Jana Riess: The positives and negatives in LDS Church growth

There’s something for everyone to cheer — or boo — in the most recent data.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) General Conference on Saturday, April 6, 2024. There are positive and not-so-positive trends in the latest Latter-day Saint membership stats.

It’s that time of year again. The April tulips are showing their colorful regalia, Americans are scrambling to finish their taxes and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has just released its annual statistics.

But before I discuss the stats, I want to issue a public service announcement about data. I find data about religion fascinating, and I’m proud to have contributed to our knowledge about Latter-day Saints in the United States through ongoing quantitative and qualitative research.But I’m also very tired of the fever pitch that people can get into about Mormon data.

The narrative from some quarters is that everyone is leaving the church and that the denomination will inevitably wither and die in the wake of so many departures. Some seem so committed to this narrative that they ignore or reject any data that doesn’t support it (and send me emails and angry tweets if I stray from this narrative).

The narrative from other quarters is that no one is leaving, or at least not anyone the church need worry about. The few people who do leave, this storyline goes, were marginal members anyway; we don’t need to focus attention on them … instead, look over there at all the shiny new temples.

In this view, the Lord is accomplishing a marvelous work, and any naysayers who assert to have data suggesting that all is not perfect in Zion are simply lying. As you can imagine, some individuals seem so committed to this narrative that they ignore or reject any data that doesn’t support it. I get emails and angry tweets from Narrative No. 2 devotees, too.

Can we all just take a step back? I’m going to be blunt. Data about religion doesn’t care about you or whether a new statistic makes you feel “seen.” It also doesn’t care about whether your theological paradigm favors the imminent disaster or preordained flourishing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Social science looks at patterns for which there are this-world explanations, not at God’s purported design for the success or failure of one particular faith tradition.

What’s more, data can be fraught with apparent contradictions and nonlinear trajectories, by which I mean that religious change rarely happens in a straight, easy line. It’s often two steps forward, one step back. What goes down one year may pop back up the next, or vice versa.

Here ends my PSA. My hope is that we can dial down the near-apocalyptic fervor on both sides about whether the Utah-based church is growing or not. Everyone, just take a breath. Now let’s look at the numbers.

The short version is that, yes, 2023 was a better year than expected for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Worldwide, there were just over a quarter of a million convert baptisms (251,763) and several thousand more “children of record” (93,594) than in 2022. Both of those together led to a 1.49% growth rate overall, which returns us to the worldwide growth rates from before the pandemic. (We had 1.48% in 2017, 1.21% in 2018 and 1.54% in 2019, before COVID-19 brought missionary work to a grinding halt in 2020.)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

There are other highlights that will thrill Narrative No. 2 people. The proselytizing missionary force is 67,871, which is just above pre-pandemic levels; it was 67,021 at the end of 2019. In fact, the 2023 report looks very much like the 2019 one did in terms of the number of converts, missionaries and children of record. If you take out the pandemic years, it’s like we picked up where we left off.

That’s the global picture. For the United States in particular, there’s been a slight uptick in the membership growth rate, even compared to the pre-pandemic years. In the U.S., growth had declined to 0.6% in 2018 and 2019, a rate that was repeated in 2022. But, in 2023, it was 0.95%, or just shy of 1%. It hasn’t been that high since 2016, when it was 0.9%.

So, there’s a lot of positive news for people who embrace Narrative No. 2 as mentioned above: that the church will only ever go from strength to strength.

But the proponents of the more pessimistic narrative will rightly note that sub-1% growth (in the U.S.), or even 1.49% growth (globally), is not fantastic. In fact, those numbers barely exceed overall population growth. And these numbers measure only the bare fact of whose names are on the rolls of the church — not whether they attend church regularly, hold callings, pay tithing or are committed believers.

Latter-day Saint fertility is higher than it is for members of other religions — and certainly higher than it is for people who do not identify with a religion at all — but it’s not what it used to be. In 2012, when there were 14.7 million church members, there were 122,273 children of record. Twelve years later, we have a 17.2 million-member church, but only 93,594 children of record. And that was an improvement over the 89,000-ish for the past two years.

In other words, over the course of the past 12 years, the church has grown by just shy of 17% overall, or about 1.4% annually on average. But over that period, the number of new children of record has dropped by almost a quarter. The combination of members having fewer children, and some members opting out of having their children officially blessed, is a concern for the future.

In the U.S., where we have more information about how active church members are, there are signs of a reduced commitment compared to the past. Latter-day Saints continue to be almost astonishingly religious than other Americans, with higher self-reported (and actual) church attendance and belief in God. But the number of people who claim a Latter-day Saint identity may be declining.

According to the Cooperative Election Study, which has one of the largest samples of Latter-day Saints over time, their share of the U.S. population used to be pretty consistently 1.8% or 1.9%. Then it was consistently between 1.4% and 1.6%. In the most recent years, it has declined to a range of 1.1% to 1.3%. (In fairness to Narrative No. 2 fans, PRRI is still reporting a 1.8% population share for Latter-day Saints, though with a smaller sample size of 117 respondents out of a total sample of 5,627. According to the PRRI study, the church has gained as many self-identified members as it has lost in the past decade, resulting in equilibrium.)

So there’s something for everyone in recent data about Latter-day Saint membership. Fans of Narrative No. 2 will be delighted with the church’s steady-as-she-goes report of marginal growth, especially in an era when other religions are in outright decline. Adherents of Narrative No. 1 will point to the long-term trends of diminishment in new children of record and the fact that although the overall number of wards, or congregations, and stakes, or clusters of congregations, is stable, there are more members in each ward now, and fewer wards in each stake, which are likely signs of reduced church activity.

There’s also the larger issue of people leaving religion in record numbers in many parts of the world — an overall trend that is hard for a small minority religion to resist.

It’s not going to be impossible, but it will be very challenging.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)