Converts per missionary revisited

Last year around this time I had one of my first posts here at T&S on an analysis of the number of converts per missionary. I thought, given the latest data from the Church, it would be worth revisiting the topic. I had noted a huge drop in missionary productivity first around 1989 after an unexpected leap. The next big drop was between 2011 and 2012 which was somewhat tied to some birth rate demographics but also the shifting of the age for missionaries to 18 years old. I won’t repeat everything I said there so I’d advise checking out the original if you are interested.

 

Year

Convert Baptisms

Missionaries

 Converts/Missionary

2009

280,106

51,736

5.41

2010

272,814

52,225

5.22

2011

281,312

55,410

5.08

2012

272,330

58,990

4.62

2013

282,945

83,035

3.41

2014

296,803

85,147

3.49

2015

257,402

74,079

3.47

2016

240,131

70,946

3.38

While the latest data isn’t great, it’s not quite as bad as I feared it might be. We’re just below where we were in 2013 but weren’t able to keep up with the efficiency we had the prior two years. Certainly nothing was a return to the years before the age change of missionaries let alone where we were in the 90’s.

As others have noted the age change for missionaries may well be primarily about helping the missionaries themselves. I’ve not seen any statistics on how many people fall away from Church between the time they graduate high school and the time they could go on a mission. The theory is that there were enough that this might change the retention rate for young men in particular. I’ll confess I’m skeptical. I’d bet few of those that fell away were apt to go on a mission at 18 given the chance. However if the policy stays in place for a few more years it’d suggest it is having an effect on retention of youth even if it is hurting missionary work.

The one worry is the absolute number of converts. Other than a large dip in the early naughts, the number of converts has remained reasonably consistent since the late 90’s. That means we’ve not experienced geometric growth for quite some time. However the past two years has seen consecutive drops in absolute numbers of converts. While others might disagree I tend to see that as tied to the age change. We were able to keep it from happening initially just because of the large number of missionaries (partially due to demographics and partially due to the age change). Now that the absolute numbers of missionaries has dropped we’re more easily seeing the effect.

Addition:

Since I’d just intended discussing the recent data I didn’t put up all the data that was in the original post. I probably should have done that to avoid confusion. Most of this data was discussed extensively there. I’d strongly encourage reading through the discussion in the comments as well. The figures I put up above are largely just the data since the trend started. But to understand what changed you really need to look at a longer period. I’ll here include data since around 1995. That’s a somewhat arbitrary date. Partially because it’s when I graduated but partially because that’s also when the various interesting demographic trends in America started with the rise of the Nones. I have a spreadsheet with the data. The original post went back to 1972, but I don’t have all that data handy.

The first graph is just a scatter chart of missionaries versus converts so you can easily see the relationship.

The more useful graph is the full converts per missionary going back to 1995 which shows just how abrupt the change was. You see a decreasing rate in the late 90’s followed by stabilization and a slight rate of increase. Then the bottom falls out. This is even more apparent when you look at the longer timeline.

When you look at the absolute numbers of converts the trends are pretty apparent too. The first big drop is when worthiness and physical requirements were changed. That led to a big drop in the number of missionaries which corresponded to a big drop in converts. After the system adjusted things were stabilized until the recent change.

As I said a lot of this was discussed in the prior post.

43 comments for “Converts per missionary revisited

  1. rcb1820
    April 1, 2017 at 11:45 pm

    In an increasingly secular world, should it be any surprise convert baptisms should be stagnant or declining?

  2. Bob F
    April 2, 2017 at 12:14 am

    The fallout from the Romney candidacy and the Mormon Moment is more likely to explain the declining convert numbers and missionary efficiency.

  3. DF
    April 2, 2017 at 8:32 am

    I’m less interested in baptism numbers than I am in “active 1 year after baptism” numbers. After serving in a mission where the majority of newly baptized members did not attend 1 month (or later) after baptism, I would happily trade baptisms for true converts.

  4. Not a Cougar
    April 2, 2017 at 10:39 am

    DF, amen.

    Clark, I acknowledge your concern about the lowering of the missionary age, but I disagree that 18-20 year olds are any less effective than 19-21 year olds. They are still teaching the same basics of LDS doctrine using the same basic techniques and a new missionary is going to be socialized into a companionship, district, and zone that has some fairly strict behavioral norms. I just don’t think the individual maturity of a missionary is as great a factor in finding and teaching as you assert it to be.

    Whether the lowering of the age will improve retention of young people or not, I have no idea. I personally still think the lower number of baptisms reflects the Church’s difficulty in getting missionaries into high growth missions. Can’t get a missionary into Ghana? Send’em to Atlanta.

  5. Al
    April 2, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Many who convert to the church (through neighbors, extended family members, boyfriends and girlfriends, etc.) would do so regardless of the number of missionaries. (Many other churches that have nothing like our missionary force nonetheless have converts.) The number of converts of this kind does not change when you increase the number of missionaries, so it is no surprise that adding missionaries lowers the convert to missionary ratio. It would be shocking if this were not the case.

