The Mormon growth model

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Gabe P
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The Mormon growth model

Post by Gabe P » 01 Apr 2009, 11:59

We've had some interesting discussion concerning the reality of growth in the Church, although it was sidetracked a bit. This raised another question that I've had for some time, and I'm not sure what the answer is.

We can probably all agree on the following premises:

1) The Church had a period where it grew at an astonishing rate.

2) The Church is still probably growing, but its growth is not nearly what it was before.

3) Declining birthrates across society have probably impacted birthrates in the Church, which at least explains some of #2.

What I wonder about is where the growth model goes in the future. The internet poses some unique challenges for Mormonism, if only because it makes it so much easier to learn about stuff that just wasn't out there before. When I joined the Church several years ago, I never thought to look for anything on the internet. It never occurred to me to do that. Now, I look on the internet for everything, and most of what I learned that troubled me about the church had some purchase on the internet. The internet was definitely there fifteen years ago (didn't RFM start in the early/mid 90s?), but it's both more accessible and much more relevant as a source of information now.

Now, there's always been anti-Mormon material, and there will always be people who join the Church without being aware of any of it. But it strikes me that this is probably going to have its most significant impact on the more educated class within the Church and the pool of potential converts. They're more likely to have access to that information, more likely to seek it, and more likely to draw interesting conclusions about what that information should mean for their Church life. They're less likely to accept the easier (although not necessarily incorrect) apologetic answers or assume on faith that there is an apologetic answer that's responsive. So, I wonder if our membership and convert baptisms won't drop dramatically among the more educated members of society.

There might be an ability to make that up within the less educated classes, but I wonder if this will make it less possible for the Church to ultimately move in a more progressive direction on some of the social issues that trouble many of us. I mean, if you're replacing an educated population with a less educated population, you're not necessarily going to be able to move forward with a nuanced interpretation on social issues. It's probably a conservative/fundamentalist approach that got those people into the Church and active in it.

So I guess my questions are basically two: 1) Can the Church sustain growth in the face of a greater accessibility of information that might not be friendly? 2) Whether growth is sustained or not, is it at all possible that the Church could ever end up in a more progressive place given the demographic shift that seems likely?

Curt Sunshine
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Curt Sunshine » 01 Apr 2009, 13:43

Excellent way to approach this topic, Gabe. My foundation input would be:

The biggest problem with talking about growth in the Church, imo, is the near euphoric hysteria that accompanied previous growth - and the inability to frame "real activity rates" in a concrete way. When a smaller total group (say 500,000) adds 50,000 members, that's a 10% increase; when a larger total group (say 10,000,000) adds 300,000 members, that's a 3% increase. Factor in how fast the world's population is growing in areas the Church can't even touch adequately right now (particularly China and India), and any measurement based on percentage comparisons is wonky right from the start. I don't like anything about the manner in which growth has been discussed in the past, as it built totally unrealistic expectations among many members - and others outside the Church who made ridiculous projections. (If we can get into India and China in a big way, that could change, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Add to that base the retention issues, which Church leaders recognize and about which they talk openly, and there is a real concern. We are holding our own in actual, net activity numbers, I believe, but we aren't adding large numbers of active members. That doesn't surprise me a lot, given how demanding the Church is and how radically new members must change their lives to remain "fully active", but I am glad the global leadership is acknowledging the issue openly and working to focus on retention and real conversion over baptism. That just needs to reach the end of the rows - and that's not easy to do when so much practical power is left at the local levels.

You said:
1) Can the Church sustain growth in the face of a greater accessibility of information that might not be friendly?
I think so. I really don't think those who have a shot at joining the Church are any different than those in other times. In fact, personally, I think the internet is not nearly as big a deterrent as most members assume. Sure, it can cause angst and real problems for members who have not been exposed to various issues previously, but I think it is more than balanced by how many people outside Mormonism actually know Mormons than they did in the past. When someone knows a good example, it's much easier to overlook or ignore the negative stuff out there - and there has been lots of negative stuff out there ever since the beginning.

