Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Are Boyd K. Packers three "threats" really impacting the Growth or Decline of the LDS Church? (Lots of stats!)

The recent years of the Mormon Church have been turbulent to say the least.   Plenty of highs of which devout members are proud and plenty of lows that have been easy ammunition for critics of the Church.   The Apostle Boyd K. Packer in 1993 called out what he foresaw to be the greatest threats to the Church as intellectuals, feminists, and homosexuals.   One certainly could argue that he was proven right.  

In recent years, John Dehlin became the figurehead of many intellectuals as he publicly fought for greater transparency and the freedom to discuss the difficult questions raised by the complex history, doctrine, and culture of the Church.  He made it his mission to create "safe" places for members to talk about these things since none seemed available within the Church.   Dozens of these places popped up all over the United States and even overseas.  He started a popular podcast that delved into these questions unflinchingly exploring all sides of the various issues.  Many attribute his efforts to helping them remain in the Church.  Others found their belief in Mormonism turned upside down as he courageously spoke about what was culturally within the Church unspeakable.   The Church was forced to react towards this increase in transparency that was not in their control.   Church manuals were revised and essays published by the Church on their website dealing with many of the issues that were now receiving increased visibility.  General conference talks proliferated asking members to avoid the internet and to trust their leaders.    John was eventually excommunicated. 

On another front, Kate Kelly became the face of a movement of modern day LDS feminists who wanted Church leaders to reconsider its position regarding the role of women in the Church.   Women wore dress pants to Church on Sunday.  Hundreds respectfully lined up to attend Priesthood Session of conference only to be turned away.  A website and an organization formed to encourage the Church to consider the clarion call to “Ordain Women.”    The Church responded here as well recognizing that this was no small movement and that great portions of their devout women shared those concerns. Kate proved powerfully talented at raising the visibility of the cause.   Women were added to committees that were previously all priesthood.   Women were finally allowed to pray during general conference.   Though women were still barred from Priesthood session, credential members of the press who were female were now allowed to attend.    There were other small concessions increasing the voice and visibility of women within the Church, but ultimately what was asked for by the Ordain Women movement was too much for the Church.   Women supporters began to have their recommends taken away, and other punitive actions were taken.   Kate, like John, was also excommunicated for her efforts. 

Finally, and perhaps, most powerfully, the LGBT movement without a clear person in the Mormon world acting as its figurehead, also exerted significant pressure on the Church.   LGBT advocates pushed to receive greater love and inclusion by the Church.  The plight of an LDS homosexual, their depression and suicides were made painfully visible.    The political fight in the United States over same sex marriage only magnified that conflict within the Church.  For a brief while, it seemed that the rhetoric of the Church softened towards the LGBT community and many of them and their advocates felt hope that the Church would one day fully embrace them.  But, just a few weeks ago, the Church came out with a policy that declared anyone engaged in same-sex marriage was to be considered an apostate and face excommunication.  Their children would be banned from membership in the Church.  It was a move that was met with great criticism nationally, not just by ex-Mormons and progressive Mormons, but by the national and international media as well.   Devout Mormons rushed to the defense of their Church through social media sharing blogs defending the decision of the Church to implement the policy.  

A sad side note to what some consider to be the “fulfillment” of Packer’s prophecy regarding threats to the Church, is that none of these “movements” ever wanted to be a threat to the Church.   John Dehlin’s initially foray was all about helping leaders understand why some members were leaving the Church and finding ways to address their concerns so that they would not leave.   Kate repeatedly reaffirmed her desire to continue as a member and her belief in the Book of Mormon. She stated that she wanted Priesthood leaders just to consider and pray about the issues she was raising.   She was not making any effort to get people to leave the Church.   Finally, most of the LGBT Mormons I have known have all wanted to find a way to continue being LDS.   Many of their advocates hoped that the church would find a way to help them feel more included and loved and understood.   Yet, they all ultimately came to be viewed as threats and also faced excommunication.  

