Overview and Discussion of Church Growth

February 20, 2008
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According to Beliefnet.com the 10 largest churches of 2007 in the US are:


1) The Catholic Church (67.5 million)

2) The Southern Baptist Convention (16.3 million)

3) The United Methodist Church (7.9 million)

4) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (5.7 million)

5) The Church of God in Christ (5.5 million)

6) National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (5 million)

7) Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (4.7 million)

8 ) National Baptist Convention of America (3.5 million)

9) Presbyterian Church (USA) (3 million)

10) Assemblies of God (2.8 million)

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the fastest growing church with an increase of 2.25% whilst the LDS church had an increase of 1.56%. The Catholic Church had an increase of 0.87% whilst the episcopal church had a decrease of 4.15%.

What are your views on our growth? How does the LDS church compare with other churches over the last year in terms of growth/decline rates? Could our church seek more growth by mirroring JW member missionary involvement? Would this be a good thing? Are Baptists focusing such efforts on Mormons because of our increasing numbers and fairly large US population? Is our growth sustainable or will it plateau do to limited family sizes? Please compare, discuss and give your views.

Where do we go from here?

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37 Responses to Overview and Discussion of Church Growth

  1. February 20, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Anyone who’s compared an official ward membership printout with the active or even semi-active membership of a ward should be aware that membership numbers are a gross misrepresentation of reality.

    I would imagine similar situations with other churches, so while the growth trends my contain some valid indications, I think the raw numbers need to be taken with a grain—or heavy dose—of salt.

  2. Jeff Spector
    February 20, 2008 at 9:12 am

    The bigger the church gets, the slower the growth will look unless the gross numbers increase significantly. Since we have less missionaries, you would expect less converts. Especially in the US where the number of missionaries per mission has been severely reduced in favor of foreign missions. With the birthrate slowing, you have less child of record baptisms. And there you have it.

    The activity rate is a whole other story.

  3. John Hamer
    February 20, 2008 at 9:17 am

    All of these numbers are self-reported by the denominations in question and they don’t really tell us much in a comparative sense. It’s been established that the LDS church has a very low threshold for adding to its self-reported total membership figure and a rather high threshold for subtracting. The figure it reports is therefore the maximal number of people you might consider to be LDS and is higher than the number of people who would self-report as LDS. Jehovah’s Witnesses are the opposite. They only count as members people who are currently involved in a rather high degree of church activity. Their denomination’s self-reported number is therefore minimal and is less than the number of people who would self-report as JW.

    Unfortunately, the raw numbers the LDS church reports aren’t especially meaningful or useful for determining trends. It would be interesting to have the number of LDS members in the US who hold active temple recommends, or to have the number of LDS members who have made a tithing donation in the past year, and then to look at those trend lines.

    Without good numbers, we are forced to diagnose the situation using tea leaves. Because the tea leaves look very different to different soothsayers, prognoses about what will happen vary radically.

  4. David
    February 20, 2008 at 9:18 am

    The best indicator for actual LDS growth is not membership but stake and ward creation. If I remember correctly those numbers are increasing but have slowed down quite dramatically.

    I think that the US growth will continue to increase at a slow or moderate pace, definitely much slower than were predicted 10-20 years ago. The real interesting story will be church growth abroad, not growth in the US. Units created church wide has slowed down a lot last time I looked, mainly because we simply are not creating many units in places like Latin American, even though the membership was increasing.

  5. Jeff Spector
    February 20, 2008 at 9:32 am

    I think what we see in the US is a lot of population shifting with new unit creation but also units dissolving in some places as well. Here is Colorado Springs, some areas are bursting at the seams and we have a potential of three or four new buildings in the offing as well as a new stake. In San Jose, where we came from, there were two stakes dissolved and several buildings well under utilized and some that were sold off. Since 1982, the church membership there just diminished. Even the Hispanic membership that had huge growth in the 80s and 90s has tapered off.

