LDS stagnation: secularization or shortfalls in Mormon culture?

While the worldwide growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) may be stalling overall, its variations in membership loss and pockets of growth and the vitality of rival global faiths suggest that there is no easy explanation for this trend, according to papers presented at the mid-October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in St. Louis, which RW attended. Anthropologist Henri Gooren of Oakland University considered the recent view that the stagnation of LDS membership in much of Latin America has tracked a secularization trajectory, with high economic growth and human development leading to lower rates of Mormon (and other religious) growth. But Gooren found a checkered pattern of growth, stagnation, and decline that did not always follow the economic patterns. While it is true that in 16 out of the 20 Latin American countries he studied low membership growth has tracked higher economic development, there are significant outliers. Panama and Costa Rica, with high rates of human development, also show Mormon growth. Conversely, Haiti has very low levels of social development but nevertheless shows low Mormon growth.

Another paper, by David Stewart of the University of Nevada School of Medicine, took a different tack on LDS stagnation, focusing on the internal cultures and traditions of the LDS, the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA), and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and on their unintended consequences for growth. Analyzing church statistics for the three bodies (which are often compared for their “restorationist” teachings and global reach), Stewart found a continuing pattern of stagnation and even decline in the LDS that contrasted with the other groups. In 2017, while LDS growth rates fell to their lowest levels since 1937 and convert baptisms dropped to a 30-year low, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ growth remained steady and the SDA showed a net membership increase of almost one million. Growth in LDS congregations increased by only one percent over the last 20 years, compared to Jehovah’s Witness congregations tripling between 1981 and 2017 and SDA churches quadrupling during that time. Stewart argued that certain early decisions and policies of the LDS negatively impacted its later development, such as the decision to locate “Zion” in Utah, which did build a cohesive society and have the immediate effect of sharp growth but did not encourage indigenous and permanent leaders for the long term. In contrast to itinerant leadership, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and SDA built indigenous leadership as part of a permanent-growth model.

Because missionary work has been seen as the priesthood duty of adult males in the LDS, women have not been “systematically engaged in personal evangelism, notwithstanding research from other faiths that women are more likely to engage in personal evangelism than men.” According to Stewart, since LDS women are the primary spiritual nurturers of children, their lack of experience in personal evangelism has influenced young men as well as women, leading to Mormons sharing their faith far less than Jehovah’s Witnesses, SDA members and even other Christians. Among other factors that have affected the retention and growth rates of the LDS is the celebrity status of leaders, removing them from everyday church life and members, and an emphasis on traditional families in cultures where those family structures are relatively weak. A policy of building expensive U.S.-style meetinghouses for small international audiences contrasts with the humble and local-based structures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and SDA, and such an international focus shifts resources away from further expansion into receptive areas. Stewart added that in its missions the LDS has concentrated on “stagnant areas” where Mormons and Christianity in general have had a long presence, shying away from more unreached places where the Mormon message might find more traction. Although much is made of the importance of the Book of Mormon, Stewart found that distribution of the sacred text has trailed far behind Jehovah’s Witness and Adventist literature promotion. He concluded that it would be difficult for the LDS to remedy these deficits, since they are the result of tradeoffs and unintended consequences from church decisions made decades, if not over a century, ago. The church may have to settle for a “constrained optimum” that would minimize or avoid any further unintended consequences.