    There may also be a trend of declining interest in (our) religion.

    I put your chart into a regression calculator to see if one could approximate convert baptism number by a linear function of year and missionary number. The least squares best fit I find is

    BAPTISMS = -9804 YEAR + 1.46 MISSIONARIES + CONSTANT

    If we want to be lazy social scientists and take regression as gospel, this says that the number of convert baptisms attributable to missionaries is only 1.46 per missionary per year (other converts would have joined regardless) but that there is a general trend of a 9800 decrease in baptism number each year due to other factors (like declining religiosity).

    My point is not that we SHOULD take regression as gospel (the fit is not perfect, there are surely other factors, etc.) but just that this is one of the simplest models one can think of, and it doesn’t require us to assume that the newer missionaries (who skew younger and more female than before) are in any way less effective (or less effectively utilized).

  6. J
    April 2, 2017 at 11:21 am

    I have witnessed on a number of occasions mission presidents, staying in my home, spend entire evenings dealing with group of missionaries that have a variety of problems. If one were called as mission president and asked if you want 100 eighteen year olds or 40 twentyone year olds, I know what I’d choose.

  7. Mary Ann
    April 2, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    “I’ve not seen any statistics on how many people fall away from the church between the time they graduate high school and the time they could go on a mission.” According to a 2008 video released by Mormon Leaks last October, 72% of YSAs are inactive by age 20. I’m not sure how many leave prior to high school graduation, but age 20 in 2008 is clearly a pre-mission figure (boys weren’t returning home from missions till age 21).

  8. April 2, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    I suspect that the bulk of the 72% inactive doesn’t come from active 17 year olds, who then went inactive after a year of college; but from kids who were baptized between 9-11 who went inactive once the missionaries were transferred.
    Lowering the mission age isn’t going to affect that group at all.

  9. Clark Goble
    April 2, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Mary Ann, I’m really, really skeptical of a 72% inactive figure. I heard of that but that makes very little sense given what we know of retention figures which puts LDS retention between 60-70%. Even acknowledging different retention for the latest generation that’s so out of line with previously published studies on youth that I’m pretty skeptical. I’d love to know how they calculated that figure.

    Al, the reason I’m skeptical of that conclusion is that as the number of missionaries has decrease the productivity rate per missionary hasn’t changed drastically. In this case a drop from 83k to 70k. The original alternative story to it not being due to age was there being too many missionaries for too few teaching pool. I think the evidence now is just overwhelming against that explanation. The problem is that were it not the missionaries then we wouldn’t expect the rate to persist as the total number of missionaries returned to trend.

    Bob, the problem with it being the “Mormon Moment” is that was underway well before the 2012 election. Yet we only see the problem when the age of missionaries changed. As I mentioned the initial explanation was too many missionaries with not enough places to teach. I think that’s been largely falsified. The problem with the Mormon Minute is that the time frame doesn’t line up.

    Not, the inability to get missionaries to where growth would make them most effective is a plausible explanation. I don’t really have a way to evaluate that. I’d want to know where those areas were, how many missionaries were needed versus supplied, and whether easy to send places were oversaturated. I’m really skeptical of that explanation although I’ll acknowledge it as a possibility.

  10. Al
    April 2, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Clark,

    I think you use phrases “the evidence now is just overwhelming” and “largely falsified” more loosely than most statisticians would. :)

    You can often fit seven data points pretty with well with a variety of stories. That’s just how real world data is. Things go up and down. I would not say the evidence is overwhelming for any one of these stories at this point.

    In particular, the observation you mention (the stabilization of the baptism/missionary ratio) is also perfectly consistent with the regression formula I gave, which would suggest that for the last couple years a prevailing trend of declining interest has happened to coincide with the decrease in missionaries. The regression formula fits the data pretty well, as regression formulas often do, so nothing you say argues against that.

    By the way, I don’t think anybody thinking statistically would expect the convert baptism to missionary ratio to remain exactly constant as the number of missionaries increased by a large amount (even if one assumes the missionaries to be equally capable): That is a strawman position (which I hope you are not defending). It would be like saying “We’ll get twice the productivity from our wheat fields if we water them twice as much.” Even if the fields are short of water, water amount (like number of missionaries) would be only one of many factors contributing to the outcome. You don’t double productivity by doubling just one ingredient. And to be concrete: there are obviously MANY people who come into the church through members who would have done so regardless of the number of missionaries.

    A more reasonable but still bold statement would be that, holding missionary ability constant, NUMBER of BAPTISMS is well approximated by

    a * NUMBER of MISSIONARIES + b where b is relatively small.

    (Nobody would expect b to be zero.) But I don’t think you’ve made a great case for the smallness of b. If your only way to make that hypothesis fit is to assume that male missionaries aged 18.5 to 20.5 are somehow significantly less capable than male missionaries aged 19 to 21 (and that new female missionaries are somehow less capable than the average old mostly-male-of-that-age force of prior years)…. well, you might be stretching a bit. :)

    At present, I don’t think you have much evidence for either the assertion that younger missionaries are less effective than older missionaries or the assertion that b is small. There are just lots of other equally plausible explanations.