I don't think the Church can sustain the type of percentage growth it had when it was smaller, and I'm not sure it can keep pace with world-wide population growth, but I believe it can sustain good, controlled growth - and that actually has been a goal in third-world countries for some time (both as a result of the retention issues of the past and the fear of splinter groups forming in areas where "membership" is more familial and tribal/communal than based on individual conviction).
2) Whether growth is sustained or not, is it at all possible that the Church could ever end up in a more progressive place given the demographic shift that seems likely?
I think this is a bit counter-intuitive, but I think so. I think there always will be an inherent tension between the conservative and liberal elements of the Gospel (and those who lean toward either end of the full spectrum I see in the Gospel), but I see shifts back and forth throughout our history - based largely on reaction to overly-radical swings in the western society in which it is based.

Having said that, I am intrigued by the effect of adding apostles from more conservative countries and regions, since, as much as I want to see more ethnic and racial diversity in the Q12 & FP, I think most liberal members don't realize that such change is likely to make the top leadership more politically conservative. That might not happen, and it could be that those from Europe and Latin America, for example, will be more open to general concepts of socialism and Liberation Theology, but we won't know until they are called.

As a social studies teacher by inclination and training, the next 10-20 years in the Church are going to be fascinating.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

Gabe P
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Gabe P » 01 Apr 2009, 15:22

You raise a great point about the value of knowing members of the Church. There's nothing to get over the "are you a cult?" hurdle quite like actually knowing someone who isn't sacrificing any sheep. What I wonder about is whether we'll be able to rely on our missionary approach in the same way. There are definitely ways to approach the work differently, but we rely a lot on sending missionaries out to talk to people, who get warm fuzzies, basically buy the doctrine, and get baptized because they really feel they've found something different. I don't know if someone who gets on the internet, learns about our checkered past, and hears that there's at least a real debate about this stuff is as likely to have that experience. I think our missionary efforts have started to deemphasize the history compared to where it was awhile ago (compare "Preach My Gospel" to "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder"), but I think we'll need to focus on fellowship, community, and the contemporary experience more than the "this is the right church" argument. If I'd gotten on the internet and learned everything I know now, I don't know that I would have joined the Church, even if it would have actually met my needs better than any other group out there. On the other hand, if the missionaries had sold more service, fellowship, and Jesus and less Joseph Smith, maybe I could have gotten on the internet and thought "oh, those peepstones are like the Catholics and their crusades". So it cuts in a lot of different ways.

The people here are a great example of folks who've had more turmoil than nearly any investigator and stuck around anyway. So it can clearly be done (or our site might not be of much help). I just don't know if our missionary program can be all that successful in a world where information's easier to get and we aren't necessarily emphasizing our strongest argument, which is the terrific community that you can find in most LDS settings.

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hawkgrrrl
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by hawkgrrrl » 01 Apr 2009, 16:07

I'll take a stab at these:
1) Can the Church sustain growth in the face of a greater accessibility of information that might not be friendly?
I agree with Ray that the more people who know Mormons, the more likely that information is less significant. I would also say that people who join the church don't generally do so based on a pro and con list but either as a result of friendships/a sense that they fit in the community of the church or as a result of a spiritual experience (could be a BOM experience or otherwise) - something that leaps out at them as a conversion moment. Some also join because of the practical benefits they see in how the kids are compared to other churches, etc, and the focus on families, regardless of number of kids.
2) Whether growth is sustained or not, is it at all possible that the Church could ever end up in a more progressive place given the demographic shift that seems likely?
IMO, the bigger thing that slows progress is that the church is a gerontocracy. That's got good and bad points to it. While it slows change, it doesn't halt it. I'm sure we'd be surprised by some of the actual views of the existing leaders. But by the time the leaders are from our generation, we'll be old geezers, and those young 30 and 40-something whippersnappers will be complaining that we're so conservative about the changes they want. Yet, I've developed a very healthy respect for the benefits of a gerontocracy. I think the key is to be aware that some of what is said should be understood through those generational/cultural filters, just like when you talk to your parents (or if they are still alive, your grandparents).

