Now that the latest Church statistics are out everyone is putting up their analysis. I’ve not written a lot on statistics of late so I thought I’d retouch some of the topics I’ve discussed in the past. The short summary is that missionary effectiveness is up slightly but overall growth is decreasing, partially driven by birth rate drops. The year over year growth of the Church was only 1.21%. The lowest rate since the 1930’s and well below the 3 – 4% growth seen during the rise of the international Church.
The growth in absolute numbers was less than 200,000 for the first time since 1978. Some have tied the two eras together seeing LGBT issues as a significant driver of the slowdown in Church growth akin to how racial issues affected Church growth in the 70’s. I think that can be overstated though. One main driver is a much reduced birth rate. While it’s dangerous to use Utah as a proxy for the Church, it can be informative as a first order approximation. Utah has the second highest birth rate in the country, but it is now (2017 data) only 2.12 with 2.1 needed just to meet replacement. The birth rate started dropping after the recession of 2008 but had been low throughout the period from 1990 – 2006. (See the graph below) Really from the late 70’s when the birth rate was 3.3 to the early 90’s when it hit 2.65 there was a near continual dropping rate. Those demographic changes likely are not unique to Utah and are affecting general numbers as the children of that era reach adulthood.
Of course not only are many members outside of Utah, many more members are outside of the United States. While some live in low birth rate regions such as Europe or Asia, others live in high birth rate areas like Latin America or Africa. So it really is difficult to gauge the exact value of the birth rate. Many scholars do think though that the significant drop in numbers for so-called mainline Protestant sects happened starting in the 90’s due to their birth rate dropping significantly in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s just that only now is the same phenomena affecting Latter-day Saints, Evangelicals and other more conservative forms of Protestantism. People still are debating exactly how much the relative success of these groups in the 90’s through mid teens is due to birth rate and how much is due to other effects (such as their very conservative nature).
We can see the effect of birth rate by looking at the number of children of record. In 2000 the figure was 109,797. (Going by Wheat and Tares figures) In 2018 it was 102,102. Not only did it not grow, it shrank. Note that in 2012 the figure was 122,273.
The other figure that has received a lot of attention is the number of people taking their names off the rolls of the Church. Calculating this is difficult and requires various assumptions. Some critics put the figure up around 80,000 for 2018. Others put the figure much lower at about half that. I don’t want to even begin to try and figure out that figure. It’s high though and much higher than in the past.
The good news is a slight improvement in missionary efficiency. The bad news is that it’s only slight. The rate has been horrible since the “surge” as the mission age dropped. The clear indication as I’ve noted before is that 18 – 19 year olds simply are not as effective as missionaries as 19 – 20 year olds. This is born out by various anecdotal accounts as well as stories that the number of missionaries returning home early has increased substantially. While I suspect the age drop had more to do with retention and changes in college preparedness, by all appearances it has hurt the number of conversions. In 2009 there were 280,106 converts. In 2018 there were only 234,332. That’s despite having many more missionaries out.
Now one theory is that there is only so many people ready to hear the gospel at a time. Thus the efficiency of missionaries simply is low because we have more missionaries than there’s work for. I’m very skeptical of this idea. It may well be that the work is much harder than even a decade ago. I have a hard time believe that it’s that much harder with that many fewer people willing to listen. Interestingly if we assume an average baptizing rate of 5 per missionary, as was typically before 2012, the growth rate of the Church would have been much, much higher the past six years.
I tried to model this simply in the following table. The “theory number of converts” is just 5 * missionaries. That’s a bit unrealistic as while I don’t think there’s an upper boundary on missionaries I do think the surge intrinsically made life harder. So I’d ignore somewhat 2012 & 2013. This is also lower than the actual rate from 2011 and before. Consider this more a qualitative hypothesis against an ideal.
This theoretical calculation would still have Church growth lower than in the past, but more on par with growth from the prior decade. Again I wouldn’t take this calculation too seriously. There are a lot of variables here. This is just a way to think through what could have been had there not been such a precipitous drop in 2012-2013 in missionary effectiveness that remains with us. Put an other way, while birth rate is a significant driver of the growth of the Church, the loss of effectiveness of missionaries since 2012 is an even bigger driver.
