First up, it’s important to remember, just as it has hidden unsavoury parts of its history, the Mormon Church hides unfavourable membership data. The leaders have known since around 1998 that the church was struggling, and right now they know the church is effectively shrinking globally. The leaders know precisely, week to week, how many people are attending. They have an army of volunteers who feed them that data. But like any corporation obsessed with its PR image, church leaders are wary of sharing bad news with the workers.
Once upon a time a mountain of statistical data was presented at general conference. We used to hear about the numbers of deacons, teachers, priests, elders and high priests and seminary and institute students. The church seemed to be blossoming as a rose. But gradually, trends started heading south, and less and less information was given out.
People interested in tracking the true growth of the church have known for years that the impressive increase in total membership reported each year at conference is not a true reflection of the health of the church. A very large proportion of people who are baptised soon stop attending. For example, the church claims 62% of Tongans are Mormons, yet on the latest Tongan census only 18% of Tongans declared allegiance to the church. The LDS Church is counting 44% of Tongans as members when they attend another church! The church has their names, but their hearts and bodies are elsewhere.
A much more useful measure of the true growth of the church is the increase in the number of new wards and branches, which reflects bums on seats. This metric tells a very different story to the total membership numbers. The graph below shows the annual increase in wards and branches (units) since 1995 (the data for 2021 is an estimate based on the first 6 months of this year). In the 1990s the church was adding around 900 new units every year, an annual increase of about 3%. Since the turn of the century the annual increase has averaged about 250 units, or just over 0.8%. That’s less than the global population growth rate (1.1%). This means the church is declining as a proportion of the world’s population.
I am convinced the rapid uptake of the internet globally during the 90s, giving members unprecedented access to true church history, was the major cause of the dramatic slowdown. This has essentially been confirmed by church leaders—who admitted in 2011 that the church was experiencing a period of apostasy—by the publishing of a series of essays, from 2014 onwards, that attempt to be more honest about the church’s past.
However, by 2017 the leaders knew they were dangerously close to reporting a decline in the number of church units for the first time in living memory. Something drastic had to be done, and it happened in 2018, but hardly a soul is aware of what went on. First up the leaders dropped the statistical report from the 2018 April general conference onwards. Curious members were forced to hunt around on the church’s convoluted website to find the data. This change was made because the leaders didn’t want the members to pay attention to it anymore. The data wasn’t faith-promoting enough for a membership convinced they belonged to one of the fastest growing churches on the earth, a claim that has not been true for about two decades.
While the church no longer wanted to publicise the number of wards and branches created each year, a few zealous Mormon stats nerds were regularly publishing unit growth data on their own websites. In 2018 the church’s lawyers, Kirton and McConkie, wrote stern letters to the webmasters of these sites, requesting they cease and desist publishing this data. Most bowed their heads and said yes. But thankfully one brave soul began to report the creation and closure of missions, stakes, wards and branches around the world on a daily basis! Initially he was doing this by tedious daily comparisons of the maps at the LDS Meetinghouse locator website to identify any changes. I believe he has a mole these days. http://www.fullerconsideration.com/units.php
The most dramatic change the leaders made in 2018, however, was to make it easier for smaller church units to survive. The average unit has an attendance of roughly 125 people. Once you get below about 70 or 80 active members you run into serious problems filling leadership positions and members get burned out and leave. In 2018 the church shaved an hour off church and axed several youth and priesthood leadership positions. The result was that wards and branches could be smaller and survive. This meant fewer unit closures and it made it easier to create new units. Not surprisingly, unit growth bounced back, topping 400 in 2019, but it soon dropped back (see graph).
The 2018 changes only buy time. You cannot keep hiding the fact that fewer people are turning up to church each week. Once average unit attendance drops to the new cut off, closures are inevitable. I believe we are on the cusp of seeing a decline in the number of wards and branches globally. Or, perhaps—maybe—the church will come up with another way to hide the problem. Giving the other half of the church the priesthood springs to mind.
There are, however, few signs of the decline halting. The church now regularly closes wards and stakes in California, just closed three stakes in Japan and over 50% of its units in Armenia vanished this year. The closure of units in South Korea (40% since 2000) and Japan (20%) shows no sign of abating and Europe has been in decline for decades. There is also almost no growth in South America, traditionally a solid growth area for the church. In fact, the closure of a large number of units in South America at the turn of the century was a major contributor to the dramatic slow down in unit growth after 1998 (see graph below, kindly provided by Brady Russon).
Recently, most of the growth of the church can be attributed to West Africa (above graph), particularly Nigeria, which added a staggering 149 units in 2018 and 73 in 2019. For the last few decades, the church in Nigeria has grown at a rate of about 8% annually. This is unlikely to be sustainable as internet access is skyrocketing in Nigeria and they speak English.
I have watched the data a bit more closely in Australia. In the 1990s the church was adding about 25 new units per year. Everything ground to a halt at the end of the century. It has taken another 20 years for the church to add another 25 units, and the vast majority of those new units are Samoan or Tongan units, due to their higher birth rate and immigration. The LDS Church is clearly in significant decline in the broader Australian population. Meanwhile, our Australian Post-Mormon community is flourishing. https://www.facebook.com/groups/australianpostmormons
Thankfully, the Australian government publishes more useful data on LDS church growth than the church does. The Australian census collects data on religious affiliation and the data backs up the conclusions drawn from the church unit trends. Since the turn of the century the number of Australians willing to confess they are LDS on the census has grown at about the same rate as the Australian population. Between the 2011 and 2016 census, however, the percentage of Australians who said they were LDS declined for the first time. I expect that trend to continue in this year’s census.
The last 18 months will have been particularly unsettling for many Australian Mormons. Having just recovered from the revelation that the church was hoarding over $100 billion in its tax-avoiding Ensign Peak slush fund, the pandemic arrived. Australia followed the science and has recorded just over 900 deaths since the pandemic began. This was not because we are more spread out here. We are even more urbanised than the US. It was because our scientists and our state and national governments were far more united. Watching US Mormons overwhelmingly jump on the anti-science Trump bandwagon, whine about social distancing and masks, erosion of individual rights and religious freedom, and now oppose vaccination in large numbers, reflects very poorly on the church. If I was still a member, I would be embarrassed to tick the LDS box on the census.
It is staggering to see how effectively an obscenely rich US corporation can conceal truth from its members. But thankfully the truth has a habit of getting out. We are past peak Mormonism and its warms my cold apostate heart.
I hope you enjoyed the ride.