Before I get into the main part of the article, let me get my disclaimers out of the way first: this is not an official statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is no documentation that I can cite. This is second-hand information. I don’t have all of the details. However, I believe that this information is reliable because it was not only given by a trustworthy source who attended the event I am about to discuss (you’ll have to trust me on this), but because I also ran it by a friend who works in a big building somewhere between North Temple and South Temple in Salt Lake City, and whose response was, “sounds about right.” While such response may not win any legal cases, it was good enough for me.
What I’m talking about is some rather startling statistical information given on August 10, 2013 at a “family reunion” (really more of a history conference) held in Fillmore, Utah for descendants of Amasa Lyman, one of the LDS Church’s finest excommunicants to ever receive the scarlet “A” of apostasy.  But I digress. The keynote speaker for this commemorative event was emeritus Presiding Bishop of the Church, H. David Burton. Following the address, a rather frank Q&A session was apparently opened up where Bishop Burton responded to a question asked about current activity rates in the LDS Church by stating the number to be around 36 percent worldwide. Similarly, he followed up by stating that about 20 percent of the total membership has received the temple endowments.
The LDS Church certainly isn’t the first or only Church to have lapsed members. Let’s face it, even among the first six members of the LDS Church, we can only boast 50 percent retention – and the other three comprised of Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother. Seems retention has always been an issue. So why should this be such a big deal? Perhaps because it’s another thing we never hear discussed from among the leadership. Even worse, perhaps, is that it appears they tend to fluff the numbers.
At every semi-annual General Conference of the church, the Saturday afternoon session typically opens with a statistical update consisting of a “financial report” and a “membership report” delivered by two church officials who we like to pretend are independent auditors as opposed to church employees. Quotation marks were purposefully used because the “financial report” traditionally consists of little more than, “We’ve checked all the numbers and are satisfied that the Church has used tithing funds appropriately” and the membership report…well, who doesn’t wait with slightly baited breath to see how much the LDS Church has grown over the past year? Many Mormons I know even try to guess before the number is announced, perhaps even placing bets. It’s always a small thrill when we hear another million or so members added to the roster. The most recent statistical report placed the total worldwide membership of the church somewhere in the neighborhood of 14.7 million. What they don’t include is that active church membership hovers somewhere around 5.2 million, with close to around 3 million members (both active and inactive) who have at some point been temple-worthy. Why would they declare this? It’s pretty deflating. Why would any church advertise how many people choose to spend their Sundays watching football and eating chips rather than worshipping in their chapels? They probably wouldn’t.
But this raises some questions. I am not going to attempt to resolve why 64% of Latter-day Saints are inactive. I’ll let you speculate on the myriad of reasons why people choose to no longer attend or affiliate with a church or religion. Some other questions it raises are:
- How are the activity rates measured?
- How do other large religious institutions report their membership (if at all)?
- Why does the LDS Church seem to inflate its membership numbers?
First, the technical stuff: this can get a little complicated, so stay with me. I’ve heard of a couple of different ways that the church measures activity rates. Both agree that sacrament meeting attendance is the guidepost, but some say that activity is based on attending at least one sacrament meeting per month while others claim that it is based on attending at least one per quarter. The truth seems to be kind of a combination. What the church collects are quarterly reports transmitted through a global software program called MLS. However, many wards choose to keep monthly attendance records for their own internal use. In reality, what church headquarters is seeing are the numbers for the month prior to the end of each quarter. In other words, if you only attended church four times a year, and it happened to always be on a month prior to the report submitted to HQ, then you would be considered a fully active member for statistical purposes. Arguably, the measurement criterion for church activity is the most liberal practice that the LDS Church has adopted. Church headquarters uses this information for more than line charts however, as stake and ward budgets are created from this information. Local budgets fall under the stewardship of the Presiding Bishop of the Church, which brings us back to H. David Burton being a reliable source of statistical information. Basically, for the past seventeen years it was his job to know this.
How do other churches and religions report their membership numbers? Well, most of them don’t. But then again, most religions and churches are not nearly as centralized (read: correlated) as the LDS Church. The Seventh-Day Adventists, which emerged around the same time as Mormonism, and is governed by a General Conference with smaller regional divisions, reports a worldwide baptized membership of about 17.2 million members. Like the LDS Church, they do not report on “activity level.” The Jehovah’s Witness church, founded forty years after Mormonism, break it down a little further, stating that they have over 7.5 million members who are actively engaged in evangelism and 19 million who attend their meetings and conventions. Older Christian churches, such as the Roman Catholic church, are simply too large to keep an accurate record of their membership, with the most recent Catholic estimates around 1.2 billion, globally, with no differentiation given to active vs. lapsed members. Judaism, although smaller, is another tough one to track simply because of the age of the religion and the scattered migration of Jews throughout the world. The most recent estimates are somewhere between 13 and 14 million members who identify as observant Jews.
