Trying to count the Mormon sheep 101

It’s one of the questions that veteran religion writers hear all the time in their newsrooms and usually struggle to answer.

You are sitting at your desk and, let’s say, a business writer walks up and asks: How many Jews are there in the state of Colorado? Or maybe it’s a larger-scale question, such as: How many Southern Baptists are there in the United States, really? Or try this one: News stories keep saying that liberal Protestant churches are in statistical free fall, but does anyone have hard numbers that people on both sides of that debate would agree are accurate?

The religion writer rolls her or his eyes, hearing this, and tries to explain that large-scale numbers of this kind are almost meaningless when covering religion stories because all of these groups use different standards for membership and some update their membership rolls more often than others and, and, and, so forth. The business writer scowls and says, “Gee thanks a lot (or words to that effect). All I needed was one solid number for the background paragraph in my story.”

So what are reporters supposed to do?

As a rule, I used to tell newsroom colleagues that you can quote national and regional statistics for individual groups, knowing that they are flawed, or you can quote the U.S. Religion Census or similar large-scale efforts, knowing that they are still flawed, but tend to be consistent over time.

At the local level, all you could really do is quote the number of congregations and then focus on attendance patterns. When in doubt, you have to go sit in pews and count people and then ask the congregational leaders to discuss the patterns. In the end, the numbers you really want for local coverage are (a) the number of congregations and (b) the average attendance in weekly services.

I experienced this Godbeat flashback while reading a short, but very clear, report by the Peggy Fletcher Stack in The Salt Lake City Tribune that focused on a question that will probably be asked a zillion times or more in the next six months. That urgent question: How many Mormons are there in the United States, anyway?

In this case, this veteran religion-beat pro had to walk readers through several levels of statistical twists and turns. The result is complex, but clear.

The hook for the story, she explains, was an eyebrow-raising number in the U.S. Religion Census:

Its report pegged U.S. Mormon growth at 45.5 percent, jumping from 4,224,026 in 2000 to 6,144,582 in 2010. The 2000 figure, though, was much lower than the 5,208,827 listed in the LDS Church’s almanac. If researchers had been given that figure, the percentage of growth would have been considerably smaller, closer to 18 percent. …

Here’s how the LDS Church explains the discrepancy between the 2000 Religion Census figure and its own almanac for the same year.

“Total [LDS] Church membership numbers are derived from those individuals who have been baptized or born into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” spokesman Scott Trotter said Wednesday. “They are neither projections nor estimates.” Trotter acknowledged that, in past years, LDS membership figures reported to the census researchers “were understated.”

For those years, he said, the LDS Church “left out numbers of members who, although baptized, were not currently associated with a specific congregation. This year, we included total membership numbers to more accurately reflect all of those found on church records.”

You can see clearly the dilemma in this shift. If accuracy is the goal, should religious leaders pick one big computer-records-based statistic or attempt to nail down a number that is real, but almost impossible to know — which is the pew-level reality, which is then projected nationwide?

A Church of the Nazarene official, given several paragraphs to explain the basics, says that Mormon leaders have essentially decided to use a method that resembles the formula used in most Protestant bodies.

What you end up with, of course, is a number that includes Mormons who rarely ever pass through the doors of their local stake, let alone the doors of a regional temple. This is where Stack’s story gets especially interesting.

The LDS Church does not remove any name from the list unless the person is excommunicated, asks to be removed or is dead. That means that a large number of members remain on the rolls who no longer attend or even consider themselves to be Mormon.

“We estimate that only 40 percent of LDS Church members in the U.S. attend church regularly,” said Matt Martinich, an independent researcher who studies Mormon demographics for “That number varies by region — some areas have very high attendance like 70 percent and some as low as 20 percent.”

Martinich gets that activity rate by comparing the ratio of members to congregations, LDS seminary and institute enrollment, and member and missionary reports.