  6. John Hamer
    February 20, 2008 at 9:38 am

    Has anybody compiled the numbers for total units (wards/branches) in the US over time, i.e., without burying the meaningful US number within the less meaningful worldwide unit numbers?

  7. David
    February 20, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Has anybody compiled the numbers for total units (wards/branches) in the US over time, i.e., without burying the meaningful US number within the less meaningful worldwide unit numbers?

    No, but you made me see the fallacy of my reasoning. I have not seen the US numbers separate from worldwide numbers. My mistake.

    But in best bloggernaccle fashion, I will still stick with my original prediction, though my reasoning is BS.

    I think Jeff put his finger on what is happening in the US, you have “Mormon Smear.” By that I mean Mormons are spreading out into previously less densely Mormon populated areas in search of lower costs of living, while total church growth is only slowly increasing. I think this may end up putting a strain on church finances as the church has to build more buildings in the U.S., with not enough new members/new tithing sources to compensate.

    I moved from Los Angeles to Dallas so I could afford a house, so I am part of the smear. The church can’t put up buildings fast enough here, while in Los Angeles there are no plans anywhere to put up anything new. Ward sizes are for the most part stagnant in the Los Angeles area. The stake where I grew up (in San Diego) now has LESS wards than it did in the early 90′s. For the most part people just moved away and pocketed their equity. I have to laugh when people around here get excited that the kingdom is growing because the wards are bursting at the seams, because some poor Bishop in LA or San Jose is probably struggling to fill the ward roster because of emigration.

  8. February 20, 2008 at 10:08 am

    John Hamer says, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are the opposite. They only count as members people who are currently involved in a rather high degree of church activity. Their denomination’s self-reported number is therefore minimal and is less than the number of people who would self-report as JW.”

    Yes…indeed my friend here said that she is a JW but has not been baptised yet and neither has her brother even though they are devout. She says it is because they are as yet unable to devote them fully to living the life of a JW. She said it takes someone about 3 years to be a full JW.

    The same is similar with Jews…although they do not proselytyze….they actually turn people away 3 times before allowing them to convert.

    I wonder what our stats would look like if we were to have more stringent membership criteria.

  9. Chris W.
    February 20, 2008 at 10:19 am

    I’m glad this finally came up. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.

    Unfortunately, the US census is not allowed to ask about religious affiliation/beliefs, so we’re missing out relative to other countries. The Statistical Abstract does have some very telling information, but it’s from a survey with a pretty small sample. (This does not make it necessarily very inaccurate, of course.)

    Anyway, the link to the data is here:
    http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/population/religion.html

    It’s very interesting to note that number of self-identified LDS is about half the church’s self-reported number. That means if you were to randomly select 100 people off the church roles, only about 50% would both be alive and tell you that they’re mormon. Also, the growth rate is quite small – about 1% a year.

    There’s also a more in depth study (the American Religious Identification Survey) that shows that about the same number of people “switch in” (convert) as “switch out” for no net growth. Again, this is by self-identification, so these people aren’t just inactive mormons who are thinking about going back to church someday. They no longer call themselves mormon at all.

    I think that it’s important to keep all the members on record. We should have them in mind and try to take care of them. I think, however, it’s bordering on dishonesty to tout our membership numbers (13 million strong!) as some kind of evidence of very high church growth or anything like that. I think that there should be a “real” number that only counts people that are in some way affiliated with the church, and that’s the one that should be used in the PR releases. This can easily be done while keeping every one on record, so that we don’t lose anyone.

    Also, if the membership is in this state in the US, how bad is it in other countries? Well, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s way worse. (see, for example, John Dehlin’s interview at mormon stories with Ted Lyon.) Can we honestly say that there are more members of the church outside the US than inside?

