The Internet and LDS Church Growth
Author: Matt Martinich
The rise of the internet has been undoubtedly one of the greatest changes in society within the past couple decades. In 2011, approximately one-third of the world's population was estimated to be an internet user, or one who has access to the internet and possesses knowledge of how to use web-based technology. Most internet users can access information about the LDS Church within a matter of seconds from a myriad of online sources whereas prior to the advent of the internet interested or curious individuals obtained more limited information from church members, missionaries, literary works and references, word-of-mouth, family, friends, news media, and detractors of the Church.
There is no clear consensus whether the popularization of the internet has favored or deterred LDS Church growth. Those who advocate that the internet has favored growth cite that interested individuals in most areas of the world have access to accurate information that explains church teachings and beliefs in a noncritical light. Active members contribute to the reach of missionary work through disclosing their religious identity, beliefs, and practices through social media, personal websites, and blogs. Some members have created websites in their native language tailored to specific gospel topics of personal interest such as scripture study, interpretations and explanations of LDS teachings, and application of gospel principles. This informal online LDS presence has resulted in the baptism of some converts in otherwise unreached nations to formal missionary activity, such as Turkey prior to 2012 and other areas of the Middle East.
Those who advocate that the internet has deterred LDS Church growth consider the large and likely increasing number of "Anti-Mormon" websites and online discussions that criticize the Church. Former church members frequently head many online attacks on the Church. Most of these former or disaffiliated members left or distanced themselves from the Church based on negative personal experiences interacting with church leaders and members and lost or damaged testimonies of the truthfulness of the Church concerning the historicity of LDS scripture, doctrinal dilemmas, and church policies perceived as unfair, controversial, or incompatible with personal views and attitudes.
This essay identifies aspects of the internet that favor and deter LDS Church growth and provides a thorough analysis exploring whether there is any correlation between the rise of internet usage and changes in LDS membership and congregational growth rates. Our analysis includes the ten countries with the highest percentage of the population who use the internet, the ten countries with the lowest percentage of internet users, and the United States. Data on internet usage originates from the International Telecommunications Union and can be accessed at http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/.
Factors that Favor LDS Growth
Improving accessibility to correct information on LDS teachings, meetinghouse locations, church literature, and how to send a request to meet with missionaries constitutes one of the greatest benefits of the internet on LDS growth. The Church can reach individuals around the world with internet access at any time of day regardless of whether there are full-time missionaries or a ward or branch where they live. Low costs for building and maintaining many kinds of websites permits wise appropriation of church funds to reach an ever growing audience. The internet can reach populations totally unreached by any formal proselytism or operating wards and branches in nations without a church presence as long as government does not restrict public access to religiously-themed websites. Limitations on religious freedom pose challenges for those in some nations in East Asia and the Middle East to find church websites and take the initiative to learn more about the Church as government restricts access to many religious websites. However, many unofficial blogs and websites maintained by native members from these nations provide at least some form of outreach if an internet connection is available.
Populations in modernized nations where most regularly use the internet present the greatest opportunities for interested individuals to learn about the Church online and take initiative to attend church services, associate with fellow members, and ultimately receive missionary lessons. The integration of the internet into everyday life allows the Church to use this medium to teach the gospel. Oftentimes many of those investigators who initially study about the Church online and self-refer themselves to take missionary lessons exhibit strong independent interest and contribute to the growth of the Church in their assigned wards, branches, and groups. On the other hand, those hesitant to meet with full-time missionaries but want to learn more about the Church may do so online with less pressure and anxiety.
Social networking websites offer many opportunities for ordinary members to engage in missionary work in locations where use of these sites is common. Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ allow individual users to make online contacts with thousands of family members, friends, and acquaintances. The possibilities for sharing the gospel are virtually limitless and can take on creative new forms. Simply posting links to LDS websites or updates on matters related to personal faith are passive approaches to creating interest in the gospel and extending opportunities to learn more about the Church. Casual expressions of Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices can help reduce the umbrage of suspicion of the Church held by many around the world and can perhaps change social attitudes regarding the Church on a wide scale. Although these efforts lack the directness and vision to achieve instant results, social media can augment interest in the Church and motivate some to request more information independently. Within the past few years, the Church launched the revamped Mormon.org website with member profiles displaying the personal background of ordinary church members, answering common questions regarding the LDS faith, and categorizing profiles by members' location, age, ethnicity, gender, and previous religious faith prior to conversion to the LDS Church. The purpose of the reconfiguration of the primary website the Church has constructed for nonmembers to learn about LDS beliefs appears centered on redirecting the focus of online proselytism from merely presenting facts to how ordinary members integrate tenets of the LDS faith in their real lives, bear simple testimony, and share personal experiences of why their religion is meaningful. The website also provides a refreshing approach to resolve common misunderstandings or controversies in the Church regarding history, doctrine, and policy through member profiles.
