(This article is an update to my previous LDS church growth article written for year-end 2012.)
It’s April and Mormons are having a General Conference! April’s conference—like other conferences held in recent years—features a statistical report that tells everyone how last year went for the church. And for or the second year in a row, I’ll be taking those numbers and creating my own report on Mormon church growth. I totally geek out on this stuff. Really.
2013 looked to be a very interesting year for Mormon Church growth because of a major shakeup in missionary proselytizing service. Previously, Mormon males could go on missions when they turned 19, and Mormon females were eligible at 21. Last year the Mormon church revised this so males can go now on missions at 18 and females at 19. As a result, missionary numbers have exploded because, in addition to already-serving missionaries, the new eligibility let them get a jump start and bring in younger missionaries. This has big implications for my articles, because more missionaries might lead to more converts. Let’s see how it went!
Please note, I’m basing my data entirely on LDS Church data released in general conferences since 1970. If the statistics don’t reflect reality, there’s no way for me (or anyone else) to know. We’re trusting them to be accurate. If you want to check my work, you can download my raw data sheet here (it’s a comma delimited file so paste it into a spreadsheet). Everything in this article comes from this data sheet. If I’m inaccurate someplace, please let me know.
Total LDS Church Membership
First thing’s first; let’s have a look at total LDS Church membership as of the end of 2013:
As in previous years, 2o13 total membership ended up linear and right in line. With an official membership of 15,082,028 it’s right where we expect it to be. Since 1970, and especially since 1990, we don’t have evidence of exponential growth. It’s much more linear. In fact, since 1990 you can lay a piece of paper on the screen and see that growth’s essentially been straight as an arrow. This means that Mormon Church growth is reliable and increases each year without fail. A good rule of thumb is that the LDS church adds roughly 1 million members every three years, and has maintained that rate for 25 years.
To illustrate annual membership increase, we simply subtract the previous year’s membership total from the current year. That gives us a graph that looks like this:
It’s a pretty erratic graph, so let’s simplify things by showing a five year rolling average:
That makes things easier to see. Again, we’re only looking at the change in members from one year to another. We can see that the LDS church added an increasing amount of members almost every year from 1970 until 1992. After 1992, there has been a (slight) downward or level trend in the total number of members added to the Mormon Church each year—300,000 members, give or take. In other words, since the early ’90s, the Mormon Church has added about the same or slightly fewer total members to church rolls each year. This includes both convert baptisms and children born into the church.
Let’s have a look at the rate of growth for the LDS Church. To find it, we calculate the percentage increase for each year compared to the previous year. That gives us a graph that looks like this:
Again, this is an erratic graph, so let’s smooth things out by illustrating a five year rolling average:
This graph shows the percentage of Mormons who were baptized in the past year, every year. There’s a definite downward trend here, meaning that every year the Mormon Church will probably add a smaller percentage of members to the rolls. This is apparent given the rule of thumb that the Mormon church adds one million members every three years: a million members is a huge percentage increase for a five million member church, but not so much for a 50 million member church. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s, and again in the early ’90s, the church added new members at a fast pace. Since 1993, things have slowed significantly. It’s worth noting that the LDS Church growth rate hit a new low in 2013—just 1.99%. It’s the first time since 1970 that the church growth rate has fallen below 2%/year. Next year might be more than 2%, but on average, the growth rate is slowing significantly.
It’s important to remember that it’s much easier to grow a small organization than a big one, and it’s natural for growth rates to decrease over time. Still, the LDS Church growth rate still outpaces the world population growth rate of 1.1%. This means that each year, a larger percentage of the world becomes Mormon. Indeed, if the current LDS Church growth rate stayed consistent, eventually everyone in the world would be Mormon. With the slowing Mormon Church growth rate, though, it’s unlikely to happen.
Missionary Work: Convert Baptisms
Now let’s remove child baptisms from the picture and focus only on convert baptisms. Usually these are baptisms resulting from missionary proselytizing. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s an increase from the huge number of missionaries sent out by the Mormon Church. First, let’s look at convert baptisms by year:
To be clear, this graph shows the total number of convert (non-child) baptisms each year. The first striking thing is the enormous explosion of converts baptized from 1974 to 1981 and from 1983 t0 1992. In fact, convert baptisms have never again reached the highs of the 1990s. Things have recovered somewhat from a depressed period during the early 2000s, however, and the number of convert baptisms has hovered around 275,000/year since, including 2013. While 2013 convert baptisms were higher than 2012, both years fall in line with numbers from the past ten years. There may yet be a spike in convert baptisms in 2014 with the increased number of missionaries, but so far it hasn’t happened.
