The publication of 2010 census data has produced a host of press reports about the explosive growth of the LDS Church. Many in the church see this purported growth as proof of the church’s claims to be something different. At the risk of looking like a fool for questioning statisticians and prophets, I must admit to being skeptical.
When The Salt Lake Tribune first reported on the census data, the LDS growth rate from 2000 to 2010 was pegged at an astonishing 45 percent. With a surprising and rather suspicious alacrity, the church then came out with revised membership numbers for 2000 that reduced the rate to a more believable 18 percent. But is this number real?
A growth rate of 18 percent over 10 years translates into a compounded annual growth rate of 1.67 percent. By comparison, the natural growth rate for the U.S. population as a whole is just under 1 percent. In other words, Mormon growth is only slightly outpacing that of the total population. That fact in itself is something of a revelation given the extraordinary lengths to which the church goes to recruit new members.
The 18 percent figure does not include dropouts among new converts. While no one knows exactly what the dropout rate is, it is widely estimated to be perhaps 50 percent. Nor do the church’s membership figures account for the number of other inactive members on the church’s books—members like me. I haven’t attended a Mormon service in almost 30 years, but I am still, by my choice, a member of record.
What effect do these facts have on true growth? In its last General Conference, the church reported 119, 917 new births and 281,312 new converts. Converts thus represent 70 percent of new growth. If half of these new converts fall away within the first year, then continuing new growth is not 1.67 percent but 1.08 percent.
How about the effect of annual losses due to problems with more established members? It’s hard to say, since we lack hard data. But I don’t think I’m being unduly pessimistic when I say that it is probably more than 1.08 percent.
Unlike the admiring press, therefore, who blithely report Mormonism’s stellar rise in popularity, I see a church that is struggling, perhaps even in decline.
I see a church racked, according to one of its own recently retired General Authorities, by levels of apostasy not seen since the Kirtland banking scandal of 1837.
I see a church, which, despite massive investments in missionary work, is adding “permanent” members at just about the rate of overall population increase.
I see a church whose rate of natural increase, according to recent conference reports, is just 0.8 percent. Since we know that Mormons are having more kids than the general population, clearly something does not compute here, either. If Mormons were reproducing at the national rate (2.06 percent), it would take only 5.8 million to produce 119,917 kids. The higher Mormonism’s actual birth rate is, the more even 5.8 million looks optimistic. A 3 percent rate, for example, would mean 3.85 million active members. Not such a rosy picture at all.
What we have in the much-touted growth of the Mormon church is a phenomenon of smoke and mirrors, an Enron before the revelations. The question I’d be asking myself today if I were President Monson is not how to handle growth, most of which is illusory, but how to remain relevant. The present message apparently isn’t working.
Ed Firmage Jr.
Salt Lake City