The internet simplifies language-specific outreach efforts for the Church. Users can perform web searches in their first or second language to answer many of their questions. The Church publishes translations of some LDS materials online in 84 languages and the entire standard works in 20 languages. To better address the individual language needs of individual countries, the Church has launched dozens of country-specific versions of lds.org in the official language of each country. Missionary work conducted by full-time missionaries around the world occurs within their constraints of their language abilities, but the internet can facilitate investigator and member comprehension of the gospel if there are no speakers of their language among full-time missionaries or local church leaders in their geographic area.
Factors that Deter LDS Growth
The internet has made information critical about the Church and misinformation more accessible than ever before, potentially leading to a decline in receptivity to formal missionary efforts. Many investigators independently research about the Church online and some lose interest after encountering negative information. This can produce greater skepticism in the general public concerning what the Church teaches and what ordinary members believe and practice, contributing to declining receptivity.
Online communities of former and disaffiliated members pose a major obstacle in the Church's efforts to spread the gospel online. These individuals can disrupt the Church's efforts to use the internet as a medium to effectively preach the gospel by posting negative comments on news articles published on media websites, building websites that specifically aim to ridicule and "debunk" the Church, and spreading rumors, little-known controversies, and negatively-biased information. Such efforts have the potential to reinforce unfavorable stereotypes of Latter-day Saints worldwide and damage public affairs efforts if widely publicized. Anti-Mormon websites possess the potential to reduce member activity rates as those with fragile testimonies in the Church can be particularly vulnerable to counter-proselytism efforts and become disaffiliated and inactive. There are many reports of these websites disrupting the faith of many active members as well.
Information on the LDS Church online appears primarily negative or inaccurate in many, if not most, languages. It can be difficult to locate web pages officially created and maintained by the Church in a given language in a timely manner if any exist in that language at all. This can further dissuade interested or curious individuals from conducting a meaningful, careful examination of the Church and its teachings. A lack of pro-LDS or even more objective material presenting church beliefs can block investigators from taking the necessary steps to learn more by meeting with active church members and missionaries and attend church services if these resources are available in the locations where they reside. Even countries where there is a long-term LDS presence and tens of thousands of church members often have few objective or pro-LDS website results when performing an internet search. For example, a Google search in the Korean language for 몰몬교 "Mormonism" yields primarily non-LDS websites that present church teachings and history in a negative or neutral light and often contrast rather than compare LDS teachings to traditional Christianity. Some of the first results use the Korean word 이단 , or "heresy", in direct reference to the LDS Church. One of the most commonly-used search engines in South Korea, naver.com produces similar results for the same query as Google. Members and missionaries speaking scores of other languages report similar findings.
Top Ten Countries with the Highest Percentage of Internet Users
In 2010, the top ten countries with the highest percentage of internet users were Iceland (95%), Norway (93.4%), the Netherlands (90.7%), Luxembourg (90%), Sweden (90%), Denmark (88.7%), Finland (86.9%), the United Kingdom (85%), Switzerland (83.9%), and South Korea (83.7%). Since 2000, the percentage of internet users increased by 50.5% in Iceland, 66.6% in Norway, 46.7% in the Netherlands, 67.1% in Luxembourg, 44.3% in Sweden, 49.6% in Denmark, 49.6% in Finland, 58.2% in the United Kingdom, 36.8% in Switzerland, and 39% in South Korea.
Between 1989 and 1999, LDS membership increased by 24% in Iceland, 11.4% in Norway, 12.2% in the Netherlands, 56.6% in Luxembourg, 11.5% in Sweden, 5.3% in Denmark, 4.8% in Finland, 14.6% in the United Kingdom, 13.6% in Switzerland, and 42.3% in South Korea. Between 2000 and 2010, LDS membership changed by 0.8% in Iceland, 7.4% in Norway, 16.4% in the Netherlands, 82.7% in Luxembourg, 7.1% in Sweden, -3.1% in Denmark, 3.9% in Finland, 6.4% in the United Kingdom, 12.8% in Switzerland, and 16.5% in South Korea.
