LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention: Review and Analysis

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Chapter: IV-07: United States and Canada

Member Activity and Convert Retention

United States

Although more than half of nominal LDS membership lives outside of the U.S., the LDS Church still draws its primary strength from the United States. Approximately 80% of full-time LDS missionaries worldwide come from North America. 75% of missionaries are men under 26, whereas 18% are women and 7% are older couples.[1]

The United States is home to less than 5 percent of the world's population, but nearly 50 percent of all LDS members. While the LDS Church is still one of the faster growing churches in the United States, unique contributors to North American LDS growth include family sizes slightly above the national average and the concentration of nearly one-third of all LDS missions in the United States.

One study found that only 22% of U.S. members born to active LDS families remain active lifelong, whereas 44% returned to the Church after inactivity of at least a year or more.[2] 19% were disengaged but expressed nominal belief in church doctrines, and 14% were disengaged non-believers. This study provides interesting insight into the outcomes of LDS members born into active U.S. families, but it provides no information on the outcomes of children born to inactive LDS families, who seem to overwhelmingly remain inactive, nor into the outcomes of converts, who experience far higher rates of disaffiliation and inactivity. These latter questions, which have become increasingly pertinent as LDS birth rates have decreased and growth has come to increasingly rely upon convert baptisms, are not well addressed in the sociologic literature.

Glenmary Survey

The 1990-2000 Glenmary Research Center Survey of Religious Congregations in America is a survey commissioned by the Glenmary Home Missioners Society, a Catholic order dedicated to establishing the Catholic Church in rural America. The Glenmary Survey reported that the LDS Church ranked twenty-third among the 149 participating denominations in overall U.S. growth rate, but first among denominations reporting over one million adherents.[3] This study was widely misreported in both the popular press and the LDS media as finding that the LDS church was the "fastest growing church in the United States."[4] The U.S. LDS growth rate reported for the decade of 1990-2000 was 19%, or 1.76% per year, compounded: a respectable figure in an industrialized nation with a low birth rate, but hardly a dynamic one.

Although the Glenmary Survey is not affiliated with the LDS Church or other participating denominations, it merely transmits and analyzes church-provided data without conducting any original field research, and thus provides no independent validation of denominational growth claims, nor does it provide any objective insight into what church-provided membership figures actually mean. Widely varying membership definitions among participating denominations were not addressed, and member participation and self-identified religious affiliation were not examined. The Glenmary Survey provides an array of church-reported statistics for various denominations that are most useful for tracking membership numbers of individual denominations over time, but faces considerable limitations when inter-denominational comparisons are attempted because of the lack of a standard trans-denominational definition of definition of a church member or adherent. Without standardization, this survey methodology produces bias with calculations of comparative "growth" favoring denominations like the LDS faith which accumulate nominal members without regard to actual participation, over denominations like the Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses for which membership definitions require active ongoing participation.

Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches

The 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, which like the Glenmary Survey includes only church-reported statistics, reported that the LDS Church is now the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, up from fifth largest the year before, with a 2003 membership increase of 1.71 percent.[5] The 2007 Yearbook reported further deceleration of LDS growth to 1.63% in 2005.[6]

CUNY American Religious Identification Survey

The City University of New York (CUNY) American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) queried the self-identified religious affiliation of a large cohort of U.S. citizens in 1990 and 2001.[7] The study found that the LDS Church had one of the highest turnover rates of any U.S. faith. The CUNY authors observe: "Some groups such as Mormons ... rate in the number of Americans identifying themselves as Latter-day Saints appear to attract a large number of converts ('in-switchers'), but also nearly as large a number of apostates ('out-switchers')." Because of high turnover, the actual growth between 1990 and 2001 was found to be similar to the overall population growth rate, for a proportional net growth rate of close to zero. The study found that just fewer than 2.8 million Americans age eighteen and over identified themselves as Latter-day Saints. There are 5.3 million U.S. citizens officially on LDS membership rolls, although this includes a declining percentage of minors under age eighteen as well as many inactive and disengaged adults. In contrast, the ARIS survey reported that 1.33 million adults in the U.S. identify themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses, while the Jehovah's Witnesses claim only 980,000 U.S. members.

