Why More Missionaries ≠ More Converts

Another General Conference has come and gone, and another annual statistical report has been released. This year’s report is particularly interesting, because it reveals the impact—or rather, lack of impact—of the Church’s decision last year to lower the missionary age for women, making it possible for a larger number of young women to serve. That change was perhaps partly a concession to those who are concerned about gender inequalities in the Church’s structure, but mainly I think it was an attempt to boost flagging convert numbers.

In 2002, when the Church “raised the bar” for missionary standards, the number of proselytizing missionaries fell by about 10,000 over the next two years, and the number of converts dropped by about 40,000. It is generally agreed that the decline in missionaries caused the decline in converts, and indeed, the Church immediately worked to reverse the trend by urging young men to enlist in the missionary program and local leaders to recruit them. Convert and missionary numbers mostly recovered by 2012, though both figures remained a bit lower than their 2002 level. I suspect Church leaders assumed that this recovery of the “convert baptisms” number could be extended into growth if the growth in the number of missionaries could be extended as well. “Lowering the age” was an attempt to apply the “raising the bar” principle in reverse; if fewer missionaries means fewer converts, then more missionaries should mean more converts. Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, it apparently doesn’t work that way. The 2013 statistical report shows that although the number of proselytizing missionaries increased by about 24,000, the number of convert baptisms was only about 8,500 higher than the average for the last five years and only about 1,600 higher than 2011.

The problem seems to be market saturation. More missionaries means more converts only if there’s pent-up “demand” or demand increases in proportion to the missionary “supply”. Since the Church has largely discontinued the practice of random, door-to-door “tracting,” the demand being met by proselytizing missionaries consists almost entirely of prospective converts whose names have been submitted by current LDS members. There are only so many member referrals to go around, and the missionary force was already large enough to handle them before the missionary age was lowered. Adding 22,000 new missionaries doesn’t increase the number of member referrals; it just means the referrals are spread across a larger number of missionaries and each of them has less to do. If the Church wants to increase convert numbers, it’s going to have to find new things for missionaries to do or new ways to increase demand.

Is the answer to revive tracting? Probably not. Tracting was discontinued for a reason; it was ineffective. Maybe it worked a few decades ago, but like all advertising media, it has lost effectiveness over time. Consumers tend to gradually develop “immunity” to advertising media; we have spam filters on our email, caller ID on our telephones, pop-up blockers on our web browsers, DVR on our televisions. Door-to-door soliciting is one of the oldest advertising media there is, so people have developed a particularly strong aversion to it. When someone comes to the door peddling religion or vacuum cleaners, we’re likely to slam the door in his/her face or even prank him/her by answering the door naked; and that assumes the solicitor got past the guard dog and “no solicitors” sign in the first place.

No, the answer is probably not tracting. If the Church asked me what it should do, I’d suggest increasing the number of service missionaries. Done on a sufficiently large scale, humanitarian service might attract positive attention and potentially help to boost demand for proselytism. One of the reasons sociologists give for the decline of church attendance in modern, secular societies is that religions are providing fewer “secular” services than they used to; many of those services, such as welfare and healing, have been taken over by a secular professional class or by the secular state. In the US, religion tends to be strongest among immigrants, for whom churches still serve as major sources of social support, employment opportunities, and legal and cultural expertise. By providing services, the LDS Church will create a sense of gratitude and obligation among the beneficiaries of those services. This would undoubtedly be most effective in poorer nations, where services are most-needed and least expensive to provide.

Another option is to open new “markets” for proselytism. Currently the Church complies with countries’ laws about proselytism and limits its missionary work to relatively safe areas. This is sort of necessitated by the nature of the LDS missionary program; not many parents would send their children on missions that might involve physical danger or illegal proselytizing activity. The hierarchical nature of the Church’s organization also somewhat forecloses the option of a clandestine, cell-based “underground church” like the two hundred million-strong Evangelical Christian movement in China. But if the Church could find a way to pry open some of the countries that are currently closed to LDS mission work, perhaps that could provide an outlet for the missionary surplus.

In the meantime, increases in the Church’s missionary force will continue to bring diminished and diminishing returns.


Why More Missionaries ≠ More Converts — 33 Comments

  1. Sounds about right. I was a missionary 30 years ago, and knocking doors did not work very well then, even in South America. The greatest “success” we had was when we abandoned traditional proselytizing methods and worked with the welfare missionaries to provide service. The church could become a huge force for good if they focused on service, and I suspect convert baptisms would increase. But then, you and I are not in charge, are we?

