Reaching the Nations: International LDS Church Growth Almanac, 2014 Edition
by Matthew Martinich
I began my serious study and interest in the worldwide growth of the LDS Church and missionary work in 2002. One day I had the thought that I did not know where all of the temples the Church had built were located. I ascertained this information from the Ensign and began to consider other issues relating to LDS growth.
When I began to investigate the geographic distribution of church membership I was startled to find such enormous disparities between world regions and individual countries. It was particularly surprising what countries did have an LDS presence (such as Pakistan and Jordan) and what countries did not have an LDS presence (Gabon and Seychelles) and I began to ask the question why this was the case. The primary resource that I utilized in my personal research on the subject was David Stewart’s website cumorah.com which provided vast statistical information on LDS growth trends for individual countries. The website also included an international LDS atlas that provided the names and locations for virtually all missions, stakes, districts, wards, and branches worldwide. I spent hours each week pouring over the articles, data, and news developments posted on the site until I began my mission in 2004 and returned home in 2006. In late 2007, I decided to create a blog called ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com to highlight some of my thoughts and interests in regards to LDS Church growth. Blog posts initially consisted of making lists of the countries with the most members without a temple or a stake and these blog posts later focused on reporting recent church growth and missionary developments worldwide. These reports were obtained through performing internet searchers through social media outlets and missionary websites maintained by the families and friends of missionaries as well as officially-reported LDS news events such as the creation of new stakes.
My original interest in studying the geographic distribution of LDS membership and growth trends has transitioned into developing high-quality and accurate resources on LDS Church growth for religion and sociology researchers, fellow Latter-day Saints, news media, and the public at large. David Stewart contacted me in 2009 and we combined our resources, knowledge base, and research to create the most comprehensive study to date of how contextual factors have influenced LDS growth trends in individual countries in our book Reaching the Nations: International Church Growth Almanac: 2014 Edition. This work took over four years in development to complete. In 2010, I began mapping LDS missions, stakes, districts, wards, and branches as part of an online international LDS atlas that uses Google Maps. Additional maps have since been added that display the most populous cities without an LDS congregation by country, the status of LDS outreach by indigenous ethnolinguistic group by country, and the estimated number and percentage of Latter-day Saints per administrative division by country. In 2011, I began writing case study articles that examine particular topics or developments in LDS missionary work and church growth around the world. Examples of topics explored include the influence of increasing internet usage on LDS membership and congregational growth trends by country, prospective LDS outreach in Burkina Faso, and LDS outreach among the Q’eqchi’ of Guatemala. Currently there are approximately 150 articles posted online, with approximately five to eight additional articles added each month. In 2012, I began creating a missiology encyclopedia with approximately 80 entries that examine various topics and terms pertinent to the study of LDS missionary work and church growth. In late 2012, I began creating a monthly newsletter that reports recent LDS missionary and church growth news and summarizes recently added resources to cumorah.com. In 2012 and 2013, I created country-by-country statistical profiles that provide data and graphs displaying all statistical data released by the Church. These profiles include year-to-year data on membership, congregations, stakes, districts, missions, temples, the percentage of Latter-day Saints in the population, and the average number of members per congregation. Currently I am also working on developing two additional resources. The first of these is a missiology guide designed to accompany the missiology encyclopedia. This guide provides an introduction to the study of LDS missionary work and church growth, the methodology utilized by researchers in studying church growth, and the ramifications of research findings for ordinary members, full-time missionaries, and church leaders. The other resource currently in development is a mini-series of articles analyzing the Church’s recently launched Hastening the Work of Salvation website and emphasis on member-missionary work.