USA Today Religious Identification Survey

An independent survey conducted by USA Today in March 2002 demonstrated similar findings, with the percentage of individuals identifying themselves as Latter-day Saints weighing in well below official membership percentages in almost every state.[8]

Hartsem Faith Communities Today Study

The Hartsem Faith Communities Today (FACT) study is a multi-denominational hybrid study of thousands of U.S. congregations.[9] The Hartsem study focused primarily upon congregational growth trends and factors which correlated with growth, finding for instance that 56 percent of U.S. congregations with "highly inspirational" services are growing, compared to only 27 percent with low-quality worship services. FACT provides significant data about American religious trends. Important original survey questions were included, including weekly congregational attendance. However, results from all congregations were reported together regardless of denominational affiliation, making it impossible to separate out specific data on the LDS Church.

Pew American Religious Landscape Study

The Pew Forum American Religious Landscape Study reported ostensibly good news for Latter-day Saints, noting that 83% of Mormons marry within the faith and that at least 70% of members born in the faith are retained.[10] In contrast, the Pew study reports that the "Jehovah's Witnesses have the lowest retention rate of any religious tradition," retaining only 37% of those born in the faith. On the surface, this study appears to offer unabashed good news for the LDS faith.

Yet closer examination demonstrates that the findings are far less favorable for Latter-day Saints, and more favorable for the Witnesses, than the summary suggests. The Pew survey's "retention rates" refer to self-identified members born in the faith, and are unrelated to retention rates for baptized converts. Although Latter-day Saints commonly think of a retention rate as referring to actual member participation or activity, the 70% "retention rate" cited by the Pew study for individuals born within the LDS Church implies only self-identified religious affiliation and makes no claims about church participation.

The Pew survey found that 1.8% of study respondents report being born in the LDS faith, while 1.7% of respondents cited the LDS Church as their current faith of preference. 0.5% reported being born in the LDS Church and then becoming disaffiliated, while 0.4% were not born in the church but converted, for a net loss even after converts were included. The Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, reported a net gain, with converts outpacing the children of members lost to disaffiliation. To put it another way, 71% of individuals presently identifying themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses were converts, compared to just 23.5% of Latter-day Saints. The study also demonstrates that Latter-day Saints are relatively ineffective at converting members of other churches: 70% of converts report being previously unaffiliated with any religious group.

The Pew survey documents that the LDS Church is significantly more successful than Jehovah's Witnesses at retaining (at least in the sense of retaining self-identified religious preference) individuals born in the faith, but is much less successful at retaining baptized converts. These data suggest that in spite of the assignment of nearly one third of the world's full-time LDS missionary force to North America, U.S. LDS missionary work fails even to replace the children of affiliated members lost to the church. U.S. LDS growth stems primarily from the higher LDS birth rate rather than from any great success of the missionary success. In contrast, the Jehovah's Witness proselyting program has been substantially more effective when assessed not from the angle of raw baptismal statistics, but from the perspective of making and retaining adult converts who continue to affiliate with the faith and constitute the bulk of its committed membership. The Witnesses' own annual statistics consistently demonstrate retention of 55-65% of baptized converts worldwide, more than double LDS convert retention rates. These are highly problematic findings, as convert baptisms have accounted for nearly four times as much of LDS membership growth as the increase of children of record.

