It has happened every year for decades. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has handed over membership data to Utah’s government.
This information, broken down by county, not only helps demographers create population estimates but also provides a window into the state’s shifting religious representation. It has brought to light Salt Lake County’s slow march to minority Latter-day Saint status, while other areas, like Utah County, hold firm.
But that window slammed shut in 2021.
The church didn’t send the data for the first time in at least 40 years and maybe much longer than that.
And the culprit is the coronavirus.
The pandemic’s effects have touched everything from what we can buy in stores to how our children are educated and where people attend church.
In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, church spokesperson Sam Penrod said the Utah-based faith withheld the data for this past year.
“The reason for this is that due to church services being put on hold or reduced due to COVID, that the numbers do not accurately reflect membership numbers and trends,” he wrote, “including children born and blessed, or children whose baptisms were delayed because of COVID.”
Penrod said the church plans to resume this data-sharing next year “as the COVID situation stabilizes and there is a more accurate number available.”
Demographers at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute are not too worried about the one-year blip.
“We are grateful to have had this data to help inform our annual population estimates for so many years,” said Pam Perlich, the institute’s director of demographic research. “Fortunately, we have the new 2020 Census results, vital statistics, school enrollment, tax return data, and various other administrative data to inform our population estimates.”
The Tribune has been tracking these church membership numbers since 1989. Perlich found references to this data-sharing going back to the 1960s.
The 2020 data showed that for the third straight year Salt Lake County saw a decline in the number of Latter-day Saints. It fell by 5,734 people, even as the county population grew by 36,600. Utah’s most populous county became minority Latter-day Saint in 2017. In 2020, Latter-day Saints made up 46.89% of the overall population.
That data also showed dips in membership in Weber (losing 1,038) and Davis (508) counties, while Utah County, home to church-owned Brigham Young University, added 10,401. Utah County was 80.43% Latter-day Saint in 2020. Utah as a whole was 60% Latter-day Saint.
Experts debate the reasons for the drop-offs in recent years. It could be the slower birthrate in Utah means fewer Latter-day Saint baby blessings — which add infants to the faith’s membership rolls — or it could be that millennials and Generation Z are leaving the faith at higher numbers than previous generations. It could be members moving out of Salt Lake County to more densely populated Latter-day Saint enclaves.
That debate, already raging, took place even before the coronavirus upended just about everything, including the availability of in-person church services and what missionary activity took place.
The church did release some worldwide numbers this past April, showing an overall membership growth in 2020 of 98,627, or just 0.6%. That was way down from the growth seen in the past decade, when annual membership gains often topped 200,000.
Last year, the church’s missionaries were often reassigned or simply sent home due to COVID-19. As a consequence, the faith recorded a 50% plunge in convert baptisms worldwide, down to just 125,930.
Infants added to global membership rolls also tanked, falling 31% to 65,440.
Matt Martinich, an independent researcher in Colorado who tracks Latter-day Saint membership trends, experienced this firsthand. His wife, Jenna, gave birth to their fourth child in August 2020. But the family decided to hold off on little Ephraim’s blessing until it would be safer for the family to gather. So while Ephraim would have normally been on the membership rolls in 2020, he wasn’t added until February 2021, when extended relatives were able to gather in Martinich’s home for the ceremony.
“I would predict 2021 will have a surge in children blessed and probably closer to a return to normal for convert baptisms,” he said. “As for 2022, I think that is way too hard to make an educated prediction, given so much uncertainty.”
In normal years, Martinich tracks church membership growth through the creation or reduction of congregations, called wards and branches. He also follows missionary work. The pandemic has made that difficult as well.
“We have really no idea on what membership changes have occurred,” he said, “other than that things have slowed dramatically.”
Data scientist Stephen Cranney also keeps a close eye on wider church membership trends. He’s unsure if the pandemic will just be a delay, and the numbers will rebound, or if it will lead to a real slowing of growth in new members.
Cranney said it is possible that the reduction in missionary work and the temporary halt to in-person church services could lead to fewer people joining the faith and staying active.
“If there is no post-COVID surge, or if the upswing is less than the COVID slump, then at least some of the decline is ‘real,’ and the church lost baptisms and confirmations,” he told The Tribune. “On the other hand, if the post-COVID uptick is about the same size as the slump, then we can assume that the COVID slump is basically due to things like people waiting for grandma to be able to attend their baby blessing.”
He said the numbers the church releases in the next year about worldwide membership and the number of Latter-day Saints in each of Utah’s 29 counties will go a long way toward answering this question.