By Eric Johnson
Note: This article was modified on April 4, 2021
Over the first weekend of April, LDS Church leaders announced their lowest baptismal convert rate number in many decades due to COVID-19 sidelining thousands of its missionaries. A total of 126,000 new members were baptized in 2020, down from 249,000 in 2019, which is close to a 50% drop.
With many members leaving the church as well, this is the first time in modern history that the membership gains did not grow by six figures, as the church grew in 2020 by a total of only 98,627. This translates into an anemic 0.6% growth rate to a total of 16.6 million, down from a less-than-impressive 1.54% growth rate from the previous year.
Mormon missionaries only had the first 75 days of the year to do their work with no hinderances, but most were ordered to return home in mid-March. Even in the fall and winter, few missionaries were unleashed to do the work they would normally accomplish in many countries, including canvassing homes and making calls on potential converts. While some members were certainly added through electronic media, not having the faith’s 60,000 or so missionaries in strategic places and working full time ended up being quite costly to the church’s bottom line. It should be pointed out that the baptismal convert number is anticipated when it is released each April at the time of General Conference.
Also, the church has averaged 100,000 baby blessings per year to a number called “children of record,” but this growth in 2020 was down by a third, with just 65,550 children blessed. This too is the lowest number in recent years.
Information provided by the LDS Church
The LDS Church does not document how many people leave the church in any given year. Instead, leaders provide a list of numbers each April from the previous year. The information includes:
- total stakes/missions/districts/wards and branches
- the total membership number (as of that year)
- new children of record and baptized converts
- missionary totals, both full-time as well as church-service
- temples that were dedicated or rededicated along with the total temples in operation
The church accounting firm is the only entity with the information on how the final membership number is derived. Here are some factors that should be considered:
- Children of record. Children under the age of 9 who have received a blessing are classified as “children of record.” The average annual growth is about 100,000 for these children who receive temporary member numbers but are not considered members of the church until they are baptized and confirmed. If they are baptized between 8 and 9, they are not recorded as converts but are added into the total membership number.
- Children 9 or older to 17 who get baptized. Although the church does not provide the exact number, those children who are baptized at the age of 9 or older are counted as “convert baptisms” for that year. Most people wrongly assume that “converts” refer to those who came into the church as adults, mainly through missionary activity, yet these children are mostly belonging to parents who are church members. Does it make sense that a pre-teen or teen, most likely living in an LDS nuclear family, should be considered a “convert”?
One can only imagine how many of the 126,000 “convert” baptisms in 2020 were performed on those baptized after 8 but before the age of 17. If even 50,000 of those converts involved children, then the conversion number of regular converts becomes even less impressive, perhaps even as few as six or seven thousand per month!
One returned missionary wrote me to confirm my suspicion. He wrote,
I was on my mission in Utah during 1991–93. The Salt Lake City mission baptized around 300 converts a month. However, about half were 9 to 17-year-olds. Many of us missionaries would get a list from the ward clerk called the bishops’ action list. It provided the names of those in the ward boundaries who had been blessed but were not baptized. We wouldn’t touch them while they were eight but when they turned nine we knocked on their families’ doors. We were able to baptize many of these 9,10, and 11 year olds. I’m sure to this day that missionaries in heavily populated LDS areas baptize children over eight, fluffing the convert baptisms for the church. (Personal email to me, 2/17/2021)
Notice that the missionaries did not attempt to get 8-year-olds baptized but rather aimed their efforts at those who were 9 or older. Letting these children go unbaptized until at least the age of 9 helped pad the the convert numbers! And how easy is it to get preteens/teens from LDS families to get baptized? Family and peer pressure make these the simplest converts of all.
This returned missionary also explained, “Though my mother was LDS and I was blessed in the church – I wasn’t baptized until I was 10. It wasn’t until my mission in the early 90s that I learned that I was identified as a convert. Unfortunately there were times that my fellow missionaries or pioneer heritage members would make me feel that my family was less than theirs because they were baptized as children of record and I was a convert.” In essence, then, these church leaders were willing to allow those children to remain unbaptized until at least the age of 9 while opening them up to ridicule from their LDS peers once they were baptized as “converts.” And what if the child had been hit by a car at, say, the age of 8 and a half? Where would this soul have been destined? Certainly not the celestial kingdom. Stated another way: The child’s eternal destiny is put at risk for the sake of upping the church’s convert numbers. Does this seem like a loving policy? Is this what Jesus would do?
One other writer wrote:
Concerning 9 year old convert baptisms. I served a mission for the LDS Church from 1969 to 1971. Two of my “convert baptisms” were children that were 9 and 10 years old at the time of their baptisms. My companion and I received “credit” for two convert baptisms when we baptized them. The attempt was made to try to “reactivate” their “jackMormon” father. That didn’t work. He never came back to Church. I know, therefore, that the practice of “counting” 9 and 10 year olds as converts goes back at least as far as 1969.
