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

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Chapter: II-02: Sources of Data: Congregational Growth

Congregational growth trends are particularly important in evaluating LDS growth, since official membership numbers provide no information about actual member activity or even self-identified religious preferences. New congregations require active, participating members to be viable, and so the rate of formation of new congregations and stakes is one of the best indicators of church growth, member activity, and convert retention. Church planter James Moss wrote: "It has long been accepted that beginning new churches is a requirement for long-term numerical growth for a regional body. This is a simple truth that can be born out by study after study."[1] Protestant church planting guru C. Peter Wagner explained: "New churches are a key to outreach. I have affirmed time and again that planting new churches enhances evangelism. Much research has been done to confirm this ... Lyle Schaller, who is highly regarded as perhaps the most knowledgeable person in America about church dynamics, wrote this: 'Every denomination reporting an increase in [active] membership reports an increase in the number of congregations. Every denomination reporting an increase in the total number of congregations reports an increase in members. Every denomination reporting a decrease in membership reports a decrease in congregations. Every denomination reporting a decrease in congregations reports a decrease in members.' This is a highly significant finding."[2] Churches that are growing rapidly also report large increases in the number of congregations, and churches which are growing slowly report smaller increases in the number of congregations. Schaller is referring to denominations that count only active members. The LDS Church, which counts disaffiliated and non-participating members indefinitely, can lose net active members even as official raw membership numbers continue to increase. Nonetheless, the correlation between active, participating members and the number of congregations is very strong. As the Church does not publish member activity or church attendance rates, congregational statistics can serve as a helpful surrogate.

Over the short term, administrative policies can affect congregational numbers, but over the medium and long term, congregational numbers will always adjust to reflect the realities of actual member participation and convert retention. For instance, during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, many congregations and stakes were formed in Latin America on the basis of raw membership numbers without regard to very low convert retention rates that followed the practice of quickly baptizing inadequately prepared converts with little oversight. The artificially inflated congregational numbers came crashing down between 2000 and 2005, when approximately 1,000 congregations were collapsed throughout Latin America. When missionary work is successful and baptized converts are retained, sustainable new congregations are inevitably created; when congregational numbers are stagnant in spite of significant increases in nominal membership, that is a sign that few of the baptized converts remain active in the church.

The rate of construction of church buildings, presented as an indicator of church growth in one Ensign news item,[3] has nothing whatever to do with the rate of formation of new congregations, member activity, or convert retention. The decision to build a meetinghouse is an administrative decision which for many years was based on raw membership numbers without regard to either member activity or tithing faithfulness. International meetinghouses are generally built with U.S. tithes rather than on local donations, resulting in a significantly more extravagant international building program than is seen for denominations that build structures which are locally funded and locally sustainable. One news source estimated the cost of an LDS meetinghouse in Ufa, Russia, serving fewer than 100 active members, at $2.5 million.[4] Other Eastern European meetinghouses have cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars each in areas with relatively few members and low per capita incomes. Meetinghouse construction is purely an administrative decision which conveys no information about actual church growth or member participation.


FOOTNOTES
[1] Moss, James W., Sr., "Contrasting Church Renewal and Church Planting," People Spots, 4/1 (January 2001): 12.
[2] Wagner, C. Peter, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest, Ventura, CA,: Regal Books, 1990.
[3] "Membership, Retention on the Rise," Ensign, June 2007, 75-76.
[4] "Mormonsky Khram Otrkylsya v Ufe," [Mormon Church Opens in Ufa -- Russian], Mir Religii, May 30, 2001.