  2. Great analysis.

    I do wonder how much culture plays a part in things. While I know it’s not a secret to many Mormons that tracting isn’t effective, I’ve heard from a few that the new focus on social media and other “alternative” ways of tracting is met with some resistance from some of the “old guard.” One in particular (whose father is a former mission president) told me that their impression was that the church is starting to go “soft” on the missionaries.

    There’s definitely a coming-of-age aspect to Mormon missionaries. Some would say that the harsh rejection and (sometimes) less-than-desirable conditions are something that defines a coming-of-age Mormon, and in essence gives many who have gone through that experience a communal point to relate to each other.

    While I understand the social media aspect that the LDS Church is focusing on, I also wonder how sustainable it is, considering it is a volatile medium (for example, the youth migration from Facebook). But I’ve also been very intrigued as to why there seems to be such a resistance from service-based missions. Perhaps it’s not the traditional “preach the gospel” approach that many are used to, perhaps there is less proselytizing that many have grown accustomed. I’m not sure. But to increase the supply (the missionaries) without an increased demand doesn’t seem to be providing the results that some might have been expecting. Granted, we are still in an infancy of this “new” missionary moment that the church is focusing on, but it will be intriguing to hear the stories from the new crop and see if there are different reactions.

  3. “There’s definitely a coming-of-age aspect to Mormon missionaries.”

    I agree, Brandt. I’d even go so far as to say that sending kids on missions may increase the Church’s tithing dollars in the long run, since the sales skills and mental discipline those kids learn on their missions tend to serve them well in their careers. Then again, service missionaries would learn job skills, too—especially if the Church put the same energy into training them in such skills as it currently puts into training them in languages.

  4. You did not mention the 18-month mission as an option. It would reduce the number of missionaries in the field but still give the opportunity to serve (and all the benefits that come with serving a mission) to larger numbers of young Mormons.

  5. Maybe the numbers are reflecting the reality that the church has no foundation. Also, the policy change that dropped the missionary age has a lot more to do with getting kids more invested in the church so they don’t leave in my opinion. The whole raise the bar thing is the right thing to do. Currently, I don’t think there is a bar. It seems there are no consequences for grievous behavior where I live.

  6. LDS church leaders have been very concerned in the last several years of the staggering departure rate the church is experiencing in its youth. In its core membership, multi-generational tithe paying families, the church is losing young people to indifference and inactivity.

    I suspect that the church’s goal was not for an increase in convert numbers but rather an increase in the retention rate of young people.

    Lowing the age of young men to 18 was a targeted effort to get a percentage of young men focused on missionary service instead of plans where the church becomes a secondary and distant priority within a year or two of high school graduation. I have heard that age drop for women was a last minute decision.

  7. The Church could, of course, substitute investing in speculative real estate and high-end malls for schools and hospitals in underdeveloped regions of the world (and the U.S.). Financing upwards social mobility would probably offer a better ROI in the long haul with tithing revenues and volunteered man-hours than any expenditures with proselytism and malls.

    Incidentally, I have a nice table with Church stats 1981-2011 here: http://vozesmormons.com.br/2012/04/07/estatisticas-2011-tabela-completa/

    I’ve been meaning to update it, but now that you’ve beaten me to the “post” punch… 😉

    Gary brings up an important point and he is probably right. However, youth retention could just as easily be encouraged via volunteer work similar to the Peace Corps — if not more so.

  8. The additional missionaries in our area have really increased the activity level in our ward. They have been doing a lot with less-active members. Is there any way to measure that?

  9. When I was in Spain, knocking doors was not only discouraged, it was against the law. The best thing we could do was to hold these Book of Mormon presentations in the park. They were called a “Pancarta.” But it was discouraging because it seemed like every other person that walked by was either a vocal atheist or a nun. Tough market for Mormonism, Spain was.

  10. I’m going to put on my apologist’s cap on for a second and say that the flood of new missionaries is a primary reason why the baptism per missionary ratio is quite low. This is how our troubles in the Madrid mission were explained when the mission force literally doubled in two months. The idea here is that the Greenies need more experience to be successful.

  11. Funny how in a decade we went from sending out young men who were prepared to go, to sending them out younger just to retain them as members. We went from raising the bar to lowering the expectations. We went from lengthen your stride to 18 year old baby steps.

    Clearly this is a church led by (a) profit.