    That’s just how small data sets go… Maybe somebody digging further into mission by mission data could tell a more convincing story… but we’re not there yet.

  11. Clark Goble
    April 2, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    Sorry, I should have provided more data. So for what I wrote in this post you’re completely correct. And undoubtedly my tone came off not as I intended given that. I should have done more than just link to the original post from last year with the full data. So you make a very good criticism given only what’s in this post. I actually was putting together the full dataset from the prior post I’d posted to explain that a tad more. Unfortunately my kids grabbed me, one thing led to an other and I didn’t get to redo the comments. No excuses of course – that doesn’t excuse the comments without providing sufficient support.

    The graph above just has the recent data but when you look at the dataset from a couple of decades it leaps out at you a lot more. I’ll have that put together in a little bit. So my apologies. My comments were based upon the larger dataset and not just the data from just before the trend begins.

    I’ll append the larger data at the end of the post although you can go to the linked post from last year and see the fuller data. In last year’s post I went back to around ’72 which lets you see a lot of prior trends. This time I’m just going back to ’95 which is the era of most of the recent trends.

    Edit: I put the extra data above. My apologies that the graph styles don’t match. I just copied the graphs from last year’s post and didn’t realize I’d had shadows in those graphs. Had I more time I’d fix that.

  12. Al
    April 2, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    Thanks Clark! But I’m not sure how the larger data set affects my comments.

    I don’t think a linear regression over the last thirty years would make sense (parameters like “number of people who would have been baptized in a year had there been no missionaries at all” probably went up and then down over that period, so assuming they were linear wouldn’t get one a very good fit).

    I think that if one wants to really build a case for the age change decreasing missionary ability, one would need some mission by mission data. (Some missions surged in size, others remained about the same size… which might help one tease apart the effect of global interest decline from other effects.) Even then it would be hard to work out cause and effect for sure, but at least we’d have some more clues….

  13. Jordan
    April 2, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    With the linear regression you’ve done, what was your correlation coefficient?

  14. BigSky
    April 3, 2017 at 2:13 am

    It seems to me more is at play here than the age of missionaries (although I think it contributes to the problem), the Mormon moment and secularism in general.

    I’m worried Mormonism’s story is losing relevancy as a solution/answer/value add to people searching for greater purpose and meaning in life, for prospective investigators and possibly younger members alike.

    We all know there are changes underway to retool the church’s teaching curriculum (“to make our doctrines more applicable to solving modern-day problems” to very loosely quote Elder Ballard’s reason for the changes in CES curriculum), and to solve YSA attrition through outreach, restructuring YSA wards (at least in along the Wasatch front), the lowering of the missionary age, the new website Mormon and Gay, etc.

    Still, I think we may be experiencing a kind of existential crisis-lite, and overall this may account for the malaise of grow we have been in. I hear rumblings through a few channels the problem is drawing a high level of attention within the top echelons of church leadership. It would be more concerning if it were not. Given our church’s approach to programmatic religion and the way the organization is run, any board of directors would be greatly concerned about the declining growth trend.

    If my numbers are correct, children of record baptisms are at an eight year low. Convert baptisms are at a 30 year low. Total members added this year is at a 34 year low.

  15. Al
    April 3, 2017 at 8:03 am

    I just plugged the chart numbers into wolframalpha (which is a fancy online calculator). Click on this link if you want to see that calculation.

    http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=linear+fit%7B2009,51736,280106%7D%7B2010,52225,272814%7D%7B2011,55410,281312%7D%7B2012,58990,272830%7D%7B2013,83035,282945%7D%7B2014,85147,296803%7D%7B2015,74079,257042%7D%7B2016,70946,240131%7D

    This is a multivariate regression: tries to write third parameter (baptism number) as function of first two (year and missionary number). Maybe using a spreadsheet would be better for computing things (like correlation coefficients between the various variables, variance of difference between observation and regression prediction, etc.) I didn’t compute these. But the residuals seem to be in the -10,000 to 10,000 range, so it is clear that most of the fluctuation is explained by the model.

    But there are only seven data points. So don’t take this too seriously or try to use it to predict the future. (But if you did, it would predict that once missionary levels stabilize, we will still see a decline of 9800 convert baptisms per year… if this indeed happens over the next few years, maybe then we’ll take the model seriously…)

    During the times of rapid missionary number change, you’d really want something like average number of missionaries out in the field rather than a number (including MTC) taken at a fixed time during the year. So I’m not even sure we have the right data. Also, on foreign language missions, the difference between a second year missionary (speaks language) and a first year missionary (doesn’t) is quite pronounced, probably matters more than difference between 18.5 and 19, and we’re not taking into account that the fraction of the force made up of first year missionaries was presumably much higher during the first year of the surge.

    Anyway, lots of playing around we could do if we had the mission by mission data. Anything we do with just what we have here is going to be pretty darn speculative.