Looking at children, if the number of children hadn’t started dropping in 2013, we’d have only slightly more members. Around 10,000. Contrast that with the much larger number of converts.
Now of course the driver of the numbers most people are talking about are people who leave the faith. We hope to review Jana Reiss’ The Next Mormons which focuses in on retention. That’s why the calculation of people who renounced their membership is so interesting, whether it was 40,000 or 80,000. If it was the higher figure that’s higher than the number of converts leading to a net loss of members. If it was the lower figure that’s still worrisome, although by some measures up to 80% of converts leave the Church within 10 years. If Jana’s figures are accurate, Latter-day Saint retention remains high, but no longer as high as it once was. Certainly well below the typical “ethnic” religious retention of religions often associated with immigrants such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. Typically such faiths have a retention of 75% or higher.
If retention is dropping, then that can account for a considerable fraction of the drop in growth. How much this is responsible isn’t completely clear. As I said different people come to differing calculations due to missing information in the data set such as deaths. In any case looking at the Wheat and Tares figures, it seems that since 2014 resignations has increased significantly. This is a very recent phenomena, and thus not easily tied to broad trends such as internet adoption or anti-Mormon rhetoric. Again going by the Wheat and Tares calculations the increase in resignations corresponds to the controversy over LGBT issues starting with the Prop-8 battle in California. How much of the numbers is due to that isn’t at all clear. Nor is it clear, given the drop in numbers of all religions and the rise of the Nones, that a different LGBT policy would actually increase numbers. Still that does appear to be a major effect and one I don’t think we can or should dismiss.
The other way to look at the data is that we have a lot of children who start as members but just don’t make it to their 20s or so as members. That’s the interpretation the LDS Church Growth blog takes. This is resignations by an other name I think though. The rise of the Nones is accelerating for each generation. Church just isn’t important and is an actual negative. People seem to want personal acceptance and service to them but don’t think of religion in terms of a call or duty. If this rise is what the mission changes were design to solve I don’t think it worked.
1. See for instance Wheat & Tares’s analysis, Jana Reiss’, Mormon Dialog and my favorite LDS Church Growth Blog.
2. See 2016’s “Converts per Missionary” along with 2017’s “Converts per Missionary Revisited” and “On Those Latest Missionary Numbers.” Although we’ve done many stories over the years here at T&S and I did several at my private blog such as 2015’s “Mormon Demographics: Canadian Edition.”
3. The main problem is that Utah is only around 60% Latter-day Saint and not all of them are active. Further the birth rate of members outside of Utah may not match those within Utah.
4. See for instance the table at Wheat and Tares that puts it at 42,000.
5. Anyone who has been on a mission knows that the majority of converts fall away after the missionary leaves. It’s unusual for many to last a year truthfully. To the point it’s hard to say how many were truly converted. That’s long been a struggle in the Church affected by pressure on missionaries for numbers, a failure of wards to fellowship new members well, along with the innate problems of when a member has to live the gospel over time which can be difficult even for those raised in the Church. The 80% figure may be wrong – I’m going by memory. But I suspect it’s close to the actual figure.
6. The reasons for the high retention isn’t completely clear although many speculate that the sense of community as a support mechanism simply is more valuable. It’s also possible that religious identity is seen as important against a world of those of differing culture and views. It’s possible that in the 90’s and before that Mormon retention was high due to being so different from the Protestant majority that we had a similar phenomena at work.
This is a longer term look at baptisms per missionary with the line from before 2012 thrown in.
This is comparing converts to the number of missions rather than missionaries. It’s a much more stable relationship.
This is a longer term look at the absolute number of converts going back to 1967. You’ll see that it peaks in the very early 90’s and then stabilizes with a fairly linear slightly downward trend.
This is a look at the number of children of record which is a good proxy for the growth of the Church in terms of children born.
The age performance issue begs the question if you can extrapolate what converts per missionary would look like if you moved the age up, and up, and up. Converts per missionary based on age, assuming straight line conversion. How does that chart look?
When you get to President Hinckley’s age, all it takes is a pat on the shoulder and a smiling gentle rebuke. (Jk)
The good news about using youth is they aren’t much productive at anything at that age (when compared to later in life) and the learning experience is very valuable. Indeed, there’s a decent cohort of that age being self/community destructive.
