With church growth sputtering, does the Latter-day Saint missionary program need a tuneup or an overhaul?

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

After hearing from nearly 7,000 returned Latter-day Saint missionaries — with their reports of hasty baptisms, uncooperative members and cultural barriers — researcher Matt Martinich came to a strong conclusion: The church’s global proselytizing system needs “urgent reform.”

The Colorado Springs demographer recently summarized the problems he sees with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ missionary system, which sends tens of thousands of young people across the globe seeking converts.

In the document, posted at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, Martinich also spelled out proposals to improve the program.

“The main reason the church does not have more rapid ‘real growth’ is due to self-inflicted problems with policies and procedures,” the researcher wrote in an email. “I totally support the church — and by no means am I making this some type of means to stir dissension — but frankly there is too much inefficiency and bureaucratic mess with church employees and church leaders.”

Religion News Service senior columnist Jana Riess, author “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” applauded Martinich’s work.

“I’m grateful for the data his research has provided about LDS missionary work around the world,” said the writer, “because small-scale anecdotal evidence can only take us so far.”

A mountain of data

(Photo courtesy of Matt Martinich) Independent Latter-day Saint demographer Matt Martinich.

From 2012 to 2018, Martinich posted a survey aimed at both proselytizers and church members on social media sites, primarily Facebook, Reddit and his blog.

He asked about where they served, average church attendance, reasons members stopped attending, member-missionary activity, travel time to meetinghouses, cultural conditions and other factors.

He got more than 3,400 responses to his returned missionary survey in English, French and Spanish, and another 3,400 to the member survey in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Survey participants were not randomly selected but rather self-selected, Martinich said, but he believes it still represents the largest independent research on Latter-day Saint missionaries to date.

The responses provided “invaluable data in regards to the convert retention, member activity, proselytism, cultural conditions, leadership development, and factors that have hampered or accelerated growth in nearly every country where the church has an official presence,” Martinich wrote in the introduction to his analysis.

Though mission approaches and emphases varied from place to place, he said, “there are significant problems with the success of the missionary program [as a whole] despite repeated efforts to make it more effective.”

That is most evident, Martinich said, in the 16 million-member faith’s declining growth rates.

In 2017, the membership growth rate fell to its lowest level since 1937, and the number of convert baptisms reached a 30-year low. Congregational growth rates consistently lag behind membership growth rates, Martinich reported, and the ratio of converts baptized per missionary has dropped from six to eight a year in the 1970s and ’80s to 3.5.

Gary Crittenden, managing director of the church’s missionary department, is well aware of the Utah-based faith’s sliding growth rate — a trend plaguing many denominations — and has read Martinich’s critique and suggestions with interest.

“I want to make sure that I’m consuming ideas that people have for us,” Crittenden told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I don't think there’s anybody here that thinks we’ve got every great idea. We can learn from others and the experience of others. And we have tried to react to what we’re hearing from people, to listen and learn and try and be better as a result of that.”

But, he added, “that doesn’t mean we’re there yet.”

Here are some of Martinich’s concerns and suggestions for reform:

Pressure to baptize

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary Crittenden, managing director of the missionary department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 8, 2019.

Latter-day Saint history is filled with tales of missionaries who baptized scores of would-be members on a single day, or at least in a short time. Such seemingly miraculous success stories are shared with these young emissaries as they set out to preach and with their mission presidents tasked with overseeing these proselytizing armies. To some, the sheer number of baptisms is seen as an indicator of the faith’s continued appeal.

But tactics to boost the numbers, including “rushing poorly prepared converts into baptism,” Martinich noted, deserve “serious criticism by mission leaders and full-time missionaries.”

This practice “not only does violence to the sacred nature of the ordinance and lessens the significance of the long-term commitment to follow Christ and remain active in the church,” he wrote, “but results in the church achieving only a small portion of its potential growth.”

In recent years, the church has worked to “retool its missionary program through efforts such as the ‘Preach My Gospel’ [manual] ... [which] states that an investigator should attend church at least ‘several times,’” Martinich said, but “these efforts have generally yielded mixed results on a global scale.” He recommends eliminating missionwide “baptism goals,” and focusing on “other metrics such as church attendance for both hours of church, daily scripture study and prayer, and the number of friends/family who attend a lesson.”

Crittenden noted that the church attendance guideline of “several times” is intentionally vague.

“There are differences in preparation among people, depending on their predisposition,” he said, “and what’s happened to them in their life.”

Latter-day Saint leaders trust their young charges “to exercise judgment” about how much church participation is enough, Crittenden said. “We still rely on missionaries when they sit across the table from someone and talk about the gospel to feel impressed about what they should ask them to do.”

There’s “always a balance,” he said, between moving toward commitment too quickly and too slowly.

Challenging every person on the street to be baptized “is not our intent,” he said. “Our hope is that they’ll follow the spirit.”