Now let’s have a look at convert baptisms as a percentage of total Mormon church membership:
This graph can be described as the yearly percentage of all Mormons who were converted by the missionaries within the past year. The trend is pretty similar to the overall growth rate. The late 70s to the early 80s was a high conversion period, as was the late 80s to the early 90s. Since 1990 things have trended downward. Today about 1.9% of all Mormons were converted by the missionaries within the past year—about 1 in 50. Year-end 2012 was the lowest conversion percentage year on record, with an insignificant increase in 2013.
There’s another interesting thing to consider with the spike in missionaries, especially the increase in female missionaries. With more young women leaving home to become missionaries, there will also be fewer women of that age having children. I can’t predict all the effects of the missionary age change, but it will be very interesting to see if there’s an echo drop-spike in the increase of children of record. There are bound to be unforeseen changes within the LDS church with women serving missions in significant numbers, but there’s no way to look ahead. I can’t wait to find out. This brings me to children born into the Mormon church:
This frustratingly murky graph shows yearly increases in children of record, which are kids who are added to LDS church rolls each year. An explanation: in 1970 the Mormon church counted both children of record (kids born to Mormon parents) and 8-year-olds baptized (kids who are officially initiated into the church through baptism at age eight). In the early 80s the LDS church stopped counting children of record and counted only 8-year-olds baptized. Then they reversed course in the late 90s and stopped counting 8-year-olds baptized and started counting children of record again. Aside from that, the graph gets pretty erratic after the late-90s change. Unfortunately we only have are these numbers so we’ll do our best. For continuity I’ll follow the 8-year-olds baptized line until the late 90s, and switch to children of record thereafter. I can’t think of a better way.
That aside, the graph shows an overall upward trend in the number of children born into the Mormon church every year. This makes sense because the number of Mormons is increasing: more Mormons will contribute more children to the membership total. Now let’s look at children of record as a percentage of total LDS church membership:
Like the new convert percentages, this graph illustrates an overall downward trend in the percentage of new children added to the Mormon church each year. This means that overall, each year, there is a smaller percentage of new members added through birth to the Mormon church, whether it’s through baptism or simply birth to Mormon parents. There’s a caveat though, because this trend seems to be changing somewhat since a low in 2002. But with the data’s inherent cloudiness it’s hard to say. After a few years these numbers should become clearer as long as the sampling stays consistent.
The takeaway here, I think, is that individual Mormon women are having fewer kids than they used to. If they weren’t, the lines would be flat. Even with the difficult data, that much is obvious. In 1970 about 2% of all Mormons had come into the church through birth within the past year. Today that numbers is only about 0.75%. As time goes on it will be very interesting to see how the lower birth rates affect LDS church growth.
Now let’s take a look at a final graph, which shows anomalies in the data:
You may need to click on the image to make it readable; there’s a lot going on here. It looks complicated at first, but it’s not too bad. The objective here is to determine which source (missionaries, births) is contributing new members, and when in history it was happening. This graph also allows us to see outgoing members, Mormons who are no longer counted in the membership total. We don’t know why these people are no longer counted, although a number of Mormons must die each year. Resignations and excommunications may also contribute, but that is not implicit in the data.
The bright red line at 100% represents the membership increase for that year. From the second graph in this article we know that change in membership is different each year, but on this graph every year is 100%. Then we represent the contributing statistical components for that year with the bar graphs. Convert baptisms are in yellow, children are in orange, and the total of the two are in gray. We expect the gray lines to slightly exceed the 100% line because, as we mentioned, a number of Mormons must exit the church each year.
Some anomalies are readily apparent. 1973 stands out because the Mormon church added 150% of that year’s membership increase through convert baptisms and births, leaving 45,000 members unaccounted for. Perhaps almost as many members died as were added through births. We see similar things happen on numerous occasions on this graph like in 1983 and 1987. In fact, the number of members unaccounted for has been overall increasing since about 2000; could an increasing percentage of Mormons be dying each year?
1989 is even stranger. That year, the total members added through convert baptisms and births falls well short of the total increase in membership, as if members were added out of thin air. We see this same anomaly six other times on the graph, but not since 1999.
