Is Activity Increasing Among US-based Latter-day Saints?

The following is a guest post from Stephen Cranny. Stephen Cranney is a Washington DC-based data scientist and Non-Resident Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. He has produced over 20 peer-reviewed articles and five children.

I calculated the percent of people who self-identify as Latter-day Saints who are “active” (attend Church about once a week) from the early 70s to today. The estimates are a little unstable because of the small numbers involved, but suggest that “activity” has actually been increasing.

The numbers are derived from the General Social Survey, a large, representative survey of the US taken almost every year that has questions on just about every major behavioral, demographic, and social variable, including religious affiliation. Because there are only a handful of Latter-day Saints each year, I combined years to get larger samples for each point so that the trend wasn’t so bumpy. The 1972-1976 bracket at the beginning, for example, pools together all the self-identified Latter-day Saints in the GSS survey from 1972-1976, the next bracket includes all the self-identified Latter-day Saints from 1977-1983, and so forth. I used the supplied “survey weights,” multipliers attached to each respondent to make sure that the survey sample as a whole is representative (so if the survey captured half as many of one demographic as there are in the US, that person’s response would be worth twice as much in terms of averages). The code is on Github here.

Again, the denominator is the number of people in the survey who self-identify as Latter-day Saints, and the numerator is the number of those who self-identify as Latter-day Saints who also report going to Church “nearly every week” or more. The estimates are a little unstable because of the small numbers involved, but they suggest that “activity” has actually been increasing. (More formally, I performed a simple logit regression which showed that year number is a positive and statistically significant predictor of being active.)

Now, this could be because activity has in fact been increasing, and people who self-identify as Latter-day Saints are increasingly likely to go to Church. However, it could also be that the kind of cultural “Jack Mormon” who maintained a cultural or hereditary affiliation is less likely to do so now than they were in the past (for whatever reason). Or, it may be that the hereditary Mormons make up less of the Church now than they did in the past due to the decentralization of the Church from its Utah base. In other words, it may be an issue with the denominator, not the numerator.

My anecdotal experience, for what that’s worth, suggests that the rural seventh-generation cultural Mormon-Utahn who gives up her coffee for a month to attend a temple wedding is becoming less of a thing. In terms of implications, there’s an ongoing discussion about the extent to which non-practicing, non-believing members who see the Church mostly as a community or heritage should have their particular religious needs put on similar footing within the institution as the TBMs who, in the words of Sterling McMurrin, are the ones who “pay the tithing and do the believing.” Whatever position one holds on this, these results suggest (although not definitively, since there are other explanations that fit the data) that the former group is declining, and that, by dint of numbers alone, whatever influence they had in the past will decrease, as the Church community will increasingly be catering to TBMs who are actually in the pews.*

Discuss.

* Yes, just because one goes to church doesn’t mean that one believes the truth claims, but I’m assuming here that they usually go together. Again anecdotally, the only occasion when I’ve seen a non-believer consistently keep going to church is when there are family connections. The proverbial non-believer who makes the sacrifices of church activity for the sake of community or heritage sometimes makes an appearance in these discussions, but I strongly suspect they’re a small minority.

12 comments for “Is Activity Increasing Among US-based Latter-day Saints?

  1. Ethan R
    June 12, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    My guess is that people who leave the church are increasingly abandoning the self-identity of LDS.

    Considering this 2019 Pew Poll (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/) that shows that an increasingly large number of people are self-identifying as nones while a decreasing number are self-identifying as Christian in the past 15 years (at a steady rate), I am skeptical that the LDS church is an exception to the general trend in the US. Granted, rates of attrition have been slower in more conservative churches that demand more of their members, but they are still in the decline.

  2. lastlemming
    June 12, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    Your title question is vague. Your analysis answers one interpretation of the question. But simply reporting the absolute number of weekly attenders would show an increase in absolute activity–also a valid interpretation of the title question. Another valid interpretation–and one that less likely to show an increase–would be answered by calculating weekly attenders as a share of official membership.

  3. Geoff -Aus
    June 12, 2020 at 10:37 pm

    As of 31 December 2018, the LDS Church reported 152,948 members,[N 2] 41 stakes, nine districts, 224 wards, 79 branches, 147 family history centres, and five missions.[79] There are five temples in Australia, located in the cities of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney.