  10. John Hamer
    February 20, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Ok, here’s the goods:

    Total LDS Units (Wards + Branches) in the US
    1996: 10,417
    1998: 10,811
    2000: 11,315
    2002: 11,731
    2004: 12,112
    2006: 12,753

    This indicates a net gain of 2,336 units over 10 years or a respectable 22% increase in units in the decade from 1996-2006. Unless the number of active members per unit has declined, this figure seems to indicate that there is still real LDS growth in the US, although the rate has declined since the 1970s.

  11. February 20, 2008 at 10:26 am

    The problem with using unit growth as a barometer is the church changes the average number of members per unit from time to time. The church could halve the number of members per unit and immediately double the size of the church as gauged by unit growth.

    And the original list is wrong. My church, the Church of the King of Kolob, actually has 7.2 million members and has grown 50,000% in the last year alone. Of course, these are my self-reported numbers, but you can trust that they are accurate because I say so, and I am the King of Kolob, so who would dare contradict me? I keep the membership records secret because they are too sacred to share with those not in the upper echelons of my church’s hierarchy. Once a member of the Church of the King of Kolob, you are always a member, whatever your activity level or whether you even know you are a member. It is true that approximately 7.199999 million of the 7.2 million current members of the church were added to the membership rolls by proxy, but they are members nonetheless. Isn’t it marvelous? At this rate of growth, the Church of the King of Kolob will have rolled forth triumphantly to fill the whole earth in one year!

  12. Jeff Spector
    February 20, 2008 at 10:35 am

    The same is similar with Jews…although they do not proselytyze….they actually turn people away 3 times before allowing them to convert.

    Actually, the overall jewish population is diminishing at a rapid rate. Mostly to intermarriage. and guys like me who join another religion. They have an inactivity rate to die for, literally.

  13. Heather Brown Martin
    February 20, 2008 at 10:39 am

    A problem with using ‘new wards’ as a measurement of growth is that it doesn’t look at the number of active members in those wards. For example, 2 local wards in my area split two wards into three, and redrew the lines, in order to spread out priesthood holders, and try to force the wards to go out and convert more members so they would have enough people to fill callings. The local leadership was basically trying to create smaller wards so the members would feel pressure to up the numbers. What happened was that now they have three very small and struggling wards, instead of two semi healthy ones.

  14. David
    February 20, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Equality, Heather:

    Good points, perhaps my suggestion to measure using number of units was not helpful. Perhaps Chris’ self identification idea is a more honest one.

  15. February 20, 2008 at 10:46 am

    “Yes…indeed my friend here said that she is a JW but has not been baptised yet and neither has her brother even though they are devout. She says it is because they are as yet unable to devote them fully to living the life of a JW. She said it takes someone about 3 years to be a full JW.”

    I studied for over a year, attending church. I was not an official JW. 15 years ago, there were 2 books you had to study which were constructed like textbooks for school. You would read through a chapter and at the end there were discussion questions which kind of represented a quiz to make sure you understood what was covered. I was starting in on the second book, fully convinced and intending to be baptized, when we starting trying to convert the Mormon girl we met at work. My friends were extremely angry that I was proselyting, saying that because I was not yet educated completely or baptized I was “mocking God”. That, and the fact that I actually listened to the Mormon side, as well as the other Christians I worked with, and tried to seek out what felt like the truth, it all went downhill (from their P.O.V.) from there.

    I heard that there were something like 200 questions in the baptismal interview. That might be an exaggeration, but clearly they wanted you to be ready to be a missionary.

  16. Chris W.
    February 20, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Clay’s description shows up in the data. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, only 55% percent of affiliated JW’s are actually members of the church. This appears to be the lowest among “organized” religions (religions that I suspect keep membership roles). In contrast, 75% of affiliated LDS are members of that church, one of the highest proportions of any religious group (second only to the Assemblies of God at 78%).

  17. Jeff Spector
    February 20, 2008 at 11:09 am

    “…try to force the wards to go out and convert more members so they would have enough people to fill callings. The local leadership was basically trying to create smaller wards so the members would feel pressure to up the numbers.”

