Saturday, February 9, 2008

President Thomas S. Monson Worldwide Growth and the Washington Post

The Washington Post decided to observe the installation of President Monson by discussing our worldwide growth which they maintain is declining.

In "Challenges Await New President" they say:

"Worldwide Mormon church membership grew as fast as 8 percent a year in the late 1980s, but the growth rate has decreased since 2000 to less than 3 percent. The Seventh-day Adventist Church and some Pentecostal churches are among the denominations now growing faster.

Analysts cite several reasons for the cooling off, including the declining birth rate among U.S. Mormons; a drop in the number of missionaries since 2002 as a result of tighter recruiting standards; and Mormons' reluctance to embrace local cultural practices to advance their missionary work, a reluctance that complicates the effort to make overseas converts.

Other faiths "are willing to express the local culture in many ways that the LDS has been slow to do," said Richard N. Ostling, co-author of "Mormon America," a book about the faith. "Should missionaries have to wear white shirts and ties [worldwide]? Do all of the hymns have to be approved in Salt Lake City? Do appointments have to be as centralized as they are?"

More worrisome to church leaders has been the dropout rate. David Stewart, a Mormon who analyzes church growth, said barely one in three Mormon converts becomes an active participant in the church, which cuts active membership to 4 million to 4.5 million.

Part of the reason, Stewart and others say, is that Mormon missionaries tend to baptize converts quickly, in some countries after they have gone to services only a few times.

"When people have attended a meeting one time or even two times, to expect that . . . they're going to keep coming forever is something that is not reasonable or logical," Stewart said.

In recent years, church leaders have taken steps to remedy the situation, requiring missionaries to spend more time with new converts and requiring potential members to attend more services before baptism.

Asked at a news conference yesterday about the attrition rate, Monson said his message to those who are wavering is: "Don't give up. We need you."

"My purpose is to provide ways that we, as active members, can put our arms around those who are less active and bring them back into the fold," he said. "

I wonder if raising the bar has had an affect on the number of missionaries which has contributed to the decline. When the church tried to shorten missions to eighteen months the number of missionaries declined as did the number of convert baptisms.

I am not sure that Stewart is right that missionaries are better preparing converts for baptism. I see no clear directive that missionaries are instructed to slow down their baptismal plans. I think it is still a mission specific enterprise as it was before raising the bar.

I am not sure that young men and women who have problems should be eliminated from the missionary force. If I had not served a mission I would not have had the same fervor to send my own daughters out in to the field. The most significant convert I had on a mission was myself.

I have seen no evidence since 1960 when Marion G. Romney declared the retention rate at 16% that we have deviated more than a couple of percentage up or down whether a person is baptized or born in to the Church. Stewart does a good job tracking statistics and even offering some possible solutions but nothing he offers is institutionalized even if he gives interviews to General Authorities or the newspapers. The numbers have been fairly constant worldwide.

Stewart is a medical doctor from Las Vegas who likes to study convert retention. He self-published a book that is on his site. He served a mission to Russia and felt that he and his fellow missionaries weren't as effective at assimilating members as they could have been.

The role of the missionary is to teach to baptize and baptize to teach as the Preach My Gospel manual proclaims. Members and ward mission leaders and bishops need to step out in making sure new members meet the milestones in the convert action form. Assimilation in to the ward is not the missionary's responsibility since the truth is they will move on to other assignments it is the ward members. There is no easy way other than collaborative effort on the part of all involved in helping others to activity.

No one denies we don't have a high retention rate but I don't see it being fixed by any silver bullets any time soon other than through ward members' involvement which takes effort and time. Slowing down baptisms doesn't solve the problem it weakens the church since there are fewer active people. The missionary effort is to find the elect and bring them in to the fold. Missionaries are gatherers. It is no different in a ward where people have discrete callings. Changing the culture and climate for retention can't be fixed by saying an investigator was not well taught or should be taught longer by a missionary.

I am an example of a person who was not well taught but remains committed and active. I am converted to the church but sociologically I don't consider myself a member due to socialization with any other Mormon. I can take or leave most members. A few are genuine Saints the rest like me are just muddling through. As long as the majority are like me I don't see a great change taking place. The home teaching program is similar in its success and failure. The percentage of visitations is not high in most places outside the Wasatch Front nor does it address the qualitative aspects. Stewart could do a book on that also. I think we need to put the mind power of the bloggernacle on this problem. I once had a boss who said we could develop nuclear subs at our university if we would use the potential of our members. Well how do you think we should solve the decline of new members. I sure don't know nor have I read some mystical formula but I don't know much. So please tell me what you all think.


Anonymous said...

We would be better served if we were less anxious to baptize and more anxious to convert. Missionary goals should be contacts, not baptisms. Baptismal goals are based on individual choices, not some missionary goal. In the early days, the Church was more careful to baptize, but now we do it like we pest control salesmen.

John Pack Lambert said...

I like this site, although it does not seem you update your main contents very often.
I have a site called I try posting information about issues related to members of the church most of the time, and am hoping to get more readers and comments.

John Pack Lambert said...

To Peter,
Actually in the early days of the church the requirements and pre-requisites for baptism were less than they are now.
Missionaries would go into an area, preach a sermon, go down into the water and bpatize those who came to them in the water. That is what Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, John Taylor and all the rest did.
Even when I was on my mission seven years ago the requirement for church attendance before baptism was only going once, and it really only had to be to sacrament meeting.
I will agree that at least some missionaries in my mission focused too much on baptisms and too little on conversions. However, I have also seen that people who have been adequately prepared, gone through all the lessons, come to church multiple times, felt the spirit and made a full commitment can still fall away after baptism.
We need to love converts more, reach out to them more, help those who struggle more, be much, much more friendly when people show up new at our wards, and not let people sit all alone through sacrament meeting.
We have not yet made sure that every convert has a friend, a responsibility and nourishing by the good word of God.
In the MTC they told us to remember that the ultimate goal was to get converts to the temple. I went to the mission and then had a companion who scolded me for in his view "wasining" time by encoraging a recent convert to meet with the bishop to see about doing baptisms for the dead. This was exactly what they had told us to do in the MTC, but after having heard this same missionary mock and speak ill of the MTC on other occasions, I do not think I even bothered to respond to his statements.
What is the point. The root cause and function of missionaries can not be prepared in the MTC. If we want missionaries who value retention, who work with the ward members to keep people active, who have true love, we have to start instilling love of the temple, love of our fellow man and related values in our children from the day they are born.