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:

  • Between 2010 and 2014, 21 stopped identifying as members by 2014 (15%).
  • Of the 11 people who left in 2012, two returned to the Church by 2014 (so an 82% ex-Mormon, two-year retention rate).    
  • Between 2010 and 2012, four people joined the Church, but only two continued to identify as such in 2014 (so a 50% two-year, convert retention rate). 
  • In total, 10 converts joined the Church (or at least started identifying as members) in the sample between 2010 and 2014. 

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. 

 

R CODE:

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)



28 comments for “The Greatest Apostasy Since Kirtland? Following a Cohort of Members Across Time

  1. I have to agree with your concluding sentence, this is a complex issue that defies easy solutions. And you’re right to note that all institutional religions are seeing declines.

  2. Stephen,
    Australia has a census every 5 years. The 2021 census showed a reduction of 3000 in people self identifying as LDS, from 60860 to 57868. Church site claims increase of 6000 to 155383. But on the eastern states there have been huge move ins of polynesians. So many wards on the east coast are 50% polynesian, covering the loss of original members. In parts of the country where less polynesians 11 to14% fall in members over 5 years. Polynesians make up 1% of Australias population.
    https://ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com/2022/06/australia-2021-census-data-released.html

    We just had an election too. Uncontested moral issues were
    Climate change is real and must be addressed
    Women must not be discriminated against
    Gays must not be discriminated against
    Women have the right to an abortion.
    No racial discrimination.

    A conservative government was replaced because the were seen as not doing enough for women, and not doing enough on climate change.

    The church is loosing members because it has no moral strength.

  3. Stephen, to continue Jason’s comment, aren’t we seeing declining interest in institutional anything, religious or not, including family formation? As you say, that should make us hesitant to accept simple explanations (like, “The Internet is now revealing the Truth!”).

    Let’s assume that someone in the COB has access to a lot of detailed information about disaffiliation patterns. Is there anything that’s been said or done in the last several years that might suggest what those patterns might be?

  4. @ Jonathan: Yes, that’s true. I can’t think of anything that’s tipped their hat towards a particular demographic having issues leaving the Church. In general I suspect there’s always a back and forth in the Administration Building about making things more demanding versus less demanding (again, 3 hour Church, principles based FSY, missionaries calling home every week), and it does seem like the “less demanding” side is winning out lately.

  5. While declining interest in all organizations is probably a thing, I would hope that interest in the LDS church would be the thing that bucked that trend. Why? Because the church is true. I wish though that it was more obviously true (at least for those practicing it). I wish that more supernatural things happened in our lives, making it obvious that the church was true. I wish that reading the scriptures was more engaging, such that it didn’t feel like a chore most days. I know I sound like Tevye wondering if it would destroy some grand eternal plan if he were a rich man, because it very well might destroy a grand eternal plan if more supernatural things regularly occurred in the lives of the faithful. But I still wonder why it can’t be that way.

  6. We start with 136 people who were members in 2010.
    21 no longer identified as members by 2014. Okay.
    But 10 people in the sample of 136 members in 2010 weren’t actually members until sometime between 2010 and 2014.
    Huh?

  7. Interestingly, more liberal religions are seeing a rebound in the past couple years, but a lot of this seems to be down to people moving from more conservative denominations. At least per washpo (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/08/rapid-decline-white-evangelical-america/)

    The lesson from that imo is that embracing politics is dangerous. The church would be well advised to be *truly* politically neutral, but I don’t think that’s in its DNA. Or any churches really. In some sense every human organization is political.

    I’d mostly point the finger for this, though, at a sort of overall institutional rot, which I think any reasonable member or former member can see. It’s something that’s not quite all any one person’s fault, which makes it hard to accept blame, rather a death spiral caused by leadership, members and society at large. At the moment the leadership is acting like a private equity firm trying to cut costs as much as possible wherever it can find them, whether buildings or how many priesthood are needed to run a ward–the membership is apathetic and disengaged–and society at large has made many of the traditional functions of the church irrelevant or difficult to undertake.

    To conclude my long ramble, I think the church is in something quite similar to Brezhnev stagnation. Those close to the church either deny it or feel it in their bones, those distant from it don’t really perceive it. There’s no good way out of it and there may in fact be none at all–rule by hardliners is a slow slide towards painful death and irrelevance, glasnost and perestroika mean a quick, friendly disintegration into something like the rLDS. I suppose we could pray for the spiritual equivalent of Deng Xiaoping (what a weird sentence to say) but the odds of that seem unfortunately very low.

