UPDATED April 2, 2017: This article includes data through year-end 2016.
Each spring, as part of their General Conference, the Mormon church releases new statistics, so it’s time again to look at these new numbers and add them to the charts. If you’re interested in checking my numbers, you can download a very large and very boring CSV file which contains the raw data I’m using here — that way you don’t have to go through years of General Conference Statistical Reports, including the really old ones that are only available on video, to find this information, like I did.
Please note that these figures come from the LDS church itself. They self-report their numbers, and there’s no way to verify anything. Still, I have no reason to think that the Mormon church is not being truthful about their statistics.
First, let’s have a look at total LDS church membership, by year.
In 2016, the Mormon church grew to 15,882,417 members, which is about what we should expect, considering the trend since 1970. People sometimes say that the LDS church is growing exponentially, but the numbers show that it’s not; the growth is quite linear, especially since about 1990. Yearly membership is predictable; there aren’t any peaks or valleys in this chart, and growth is steady. For more information, let’s have a look at year-over-year figures:
This graph shows year-over-year growth for each year. It’s simple to calculate; from the previous graph, we know how many members the Mormon church has each year, so to calculate the change in membership, we subtract the membership for each year from the preceding year. This figure isn’t specific about how these members are added; it’s simply a year over year change. Since 1992, there have been roughly 315,000 members added each year. The past four years have been down years, and 2016 was actually quite low, at 248,218, which is the fewest since 1987.
The preceding graph shows the growth rate of the Mormon church. This graph is calculated by dividing each year’s change in membership by total membership for each year. In 2013 the growth rate dropped below 2% for the first time, and it has gone down since, with 2016 at 1.56%. The growth rate is erratic, especially before 2000, but it has steadily declined overall since 1970. Put simply, a smaller percentage of Mormons are new members than ever before. Like any other organization, it’s easier to have large growth rates when things are small. Now that the Mormon church is large, it’s harder to add ever-increasing numbers of people. To look at one component of that growth, we can examine convert baptisms.
When the missionaries baptize a new Mormon, that is a convert baptism, and there were 240,131 such baptisms in 2015. In 2013, we saw a big surge in the number of missionaries, but as we will see later, the number of missionaries and the number of convert baptisms does not always correspond. In fact, in 2016 there were fewer convert baptisms than we’ve seen since 1987, which is slightly fewer than even the less productive raise-the-bar era of 2003-2005.
The preceding graph shows the percentage of Mormons who were baptized in the last year. Obviously, if you’re a small organization and you gain three million members, a larger percentage of your total membership will be new members than if you’re already a much larger organization. This year, 1.51% of all members were baptized in the last year, or about 1 in 65. The percentage had been mostly flat since 2005, but things went down considerably in 2015 and again in 2016. It’s very different from 1980, for example, when nearly 1 in 20 Mormons were baptized within the previous year.
This graph is a little more complicated. The Mormon church has been inconsistent with its reporting of new members by birth, that is, members that were born to a Mormon parent. Sometimes they have reported 8-year-olds baptized, sometimes children of record, and sometimes both. The resulting graph is erratic and broken, but it is what it is, and we can only do our best to interpret it. I’ve tried my hand at interpretation in previous articles, but from now on I’ll simply present the data.
In the United States, in 2012, the birth rate was 12.6 per 1,000 people. Using this very rough estimate for the Mormon church as a whole, which admittedly has members outside the United States, we would expect Mormons to have about 193,000 children in 2015. But they had fewer children of record, only 115,000, so either Mormons are having fewer kids than the American population as a whole, which doesn’t seem likely, or not all children born to Mormons are being added as children of record.
Similar to the graph showing the percentage of Mormons who were baptized in the past year, this graph shows the percentage of all Mormons who were born or baptized in the past year. Without a doubt, the Mormon birth rate has dropped significantly since 1970 — Mormon families are having fewer kids — but it has hovered at a similar level since the mid-1990s.
The preceding graph is my signature graph, a wholly confusing affair; I’m working on a new way to do show this, but I wanted to post this update as close as possible to the 2017 General Conference so it’s not ready yet. Apologies.
I’ll explain. (We’re dealing with percentages here, not whole numbers.) From the second graph, we know the yearly change in membership. For this graph, I’ve made that number 100% for each year, and it’s indicated by the bright red line. Two components of the change in membership, new members and new births, are indicated by the blue and green bars, respectively, while the total of the two are shown by the gray bars. We expect the gray bars to stick out above the red line a little, because there’s also negative pressure on membership, which is members who leave and members who die — that’s why the conversions and births don’t actually add up to 100%.
I won’t focus too much on years where the gray bars don’t stick out above the red line, like 1989, which must mean that members were added through a means other than baptisms and births, seemingly out of thin air. Those years are anomalies, and no one knows what’s going on, aside from record keepers inside the Mormon church. It’s possible, or even likely, that these oddball years denote some kind of census or updated method for counting members.
It is interesting, though, that the grays bars stick quite far since about 2002, meaning that a larger percentage of Mormons are dying each year, or a larger percentage of Mormons are leaving, or a combination of both. For 2016, that discrepancy approaches 50% — 101,000 people — a decrease that nearly offsets the increase in children of record.
Now let’s look at missionaries. In the fourth year of the missionary spike, the surge has been tapering off. Many people, including me, predicted a corresponding drop in missionaries once the 19-year-old and 21-year-old group left mission service in 2014, but it didn’t happen that year. From the comments section below, commenter Dave mentioned that I wasn’t taking into account high school graduation schedules related to the then-new surge. He appears to be right; the drop-off wasn’t seen until 2015. Anecdotally, it seems that more female missionaries are serving than ever before so I don’t expect the numbers to drop back to the 50,000 level again, but it appears that missionaries won’t soon return to 80,000.
It seems plausible that an increased number of missionaries would lead to an increased number of converts, but we haven’t seen that correlation in the number of convert baptisms. Four years into the surge, we can confidently say that the number of missionaries is not reliably predictive of the number of convert baptisms.
Here we see the percentage of Mormons who are serving full-time missions. After staying pretty consistent since the early ’80s, the percentage began to decrease in 2002, and reached a low point in 2010, during the “raise the bar” period for missionary requirements. The percentage had recovered by 2013 during the missionary surge and was more consistent with the numbers seen during the 1980s and 1990s, but since the surge has tapered off, this number has begun to drop again, although not anywhere near mid-2000s levels.
Here we see baptisms per missionary. There has been a downward plunge corresponding with the increase in missionaries, although that level has remained about the same since the first year of the missionary surge at about 3.5 baptisms per missionary. It remains to be seen whether the Mormon church can find a way to increase the converts per missionary with the larger missionary force, but as of 2015 they have not.