  16. John Mansfield
    April 3, 2017 at 9:48 am

    test

  17. JamesT
    April 3, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Maybe it’s the message? I don’t know how one can put the true folk magic origin story in a modern context without looking misleading. Also, the internet has shown the truth about all the problems which is probably turning people off. Finally, I think mormonism, an american religion, rode a wave of americanism after WWII that is now dying out. People wanted to convert to the american religion because it was american and now america isn’t as popular as it once was.

  18. Clark Goble
    April 3, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Al, I confess I’m not quite sure what you’re arguing. I’m not sure just doing a naive short term linear regression tells us much.

    I’m not saying the baptism efficiency ought remain constant. That’s obviously a result of various interplays. The key argument when the drop first happened is that there was a huge increase in missionaries but not necessarily places for them to go and be effective. That is, the quick increase in missionaries ought to have decreased efficiency. That’s understandable but were that all that was going on we’d expect as the number normalized that efficiency would improve. It might not return to trend, but we’d expect a significant rise. That didn’t happen which strongly suggested that main variable of change, age, was a major factor. As efficiency stayed low for quite a few years that suggests age was a major (but not the only) contributor.

    When you have that major of a drop right as you change a major factor (age) and it doesn’t revert when the other confounding variables change, I think that’s strong compelling evidence that age is the main factor at play. As I said, I’m not quite sure what you’re doing with the regression. It doesn’t appear to be what I initially took you to be arguing.

    BigSky, there’s certainly more at play. Data we don’t have that would be useful to have is the distribution of missionaries and productivity per region. Looking at how that changes around our inflection point would be very helpful. The other theory is that the Church isn’t able to get visas to get missionaries to where they are needed. I can’t dismiss that theory. The implication would be that missionaries, despite the drop in numbers, still are being put where there’s more supply of missionaries than there is demand.

    While relevancy of the church is a concern – especially as secular trends affect non-European nations – I’m not sure that explains the data. Again it seems too coincidental that such a trend would happen just as the effects of age happen. Also there are starting to be arguments that the rate of increase of the Nones is slowing somewhat in the US. I don’t know if those secularization trends are affecting other areas like Latin America the way they have Canada and the US.

    To the larger point I fully agree though that too much of our missionary program is oriented around basic concerns of people that are wrapped up with them already buying into basic Christian conceptual schemes. The idea of sin, authority, and so forth make sense to us for the value of the church. They don’t apply as well to Asian countries and secular ones. I think we need to seriously rethink how we present our message depending upon the type of investigator. Dissatisfied Christians has been a very successful teaching pool for us in the past. I’m not sure it will continue to be in the future. But in the short term I’m not sure that’s the problem.

  19. Clark Goble
    April 3, 2017 at 10:28 am

    James T while that is an issue I don’t think it can really explain the data well. For one people have been arguing that’s been going on since the late 90’s when the public first got online in huge numbers. Certainly all the information available has been available for quite some time. Why then the recent drop? The dates just don’t work. Indeed the period from around 9/11 to the stock market crash in 2008 numbers were increasing, not decreasing. But that also represents the period when the internet became ubiquitous. The drop happens precisely as the age requirement changes.

  20. JamesT
    April 3, 2017 at 11:17 am

    Perhaps there is a delay in people waking up to the weaknesses in the story and the drop in numbers? The influence of the internet isn’t always instantaneous. Also, the mormon moment might have caused more light to be on the critics and their views and that has caused more attention to be placed there than prior. Additionally, the recent essays validated a lot of information that was viewed as “anti.”

    Nevertheless, one can’t discount the ineffectiveness of younger missionaries. Missionaries have been young for a while. It’s kids called to do an adult job. But there seems to be a difference between 18 and 19 as far as maturity goes and there might be more mission president babysitting now that there are more and younger homesick missionaries to deal with. This could affect effectiveness.

  21. Clark
    April 3, 2017 at 11:36 am

    I think “anti” has more to do with how things are written than the content. But again, I’m just skeptical it’s information for a variety of reasons. But the timing is the biggest one. It seems very unlikely that people would just start paying attention to information right as the age for missionaries change. That’s not to deny larger social effects that are affecting Christianity in general. Just that I’m skeptical it deals with this particular trend.

    It helps that there are obvious issues with 18 as well. Not everyone matures at the same rate. As I said at 18 I was in no way prepared to go on a mission. I was just socially too immature. I know I’m not alone. Whereas by the time I hit 20 I was starting to be a good missionary. I think this issue of maturity is a huge one.

  22. Al
    April 3, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Clark,

    I’m just pointing out that we have no evidence for the hypothesis that younger missionaries are less capable than older missionaries. You simply do not need that hypothesis to fit the data.

    If you are not arguing that hypothesis, then we have no disagreement.

    The more likely explanation is that — even assuming equal abilities — doubling the number of missionaries does not double the number of baptisms, for the various reasons that you mention and that we both know. So, yes, age change causes most of the surge in missionary number. Yes, increase in missionary number causes at least part of the decrease in baptism to missionary ratio. So, yes, indirectly (and if this is all you are arguing, I agree with you) age change is partly to blame for the decrease in this ratio.

