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

Return to Table of Contents

Chapter: IV-13: Other Church Data

Through 1984, the Church released a wider range of data regarding membership, including the number of deacons, teachers, priests, elders, and high priests, and the number of living endowments performed. Statistics for the prior year can be found in the May conference edition of the Ensign. These statistics have been discontinued, but they still provide valuable information. In 1984, the last year for which the above statistics were given, the report cited 5,650,000 members, increase of children of record of 98,000, 69,000 children of record baptized, 192,983 convert baptisms, 240,000 deacons, 178,000 teachers, 356,000 priests, 465,000 elders, 33,000 seventies, 198,000 high priests, 27,655 full-time missionaries, and 53,998 living endowments.[1] Through 1983, additional social statistics were reported, including the birth rate per thousand members (24.5 in 1983), number of persons married per thousand (11.1), and death rate per thousand (4.0).[2]

Such information provides more meaningful indicators of member activity or participation, and allows some sense of ancillary indicators. For example, if all members were active and all young men served missions, there should be approximately as many full-time male missionaries as deacons or teachers, since these offices as well as missionary service involve two year intervals. Although the large majority of missionaries are young men born in the church, such calculations are limited, as the number of full-time missionaries includes sisters (approximately 20% of missionaries), older couples (approximately 7% of missionaries), and young adult male converts. Also, the statistics for deacons and teachers include not only young men, but also inactive older men who never advanced in the priesthood.

Statistics on baptisms of children of record can provide additional perspective on the youth cohort, as approximately 50% of youth baptized at age eight (the male members) should become deacons at age 12 if they remain active in the church. The baptism of 69,000 children of record in 1984 suggests that approximately half of this number should be boys who would be eligible for to be ordained deacons at age 12, teachers at age 14, priests at age 16, and serve missions at age 19. Since the former two priesthood offices and missionary service have a duration of two years, we would expect 69,000 x 1/2 (half of baptized children are presumably male) x 2 (for two years in each Aaronic priesthood office and missionary service) = 69,000 deacons, priests, and missionaries with full activity and member participation. Demographic differences in cohort sizes of different age groups due to changing birth rates make the actual calculations slightly more complex, but birth rates typically change slowly over time, and so we would expect the annual baptisms of children of record to roughly approximate the number of deacons, teachers, and full-time missionaries we might expect to see with full activity and full missionary service. As there are 240,000 deacons, 178,000 teachers, 27,655 missionaries when we expect approximately 69,000 of each, we can be fairly confident that the majority of the deacons and teachers are inactive older men rather than young men, whereas missionary service rate for young men -- accounting for the service of older couples, sisters, and young male converts if the figures -- is somewhere below 40%. These figures also vary from year to year, and so correlating annual trends is important to assess demographics of varying cohort size. Church statisticians have a variety of additional information that can help in interpreting the data, yet even then some conclusions -- such as the number of individuals on membership rolls who consider themselves members -- cannot be drawn with internal data alone.

Every baptized member who remains active and worthy should eventually receive a temple endowment (children of record when preparing for missions or marriage, and converts after one year), and so another helpful indicator of member strength and participation comes from the ratio of members receiving temple endowments to baptisms. In 1984, 53,998 living endowments were reported, while 261,983 members were baptized (192,983 converts and 69,000 children of record), for a ratio of 0.206 endowments per baptism. This ratio is still not a perfect indicator. There is a one-year delay between baptism and endowment for converts and a many year delay for children. Additionally, some worthy converts in the developing world may not be able to immediately attend the temple after one year due to accessibility issues or travel expense. Nonetheless, this ratio still provides a helpful indicator.

After 1984, this ancillary data was dropped from annual reports. There has been speculation about why this data was dropped. Just as the church stopped public reporting itemized financial information during building deficits of the baseball baptism era,[3] some have suggested that the detailed membership data may have been dropped because of negative trends. A 20% ratio between baptisms and members receiving endowments is not a hallmark of high activity, and LDS birth rates and some other indicators were beginning their long decline. Nonetheless, other explanations also merit consideration. The lengthy statistical reports consumed valuable time in conference meetings that authorities may have felt could be better spent on instruction, and many of the statistics cited may have been of little interest or relevance to the average member. Furthermore, such statistics can be exceedingly difficult for the average member to correctly interpret. Latter-day Saints typically think of deacons as 12 and 13 year old boys and teachers as boys age 14 to 15, and yet analysis of the data demonstrates that the majority of individuals listed as deacons and teachers on statistical reports were almost certainly inactive adult men rather than youth.

Whatever the reasons, the removal of key data from modern annual statistical reports is a loss to members and researchers. With the possible exception of the number of congregations, not one of the statistics currently reported gives any indication of member activity or participation. The lack of any meaningful "reality check" about what raw membership numbers actually represent has contributed to misinterpretations of membership data in official publications and lay media alike.

Historical Data

It is striking to compare the scriptural teachings and results of the Book of Mormon and early LDS missionaries to the British Isles to the fractional retention rates of the modern LDS missionary program. All of the converts of the Book of Mormon missionary Alma remained active (Alma 23:6). From 1840 to 1890, over 97 percent of LDS converts baptized in the British Isles left relatives and property and crossed land and sea to join the saints.[4] President Hinckley counseled that "it is not necessary that we should lose [any of] those who are baptized,"[5] yet only one-quarter to one-fifth of converts remain active in most international missions. In some areas of Latin America, 30 to 40 percent of LDS converts today never return to church after baptism. In these same nations, other faiths such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists consistently retain at least 70 to 80 percent of their converts long-term. In 2001, the sole convert-based area of the Church with a member activity rate above 50 percent was the Africa West area, where proselyting was performed primarily by native African missionaries with no formal MTC training. In no administrative area of the world Church today have MTC-taught missionaries achieved even the 50 percent convert retention rate routinely surpassed by their predecessors who taught discussions over longer periods or even by modern missionaries with no MTC training at all.


FOOTNOTES
[1] "Statistical Report 1984," Ensign, May 1985, 20.
[2] "Statistical Report 1983," Ensign, May 1984, 20.
[3] Quinn, D. Michael. "I-Thou Vs. I-It Conversions: The Mormon 'Baseball Baptism' Era." Sunstone 16:7/30 (Dec 93):32.
[4] Stark, Rodney, "The Basis of Mormon Success: A Theoretical Application," in James T. Duke, ed., Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and Its Members, Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998, 29-67.
[5] Hinckley, Gordon B., LDS Church News, July 4, 1998.