Saturday, April 6, 2019

Church Membership Growth

As part of the 189th Annual General Conference today, the Church released its statistical report for December 31, 2018. As of year end, total Church membership stood at 16,313,735 which is an increase of 195,566 over 2017 when membership was 16,118,169. This is a growth rate of 1.21%, the lowest since 1937 when the great depression was ravaging the global economy. Here is a chart showing Church growth since 1975 with significant developments in certain years noted and the fastest growing years highlighted in yellow.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Membership
Year     Membership   Increase    % Growth   Developments 
1975     3,572,202      162,215     4.76%         Microsoft
1976     3,742,749      170,547     4.77%         Apple
1977     3,969,220      226,471     6.05%
1978     4,166,854      197,634     4.98%         Revelation on the Priesthood
1979     4,404,121      237,267     5.69%         FARMS (1979 - 2002)                
1980     4,639,822      235,701     5.35% 
1981     4,920,449      280,627     6.05%          IBM PC
1982     5,162,619      242,170     4.92%          Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP)
1983     5,351,724      189,105     3.66%          AOL
1984     5,641,054      289,330     5.41%   
1985     5,919,483      278,429     4.94%   
1986     6,166,974      247,491     4.18%   
1987     6,394,314      227,340     3.69%   
1988     6,721,210      326,896     5.11%          Ezra Taft Benson “Flood theEarth”
1989     7,308,444      587,234     8.74%          Email
1990     7,761,179      452,735     6.19%          HTTP, HTML, WWW, Browser 
1991     8,089,848      328,669     4.23%   
1992     8,404,087      314,239     3.88%   
1993     8,689,168      285,081     3.39%   
1994     9,024,368      335,200     3.86%           Yahoo, Amazon
1995     9,338,859      314,491     3.48%           Proclamation on the Family, EBay
1996     9,692,441      353,582     3.79%   
1997     10,071,783    379,342     3.91%           Netflix, FAIRMormon    
1998     10,354,241    282,458     2.80%           Google, PayPal 
1999     10,752,986    398,745     3.85%   
2000     11,068,861    315,875     2.94%   
2001     11,394,522    325,661     2.94%            Wikipedia
2002     11,721,548    327,026     2.87%             LinkedIn, BYU acquired FARMS 
2003     11,985,254    263,706     2.25%
2004     12,275,822    290,568     2.42%            Facebook         
2005     12,560,869    285,047     2.32%            YouTube             
2006     12,868,606    307,737     2.45%            Twitter
2007     13,193,999    325,393     2.53%   
2008     13,508,509    314,510     2.38%   
2009     13,824,854    316,345     2.34%             WhatsApp
2010     14,131,467    306,613     2.22%             Pinterest, Instagram
2011     14,441,346    309,879     2.19%             The Book of Mormon Musical
2012     14,782,473    341,127     2.31%             Interpreter Foundation
2013     15,082,028    299,555     2.03%
2014     15,372,337    290,309     1.92%
2015     15,634,199    261,862     1.70%
2016     15,882,417    248,218     1.59%             Book of Mormon Central
2017     16,118,169    235,752     1.48%             BMC en EspaƱol
2018     16,313,735    195,566     1.21%

This is what the Church growth rate looks like as a graph. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
Church Membership Growth Rates 1975 - 2018
Three things are immediately apparent from this graph:
  1. Something important happened in 1989 when the Church grew by 8.74%.
  2. The long-term trend is unsettling. All is not well in Zion.
  3. Growth has steadily slowed since 2000.
What happened in 1989? In October, 1988 General Conference, Pres. Ezra Taft Benson gave his memorable talk about flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon. The Saints responded. Missionaries had boxes of books to give investigators with our photographs and testimonies pasted inside the front cover. The Book of Mormon is what happened in 1989. It is the divine tool uniquely designed by God to gather Israel in the last days. In 1989, we as a Church helped the Book of Mormon accomplish its intended purpose.

What has happened since 2000? The Internet has come to dominate popular culture. This creates several challenges for the Church:
  1. The Internet is a network that empowers individuals and diminishes the influence of hierarchies. The Church, the Kingdom of God on earth, is the ultimate hierarchy. Our prophet, Pres. Russell Marion Nelson Sr., receives revelation directly from God. It doesn't get any more hierarchical than that.
  2. Transparency is the coin of the realm in the Internet age. The Church, a Kingdom that is partly divine and partly human, struggles with transparency as indeed it must. Some things are sacred and pearls should not be cast before swine.
  3. Trust in institutions is diminishing. How do people make buying decisions today? They look for five stars from a neighbor on Amazon rather than reading the manufacturer's slick and glossy brochure.
  4. You don't sell much stuff knocking on doors anymore. We need innovative new systems to keep our missionaries productive.
  5. Social media is hard to manage. In the old days, the Church could air Home Front spots on prime time TV or take out an ad in Reader's Digest and get our message out. Nowadays, each of the myriad content distribution channels has different protocols and audience expectations.
  6. Search engines only identify "relevance," not truth. Search results on many subjects are more likely to be faith-destroying than faith-affirming.
  7. Critics troll Church content online. The Church can post a terrific video on YouTube and haters within hours will post multiple low-budget videos contradicting the Church's position. After a member or investigator finishes watching the Church's polished production, YouTube's algorithm will suggest the attack videos.
  8. Authenticity can outperform professionalism. The Church generally projects a clean-cut, classy image. Crude, unkempt reality content often gets more views, likes, and shares.
  9. Humor rules. Most Church content is not very entertaining.
  10. Diversity and tolerance are considered ultimate virtues. Obedience to eternal truth is often spun as old-fashioned if not discriminatory.
  11. Twenty years ago, people required an average of 9 interactions with a product before they made a purchase decision. Today, 24 touch points are required on average before a prospect becomes a customer or an investigator a member, and that number is steadily rising.
Is the Church true? Yes. Is the Book of Mormon the most divine object most of us will ever hold in our mortal hands? Yes. Will the Savior return in glory and clean up this mess? Yes. Are we gathering Israel on both sides of the veil and preparing the world for the Second Coming? Yes. Will the Church figure out this online technology thing? Yes. "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine."

