Matthew Bowman: Why the explanations for slower LDS Church growth may all be wrong — or right

The rise of secularism, the loosening of standards, and opposition to progressive causes have all been blamed, but there are flaws in each theory. Could it be that all play a part?

During the spring General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaders issue a statistical report documenting — as we have come to expect — the faith’s ongoing expansion, complete with an increased number of congregations, multiplying missions and so on.

And yet, this expansion is not what it once was. The church is not shrinking in terms of raw numbers, but its growth rate is slowing. In particular, it appears that U.S. membership has stagnated.

The question is why this might be. There are a number of answers, some more complicated than others, and some boiling down to “because the church isn’t doing more of what I want it to do.” The disappointing reality is that the doldrums likely have little to do with anything the church itself is or is not doing. Rather, the church is falling victim to trends that extend far beyond it.

Secular vs. sacred

One common, and rather simple, argument offered to explain these trends is what we might call the “conflict thesis.” This notion depends on a dichotomy between the “secular” (sometimes known as the “world”) and the church, or “faith.” According to this metric, human society is like a pie. As the secular gobbles up more of the world, the influence of faith fades.

The conflict thesis has been widely repeated over the past hundred years of U.S. history. It emerged among 19th-century critics who argued that religion was fundamentally mystical and backward and hence in conflict with reason, science and rationality, which they called “secular.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Clark G. Gilbert speaks at General Conference in 2021 has pointed to the rise of secularism.

Those people thought that the secular would inevitably prevail. They defined certain things like science and government as “secular” and therefore not appropriate spaces for religion. Even though religious people disagreed that religion would inevitably fade, they, oddly enough, often bought into the basic framework. They adopted the idea that some things are religious and others are secular, and the two are basically in conflict.

For instance, Clark Gilbert, the current church commissioner of education, recalls an experience from his time teaching at Harvard. Noting one day that the Harvard Memorial Church stands immediately opposite the university’s library, Gilbert thought “these two ideals seemed to be facing off in a conflict that, at least in this formidable secular environment, would almost certainly end for many with the victory of reason.” But the further you delve into the notion that religion and secularism are distinct forces in some fundamental conflict, the less and less coherent the idea becomes.

For one thing, it’s uncertain what “secular” means. Francis Collins, the immediate past director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, described sequencing the human genome “an act of worship.” Gilbert asserts that Harvard has decoupled “spiritual learning from secular inquiry,” but what exactly makes one thing spiritual and another thing secular is in the eye of the beholder. Are genetics classes at Harvard sacred or secular? Is science inevitably “secular”?

One might define the “secular” as a world in which religious participation is dwindling and religious organizations hold less sway. The sociologist Rodney Stark described that idea as the “myth of past piety,” the notion that Western society was once deeply faithful and that religious practice is eroding. And yet, as long as there have been Christian leaders, they have bemoaned the fact that nobody goes to church. Indeed, national rates of membership in any Christian church is still higher now than it was across the bulk of the 19th and early 20th century. Historians have estimated that fewer than half of Americans were members of a Christian church before the 20th century and even fewer than that before the Civil War.

It may be, then, too simple to explain the apparent decline in current Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting attendance as the result of the spreading power of the secular.

Are ‘strict’ churches strong?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A more sophisticated version of that argument is sometimes called the “strict church” theory. The idea is that “liberal” or “mainline” churches have, essentially, gotten distracted. They do service projects and pour resources into fighting poverty and ending hunger. And they lose members.

Writers who support this theory argue that shifting a church’s focus away from the things that make it unique — its particular theological claims, requirements like tithing or attendance, and the old-time, ultimate question of going to heaven — toward social service and socializing means that people have little reason to choose it over, say, the Red Cross or Big Brothers Big Sisters or running for city council.

According to the strict-church theory, demanding high commitment from members means that a church gives high rewards. If only 20% of the congregation sings, it sounds bad, more people won’t sing the next time around, and eventually fewer people show up to church. But if everybody is expected to sing, everybody enjoys the music. Similarly, if a church expects a high level of commitment to its youth programs, the summer camp will be incredible. In sum, the more everybody contributes, the better the experience will be, and the better the experience, the less likely people will leave. The more the church demands, the more it can offer.