Of these ten countries, membership growth rates between the 1990s and 2000s increased in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, declined slightly in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland, and declined more rapidly in Iceland, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.
Most of the ten countries with the highest percentage of internet users experienced noticeable congregational decline during the 2000s. All ten countries experienced a decline in the number of congregation or no change at all. In many cases, the decline in the number of congregations was nearly equal to that of the increase experienced in the 1990s. The Church requires congregations to have a certain number of active members to function and often closes wards and branches that fall below the minimal standard to operate. Consequently increasing numbers of congregations often correlate to growth in active membership whereas a decline in the number of congregations correlates with a decline in active membership. The widespread finding of declining numbers of wards and branches in most of the top ten countries with the highest percentage of internet users suggests that increasing internet usage has reduced member activity and convert retention rates, necessitating the consolidation or smaller wards and branches. However based on missionary and member reports, the decline in the number of wards and branches in most of these countries occurred due to changing church policies for minimal standards for wards and branches to operate and church leaders advocating for the consolidation of units with few members to create larger ones to provide more resources to church membership. There have been no reports from these countries suggesting that the number of active members has declined during the 2000s and most of these nations appear to have experienced a small increase in active membership during this period.
Bottom Ten Countries with the Lowest Percentage of Internet Users
In 2010, the ten countries with an official LDS presence and the lowest percentage of internet users were the Democratic Republic of the Congo (0.72%), Ethiopia (0.75%), Cambodia (1.3%), Papua New Guinea (1.3%), Madagascar (1.7%), Burundi (2.1%), Malawi (2.3%), the Central African Republic (2.3%), Cote d'Ivoire (2.6%), and Benin (3.1%). Only three of these countries had an LDS presence in 1989 (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire). LDS membership increased by over 100% in most of these countries between 2000 and 2010. The Church reports rapid growth and a recent church establishment in virtually all ten of these countries where internet users comprise a tiny percentage of the population. However high receptivity appears linked to cultural and societal conditions and low levels of economic development and secularism rather than simply internet usage rates.
Internet Use and LDS Growth in the United States
With over six million members on church records, the LDS Church in the United States has not exhibited any noticeable changes in growth over the past 20 years despite the major rise in internet usage. LDS membership increased from 4.175 million in 1989 to 6.145 million members between 1989 and 2010. Membership increased by 22.5% between 1989 and 1999 and 18% between 2000 and 2010. The numerical increase in membership was 938,409 in the 1990s and 935,755 in the 2000s, indicating almost perfect arithmetic growth. The number of wards and branches increased from 9,035 in 1989 to 13,601 in 2010. The number of congregations increased by 25% between 1989 and 1999 and 17.6% between 2000 and 2010. The numerical increase in congregations was 2,280 for the 1990s and 2,039 in the 2000s. With only a 0.3% decrease in the numerical increase in membership and a 10% decrease in the numerical increase in congregations from the 1990s to the 2000s, there is little proof that the rise in internet usage of 43% to 74% of the general population in the United States has had any effect on increasing or decreasing the number of convert baptisms and new congregations organized.
Factors identified that favor or deter LDS growth and statistical findings on internet usage and LDS growth rates indicate that the positive and negative influences of the internet on LDS growth are nearly equal in strength resulting in little to no fluctuation in membership and congregational growth trends from the recent past in most countries around the world. Rather, fluctuations in membership and congregational growth rates appear caused by changes in convert baptismal standards, mission and area policies, initiatives in mission outreach expansion, and the level of religiosity and receptivity to nontraditional Christian denominations in individual countries. Countries in which internet usage is widespread have generally exhibited linear membership growth trends before and after the advent of the internet, suggesting that the internet has a limited influence on the number of convert baptisms if there is any relationship at all. Congregational growth rates have remained stagnant or have declined in the past decade in many of the countries with the highest rates of internet usage, but this has been largely the result of other factors.
 "Internet Usage Statistics," Internet World Stats, retrieved 28 April 2012. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm
 "Surfing and Site Guide," Internet World Stats, retrieved 28 April 2012. http://www.internetworldstats.com/surfing.htm#1
 "The Scriptures - Internet Edition," classic.scriptures.lds.org, retrieved 18 April 2012. http://classic.scriptures.lds.org/