One last thought - growth occurring in the church outside of Utah is probably different than growth inside of Utah. Although I'm aware that Utah is perhaps the highest baptizing mission, wards where there are fewer Mormons do a better job at noticing and befriending investigators and creating a good environment for "on-boarding" new members, at least in my experience.

Gabe P
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Gabe P » 01 Apr 2009, 16:28

Interesting points, hawk. Do you really believe that there's inevitably or even usually a trend toward a more progressive leadership? I agree with you about the gerontocracy, but I also doubt that the young will necessarily be more progressive than the old. After all, most significant changes have followed situations where a practice or policy was beaten out of the Church. Polygamy didn't end until it was clear that the United States government would crush them unless they came to heel. They came to heel. Blacks didn't get the priesthood until being racist wasn't in vogue any longer. The vast majority of the rank and file in the Church are conservative to a fault and the process of being promoted to leadership screens for conservatism at every turn.

So my concern is that the force for change in the Church is likely to be smart people who know better, but they're less likely today than they were in the time of Talmadge to get in line well enough to rise to leadership. Additionally, there's a threat to the growth model if we move to a more liberal path as well. There's no reason for a prophet to emphasize his fallibility or make major changes in policy that would be more exclusive: de facto infallibility and exclusivity make it a lot easier to guide the members of the Church in ways that we would agree are almost always good. We may have leaders from our generation in thirty years, but I see no reason why they won't be stuck in the 50s, if only because being stuck in the 50s is probably good for most of the Church.

Curt Sunshine
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Curt Sunshine » 01 Apr 2009, 17:52

Gabe, I think there is a pretty wide disconnect between how lots of members perceive the global leadership and the reality of that leadership - especially when it comes to issues like growth. I say that for a few reasons:

1) There have been and are a higher number of Democrat, free-thinking, left-leaning, and/or progressive apostles than most people realize. I'm not saying they are near 50%, but I immediately think of Elder Wirthlin and Elder Jensen (Marlin K) - and Pres. Monson's focus on the disenfranchised (as well as the official statements regarding immigration policy in Utah) certainly smacks of something other than conservatism. I just think the united voice must always be more conservative than liberal, simply because organizations almost always must be on the more conservative side of their constituency range in order to be secure long-term.

2) They all travel the world regularly, and they talk with and listen to local leaders wherever they go. Sure, they don't always get an unbiased, comprehensive view from these conversations, but I think most people would be surprised at how open many of these conversations can be.

3) They monitor the web actively, and I am positive they understand what members are saying FAR better than most members realize. That doesn't bother me at all, since I don't believe there's anything "Big Brother-ish" about it - and because I am consistent in everything I say. They are so far beyond most people their age when it comes to technological savvy that it's like comparing jets to tricycles.

I agree that there are issues involved with having such old leaders, but I really do think they are far less severe than many people think - especially when it comes to issues of church growth. I've looked carefully at nearly all the changes and suggestions they've made regarding our missionary efforts over the last 15 years, and I agree with just about everything. As I said earlier, it's getting the changes implemented at the local levels that is difficult.

Our biggest issue with growth, imo, is that too many members see their role as supportive of the missionaries. Our ward is having incredible growth right now, largely because so many members simply are inviting people to worship with us - and because we've had two straight Bishops who are focused intently on having deeply spiritual meetings. I get fed well on a regular basis in Sacrament Meeting. Of the nearly twenty converts who have been baptized in the last five months, all but two are fully active and very committed (and those two have specific issues that are understood) - and all but three (I think) were introduced to the Church by members in one way or another. There's no baptism "pressure"; it's just open sharing of our lives and seeing what sticks with whom. (Oh, and I wouldn't classify my ward as "liberal" by any stretch.)

