Mormonism's Future: Influential Beyond the Numbers

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Mormonism. Read other perspectives here.

As we consider the future of Mormonism in America, the first fact we must take into consideration is simple demographics: Mormonism is not growing, at least not in the North Atlantic (United States and Western Europe). In the late 20th century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did experience astounding growth, going from one million members worldwide in 1947 to three million in 1971, and up to about fifteen million today. But so far in this century, real growth of Mormonism in the United States seems to be essentially flat, perhaps even slightly negative.

To be sure, there are still converts coming in as a result of the church's impressive missionary program, but retention is a problem, and the bucket has a hole that is leaking out members on the other side. (An "inactive" church member does not count against the statistical total membership, as all baptized persons are kept on the church rolls until death, excommunication, or a process whereby a person proactively removes their name from the church records.) Especially since the 1980s, public and academic interest in Mormonism has ridden the wave of church growth, with the label "world's fastest growing religion" enthusiastically bandied about by supporters. If the claim ever was true, it isn't anymore. Both internally and externally, those with a vested interest in Mormonism will have to come up with a new narrative of the religion's importance that doesn't center on simple numerical growth.

In recognition of this, the LDS Church has started to deemphasize the growth narrative. Its official media page related to the topic of membership growth includes the following disclaimers: "According to the National Council of Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the second-fastest-growing church in the United States. However, despite its increasing numbers, the Church cautions against overemphasis on growth statistics. The Church makes no statistical comparisons with other churches and makes no claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination despite frequent news media comments to that effect. Such comparisons rarely take account of a multiplicity of complex factors, including activity rates and death rates, the methodology used in registering or counting members and what factors constitute membership."

In the near future, the LDS Church's engagement in the public square will continue to be dominated by three themes: humanitarian assistance, of which the church has become a globally respected player despite its modest size; religious freedom, largely connected to self-interested questions of religious organizations and schools not being forced to sanction same-sex marriages; and gender and sexuality, mostly concerned with the place of LGBT individuals in the church and the question of women's ordination.

We should not expect to see any substantial changes in the church's official policies on same-sex marriage or ordination anytime soon. It is conceivable that the church would relax its threat of ecclesiastical disciplinary action against legally married same-sex couples, who now are technically in violation of the church's "law of chastity" if they engage in non-heterosexual sex. The church may also budge somewhat on the exercise of female priestly power, perhaps returning to 19th-century precedents in which Mormon women frequently gave blessings of healing and comfort to one another and to their children by the laying on of hands (rites that in the 20th century were restricted to administration by male priesthood holders only). The women's organization of the church, called the Relief Society, might also have restored some of the autonomy that was largely stripped away over the previous century.

The resignation of Pope Benedict has led many Latter-day Saints to look again at their own gerontocracy. As a rule, Mormons have tremendous fondness for and loyalty to the church's senior leadership, called the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles. They believe that God leads the church through revelation to the president of the church, whom they consider to be a prophet. But the demographics of aging cannot be ignored in an era when medical science makes it possible to keep bodies functioning much longer than minds. The current church president is nearly eighty-eight and suffers from various health problems; the next in line in the church's seniority system is nearly ninety-one, and the third a sprightly eighty-two. The inherent organizational conservatism of a seniority-based leadership system provides the church with tremendous stability, but in recent decades a fully active church president has become more the exception than the norm.

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