation efforts)

    A plausible explanation is that the first half of 2013 was more like 2012, perhaps with a slight drop in efficiency (.20 – .30) and then the second half of 2012 was extremely disruptive dropping efficiency a great deal. The average ends up giving us 3.41. In 2014 the disruption is adjusted for and the efficiency improves a bit, but not back nearly to trend. This then persists through 2014 and 2015.

    Of course the test of this will be next year’s data. If it’s about the same for 2016 then my thesis is correct.

    The argument that there is a fixed number of potential converts and throwing more missionaries at it doesn’t help isn’t born out by the data I think. After all we have to explain that big drop of 40,000 converts in 2015 as well as the increases of 10,000 for years 2012, 2013, and 2014.

    The main argument, as I see it, against my thesis is that 2012 is the key year. That’s before the change in missionaries but already there was a drop of 10,000 converts despite an increase of around 3,000 missionaries. In that year the efficiency drops at twice the rate of prior years as well. I agree that’s a possibility but I’m not sure what’s special about 2012 and I still don’t think that explains 2015.

  44. Very helpful, Clark. An admittedly tl;dr question: might the constant convert rates be more parsimoniously explained not by a change in missionary numbers but by the constant degree (or lack thereof) in member involvement in the conversion process over this period?

  45. Why would member participation change during this period? I’m of course very aware of factors I’m not aware of undermining the analysis. But again when there’s an obvious big factor so strongly correlated other factors have to be pretty significantly.

  46. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for the maximum number of active members at current growth rates: the church will grow until the death rate among active members = the growth rate of new active members.

    Death rate = 0.9% (approximately equal to world death rate)
    Growth rate = (Overall activity rate) * (Children of Record + Converts per year)
    Overall activity rate = 0.33 (generous estimate)
    Children of Record = 150,000 per year (generous estimate)
    Convert baptisms = 300,000 per year

    So, 0.009 * (MAX STEADY STATE ACTIVE MEMBERS) = (0.33) * (150,000 + 300,000)

    Solving gives MAX STEADY STATE ACTIVE MEMBERS = 16.8 million
    Relatedly, the Max for TOTAL MEMBERS ~ 50 million

    I welcome corrections on my math – (Clark, please feel free to edit out any mistakes!) Given that active membership is currently about 5 million, we will continue growing for many years to come, but will be unlikely to grow beyond 50 million total members (or 17 million active members), based on current trajectories.

  47. Thanks for your analysis. See my earlier comments. The math seems fine though the death rate you use seems to high to me. But everything is ballpark figures. From the logistic equation I got numbers around 18 to 20 million for quasi peak total membership with child of record keeping the numbers increasing for a while at linear growth. By my calculations Death rate + resignations only comes out to be between 0.006 to 0.008 from church reported numbers. I believe this under reported. I’ve heard they don’t assume someone has died until the reach the age of 110. The steady state value you provide does not give.a time prediction. But my analysis indicates that as early as 2025 we may consider we have reached the quasi steady state population. Note the cost per baptism is up to about $2000 a head. There may be a point where the mission program cost per baptism may be too high. Without a fundamental change I concur that total church population will probably not surpass 50 million or perhaps even 20 million. The per capita growth between 2014-2015 fell by about 11%. Doubling the loss from 2013-2014. So membership growth is very slow. In fact considering inactivity one might consider it to be negative. Thanks for listening

  48. I’m just dubious of any long term extrapolation. As my stats teacher hammered into me: for every trend there is an end. In particular I don’t think we’re taking advantage of Asia as we should as we’ve not really figured out how to proselytize non-Christians well. It’s unclear whether the US and to a lesser extent Canada is following Europe’s secularization or doing something new. (I suspect we’ll get a polarization rather than a real secularization – although a lot of that depends upon immigration trends) It’s not clear what’s going to happen with Latin America yet either. Africa is doing well but I’d be loath to extrapolate current numbers there.

    Of course while I feel somewhat informed about Canada and the US and perhaps even Europe (where I’m sure we’ll shrink) the rest of the world I feel completely unable to have much of an opinion.

    For the US, I suspect we’ll match growth in the future. That is as the growth rate of the US decreases we’ll tend to decrease as well. That assumes no big immigration surges as in the 90’s. (Although we caught up with that one too)

  49. Robert (31.1) those are some good points. Again I’m loath to predict too much as so much depends upon how quickly the rest of the world modernizes. If Latin America becomes wealthy as is quite possible if they improve their governments and economies – for all of Mexico’s & Brazil’s problems their GDPs have increased significantly the past 20 years. Then the current cost imbalance changes significantly.

    Africa, where it’s quite possible we’ll have our next growth spurt unless we figure out Asia, will likely be poor for a while. But I could easily see the day within my lifetime where there are far more tithing dollars from outside the US than inside.

  50. My opinion is that it is more complicated. There is a decline in numbers of most mainstream churches. Additionally, competition is stiff. Baptists, Pentecost 7th Day Adventists … Are strong competitors. Overall the number of converts is not only falling on a per missionary basis, but on a per member basis. My belief is that something more fundamental will have to take place to change the growth trajectory. Bigotry, perceived fanaticism polygamy, the massacre at mountain meadows, the position on gays, certainly don’t help though.

  51. Church growth was fairly high through most of the 20th century. In the 80’s you start seeing big drops in mainline Christianity. By the mid 90’s you start seeing a general drop and rise in the Nones. Interestingly the same phenomena took place in Canada but 10 years earlier. (The US increase in Nones ends up going a bit slower than American ones though)

    While I think the shift does indeed get tied to generational shifts starting in the 90’s, it’s important to note that this takes time. Public views on say gay marriage really didn’t shift dramatically until the last 10 years. Which is a way of saying that I suspect this is part of the change – especially at the generational level. (20 – 30 year olds) But I personally am skeptical it’s a major fact. Although I’d hold off making judgements until the latest ARIS data gets released in a year or so.

    The difficulty of course is that sects that are more positive towards issues of gender politics tend to be hemorrhaging members much faster than conservative sects. That’s been true since at least the early 80 but especially since the 90’s. So what people are interested in just isn’t Christianity period but a relatively loose and vague notion of spirituality.

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