    This is what was announced over the pulpit when they made the change? Usually, wards are split to make sure that everyone has a calling and they don’t have to make them up to give everyone a job. Converting members to fill jobs is a loser since they don’t know enough in the beginning of their church life to have an important calling that needs a more experienced person. So I doubt that was the motivation.

    Struggling isn’t always bad.

  18. February 20, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Here’s some more number crunching, comparing the stake/ward growth to membership growth. It seems the ward units grow by about 3-4% per year, and membership grows at about 5-6%. (Percent Growth is relative to previous year)


    Year Wards % Growth Members % Growth
    1996 10,417 NA 9,694,549 NA
    1998 10,811 4% 10,354,241 6%
    2000 11,315 4% 11,068,861 6%
    2002 11,731 4% 11,721,548 6%
    2004 12,112 3% 12,275,822 5%
    2006 12,753 5% 12,868,606 5%
  19. February 20, 2008 at 11:13 am

    This last weekend, we had stake conference, and the Stake President reported about 50% of those who are on the membership rolls are active. About 33% of the total have temple recommends. I imagine this disparity is 1) high number of children who are members but do not qualify for temple recommends until 12 years old (we have a lot of student wards in my stake) and 2) others who can’t get temple recommends for some other reason. We have a lot of inactivity among African-American members in this area (North Carolina) and I suspect that is true throughout the United States, but particularly in the South. Having served a mission in Mexico, I can tell you that the activity rate is nowhere near 50%. Something like 20 or 25% would be generous I think.

  20. February 20, 2008 at 11:18 am

    I should make it clear that when I reported percentages, those were limited to my stake and are NOT church-wide numbers. They should be so lucky.

  21. John Hamer
    February 20, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Stephen, to discuss your other questions. My diagnosis is that the active LDS population in the US is probably near its plateau point, that the period of real growth in the US is essentially over, and that in a decade or so the active LDS membership in the US will begin to decline in absolute numbers — very, very, very slowly.

    Given that the current system is no longer yielding real growth in the US, should the LDS church adopt the member missionary approach of the JWs? Sure. Can it? No. The institution lacks the capacity to make such a significant change.

    Among active church-goers in the US, LDS members are among the least likely to reach out to their non-member neighbors. I think this phenomenon is a result of the full-time missionary program, coupled with the extreme centralization of church authority (which disempowers the membership). Even though they know every member is supposed to be a missionary, most of the time for LDS members missionary work is somebody else’s job: the missionaries.

  22. February 20, 2008 at 11:27 am

    “This is what was announced over the pulpit when they made the change? Usually, wards are split to make sure that everyone has a calling and they don’t have to make them up to give everyone a job.”

    From my own personal experience, redrawing of ward boundaries definitely does occur in some cases to distribute “strong priesthood holders” amongst wards. This is often the motivation behind super bizarre annexation of pockets within neighborhoods when re-orgs happen. I heard it from leadership personally that these were the motivations, and no, they did not tell people that in the open and certainly not over the pulpit. All re-orgs were explained under the umbrella of “inspiration”.

    As far as trying to apply pressure to recruit new members, I haven’t ever heard of that personally.

  23. John Nilsson
    February 20, 2008 at 11:28 am

    If the church could settle on an optimal unit size, members would suffer less from make-work callings in bloated wards and less from burn-out in emaciated ones. The problem is that there is little flexibility in adapting the Church program depending on unit size. Some, but not much. In a sociality-driven church, this is a bigger deal than what’s being taught at the pulpit.

  24. Heather Brown Martin
    February 20, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Jeff,

    I happen to know the stake president very well, and that is what he told me. I have no idea what was announced over the pulpit though :)

  25. February 20, 2008 at 11:42 am

    “Given that the current system is no longer yielding real growth in the US, should the LDS church adopt the member missionary approach of the JWs?”

