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

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Chapter: III-11: Agenda and Bias

Church growth, member activity, and convert retention are all emotionally charged topics which draw strong emotional responses from proponents and critics alike. The Church's growth is often presented as evidence of its divine mission. "The Church is growing because it is true" is a common refrain from the pulpit. Increases in total membership numbers are presented as reflecting this growth. Articles in the LDS Church News laud "dynamic," "astronomic," or "miraculous" growth based on raw membership statistics, while avoiding any mention of fractional convert retention and inactivity rates that far exceed member participation. The reader of LDS periodicals comes away with the impression that the Church is growing and flourishing as never before and that the missionary effort throughout the world has been a story of unmitigated success, dynamic growth, and consistently inspired programs and policies.

Reporting in church sources is often asymmetric. For instance, the very article in the June 2007 Ensign which attempted to clarify definitions of membership also stated: "In the Philippines, while convert baptisms per missionary have increased in each of the last three years, activity rates of new converts are also on the rise." Yet there was no mention that number of convert baptisms churchwide over this period was flat, and so any increase in baptisms in the Philippines would have been balanced by declines in other areas. The LDS Church News noted the inclusion of a category for Latter-day Saints on the Chilean census as a sign of the Church's growth and respect, yet failed to ever report the far more significant results of the census demonstrating that only 104,000 of the 520,000 members claimed on LDS rolls at the time identified the LDS Church as their faith of preference, or any of the other national censuses. Even Elder Bateman's remarks acknowledging that my estimate of four million members attending church weekly is realistic and that many members on church rolls no longer consider themselves members was carried on National Public Radio and in the Salt Lake Tribune, but was never reported in any official church publication. The Church has been keen to highlight growth without acknowledging low retention and to laud improvement without having disclosed problems in the first place except in abstract terms. These practices make it difficult to accept conclusions at face value and require the introduction of independent data to ascertain what church-reported statistics actually represent. With such reporting practices, it is no wonder that I was unprepared for the basic realities of low member activity and convert retention before my first international trip even after reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on the international LDS Church.

In contrast, critics are quick to raise charges of dishonesty for official membership figures which far exceed self-identified religious affiliation data. Evidence suggests that both sets of data are correct. The discrepancies arise from the comparison of indicators measuring entirely different things rather than any major inaccuracy of either data set. There is no basis for the expectation that church-reported membership should be identical to self-reported religious affiliation. Nor should any malice or dishonesty be attributed to the Church's public relations spin which highlights growth and plays down challenges, as such practices are common in both religion and politics.

The objective study of church growth therefore requires the careful definition of terminology, critical analysis of data from all sources, and caution in examining the conclusions of others, especially when an agenda may be present.


FOOTNOTES
[1] "Membership, Retention on the Rise," Ensign, June 2007, 75-76.
[2] LDS Church News, December 1, 2001