Keeping members in the fold is one of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s stated top priorities. But does the church have a problem with members slipping away? A church authority says “no,” but a prominent Mormon scholar says the evidence suggests otherwise.
“We are improving the retention rate over time,” said Merrill Bateman, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints‘ Quorum of the Seventy. “We have seen a nice general upward trend in terms of percent of activity, which means retention is going up.”
But Bateman was not willing to provide any statistics showing that improvement. He also refused to define who qualifies as an active Mormon, though he says the LDS Church regularly reviews statistics such as attendance at sacrament meetings, tithing payments and the number of people who maintain church requirements to enter temples.
“What we don’t want to do is categorize people as active or less active, let’s be frank about it,” Bateman said. “Because we always believe we have a chance to work with those who are not coming to church on a regular basis.”
Armand Mauss, a Washington State University emeritus professor, said that’s exactly what the church should focus on.
“The key to the church’s future growth will be at least as much a function of retention as conversion,” said Mauss, the former president of the Mormon History Association.
While baptisms continue in high numbers, the creation of new stakes, which house a handful of congregations, has slowed down.
“That is a clear indication of a retention problem,” said Mauss, who identifies an active Mormon as someone who attends a church meeting at least once each month.
The LDS Church reports that 1,720,434 Mormons resided in Utah in 2004. About 62 percent of those attend church regularly, according to an analysis using statistical statements by Bateman and activity estimates from Brigham Young University professor Tim Heaton, who studies Mormon demographics. That would mean about 43 percent of Utahns are active Mormons.
Activity in many other areas of the world is much lower than that.
Mauss says the worldwide retention problem stems from missionaries attempting to baptize as many people as possible, some of whom are not prepared for the demands of an LDS life. New members are often not provided the support they need during their first year in the faith.
Bateman agrees with Mauss on that point, saying to increase retention, church members must spend more time befriending converts.
“Over time, what President Hinckley has asked us to do is to really surround that person with new friends,” Bateman said.
New Mormons are the most likely to leave the faith, according to Bateman, but he says once those people have children who are raised in Mormon families, the retention rates start to rise.
The LDS church claims 14 million members worldwide — optimistically including nearly every person baptized. But census data from some foreign countries targeted by clean-cut young missionaries show that the retention rate for their converts is as low as 25 percent. In the U.S., only about half of Mormons are active members of the church, said Washington State University emeritus sociologist Armand Mauss, a leading researcher on Mormons.
Sociologists estimate there are as few as 5 million active members worldwide.