43 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: Why the Church Changed the Missionary Age

I put up a bit of a rant on the change in missionary age a few days ago. This is a follow-up.

So why did the church do it?  What was the motivation?

First, growth is a critical part of the culture of Mormonism.  Many (most?) members believe that the church is one of the fastest growing religions on the planet (and, for many, this fact buttresses their faith in its truth claims).  If people are flocking to the church, the thinking goes, then it must be “true.”

For Mormons, the church is the stone cut out of the mountain without hands destined to fill the whole earth (Daniel 2:44-45).  In 1842, Joseph Smith described the church’s sense of spiritual manifest destiny in what has become known as the Wentworth letter: “no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country” (History of the Church 4:540).

After more than 200 years since its founding, however, Mormonism remains a footnote in the religious economy:

Islam: 1,600,000,000
Catholic Church: 1,166,000,000
Hinduism: 1,000,000,000
Mormons: 14,400,000 (0.9% of Islam, 1.23% of the Catholic church, 1.44% of Hinduism)

For comparison, Assemblies of God is approximately four times larger (60 million members).  Zion Christian Church is approximately the same size (15 million members).  There are approximately as many Mormons as Jews in the U.S.

In the minds of many Mormons, however, even though the church may be relatively small, it’s growth that matters.

But here’s the problem.  The church, in real terms, probably hasn’t grown much in the last 20 years.  It’s very likely, based on available data, that the church hasn’t grown at all in the U.S. during this same time period.  The last ten years have been particularly difficult.  The LDS church is no longer the fastest growing church (unless one gets really creative with the data).

In 2001, there were 11,721,548 members (according to church figures).  Ten years later, at the end of 2011, there were 14,441,346.  At first glance, these numbers suggest modest growth over the last decade.  Look closer, and it becomes obvious that a number of trends are working against the church (see the data tables at the end of this post:

1) The number of convert baptisms has been trending down (in 2001, there were 325,026 convert baptisms, in 2011 there were 309,879)

2) Birth rates have dropped (in 1990, for example, 7.7 million members produced 78k children of record; in 2011, 14.4 million members resulted in 120k children of record).  This trend has been associated with an increase in the average marriage age.

3) Missionary efforts have leveled off.  For example, in 2001, there were 333 missions, 618 districts and 60,850 missionaries. Ten years later, in 2011, there were 340 missions, 608 districts, and 55,410 missionaries.

4) A large percentage of the growth over the last 20 years has come from outside the U.S. and it now appears that foreign membership numbers are inflated.  For example, recent census data indicate that only 23.2% of the number of members reported by the church in Mexico self-identify as Mormons).

5) There is a continuing problem with retention of new converts.  Data from Latin America, the Philippines, and other countries suggests that somewhere around 75% of new converts are inactive by the end of their first year of membership. 

6) The church is losing members at an increasing rate.  This is particularly true for younger members who often have a particularly hard time with what is perceived to be the church’s increasingly strident cultural conservatism (e.g. Prop 8, etc.).

To sum things up, a large percentage of the growth over the last ten years (or twenty years) has come from overseas, but it appears that the majority of these converts no longer self-identify as Mormon.  Meanwhile, missionary efforts have leveled off, the annual number of convert baptisms has been trending down, and an increasing number of (young) members are leaving the church.

These trends, taken together, can be clearly seen in the annual number of those who “leave” (i.e. those whose names are removed from the roles due to death, excommunication, or resignation).  This number is represented in the LFT column below.  This number is the difference between the sum of convert baptisms and children of record, and reported growth in membership by year.  Take a look at the trend over the last 10 years.  In 2001, this number was 36,473.  In other words, in 2001, there were 362,134 additions (baptisms and children of record), but the overall increase in church membership from 2000 to 2001 was 325,661.  The difference between these two numbers is the number of individuals that were dropped from church membership rolls: 36,473.  Ten years later, in 2011, this number was 91,350 (see the second-to-last column, LFT, in the first data table below).  The rapid increase in this number may be due to an aging church population, but I’m guessing that it also reflects a rise in resignations.

It would be nice, of course, if the church would provide a measure of organizational size that more accurately reflected real growth (e.g. the number of full tithe payers or the number of temple recommend holders, for example), but it doesn’t.  Church growth, therefore, is surprisingly hard to pin down.  Here’s a link to one of the most thorough and data-driven attempts to do so.

Jeffrey R. Holland stated the following at a press conference about the age change: “The Lord is hastening this work and he needs more and more willing missionaries.”

I don’t think this was entirely accurate.

He should have said: “The Lord’s work has stalled.  We’ve been treading water for close to twenty years in terms of real growth.  We’ve given a lot of thought to what we might do to get things moving again and this is what we’ve come up with.”  But of course he couldn’t have said that. It would have undermined the “we’re the fastest growing religion” myth (and it would have sounded too managerial).

I’m a management professor.  I can understand the honest desire of those who have spent their lives building up the church to see it thrive. I can understand how someone in that position might start looking at the untapped resource pool of 19-21 year-old women as a solution.  Growing the church through children of record is preferable (the retention rate is much higher), but at some point, because a smaller percentage of women are getting married before 21, and those that marry are having fewer children, I suspect someone made a convincing argument that women could be used more effectively in the mission field.  Women can always get married after their missions (and having men and women serve together might even move that process along a bit).

Although a flood of sister missionaries might be able to jump start church growth, I’m sure the danger of this change in policy being interpreted as a step towards gender equality was something that concerned church leaders.

One way for the church to have its cake and eat it too is to preserve the preferred status of males by continuing to differentiate between the sexes. The age for women, therefore, was reduced to 19 (versus 18 for men). According to Holland, it was because “there needs to be at least some separation.”  In other words, the church is hoping women can jump start growth, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed equal footing with men.

Holland also joked about this policy change being a miracle.  “One miracle at a time,” he said.  As I said in my last post, when policy changes related to resource utilization driven by growth and demographic data are confused with miracles, it should be obvious what we’ve lost.

So, will the influx of young women into the mission field be enough to allow the church to preserve its growth myth?

If not, the church will survive.  We can always fall back on 1 Nephi 14:12:

 12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon ball the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

Nephi was shown our day.  This passage makes it clear that we always understood that Christ’s church would be “small” in number.  We never really believed that it would fill the earth, did we?

[Prior MCS Post: 42 The Only Thing I Know]