LDS membership growth stable; slight improvement predicted for convert retention

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 25, 2011

Mormon researchers who pay close attention to LDS Church growth throughout the world see a hint of improvement in the number of converts who progress from baptism to become fully active, faithful Mormons.

A key piece of evidence, says Matt Martinich, a Colorado-based researcher, is in the number of wards and branches in each country.

For decades, say Martinich and colleague David Stewart, the church had poor retention rates, particularly in Latin America. That resulted in a gap between the membership numbers the church reports - 13.8 million in 2009 - and the number of active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The two estimate there are 4 million to 5 million active Mormons in the world, roughly 80 percent of them in the Western Hemisphere.

But efforts by the church in the past decade, including the 2004 missionary manual Preach My Gospel, increased emphasis on local leadership development and more finely tuned resource allocation (such as closures and mergers of congregations) seem to be paying off, Martinich says.

Preach My Gospel emphasizes faith development for new members, easing pressure on missionaries to rush baptisms of prospective converts.

"What's happened over the past year or so is that we're finally starting to get out of the rut of congregational growth the church has seen for the past decade," says Martinich, co-author with Stewart of a forthcoming book that will give a country-by-country analysis of the LDS Church in the world.

For years, the rate of growth in congregations - branches and wards - has been about a third of the rate of growth in membership, signifying that many newly baptized don't end up as part of congregations, Martinich says.

He predicts that when church leaders announce the 2010 membership and congregational growth statistics at conference this weekend, they will show a net membership growth of about 300,000. Growth has ranged between 250,000 and 450,000 each of the past five years.

Stewart, an orthopedic surgeon in Las Vegas who studies church growth in his spare time, says progress is "hit and miss." It depends, to some extent, on the mission and the local leadership.

It will take time to tease out of the data how many of those new converts actually become active members, Stewart says.

"It takes several years for the verdict to come back on how much church growth has occurred," says Stewart, whose foundation employs Martinich.

The two scour the Bloggernacle (the LDS blogging community), read church communications from Albania to Zimbabwe and stay connected to fellow believers throughout the world to compile their data.

It was through that network that Martinich recently spotted an interesting development: explosive growth in the church in the Sogere area of the western province of Papua New Guinea.

The number of branches rose from one to nine in a matter of months last year, just before a cholera epidemic that killed hundreds in the country. According to the Church News, 76 members of four branches died.

Papua New Guinea is served by missionaries from Oceania, not North Americans, and the growth likely is a result of members reaching out to their friends in small villages, says Martinich.

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