  8. The way I see it the church is in a pretty tough spot- damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They could “liberalize” if that’s what we’re calling it- water down all the high demand aspects of the church so that it’s easier. This alienates the conservative members, and in the end the church just becomes another generic Christian sect. The Church of Christ is a great example of how this would look.

    On the other hand, the church could go the other way and double down on its conservative doctrines such as the stance on LGBT issues. This would result in the more liberal members leaving, and could start a cycle of only the most zealous members remaining and being called into leadership positions, who would then push everything further to the right.

    Neither scenario is great, but neither is the status quo.

  9. I believe our church should be less demanding, imo.

    But more importantly, I wish our church were just plain *good* and would talk more about Jesus.

    Focus on losing members? Focus on retention? More strict, less strict? More temples? 2 hour church, ministering re-branding, FSY (not EFY), new Youth handbook? — I agree with Henry that the church is acting like a private equity firm–trying to cut loses and stem the blood flow (honestly not surprising, as I believe a lot of the Q15 work in corporate-style entities in their pre-apostolic occupation).

    Since that’s where the focus is, we’re destined to succumb to the negative trends–whichever path is taken.

    If we could instead focus on being *more like Jesus*, maybe it doesn’t have to devolve into “painful death and irrelevance” or “disintegration”. People will come, because the message is good.

    But personally, I don’t see that happening, and I’m afraid that Henry’s response will prove prophetic in the not-too-distant future: irrelevance or disintegration.

  10. I’m a total optimist when it comes to the Kingdom. IMO, we’re beginning to see the fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy about the church in the latter days. It’s spread throughout the earth–and it’s dominions are small. Temples are dotting the earth and will be a major source of the power and glory that Nephi sees descending upon the saints–as that particular work has the effect of sanctifying the saints.

    While, sadly, many members will come and go for one reason or another the Kingdom will ultimately prevail. The difficult times we find ourselves in will serve to try the hearts of the Lord’s people. But if we hold fast to his counsel we’ll make it through just fine–though, perhaps, with a few bumps and bruises. And the time will come when we will see Daniel’s prophecy fulfilled more literally–wherein the Kingdom fills the entire earth.

  11. I’m not surprised by these numbers, other than that the fact that there was any retention of new converts at all bucks the tread for my area.

    I want a high-demand religion, but I want that high-demand to be putting into practice the teachings of Jesus. (Jesus himself in the N.T. not all the other stuff that has piled on.) Let’s focus on the Beattitudes and the parables and set the standards around those. I want meaningful community service activities and lots of them. I want community building (within the church and in working with those outside.) I want more fun with fellow ward members rather than just meetings and dry Sunday services. I want engagement (as compared to boredom or entertainment) and to leave Sunday services feeling uplifted and bonded to God and my fellow man.

    I’m trying to find small ways to create this myself, but am learning that it MUCH easier to do outside the church/my ward in my other local organizations rather than within it.

  12. This dataset predates the CES Letter by a couple of years. In my wards, I’ve seen us lose many families with parents in the 25-40 bracket. Usually, the husband is the first to fade, but before long, the entire family just stops attending. Maybe Covid just accelerated a bunch of families into leaving in 2020/2021.

    The Gospel Topics Essays seem to be an attempt by the Church to address some of the thorny history. The problem is that some millennials lose track of the big picture and get lost in the details.

  13. Still quite bewildering. They increased the sample from 136 to 146 by arbitrarily adding ten new converts to the sample. But they could have added a thousand new converts (or any other number) if they wanted. What was the purpose of adding to the sample? Surely the fact that they added ten instead of 1,000 doesn’t provide any information on the number of new converts. And at the point you start adding new samples, you’re no longer following just the one cohort that were members in 2010. Now you’re adding an additional cohort of people who joined after 2010.

    Perhaps it’s a mystery and we’re not meant to understand…

  14. @ Henry: One thing I will add is that I think our Church is actually relatively a-political (as Jonathan’s excellent post recently pointed out). Whether it’s the Episcopalians on the left or white Evangelicals on the right, I think by comparison our Church’s messaging is (for the most part, it’s hard to absolute on this, as you point out) less partisan.

