See how much the LDS Church grew in 2021 and how the pace is still lagging

The numbers bounced back from 2020 levels, but are still behind pre-pandemic levels.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint faithful stand as top church leaders leave the Conference Center after the morning session of General Conference on Saturday, April 2, 2022. The church reported it now has more than 16.8 million members worldwide.

Growth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rebounded last year after falling off a coronavirus cliff in 2020, but the bounce remained far below pre-pandemic levels.

Overall membership rose by 141,737 to 16,805,400, according to 2021 statistics released Saturday as part of the faith’s 192nd Annual General Conference, a 0.8% bump (from 16,663,663).

While that outpaced 2020′s 0.6% gain, it finished far below the 1.54% increase reported the prior year.

Full-time missionaries started returning in stronger numbers after tens of thousands of proselytizers were pulled back in 2020 due to COVID-19. The pandemic remains a barrier, but restrictions are being eased in many parts of the world.

The church noted it had 54,539 full-time proselytizers at the end last year and 36,639 service missionaries, up from 51,819 and 30,527, respectively, at the conclusion of 2020.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Even so, church leaders apparently desire to see those ranks grow by much more (there were 67,021 full-time proselytizing missionaries at the end of 2019). Saturday’s conference speakers repeatedly emphasized the importance of young Latter-day Saints going on missions. Church President Russell M. Nelson called it a “priesthood responsibility” for young men (who can depart at age 18) and a “powerful” but “optional opportunity” for women (who can enlist at 19).

Thanks partly to its bolstered missionary force, the church saw an uptick in convert baptisms in 2021, to 168,283, a 34% spike from the previous year’s 125,930 — but, again, way behind the 248,835 in 2019.

“The many messages in General Conference addresses shared [Saturday] regarding the importance of full-time missionary service for young men,” independent demographer Matt Martinich wrote at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, “is likely in direct response to these disappointing missionary statistics and increasing opportunities for church growth in the near future.”

Many members delayed baby blessings in 2020 and, to a lesser extent, last year — since Sunday services halted and then took place only remotely for long stretches of time — so fewer children were added to the faith’s rolls.

In 2020, the church reported 65,440 of these “children of record.” That number swelled by 36% to 89,069 last year and drew close to the 94,266 cited in 2019 but stayed below the six figures common earlier in the past decade.

The latest number surprised Martinich, a Colorado-based researcher who tracks church growth. “I anticipated there would be children who were not blessed and not had membership records created in 2020 that would have had this done in 2021,” he stated, “and thus result in a ‘double cohort’ of children of record increase.”

So taking these various stats into account, it appears the church essentially lost 115,615 members in 2021 — whether through death, resignation, church discipline, etc. — who had been on the rolls the year before. That amount, according to Martinich, is similar to the 90,000 to 120,000 dropped annually during most of the past decade, though that number topped 140,800 in 2018.

“This indicates,” he wrote, “that the rate of deaths, excommunications, resignations and removal of records for unbaptized children over age 8 has remained constant during this time.”

The total net membership increase for 2020 and 2021 amounted to 240,364, Martinich pointed out, while 2019 alone enjoyed a net boost of 251,301.

Despite the continuing COVID-19 struggles, the number of Latter-day Saint congregations around the world expanded last year to 31,315, a nearly 0.6% rise — similar to 2020′s upswing.

Clarification April 5, 11 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the number of members who died, resigned or otherwise were removed from the church rolls in 2021.