Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Slowing Growth of the Mormon Church

By Jonathan David |

Spring General Conference marks another annual report of church statistics which confirm the speculation that Church growth has slowed in recent years. Although many sources such as the national census have reported that the number of self-reported "Mormons" is far less than the Church-reported membership statistics, it wasn't until recently when these claims were validated by a general authority.

Late last year, Church Historian Elder Marlin Jensen spoke to a group of faculty and students at Utah State University about the alarming rate at which members are leaving. "Maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of - I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now," he said, referencing the failure of an illegal church bank in 1837 in which many leaders and members left the church.

Heber Kimball, an apostle of the church at the time said, “there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God” (No Man Knows My History, 203). Joseph Smith was exiled by his own followers and disbelief reached a point that even the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, pledged their loyalty to a prophetess with a black stone following the scandal. Given the severity of this incident in church history, just how many people are leaving today?

The growth of wards is a much more reliable indicator of growth. When referencing a graph representing the trends, it becomes clear that church growth has been declining since 1980. What can't be seen on this graph however, is average ward size.

When I was a missionary in Korea, it was common to attend a ward with 30 other people in a large chapel. The ward records always indicated that the ward was sizable, sometimes reaching a couple hundred members. But on Sundays, the same 30 faces showed up. As missionaries, we had the job of tracking down these other "members." It was rare to find anyone on the seemingly endless list of names and addresses. Each transfer we'd report to the bishop the people who no longer lived at the address recorded and who's current place of residence was unknown which was at least 95% of them. And each transfer, the bishop would fail to send the message on to church headquarters so that the list could be updated. The result was that each new set of missionaries were handed the same endless list of ward "members" to find. I wonder how widespread this problem is.

My home ward in California used to be pretty large... with an average of 200 people in attendance each Sunday. Since I left home, they have since split a couple wards. The result was two wards that could easily fit into the smallish chapel rather than one that commonly overflowed into the cultural hall. When I was younger, I remember it being extremely common to have overflow seating. As time has gone by, however, it seems as if that is becoming less and less common. When taking these observations into account, it may very well be that growth in the number of wards could be fairly unreliable as well. But no matter how it is spun, the statistics are clear. Church growth is slowing.

With estimates of 5 million self-reported members, a mere .07% of the total world population, decline in membership doesn't speak well for an organization claiming to be the "one true Church." If Jensen is right and the prophets of the church "really do know and they really care," it is unlikely that changes will not be made to try and gain growth. But what is this decline in growth indicate, and what will it mean for the Church's future?

One opinion is that the world is simply becoming more wicked and hearts are hardened and earth's inhabitants are dead to the spirit of God. It is easier to point outward and say that "those" people are hard-hearted and "those" people are evil and "we" are the ones who love God and accept his message, but we should remember that "those people" represent the 99.93% of the world. We should also remember that there are still more Mormons today than any other time on earth. It would also be wise to note that there is more freedom, equality, knowledge, comfort, healthcare, and access to education now than at any other time in our history. Society has continued to evolve and grow more "good" over time. So perhaps there is room for another opinion.

Maybe this decline in growth indicates an internal problem. One that many cannot and will not accept. If this is the case, the fact that the leaders of the church are aware of the decline may prove to very positive for the future of the church. When these internal problems are resolved, more people will be attracted to the organization and it will yield an overall better church. The equation goes something like this:

Decline in Growth = Positive Change = Better Organization = Rise in Growth

There are many members who believe the Church does not change because it is true. However, a quick look at church history will demonstrate otherwise. Social pressures have a huge effect on the Church, especially when those pressures translate to decline in growth. The next five years of Church history will be interesting to watch, especially if Romney becomes the next president. But regardless of the outcome, change is in the future.

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