“And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.”
The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a great statue representing all the kingdoms of the world and then saw a “stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold” and then filled the whole earth. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints see this as a prophecy of the growth and progress of the Church in the last days. It is one of the commonly referenced scriptures that adds zeal to our missionary efforts.
In 1984, non-LDS sociologist Rodney Stark predicted that by 2080 the Mormon faith would have no fewer than 64,000,000 adherents and possibly as many as 260,000,000. He predicted that Mormonism could be the next great world religion. This idea intrigued me throughout my boyhood, and I equated success (and in some ways validation of my beliefs) to the growth and progress of the Church. We’re kind of a “numbers” church. We often quote membership statistics; numbers of temples, missionaries, etc.
So it was with great interest that I recently read an article in the Salt Lake Tribune that assessed the conversion results of the recent surge of LDS missionaries that happened soon after the Church lowered the missionary age to 18 for young men and 19 for young women in October 2012. The number of full-time missionaries was about 58,500 and has since jumped to about 83,000 as of March 2014 — a 42% leap. I find this extremely interesting because of my life-long affiliation with the Church and as a 19-year-old young man, I dedicated two years of my life to missionary service in Sao Paulo, Brazil, working 80+ hours each week striving to win converts and bring inactive church members back into the fold. I taught Portuguese at the Missionary Training Center for a couple of years and worked closely with more than 80 Elders and Sisters. I am personally vested in seeing the Church grow throughout the world, so I have been thrilled with the missionary “surge” and have wondered whether the number of convert baptisms would spike as well.
So far, the number of convert baptisms hasn’t had a similar increase. Official church statistics show less than a 4% increase — from 272,330 convert baptisms in 2012 to 282,945 in 2013. Why is this? The article suggested it had a lot to do with where those new missionaries are being assigned — most have been assigned to areas better equipped to handle the extra missionaries where the church is well established — mostly in the United States. The researchers in the article suggested that these areas are already fairly saturated by Church preaching efforts.
I believe it’s too early to analyze the numbers. The number of missionaries serving today has been ramping up for the last 18 months. The average number of missionaries was lower than 83,000 throughout 2013 since the missionary force was ramping up all year. It also takes time to train missionaries to speak languages and to get them proficient at finding/teaching techniques that make them more effective in their work.
My assumption is that there will be a greater increase in the number of converts in 2014 since the surge will be in full force for most of this year — perhaps a 8% increase over the 2013 numbers. The missionary surge will then subside as those who entered missionary service earlier than they would have otherwise, complete their missions in 2015 and beyond. I’m guessing we’ll end up with a more normalized number of missionaries of about 70,000, mostly due to a greater percentage of women serving due to the lowering of the age from 21 to 19. Whereas before “sister” missionaries accounted for about 15% of the total, I suspect that that number will settle in at about 30% women and 70% men. We shall see.
However, I doubt there will be a huge uptick in the number of converts in the foreseeable future. Here’s why:
Missionaries are now encouraged to have a balanced effort of conversion, retention and reactivation. The Church is putting a greater emphasis on improving the quality of the conversion (spiritual and social) that will lead people to remain active members throughout their lives. This is a very difficult, total life-altering transition for anyone to make, and so it’s little wonder that so many aren’t retained.
In many missions, 50% of the missionaries’ time is devoted to proselytizing and 50% is devoted to reactivation and retention efforts. While convert baptisms may be stagnant, perhaps the activity rate of the current membership is improving? Some researchers estimate that the average activity rate worldwide is about 33%. (The church doesn’t release figures on activity rates, but some extrapolation can be made by the growth of new wards and stakes — which is a much truer indication of church growth vs. convert baptisms.) Of the 15 million people on church membership rolls (those baptized into the church and children of record), perhaps about 5 million attend church regularly. The other 10 million include those who still believe but no longer attend church and those who have left the church completely but haven’t yet requested their names be removed from the church records.
If we had to decide between baptizing 300,000 and retaining 100,000 (33% retention rate) vs. baptizing 200,000 and retaining 100,000 (50% retention rate), which would be better? It’s hard to say since many of those who are not retained eventually return. However, I am certain from all the church leadership trainings that I have attended that the Church is putting a significant emphasis on retention and reactivation. Hopefully, these rates will improve as it is the activity rate that is the true measure of the Church’s strength.
Growth of the Irreligious
I’ve recently read up on the growing number of irreligious people in the United States. According to several demographic studies, surveys and census records, approximately 34% of the U.S. population says that religion is not an important part of their life; 20% claims no religious affiliation and 6% consider themselves atheists. Vermont is the state with the highest percentage of “irreligious” people at 34%, while Mississippi has the fewest at 5%. (My home state of Utah, with its large Mormon population, is #34 with 14% of people not claiming any religious affiliation.) 23% of men and 17% of women are irreligious.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend (for those of us in the “religious camp”) is the fact that those who claim no religious affiliation increases among the younger generations. Consider the following percentages of “irreligious” among the generations (defined by their birth years).