Throughout the years of studying LDS growth, I have come to many realizations about the growth of the Church and gained many new insights on what causes or deters growth. Estimated member activity and convert retention rates present some of the most intriguing and concerning statistics on global LDS growth. The Church currently claims over 15 million members on its records, indicating that 0.21% of the world population is LDS, or one Latter-day Saint per 473 people. However the percentage of members who currently attend church more often than not appears to average around 30% worldwide, suggesting that 70% of members on church records are less-active or inactive members. Most of these members experienced a brief period of church activity lasting a matter of a few months or even a couple weeks and have little to no recollection of LDS teachings and beliefs or do not appear to possess personal testimony in the Church. Full-time missionaries rushing often poorly prepared individuals into baptism with minimal contact with local members and church leaders in order to fulfill numerical goals set by mission leaders appear primarily responsible for often disastrously low convert retention and member activity rates in many of the countries with the most members on church records such as the United States, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Chile, and Peru. Incommensurate membership and congregational growth rates, reports from mission presidents and returned missionaries regarding convert retention rates within their missions, and reports from local members have all provided valuable data in calculating member activity rates by country and for the Church as a whole. Member activity rates appear to range as low as 12% in some countries such as Chile, Portugal, and South Korea and as high as 80% in some countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. There are many other factors at play that influence member activity and convert retention rates other than cooperative efforts between full-time missionaries and local members and the length and quality of prebaptismal preparation. These factors include the quality and length of post-baptismal convert retention efforts, cultural and societal conditions regarding organized religion and personal religiosity, language barriers, religious freedom conditions, accessibility to LDS meetinghouses, and transportation costs and distances.
The scope of LDS outreach remains severely limited in most countries around the world notwithstanding significant increases in the number of members serving full-time missions over the past few decades, impressive nominal membership growth rates within the past half century, and the rapid expansion of the Church into previously unreached nations between the 1970s and 1990s. In 2012, approximately 20% of the world population resided in a location where an LDS congregation operated that the native population could legally attend. Most countries have LDS congregations that operate in locations populated by less than half of the national population. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, the Church has maintained a presence in most countries with a current LDS presence for at least two decades or more yet most of these countries have less than 10 cities with an LDS congregation. In Russia, there are over 100 cities that have 100,000 or more inhabitants where no LDS congregation operates notwithstanding the Church maintaining the largest foreign missionary presence of any religious group and extending missionary outreach for over two decades. Many of the most populous nations remain to be minimally reached and have enormous potential for future growth. In India, the Church has had proselytizing missionaries for several decades yet there remain over two dozen cities with over one million inhabitants without an LDS congregation. In Brazil, there are approximately 400 cities with 20,000 or more inhabitants that do not have a ward or branch. There remain many countries with no known LDS presence. In 2013, there were approximately 36 sovereign nations without a known LDS ward or branch functioning, including several countries with predominantly Christian populations or sizable Christian minorities such as Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, and Timor-Leste (East Timor).
The extent of LDS outreach among individual ethnoreligious groups remains embarrassingly limited even in countries with a widespread LDS presence. The Church reports at least one church material translated in 177 languages whereas there are an estimated 7,105 living languages worldwide. The Church in Mexico, for example, has the second most members of any country with 1.3 million members yet only a small number of the 282 Amerindian peoples native to the country have LDS congregations that meet in their communities and only three peoples (Mam, Maya, and Tzotzil) have a translation of the Book of Mormon in their native language. The vast majority of the world’s ethnolinguistic groups have never received an LDS gospel witness due to most of these people groups having less than 100,000 people and primarily residing in small cities and rural areas with no nearby LDS congregation.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings of church growth and missionary activity, the Church nonetheless has experienced impressive growth in many areas of the world and has made progress in fulfilling scriptural mandate to take the gospel to all the world. The Church in the South Pacific has experienced significant growth over the past century and has become one of the largest denominations on many small island nations such as Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati, and French Polynesia. The Church in the United States has achieved commensurate membership and congregational growth over the past decade notwithstanding the increasing influence of secularism on society, declining birth rates in LDS families, and counterproselytism efforts by disaffiliated members and other missionary groups. The Church has experienced rapid growth in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where only African members staff the full-time missionary force such as in Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Success in reversing stagnant or slow membership and congregational growth trends in other areas of the world will hinge on mission presidents, full-time missionaries, and local church leaders maintaining acceptably high convert baptismal standards, improving member-missionary participation, and more aggressively opening additional countries, provinces, cities, towns, and villages to missionary activity.
For more information, please follow the following links:
To visit Matthew’s website,ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com, click here.
To visit Matthew’s and David’s website, cumorah.com, click here.
To listen to a podcast interview of Matthew, click here.