Keeping members a challenge for
Mormon myth: The belief that the church is the
fastest-growing faith in the world doesn't hold
The claim that Mormonism is the fastest-growing
faith in the world has been repeated so
routinely by sociologists, anthropologists,
journalists and proud Latter-day Saints as to be
perceived as unassailable fact.
sing hymns in Independence Square in
Accra, Ghana, during Gordon B.
Hinckley's 1998 visit. (Rick
Egan/Tribune file photos )
The trouble is, it isn't true.
Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints has more than 12 million
members on its rolls, more than doubling its
numbers in the past quarter-century. But since
1990, other faiths - Seventh-day Adventists,
Assemblies of God and Pentecostal groups - have
grown much faster and in more places around the
And most telling, the number of Latter-day
Saints who are considered active churchgoers is
only about a third of the total, or 4 million in
the pews every Sunday, researchers say.
For a church with such a large, dedicated
missionary corps constantly seeking to spread
its word, conversion numbers in recent years
tell an unexpected story.
According to LDS-published statistics, the
annual number of LDS converts declined from a
high of 321,385 in 1996 to 241,239 in 2004. In
the 1990s, the church's growth rate went from 5
percent a year to 3 percent.
By comparison, the Seventh-day Adventist
Church reports it has added more than 900,000
adult converts each year since 2000 (an average
growth of about 5 percent), bringing the total
membership to 14.3 million. The Assemblies of
God now claims more than 50 million members
worldwide, adding 10,000 new members every day.
Russia provides a dramatic example of
different religious growth rates. After more
than 15 years of proselyting there, LDS
membership has risen to 17,000. During
the same period, Jehovah's Witnesses membership
has increased to more than 140,000, with some
300,000 individuals attending conferences.
Graphing activity: When the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York conducted an
American Religious Identification Survey in
2001, it discovered that about the same number
of people said they had joined the LDS Church as
said they had left it. The CUNY survey reported
the church's net growth was zero percent. By
contrast, the study showed both Jehovah's
Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists with an
increase of 11 percent.
"Because membership statistics are prepared
and reported differently by various religious
groups, the LDS Church does not publish
comparisons of total membership to other
faiths," said LDS spokesman Dale Bills on
On the question of how many Mormons are
actively participating, Brigham Young University
demographer Tim Heaton noted in the
Encyclopedia of Mormonism that attendance at
weekly sacrament meetings in the early 1990s was
between 40 percent and 50 percent in Canada, the
South Pacific, and the United States. In Europe
and Africa, the average was 35 percent.
Attendance in Asia and Latin America hovered
around 25 percent.
By multiplying the number of members in each
area by these fractions, David G. Stewart Jr.
estimates worldwide activity at about 35 percent
- which would give the church about 4 million
Stewart, an active Mormon who served a
mission to Russia in the early 1990s, has been
conducting research on LDS missionary work in 20
countries for 13 years, examining census
figures, and analyzing published data.
Take Brazil. In its 2000 Census, 199,645
residents identified themselves as LDS, while
the church listed 743,182 on its rolls.
"There may be any number of reasons for the
discrepancy," Bills said, "including personal
preferences of some citizens regarding
disclosure of their religious affiliation."
Retaining members: Stewart says Mormons need
to be aware of such statistics to be more
effective missionaries. To that end, he is
publishing his research, along with a
description of what he calls "tested principles
to improve growth and retention," in a
forthcoming book, The Law of the Harvest:
Practical Principles of Effective Missionary
"It is a matter of grave concern that the
areas with the most rapid numerical membership
increase, Latin America and the Philippines, are
also the areas with extremely low convert
retention," says Stewart, a California
physician. "Many other groups, including the
Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, have
consistently achieved excellent convert
retention rates in those cultures and societies.
Latter-day Saints lose 70 to 80 percent of their
converts, while Adventists retain 70 to 80
percent of theirs."
Perhaps the best measure of LDS Church
growth is the rate of new church units, such as
wards (congregations) and stakes (like a
diocese). Because they are staffed by
volunteers, such units cannot function without
enough active members.
In 1980, The Ensign, the LDS Church's
official magazine, predicted that membership
would grow from 4.6 million members at that time
to 11.1 million
members in 2000, and from 1,190 stakes to 3,600
in 2000. While the number of members came very
close to the projected value, there were 2,602
stakes worldwide at the end of 2002.
"You can use these trends to say that the
percentage is slowing, the numbers have leveled
off or they are dropping. They tell us what is
happening right now," Heaton says. "But to try
and tell us about the future is risky business.
What if all of a sudden China or India lets us
in and the [missionary] work takes off?"
Predicting the future: In 1984, University
of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark was
astonished to discover that the LDS Church's
growth rate from 1940 through 1980 was 53
percent. He estimated that if it continued to
grow at a more modest 30 percent, there would be
60 million Mormons by the year 2080; if 50
percent, the figure would explode to 265
He famously predicted that the LDS Church
"will soon achieve a worldwide following
comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism,
Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant
Latter-day Saints were on the threshold of
becoming "the first major faith to appear on
earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the
desert," Stark wrote.
Many people, especially Mormons, eagerly
embraced Stark's assessment. In recent years,
though, some scholars have challenged his
For one thing, True Pure Land Buddhism, Sokka
Gakkai, Baha'i and Sufism are all of comparable
or greater size and have arisen since Islam in
the 7th century, said Gerald McDermott, a
religious studies professor at Virginia's
Roanoke College who gave a paper at a Library of
Congress symposium on Mormonism in April.
One key to Mormonism becoming a world
religion, McDermott says, is how well it can
transcend its founding culture to become
universal. Catholicism, for example, began in
Jerusalem but found a home in many other places,
where it easily assimilated into local cultures.
The LDS message has found a ready audience
in Latin America and the South Pacific, where
Mormon missionaries can tell people God did not
neglect them. The Book of Mormon is the story of
a Hebrew family that migrated from Jerusalem to
the New World and tells of a visit to their
descendants by Jesus Christ after his
Still, the church may not fare as well as
other Christian religions in Africa and China,
since it has no such reassurance for them, he
American faith: Mormonism is "so thoroughly
American," McDermott said in a recent phone
interview. "God visited [Mormon founder] Joseph
Smith in upstate New York. Eden began in
Missouri and the millennium will end there. The
new exodus took place in North America."
None of these critiques bother Stark, who
now teaches at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
He is amused by the reactions.
"The church liked the results and people who
are against the church are desperate to figure
out why it won't happen," he said last week.
"Everyone takes the thing too seriously. I've
tried to make clear all along that I was just
trying to bring a little discipline to a lot of
It was a game of "let's pretend," Stark
says, when he applied the compound interest
formula and saw huge numbers of Mormons.
He says he never meant his projections to
dictate the future of Mormonism. Others may have
more complex models that challenge his findings.
"They may be right," he says. "But again, if
[Mormon growth] has slowed a little, it can
always speed up again."
Stark, whose work will be republished this
fall in a new volume, The Rise of a New World
Faith: Rodney Stark on Mormonism, doesn't
see any reason to apologize for his claims.
"Already there are more Mormons than Jews,"
he says, "and we want to consider Judaism a
major world religion."