    Mormons are already supposed to do this. We are told almost every week that we should be doing this. The JWs actually achieve it because doing it is considered so much more essential to their salvation. If you will be saved you have to go full tilt, there is no luke warm. Even though a similar idea exists in the LDS church, its kind of half-hearted.

    I think if Mormons were somehow really held accountable to knock on doors, which is to say essentially to become “freaks” to your neighbors, a great many might buckle and go inactive. For having such an encompassing religion, Mormons enjoy a uniquely comfortable position of being able to blend in with worldly folks (at least until they offer you a beer ;-) ) I think a lot of Mormons remain active because there are all kinds of loopholes and shortcuts you can take to enjoy the benefits without having to really prove your commitment. (e.g. The Same Ten People (STP) phenomenon of church service)

  26. Jeff Spector
    February 20, 2008 at 11:44 am

    “I happen to know the stake president very well, and that is what he told me.”

    Wow,recipe for failure in my mind.

  27. David
    February 20, 2008 at 11:56 am

    KC,

    That growth is for every TWO years. So annual growth for units would be 1.5-2% and 2.5-3% for members.

  28. February 20, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Good call David, i totally overlooked that.

  29. The Green Man
    February 20, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    John, (at #21),

    I wonder if you recall where you saw the stat with respect to poor LDS member missionary performance? I would love to read further. That, in my mind, would clarify why the church seems to be pushing for the traditional Christian mainstream. It is easier to ‘open your mouth’ when what you are saying isn’t substantially different from what people expect from a Christian church.

  30. David
    February 20, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    It is easier to ‘open your mouth’ when what you are saying isn’t substantially different from what people expect from a Christian church.

    Except, why then bother at all?

  31. John Hamer
    February 20, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Re #29, Green Man: In his self-published book, Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missonary Work (pp. 79-80), David Stewart quotes a 2001 study that says only 26% of LDS members reported making any attempt to share the gospel in the past year, compared with 61% of Pentacostals, 61% of Assembly of God members and 57% of “nondenominational Christians” (big box Evangelicals). He also cites a series of Ensign articles that show a low percentage of outreach. For example, only 3-5% of active LDS members in North America regularly participate in missionary work (“Members Are the Key,” 9/2000), and that the percentage of investigators that came from member referrals had dropped from 42% in 1987 to 20% in 1997.

  32. February 20, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    That, in my mind, would clarify why the church seems to be pushing for the traditional Christian mainstream. It is easier to ‘open your mouth’ when what you are saying isn’t substantially different from what people expect from a Christian church.

    I’ve sensed this sort of “salesmanship” as well, but I think it’s working exactly the opposite of what was intended. When I joined the LDS church, the message was remarkably different than so-called mainstream christian churches, and I was attracted by those differences. When LDS try to water down the distinctions and “blend in” with other churches, they create an image to potential converts that the LDS church has nothing special or different to offer, so there’s no particular reason to be interested. The only real distinction that is emphasized these days is the claim to priesthood authority, and while this is a major point, it can also convey an authoritarian bent.

  33. The Green Man
    February 20, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks Fellas,

    I think that David and Nick are right, the watered down message is likely a response to reduced member motivation. The watering down was certainly an element that first introduced a ‘disaffected’ thought to my mind when I realized what I was teaching to others wasn’t ‘taught or emphasized.’

    When I went through the temple in the MTC, I recall a conversation I had with an enthusiastic and fantastically friendly octogenarian working at the baptistery. He told the story of his mission in Denmark and the mission’s initial lack of success, he credited a huge turn around to focusing on the Book of Mormon rather than the Bible.

    I can’t say that I have ever found the Book of Mormon to be inspirational (at all), but I think that emphasizing the distinctive characteristics is likely a more successful route, especially the elements that have some other basis for support (like no smoking / drinking).

    I think that saying the member has peaked in North America is likely accurate (ceteris paribus), but I see some local evidence of a real decline in membership in smaller units.

