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

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Chapter: I-04: What is Growth?

Although most of the time increasing membership reflects increased participation, this is not always the case. For instance, in Poland and the Czech Republic in the late 1990s, I found that the actual number of individuals attending church declined even as membership figures continued to increase. Many missions in the developing world, especially in Latin America, have achieved considerable increases in official membership without a corresponding increase in church attendance. Functioning congregations cannot be created or maintained without requisite member participation, and so years of mass baptisms of investigators who did not become participating members led to a backlash with the consolidation of hundreds of Latin American congregations from 2000-2004.

Increase in official membership is commonly framed as representing "growth." Yet nominal membership increases that far outstrip gains in active membership beg the question: what is growth? If ten individuals are baptized but only three become active members of the church, how much has the church grown? If thousands are baptized but new congregations cannot be organized due to low convert retention and member activity, has the Church grown?

Faiths with high convert retention rates are candid and realistic in their measurement of growth. Jan Paulsen, president of the rapidly growing Seventh-Day Adventist church, observed:

"A growing church is not primarily identified by the increase in numbers. Growth must also be in depth of understanding ... it must also be in depth of commitment both to the Lord, to the truth, and to the church; as well as in increased capacity to unite and bond as a family of believers. Lack of attention to this will produce Adventist mutations, which would be an unacceptable development. [Evangelism] ... is effective because the new members have been taught and nurtured over many months, they know who they are and what they believe, and they have a network of friends in the church. When this does not happen, 'growth' is just a play on numbers and does not reflect the reality we want to see. The very word 'growth' means to become bigger, stronger, healthier, and more capable of functioning effectively."[1]

Due in large part to this focus on real growth and quality convert preparation nurturing investigators over "many months" before baptism, the Seventh-Day Adventist church retains as long-term, participating members not approximately one-quarter of its new converts, like the LDS church, but 75 to 80 percent of them.

The euphemism that "growth is our biggest problem" obscures the reality that few international converts become participating members: More than 80% of LDS convert baptisms occur outside North America, yet only about 25% of international converts remain active in the church a year after their baptism.[2] Latter-day Saints might learn something about growth from Dr. Paulsen. It is not real growth based in deep-rooted conversion to the gospel that is unhealthy and problematic. Rather, not enough of LDS "growth" is real when converts are leaving out the back door of the church almost as quickly as they are brought in the front. Elder M. Russell Ballard observed: "We cannot establish the Church unless we have real growth -- not simply numbers on paper."[3] As Elder Ballard essentially acknowledged, officially reported membership "numbers on paper" give little indication of real participation or growth.

The Church's policy of not publishing any official data on church attendance or member participation, while official church news outlets laud the "miraculous" and "astronomical" growth of the Church in different nations of the world, leaves readers with an unhelpful and often misleading impression that the raw membership numbers reflect committed, participating members. Raw LDS membership numbers have been used by researchers, news reporters, and laymen to draw conclusions about the Church's growth, largely because official membership statistics and convert baptism figures are the only indicators the Church releases regarding its membership. The Church has also actively represented raw membership figures as representing growth. Since the inception of the lds.org website, one constant has been the presence of various prepackaged stories for news media about the church's "rapid growth." These stories highlight increase in official membership numbers, while presenting no data on actual member participation or church attendance. Although these statistics do represent a kind of growth -- growth in "numbers on paper" -- these statistics have only a fractional relationship to "real" growth in committed and participating members due to high rates of convert loss and low member activity.

The primary statistical focus on baptisms and membership numbers without regard to convert retention or member activity, and a lack of candor regarding objective measures of member participation, perpetuate the retention problem by fueling complacency with the status quo, impeding the identification and rectification of challenges by grassroots members and leaders alike, and eliminating any meaningful accountability for leaders and missionaries regarding what baptismal numbers actually represent.

It is difficult to make progress without objective acknowledgment of present realities. We must measure, report, and discuss Church growth in terms of active, faithful, and participating members and focus on building strong, vibrant units, rather than lauding paper membership increases that do not reflect true strength or commitment. Church members, scholars, and reporters alike reporters alike should be cautious about the meaning of raw church membership numbers, and should seek specific data on member activity and convert retention before drawing conclusions about "real" growth.


FOOTNOTES
[1] Paulsen, Jan, Opening Address, General Conference of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, October 7, 2002.
[2] Mauss, Armand. As cited in Willis, Stacy A., "Mormon Church Is Funding Its Future," Las Vegas Sun, May 4, 2001.
[3] Ballard, M. Russell, Conversion and Retention Satellite Broadcast, August 29, 1999.