As I mentioned in my last post, I thought a good year-end project would be to share some of the trends I see happening in the world of Mormonism. That will be the topic of the next few posts. I don’t claim that my list is exhaustive by any means, or that my observations can be objectively verified (although some of them can). But it’s food for thought. These ideas were first shared in October at the Church Planter’s Summit hosted by Loving Utah – a church planting network.
First, I believe we are seeing an increasing diversity of what I’ll call “Mormonisms.” In other words, while Mormonism has some very strong traits that create uniformity across the LDS culture, in recent years I think Mormonism is fragmenting into a variety of different cultural sub-groups that reflect different ways of experiencing what it means to be Mormon. (See this article by Armand Mauss.) Many of us have observed over the years that Mormonism in Utah is different in many ways from Mormonism outside Utah. There is obviously a difference between those who are temple-active versus those whose activity centers around the ward. Most would admit there are differences between those born into the LDS Church as compared to converts. I think there are growing differences in how different generations experience Mormonism. Many Mormons are cultural only; others are true believers. Some take an intellectual approach. Some are closet doubters, while others are openly dissident. While Mormonism is a strong cultural identity, we cannot assume that all Mormons feel the same about being Mormon, have the same experiences as Mormons, or understand those experiences in the same ways. It makes sense that we would connect with and share the good news of God’s grace with each sub-cultural group somewhat differently.
The second trend has to do with the LDS missionary effort. In the short term, there are a lot more missionaries than ever before, since the LDS church lowered the age of eligibility in October of last year. Young men can now serve at age 18 instead of waiting until they’re 19, while young women can serve at age 19 rather than age 21. This created a surge in missionaries, since now there are 18, 19, and 20 year old boys on the field instead of just 19 and 20 year olds. But once the older missionaries begin to finish their terms, the number of missionaries will fall back down, at least somewhat. But it’s possible the total numbers will still reflect an increase over the past, since more young men will not have that extra year between high school and missionary service where they may decide not to go on a mission after all, for whatever reason. We can also observe that the LDS church is continually adapting its missionary methods. Missionaries are doing less and less door-knocking and cold-calling, and devoting more of their efforts to internet interactions and other uses of contemporary technology (read about this here). A few years ago the missionary lessons became less rigid and more interactive. We can expect that the Mormon missionary movement will continue to adapt as ways of communicating adapt in our culture. I’ve also observed – although I can’t quantify this absolutely – that an increasing part of the missionary force is being dedicated to member retention and reactivation compared to proselytizing new converts.
This leads to the third trend I want to mention. Mormonism is suffering demographic losses. The highly active core is shrinking. (See this analysis by Joanna Brooks, and this report from Reuters News Service.) The LDS church appears to be losing many of their young people. The Pew Forum reported five years ago that only 70% of those born in Mormonism continue to identify themselves as Mormons as adults. Yet only between 25-30% of self-identified Mormons are active in the church. The attrition rate of converts is also very high – perhaps 50% in the USA and 75% worldwide after the first year. (For demographic analysis, see cumorah.com) I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wonder what the retention and activity rates are among Latter-day Saints under 30, who have had greater access to information about Mormonism from a variety of sources than their older counterparts. The LDS church seems to be recognizing this challenge, as new methods are being proposed to better prepare young members to encounter information about Mormonism from non-official sources.