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

Return to Table of Contents

Chapter: I-01: Introduction

Perhaps no topics are as basic to the study of church growth as member participation and convert retention. Any discussion of church growth or strength requires an understanding of what membership numbers and other statistics represent. Without an awareness of what statistics represent and how data is collected, inaccurate conclusions may be reached. A candid awareness of the realities of church and convert retention is necessary for LDS members, missionaries, and leaders to be able to accurately assess their own performance and to identify and address challenges. An inflated opinion of growth or progress can lead to complacency and failure to remedy avoidable problems, whereas unjustifiably pessimistic opinions may lead to discouragement. Evangelical researcher George Barna wrote: "You cannot enjoy things unless you have a benchmark that shows how you've succeeded, and you cannot improve things unless you know how far and in what direction you need to go. I try to give people an accurate understanding of where things are and what the opportunities for growth are. I'm not asking people to like what the research shows, only to understand it and deal with it intelligently."[1] When awareness does not reflect actual realities, the ability to appropriately respond to those realities is impaired and progress is stunted. The first step in formulating church growth solutions is thus achieving wide grass-roots awareness of current realities, including challenges, problems, causes, solutions, and opportunities.

Yet several obstacles impede public awareness of growth and retention. First, definitions of church membership vary widely across denominations, making direct comparisons problematic. Second, LDS church membership figures have no obligatory relationship to member participation or activity. Third, definitions of what constitutes member activity vary widely. Fourth, figures are often conveyed by adherents or critics with an agenda rather than being objectively presented and dispassionately analyzed. Related to this is the problem of selective disclosure, in which incomplete data may be cited to promote a favored conclusion while contrary data is not presented.

In order to meaningfully analyze existing data, terminology must be clear. I will define common terms, including membership, activity, and growth, and then will turn to ancillary definitions of self-identified religious affiliation, double affiliation, and the address unknown file. I will then discuss necessary considerations in the analysis and understanding of indicators of church growth and member participation, including an assessment of the advantages and limitations of church-reported and self-reported religious data, a discussion of some of the types of data internally available to church leaders and researchers versus those available to the general public, a discussion of agenda and bias in church growth reporting, and data limitations. We will then examine data from official sources, national censuses, and independent sociologic studies, and assess the implications.


FOOTNOTES
[1] "Barna Responds to Christianity Today Article," Barna Research Update, September 17, 2002, www.barna.org.