Andy Larsen: The LDS Church is losing member share in most of the U.S. — and other things I learned when researching the rolls

21 states have fewer Latter-day Saints than they did two years ago. And while Utah’s numbers are climbing, the LDS share of its population is falling.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Women's session of General Conference in April 2022. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing in the U.S., but that growth has flattened.

An item in one of my editor and colleague Dave Noyce’s recent Mormon Land newsletters left me intrigued — namely, the fact that 21 U.S. states saw declining membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the past two years.

Dave’s article had a lot of good information, but I wanted to know more context around those numbers. I’ll acknowledge, I’m a complete newbie to this data, so my curiosity struck me: How unusual is a downturn like that? What do those states have in common? Can we decipher more trends around this data? I figured we also might be able to make some interesting charts of that data as well.

So to find out, I looked at the past 40 years of state-by-state official church membership figures — reports starting in 1983, then every two years from 1987 to 1999, then every year from 2000 to 2021 with a break in 2020 due to the pandemic. Those have been archived at the research site Cumorah.com.

Let’s get started with the basic membership statistics given by the church. Here’s a chart with every report since 1983 for the entire United States. Click on the drop-down menu in the top left to zoom in on a specific state’s members.

Right off the bat, we can see some intriguing trends:

• U.S. church membership is certainly still growing but at perhaps a lesser rate than it was five or 10 years ago.

• Utah membership is growing more consistently and linearly, as is the membership in Idaho and Arizona, while some other nearby states (California, Colorado, Wyoming) have seen more stagnant membership rates. In fact, Utah’s growth of about 34,000 members represents the majority of the church’s 42,000-member growth in America overall over the past two years.

Let’s examine differences in growth. Instead of looking at absolute membership totals, let’s see how growth percentages have changed over time. In the below graph, when there is a larger gap between reports than one year, I calculate the annualized compound growth year to year — the goal is to compare apples to apples as much as possible. Again, you can click on the drop-down menu in the top left to compare states.

You see those 8% annualized growth numbers between 1983 and 1987, and, I have to be honest, it’s a little suspicious from a data-integrity point of view: It’s such an outlier over the years that come later. But after about 1997, you do see a more consistent decline in growth rates over the past 25 years, from about 2% a year annually to about 0.5% annually now.

In Utah, U.S. growth is now just under a percentage point, but as Dave’s article pointed out, there are 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, which now have fewer members than the last report for the end of 2019.

That’s pretty unusual. Before the 2021 report, the highest number of states with a membership decrease came in 2018, when 12 states saw a decline.

Maybe it’s just my political brain, but I also noticed a trend in that list: The top 12 states in terms of Latter-day Saint growth in the past two years are “red” ones that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Eight of the bottom 10 are “blue” and voted for Joe Biden.

It’s no secret that the population of some states declined during the pandemic — most notably California, which lost about 300,000 residents between 2021 and 2022. About a third, 91,000, died of COVID-19, while others moved from the state.

So how have the percentage of Latter-day Saints when compared to the population as a whole changed in each state? Make sure to interact with this chart by selecting your favorite state from the drop-down menu below.

For the nation overall, we see similar trends: The percentage of church members grew more substantially during the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s before turning a bit flat in the 2010s.

But that analysis also hides some interesting trends from state to state. So let’s get complicated — let’s do percentages of percentages. Which states have seen the largest growth in their church population when compared to growth in their overall population?

Interestingly, 34 states saw their proportion of church membership decrease from 2019 to 2021. Notably, the United States’ share of members has declined, as has Utah’s. New Jersey, Idaho and North Dakota were the three biggest losers when compared to population change, while South Dakota, Washington, D.C., and Arkansas saw Latter-day Saints become a larger share of their communities.

By exploring the proportion of each state’s residents, it’s also easier to find out if there’s a significant discrepancy between the church’s rolls and those who really consider themselves members. The Public Religion Research Institute has conducted surveys of more than 500,000 Americans over the past eight years and asked people what religion they identify as. Indeed, researchers even oversampled Utahns to get a larger sample size to understand what’s an unusually religious state.

In the end, 55% of the Utahns they spoke to identified themselves as Latter-day Saints, while between 64% and 68% of Utah’s population were on the church’s official rolls during that time period, according to their reports. Utah did have the largest percentage of any state who went to church at least once per week, at 52% of the overall population.

Obviously, the pandemic played a role in these numbers, both in the movement of people between states and the skipped reporting of 2020. But the more stagnant growth and even declines seen in 2021 in the U.S. and a significant number of states do continue a trend we’ve seen even before COVID-19 took hold, in the latter part of the 2010s.

There’s no doubt that growth in places overseas, especially Africa, tells a more optimistic story for the church’s membership tallies. But here in the United States, it’s hard to describe the church’s position as anything but relatively stagnant overall.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@ sltrib.com.

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