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

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Chapter: I-03: What is Activity?

The purpose of the Church is to assist individuals on their path to eternal life through repentance and obedience to Christ's teachings. Yet members are at various stages in their spiritual journey and have differing degrees of commitment. Ideally, church members are to be active participants in their local congregations, attend the temple regularly, pay a full tithing, and obey other gospel laws. The number of individuals who pay tithing and attend the temple regularly is a subset of those who attend their local congregation regularly. The number of members who attend their local congregation regularly is a subset of those who identify themselves as members of the Church. Although some committed members may face genuine difficulty in attending church, it would be difficult to claim that an individual is a committed member or attends church regularly unless he identifies the LDS Church as his faith of preference. Even regular church attendance, paying a full tithing, and temple attendance do not guarantee salvation, as other elements of obedience to scriptural teachings are difficult to measure, as well as individuals' sincerity and intentions. The Lord declared that until the Second Coming, there will be "foolish virgins among the wise"[1] among the members of the Church.

Attempting to define an "active member" is difficult because the term is interpreted in different ways. Both laymen and social science researchers tend to consider an active member of a religion to be someone who attends church services regularly, usually weekly. Individuals who attend irregularly are considered to be semi-active members, whereas individuals who do not attend church services at all are designated as inactive or non-participating members.

Church attendance is perhaps the most often cited indicator of member of activity, with the number of individuals in attendance being divided by congregational membership. In both lay parlance and in sociologic research, a member activity rate is generally considered to be roughly synonymous with the percentage of members attending church services on an average week. If a longer period is intended, this period is generally specified (i.e. 3% of Russians attend an Orthodox church weekly, but 7% attend at least once a month).

However, the LDS Church defines activity very differently. Due to concerns of offending non-participating members by labeling them as inactive, the term "inactive" has disappeared from official dialogue. Those who attend church at least once a quarter are "active," and those who do not attend at all are termed "less active." In official terminology, no member is inactive. Such euphemisms thus complicate the discussion of member activity.

The official LDS definition of an "active member" is one who has attended at least one sacrament meeting in the past three months. A Salt Lake Tribune article quoting Elder Merrill Bateman states:

"... He agreed the LDS Church's worldwide membership, reported at 12 million, includes many who no longer consider themselves Mormon, but he disagreed with researchers who estimated active Mormons equal only 4 million. Bateman said that number doesn't count those in undeveloped countries who find it difficult to attend sacrament meetings. 'So you might have in the neighborhood of ... 4 [million] and 5 million members attending church at any given time, but those who are active would be more than that.'"[2]
As Elder Bateman observed, "those in undeveloped countries who find it difficult to attend sacrament meetings" are still considered by the Church to be "active" members. Regular church attendance is not part of the official church definition of member activity. This generous definition includes many who attend only occasionally. In sociologic terms, such individuals are usually described as "adherents," or those who those who identify a belief but do not necessarily attend or participate regularly.

As Elder Bateman noted, the Church prefers to highlight its role in reaching out and attempting to reclaim lost members rather than dwelling on the problem of inactivity itself.[3] There is a scriptural duty to look after those who have become part of the flock. Membership records are thus highly inclusive of those who were baptized into the Church, regardless of current or past participation. This casts a wide net which serves both theological and practical purposes, at least in areas where most inactives had at one time had experienced a meaningful conversion and retain meaningful potential for activation. However, it is difficult to meaningfully measure growth and progress when only a fraction of individuals on official membership rolls regularly participate.

The Church does not release data on church attendance or member activity, and so a topic which is already difficult because of the lack of standard nomenclature becomes murkier. The lack of transparency regarding LDS member participation, together with differing definitions of what constitutes member activity, can lead to charges of inaccuracy when individuals are talking past each other or are simply applying different definitions. Sociologic data are imperfect indicators, but nonetheless offer valuable information in assessing the growth of the Church and the belief, commitment, and participation of its members.

The official LDS definition of member activity is of limited value, as the Church has no reliable way of measuring how many members have attended one sacrament meeting in the past three months. Attendees are counted in sacrament meeting, but no distinction is made between members and visitors. Only in the second and third hour meetings do members sign rolls, but those who leave after sacrament are missed, as are members who teach primary or are occupied in administrative duties. Even internal church reports on member participation and activity focus on measurable indicators: sacrament meeting attendance, tithing faithfulness, missionary service, and priesthood ordination. As the official definition of member activity has little practical utility and is impossible to measure even to internal church statisticians, I will dispense with this idiosyncratic definition in favor of more standard, measurable, and helpful definitions.

In this article, "activity" will be used as a general term to refer to indicators of member participation, especially regular church attendance, as distinct from indicators such as self-identified religious affiliation may indicate belief but does not imply participation. I will refer to an "active member" as one who attends church regularly, a "semi-active" member as one who attends irregularly or occasionally, an inactive member as one who does not attend church, an "adherent" as one who identifies the LDS faith as his belief of preference, regardless of participation, a "disaffiliated member" as an individual claimed on church membership rolls who does not identify himself as a church member, and the "average weekly church attendance rate" as the number of individuals who attend church weekly divided by the number of official members.


FOOTNOTES
[1] D&C 63:54.
[2] Canham, Matt. "Church Disputes Trib Count: Newspaper stories didn't allow for members in transit, LDS cleric says." Salt Lake Tribune, 1 September 2005.
[3] Canham, Matt, "Church Won't Give Up on 'Lost Members,'" Salt Lake Tribune, October 17, 2005.