Looking at how the birthrates of the US and Utah have shifted since the beginning of the recession (and the ballooning of student debt), my despairing aggravation at the assumption that not having kids is a lifestyle choice instead of a rational economic response (mirrored throughout history) only increases.
MH, I think the argument against the economic theory is that Millennials are now doing quite well financially but haven’t increased their birth rate significantly. Of course those statistics avoid a problem of how the curve is distributed. There’s a critique that while the top end of the curve are doing quite well the bottom end are doing much worse than past cohorts. The argument is that those who are married among Millennials are doing quite well but those single are doing worse. So it’s possible that in part Millennials are delaying marriage because of economics and thereby delaying child birth. It’s not clear though whether those trend apply to Latter-day Saints.
There are various studies showing that members of the Church are delaying marriage. How much of that is due to economics and how much due to social pressures isn’t clear. I think at least a significant part is social. The recession may have been a shock that postponed marriage and/or kids, but the phenomena has stayed and gotten worse as the recession has drifted to the past. Also Utah was one of the least hit states by the recession and has one of the stronger economies in the country with a very low unemployment rate.
Libcon, I don’t think you can extrapolate effectiveness linearly for age. I just think the evidence is compelling that at 18 many are still immature and thus not as effective missionaries. It’s the question of that line which varies person to person. For me even at 19 I was extremely shy and arguably still undergoing a lot of cognitive development biologically. I suspect I’m not alone. While some people mature early – I’ve met people shockingly mature at 16 – I think for many it’s later. Further the experience you have after high school prepares you for your mission IMO. The statistics bear this out. The numbers I gave were more a thought experiment of what would have happened had the mission age not dropped and efficiency remained roughly the same.
Again let me emphasize that I don’t think the change in age was concerned with missionary effectiveness but retention. Whether it did that isn’t clear as we’d need to know inactivity rates for return missionaries over the past 6 years. While I’m sure the Church has that it’s not something really determinable from public data.
Agree, great post.
The Church is not immune from the trends that all Christian churches’ demographics have been dramatically shifting older… and old people don’t bear children, and they die off rapidly.
Until the Church releases more statistic, such as how many members have had their names removed and how many members died, all we can do is guess at some of the contours of Church membership and growth.
You cite Jana Riess’s survey, which concludes that 33 percent of missionaries come home early. I’ve questioned the validity of Jana’s sample. Some of her results just seem way off from what I observe in the Church. So I asked a friend who works in the Missionary Department about the 33 percent figure. He said it was about half that. So, my hunch about her sample is probably more accurate than her figures are.
Also, an editing observation: phenomena is plural. The singular form is phenomenon.
We’ll get to that in our review, but Jana’s survey is a web survey and then separated into demographic cups. It’s not clear how that may distort things. For instance one of Pew’s earlier Mormon surveys is rumored to have oversampled Utah County. That meant that they matched their demographic categories but because Utah county wasn’t characteristic of Mormons in general you got some odd results such as over 80% of all Mormons paying a full tithe. It’s possible, but unlikely. The worry is that while Jana may have attempted to balance demographics that it’s not a representative survey leading to similar effects.
With regards to the third of missionaries coming home, we addressed that here as well. I’m very skeptical of that figure. Whether that’s an artifact of elements of the survey being unrepresentative or something else isn’t clear. I do think that in the post-2012 cohort that many more missionaries are coming home early. I’m extremely skeptical its that high.
Regarding phenomena I assume there’s more than one at work. I was just comparing broad religious experience with ours. But I doubt there’s only one causal effect at play thus the plural.
Wait. Church growth is HALF of what it was as recently as 2012? That’s remarkable.
Alma 1:24 discusses a time in the ancient Church when large number of members were excommunicated (“blotted out”) or resigned (” withdrew themselves.”) The solution then seemed to be a greater emphasis on humanitarian aid (v.27). Perhaps the driver in resignations isn’t LGBTQ but the Snufferites and others who claim the Church needs to be less “corporate.”
Count me skeptical that that age is the main issue contributing to issue to missionary effectiveness. I just don’t think that the few months between graduation from high school and turning 19 is that big of a difference. Certainly, there are some missionaries who would benefit significantly from waiting a bit longer (and bishops and stake presidents should take pains to identify who they are, and have them wait a little longer), but I just can’t conceive that a semester or two of college or an average of 9 extra months working makes that big of a difference.
