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The Greatest Apostasy Since Kirtland? Following a Cohort of Members Across Time

For some years there have been rumors of a large-scale apostasy happening in the Church. These rumors are hard to test without insider information because most surveys have such small samples of Church members it’s really a case of peering through the glass darkly. 

I’ve been on record suggesting that in the long run the Church is treading water in terms of out-flows and in-flows (conversions versus people leaving). However, I also recognized that just comparing the number of ex-members to the members of converts at a point in time can obscure some more recent trends. 

I recently ran across the fact that the Cooperative Election Study has a sample of 136 members that they followed from 2010 to 2014. While this is a small sample size, it’s one of the very few cases where we can follow a cohort of members measured by a third party to see how many are leaving or joining. (For our small-N, high level purposes here I’m ignoring weights).   

If you follow this group across 2012 and 2014, we find that:

Again, and I can’t stress this enough, very, very small sample sizes. However, if for fun we extrapolate this out to the rest of the Church, in-flows from conversions, while they do somewhat buffer the outflows, don’t nearly make-up for them (especially once you take retention into account), which means that in the United States any growth from having babies has to make up for out-flows. If these numbers are even close to being correct, the outflow from the Church is not insignificant. 

Furthermore, as I’ve pointed elsewhere, a lot of the growth in absolute numbers isn’t even from people having babies now, but is an artifact of us having had lots of babies in the past. Therefore, if what we see here is even somewhat reflective of reality (and while the numbers are small it’s frankly one of the best data sources we have outside the COB), this reiterates the point I’ve made previously that we’re running on the fumes of yesterday’s baby booms, and that when that demographic momentum runs out the Church in the United States could enter a period of decline by any measure.  

Taking my social science hat off and entering into more big picture, speculative territory, I recall a quote from President Eyring (how’s that for a citation?) about ten years ago where he said that in the coming days the level of commitment that was previously required to stay in the gospel won’t be enough, and I think we’re seeing that here. I suspect that opportunity costs for membership in the Church have increased, leaving many people to search for other options that are better natural fits for them, which would suggest that the people who do stay are the ones for whom the Church is a better fit.  

Of course, when people point out the Church’s decline, there is often a subtext of “see, that’s why the brethren should do what I tell them of X,Y, Z.” However, I bet we’d see similar numbers if we look at other faith traditions. They’re all hemorrhaging, even the liberal ones. Additionally, the Church was growing faster when it was objectively stricter (e.g. 3 hour church) and more sexually conservative. I’m not saying we should go back to those days–not my call–but rather that people arguing that liberalization will help arrest the decline can’t just point to a trend and claim that as evidence that their particular prescription works.

This is a complicated issue, and when people suggest simple answers it feels like I’m back in my days as a missionary when it seemed like I was the only one who was skeptical that bringing back Dan Jones-type numbers to Europe was simply a matter of more grit and faith. How to keep a Church robust in an era of declining interest in institutional religion is a difficult problem, and I don’t envy those whose responsibility it is to try to solve it. 



LDS <- read.dta13(“CCES_Panel_Full3waves_VV_V4.dta”, generate.factors=TRUE)

LDS$Mo_10<-ifelse(LDS$religpew_10==”Mormon”, 1, 0)

LDS$Mo_12<-ifelse(LDS$religpew_12==”Mormon”, 1, 0)

LDS$Mo_14<-ifelse(LDS$religpew_14==”Mormon”, 1, 0)

LDS_CCS_conv<-subset(LDS, ((religpew_14==”Mormon”) | (religpew_12==”Mormon”)) & religpew_10!=”Mormon”)

LDS_CCS<-subset(LDS, religpew_10==”Mormon”)

table(LDS_CCS$Mo_12, LDS_CCS$Mo_14)

table(LDS_CCS_conv$Mo_12, LDS_CCS_conv$Mo_14)

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