    But I’d add that we have no evidence that this has anything to do with the new missionaries being less capable than the old ones.

  23. Clark
    April 3, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    No I understand you’re arguing that, I just don’t understand the argument itself. It seems to me your regression doesn’t address that because you’d have to compare it to the different equation for before the age change. You’ve not done that but have only done a short analysis of the past few years. But that doesn’t count as a counter-explanation as it doesn’t explain the change. I think that argument made sense from 2011-2014. I don’t quite see the argument now that numbers of missionaries have dropped. Could you flesh it out? I just don’t see how the regression you provided has any bearing on answering that question.

    Again, to be clear, if the argument is there were a fixed “maximum” of people ready to hear the missionaries, then as the number of missionaries dropped back closer to trend, we’d expect the productivity to increase. But that’s exactly what we don’t see.

  24. Ben H
    April 3, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    I think you make a strong case, Clark, that the drop in age has reduced effectiveness from the standpoint of convert baptisms. Obviously there is a lot more information/data that in principle could be brought to bear, but it should be no surprise that more mature missionaries tend to be more capable. Given that the number of missionaries is staying significantly higher, though, I think the church may well stick with the policy. RMs are not only more likely to stay active, missionary service develops all manner of other skills and positive traits that strengthen the missionaries, their families, and the church. I could certainly see it going either way, but the number of convert baptisms is only one of a few very important numbers for evaluating this decision. Activity rates and marriage rates for young people are every bit as important. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a significant rise in the percentage of female RMs who are married by age 25, because these days ages 21-23 are prime time for courting and marriage, unlike a generation ago when large numbers of Mormon women were marrying before then. Shifting the use of those more mature years for young women (21-23) from missionary service to dating (and raising the number of female missionaries in the bargain), could be a big positive for the church. We could also see divorce rates drop since more young people are a little more mature when they make that big decision. Anecdotally, I hear that significant numbers of young people are marrying people they met through serving in the same mission. That sounds like a good bet for stronger marriages.

    It would be very interesting to know the gender breakdown in these numbers, so we would know whether larger numbers of young men are serving missions, since we’re catching them a little sooner, or just larger numbers of young women.

    Another factor to consider in this assessment is the role of Facebook and other social media in proselyting. I hear that there was a change to encourage missionaries to use social media more in proselyting quite close to the time of the age change as well. If that has proved ineffective, it could partly explain the drop.

  25. Al
    April 3, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Clark,

    Sure, I can put the regression line into story form if that helps. It’s just a story, but it’s at least as plausible as the story about a younger more female missionary force being dramatically are less capable on average. (And I can easily tell other stories that fit the very limited data we have.)

    STORY: Every year there is some number of converts who find the church through friends, church media, family members, and who would have joined the church really regardless of whether the number of missionaries were a factor of two lower or higher. Call these the Golden Converts. Although only a very small fraction of missionary time is spent with Golden Converts, these individuals comprise a surprisingly high fraction of the total number of convert baptisms. In 2009, in fact, there were about 200,000 Golden Converts.

    Unfortunately, a number of trends have been causing the number of Golden Converts to decrease. The number of people who sympathize with the church’s gay marriage position has dropped by about 40 percent over the last several years (and many of those who remain sympathetic are devout evangelicals who would not consider our church). Young people in general are less religious. Social media has changed the way people interact with each other. Inviting people to religious events has begun to feel more politically fraught and less socially acceptable. Fewer people are joining churches of any kind. Due to the combination of these factors, the number of Golden Converts has steadily fallen, from 200,000 in 2009 down to around 140,000 in 2016, a 30 percent decline. Not as much as support for the church’s marriage policy. But still a very significant decline.

    On the other hand, there are some people, whom we might call Contingent Converts who join the church because of direct effort by missionaries (maybe missionaries knock on their door, etc.) and who would not have joined the church had those missionaries not been there. Fortunately, the effectiveness of missionaries at finding Contingent Converts has remained surprisingly constant. Every year from 2009 to 2016, the number of Non-Golden Converts has been about 1.5 times the number of missionaries. About 3 per active companionship.

    Of course there is some noise (a few thousand each year up or down due to factors not explained in the model) but on the whole this story explains the data we have perfectly.

  26. Clark Goble
    April 3, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    I’m doped up to the eyes with allergy medicine and my brain is basically non-functional. So please excuse my lack of responses until I trust my mind enough to post. Right now I don’t think I could do simple arithmetic. Hopefully in a day or two.

  27. April 4, 2017 at 8:19 am

    Thanks for the charts and analysis, Clark. Here is my stab at it. http://www.churchistrue.com/blog/lds-membership-statistics-report-2017/ From an anecdotal perspective, I have my third missionary out right now, all having gone out in recent years. All of them seemed to struggle with baptismal success relative to the mission’s history.

