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Latest from Mormon Land: Why the U.S. church may not be growing and why that $100B may be needed

Data scientist expects to see congregation expansion slow or stop in the nation, while continuing to increase overseas.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People listen during the Sunday session of the 189th twice-annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. A data scientist expects to see congregation growth slow or cease in the U.S.

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Church growth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

We know that church growth tanked in the pandemic year of 2020, falling short of six figures for the first time since at least 2010, as convert baptisms plunged by nearly 50%.

But how’s the overall trend in the U.S. church?

Data scientist Stephen Cranney takes a swing at that question in a recent Times and Seasons blog post. He notes that while the Utah-based faith keeps adding wards and branches — generally viewed as the best way to measure substantive growth — there are signs that such expansion may slow or even cease.

Why? Because of “population momentum,” or, in short, the leftover effects of older members.

“The church in the U.S. may be forming new wards, registering more members on its rolls, and building more temples to meet increasing demand while actually having undergone changes, such as lower birthrates and a net outflow of members, that will lead to the U.S. church shrinking once the older generations die off,” Cranney explains. “...The ‘children of record’ numbers [down 31% last year] have been relatively flat for the past decade [so] … most if not all of the growth that is fueling the expansion of wards, stakes, and temples in the U.S. is essentially being caused by childbearing that happened in the past, and once these effects pass through the system, growth in church units will stagnate, potentially to nothing, and we’ll enter a time period where no new branches, wards, or stakes are being added.”

At least in the U.S.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Futurists point to the Global South as where the action will be. On that score, the church appears in solid shape.

“Six countries alone are projected to account for half of the world population growth between now and the end of the 21st century,” Cranney notes, “and with one exception (Pakistan), the church is growing fast in all of them.”

So those reserve funds that the church has amassed by the billions — in part, leaders say, to finance operations in poorer parts of the world — may come in handy.

The church’s world bank

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A Latter-day Saint baptism in Africa. With the faith growing in poorer countries around the world, the church's vast reserve funds may help support those congregations.

To that last point, Sam Brunson, a tax law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, surmises that the church could tap its hefty cache of cash — reported at $100 billion two years ago — to tend to global operations.

“There would be a lot of power in church leaders saying, ‘We believe that we need to have a cushion for the next hundred years. Based on our projections, we believe ... the church is going to grow primarily among the poor,’” Brunson writes in a By Common Consent blog post. “‘While we have positive revenues today, we have projected that in 20 years we’ll be operating at negative cash flow. We debated tapping into our endowment now to (reduce tithing/feed the hungry/something else) but we believe that these future needs will be more compelling.’”

Either way, the law professor argues, the church should be more open with members about its finances and its money decisions.

“This type of transparency acknowledges that members are legitimate stakeholders in the institutional church,” he writes. “...It also demonstrates that church leaders have thought through these issues. Even if I (or we or some members) believe that the church came to the wrong conclusion, by laying out their reasoning they can demonstrate that they came to their conclusion in good faith.”

If nothing else, members at least would be able to answer a basic question: What’s in their church’s wallet?

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