Personally, I was fascinated that the Mormon pew rate estimate — 40 percent — was so similar to the national rate for Americans who claim (think decades of Gallup Polls) to attend some kind of worship service on a weekly basis. I was also intrigued by the reference to regional differences among Mormons. Where is that 70 percent number the norm? What region has so many “Jack Mormons” that the attendance figures are down around 20 percent? Is that Utah or Nevada?

Looking ahead: Is it time to admit that there is no monolithic “Mormon voter” or, to cut to the chase, “Mormon donor”?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Trent

    More likely, Utah and Nevada are the top of the list in attendance, and Vermont or Alabama toward the bottom. People raised in the Church are much more likely to attend life-long than those who convert.

    At times membership numbers between churches isn’t apples to apples-Jehovah’s Witnesses for instance have far higher attendance than membership, but Catholics or mainline Protestants may have many people that attend once or twice a year. For Mormons, where a large portion are converts, it’s less than straight to compare attendance to the overall American rate, because most faiths are composed largely of legacy members with relatively few converts.

    The other elephant in the room is that nobody can really define exactly who is an isn’t Mormon. If someone doesn’t practice the faith but identifies with them for family or historical reasons, are they a Mormon? If someone practices part of the faith but not the whole faith, are they Mormon? For most religions, partial practicing would constitute full or regular membership, as most aren’t as involved as Mormonism in day to day life. As Fletcher Stack’s article mentioned, the explained that the study’s researchers considered Mormons more recent decision to include all baptized members in the number as more in line with other faiths. Baptism is the most definite initiation into the faith, and excommunication or name-removal the most definite exit, so the easiest way to define who is Mormon is someone who has been baptized and hasn’t been removed, which is what Mormon numbers now reflect.

  • Jerry

    Such a survey as the national one gives ample opportunity for those that don’t “get” science, specifically statistics, to go astray. You pointed out one clear way in which that happens – a church defining who is a member.

    There was also reported a large rise in Muslims in the same story. I wonder how those numbers were derived.

    But there is another interesting issue I found. I looked up the county in which I live and found 645,429 “unclaimed” far above any other group Catholics being second at 228,400. Unclaimed is defined as those that are not adherents of any of the 236 groups included in the Religious Congregations & Membership Study, 2010. This number should not be used as an indicator of irreligion or atheism, as it also includes adherents of groups not included in these data.

    So there is one or two, heh, “minor” problems with that survey.

  • sari

    The other elephant in the room is that nobody can really define exactly who is an isn’t Mormon.

    Actually, the Church of LDS can and does define who is and who is not Mormon. The problem arises when others question their definition. What we really want to know is the number of Mormons who currently observe Mormon practice as defined by the Church of LDS.

  • A.M. Davis

    I heard these statistics during Religion and Ethics on PBS yesterday and questioned them as well.

    I grew up in an area in Queens NYC that was 70% Jewish. (Interestingly enough, when I was a little girl, I thought the whole world was Jewish…imagine my surprised when I traveled to Montana!)

    To most of the world, I’m considered Jewish because my mother and grandmother were. However, I am now a practicing Christian (Anglican Catholic). Whether or not I am still considered Jewish is really a matter of opinion; my own, my friends, Reformed , Orthodox, Hasidic, and Christian society would have greatly differing notions as to my classification. Is Judaism a race, religion, or culture – or all of the above?

    Many of my Jewish friends and their families were Zionists and avowed agnostics or atheists, but still considered themselves Jewish and attended High Holy days as well as had their sons circumcised and sons (and now daughters) Bar/Bat Mitzvahed because it is their cultural tradition. Their names are on the rolls and they donate generously.

    So you try to do the math and try to count how many Jews there are in any given area and how many attend synagogue, and how many are truly observant.

    It’s almost the same as the LDS in a way, except for the fact that Judaism is not a missionary religion seeking converts. The synagogues reporting an increase is due to American Jews seeking a theological identity or the first opportunity a Jewish immigrant has had to worship in public, rather than non-Jews joining.