- Deceased members. Those who have died in the past year are taken off the church rolls. The number is not publicly released by the church.
- Members who have officially left the church. As mentioned, this number is also not provided by the church. A secular organization (quitmormon.org) helps members resign their membership, although the church has made it more difficult for members to resign by requiring a notarized statement rather than just a photocopy of a driver’s license. Regardless, the annual number from this category has certainly grown over the past decades, based on our conversations with former Mormons.
As a side note, it should be pointed out the church’s total membership number accounts for all members of record, not active members. Some have estimated that fewer than half of all members of record are actively involved in their church. Those members who rarely (if ever) go to church services, refuse to accept church callings, and fail to tithe are still counted the same way as those who do everything the church requires, including prioritizing regular attendance at the temple. Unless the inactive member requests to have his or her name taken off the church rolls or church discipline (i.e., disfellowshipping or excommunication) is administered, he or she remains on the roll. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been an active movement by church leaders to pare down the rolls
With that said, here is an accounting of the LDS Church’s growth during the past three decades, with the rounding of numbers to the next “500.” (All numbers have been taken from the church’s annual reports.)
Church Growth in the Past 30 Years
|Year||Number of Convert Baptisms||Number of Full-time Missionaries||Total membership||Percentage of Convert Growth||Average converts per missionary|
Focusing on the percentage of convert baptisms, here is a visual look at these numbers:
Considerations in understanding the growth rate of the LDS Church
It wasn’t many years ago when the church appeared to be on pace to become a religion of triple-digit millions in the upcoming year. In 1983, sociologist Rodney Stark predicted that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would grow between 60 million to 267 million by the year 2080. He made those predictions on there being decade growth between 30 to 50%. In 1998, Stark said that the LDS Church had already grown faster than his prognosis and his numbers may have underestimated his figures from 16 years before. Source
More than two decades later after Stark’s comments, we have the advantage of looking back and seeing how his prediction is looking. What can be easily seen is that the church’s growth over the past two decades has completely stalled. As can be seen in the graph above, the LDS Church grew by a record 331,000 baptized converts in 1990, moving the membership at that time to a total of 7.76 million. This reflected more than a 4% growth rate. However, there are some things that a sociologist like Stark could not have been able to predict unless he had a crystal ball, which we will discuss in a moment. In recent years, people have been leaving the church in droves. Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University told the Salt Lake Tribune, “We know that there continues to be an exodus from the church. This has been one of the main stories in the 21st century and may be accelerating over the past decade.” (Salt Lake Tribune, Religion, A6, 1/16/21).
It is a gargantuan task for the church to compete with the percentage of growth from previous years. For instance, there were 243,000 converts in 2003, which computes to close to 12 million members that year and a 2.03% rate of growth. The number of baptized converts was practically identical to the converts received 16 years later in 2019. However, the rate of growth in 2019 was only 1.5%, which is a lower percentage than in 2003 because more than 4.5 million additional members had joined the church during that decade and a half. Here is a chart comparing the two years:
Throughout the decade of the 1990s, all but three years had more than 300,000 converts. Yet the church has never grown by more than 300,000 converts even once in the 21st century. The lowest percentage of growth during the decade of the 90’s was 1999 (2.85%). By 2000, the number dropped to 2.48%. Since 2008, the rate of growth has remained steadfast under 2%, with nothing higher than a 1.51% rate since 2016.
For the sake of comparison, let’s use the numbers from the decade of 2010 and assume that, beginning in 2010, the percentage of growth increased to 3% for each year. With that new percentage in mind, let’s see what this increase would do to the overall numbers.
|Year||Actual number of growth||Actual church membership||Actual percentage of growth||Fictional percentage of growth||Fictional number of growth||Difference in actual growth|
Even though the actual numbers are used—not the revised numbers with the 3% growth added on each year—the number of baptized converts would have been double during the years 2017-2019! Meanwhile, the church membership would be 2 million more (18,555,000) than the 2019 church membership number of 16,565,000. If the church ends up remaining at an average 1.5% convert baptism growth rate in the next five years, 18 million members won’t be reached until 2024 at the earliest. As it can be seen here, there is a huge difference between 1.5% and 3% growth!
200 Million Members?
Let’s go back to Stark’s prediction and his belief that he may have underestimated the growth of the church a decade and a half after laying out the numbers of 60 to 267 million. Based on recent history, will the church even get close to these numbers? The answer is no, not even close.
