Mormon Replacement Rate Negative in United States

According to the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey the replacement rate of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has dropped to 80%. That means that for every five members who leave Mormonism behind four new converts join the Church.

In 2001, the CUNY Religious Identification Survey had found that Mormons, as well as Jehavah’s Witnesses, recruited large numbers of converts but lost members at the same rates. If the Pew Forum’s findings are correct then the LDS Church is no longer replacing its losses in the United States.

The Pew Forum surveyed 35,000 respondents, which is a magnificent asset for religion researchers because even relatively small religions will be represented with sufficiently large sub-samples yielding reasonable margins of error. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 1.7% of adult Americans are Mormon, which means that the sample contains 595 Mormons.

A random stratified sample of 512 respondents would yield a margin of error of +/-4%.

In this sample, the Pew researchers found that about 162 respondents had left Mormonism but only 132 had joined, which yields a deficit of 33 people (~5.5%). I am not sure but in the absence of information to the contrary, I am assuming that joining and leaving Mormonism applies to the life time of the respondents. Even so, that figure amounts to a substantial deficit.

Just for fun, lets consider the best and worst case scenarios in light of the samples margin of error. In the best case, which assumes the lowest possible number of departers and the highest possible number of converts, the Mormon replacement rate might exceed 1.1. That would mean that eleven members join for every ten that leave.

On the other hand, the worst case scenario would depress the replacement rate to less than 58% where less than six people would convert for every ten departures.

However, the mean departure rate of 80% is most likely the correct estimate. If that number were correct, and that is what the evidence says, it would indicate a substantial demographic challenge for LDS leaders and the Mormon community.

PS: This is a self-identification survey. Respondents will reveal their views of themselves, which means that there will be any number of people who will say that they are no longer Mormons but have not mailed a resignation letter to Salt Lake.

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71 Responses

  1. wayne says:

    Just in my circle of friends, about fifty whomI know of, forty have left the church. Most were fairly devout when we were teens. We all grew up in the Salt Lake Valley. Obviously not enough info to make a real inference about membership. It supports, at least the assertion that at least in Utah Church membership is on the decline.

    My question is, why are numbers so important? I think I can answer the question for myself why the leaders emphasize it. But for the average member, even in Utah, what’s more important is following the rules, taking care of kids and fulfilling your calling. Recruiting new members is not so much a concern.

  2. Interesting, Hellmut. Thanks.

    There is this in the news recently, too:

    The church is re-allocating its missionary resources, taking missionaries out of Europe and assigning them to Central America, South America, Africa and Utah. The overall number of missionaries has decreased, which the church attributes to raising the standards on the missionary program.

    I have to wonder about that explanation though. Losing 10,000 missionaries in 15 years when the church has grown by several million members in as much time seems like a lot.

  3. Hellmut says:

    Thanks for the article, Mrs. Meyers. I had not seen it before.

    David Knowlton’s claims about Uruguay are interesting but I have trouble seeing parallels between Scandinavians and Uruguay. Scandinavians converted to go to America.

    Building a self-sustaining Mormon community in Uruguay is an entirely different challenge. Correlation undermines pretty much everything that would need to happen to establish a thriving Mormon community outside of the United States.

    Therefore, I predict that there will not be a self-sustaining Uruguayan community within the next twenty years. I also predict that more than half of the Uruguayan return missionaries will have turned their back on the Church by then.

    That is what has happened all over Europe. To a large degree, it is a response to the illiberal and inhumane COB leadership model of which correlation is only the tip of the iceberg. A secondary cause is the intransigence of Mormonism to adapt to local cultures.

  4. #53 Hellmut ~ A secondary cause is the intransigence of Mormonism to adapt to local cultures.

    I see this as a huge stumbling block on Mormonism’s path to expansion.

    Trying to get the entire world to worship like 19th century white American Protestant pietists just isn’t going to cut it.

  5. Hellmut says:

    No, it isn’t going to cut it. Mind you, Americanism can be a powerful resource to the Church.

    But Americanism is attractive to foreigners because the United States stands for modernity, progress, and liberty.

    Mormonism does not represent that kind of America. The COB and the brethren are afraid of change, especially, when progress empowers women. The COB and the brethren are also reactionary with respect to taste and style.

    Correlation, I am afraid, obstructs the ability of Mormons to adapt to conditions abroad while explicitly rejecting the most attractive feature of the United States.

  6. Possibly a dumb question, but what does COB stand for?

  7. Holly says:

    church office building–the monstrosity at the corner of North Temple and State Street in downtown SLC.

  8. Seth R. says:

    Hellmut, South American cultures are even more patriarchal and authoritarian than Utah in some ways. So I don’t think your assumptions really hold with respect to Uruguay.

    In fact, I don’t think they really hold anywhere all that much. People are leaving because they are isolated, without support, harassed by society, and ostracized by friends and family. And they have a hard time transitioning into a new way of life. That’s why they leave. They don’t leave because the LDS Church actually bothers have an authority structure rather than holding a re-enactment of Lord of the Flies.

    I think you are projecting your own gripes onto everyone else here. It’s simply not a big deal for most people.

