Africa, Caribbean lead way in LDS growth

But U.S., Brazil and Mexico still provide bulk of new members.

The Salt Lake Tribune/April 15, 2010

The LDS Church is growing fastest in Africa and the Caribbean, while the United States, Brazil and Mexico continue to add the most new members.

So say new 2009 statistics released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Many significant developments for the Utah-based church are imbedded in the numbers, said Matt Martinich, a Mormon researcher in South Korea who has been tracking the faith's global efforts on his Web site since 2006. He is working with Las Vegas physician David Stewart to produce a comprehensive LDS almanac examining Mormon growth, as well as strengths and challenges facing the faith in more than 150 countries.

The church's U.S. growth is unsurprising, particularly in Western states such as Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, considered part of the "Mormon Corridor." The church counted 84,866 new U.S. members, including children and converts. Utah alone added 26,710.

What is new, Martinich said in an e-mail, is that the worldwide increase of "children of record" (those born in the faith) in 2008 and 2009 -- around 120,000 -- was the highest in nearly three decades, especially after a decade or two of smaller spurts (usually around 80,000). This likely indicates that "birthrates for LDS members in the U.S. may have increased and/or there are more member families outside the United States."

The total church membership climbed to 13,824,854, including 280,106 converts.

The statistics in Africa, home to half of the 20 fastest-growing countries in Mormonism, Martinich said, suggest "impressive gains."

The faith is attracting large numbers of converts in an area that had very few members in the recent past. Nigeria, which has had Mormon missionaries only since 1978 (when the church ended its ban on blacks holding the priesthood), now boasts more members than South Africa, where the American-born church was established a century ago.

Some of the spreading LDS imprint is Africa actually is underreported. For example, scores of unofficial congregations of unbaptized LDS followers have sprouted in Sudan and Burundi.

"These units do not meet qualifications set by the church to become independent branches," Martinich said. "They await the church's establishment."

Still, the figures can be misleading.

Among the 10 African nations with the fastest-growing Mormon memberships (by percentage), only one -- the Democratic Republic of Congo -- has more than 10,000 Latter-day Saints. The others have such a high rates because they start with so few members.

But those small countries look like they will continue to build an LDS presence, said Stewart, who collects, organizes and analyzes Mormon statistics on his Web site,

Africa is a "key frontier for church growth," Stewart said. "The church is already doing better with retention [of converts] in Africa, particularly Central and West Africa, than it did in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s."

Because Mormonism uses locals to staff its congregations, one way to measure convert retention is to match the number of new members with the number of new congregations created during the year. If there are a lot of new members recorded but few new congregations, that may mean many of the converts are not sticking around.

In Nigeria last year, 7,158 newcomers were added to Mormon rolls and 29 LDS congregations were formed. Compare that to Paraguay, which brought in 7,000 to 8,000 new members but added only one congregation and no new stakes (a collection of congregations).

Stewart attributes much of the African success to "pre-baptismal preparation" and an emphasis on training local missionaries. Potential members are expected to attend at least two or three LDS services before baptism. Local members now get involved early on in the welcoming process, rather than meeting the converts for the first time at their baptism.

Plus, many African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo have only indigenous Mormon missionaries, which has gone a long way toward "building lasting communities of committed Saints from the inception," Stewart said. "A focus on missionary service from the beginning, with the expectation of self-sufficiency of local missions and congregations, bodes well for future growth in Africa."

Recent changes announced in LDS mission alignments reflect the latest growth trends -- with the church adding missions in Africa, Latin America and the western United States while pulling back a bit in Europe and Australia.

Overall, the baptism rate jumped from 4.5 per missionary per year in the early 2000s to 5.4 in 2009, still well below the high of more than 8 baptisms per missionary per year in the late 1980s.

A baptism slowdown is not all that bad, Stewart said. The all-important number, though difficult to pin down, remains not how many join, but how many stay.

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