  34. Anon non-believer
    February 20, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    An important factor that needs to be taken into account is birthrate. If this growth analysis has any credibility http://www.npg.org/images/uspopchange0005.jpg then one could make the argument that if it weren’t for the high birth rate the LDS church might very well be shrinking as converts and those who were born into it (like myself) leave.

  35. Peter Brown
    February 20, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    I read part of the Law of the Harvest—thanks, John Hamer. Totally opened my eyes. The biggest takeway I had was a story where Heber J Grant? was on a mission in Hawaii, and had an investigator go begging for baptism. Contrast that with the quick sales techniques since the 1960′s. I was totally opposed to baptismal goals on my mission, thought it was a dig into other people’s agency. Contact goals were a better representation of my missionary efforts.

    I have a few questions and wonder if anyone has an idea.

    1. How have past growth statistics panned out? Have there been other times when growth was relatively flat? The ceterus pa ribus idea would then make it difficult to determine.

    2. Some missions have ceased tracting. I am from Kearns, Utah where church membership has shrunk precipitously–this in the heart of Salt Lake Valley. They’ve told the missionaries to only teach through a member or contact. I wonder if they’ll cease tracting nationwide soon. It seems so less effective. Anyone have any other thoughts on this? I always thought a missionary spending more time serving the poor and needy, maybe helping out other churches with no quid pro quo would do more than simple tracting.

    3. How much of our slow growth is due to cultural circumstances or to a general feeling of faith malaise in the organization? Seems like the faithful are pretty pumped up about LDS destiny. Raise the bar, pornography, rise in law of chastity issues could help explain part of the slow growth due to shrinkage in the sales force. Family size getting smaller could help explain some demographic reasons. Quick and dirty baptisms can explain the retention rates.

    Peak geographical “raw” investigator issues could also be at hand. Seems like most areas of the world have hit their peak conversions with America being the slow burn that continues to perfom best since 1830. Europe had its peak in the 19th century, Eastern Europe in the 1990s respectively, North America has seen parts of it peak at different times. Latin America has seen its peak in the last three decades. I believe Africa has yet to really see a peak. Open Asian countries have had theirs, but closed Asian and of course Middle Eastern countries still have no idea.

    Again, one who believes we’re headed for a global economic meltdown, it will interesting to see how these trend change and if we see another explosion of converstions in the future.

  36. Jay
    July 10, 2008 at 5:24 am

    Concerning the claimed growth rates from LDS authorities, I am astonished by the blatant threats to the validity of their statistics, and yet the general population laps up the increasing numbers without a degree of scrutiny. They never provide their bottom line, it is like reporting income without expenses. Quite frankly, it is sad that a religious organization that cares so much about its “numbers” would provide such unchecked reports of growth. Ask yourself this, are we worthy to go forth in the work of the Lord if we are unable to be honest and realistic with ourselves and each other about how that work is going? My mission President was quite honest with us, bless his soul, that the church was sustaining negative real growth in our area. We couldn’t baptize or procreate as fast as members were dying or going less active. In one area, our member list had about 900 names on it, maybe 130 of them showed up to church each week (with trade-offs between active members and the members who showed up once in a while). Of the remaining 770 with whom we didn’t have contact, who knows how many of them were simply blessed as babies and didn’t know a wink about the LDS church, were baptized on a whim by missionaries who wanted to boost their numbers, or who had since passed on without the church being notified. The real growth may not be as inspiring to broadcast once a year, but it would at least put things in true perspective. It is nice to know how many seeds we have planted, but what I really want to know is how many of those seeds took root and endured to the end (or planted more seeds).

    I suppose that if the numbers really mattered in the larger scheme of things that the church would make it a point to reduce their margin of error.

  37. Ray
    July 10, 2008 at 6:21 am

    Jay, I have a post planned on membership numbers and activity that is enlightening. Short version, the Church is very honest and realistic in how it presents its overall numbers and activity issues.