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

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Chapter: III-14: Geography, Member Differences, and Sampling

Appropriate geographic localization and disclosure of study location is also an essential element of good research methodology. The characteristics of the LDS population are highly heterogeneous and location-dependent, and so research conducted in one area cannot be extrapolated elsewhere. The asymmetric geographic distribution of members also creates significant methodological problems for the randomization of broader studies, as do the language barriers that would be encountered in a truly random sampling of church members.

LDS populations differ widely by geography for several reasons. First, the balance between lifelong members and church converts varies geographically. For example, most members in Utah come from multigenerational LDS families with relatively strong support systems. Other parts of the United States, like South Texas or Pennsylvania, offer a mix of both convert and lifelong members. The precise balance varies widely from state to state, with states adjacent to Utah containing a higher proportion of lifelong members, whereas other states typically contain at a higher proportion of converts. Official church disclosures that research was done in the United States and Canada therefore offer very limited value because of the great heterogeneity within these areas. International areas experience even wider variation. In Western European countries where the church has been established for more than a century, there are both lifelong members in recent converts. In Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines, most members are first-generation converts. In countries more recently opened for missionary work like Latvia and Ukraine, all local members are converts.

Second, wide variations exist even within nations where LDS membership is based primarily upon convert growth. This is largely because church growth and convert retention depend so heavily upon mission policies, which also very widely. For instance, some missions of Chile have been able to achieve reasonable convert retention rates through a focus on adequate preparation of potential converts, whereas the situation is very different in areas where "see you today, baptize tomorrow" practices and other rush-baptize tactics were widely implemented.

Third, substantial cultural, societal, and political differences exist in various countries and regions in ways which can significantly impact church growth. For example, in Western and Northern Europe, there has been relatively little church growth among locals, and most converts to the LDS Church in these areas have been immigrants from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Even in the United States, the characteristics of church growth and the challenges faced are all very different in the relatively secular Northeast, the southern Bible Belt, the interior heartland, and on the West Coast.

Finally, geography often brings language barriers. The translation of survey instruments and other resources into other languages creates logistical hurdles. Data gathering and analysis become more difficult when researchers must deal with different language versions.

The implications of these geographic differences for church growth research seem obvious in differences of local conditions and culture and in the balance between lifelong and convert members. For example, both active and inactive members in Utah are likely to have stronger family support networks and a history of much greater contact with the Church than inactive converts in Brazil or the Philippines, who may have attended church only once or twice before baptism. A program that produces acceptable outcomes at convert retention in Utah stakes with a strong member support framework may perform poorly when transplanted to areas with less favorable conditions. Research on inactivity in Utah can therefore be applied toward local programs or solutions for Utah, but cannot reasonably be used as the basis for programs or initiatives to deal with inactivity in other parts of the United States, to say nothing of the developing world.

Nor are all areas of equal relevance for church growth. Although LDS membership is highly concentrated in the Mountain West of the United States, relatively little convert growth is occurring in these areas. In contrast, growth rates are the highest in areas of West Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the developing world, where current membership numbers are more modest. More than 80% of LDS convert baptisms occur outside of the United States. Even among international areas, research conducted in the United Kingdom or Australia, where church growth is very slow, may have little relevance or applicability to church growth in areas of the developing world where the church is growing more rapidly.

The geographic localization of official missionary department studies has often suffered from serious methodological problems that impair the ability to extrapolate study results to other areas. Historically, almost all missionary department research has been conducted in English-speaking areas, with a particular skew towards Utah and the Mountain West. The principles of the Church's current Preach My Gospel manual were field-tested in selected missions of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Some U.S. missions with Spanish-speaking missionaries were also included. Although the effort to include English-speaking missions as far afield as Australia may seem commendable, this non-randomized selection of areas obviously not representative of the world missionary program poses severe problems of methodology and relevance. All of these nations are ones of dominant English culture where church growth is very low and where the missionary program can rely upon a well-disciplined cadre of local members for fellowshipping and program implementation. The inclusion of U.S. missions with limited numbers of Spanish-speaking missionaries serving among Latino transplants cannot be considered a credible substitute for primary research conducted in Latin America.

Research from English-speaking areas in general, and Utah in particular, may be relevant to the immediate areas in which the research was conducted, but cannot be indiscriminately extrapolated to international areas where most church growth is occurring. As slowing growth and low convert retention rates demonstrate, such extrapolations have not worked well for the church. Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors, and the conduct of research under highly favorable circumstances in English-speaking areas has not led to the adequate development of trans-cultural principles and paradigms which can be effectively applied in other cultural settings. Nothing from such research has provided any insight into building congregations "from scratch" in Russia or retaining converts in Thailand, which is the kind of research the Church needs. "Field testing" missionary research in Utah is not unlike testing a Mars rover in the Great Salt Lake.

Good-quality international research unquestionably requires greater effort and oversight than the shortcuts and assumptions of convenience, which have thus far characterized missionary department research. It takes real effort to conduct research across linguistic barriers with translated survey instruments, and to maintain the methodological rigor and integrity that are necessary to achieve high-quality data. However, additional effort required up front is a small price to pay in comparison to the consequences that arise when programs and policies are based upon the extrapolation of invalid data.