One reaction to what has come to be known as “the Policy” is that many members chose to resign their membership in the Church.  I’ve estimated that at least 5,000 people went through the effort to have their name removed from the records of the Church as a direct consequence of the policy change.   Those 5,000 people could create a new Stake.   However, the Church pointed out that most of those people were probably inactive already.  Although, technically speaking, the same comment can also be made of the membership of 15 million people frequently quoted by the Church over half of whom are inactive (though many others would estimate a higher inactivity rate of 60-65%).  I would also venture to argue as well that most of those who went through the trouble of having their names removed from the records of the Church were once devout, full tithe paying, temple recommend holding members of the Church many of whom had once served as local leaders in their congregations.         

That discussion led to natural conversations about the growth of the Church.   Was the Church in decline?  Or was the impact of these intellectuals, feminists and homosexuals truly just a small drop in a vast sea of members whose growth was like the stone cut out of the mountain rolling down with great speed and power destroying everything in its path.  

Since I like to have fun with numbers.  I decided to look into the question of how well the Church is growing.   Let it be known, I am not a statistician.  True statisticians will probably find tons of things wrong with my methodology and have more interesting ways to present their findings.   I’m more of a top 10 lists kind of a guy.  A lot easier on the math.  

I took a look at the growth of the Church around the world from the year 2000 to 2014.   I used as my source of statistics.   The numbers they have at their website account for over 99% of the membership of 2014 as stated in April 2015 General Conference.  

This is what I learned.
Enjoy! showed that the LDS Church had members in 182 countries.  Though I personally believe that the actual number is probably higher.  I am aware of at least 3 strong branches of the Church in China where I visited several years ago.  Granted, they were made up of ex-patriates working in China, but these branches are not listed in which does not list any presence of the Church in China.   There may be other countries that for some reason do have an LDS presence but did not make the list..

A very quick observation (requiring next to no math!) is that back in 2000, 18 of these 182 countries did not have any members of the Church, so immediately we can easily say that the Church continues to expand globally.  But how is it growing? And where?

Countries with the greatest membership of Latter Day Saints
1.       United States:  6.5 million
2.       Mexico:  1.4 million
3.       Brazil: 1.3 Million
4.       Philippines: 710 thousand
5.       Chile:  579 thousand

Countries that experienced greater than 10% growth in membership per year from 2000 to 2014

A total of 30 countries experienced this tremendous growth.  However, that growth should not be overstated either.   Of these, only 3 of these countries had more than a thousand members back in 2000.   This list includes 18 countries mentioned earlier that had no membership listed in their country back in 2000.

Countries that experienced 5 to 10% growth in membership per year from 2000 to 2014

Once again, this category is dominated by countries where Church presence is very small.   There are a total of 47 countries, with Ghana (62K) and Nigeria (130K) having the largest membership in 2014.  Note that as of 2014, 24 of these 47 countries still have less than 2,000 members.

Countries that experienced 3% to 5% growth in membership per year from 2000 to 2014

A total of 71 countries experienced membership growth from 3% to 5% per year since 2014.   This includes some of the countries with the greatest membership in the Church
Brazil (1.3 Million), Mexico (1.4 Million), Peru (557K),

Countries that experienced 0% to 3% growth in membership per year from 2000 to 2014

A total of 60 countries, including the US (6.5 million) , Phillipines (710K), and Chile (579K) experienced less than 3% growth per year in their membership.  

Negative growth.

While almost every country experienced growth to varying degrees, there are eight countries that actually LOST members from 2000 to 2014:   Andorra, Denmark, Egypt, Gibraltar, Jordan, Nauru, Northern Marianas Islands, and Puerto Rico

Avg. growth rate per year from 2000 to 2014 of countries with the most members

1.       United States:   1.54%
2.       Mexico:  3.07%
3.       Brazil:  3.55%
4.       Philippines: 2.91%
5.       Chile:  0.91%

Greatest Increase in total number of Members from 2000 to 2014

1.       United States  1.2 Million
2.       Brazil 513K
3.       Mexico  484K
4.       Philippines  240K
5.       Peru  214K

Greatest increase in the number of total units (wards & branches) from 2000 to 2014

1.       United States  +2456
2.       Brazil  +233
3.       Mexico +226
4.       Ghana  +145
5.       Congo, Democratic Republic +108
(no other country has had an increase of more than 100 wards/branches from 200 to 2014)

Greatest decrease in the number of total units (wards/branches) from 2000 to 2014

1.       Chile (-276)
2.       Japan (-50)
3.       South Korea  (-44)
4.       Panama (-39)
5.       Guatemala (-30)
6.       United Kingdom (-30)

NOTE:  Average # of members per unit has skyrocketed across the world

An astonishing 167 out of the 182 countries saw the average number of members per unit increase.  In some cases that increase was dramatic.   For example, back in 2000 Chile averaged 579 members per unit.   Today Chile averages 958 members per unit.   Chile has 285 fewer wards and 9 more branches than it did back in 2000.  