  28. Clark Goble
    April 4, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    ChurchisTrue, I’ve been discussing this with various people in diverse places. One thing that’s quite surprising to me is that there appears to be a fairly significant change in how missionary work is done. Social media is used a lot more than anything else with some areas largely abandoning tracting. In at least a few missions they are also emphasizing basic skill training. Those I talked with saw this (and the 18 year old change) as primarily a recognition that missions are for the youth rather than proselytizing. If so, I think that a big mistake. I don’t know how widespread these practices but they combined with the age change are likely the source for the drop in conversions.

    AI, I think there are a two graphs that tell most of the story. First the productivity rate per missionary I focused on. The second one is the general trend on converts. To show it a bit better than what I did above, here it is as a percentage of the population.

    I think that shows there’s a big recent drop. That corresponds to the productivity numbers, but it also tends to showcase that we’re far out of trend.

    Now your account notes an other big change that’s happened roughly at the same time, the controversy over LGB issues. I don’t want to dismiss that as I think a different graph highlights that very well. This is a rough calculation of losses. (Church is true has a graph of this at his site too) This is calculated merely as the difference between the church population and the number of children baptized and converts. It’s not jus people leaving but also includes deaths. However it’s probably a reasonable proxy for people leaving both long term and recent converts.

    Looking at the longer trend (and ignoring the late 80’s) you see some effect that I suspect comes from LGBT issues. The question then becomes how much these (and other information decreases in membership) affect the rate of new conversions. Effectively what we’re asking is how to discern how much of the problem is missionaries being ineffective on their own versus political & theological issues.

    I don’t want to say we can completely eliminate political effects. However the big ‘scandal’ of church action on LGBT issue was the gay marriage as apostasy akin to polygamy issue. That didn’t occur until late 2015. You can see though that the big shift was 2014, not 2016 (after the announcement). If it were Prop-8 then it’d be around 2008 – and that’s actually when you do see a big shift in losses. Outside of an unusual blip in 2012 when losses were 53,476 most of the losses were reasonably consistent between 80,000 and 100,000. That changes in 2014 and 2015 when loses were bigger. While 2015 might be tied to the Obergefell SCOTUS decision and reaction to it, that doesn’t explain things that well. (It happened summer of 2015 but the numbers drop happens well before)

    Teasing out how much is due to age and how much is due to LGB issues is tricky. I think they’re a part, but I think that basically starts with Prop-8 around 2008 and slowly increases since then. If converts decrease at a rate proportional to people leaving tied to the issue that means the effect should be seen 2008 onward. That means any big bumps are due to something else.

    Effectively then we have two confounding issues. Something happens around 2014 to increase people leaving. Of course less effective missionaries will also affect activity and retention. So the age issue, like the LGBT issue, are hard to tease out. The question is what happened in 2013-2014 that would affect LGBT issues? I don’t see much. But the age change happens fall of 2012 and starts impacting numbers in 2013. That’s the main reason I think the numbers are tied to age.

    The counter argument, which I’ll confess I can’t fully dismiss, is that the numbers on age were slowly getting better due to not having the ‘surge’ with no place to put the huge number of extra missionaries. Right as that would have changed in 2015 you get Obergfell which then creates negative views of Mormons decreasing converts and loses due to leaving the church. While I can’t falsify fully that thesis I think the age theory has more explanatory power – although I’m sure Obergfell and then the gay marriage decision do have an effect.

  29. []
    April 4, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    If you include deaths in losses you’ll see a drastic rise for the next decade or so. The Baby Boomers are in their 70s.

  30. Clark Goble
    April 4, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Yeah it’s imperfect but the best we have. But it does limit what we can know from those figures. Still I’m skeptical the abrupt change is just due to deaths as people reach their 70’s. On the other hand if age of missionaries is an effect that might affect not just convert numbers but retention numbers thereby also contributing.

  31. rjamesh
    April 4, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    My apologies if this has been stated previously as a possible cause but what of the inverse relationship between the health of the economy (bottoming out in 2008) and the convert/missionary figures? Might that be a factor? Would be interesting to see how things go if the economy goes in the tank again, not that I’m anxiously awaiting any such event.

  32. Clark Goble
    April 5, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Part of the problem is that we have stats for the world and not just the US – even though the recession did hit many parts of the world. But if you look at the converts you’ll notice the decrease precedes the 2008 recession. Also the drop in converts in the late 90’s was during a time of a pretty strong economy. Now perhaps conversion goes up during hard financial times (the Nephite cycle) but I just don’t see a correlation. If we have data by region though we could perhaps look at it more accurately. After all even in the US some parts of the country were hit far worse than others.

    My guess is that the main cause of the drop in converts is largely the rising secularization of the world and our failure to really be able to present a message to Asia.

  33. Anonymous
    April 5, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    Nothing to contribute. I just wanted to say thanks to Clark G. and others who contributed to this post and thread. Really interesting discussion. More so than most on the bloggernacle right now.