By inquiring only about birth religious affiliation and current affiliation, the Pew survey completely misses the considerable "churn" of the LDS faith that occurs when baptized converts become disengaged. An individual baptized into the church in adulthood who then becomes disaffiliated would not would never register on the Pew study, which asked only about religion of birth and current affiliation, but asked no questions about transient religious affiliations between birth and the present. Yet these individuals make up a large portion of those on LDS membership rolls, leading to inflated conclusions about the overall activity and participation of official LDS membership when they are excluded from the denominator. From demographic data, birth rates, and historical convert baptism rates, converts should comprise approximately 50% of North American LDS membership, but they made up only 23.5% of those currently identifying themselves as Latter-day Saints in the Pew study. This discrepancy correlates with other data suggesting that at least half of North American converts have become disaffiliated.

Canada

Religious data on the 2001 Canadian census come from random proportional sampling, with only one household in five being sent the long form that included questions on religious affiliation. This sampled data is extrapolated to the entire population and therefore is not quite as precise as other national censuses that query every individual. Nonetheless, statistical confidence intervals would suggest that a population of this scope which surveys 20% of the entire population would be expected to achieve a small margin of error of significantly less than one percent. Most independent sociologic surveys are able to achieve statistical significance and reasonable margins of error with a sample of not more than a few thousand, and so the Canadian census data based on a sample of millions highly statistically robust.[11]

The 2001 Canadian census reported a 3.9 percent increase in self-identified LDS members from 100,700 in 1991 to 104,750 in 2001, compared to an official membership increase of 25 percent (125,000 to 156,575) from 1990 to 2000.[12] During this same ten-year period, the number of Seventh-Day Adventists identified on the census increased by 20.4 percent, and the Evangelical Missionary Church increased self-identified membership by 48.4 percent. The 3.9 percent LDS increase over an entire decade represents an annual increase of less than 0.4 percent. This is less than half of the annual Canadian growth rate of 0.96 percent, meaning that self-identified LDS membership is losing ground in proportion to the total Canadian population.

Only 67 percent of Canadian members identify themselves as Latter-day Saints on the census, but this rate is remarkably high compared to the international trends noted in other nations. Yet the discrepancy between church-claimed and self-identified membership has grown considerably over time, with the ratio decreasing from a 96.5% correlation on the 1991 Canadian Census (82,000 self-identified members out of 85,006 members) to 80% in 1991 and 67% in 2001. Such data evidence a significant decline in member activity and convert retention rates and an increase in the percentage of disaffiliated members.


FOOTNOTES
[1] Dobner, Jennifer. "President Hinckley wants more Mormons in U.S., Canada." Associated Press. Deseret News. 7 October 2006. .deseretnews.com.
[2] Albrecht, Stan L., "The Consequential Dimension of Mormon Religiosity," in James T. Duke, ed., Latter-day Saint Social Life, Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1998, 253-292.
[3] "Religious Congregations & Membership: 2000," Glenmary Research Center, September 20, 2002, www.glenmary.org.
[4] Rachel Zoll. "Mormon, evangelical Christian churches growing fastest, study says." Anchorage Daily News, 17 September 2002; "LDS Church Is United States’ Fastest Growing Denomination," Ensign, Nov. 2002, 125.
[5] Herlinger, Chris, "U.S. Catholic, Episcopal, Mormon, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Churches Grow," Episcopal News Service, April 5, 2005.
[6] Lindner, Eileen W., ed., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2007, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007.
[7] Mayer, Egon, Barry A. Kosmin, and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey, City University of New York, www.gc.cuny.edu.
[8] Grossman, Cathy Lynn, "Charting the Unchurched in America," USA Today, March 7, 2002.
[9] Faith Communities in the U.S. Today, Hartsem Institute for Religious Research, Hartsem Seminary, fact.hartsem.edu.
[10] Pew Forum Study, religions.pewforum.org/pdf.
[11] "Selected Protestant Denominations, Canada, 2001 and 1991," Statcan Press Release, May 2003, www.statcan.ca.
[12] "Selected Protestant Denominations, Canada, 2001 and 1991," Statcan Press Release, May 2003, www.statcan.ca.