34% Younger Millennials (1990 to 2000)
30% Older Millennials (1983 to 1990)
21% GenXers (1963 to 1982)
15% Boomers (1943 to 1962)
9% Silent (1925 to 1942)
5% Greatest (1901 to 1924)
Since children generally follow the example of their parents, I expect this trend to continue. At the current pace, we may be at 50% irreligious in about 25 years. Irreligious doesn’t mean atheist — about two thirds of irreligious people believe in a supreme being — they are just not affiliated with any church organization per se. This very strong worldwide trend of secularism makes the missionary efforts more difficult as fewer people are seeking out religion.
Effects of Internet
Another obstacle to missionary work is the proliferation of information on the Internet that causes people to doubt the message. When I was a missionary in the pre-internet age in 1994 and 1995, very little anti-Mormon material was available to members or investigators in Brazil. Sure, we’d come across some negative literature put out by some other churches, but by in large, people didn’t have access to much of the information that is easily accessible today. Much of the information available is biased, twisted and outright falsehoods based on truths. Some of the information is verifiable facts that are difficult to reconcile to one’s belief system. Conflicting information that’s coming from so many different sources is confusing and throws water on the fire of faith for many people. The internet is certainly a blessing in so many ways – social connection, information, endless gospel resources and family history research. It also is a tool that the adversary uses relentlessly — pornography, social acrimony and anti-religious information that seeks to destroy faith.
Another reason for the lag may be partly due to a younger, less experienced missionary force. A year or two in age often makes a big difference in maturity level and the depth of life experiences missionaries have that helps them in the work. Missionaries have struggled for years with homesickness, along with mental and physical health problems — and many come home early. I’m guessing that since most missionaries (now) will have not lived away from home prior to serving their missions, homesickness will be even more intense and potentially slow down the work. Additionally, compared to earlier generations, many believe current generation doesn’t have as strong work ethic or as refined communication skills as previous generations. Some argue that the ubiquity of computers, video games, texting devices, etc. has stunted their ability to as effectively communicate with others and most young people just aren’t used to working at physically and emotionally demanding jobs. All of these factors will make it even more difficult for youth to adjust the rigors of missionary life. Hopefully this will improve with time as the new crop of missionaries matures in their roles.
Ineffective Member Missionary Program
Perhaps the greatest contributor to the Church’s flat growth trend is the lack of involvement of members in missionary work. I reluctantly indict myself in this regard. While I have been a stake missionary and in several leadership positions over the past 19 years since returning from my full-time mission, I don’t believe I can think of a single non-member who I have introduced to the gospel who has been baptized. I’ve helped in the reactivation and retention efforts of members, and have seen a few young people from part-member families get baptized, but I haven’t seen anyone convert to the gospel that I personally invited. I have made a few invitations over the years, but not many.
So if this is true of my experience being a fairly stalwart member, I’m guessing it’s true for many others in the Church. This is most often due to fear of rejection or fear of offending someone by “pushing our beliefs” on them. In Utah, we experience a strange phenomenon that many or most of the people we interact with on a daily basis are already members or already know a great deal about the church. I suspect that member missionary work is better outside of Utah due to the greater potential number of interactions with non-LDS people that are curious and not already surrounded by Mormons who sometimes don’t exemplify the best the faith has to offer.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists have much more effective member missionary programs than us. Their members are actively spreading the word and studying the scriptures in the homes of their “investigators.” LDS culture creates a mindset that a mission is something you go and do for 18 to 24 months; that spreading the word is primarily the responsibility of full-time missionaries. Despite repeated attempts by church leadership to change this cultural trend, very few members are actively evangelizing (heck, we have a hard enough time just doing our home and visiting teaching for each other).
I’m not trying to be negative, I’m just analyzing the trends and facts available. I admit, it’s kind of discouraging. And yet, I believe this is God’s work. I believe he has the power to work miracles. He has done it in the past and continues to do so today. The Church continues to roll on. We have over 140 operating temples, nearly 5,000 family history centers and just under 30,000 congregations worldwide. And while 15 million members sounds a lot more impressive than 5 million (which is probably the true number of active members), it shouldn’t be all about the numbers. It should be about helping people come to Christ; and helping them live better lives. That’s why the Church exists. That we are few in number (at least everywhere outside of Utah), shouldn’t be surprising. As Nephi described his vision of the last days:
“And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.” — 1 Nephi 14:12-13
The “whore” of whom Nephi wrote is the influence of the world. It is pervasive. It is enticing. It is destructive. And yet the Church is a force for good in the world and will continue to be a beacon for light and truth despite the powerful influence of Satan and the frailties of people in the Church.
So what can I do? I can share the word of God by example and also by “opening my mouth” and inviting those around me to learn more. I can be a member missionary. I can testify to others of my convictions and find areas of common beliefs. I can find ways to serve others. I can be a better husband, father, brother, son and friend. I can teach my children the importance of member missionary work before and after their full-time missions. Most importantly, I can strive to be a true disciple of Christ.
The real miracle of the gospel is the deep and abiding conviction that I have that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice has the power to save me. That’s a very personal understanding that I’ve gained through many experiences throughout my life, but most frequently and intensely during my two years walking the cobblestone streets in Brazil.