I would add two additional possibilities to what might be going on. First is that many more sister missionaries are serving. I don’t mean to suggest that sister missionaries are less capable–I think it’s clear that they are just as capable of elders, and arguably more capable. But the sisters and elders in every mission tend to develop slightly different cultures, which, in my mission, resulted in sisters focusing more on retention than baptizing new members. That culture may be similar in other missions, which would not be reflected in the current statistics (people resigning membership are different from those who simply quit attending, and one can imagine one of these metrics for “retention” improving even as the other declines).
Another possibility is related to the “only so many people ready to hear the gospel at a time” theory Clark addressed, but I would look at it slightly differently. That is, that the real driving force in convert baptisms is the ability of wards and branches to attract investigators and support them toward baptism. Missionaries are necessary in that effort, but additional missionaries can’t help where the ward or branch is already “at capacity”, so to speak.
I’m sure the missionary department has numbers that shed a lot more light on what is going on. I’m sure they can break the numbers down to missionary gender and age and see precisely how units are affected by additional missionaries. I’m not holding my breath for those numbers to be made public, but it will be interesting to see what the Church does, and how that might reflect what the numbers we don’t have actually say.
I agree with DSC that while all the focus has been on the age change for Elders or the age change overall, I’m curious about the effects of the age change for Sisters. I served as a 21-year-old sister and we were ‘adults’ in a way that the vast majority of the Elders were (annoyingly) not. The Sisters in our ward now are teenagers and act like it. The entire dynamic has changed.
I personally can’t imagine a 19 or 18-year-old me trying to ‘teach’ someone who was older than I was pretty much anything. I would have been way too intimidated. I certainly didn’t see myself as an adult yet.
It would be really interesting to see the statistics of Elder vs Sister effectiveness now versus prior to the age change.
ReTx, the efficiency has remained fairly constant since the change. At the time of the change it was a big drop. If you look at the graph above that should give you all the information you need.
Dsc, the problem with what you outline is that the drop in baptisms corresponded exactly to when the drop in age happened and has persisted ever since then. That’s a reasonably strong argument for it being age not the factors you list. If it was a top end to number of missionaries then as the numbers dropped after the surge we should have seen efficiency increase. We didn’t.
The change led to a surge in sister missionaries, and the ratio of sisters to elders has stayed much higher than it was prior to the change. So if the ratio of sisters to elders partially explains the difference, we wouldn’t necessarily see that number affected significantly by the drop in total missionaries.
I’m also not convinced that the drop in total missionaries disproves the unit capacity theory. Converts per missionary was already starting to decline prior to 2013 (due to many of the factors discussed in your post). The surge could have skewed the numbers for the reasons I outlined, and now we are returning to where that trend would have brought us had the age change not occurred.
I’m not really advocating either theory, and the reality is that those numbers are probably a complex mix of many factors.
Dsc, the number of sisters went from around 13% in 2012 to 30% now. If the cause were sisters, then we’d expect a slow change. We instead see a fairly static effectiveness since 2012 strongly suggesting it’s not the gender makeup. Likewise the efficiently drops quickly and doesn’t change as the number of missionaries decreases after the surge. That strongly suggests it isn’t a problem of too many missionaries. All signs point to age.
Converts per missionary was dropping slightly, as you note. But there’s an abrupt change in 2013 with 2012 having a mix. That 2012 isn’t as low as 2013 or thereafter but still much lower than what was before suggests it’s the new age.
Now I don’t want to say this is all that is going on. There are other effects at play including changes to how missionaries work. There’s more computer use including iPads introduced. More use of social media. More email access. Lots of distractions that could also be undermining the number. However the big change completely matches age. Any other explanation has to explain that abrupt change with the surge and the remarkable consistency since.
Again my personal view is that age is a huge factor but I’d also definitely say that changes to the missionary program have been quite counter-productive.
I think you’ve hung your hat on the age explanation, and as a result you’re not really making the connections on what I’m saying. Let me try to explain in the abstract to see if that helps. The result of X depends on the value of Y and Z. As Y increases, X decreases. The same is true for Z and X. Let’s say in year 1, Y begins to increase, causing X to decrease. Then, in year 5, Z increases suddenly, causing a sudden further decrease in X. In years 6 through 10, Y continues to increase at the same rate, while Z begins to decrease from its year 5 surge. The result is two opposing forces on X. If Y and Z are equal, X remains the same.