I took several members of the Book of Mormon Central staff to Google Headquarters in March, 2018. Visiting with a number of Latter-day Saint Googlers, we learned that two of the Apostles had been in Mountain View a few weeks before us. After learning that Google has eight products used by more than a billion customers (Search, Gmail, YouTube, Maps, Android, Chrome, Play Store, Drive) Elder Bednar reportedly said that we in the Church need to raise our sights and increase our expectations.

Of the 16,313,735 baptized members of record on December 31, 2018, how many attend Church on a given Sunday? About 30% according to Matt Martinich who publishes the LDS Church Growth blog. That would be about 4.9 million people in the pews which is likely a reasonable proxy for the number who make the Book of Mormon an important part of their daily life. The United Nations estimates there are 7.7 billion humans on the planet in April, 2019. The Book of Mormon went on sale to the public on March 26, 1830 in Palmyra, NY. After 189 years, the Book of Mormon has achieved a market penetration rate of .000636, less than 1/15 of 1%, or about 6 people out of every 10,000.

The bad news is we probably could have done much better. The good news is we did pretty well in 1989 by following Pres. Benson's recipe given in his October, 1988 General Conference talk mentioned above. Pres. Benson asked us to produce:
  • videos
  • reading programs
  • translations into many languages
  • articles
  • broadcasts
  • lectures and symposiums
  • classes
  • talks
  • books
  • insights
  • electronic media capable of mass distribution
  • conversion stories
  • recordings
  • displays
  • film, drama, literature, music, and paintings
He  also asked us to:
  • read daily
  • make the Book of Mormon more central in our work
  • arouse mankind's interest
  • answer the great questions
  • abide by its precepts
FARMS was doing pretty much everything on the prophet's list in the 1988 - 1989 time frame. And, Book of Mormon Central is doing pretty much everything on the list today, albeit at a modest scale.

In order to learn how highly effective organizations scale in 2019, I took Zander Sturgill and Daniel Smith from Book of Mormon Central with me to Traffic & Conversion Summit 2019 in San Diego in February. The good news is some of the most talented digital marketers on earth are faithful Latter-day Saints who in their heart of hearts want to use their skills someday to help build the Kingdom. The additional good news is religious content has many characteristics compatible with modern distribution technologies.

The ideal mix for the Church in 2019 is to produce 50% of its own online content, with 30% coming from members (user-generated content) and the other 20% from trusted independent voices such as Book of Mormon Central (affiliates). The actual numbers right now are closer to 90% coming from the official Church, 8% from members, and 2% from trusted independent organizations. The ideal is achievable with increased donor support which will drive member awareness. The Church, its members, and those of us in supporting organizations are getting more adept at the modern media landscape every day.
Official Church Social Media Channels
Every one of the 15 living prophets, seers, and revelators has a Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter account and the Church just created a public Facebook Group (a gutsy move, frankly. I do not envy the moderators). The Church has many YouTube channels. Here is how the Church's primary YouTube channel compares with a handful of channels from other religious institutions and with Book of Mormon Central @ April 6, 2019:
Name                                                            Subscribers   Views
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints   855,293         310,717,388
The Bible Project (non-denominational)       1,285,111           96,637,678
Vatican News                                                   223,177           38,208,070
Life.Church (online ministry)                            146,684           13,109,264
United Methodist Videos                                      9,356              2,512,833
Seventh Day Adventist Church                           21,751             1,910,035
Lakewood (largest US Megachurch)                   60,624             1,491,423
Book of Mormon Central (channels 2, 3)             23,290             2,582,301

With Pres. Nelson's extraordinary leadership, can Church membership growth numbers come roaring back to the levels they achieved during Pres. Benson's era? Yes, if we help the Book of Mormon accomplish its intended purpose. As Elder Christofferson said in his April 7, 2019 General Conference address, publication of the Book of Mormon was the signal the gathering of Israel in the last days has begun, and the Book of Mormon is the instrument of that gathering and conversion. Pres. Nelson has repeatedly emphasized the gathering of Israel is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude. Nothing else compares in majesty.

Kirk Magleby volunteers as Executive Director of Book of Mormon Central which makes the Book of Mormon accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to the entire world in English and Spanish.