  34. Need citation
    April 6, 2017 at 4:02 am

    “If it were Prop-8 then it’d be around 2008”

    Nah, it takes awhile for a reputation to coalesce or settle in, and combine that with a public increase in sympathy toward our gay brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors, and 2014 should be exactly when you’d see that effect. Combine that with any possible reaction toward the Mormons being the party of Mitt Romney, and now Donald Trump. Except for Tea Party and white supremacist types, that’s not something that’s going to play well in many world markets.

  35. Peter
    April 6, 2017 at 4:03 am

    Speaking as a ward mission leader in the UK who has recently served in a large thriving urban ward with lots of missionaries and high baptism rate at times and now a tiny struggling more provincial one, I see the biggest problems being the fundamental flaws in mission culture and how missionaries are expected to teach and interact with people.

    There is more than ever an intense infantilising hyper-control regime with missionaries at all levels bullied into constant totally unrealistic numerical goal setting that is very rarely achieved. This is totally demoralising, and morally compromises everything missionaries do as instead of focusing on the needs of the investigator and their free willl missionaries pressurise and manipulate them in countless overt or subtle ways to meet a sales target which they are repeatedly taught to believe is God’s revealed will (‘prayerfully set targets’) so trumps common sense or the investigators’ wishes.

    They baptise people long before they have demonstrated being committed or rooted enough in the ward and regular attendance so we have a massive rate of almost immediate attrition which everwhelms and demoralises wards and stakes, who then get distracted from ministering to the active members by chasing dead wood on the ward lists and we lose active people we should have kept. My stake has 22% activity rate and everyone in the world should never forget that we probably have more members on the Address Unknown Files than the ward lists. So the scale of dysfunction in how we baptise people before they are ready under this hyper salesmanship culture is devastating the Church.

    The message is also boring and irrelevant when with more flexibility there are a hundred ways missionary discussions and approached could be adapted to local needs and interests and culture, but we still don’t trust and allow local people and missionaries that flexibilith to experiment, so are trapped with a system that really hasn’t changed much in 70 years.

    The missionaries recently were told there is going to be more flexibility in their daily routine (they currently stay indoors till all the functional people with 9 to 5 jobs are out of reach in their workplaces which drives me CRAZY) and investigators may be expected to attend longer than 2 Sundays before baptising them – baby steps in the right direction – and I think some abandonment of telling investigators in the first or second discussion that you have already prayed about and decided on their baptism date, which is in Preach My Gospel and totally insane.

    The mental health damage this is doing to missionaries is appalling, specially 18 year olds with no experience of living and thinking independently so they naively trust totally dysfunctional systems and obedience obsessed amateurs in leadership without enough skepticism to question the crazy stuff, and it is causing carnage. So that is the main worry regarding younger missionaries. They drink the Kool-Aid and it is poisoning them and they come home early and sick and disillusioned by what was done to them and many immediately go inactive.

    The problems are within, not without. We have been given a Restored Gospel with big exciting ideas for the space age. We should not in any way be following the trends of the apostate dead denominations – we should still be seeing exponential growth and if we are not that is entirely our fault for failing to communicate with world that exciting knowledge and news.

    If the rhetoric and cultural trend in the Church is running towards pharisaical Amishness instead of embracing the wonderful worldly trends towards Christ-like compassion and tolerance and taking better care of the poor, we are never going to survive and the rapid decline is already settling in.

    In a world of billions of people missionaries should be able to find one good convert a month if only how they are doing it was not so thoroughly dysfunctional. Stop ALL target setting and see what unfolds.

  36. Clark Goble
    April 6, 2017 at 10:11 am

    I tend to agree that the biggest problems are with how we structure the missionary programs. I think there is indication they are trying different things. I see stories of test programs in various areas. One thing I’ve harped on is that people who are primarily secular or non-Christian just don’t respond to a message that is largely tailored to dissatisfied Christians. While we’ve been very successful with that message in the past, we need to adjust to the new post-Christian (or in Asia non-Christian) world. In particular in Asia Evangelicals and Seventh Day Adventists have been far more successful than we have.

    All of this is tied, I suspect, to the problem of 18 year old missionaries though. Giving missionaries more flexibility requires them to be more responsible. The reality is that even many well meaning 18 year olds simply aren’t yet. Some are of course, but enough aren’t that it limits what one can structurally do.

    Again though, I fully understand wanting to maintain retention of the youth. A lot of people get converted on their missions, learn to understand the spirit, and become mature then. So there’s a balancing act of what you do for the youth and what you do for potential converts. The statistics just make me think that things are out of balance right now. Of course I say that not knowing retention statistics, but as I’ve said I’m skeptical the change to 18 will make a big difference.

    To the idea that effects wouldn’t happen at 2008 but would take a while, I’m skeptical I’ll confess. But I also think that if that were the cause we’d expect a gradual shift instead of the big drop exactly when the 18 year old change takes place.

  37. Wally
    April 6, 2017 at 11:19 am

    I’ve been keeping track of these statistics going back to 1960. This happens to be the lowest baptisms/missionary number since 1960. I’m sure there are a few factors here, but the age of the missionaries is probably a significant one.