Frayed ties with members

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary Crittenden, managing director of the missionary department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 8, 2019.

In the survey, returned missionaries in many areas of the world complained of “a distrusting, negative relationship between full-time missionaries and local members,” Martinich reported, saying that members are often skeptical of missionary motivations, had negative experiences with previous “elders” or “sisters,” or that finding new members is up to the missionaries, not to them. Many respondents also pointed to “a disconnect between mission leadership and local church leadership.”

Martinich suggests having bishops or branch presidents, who oversee congregations, conduct baptism interviews of prospective converts, rather than missionaries.

“One of the biggest challenges with the missionary program is that there are two organizational systems that are at least partially focused on the same goal (missionary work),” the independent demographer wrote, “but these systems struggle to communicate and collaborate with one another.”

He further proposed that bishops and branch presidents in some areas be responsible for full-time missionaries instead of, or in addition to, mission presidents “to help reduce this disconnect and better empower local leaders.”

Crittenden had a different take on the two groups of leaders — seeing them as partners, not competitors.

One or the other might view “the candidate as ready or not,” he said. “Having that balance [between the two] is probably good.”

Down with dinners

Replacing missionary dinner appointments with informal, small group discussions, known as “cottage meetings,” that are organized by the members (not the missionaries), Martinich said, “would be an effective approach to engaging local members in missionary work.”

Cottage meetings “are not a substitute for investigators attending church,” David Stewart wrote in his book, “Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work,” “but they represent a valuable supplement that facilitates the consistent achievement of vital teaching and fellowshipping tasks ... and have also played an essential role in laying the foundation for the church in some new areas and nations.”

The church “would never discourage cottage meetings,” Crittenden said, “if we thought they could do more.”

But it’s not going to be an edict from headquarters, he said. “It’s really a local question... a decision made between the stake president and the mission president, and whatever they think is right is totally fine with us.”

Creating a structure

For years, the church has managed its growth through a program known as “centers of strength,” beginning from an urban center and then adding more congregations on that base.

Almost invariably, “returned missionaries report good receptivity and significant growth, when new branches or member groups are opened in lesser-reached neighborhoods or cities where no previous church presence operated,” Martinich noted, yet “the incidence of the church opening additional cities and towns [beyond the center] is surprisingly rare.”

That’s because the centers of strength model “makes a lot of sense,” Crittenden countered. It has served the church’s growth needs well.

“There’s obviously lots of places in Africa where missionaries could go out in the backcountry and people could accept the gospel there,” he said. “But there’s virtually no infrastructure there to provide support to them. Whereas if you have a center of strength, then you build up and you get capacity.”

The church “occasionally makes mistakes” following this approach, but there are no plans to change it, he said — not even if a lot of returned missionaries think a different strategy would work.

Cultural preparedness

It is overwhelmingly difficult to create a uniform teaching program that would work in vastly different cultures worldwide, Martinich noted, especially not in missions “where most do not have a background in Western Christianity.”

He urges longer stays in Missionary Training Centers to better prepare these young evangelizers to tailor their messages to various backgrounds, including non-Western Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and the nonreligious, .

Crittenden balks at the idea of longer MTC time. His experience and observance are that young missionaries “learn a ton more about the culture the minute [they] show up” in their assigned country, he said, not in the MTC.

His department is addressing one question: Should the way the lessons are taught in different places in the world be distinct?

“The answer to that is, undoubtedly, yes,” he said. “And, again, that’s what we ask the missionaries to be wise and thoughtful about.”

The church is working on “helping the missionaries be more thoughtful about their approach,” Crittenden said, for example, “which lessons they cover and in which order.”

His department also is exploring whether technology of the future might help provide some of this cultural awareness.

Church planting

According to Martinich, Christian faiths have experimented with asking married couples to move to a particular country to set up small groups of believers. It’s a common technique that he believes Mormonism should consider doing.

Crittenden doesn’t know of any Latter-day Saint cases of such planting — though he has heard of members “who’ve called themselves to do it” — and said the faith has no plans to do it right now.

Riess, the RNS columnist, likes Martinich’s ideas about “altering the ‘centers of strength’ approach to be more flexible and nimble at the grass-roots level and adapting some of the church-planting strategies other denominations have used successfully.”

Latter-day Saints “only have to look into our own past,” she said, “for successful models of how this can be done in new areas.”

Martinich’s research pointed to aspects of missionary work, Crittenden said, that headquarters “is actively working on now,” but he declined to offer any specifics.

When asked if church authorities were considering extending female missionaries’ service from 18 months to 24 months, parallel with their male counterparts, the managing director looked surprised.

Crittenden said, “I’ve never had a conversation with any of our senior leaders about it.”

Correction • April 1, 1:40 p.m. • Researcher Matt Martinich says Mormonism should consider following the lead of other Christian faiths that have experimented with asking married couples to move to a particular country to set up small groups of believers. An earlier version mischaracterized his comments on this practice.