I know my ward is atypical in many ways, since the other units even in our stake aren't there yet, but I'm convinced what makes my ward so wonderful isn't restricted to some unique difference in the "goodness" of the members. It's much more a paradigm shift, and much of that has been the result of some fairly simply areas of focus. At the most basic level, we aren't doing much more than what was suggested from training we received that originated with the Q12 and the FP - so I have a hard time thinking they are "out of touch" when it comes to growth issues.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

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Tom Haws
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Tom Haws » 01 Apr 2009, 18:58

This is a very difficult topic for me. Or dare I say, "Growth, Schmowth"? To me, it amounts to pure horse race discussion. Fun, but of little consequence. It brings me back to my Rough Stone Rolling review in the Suggested Reading forum: "What for?" Here are some deeper questions:

Do we want the church to grow in numbers? Why?

Even if we grant that the church seems to be a positive spiritual move for some people, is the world made a better place because the church grows in numbers? Does it grow at the expense of better options? What is the opportunity cost of growth in numbers?

If you could have anything you want, would you have the world 2/3 LDS tomorrow? Why?

Who would you have benefit by the church's growing in numbers?
Tom (aka Justin Martyr/Justin Morning/Jacob Marley/Kupord Maizzed)
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Sure, any religion would do. But I'm LDS.
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Gabe P
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Gabe P » 01 Apr 2009, 19:16

Ray, your ward's exactly what I'm talking about. The Church will always be able to grow that way, because people who are attracted fundamentally to the community and the spirit that's found there aren't going to be as troubled by "intellectual" issues. I also think that's your best chance to get educated people into our communities. If we engage them first on a doctrinal level, then the stuff we're worried about is a lot more likely to keep them away. If we engage them first by inviting them to partake of our communities, then they're going to be less worried about that stuff, because it's not their reason for signing up in the first place.

I'm not surprised that the leaders of the Church are offering training that emphasizes that - they're smart people and they know everything in this thread. They know, I'm sure, that most people don't join the church because we win an argument. The nature of the full time missionary program, as you rightly suggest, is to focus on that, and if members don't step up on the social side, then these concerns get bigger. That's not the fault of the leadership at all. My concern in terms of their conservatism is simply on social issues like homosexuality, feminist issues, and political positioning. I see no reason the Church will ever move there, both because we have doctrine that suggests those things are indispensable and because there's no constituency for it that wants to pay tithing. We haven't changed on those sorts of issues before without a massive amount of normative or physical pressure from the outside, so I don't expect that to change.

Tom, I agree with your conclusion. It doesn't much matter what our numbers are if that's all we're thinking about. My concern is with how our growth, attrition, and the way in which either occurs will impact the real situation on the ground. So I don't necessarily care if two thirds of the world could be LDS tomorrow, but I would be concerned about the impact of that influx on the experience within the community. Major changes like that don't tend to leave the situation on the ground unchanged.

Gabe P
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Gabe P » 01 Apr 2009, 19:20

And just to clarify: I absolutely believe the present leadership of the Church is composed of a lot of good men trying their best to do what's right for our community and for those who we want to welcome into it. I'm sure it's frustrating for them that so much of what's essential to making that happen is out of their hands. I also think the leaders of the Church aren't malicious conservatives who hate diversity: they just honestly think there's a correct path (or paths) and they want to be upfront about that. So I'm not really concerned that we're going to become some neo-Nazi front: I'm just worried that policies with which I disagree are less likely to be confronted because of these structural concerns.

Curt Sunshine
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Re: The Mormon growth model

Post by Curt Sunshine » 01 Apr 2009, 19:42

I agree, Tom.

I also think it's kind of funny that there are lots of statements about the kingdom of God always being relatively small right until the end - so even those who see the kingdom of God exclusively as the LDS Church ought to take pause about assumptions of explosive growth.

In the end, I also say with regard to this topic, "I hope it reaches everyone whom it can help."
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

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