The Church in 2080, Part VI: My Long-Term Growth Prognosis

I’m on the record at various places on this blog as warning about future hiccups in Church growth. Medium-term, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to a world where the center of traditional Church strength enters a period of no or negative growth for the foreseeable future. Additionally, as developing countries become developed countries the higher levels of growth in other areas of the world will taper off as well. (However, a few months ago I was on the record as predicting that Church growth would be under 1% this year, and I was wrong).

However, for various reasons I’m optimistic about Church growth in the long-run. I’ve alluded to this elsewhere, but if your belief system thrives in places that are thriving and reproducing, and is in a decline in places that are in decline, then the fundamentals are strong even if the Church may ebb and flow temporarily throughout time and space. 

When people are promoting a particular worldview or ideology, one seemingly random question I ask in the back of my head is what the birthrate of that ideology’s community is. If it is not at or above replacement, then in addition to not fulfilling the most basic reproductive imperative it’s also a non-starter in terms of whether it’s fundamentally viable. It can survive or even flourish, but its continued existence is a testament to the intrinsic, existential contradiction that its own survival is dependent on the people essentially created by competing ideological systems.

The fertility differential between conservative believers and others are so stark it sometimes seems like the only ones who will be around in the next generation are RadTrad Catholics or Hutterites. As an overly simplistic back-of-the-envelope exercise, there are some religious groups that seem more resistant to the demographic transition forces that are fun to speculate about. For example, the Amish have a doubling time of 20 years. (It’s numbers like this that led to a small band of religious exiles from Illinois becoming 1% of the US population in 150 years). There are about 350,000 Amish; at that rate then in 100 years there will be about as many Amish then as there are Pennsylvanians now, and then 100 years after that there will be more Amish than there are Americans now.

Of course 200 years is a long time for something to happen or things to change so I am not making the claim that in 200 years half of the US will be agrarian Anabaptists. Still, it shows the power of growth in highly religious subcultures, and there’s a good case to be made that differentials like this is how Christianity took over the Roman empire in 300 years.  (Of course, we don’t enjoy such rates, but comparing those rates to virtually any group that is less traditional in their orientation mitigates against the idea that loosening up or liberalizing will help Church growth, even in the developed world.) 

Of course, there is a question whether the family size difference will be enough to swim uphill against particular ideological and social trends working against religious devotion, but such pressures ebb and flow in the long run, but religious/traditional people having more babies has been a pretty consistent given since reliable family planning became a thing, and once people opt out of religion they become part of a community that isn’t replacing itself. Headwinds come and go, but the fundamental forces grind on. 

While you have to be careful when going in this direction, I’m even open to there being a genetic component to all of this: as religiosity has been shown to have a genetic component, and religious people have more children (and generally live longer), then over time things like belief in God that I suspect has a visceral, almost biological component will increase. (I published a speculative paper on the math involved with larger families begetting more large families and what it means evolutionarily). 

Additionally, while many people will leave organized religion as the world opens up, opportunity costs grow, and Church membership becomes more of a choice rather than a habit or inertially driven behavior, those that stay will be provide for a more spiritually-rooted Church, and I believe the fruits of the gospel will become more apparent to those who have ears to hear. As President Eyring said last weekend: 

The rising generation will become the nurturers of the generation to follow. The multiplier effect will produce a miracle. It will spread and grow over time, and the Lord’s kingdom on earth will be prepared and ready to greet Him with shouts of hosanna. 

I believe he was speaking prophetically here, and that the best days of Church growth are ahead of us. 

6 comments for “The Church in 2080, Part VI: My Long-Term Growth Prognosis

  1. Well said. As we all know, membership stats and active members are very different. Most wards are way less than 50% active rate so there are 8.5 million actual “members” that are participating on a regular basis. How we have all this wealth with just 8 million members is mindboggling to me….I do not see this increasing much in the future years, I think it shrinks just like other religions. The good news is who cares. Shrink, grow, stay the same God’s work/church will survive until He is done with it.

    You were not far off your under 1% prediction! I am 100% in favor for a more spiritually-rooted church! We can start by getting rid of the checklists members seem to worship.

    I also dont think we need 2000 temples or 50 million members to please God enough to send Jesus back. His return is not based on #’s or church achievements or milestones IMO. If there are 8 people standing next to the ark shouting hosanna, that would be enough.

  2. Will the Church deal with its contradictions? –
    the glaring power differential between men & women; an ahistorical American scripture that we still discuss as if it actually happened; and a health code that’s either wrong (coffee & tea are actually healthy beverages) or completely ignored (every-day beef consumption). Building new temples doesn’t address the issues. An empty temple is not a good look.

  3. I am going to question one of your assumptions, that it is the fundamental *belief* that is behind people having more children and living longer. Yes, having a religion that prohibits birth control may be a factor in number of children, but that isn’t Mormonism. And studies have shown that it is not belief that adds to longer life, but community. I think that community is also the biggest factor in the number of children born to a couple also. To quote Hillary, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The Amish still provide a village, Mormonism not any more. 70 years ago, Mormon women were not isolated alone in the home with a collection of toddlers and infants. There was primary, and Relief Society, and all the other mothers were home during the week. Then correlation hit and there was nothing on weekdays to get mothers out with other women. About the same time, the women’s movement made working outside of the home more equal to men, so that women could earn more than child care costs and more women started working because now they could actually have a career and children, instead of just spending as much as they earned on child care. Then, the church cut back on socials and other activities, until being a stay at home mother left you isolated all week at home alone, and only seeing other ward members on Sunday, with no time to visit between meetings, left a person hardly even knowing their ward. The community was lost. Now, we do not have the village it takes to raise a child, and without social support, women find it harder to raise each child and they simply do not want to spend the twenty to thirty years it takes to raise a passel of children. Now, women want the social support and self worth of a career, not 30 years of solitary confinement of raising children in a culture that does not value motherhood. And Mormonism does not value motherhood, but plays lip service to the sacrifice while not bothering to even see what women need in order to be full time mothers to ten children. This will continue and the fact that Mormons are fundamental in belief won’t stop it. We need to provide the community that the agrarian Amish still provide, but since we can’t all have a farm, I guess that won’t happen. Our bigger culture has changed too much.

