New statistics for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced at its recent general conference, indicate the Church is rapidly approaching 13 million members worldwide. This steady growth pattern has continued with about a million new members now being added every three years or less.
These figures were announced just weeks after the National Council of Churches published its 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches,where it listed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the fourth-largest religion in the United States. However, the Church itself makes no statistical comparisons with other churches and makes no claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination.
“The Church is unusual in that it creates membership records and updates them constantly,” said Church statistician Glen Buckner, who is also a member of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. “We believe we have a scriptural mandate to keep records in the Church, particularly (those) of our members, and we go to great lengths to try to ensure their accuracy.”
That scriptural mandate comes in part from the Book of Mormon: “And after they had been received unto baptism … their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God” (Moroni 6:4).
The Church creates a membership record when an individual is baptized into the faith. For example, in 2006 there were more than 272,800 convert baptisms. The Church also creates a membership record for a child with the parents’ consent. However, children are no longer counted as members if they turn age 9 and are not baptized. The net increase for “children of record” for 2006 was more than 94,000.
It sounds simple, but it is a challenge for the Church to keep track of all of its members, especially if they do not regularly attend Sunday services. The Church does not remove an individual’s name from its membership rolls based on inactivity.
“The baptism ordinance is a sacred covenant with eternal significance to individuals. This covenant should not be lightly made and is not casually dismissed,” Buckner said. “Individuals who have drifted away may return to activity in the Church.”
Church membership growth numbers are often interpreted inaccurately, which can lead to misconceptions in the media, Buckner said. Therefore, it is important to clearly understand what these numbers signify. They represent the number of Church members, but they do not represent activity rates — that is, the number of members attending their local chapels every Sunday.
Like other faiths, the Church has varying degrees of growth among its members throughout the world. For example, the Church has relatively slow growth in Northern Europe, where many other churches are declining. It has steady and manageable growth in the United States and is expanding rapidly in Africa and South America.
For decades the Church has identified growth as its single-greatest challenge, and rapid growth in international areas brings its own set of issues. The Church has a lay ministry, and new members are assimilated into the Church by serving in some capacity. Experience has shown that new members are more likely to slide into inactivity when either opportunities to serve are not offered to them or they feel inadequate to accept a position to serve in the Church because of inexperience.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has stressed how essential it is that new members’ involvement not end at the baptismal font. “The challenge now is greater than it has ever been because the number of converts is greater than we have ever before known. … I plead with you … I ask of you, each of you, to become a part of this great effort. Every convert is precious. Every convert is a son or daughter of God. Every convert is a great and serious responsibility. … In my view nothing is of greater importance” (“Converts and Young Men,” Ensign, May 1997, 48).
Convert retention is of such great importance that in 2002, two apostles, Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland, took overseas assignments in the Philippines and Chile, respectively — the first time such senior leaders had lived and presided in an international area of the Church for nearly half a century.
In the Philippines, where many people are being baptized, mission presidents and local Church leaders aim to ensure that potential converts fully understand the commitment they make at baptism. “We are more concerned with personal conversion than the number of baptisms,” said Elder D. Rex Gerratt, the area president of the Philippines. “The stronger our converts, the stronger our congregations. The stronger the Church is, the more it will be able to bless the people and strengthen the families of this country.”
Indications are that this approach is working. In both of these countries, convert baptisms per missionary have increased in each of the last three years, and activity rates of new converts are on the rise.
The Church has also refined its missionary program to aid in the retention of converts. Potential missionaries are held to a higher standard to qualify for missionary service, and in 2004 a new program, “Preach My Gospel,” was instituted to help missionaries focus on more comprehensive and personalized teaching of potential converts. The goal is stronger commitment from newly baptized members because of a deeper conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. President Hinckley, in the April 2007 general conference of the Church, said that during his 12 years leading the Church, “retention has increased significantly.”
Membership records aside, a good indicator of robust Church growth is its chapel-building program. There are currently 8,254 chapels internationally, which shows a 10.0 percent growth rate over the past five years. That trend has also proven true in the United States, where there are 6,361 chapels, or a 9.6 percent growth rate for the same time period. Many of these chapels accommodate several congregations.
In the United States, not only are new chapels being built, but existing chapels are being expanded to include more congregations, particularly in the eastern part of the country.
“Membership growth is a challenge but a welcome one. During 2006, the number of congregations increased by more than 250 congregations in the United States alone, and we need to accommodate that growth,” said Buckner. “It’s definitely a financial investment, but we have many new members coming into the Church who need a place to worship.”
“Ultimately, the strength of the Church is really measured by the devotion and commitment of its members,” said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The Lord has never given us a mandate to be the biggest Church — in fact, He has said our numbers will be comparatively few — but He has asked that we commit ourselves to living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”