Some Latter-day Saints have pointed to these arguments as an explanation for why church growth is slowing, worrying that the faith is abandoning its distinctive beliefs, broad array of community activities — from the three-hour Sunday block to its pageants to an extensive youth program and Relief Society bazaars — and rigorous expectations for its members’ behavior and lifestyles.

But scholars have pointed out that over the past 30 years, all religious groups have lost members — the “strict churches” along with more mainstream churches. While it is true that the quintessentially mainline United Church of Christ and Methodist Episcopal Church have shrunk, so have the Southern Baptist Convention and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, strict churches par excellence. And those who have left the former do not seem to be joining the latter, which we would expect if people were seeking out the sort of rewards strict churches can offer.

Similarly, “strictness,” however one defines it, does not seem to be universally equated with growth in membership and participation. Many “megachurches,” large evangelical congregations with thousands of members, have grown rapidly in the same period more traditional religious organizations have declined. Oddly enough, megachurches appear to have accomplished this while demanding far less from their attendees than traditional “strict” churches do.

The observations the strict-church theory makes seem to have held some truth in the 1970s and ’80s, when evangelical churches (and the LDS Church) were booming in membership while older mainline churches were hemorrhaging members. But it also appears that the American religious landscape is changing in ways that make the argument seem today rather archaic.

Taking up a progressive agenda

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The Y on Y Mountain east of Brigham Young University is lit in rainbow colors to show support for the LGBTQ+ community in 2021.

A final attempt to explain the decline of Latter-day Saint growth is the opposite of the strict-church theory. Proponents of this case argue that the church is losing members because it holds positions increasingly at odds with the mainstream of American culture. These might range from historical claims some find implausible, like the historicity of its signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, or the origins of the Book of Abraham, to church leaders’ stated positions on issues of gender and sexuality.

Supporters of this position have gathered anecdotal data to bolster the point, though it tends to be from educated Americans who participate in conversations about the church online. They argue that younger members want a faith that focuses less on truth claims about the supernatural and issues of gender than on community and a wider sense of moral imperatives.

And yet, a number of Christian denominations in the United States that have adapted in these ways do not seem to have strengthened their membership. Indeed, since the 1980s, the mainline Protestant churches, those which have tended to deemphasize biblical literalism and embrace progressive social positions, have suffered a quite rapid decline in membership. Although the correlation between those points is not firmly established, it nonetheless is unclear that such shifts would boost retention in or conversion among Latter-day Saints. It seems possible that such arguments are committing the fallacy of composition — assuming that a certain group of people who have left the church represent the whole range of those who have.

Where from here?

Although there may be flaws in each of these theories, the fact remains that LDS Church growth is slowing, and there must be reasons why. Some combination of these theories may have something to do with it, although any single one of them does not seem terribly persuasive on its own. It’s entirely possible, though, that the reasons U.S. membership is stagnating have only somewhat to do with the church itself.

This brings us back to the myth of past piety. As historian Thomas Alexander has documented, a hundred years ago the participation at sacrament meetings hovered around 15% or 20%. It was only after World War II, when the church mounted a strong push for organizational regularity and expected participation in worship, that numbers began to climb past 50%.

(Photo by Chris Samuels and Graphic by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

This is true likewise for many American religious traditions that flourished in terms of membership and organization in the mid-20th century as they rarely had before. Since the 1960s, however, U.S. institutions of all sorts, including but not limited to religious organizations, have suffered growing levels of mistrust and abandonment. Americans consistently report fewer friends and less interaction with others than in past decades. They increasingly conceive of religion (or “spirituality,” to use the modern term) as an individual and eclectic pursuit.

These are trends affecting all U.S. religious groups and are beyond the reach of any single organization to solve. Just as the grandparents of today’s young people enjoyed an era of strong institutional growth in the mid-20th century, we are today living in an era of institutional decline. It is that problem, more than any aspect of the church itself, that Latter-day Saint leaders must grapple with as they seek to solve the problem of slowing growth.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of the recently released “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America” and, in 2012, “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”