At the time Stark spoke in 1998, the church was growing by more than a rate of 4% a year, which should be considered an amazing feat! Between 1990-99, the church grew by almost 3 million members (2.993 million), equaling 38.6% percent growth during that decade. If this type of growth had continued, then yes, Stark’s prediction would be right in line. However, things slowed down tremendously as the church entered the 21st century. Between 2000-2009, the church grew by 24.8% in the decade, with 200,000 fewer baptized converts (2.756 million) than the previous decade. Then, between 2010-2019, the church grew by only 2.434 million members, which is a 17.22% rate.
Here are the decade numbers compared:
1990-99: 38.6% growth
The percentages for the past three decades have gone down for the first time in the history of the LDS Church. While the church continues to grow, it is taking place at a much slower rate than just a few decades ago. Let’s suppose that the church could maintain that 17.22% growth, which is certainly better than losing members as many mainstream Protestant denominations have been doing. Using that as our guide, let’s see where the church would be in 2080.
|Decade||Projected Numerical Growth (millions)||Projected Church Membership at the end of that decade (millions)|
Based on this hypothetical 17.22% growth rate, then, we can see that the church would have fewer than 43 million members in 2080, more than 17 million away from what Stark called a conservative number of 60 million members.
What has Caused the Church Growth to Decline?
Probably one of the biggest reasons for the stunted growth in the LDS Church is easier access to information. The Internet was in its infancy during the first half of the 1990s. At the beginning of the Internet era, dial-up was the normal way that people were able to log online, which (as the Baby Boomers and Gen X generations can testify) resulted in slow speeds and dropped connections. Finding information on the “world wide web” was possible but not as sophisticated as many expect today when they go online.
By the early part of the 21st century, wired cable networks had become popular. In addition, Apple Computers launched the iPhone in 2007, allowing “smart” phones to connect to the Internet. Many more web sites have been developed to provide multiple sources of information on a wide variety of topics. By 2018, 95% of all Americans owned a cell phone while 77% owned a smartphone. It appears that most people today have access to multiple sources of information thanks to modern technology.
Now, imagine if the average potential convert was visited by missionaries in 1990. There was no electronic information available at that time, unless the microfilm/microfiche machines at the library should be considered “electronic.” (For those under 40, microfilm/microfiche was nothing more than a small piece of acetone plastic containing miniaturized photographs of newspapers, magazines, and other resources. The machine magnified the words on a computer-like screen, allowing the user to read these publications with no paper involved.)
Of course, several Christian books were available in 1990. One popular book on Joseph Smith was written by Fawn M. Brodie titled No Man Knows my History, a provocative biography in 1945 (Alfred A. Knopf). As far as Christian titles that explained LDS beliefs while contrasting these with biblical Christianity, the list of offerings available before 1990 included:
- Is Mormonism Christian (Gordon H. Fraser)—Published in 1957 and republished in 1964, 1966, and 1977 by Moody Press. It had a wide distribution in the 1960s.
- The Maze of Mormonism (Walter Martin)—Published in 1957 and later picked up by Regal Books in 1975. With Walter Martin’s popularity, this book also was a good seller.
- Kingdom of the Cults (Walter Martin)—Published in 1966 by Zondervan, this may be the best-selling book ever sold describing the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others.
- The Mormon Illusion (Floyd C. McElveen)—Published by Regal Books in 1977, this small paperback sold more than 120,000 copies in its first five years, which is also a great seller for this genre.
- Mormon Claims Answered (Marvin W. Cowan)—Self-published in 1975 in Utah, this book was not available to many outside the state of Utah.
- The Mormon Papers (Harry L. Ropp)—Published in 1977 by Intervarsity Press and later retitled Are the Mormon Scriptures Reliable? in 1987.
- The Changing World of Mormonism (Jerald and Sandra Tanner)—Published by Moody Publishers in 1979, this was a “condensation and revision” of the Tanners’ classic work Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (first published in 1963) that has sold tens of thousands of copies.
- Mormonism, Mama & Me (Thelma “Granny” Geer)—Published in 1979 by Moody Publishers, more than 160,000 copies were distributed by the sixth edition in 1986, another best seller.
- Answering Mormons’ Questions (Bill McKeever)—Self-published in 1983 with limited availability.
- The God Makers (Ed Decker/Dave Hunt)—Published by Harvest House Publishers in 1984, this book came out at the same time as the controversial movie by the same title and had a wide distribution.
- God’s Word, Final, Infallible and Forever (Floyd McElveen)—Independently published in 1985, this paperback book was distributed for free on doorsteps throughout the state of Utah. I personally had the opportunity to hand the book out at hundreds of homes in the Salt Lake City area during July 1987. This book was not sold on the open market.
