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

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Chapter: III-02: Assessing Data Quality

Not all research data is of equal value. Some research data is rigorous; others data may be litlte more than anecdotal. Some studies are well designed; others cannot answer the intended questions because of methodological limitations. Even when robust research data is in hand, methodological and analytical factors must be carefully considered to ensure that the limitations are understood and that the results are correctly interpreted. It is therefore necessary to discuss key considerations in study methodology and data analysis.

Just as the quality of research studies varies widely, the quality of evidence from statements of church leaders and other authorities also covers a spectrum. Statements of church leaders in official publications can generally be viewed as being authoritative, whereas those provided to secular news organizations are still generally valid, but slightly less authoritative. Public statements by lower-level church leaders, such as mission presidents or former leaders, can be considered to be generally reliable, although not necessarily authoritative. Statements of leaders carry less weight when made in closed meetings (for example, missionary conferences) not of public record, and when such statements are conveyed second-hand. While such statements are frequently accurate, the potential for discrepancies between original remarks and unofficial transcripts as well as the lack of rigorous verifiability must be kept in mind. Purported anonymous or unattributed statements of leaders offer the lowest level of documentary rigor. Many mission leaders are understandably unwilling to be publicly cited regarding statistical data, and so the use of anonymous sources is sometimes unavoidable. Nonetheless, such data should be viewed as tentative and ancillary.

There are also times when leaders express that their remarks or tentative or express broad estimates. For example, in Elder Bateman stated, "So you might have in the neighborhood of ... 4 [million] and 5 million members attending church at any given time."[1] The phrasing demonstrates that this is a rough estimate, and as we will see later from other sociologic data, four million is a generous but conceivable number for maximum weekly LDS church attendance, whereas five million is outside of the range of possibility based on other data at the time. Such statements should be viewed as providing general guidance but lacking precision.

[1] Canham, Matt, "Church Disputes Trib Count: Newspaper stories didn't allow for members in transit, LDS cleric says." Salt Lake Tribune, 1 September 2005.