It is presumptuous and unfair to assume wrongdoing based on these numbers alone. Perhaps the Mormon church was less meticulous with record keeping in the past and there have been attempts to true up the numbers. Perhaps the numbers came from independent departments and were reported during General Conference without a high-level audit. I think it’s important to recognize the line between statistics and our own assumptions, wherever they may fall.
I find parsing these numbers fascinating. We see here that the Mormon church is unquestionably growing, and growing quickly. But we also see that declining growth rates mean that the church is not growing exponentially, but more linearly.
Over the coming years we’ll see changes. As the Mormon church grows it will gain exposure, both positive and negative. The LDS church must sway with the sociological and cultural shifts of our time, and scrutiny will continue to come from within and from without. Many factors will come into play, and it will be interesting to see their effects on Mormon church growth.
Stay tuned for an update next spring. 2014 should show the full effect of the missionary age shift, which will be very interesting. As always, if I’ve screwed something up, please let me know.
UPDATE: Missionary Statistics
There’s been a lot of excitement within the Mormon church about growing numbers of proselytizing missionaries since a 2012 church policy change allowed men and women to serve missions at a younger age. Mormon youth were formerly eligible to serve full-time proselytizing missions at age 19 for men and age 21 for women. Now men may serve at age 18 and women at age 19. As expected, the number of Mormons serving missions drastically increased, perhaps only temporarily, as younger new missionaries joined the existing missionary force.
The following chart shows the number of Mormons serving full-time missions per year, since 1977. Please note that the LDS church has only released information about missionaries since 1977, so the following charts are different from the charts earlier in this article, most of which start at 1970.
Following a strong drop in the number of missionaries during 2003-04, there was a sustained period of fewer missionaries which lasted until 2010. This is a period when the LDS church decided to Raise the Bar by tightening the requirements to become a full-time missionary. Missionary ranks decreased to just over 50,000 missionaries, significantly lower than the more than 60,000 missionaries serving previously. In 2011, a year before the new age eligibilities were announced, the number of missionaries had began to go up — missionary enrollment went up by 6% that year. Another 7% were added the following year, in 2012. It is impossible to know whether these pre-2013 increases were because the Mormon church relaxed their Raise the Bar policies, or whether these increases were simply organic. Some of the increase, in 2012, could include the initial waves of new missionaries which departed following the church’s eligibility announcement in October of that year.
It is interesting that the current spike in missionaries — reaching 83,000 at year-end 2013 — brings the missionary force more-or-less in line with the growth trend from 1982-2002, before the disruption from Raise the Bar in the 2000s. In this view the growth in Mormon missionaries has been quite linear and consistent since 1982, including the current spike, except for Raise the Bar.
The percentage of Mormons currently serving full-time missions further demonstrates this consistency. About 0.5% to 0.55% of Mormons, roughly 1 in 180, were serving as missionaries from 1982-2002. The Raise the Bar period saw the lowest percentage of Mormons serving missions, reaching a low of 0.37% in 2010, or about 1 in 270 Mormons. The current spike in missionaries has caused the percentage of Mormons to suddenly snap back in line, reaching 0.55% again, or 1 in 180. There has been a remarkably consistent percentage of Mormons serving as missionaries since 1982, except for Raise the Bar, showing that the Mormon church has remained capable of motivating its members to serve proselytizing missions.
There is some bad news when analyzing convert baptisms per missionary. The LDS church has seen an overall decrease in per-missionary conversions since 1982, except for a brief improvement from 1988-1990, and during the Raise the Bar period. There were gains in per-missionary baptisms from 2004-2009 during Raise the Bar, improving from a low of about four baptisms per missionary, in 2003, to almost 6 per missionary, in 2009. These gains were significant; instead of baptizing eight people during a two-year mission in 2003, or 16 per companionship, a missionary could could expect to baptize 12 people by 2009, and be a part of 24 baptisms per companionship.
The numbers began to slip again, in 2009, perhaps in the aftermath of Raise the Bar, while the missionary spike of 2013 has seen per-missionary baptisms fall dramatically to their lowest-ever level — just 3.4 baptisms per missionary. This means that a two-year missionary can expect to only baptize about seven people and be part of 14 baptisms per companionship during their mission. This is much lower, for example, than 1989, when a two-year missionary might expect to baptize 32 people in his or her companionship during their mission, or even 2009, when 24 baptisms might be expected.
The Mormon missionary effort has grown but has become far less efficient since 1977. It will be interesting to see how these numbers look at year-end 2014. The new numbers should be released this April.