How Successful is Mormon Retention?

I mentioned in yesterday’s post the high rate of believing Mormons in colleges.1 I thought today I’d touch on a few other demographic issues that I know get confused a lot. First off I wish we had as much data for other areas such as Latin America. I know there are a lot of stories that retention in these areas are much worse. Perhaps corresponding to poor conversion practices back in the early 90’s roughly akin to the infamous baseball baptisms in the American northeast in the late 60’s and early 70’s.2 For American retention there remains a view that retention is quite poor. I don’t think this is really that accurate.

The main source for retention information comes from using the ARIS self-identification survey on Mormonism. The last year for ARIS data is 2008 and they had 3,158,000 people self-identifying as Mormon whereas member of record statistics from the Church for that year were 5,974,041. That’s an activity rate of around 53%.3 This significantly understates activity though since members of record are anyone baptized including most children over the age of 8. The ARIS data only surveys adults. So all members between the ages of 8 – 17 are excluded.

Figuring out how many Mormon children there are over 8 is a bit tricky. Starting in the 1970’s Mormon fertility rates dropped along with the rest of the country’s. However Mormons always had more children than the national average. In the 1970’s Utah Mormons had a fertility rate of around 4.4 children per woman. By the 90’s it was down to 3. It appears however that the rate from the 90’s has remained reasonably stable at 3. Utah fertility has changed to 2.5, but there are many more non-Mormon’s in Utah than in the recent past. The figure of TFR of 3 for Mormons contrasts with an American rate of 1.6 – 1.7. The Pew survey for 2011 had Mormons having 2.6 children on average compared to 1.8 for the US in general. But this is a slightly different measure from total fertility. For Utah, with a TFR of 2.5 8.6% are 5-9 years old, 8.6% are 10-14, and 9.7% are 15-19.

Unfortunately those categories don’t fit nicely to figuring out how many are between 8 – 18. I’ll make an estimate by assuming a fairly linear distribution. I’ll use the Utah figures although the Mormon figures should be higher. That gives us 1.8% population for each year. So for 8 – 17 year olds (since 18 year olds are included in the survey) that give us 10 years of children or 18% of the total population. That means if the self-identified rate for 18 and over is 3,158,000 that represents 82% and the total population would be 3,851,220. 

As I said that will likely be low because of the higher Mormon fertility but also because you have many families with a single member but with baptized children. There will of course also be a few families where one parent is Mormon but the children aren’t. Still I’d expect the actual number to be higher, not lower. If we round up to two significant figures that gives 3.9 million self-identifying members. 

Using that figure, we end up with about 65% of the people officially on the records considering themselves Mormon. That, to me, is extremely high. This is fairly close to the rates other have calculated, such what Phillips and Cragun have for the naughts.4

Going with the ARIS survey from 1990 to 2008 the official Church numbers increase by 30%.5 Using self-identification figures the figure increases by about half that: 16%.6 That to me is a pretty impressive figure.

Now both figures are well below the 3 – 4% growth rate in official figures form most of the 20th century prior to the 1990’s. However those figures start with small numbers and it’s fairly easy to get a high growth rate when you are small. With 2% of the whole country being members of record we’re moving into fairly large numbers. It’s unlikely we could maintain a high growth rate, especially as secularization is the dominate trend in America. I also suspect that 3 – 4% per year growth rate overstates the actual growth rate and had much lower retention than we’ve had since the 1990’s. Unfortunately that’s harder to measure. 

The Mormon population isn’t really growing as a percentage of the country. However we should note that the country as a whole is growing fairly fast. The US growth rate has been slowing the past decades. The past few years it’s been around 0.7% yearly growth. Still keeping up with that is impressive. Further we kept up even with the higher growth rate of 1.2% back in the 90’s. 

  1. 8.1% of students who said they were religious rather than spiritual or secular were Mormon.
  2. In both these cases Mission Presidents were more concerned about high baptism statistics rather than real conversions such that many people were baptized to increase statistics but who probably were not really converted to the gospel. This seems to occur every few decades although hopefully we won’t have a repeat again.
  3. Note that by activity rate here I’m not stating how often one goes to church, pays tithing, or maintains a temple recommend. Just whether they consider themselves Mormon. I think Church activity rates are fairly misleading for many reasons. I think self-identification is a much better criteria.
  4. This is quoting from the ARIS report. Although the report uses the GSS which is a little problematic due to the small sample size. They have a retention rate of 64.4% in 2010.
  5. Again that is baptisms minus excommunications and people who request their names be taken off the record. So it includes people who were baptized but never really stayed Mormon.
  6. That is people who considered themselves Mormon in both years plus new converts minus converts who didn’t stay and people raised Mormon who stop considering themselves Mormon.

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