    @Kaia: I think another thing to take into account isn’t the movement of the Church, but also the movement of certain background segments of society in the developed world in general. People’s Overton windows are shifting at the same time the Church is shifting here and there, so even though I think the Church has objectively moved “left” on a lot of issues, the left has also been moving left, so the relative positioning might be even farther apart than they were before.

    @JohnR: The business manager model has its benefits and its drawbacks.

    @Jack: I’m actually an optimist too. As I’ve said elsewhere, the fundamentals of Church growth are strong in that the Church is growing in places that are growing, and it’s declining in places that are declining.

    @Lehcarjt: I agree, but of course that begs the question of how to apply Jesus to the 21st century, on which there are myriad interpretations.

    @Jonah: Yes, this is a little more dated than I would like; I would love to see a COVID-era panel. My hunch is that it provided an excuse for many people who were teetering anyway.

    @Left Field: Apologies for my lack of clarity. The Cooperative Election Study is not a study of members per se, it’s a huge political survey that happens to have three waves of religious identification with a large enough sample that we get more than a handful of members. So the 136 are all the people who identified as members in the first wave (2010). The ten converts were people who did not identify as members in the first wave in 2010 but did identify as members in the 2014 wave. I used the term “sample” here ambiguously and unhelpfully, since there are two samples: the Cooperative Election Study sample was thousands and thousands of respondents, and the sample of 136 which are the respondents in the CES sample who identified as members in 2010. So they didn’t add the converts to the sample, the converts were already in the bigger sample, and I just detected them by parsing them out.

  15. In God we trust, all others bring data, right? Thanks for putting this together, very interesting. And someone would really have to ignore some of the facts to cling to the narrative of amazing growth happening in the church.

    I think that some of the focus of leaders is on retaining the current active membership. There was a devotional that just happened tonight in Tempe for members 40+ years old about senior missions. It was broadcast to the NASW area (five states) for everyone over 40.

  16. I really, really relate to Lehcarjt’s comment. I also want a high demand religion. Jesus taught a high demand religion. I want to follow Jesus. I do try to follow Jesus, every day, which mostly involves actively trying to love and serve his children, including in the church. Many of the things the institutional church focuses on most seem peripheral to or in some cases somewhat at odds with Jesus’ teachings. Much of the “conservative” culture of the church is antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. I truly believe this is contributing to losses. People are spiritually hungry. They need to be fed.

  17. The hardest element in a study like this is that experiences aren’t universal. I compare our ward meetings with a friend in Utah, and they are remarkably different.

    Some wards and stakes have more emphasis on service and outreach and community integration, some don’t (my stake is almost exhaustively involved with interfaith service and cooperation – but we aren’t in Utah, where that’s not a thing). Some wards and stakes do focus on Christ, others have particular focii on other things. Some stakes are still (quietly) involved with Scouting and promote it and similar activities for girls, etc. Some stakes are more engaged politically across the spectrum, some are engaged in culture wars.

    Until you get into the nuances about the church experience, it’s hard to properly classify why people leave. Maybe if everything involved in the study were from the same stake, that might be fine, but then there’s no ability to transfer knowledge to another scenario.

  18. There’s no universal definition of “high demand” religion, incidentally. Is it a “BYU” sort of religion (scrupulosity not connected to any particular sort of meaning)? What’s that even mean?

    Our bishop went off on a rant this past weekend about how he’s the head of the Aaronic Priesthood, thank you very much, and it’s his decision as to what constitutes proper dress at the sacrament table – not the people advocating for stricter standards or more lax standards. (He’s OK with long hair, blue shirts, tennis shoes, but does require a tie. He’s not scared of tattoos by members and the double earring.) Said this with the stake president sitting behind him.

  19. I spent a couple years hanging out where the exmo groups hang out and most of them leave over church history issues or church cultural issues. Some couldn’t see the difference between culture and gospel. The majority of those who left, yes I took a pole, were raised in a somewhat strict or super strict lds environment. The exmos do missionary work like they did when they believed and they are very good at it. Members on the fence dont have a great place to go and ask questions within the church. Big issue for all of us as we will all be affected by this if you have not been. Not a big deal when a Chatholic or Born Again point fingers at believers from the big and spacious building but that building is getting filled by members parents, siblings, friends, bishops, spouses pointing the fingers. Now that is all together a much bigger issue. You wont be able to hide from the issues in our past, they are coming to you. Are you ready? At least the believers know how it all turns out in the end. Interesting times for sure. I am in the “more Jesus” camp and less culture, policy, checklist, camp. Those whose testimony is based solely on prophets, past and present, scriptures, temples, may be in danger. Revelation from God to you is the rock that nobody can take from you. All the other things are great, dont get me wrong, but nothing is better than revelation IMO.