How does the LDS Church stack up? With equal reporting, we are about 2.5 million less than the Seventh-Day Adventists, with no way of knowing how many of their members are considered active. If you compare active membership, the LDS Church is about 2.5 million less than Jehovah’s Witnesses, but in overall meeting attendance, the LDS Church is closer to 14 million less – granted the reported numbers are reliable. We are nowhere near the Catholic church in terms of immensity, and while the numbers may initially make us look about even with the Jews, when you compare observant members, we are about 9 million apart. The bottom line is we are not the biggest, baddest kid on the block. Far from it, in fact.
Does the LDS Church inflate its numbers? If so, then why? Before I give my own opinion, let me share a reported story about J. Golden Kimball as he visited a conference at the Bear Lake LDS Stake in northern Utah. As the story goes, the Stake President was making some lofty claims about attendance figures, boasting the highest percentage of activity in the entire church – a whopping 95 percent sacrament meeting attendance level. When J. Golden took the stand, he told them his own a tall tale about a fishing trip he had taken the year prior on Bear Lake. He reported tremendous success, with fish filling up his boat. The fish kept biting into the dusk, so he and his fishing partner lit a lantern and continued on. Suddenly, the wind picked up and the boat capsized. The two men were forced to swim to shore, abandoning the boat. He added that his friend had invited him out again this year, promising that his new boat would not sink. Kimball reluctantly went. The water was smooth, serene, and crystal clear. They could see clear to the bottom of the lake. When they looked down, they were both shocked to find the sunken boat from the previous year. Even more shocking was that all of the fish were still in the boat as well as the lantern, which was still burning! After he finished his tale, he invited the Stake President back up to the stand. Placing his arm around him, he asked, “Now, brother, do you believe that story?” To which the Stake President quickly replied, “No, Brother Kimball. I do not believe that lantern was still burning after one year.” J. Golden retorted, “Okay, President, I’ll make you a deal. You take 15 percent off sacrament meeting attendance, and I’ll douse the lantern.”
Perhaps human nature makes us want to see ourselves as slightly taller, slightly thinner, slightly better looking, slightly smarter, and slightly better off than we really are. That is not a negative trait. It’s aspiration, and if it didn’t exist then we would cease to have innovation. We want to believe things today are better than they were yesterday, and that they will continue to get better tomorrow. We want to believe that we are steadily moving forward, and are not stagnant or in decline. Insignificance is almost as big a fear as death. Most importantly, if this is the Lord’s work, as we claim, then it must grow until it fills the earth. Success is measured by numerical growth, and how could 14 million members possibly be wrong? All is well in Zion, even if the math is a bit fuzzy.
But look at the bright side, this could also be seen as a gesture of inclusion. For all of the less active, inactive, lapsed, or disaffected Mormons out there, you are still being counted! You still make a (statistical) difference. Ironically, you are the majority. This should alter our framing of things a little. The simple fact is that the ideal type is just that – an ideal type. It’s the standard measure, but not the reality. For those of you who are not living according to the “ideal type,” I hope this makes you feel somewhat empowered. You can still claim Mormonism because Mormonism still claims you.
I am certain that the next General Conference will boast another generous boost in membership numbers, as will the one after that and the one after that – ad infinitum. I don’t believe it is deceitfulness. It is choosing to count those who choose not to count themselves. In a way, it’s a bit of a hat-tip towards both those who are dedicated followers as well as those who may prefer a sandy beach or sleeping in to sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; or those who wish they could attend church regularly, but can’t because of health reasons, work schedules, or because they struggle to peacefully co-exist with the cultural norms. You count and you are included – even if only for a minute and a half on a Saturday afternoon twice a year in April and October. That the LDS Church chooses to advertise total baptized members, rather than total active members, indicates that Mormonism is an identity as much as it is affiliation.
 Lyman, an LDS apostle, was excommunicated in 1870 for heresy because he reportedly preached sermons whereupon he denied the need for the atonement of Christ in favor of a more liberal, universalist theology. That’s the historical story anyway, and I’m certain that Lyman’s persistent outcry against Brigham Young’s theocratic government and recent allegiance with the Godbeite dissenters had nothing to do with his ejection.