    Being generous say 300 wards gives about 500 per ward. Having attended a lot of wards, I would say 130 to 150 attendance would be generous. Which would be 25% activity.

    Can’t find it but have seen a census report saying 45,000 claiming to be members.

    Church claims 6.2 mollion members in America and 1643 stakes and 12677 wards and 1782 branches. I expect a branch has less than 100 attending, and a ward average 200? Say 20000 wards× 200 = 4 million = 64%

    The california wards I’ve attended were more like 140 × 20,00 = 2.8 million = 45%

    UK church claims 186852 members 45 stakes, 282 wards and 45 branches say 320 wards of 140 members 44800 active 24% active.

    I would be very surprised if 75% is anywhere near right.

  4. RL
    June 13, 2020 at 1:45 am

    TBM is a garbage term IMO. It’s used condescendingly by the Mormon Stories guy for his ministry to created a false dualism. Activity or observance are about behavior. Belief and interpetation of ideas really varies by individual. There is some cohesion in belief due to temple recommend questions, but still those questions offer many varied interpretations.

  5. RL
    June 13, 2020 at 1:50 am

    Geoff

    Self identification activity rates are different that activity rates based on unit databases of membership.

  6. Stephen Cranney
    June 13, 2020 at 8:55 am

    Ethan R:
    I agree completely; less people in general are willing to nominally identify as a member of a religion that they don’t actually engage in, and this is probably a specific manifestation of that.

    Lastlemming:
    Yes, it’s vague, “is activity increasing among self-identified Latter-day Saints in the United States?” might have been more precise. Yes, there are a number of ways to operationalize percent inactive, but I thought this one would be more substantively informative, since I suspect that most people already have the sense that the Church has a lot of deadweight in their numbers because most people don’t bother to get their names officially removed. That kind inactivity is an artifact of record keeping problems, whereas I wanted to get at what people think about when they think about inactivity.

    Geof-Aus: Similar to lestlemming above, this post doesn’t address official on-the-books members, which is its own can of worms. Anybody who’s done the thing as a missionary where you systematically go down a ward list can attest to effects of flash-in-the-pan conversions on official church numbers.

    RL: I didn’t meant to offend anyone by using “TBM,” I just find it a handy, pithy way to refer to believing, practicing members. Yes, there is a huge range of beliefs among different dimensions among practicing members, but, as you say, there is at least some baseline, and I suspect that people who attend church weekly but don’t believe any of the truth claims are a small minority.

  7. catrachohansen
    June 14, 2020 at 12:32 pm

    Error bars would be really helpful here.
    It looks like the real increase in activity was in the 70s and 80s.

  8. GEOFF -AUS
    June 14, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    Don’t understand, wasn’t the post suggesting that activity was increasing, and around 75%? If that wasn’t what was being said; what was being said?

  9. June 14, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    Geoff, it’s in the first sentence of the post: “the percent of **people who self-identify** as Latter-day Saints who are ‘active.'” Not of total official membership.

  10. GEOFF -AUS
    June 15, 2020 at 12:28 am

    The church says 16 million members. How many self identifying members? How many active members? How many post covid active members?

  11. A Turtle Named Mack
    June 17, 2020 at 9:50 am

    If being active is defined as going to Church “nearly every week”, it’s not a great measure of activity. But that’s obvious. For some religions, showing up on Sundays (or another day) is all that is required, or expected. However, other religions (LDS among them) expect members to contribute/participate/engage throughout the week and in many different ways. The GSS measure has been around for decades, and is based upon a specific idea of what church activity might look like, but remains consistent in order to measure change over time – which is appropriate. But there is bias in the measure, as it was developed by researchers who were more likely to be familiar with religions that didn’t require much beyond weekly attendance (most would have come from the urban centers in the Northeast, West, or Midwest). If they had accounted for what religion looks like in the South, or rural areas (or Utah), “activity” might have been measured differently.

    On a different note, how many Mormons can say they’re currently “active”. I haven’t been to Church for over 3 months, and that will continue for the foreseeable future where I live, and probably longer until I feel comfortable showing up. Am I now “inactive”?

  12. Dsc
    June 17, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    I also object to the use of “TBM”. I’m sure it’s not intentionally offensive, but the term has a history and association with people who use it, at least implicitly, as a pejorative. I suggest “attending”, “orthodox”, and “attending orthodox” members as an alternative.

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