Only 15 countries saw the average number of members per unit decline.   Only three of those countries whose average membership per unit actually declined had more than 10,000 members:  Haiti (20K), Ghana (62K), and Cote D’Ivoire (27K).  Ten of those countries had fewer than 1,000 members.  

NOTE:  600 members per unit marker.

Back in 2000, there was only one country that averaged over 600 members per unit.   The Northern Marianas Islands showed 856 members on their membership list, but only one branch was organized there.

However, now in 2014 there are 22 countries that average greater than 600 members per each unit.  

They are:  Boliva, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines,  Uruguay, Venezuela and also Hong Kong, Kiribati, Northern Marianas Islands, South Korea.  Notice that 18 of the 22 countries are Latin American.

It should also be noted that there are 7 additional countries whose average membership per unit are now above 550.   Back in 2000 there were only three.

A Look at Global Growth of Church Membership Regionally

Avg Growth rate per year by region and total increase in number of members from 2000 to 2014:

1.       Middle East                         9.82% avg growth per year  / increase of 2,700 members
2.       Africa                                  7.09%  avg growth per year  / increase of 303K members
3.       Caribbean                            3.38%  avg growth per year  / increase of 71K members
4.       Central America                  3.06% avg growth per year  /  increase of 257K members
5.       South America                    2.87% avg growth per year  / increase of 1.3 million members
6.       Asia                                     2.78% avg growth per year  / increase of 356K members
7.       Oceania                               2.46% avg growth per year  / increase of 128K members
8.       North America                    1.78% avg growth per year  / increase of 1.8 million members
9.       Europe                                1.42% avg growth per year / increase 92K members

Total increase/decrease in number of units (wards/branches) by region from 2000 to 2014

1.       North America increased almost 2700 units
2.       Africa increased 658 units
3.       Oceania increased 130 units
4.       Caribbean increased 63 units
5.       Asia increased 52 units
6.       Middle East increased 15 units
7.       South America decreased (-30) units
8.       Central America decreased (-35) units
9.       Europe decreased (-161) units


Yes Virginia, the Church is growing globally

It is clear that the Church continues to grow and expand globally.   In the last 15 years, the Church has expanded into an additional 18 countries.  

Africa is where the Church is experiencing its greatest growth as 29 of the 34 countries experienced an average growth rate of over 5% per year.  33 out of 34 countries added congregations.   The average number of members per unit is incredibly low averaging less than 250 members per unit.   Africa is probably where the long term future of the Church lies.  

Church growth in the United States while slow, it was nevertheless quite steady (less than 2% per year).  The Church in the United States continues to add large numbers of congregations, over 2000 in the last 15 years.   The average number of members per unit in the US has remained stable over that time frame (from 450 to 461) suggesting that the growth experienced is real in terms of additional active members and well-functioning units.  Inactivity in the US has apparently remained about the same.   Most of the growth in the Church is still happening in the United States just in sheer quantities of members.   That growth is more probably due to more to high Mormon birth rates than new converts, though that is admittedly sheer speculation.  
But mixed verdict elsewhere -- example: Central America

The verdict is mixed in other areas of the Church.   While growth is steady throughout most of the Church in the 2% - 3% range, the average number of members per unit has increased significantly, suggesting significantly increased inactivity thus blunting the growth of actual active members of the Church.  

For example, even though the countries of Central America averaged slightly more than 3% growth per year, their average number of members per unit went from 426 to 681.  We must also take into account that the total number of units in Central America declined from 1106 to 1071 over that time period.

Let’s say that back in 2000 Central America averaged 150 active members per unit that had 426 on the membership rolls.   Let’s further assume that the number of active people per unit remained about the same over those 15 years.  We know that the Church has general guidelines as to how many members and priesthood holders are needed to create a ward, split a ward, etc…which results in relatively stable ward populations.   Therefore, if in 2014, every unit was still averaging 150 active members per unit you would have a situation in Central America where the total number of active members actually declined in spite of 3% annual growth.