  4. Hi Anna, I actually agree with much of your comment. Before she was trying to win the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Warren authored a very insightful book on this subject (The Two Income Trap) that says many of the same things; my SAHM wife has to drive at least 20 minutes to meet up with other SAHMs, and we are very privileged that we can have a full time parent that allows us to have more children. The current system is clearly not set up for large families or a family-based lifestyle, you certainly don’t have to convince me of that.

    But some of that is a natural consequence of the two-income model that we swim in, and I don’t know how much the Church can change that. Adding activities cuts into the time of other two-income families that are struggling to make ends meet. The Church can barely get people to show up to do home teaching once a month anymore, I don’t know how feasible additional holdovers from our more agrarian communitarian days would be. It’s clear that the “Sandlot” type existence where our kids just go play in the streets with all the other kids is long dead.

    Any rhetorical support for large families or people who choose to be SAHMs in order to have large families will immediately be criticized as otherizing career women or women without children. So while I and others would love to see more explicit support for the stay-at-home option (since the career option has their reward in the marketplace and society at large), I understand the reticence of the Church to step into the mommy wars.

    But more to your point, belief as well as communitarian support = more children. The research on children incentives, for example, shows that throwing money at parents doesn’t really help increase the fertility rate that much, while a paper I published showed that even among the non-religious, believers in God report higher desired number of children than atheists ( Belief clearly matters, it’s not just that religious people have more support from their Bible study group.

    So while I’m sure we’d have higher fertility rates if we had a more, 19th century-Utah communitarian type setup to support families, having some type of traditional, family-grounded theology is not insignificant.

  5. Stephen, I agree…

    My wife needs to work right now as I am applying to medical school. We are fortunate that she is able to produce a great income while I am not able to. Despite not having the “ideal Mormon scenario”, we know it is our duty to the Lord to bring His children to this Earth and raise them in a Gospel-centered home. We are compelled by this sense of responsibility. We know there will never be a “perfect time” to have children, nor has there ever been. It isn’t perfect, but we’ve been able to find a way to make it work, and we’ve been encouraged by others around us who are seeking to shun our culture of consumerism and conceit and build Zion in these last days.

    I will refrain from saying what I want to as I have been asked to by a prophet of God. I would just ask for your respect. I am a convert of 3 years who went to an Ivy League school. I studied every ex-Mormon diatribe for years before I joined. I say this not to toot my own horn but to push back on this narrative that all of us “Mormons” are just ignorant, indoctrinated, and in denial about history. I have chosen to have faith– not because I know empirically of spiritual truths, but because I have applied them in my life and felt of their eternal value. (See: Alma 32:21) The temples aren’t an attempt to grow the Church. Having lived in a community where the nearest temple is about 2 hours and 30 minutes away, it was impossible with my schedule to really attend more than once a month. Due to the demands of contemporary life in late-stage capitalist America (as outlined above), leadership wants to make it easier for faithful, often elderly members to attend the temple, especially given that we are in a time of economic (not spiritual) surplus. Would love to have a constructive dialogue with you, if you’re ever interested!

  6. Stephen C, I’m confused. Most of this post seems to say that the long-term prognosis of the Church is good because of its higher fertility rate (or maybe because it grows in high fertility areas?). Fair enough, if growing up in the Church leads people to stay in it. But then you describe a future where “Church membership becomes more of a choice rather than a habit or inertially driven behavior” which seems to be saying in the future that won’t be the case.

    This post made me realize I can’t remember the last time I heard a Church leader urge young people not to delay marriage or childbearing. Maybe I’m not paying attention because I’m past that stage in life? Maybe it’s just in the young adult firesides? In the 80s and 90s it was ubiquitous. (I can’t say it sped up my marriage, but it did prompt us start our family right away.) We talk about the importance of marriage and children. But the message of the world now is that these things are capstones, rewards for finishing your education and establishing a solid career and gaining financial security. So people wait until they’re 30 or older, which means fewer children and a substantial chance of missing out entirely. Will the Church’s fertility rate stay much higher than the world if the Church isn’t talking about not just the importance of marriage and children, but their timing?

    I have to agree with Anna as well. When I was called as stake music coordinator some ten years ago (okay, stake music chair at the time), I was told not to replicate cultural opportunities that were already available in the community. But some of my fondest memories in the Church, and some of the experiences that most strongly created a sense of community with my fellow members, were exactly that. I get why the Church has shifted its emphasis, but we’re paying a price.

    Last scattered thought: neo-Malthusian thinking (like Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb) still has a lot of influence on the left, which is remarkable given how badly its predictions have failed. If it ever really sinks in that population growth is no longer a problem (if it ever was) that could change differences in fertility by ideology a lot. I’m not holding my breath though: while the environmental movement is mostly based in science, for some people its as much of a rebellion against modernity as being Amish or a RadTrad Catholic. Both see modernity as polluting a pristine ancient order; they just identify the ancient order and the nature of the pollution differently. Reducing population to reduce pollution fits that mystical sense whether it’s supported by science or not. As a side note, The Population Bomb (which enjoyed pretty widespread acceptance at the time) illustrates the difficulty of predicting population long-term.

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