Of course, in the real world there are many other factors, including randomness. But whenever you start with a downward trend that then flatlines, you have to ask what is the force that is opposing that trend (or was it happenstance). Since there was already a downward trend in missionaries starting in 2009, if age were a factor that tends to decrease converts per missionary, you would expect that trend to continue after the age decrease at a steeper rate.
(I’ve also been trying to find numbers on the ratio of sisters to elders, but I’m coming up short. My recollection is that there was a surge in the ratio in 2013, which has not changed much since then. If you have that ratio by year, it would be interesting to look at it.)
Birthrate. My observations and reasons for decline.
1. Culture is slowly getting less and less family friendly. Less marriages less births
2. Economic. Student loans plus obamacare has increased costs dramatically for young families. If you do not qualify for public healthcare and you have a obamacare compliant plan you are looking at a huge deductible for each baby.
Put a 300 to 800 dollar a month student loan payment with a 3 to 5k deductible and parents off public healthcare face huge financial hurdles per pregnancy
The sharp decrease in converts / missionary (I refuse to use the terms “efficiency” or “effectiveness” here) from 2012 to 2013 is certainly driven by the surge, but there were undoubtedly other factors at play as well. I suspect that large drop masks shallower trends. A linear extrapolation of the 2009-2011 line out to 2018 isn’t that far off from the actual 2018 data. Perhaps this shallower trend is driven by the increase in Nones, which if memory serves started ca. 2007, which in turn is influenced to a degree by religious attitudes toward LGBT persons.
Do you take requests? I would like to see the Baptisms/Missionary chart compared against the Baptisms/Missions chart (i know we do not have granular data on specific mission baptisms themselves, that’s not what I’m asking). While # of missionaries and # of missions certainly correlate – the mission count shouldn’t swing and skew the numbers as much as the missionary count surge would. And at a foundational level, when we are looking at global trends, I like to push the responsibility back to the mission presidents anyway (their policies affect the temperature of a mission so much), and not the missionaries.
BBell, I agree and see that myself even in Utah County. For instance just for me I figure that assuming no extra illness a baby costs around $3000-$6000 the first year not including payments for insurance which are on the order of $12,000 once you break insurance out from payroll. That’s also not counting other expenses like car seats, cribs, clothes, diapers and so forth. If your baby gets something like RSV then you’re talking thousands more. I think we really need reforms in health insurance but doubt we’ll see much. So babies are very expensive. Just the difference between my first child and my last was pretty noticeable. And of course each kid complicates things – especially if you have multiple injuries or illnesses in a year. So the same year I had my heart surgery my daughter broke her arm which ended up with around $600 for fixing the simple break.
There’s no doubt kids are expensive and especially for those on the lower end of the wealth curve very difficult to have. We could and should make that easier. However what’s at least as noticeable is that among those who have good paying jobs with benefits also don’t have a lot of kids. In some ways there’s even more pressure on the upper end of the wealth curve (say top 20%) to not have more than a single child.
Dsc, as I said I think age is just part of the issue but I am convinced it’s a major component. But hopefully I’m listening to the rest. I note that what you say is plausible, but I just don’t see the evidence for it. I’m certainly open to it though.
For the sisters stats I was going by this Deseret News article. They don’t give the statistics per year though, just what they were at the beginning and end.
So if the issue was sisters I just don’t think we’d see things as flat. It’s quite possible one thing is increasing at the same rate as an other is decreasing but that seems like a big coincidence and I’d want data pointing to that thesis.
To the point about the curve – if you look at the longer trend it’s not that noticeable. See the graph I just added to the post above. I’add at that the drop in 2012 is an artifact of the change happening part way through the year. I put a green line in anyways but if there is an other effect it’s the pink line. I just don’t think there evidence to see too much in it though.
Ryan, since 1991 the number of missions tends to track the number of converts fairly closely. I added the graph you want at the end of the post.
There are some serious errors here. Church growth, overall (church wide) is increasing just as we hear in Conference. The question is more correctly about membership growth rates–very different matter than simple growth. Overall Church growth rates are slowing. If you have questions, please send me an email.