Two weeks ago, this headline in The Salt Lake Tribune caught my attention:
The article covers how the Church is downsizing its mission force in Europe and parts of America so that it can increase efforts in southern Utah, Central America, South America, and Africa. The Church has published a detailed breakdown of where it is adding and cutting missions, here; even my own neck of the woods is effected with the Chicago South Mission being combined into the Chicago North Mission to create a single Chicago Mission.
What really caught my eye though were these paragraphs here:
This change, one of the largest restructuring of missions in recent years, also reflects a need to stretch the church’s shrinking proselytizing force, which is down to about 52,000 from a high of 62,000 in the mid-1990s.
“While raising the bar [on missionary qualifications] had an initial impact,” says LDS spokesman Scott Trotter, “the primary reason for changes in missionary numbers is the fluctuating population of available missionary-age members.”
What staggers me about that paragraph is that the Church claims to have grown by 3 million members since the time of its peak missionary force. Can “raising the bar on missionary qualifications” and a “fluctuating population of missionary-age members” really account for a 16% decrease in missionary force in the face of 22% church growth? If the growth of the missionary program had matched the growth of the Church, there would be 75,600 missionaries right now, not 52,000.*
Some completely uneducated guesses on my part:
- Most of the Church’s growth has come from poorer 2nd and 3rd world countries. Families there are less likely to be able to afford to send their sons and daughters on missions.
- Most of the growth has come from adult converts past the age of serving missions, and the Church has had a difficult time appealing to the current generation of young people.
- The global fertility rate has been in a steady state of decline for the last several decades. Mormons have traditionally resisted this by encouraging large families, but even they may be beginning to feel the effects of it.
- The Church has suffered from abysmal retention rates in some areas. I’ve seen estimates in several places (here for example) that only 4-5 million people among the Church’s 13.5 million membership force are actually active. As the baseball baptisms fiasco showed us, conversion numbers are easy to “fake.” Number of men and women committing 1.5-2 years of their life to serving the Church? Not so much. Hellmut of Main Street Plaza did a post in 2008 contesting (based on numbers from Pew and CUNY) that the member replacement rate in the United States is actually negative. So the Church’s growth isn’t quite what it reports it to be.
I’m open to other possibilities. Any thoughts on this?
Furthermore, what could the LDS church do to improve the quality (if not the quantity) of its missions program?
* Numbers estimated based on the statistical information presented here. I couldn’t find a specific membership number corresponding to the Church’s peak year in missionary numbers. If anyone knows it, let me know and I’ll adjust my statistics accordingly.