  20. “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.”

    This sounds a lot like what President Nelson said in conference: “Dear brothers and sisters, I grieve for those who leave the Church because they feel membership requires too much of them.”

    I don’t doubt that the church has data supporting the assumption that folks leave because they’re overworked, but in my experience, true believers have no problem giving and giving to the church. I believe, in most cases, that an erosion of belief precedes resentment of the demands the church places on us. I never resented friends of scouting or giving up everything to serve a mission until my beliefs faltered. And even now, as a non-believer, I still like helping people move, cleaning the church, or other person-to-person service the church facilitates. Concluding that folks are leaving the faith because it is high-demand lets the church off the hook and misses the point. In terms of demand, the church is at its lowest point in my 43 years and, anecdotally at least, the number of people headed for the exits seems higher than ever. Maybe chalking up our predicament to laziness makes us feel better, but I don’t think it’s accurate.

  21. Jesse, I think many of us are more challenged (these days) by the sacrifice of ideologies than the sacrifice of time, talents, and materials.

  22. @queuno: One of the great things about this dataset is that it is from a representative draw of the United States, so while experiences vary from place to place this dataset is probably an okay cross-section of the Church in the US (or at least as close to one as we’re going to get).

    @Jesse: In this case by “opportunity cost” I simply meant that in the 21st century there are so many other things to spend your time on, be, and do than in the past. It used to be that if you left the Church in a small rural Utah town, you basically had children, farmed, and did everything else except go to Church on Sunday. Now there are so many other options (which is a good thing!) that is is harder for the Church to compete for people’s devotion and attention.

  23. Having experienced Facebook groups and other discussions (many that happen on sites like LDS Freedom Forum), this apostasy you’re describing is certainly accelerating in recent years as people battle with the Church’s response to COVID. The First Presidency’s letter from August, 2021 and other statements made by Church leaders about vaccination clearly has had the effect of driving some of the most committed members of the Church away.

    Some numbers to look at when assessing where we’re at in terms of attrition include 1) the number of endowed members who don’t currently hold a temple recommend (now less than 50% in areas I know about) and 2) the number of child of record baptisms, which have slowed dramatically, especially when looked at as a percentage of the total membership of the Church.

    Looking at these, I’m not sure how much longer the Church can hold on to its existence without divine intervention, hopefully “in the coming days.”

  24. The church claims there are 155383 members in Aus, an increase of 30,945 since 2009.

    There was a censes in 2021. Self reported members are 57868, 0.23% of the population. In the previous censes in 2016 there were 60864, 3000 less. https://ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com/2022/06/australia-2021-census-data-released.html

    Another interesting element is that during that period the number of polynesian members have increased to the point where many wards are approaching 50% polynesian.

    So the numbers show 3000 less members, but if 20,000 Australian members left and were replaced by 17,000 polynesians that may more accurately reflect the truth. So a great loss, perhaps 25 to 30% of Australian members.

    In Australia the church’s position is extreme right. There is no major/credible political party that is against universal healthcare, abortion, climate change, gun control, gay marriage, and equality for women.

  25. To the best of my knowledge, the Church has not taken positions on universal healthcare, climate change, gun control, or the equality of women in the civil sphere (aside from ordination to priesthood offices), although the predominant (but far from universal) attitudes of Intermountain West Latter-day Saints in these areas are well known.

  26. ideasnstuff makes an interesting point. Predominant US Church culture, while not official position, cannot be separated from the discussion. And even though the Church doesn’t have official positions on the issues listed, they do have a position on “gay marriage” (which Geoff listed, but ideasnstuff didn’t mention). I don’t think we can underestimate how significant the Church’s position on gender issues (including women and the priesthood) is. Of all the many people l know who have left (which is no small number), though perhaps it’s not the overall number 1 concern in terms of the reason they left (trust in the Church’s narrative of itself is, and this might be the closest second), for almost all of them (I can only think of 1 family who breaks this mold), gender concerns were THE catalyst concern.

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