Why meteoric LDS Church growth has flamed out and what could relight the fuse

Researcher puts active membership at less than half of what’s on the rolls, says missionaries need to aim for long-term retention rather than short-term gains.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The days of a seemingly endless march toward worldwide growth may be over for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with total active membership likely to peak at or just below 6 million should current trends continue, according to a new study published in the inaugural issue of the Journal of the Mormon Social Science Association.

The article, written by The Cumorah Project’s David Stewart, represents a stark contrast to previous projections dating back to the 1980s and ‘90s. Back then, sociologists calculated from available data at the time that the Utah-based faith was well on its way to becoming a major world religion with anywhere from 36 million to 121 million members by 2020.

Didn’t happen.

In reality, the church has yet to crack 17 million followers — and that includes individuals whose names remain on the books but no longer identify as Latter-day Saints.

The slowed growth hits a particularly raw nerve for a faith that has often framed its global expansion as additional evidence of its divine mandate.

“We shouldn’t flatter ourselves that success is inevitable,” Stewart, a lifelong Latter-day Saint, said in an interview, “because it’s not.”

Part of the slowdown has to do with factors outside the church’s control. Depending on the region of the world, these include a rise in so-called secularization and declines in the following: poverty, democracy, Christianity, human rights and fertility — all of which, Stewart said, erect hurdles to the spread of the Latter-day Saint message.

However, the independent researcher is adamant that this trend of deceleration is, at least in part, reversible. By highlighting the proselytizing success of the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Stewart argues that the church could reap much more from its own missionary efforts by jettisoning outdated practices concerned more with short-term quotas than “durable” long-term growth.

The church declined to comment on Stewart’s article.

Future projections

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This file photo shows Latter-day Saints in Brazil singing during a sacrament meeting.

Stewart has spent nearly 30 years aggregating and analyzing data related to church growth. His go-to sources include the faith’s own statistics, as well as those provided by reliable independent parties such as the Pew Research Center. Particularly interesting to him is the addition and removal of Latter-day Saint congregations, known as wards and branches, which he uses as a proxy for estimating active membership.

All of this he supplements with his own research, consisting largely of interviews with members and full-time missionaries living around the world.

“I’ve traveled to 56 countries over the past 25 years,” he said, “and have engaged in field work in almost all of them related to these matters.”

Stewart’s current projections for Latter-day Saint membership in coming years and decades include:

• Growth through 2040 in total active Latter-day Saints and, by extension, the number of congregations, will likely fall below 1% annually, with possible net losses over the long term. Main drivers of this trend include smaller families, decreased retention among children born into the church and a general slowdown in the number of conversions.

• The number of active U.S. members will likely peak in the next few years, followed by a drop.

• Net losses in the tally of European congregations are “all but certain” as the trickle of converts fails to compensate for decreased activity rates among existing members.

• In Latin America, the number of congregations will remain relatively stable with the possibility of a net loss as new converts merely replace members lost to inactivity.

• The list of congregations will continue to grow in sub-Saharan Africa, potentially to the point of offsetting setbacks elsewhere in the world.

Stephen Cranney, one of the article’s reviewers, is a data scientist who has written about church growth in the United States. While he agreed with the overall trends Stewart describes, he cautioned against reading too much into any of the specific numbers.

“He is aggregating observations that have been made before,” Cranney said, “which is basically that there was a period of high growth…but since then there has been a curtailing in those growth rates.”

For a number like the projected peak of 6 million active members “to be something more than an interesting aside,” however, Cranney stressed the need for an even more detailed discussion of the assumptions built into Stewart’s methodology.

Falling behind the competition

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saints in the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrate their temple in the capital of Kinshasa.

What sets Stewart’s analysis apart from recent examinations of the subject is the comparisons it draws with other U.S.-based, proselytizing-heavy Christian faiths, said Jana Riess, a Religion News Service columnist and managing editor of the new journal that published the study.

It’s easy to look at any signs of growth in a vacuum and feel complacent, Riess said. But pair some of the church’s own growth stats with those of the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses as Stewart does, and one could argue that Latter-day Saints are underperforming even in places where expansion is occurring.

Take Africa, for example, a relative bright spot for Latter-day Saint growth. Membership on the continent mushroomed nearly fivefold between 1999 and 2019, expanding from a little more than 136,000 members to more than 665,000 in that 20-year span.

Matt Martinich, who operates The Cumorah Project in tandem with Stewart, compiled a list at his ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com website, for instance, where the church grew fastest in 2020-21. Ten of the top 14 locations were in Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo led the way, with a jump to 89,136 members, up 29.4% since 2019. Martinich called that rapid expansion one of the “most significant developments,” noting the Central African nation accounted for only 0.53% of the church’s worldwide membership but 8.4% of its growth over that two-year span.

Despite this, the church’s total membership in all of Africa (736,701 at the end of 2021) remains far “below its major competitors,” Stewart writes, with Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reporting 2019 memberships of 9.56 million and 1.7 million, respectively.

These comparisons are hardly the first to indicate the LDS Church lags in winning converts in Africa. Rather, they echo those drawn by religion historian Philip Jenkins, who in 2009 published a study comparing LDS Church growth in Africa with a wide range of Christian faiths. Even back then, Jenkins noted that in “raw quantitative terms,” growth for Latter-day Saints was “disappointing,” including when compared to its sister faith the Community of Christ.