    In the Muslim community, Mosques are being organized and built which is attracting those who had nowhere to go heretofore. Again, many are, ‘Social Muslims’ who are seeking a cultural and theological identity that simply wasn’t available 10-15 years ago without mosques and cultural centers. These are places for worship, celebrations, education, family activities, fellowship, and support.

    Some in the African-American community have converted and joined mosques, however a few sects, like the Nation of Islam, are not considered true Muslims by the mainline Islamic community. So how do you count them?

    It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that this so-called scientific study is relative.

  • Murdock

    Recent surveys by highly respected organizations give us reliable current information on the number of Mormons in America and some their religious practices.

    Gallup had a sample of 327,244 telephone interviews, an enormous sample, gathered from January through November 2011. (This sample must have been accumulated as part of numerous survey projects.)

    The Pew Forum conducted a survey from October 25 to November 16, 2011.

    Both Gallup and Pew found that 1.9% of Americans are Mormon. The fact that two such respected organizations got exactly the same result makes that 1.9% an especially reliable figure.

    In each survey, respondents self-identified their religion. Thus, if they said that they were Mormon, then they were recorded as Mormon. To me, you are what you say you are, so this methodology appears sound to me.

    In mid-2011, the population of the United States was about 311,800,000.

    1.9% of 311,800,00 is 5,924,200. Thus, the self-identifying Mormon population of the United States is around 5.9 million or so. BTW That is quite close to the Church’s count of 6.1 million or so.

    The Pew Forum asked American Mormons about some of their religious practices.Here are three of the results:

    79% pay a full 10% tithe.

    65% have a temple recommend.

    77% attend religious services weekly. (I have heard that people of all denominations overestimate their frequency of attendance, so “weekly” should be interpreted as “about weekly”.)


  • Heather

    That’s a cup of postum (or caffix or pero) in the photo, right?
    If it were actually c-ffee, that would be really ironic.

  • Jen G.

    Membership in a religion is somewhat like citizenship in a country in that it generally falls into one of two categories – either you have to claim it or it claims you. That makes it difficult to compare different faiths as some may only report those who are actively on the rolls (those who claim it) while others report all those who have ever been a part of it (those who claim you).

  • Dandini

    This just gets wild… when the LDS faith changes it’s accounting of members to the same way other faiths count their numbers… to include also all inactives, no matter what the reason, anyone on the roles… just like all other faiths… people go crazy about the numbers…

    A lot more different than when the LDS used to really just count the active and semi-active membership roles for numbers… I think PEW surveys, and most any other national surveys still show a church attendance rate of about 80 percent, much higher than most all other faiths.

    they still build one new chapel each week somewhere in the world, completely paid for without any borrowing… would seem there would be a lot of empty buildings according to some, yet I have never seen one empty… always a hub of activity… and/or

    If you really want to know more…

  • Will

    But are all these people DEVOUT Mormons?

  • sari

    But are all these people DEVOUT Mormons?

    To whom falls the responsibility of defining who is what and how devout they are? The Church of LDS, the reporter, the person on the street?

  • Tasha

    And then you also have the problem that they do not take off all the names that request to be taken off. Just as any Ex-Mormon.

  • Passing By

    I think the “devout” thing was a little insider GetReligion humor. :-)

  • Sheldon R. Murphy

    The ‘problem’ mentioned about is news to me. The Administrative Action procedure to remove a persons name is very simple. Let me emplain this to Tasha. A letter to your local Bishop expressing desire to ‘no longer wish to be a member of the LDS Church’. The letter must be signed by you with your address and phone #, so that he can contact you to verify that this letter was from you [not a prankster]. Or two representatives will drop by your address to verify. When the two report the consensus from visit, they will sign your request letter. The Bishop will call a meeting, present the request letter and the verification information and accept the request. It is done.

    Now, if you do not provide a letter, or sign it, or provide address/phone # or speak to someone representing to LDS Church, they will NOT ACT on an apparent PRANK.