It must be remembered that there were no “online” retailers like Amazon or Christian Books before 1990. How many people who were visited by Mormon missionaries even knew where a local Christian bookstore was located in order to purchase these books? Even if they did, many would not have spent the money to purchase these resources. And few public libraries would have had a large array of materials on a singular subject of critical books on Mormonism.
Without the ability to use the Internet to do research from the privacy of one’s own home or phone, the information readily available today would have been much more difficult to obtain in these earlier years. I remember having a library assignment given to me in my college journalism class in 1984. We were given a list of 20 items and told to find the answers by scouring the four-story Love Library at San Diego State University. For instance, we had to find the name of a person with a certain phone number and write down the zip code of an address in Minnesota. I remember walking all over the four floors in about 2 hours before I completed the assignment. Today, the information that was requested would take someone with a computer or smart phone less than 5 minutes to find (if that!). Internet sites on Mormonism abound, including Christian sites mrm.org, carm.org, and utlm.org. Together these three sites contain thousands of articles, videos, and podcasts that would be useful to anyone who wants to research the history and teachings of the LDS Church.
The Mormon Missionaries
Most people who join the LDS Church are introduced to the faith by Mormon missionaries. The following chart shows the average number of converts per full-time missionary between 1990-2019:
Of course, this is not to insinuate that every convert is a result of the work of a full-time missionary. That would be a stretch, especially since (as we mentioned) children ages 9 to 17 are counted as converts! However, I would still assume that the majority of converts had some type of contact with LDS missionaries. From 1990-96, there were more than 6 converts for every missionary on the field. The average from 2013 through 2019 was never above 4 converts to every missionary.
A surprise announcement was made at the fall general conference on October 6, 2012 that lowered the age for eligible full-time missionaries to 18 for males (from 19) and 19 for females (from 20). The next year, the missionary force went up by 40%!
For two years, then, the missionary force “double dipped” as male missionaries who were turning 18 and 19 while female missionaries who turned 19 and 20 were invited to join the sales force in 2013. Several things can be assumed. For one, this influx caused the missionary leaders to scramble to find places for the enlarged cavalry. To go from 59,000 bodies in 2012 to 83,000 in 2013 (85,000 in 2014) must have caused a staffing nightmare since there were must not have been enough places to put these extra missionaries. With so many more females volunteering for service than ever before, we must assume that there were many places considered too dangerous to send them. This certainly resulted in doubling up of missionaries around the United States, which provided a beefed-up recruiting force but with not enough interested potential converts to go around. These factors resulted in the underutilization of this impressive army.
The increased force from 2013-2014 was not necessarily a boon, as there were 20,000+ more missionaries in service than ever. In 2012, there was 4.62 converts per missionary, but this went down to 3.41 in 2013 (272,500 total converts) and 3.5 in 2014 (297,000 converts), a 25% drop.
Another factor that ought to be considered is the publication of the Gospel Topics Essays found on the church website between 2013-2015. Information on Joseph Smith’s polygamous ways, the unique translation methods of LDS unique scripture, and other controversial material became readily available on the church’s very own website; visiting “anti-Mormon” sites to find this information wasn’t even necessary! These essays caused many Latter-day Saints to do a double take and leave their church; the information probably had a huge effect on potential members as well.
It was in 2015 when the church leadership excluded children of same-sex couples to get baptized until they turned 18. Then-Apostle (now President) Russell M. Nelson claimed in January 2016 that the policy was a “revelation from God.” Source This decision created a firestorm and a mass exodus took place during the next few years. One non-church website dedicated to helping members resign from the church membership rolls became very popular (quitmormon.org).
Thus, the numbers dropped from 2014 when there were 297,000 converts with 85,000 missionaries, the largest number of converts since 1999 when there were 306,000 converts. However, the number of converts went down 15% in 2015 and, from 2016-2019, the numbers have stayed below 250,000.
Where does the LDS Church go from here?
Society has turned ever-more secular, which could prove to be more of a temptation by leaders to just give in to the secular push. These issues will certainly be a challenge in the next years:
- Homosexuality/alternative lifestyles, as the church officially does not allow these behaviors.
- Feminism, gender bias and sexism. The church maintains that only worthy male members should receive the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. There has been a movement led by many feminists that may cause some leaders toward a politically correct decision.
- A lack of diversity in the church’s highest leadership, as many observe the lack of minorities in the ranks of the general authorities. I predict that a black man will be invited to become an apostle once there is an opening, as an Asian-American and Hispanic have become apostles in recent picks.
- The wealth of the religion, especially since one insider report says that the church possesses $100 billion in a “rainy day” savings account, causing many members to wonder why they are required to continue to tithe. See here.
How will the leadership handle these issues? Will the falling numbers cause a compromise in these hot-button topics? Time will tell.
For a related article, see Book Review: The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church