  38. Chet
    April 6, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Just searched “stone without hands” at lds.org and it brought up a talk from ten years ago by Pres. Hinckley. Trying to reconcile his talk with this post and the wisdom of Rodney Stark.

    Peter, thank you for your candid comments above. I am returning to my mission field of France in a few weeks for the temple festivities so I have done a lot of recent reflection on my shortcomings as a missionary and about people I have not seen in 27 years.

    Two years ago when my daughter was 18 she declared her independence from the Church and it is painful to wonder if she will come back after prodigal wanderings.

  39. Marivene
    April 6, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    One factor that has not yet been mentioned is the effect of 18 year old missionaries on the members. 18 year old male missionaries, who have not spent a year away from home, with roommates adjusting some of those rude, self-entitled behaviors, seem to be making that adjustment with their companions.

    I have a son in Georgia who used to feed the missionaries regularly, any time they had a dinner appointment fall thru. Then they only fed the sisters. Now it is a rare occasion to feed the missionaries at all. Reason? Rude behavior. Chances of a referral? Zero.

    I have a daughter in Washington State. They used to feed the missionaries fairly regularly. Now they don’t. Reason given? Rude behavior. She said she didn’t put up with that type of behavior from her brother when he was that age, & she doesn’t see it as her job to teach these young men what their parents did not. Chances of a referral? Zero.

    Another daughter living in Utah. Same story – immature, rude behavior. Chances of a referral? Zero.

    Living in Utah County, I find myself simply passing the list to sign up to feed the missionaries on down the row. We have had convert baptisms in our ward, but the members referred to the ward mission leader, not the full time elders.

    Since we know that referrals from members are more likely to bear fruit than other, I would think that a drop in member referral would be a significant reason for a drop in baptisms.

  40. P.L.
    April 7, 2017 at 1:25 am

    Living in the mission field, my wife and I have noticed that the missionaries aren’t as “good” as they used to be. Effective probably is a better word.

    I never thought about them being younger, because they don’t really seem any younger.

    But they’ll linger at my house for literally 2-3 hours (more once or twice) before getting to the point of a message, which is always at the prodding of me asking them finally if they have a message.

    We’ve just said to each other several times (different missionaries), “They don’t make them like they used to”. And they’re all from similar regions as well so it’s not like we’re getting tons of Florida missionaries now where they used to be from Utah or something.

    I wonder if too many inexperienced missionaries were promoted too early to be leaders when the surge happened, which led to lots more poorly trained (in the field) missionaries, and that institutional on the job training is still trickling down?

    They just seem less focused. Less determined. Less organized. Less self-directed.

  41. ThinkForMyself
    April 7, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I appreciate this discussion. It’s very in-depth and well thought out. There seem to be some big themes of the “reasons” for the declining conversion rates, namely age of missionaries, missionary teaching methods/curriculum, economy, and social factors (LGBT, etc.).

    Respectfully, I believe there is a much larger culprit at play: the Internet. When unfiltered information is now both abundant and credible (not just the old over-the-top anti-mormon pamphlets from the 1970s and 80s), it’s no wonder that interest in the church is declining. The church has tried to address this head-on with their essays, but it seems that the essays are also confirming many of the issues that used to be called “anti-Mormon lies” when I was growing up.

    IMO, the Mormon church needs a fundamental shift in how it addresses its history. It relies on a story that in many cases can be easily debunked in a credible way on the internet. Sure, it’s not all about history — a lot is based on faith. But for the younger generation, the old black-and-white narratives no longer work.

  42. Joel
    April 7, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    One way to think about this is to imagine Mormonism as something having niche appeal and it has reached market saturation. Maybe there are only so many people in the world who, in a given year, are open to conversion. And for them to be converted, they need to be near a Mormon congregation. So you can keep throwing more missionaries out there, and it’s not going to increase the number of converts. Mapping converts per member or per congregation might show a more consistent relationship.

  43. Clark Goble
    April 7, 2017 at 11:01 pm

    “ThinkForMyself” I think the argument that it’s the internet is a bit of a problem since the internet had widespread access in the 90’s. For a while some saw the decrease in converts from 1995-2003 as tied to the internet (although personally I’m skeptical). The problem is that from 2003 upwards conversions increased.

    I’m not saying the internet doesn’t have an effect. I just think it’s much more muted than many do. I do think there’s been a big shift in how the Church handles it’s history. The church sponsored book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre for instance was warts and all. Many recent entries to lds.org also are pretty forthright about history. Also, to be frank, there’s no shortage of good books by faithful members on all these things and have been for quite a long time. Were you writing in 1992 I’d think you’d have a good point. In 2017 with the amazing collection of history available I’m far more skeptical.

    Joel, I think the question is what this saturation point is. The reason I’m skeptical is because as the number of missionaries drops you’d expect the number of converts to go back to what it was in 2013 but it doesn’t. It drops. That suggests it’s not some maximum amount. Further when the number of missionaries increases significantly in 2014 the number of baptisms go up even the the number per missionary decrease.

    I’m open to the theory you put forth as being possible. I just don’t think the numbers we have work with our having reached this saturation point.

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