Reforming the missionary program

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints cheer for entries in the Days of '47 Parade in Salt Lake City in 2021.

Church critics, Stewart acknowledged, would no doubt chalk up his pessimistic projections to the idea that the faith’s beliefs and practices no longer resonate with many in today’s world.

“I disagree with that,” he said. “The shortfall in the growth of the LDS Church is not ultimately about the message. It’s been, in my view, about the way that the message has been spread.”

Church leaders historically have overcommitted their missionary force to “slow-growth” nations, including the United States and Europe, Stewart said, rather than those where the number of Christians is climbing quickest.

Missionary leadership, meanwhile, is too disconnected from the work itself, consumed by administrative tasks, to “really understand it accurately.” Equally problematic, he added, has been the reliance on itinerant missionaries, many of them with few if any ties to the places they are assigned, to carry the bulk of the work.

Martinich underscored this point, noting that “a lot of times foreign missionaries aren’t concerned about the quality [of] converts in terms of retaining for the long term.”

Instead, Stewart and Martinich suggested more training, tools and manuals aimed at equipping lay members in the effort of finding and teaching those receptive to the faith’s message.

“The mantra ‘every member a missionary,’ introduced by President David O. McKay in 1959, has remained an empty slogan,” Stewart writes, “with actual performance reflecting nearly the opposite.”

Finally, as counterintuitive as it may sound, Stewart argued that an overemphasis by mission leadership on baptism rates has undercut meaningful growth by prioritizing a single — albeit crucial — event over real conversion.

For years, he said, missionary training has pushed “high-pressure, corporate sales tactics” aimed at moving an individual to baptism as quickly as possible, resulting in low retention among converts.

More data needed

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A Latter-day Saint baptism in New Zealand.

All of these suggestions, Cranney noted, rest on largely untested assumptions.

“Stewart has a lot of interesting ideas in terms of increasing the growth rate,” he said. “Are they valid? Maybe, but you have to show me the numbers.”

Simply saying that other proselytizing-heavy Christian faiths are adding converts faster isn’t going to convince Cranney that the problem is with how the message is being shared.

“It’s not enough to just say here’s group A and here’s group B, and group B is growing faster, so let’s adopt everything that they do,” Cranney said. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are so vastly different from the Latter-day Saint experience. If you’re going to make that argument, you need to get really deep into the weeds.”

‘It will happen when it needs to happen’

(Vinna Chintaram) Originally from Mauritius, Vinna Chintaram is a Latter-day Saint convert living in North Carolina, where she is pursuing her doctorate in religion.

Originally from Mauritius, Vinna Chintaram is a Latter-day Saint convert living in North Carolina, where she is pursuing her doctorate in religion.

Reflecting on her own conversion, she said she appreciated the space and time the missionaries who taught her gave her to build ties with the area’s members.

“For years and years, the missionaries would come and share Book of Mormon scriptures,” she said. “Saturdays, they would open the church to the youth, who would gather to play soccer and basketball. It became this place where I got to hang out with these Latter-day Saint youth. They became my friends, and it was a good environment.”

In fact, when her brother asked to be baptized, the mission president met with him and instructed him to wait. Chintaram’s father wasn’t happy with the idea of baptism, and the mission leader warned against creating family discord.

“He said, ‘It will happen when it needs to happen,’” she remembered. He was right.

“I look back, and I am so grateful for his wisdom,” Chintaram said, “because my brother and I could have been baptized, but it would have jeopardized our relationship with our dad.”

Burning out local members

(Amaechi Okafor) Amaechi Okafor is a Nigerian convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He believes the faith must emphasize localizing its missionary program and worship style if it is going to thrive in places like his home country.

Amaechi Okafor was first introduced to the church in eastern Nigeria in 2004 before joining four years later at age 20.

Since then, the doctoral student at Canada’s Concordia University has served in positions of local lay leadership and worked hard as a member to bring new people, including friends and other acquaintances, into the fold — only to see them fade away.

“I stopped working with the missionaries after I brought eight people to church and they couldn’t retain one of those converts for a year,” he said. “It burns you out.”

Like Stewart and Martinich, he blames much of this on the pressure the missionary program puts on the full-time proselytizers to hit baptism targets, regardless of whether those they’re teaching are sold on the faith.

“It’s kind of like we want these numbers, and whatever happens after happens,” he said. “It troubles me.”

‘Salt Lake is not Lagos’

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Ultimately, Chintaram and Okafor emphasized, finding and retaining converts will require greater freedom for localization, and not just in the way the message goes out.

Both cited disconnects between the language church services most commonly employed (English in Nigeria and French in Mauritius) and the languages spoken by most converts (Yoruba and Mauritian Creole, respectively).

“It’s getting better in Mauritius,” Chintaram said. “But there are still no hymns in Creole.”

Cultural differences, too, play a role in retention.

“Nigeria and, I think, Africa in general is a communal society,” Okafor said. “And when people come and can’t find that African niche of communalism [at an LDS Church], they tend to leave.”

Going forward, Chintaram hopes research on the topic of church growth will incorporate more international scholars and views.

In the end, all those interviewed agreed that the church should tailor its missionary goals and practices to local and even individual realities.

“Missionary work cannot be globalized from Salt Lake,” Okafor said, “because Salt Lake is not Lagos [Nigeria] or Accra [Ghana].”

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