Last week the church reported 16,565,036 members. What did some foresee a quarter of a century ago for 2020? Back to the past’s future.
In the Ensign of August 1993 an analysis of church growth concluded: “If growth rates for the past decade remain constant, membership will increase to 12 million by the year 2000, to 35 million by 2020, and to 157 million by the mid-twenty-first century.” (p. 75).
Same projection by Bennion and Young in 1996, based on various variables but with plenty of reservations, leading to a cautious: “The First Presidency in 2020 will preside over no more than about 35 million members.” (p. 29). However, their most positive projections, based on regional dynamics, “generate forecasts which cumulatively project much higher growth rates than those based on the combined population. Thus the cumulative membership size for the Series 1 projections [based on regional growth rates between 1980 and 1990] in 2020 comes to 121 million” (p. 20).
Bennion and Young also made these tentative predictions for 2020:
- “By 2020 a majority of all church members will reside in Latin America with less than one-fourth in North America, a near reversal of the 1995 pattern in just twenty-five years.“
- “We expect to see from three to six new apostles, with at least one from either Latin America (maybe Mexico), Europe (United Kingdom or Germany), or Asia (Japan or Korea).”
- “Latin America will loom ever larger than now, with populous Brazil making up for its late (post-1978) start and adding the most members. Yet North America, and mainly the Great Basin Kingdom, will retain its central place as the prime source of decision-making, despite its reduced numerical status.”
- “Even with a Spanish-and Portuguese-speaking majority among the world’s 35 million Mormons by the year 2020, English, we predict, will still prevail as the only official language of the universal Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Bennion and Young’s final paragraph repeats the caution: “This prediction, like most of those made in this essay, may well prove wrong. The only opinion we can express with confidence is that the next quarter century will bring the church as many changes and surprises as the past one has.”
In 1994, the conviction of major growth in Latin America made also Matthew Shumway project the following for 2020:
“For rates of growth, the fastest growing world regions are Africa (13 percent), Mexico and Central America (12 percent), South America (10 percent), and Asia (9 percent). For absolute growth, the newest members of the Church are coming from South America, Mexico and Central America, the western United States, and the eastern United States. If current regional growth trends continue, the demographic makeup of Church members will be dramatically different in the future. The biggest changes will be in the United States, Canada, and Europe, regions that will likely decline from around 40 percent in the year 2000 to 22 percent by 2010 and only 11 percent of Church membership by 2020. On the other hand, Mexico, Central America, and South America should increase from around 46 percent in the year 2000 to 62 percent in 2010 and 71 percent of all Church membership by 2020.”
Shumway did not give estimates in number of members, but his calculation of demographic shifts in percentages was based on “current regional growth trends” – the same as Bennion and Young’s basis for the high estimates that would lead to more than 100 million members in 2020.
Interesting to note is that also in 1996, Rodney Stark, who famously projected figures of a century of church growth in 1984, revisited and confirmed his estimates. In 1984 he had projected for 2080 a high estimate of 267 million members and a low estimate of 60 million (the latter was seldom quoted). He maintained those estimates, but details them in intervals. His intermediate calculation for 1995, which he could then compare to reality, showed he had been rather cautious: his high estimate for 1995 was 8,521,000 members, his low estimate 6,875,000. The church actually reported for 1995 a total of 9,439,000 members, which at the time led to some cheering that the church was growing even faster than Stark’s highest estimate. But based on the same growth ratios, Stark projected for 2020 a high estimate of 23,480,000 members and a low of 13,246,000. It means a significant slowing since 1996, but still within Stark’s projected range, as the church reported 16,565,036 members at the end of 2019.
There are quite a few factors that may influence church growth. For conversion: changing attitudes toward organized religion, credibility of the message, tolerability to the claim of exclusive truth, international distinctness of the church’s name in languages around the world, missionary volume and effectiveness, public relations efficiency, countries’ political openness, migration impact, and more. Within the church, programs, activity rate, retention, fundamentalization or not, changing fertility, generational shifts, and more, play their role. It makes projections hazardous, but still these predictions express faith, hope and ambition.
I would also refer to the more recent analyses by Ryan Cragun and Ronald Lawson. They do not predict numerical developments, but come to sobering conclusions as to the future by examining the membership data for comparable proselytizing groups—Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. A main reason for the much lower result than most projections anticipated is probably to be found in the “secular transition” related to the level of economic development in each country. Their conclusion:
“The single largest predictor of growth is growth momentum—once a religious group starts to grow in a country, it continues to grow. However, that growth eventually slows due to a variety of factors, including reaching a saturation point and reduced demand. Aside from momentum, both supply and demand factors are important. However, of these, the most prominent is level of economic development. Once countries reach a moderately high level of economic development (HDI of .8 + ), these three groups experience very little to no growth. Whether that is due to modernization generally or social safety nets specifically, we cannot say. Future research should attempt to discern which of the two (it may be both) actually causes the secular transition. Either way, it is clear that once that point is reached, the future of these proselytizing religious groups in those countries is gloomy.”
For proselytizing religions, growth remains an overall concern. What factors can contribute to more progress? What can we do better? Do we still dare to make projections for the next 25 years?
 Bennion, Lowell C., and Lawrence A. Young. “The uncertain dynamics of LDS expansion, 1950-2020.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (1996): 8–32.
 Shumway, J. Matthew. “Membership Growth by States and Countries.” Historical Atlas of Mormonism (Simon & Schuster, 1994): 122–123.
 Stark, Rodney. “So far, so good: A brief assessment of Mormon membership projections.” Review of Religious Research (1996): 175–178.
 Cragun, Ryan T., and Ronald Lawson. “The secular transition: The worldwide growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists.” Sociology of Religion 71, no. 3 (2010): 349–373; Lawson, Ronald, and Ryan T. Cragun. “Comparing the geographic distributions and growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 2 (2012): 220–240.
 Cragun & Lawson, “The secular transition,” 370.