LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention: Review and Analysis
The transparent disclosure of research methodology and findings is a foundational tenet of scholarly research. National censuses and independent sociologic surveys are transparent; researchers can review the study methodologies and draw their own conclusions regarding the validity of study findings as well as possible limitations. Unfortunately, citations of internal church research by church leaders are much more difficult to parse, because the definitions, methodology, and full findings are not publicly released. Almost all independent sociologic research has the benefit of greater transparency than church-sponsored research. Other missionary oriented denominations, including the Seventh-day Adventist church and the Jehovah's Witnesses, annually publish a wide range of information, including relevant indicators of member activity and participation. In the LDS Church, such data is closely guarded internally and is considered confidential.
Scholars and researchers must therefore rely upon odd fragments of information dropped here and there in the public remarks of LDS leaders or former leaders. These statements are typically provided on an as-is basis, and we do not typically have the luxury of being able to ask and receive official clarification. Church leaders have often made some effort to provide context, as in noting that data came from a study conducted in North America and Canada, but these vague statements often leave considerable methodological uncertainty such that the findings cannot be analyzed with the same rigor that is applied to independent sources.
In view of institutional policies of nondisclosure and the lack of unified or authoritative resources on the subject, the task of determining true LDS member activity and convert retention rates is, as one acquaintance observed years ago, akin to divining pigeon entrails. Although data from church-sponsored research can still have relevance, non-transparent data is considered to be of low quality from a scholarly standpoint, especially when potential conflicts of interest exist.
It is true that the Church has no obligation to divulge internal statistics on church attendance or member activity. It is also true that scholars and news media have no obligation to view raw activity numbers as meaningful indicators of the church's growth or progress, and should view such statistics as offering little relevance or value when no indicators of actual member activity are provided. I believe that releasing statistics on church attendance would be a great boon by increasing awareness of convert retention and discouraging quick-baptize practices that run up numbers but do not strengthen the Church. Yet it is also my impression that there is too much fear that candid acknowledgment of the Church's very low member activity rates might challenge someone's faith, although faith built on the mantra of "rapid growth" rather than a genuine testimony of the gospel can hardly be considered faith at all. There may be greater concern that disclosure of inactivity would be a public relations embarrassment as the message of "rapid growth" that has been repeatedly sounded from the pulpit, and so it seems unlikely that the medium-term future will hold any greater transparency.