Year 2000   1106 units x 150 active per unit = 165,900 members
Year 2014  1071 units x 150 active  per unit = 160,650 members

So it is very possible that the Church has seen active membership in the church in Central America decrease by roughly 5,000 members over the last 15 years even though the Church can still honestly state that overall membership had increased 3% per year over those same years resulting in over 257,000 people being added to their membership rolls.   So on the one hand the Church is growing tremendously, but at the same time, it is experiencing a slow decline with fewer and fewer devout members.  

As a side note we should state that people who have their names removed from the records of the Church are technically not supposed to be counted in the membership numbers. I cannot confirm that the Church actually does that. There are some who suspect that the Church still counts ex-Mormons in membership numbers.  Assuming that their names are NOT included in membership counts, taking their names of the lists should in theory result in a more active percentage of members and lower the number of members per unit.  Regardless of what one theorizes the number of excommunicated and resigned members to be, the increase in inactivity is so large as to dwarf any positive effect on percentage activity that may be experienced by taking members of the membership list.

Serious problems in South America and Europe, Chile is a disaster, some concerns in Asia especially Japan and South Korea

In South America, despite adding almost 1.3 million people to the membership rolls over the last 15 years, half of the countries in South America experienced a decline in the number of wards and branches in their country.   The average number of members per unit also spiked significantly going from 458 in 2000 to 693 in 2014.    It is also very possible that the number of active members in South America has declined.  

Something disastrous has happened in Chile to the Church. Back in 2000 Chile had over 700 wards.   Today they have 421.   The average number of members per unit went from 579 to an incredible 958.   So, even though officially membership in Chile increased by almost 70,000 members over the last 15 years, Chile now has almost 300 fewer congregations and averages almost 1000 people on their membership lists for EACH congregation.   We may be looking roughly at an activity rate of 15% or even less in this country. 

Europe is also seeing serious signs of decline.   Over half of the countries in Europe have experienced a decline in the number of congregations including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Netherlands, and others… Europe has seen a decline of over 150 congregations in the time period under study.   It is also the region in the world where the Church is experiencing the slowest growth rate averaging less than 1.5% growth per year over the last 15 years.

Finally, special mention should be made of Japan and South Korea.  Those two countries alone together have accounted for a decline in almost 100 congregations over the last 15 years.

So there is a mixed report to give regarding the growth and/or decline in membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  There are very clear signs of both.

That being said, bringing us full circle to the threats to the Church by  intellectuals, feminists, and homosexuals as posited by Boyd K. Packer back in 1993, it is difficult to determine how much of the inactivity is due to one or more of those three “threats” without more direct causal information.   

That being said, I am guessing that most of the influence of those three "threats" is happening here in the United States.  Yet, the growth of the Church in the US appears to be stable, steady, and real even though it is slow.  Therefore, I would venture to say that the Church has greater problems with regards to the growth of the membership than the potential impact of those perceived "threats" pointed out by Boyd K. Packer.  Inactivity is significant in all of Latin America, Europe, and portions of Asia where the influence of those three "threats" are perhaps not quite as significant as here in the US. It is in those areas where the growth of the Church has been impacted negatively the most and potentially seen actual decreases in the number of active members in spite of continued overall growth.   



  1. Thanks for all of the work Bruce. You did a good job despite the lack of transparency the LDS church has regarding it's numbers. From my personal perspective, the decline of the church is due to the the increased access of its membership to objective information about the church, its founder, its history and its doctrine. Increased knowledge in general regarding science and psychology also play an important role in people's understanding of the LDS church.

  2. Fascinating. Do we know where the people get their data? Directly from the Church?

    1. Kristin, I asked myself the same question. They don't clearly state where all their stats come from. However, Cumorah's numbers do correlate closely with those that the Church has published. Cumorah shows 15,272,922 members in 2014, the Church in April 2015 general conference said there were 15,372,337. That is 99.3% accuracy though still 100K off. But as you pore through the various individual country studies, you find references to many of their sources...most of which are Church owned sources.

  3. Fascinating. Do we know where the people get their data? Directly from the Church?