  9. Chris Smith says:


    Just ran across this post two years after the fact, and it seems I’m not the only one! You’ve done great work here. Thanks for digging into these numbers for us!


  10. Hellmut says:

    Thank you very much for your kind words, Chris.

  11. Deseretian says:

    This is a great topic. As a Mormon, and as someone who has served a mission to Europe, I know a bit about the issues under discussion. On the basis of my own observations of the demographic trends in three areas (CA, FL, and England) — informal observations, obviously — and on the basis of my studies of Mormon demographic history, I am confident that my church is headed for a demographic crash of terrifying proportions. I have no doubt that the Brethren are aware of this issue, but they are battling a culture (within the Church) that is not as hardened or obedient as past generations. I know that my former stake president in Southern California offended many faithful young couples when he suggested that they should not be waiting to have children. Mind you, he didn’t even address the fact that we stand no chance of positive growth unless each woman has no fewer than 4 children (assuming loss of some to less active status). I know that I and my wife are considered big family folk with our four children; few people in town have more than three. Within our ward, though, there are at least four other families with four or more kids whose parents are under 50. I do think the Church can repair this, but I don’t know when (or if) the leadership will choose to do so. If they forcefully expound upon the need for four or more children per family, a subset of Mormon women will comply; a subset will not comply. There will be a net loss, I think, but it will be repaired by long-term gains — faithful beget faithful. We’ll see what happens.

  12. Steve EM says:

    Your anecdotal observations can be confirmed by many others elsewhere. Weve lost most of a generation. But while I too am sure the GAs are aware of the problem, its also self evident they dont give a rats ass about it or are too old to act. The first step when one is in a hole is to stop digging. Im still waiting for the GAs to stop chasing people out of the church.

  13. Hellmut says:

    Good to meet you, Deseretian.

    It’s difficult to determine Mormon fertility rates. I suppose Utah fertility rates can be a proxy.

    Here is a discussion from the Deseret News about the 2006 statistics.

  14. Hellmut says:

    I agree with you, Deseretian, that the Brethren must know about this. I have reports from demographers that they apprised the Church statisticians about the inconsistencies of the annual membership statistics.

    I also think that current LDS policies actually contribute to the problem. Particularly, the abuses of statistics induce mission presidents to compare themselves to each other by baptismal numbers.

    That creates rather counterproductive incentives that lead to baseball baptisms and other ways of pressuring and bullying people into baptism who have not been really converted.

  15. While I appreciate Deseretian’s thoughtful response, I really hope that the church does not attempt to remedy this problem by encouraging young married couples to have at least four children each. Easing up on birth control rules and toning down the exhortations to have large families is one of the few areas effecting women that the church has actually improved on in the past several decades. I’d hate to see it regress on that.

  16. Interesting article, Hellmut. (Slightly tangential comment incoming . . .)

    “That’s not a real shocker” about Utah scoring the top fertility rate, said Brooke Welsh, a labor and delivery charge nurse at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo. That hospital had 471 births last month, for example, about 15 per day.

    I gave birth to my daughter at UVRMC in June 2006.

    Never again. That place is a baby factory. They practically don’t want you to check in for labor and delivery until the baby is crowning, plus the nurses didn’t know that a baby with a cleft palate can’t breastfeed. Ugh.

    OTOH, the pediatrician and the feeding specialist they got for me were both excellent, and the geneticist who visited from the University of Utah to see my daughter was ace.

  17. Chino Blanco says:

    The latest Mormon attempt to tout LDS church growth: How to Make Liberal Judaism Relevant? Ask a Mormon

    It’s really unfair to the rank-and-file that the official church won’t come out and honestly present membership and growth numbers. It makes the membership look dishonest when all they are is simply misinformed.

  18. chanson says:

    chino @68 — Wow, that’s quite an article!!! This is my favorite part:

    As a member of one of the fastest-growing faiths who wishes to see more Jews become active in their communities, I humbly offer several suggestions for making liberal Judaism more relevant and meaningful to people who are voting with their feet to abandon organized Judaism.

    I am in awe of his great humility, kindly offering less “relevant and meaningful” faiths tips on how to be as “relevant and meaningful” as the CoJCoL-dS. Of course the follow up — where Brother Humble explains that the problem is that Jewish services aren’t spiritual like LDS services (but instead preach politics, unlike LDS services!) — also showed impressive empathy and self-awareness. Then I also liked this closing bit to head off all those haters who disagree with his humble take on Mormonism vs. Judaism:

    Regular readers will note that comments from anti-Mormon bigots have been deleted from this site. I figure that if they have something to say to Jews, they can get their own blog.

  19. Chino Blanco says:

    Yeah, it was that closing bit that blew my mind … in a discussion offering advice to a tradition that counts Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed (not to mention all the myriad communities of diverse origin and culture within Judaism and Israel), Mark unwittingly hauls out contemporary Mormonism’s biggest challenge: how to get beyond the black-and-white, in-or-out, true-believer-vs-anti binary mindset. Physician, heal thyself. And giving up fudged numbers would be a good first step on the path to a healthier religious life.

  1. February 24, 2011

    […] Notice the bigotry? Neither did I. The only thing objectionable about that comment is that it was copied-and-pasted without attribution from Hellmut’s 2008 post. […]

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