  12. I agree with everyone’s comments concerning mission work as a retention strategy. The young men and women who go on missions and the people they reactivate will probably all exhibit higher commitment to the faith in the coming years as a result. Unfortunately, the statistical report doesn’t offer a way to measure that. In the future, perhaps institute enrollment will serve as a good proxy for activity rates; but since they only started reporting those numbers for the first time this year, there’s no earlier data for comparison. I should point out that the decline in members of record (deaths and resignations) was higher this year than ever before, but that may reflect an aging membership and an increasingly well-organized ex-Mormon/atheist movement pushing disaffected inactive members to resign. In other words, high resignation numbers don’t necessarily mean high inactivity numbers; it could just be that a greater proportion of inactive members is resigning than ever before.

  13. Perhaps we’ll be better able to assess the effect on activity when the next Pew Forum national religion survey comes out. They usually ask respondents how often they pray, attend church, etc. Comparison with earlier surveys should supply the necessary perspective. Fodder for a future follow-up post, I suppose.

  14. I think Gary Bergera is spot on. The difference from 18 to 19 is significant. They are trying to get the men (boys) more invested in the church at a younger age. It’s essentially the “Sunk Cost” fallacy. They want the young men out, separated from social media and isolated in church service for what will amount to 10% of their lives.

  15. I like the idea of service missionaries but especially agree with your second point that more can be done in opening new “markets” for proselytism. However, I do not think that opening countries currently closed to missionary work is necessary for this to take place. There are countries currently open to missionary work that we do not send missionaries to (see http://cumorah.com/index.php?target=view_other_articles&story_id=576&cat_id=35 on this and on unreached countries in general).

    Further, the Church is deliberately slowing growth in several places around the world, by requiring converts to speak English in India for example, and by holding back growth for leadership to mature in Africa. The Church could actually grow significantly if it opened up several new missions in Africa – in Ethiopia, Cameroon, and more missions in the DRC where significant growth is taking place. Modifying the “centers of growth” policy and taking a more proactive church planting approach could also significantly increase growth in receptive countries (Africa and parts of Asia). There’s a lot that could be done to increase growth here, but I suspect that concerns about sufficient leadership capacity and maturity and maintaining a correlated church take precedence over exploring opportunities for growth in places like Africa.

  16. The lack of a commensurate increase in the number of convert baptisms for 2013 is primarily the byproduct of the Church allocating the vast majority of surplus missionary manpower to missions in North America. This has been due to several reasons such as greater church infrastructure to accommodate sudden, massive increases in the number of full-time missionaries assigned, ongoing emphasis on reactivation efforts, and the Church generally assigning missionaries to serve within or nearby their home country. The Church would have likely experienced serious administrative challenges opening massive areas unreached by LDS proselytism where there are no restrictions on religious freedom, such as the more than 400 cities in Brazil with 20,000 or more inhabitants and the vast unreached areas of many Sub-Saharan African countries where there is sufficient religious freedom and political stability to permit foreign missionary service, such as Burkina Faso and most of Liberia. The “centers of strength” policy has dictated LDS outreach expansion efforts worldwide and has unfortunately deterred mission and area leaders from opening new cities for missionary work due to focus on addressing leadership and activity problems in the handful of cities that already have a church presence.

    Most missions in the Church continue to use street and door-to-door proselytism as the primary methods to find investigators. North American missions and a few other countries such as the Philippines have discouraged these finding approaches to focus more on less-active work and motivating members to participate in member-missionary activities.

  17. I think the full impact of the missionaries won’t be seen until the 2014 stats have been released next year. The announcement was made in Oct. 2012, but many missionaries didn’t enter the field until summer of 2013 (after high school or college ended). With a few months in the MTC, most missionaries were only in the field for 3-4 months of 2013. The number of missionaries serving at the end of the year was certainly high, but most missionaries had only been out for a short amount of time.

  18. I think there has been some good comments here; I respect and acknowledge these. I think we could have some more clear answers if studies could be conducted on the demographics of those who the church, and even surveys of individuals that have no interest in hearing the missionaries. Although a bit empirical on my end, it seems that a sizable portion (perhaps majority) of converts that join the LDS church in Western nations today are lower income and lower education level individuals. Also, are there more politically conservative individuals joining the LDS church than left-leaning? Why the discrepancy? Perhaps surveys or studies of non-interested individuals could help the church learn more about what is keeping people from being interested. If the church intends to “improve” its missionary program, it needs to start looking at data, its audience, and responding. Otherwise, this move to place more people in the mission field and use similar methods is only resulting in some of the same problems.

  19. I tracted into a family of 5 as a missionary and they were all baptized. Then a few months later, in a new area, did it again. I baptized probably 5 more individuals who we found by tracting. I served 09-10′. Yes, in GC you hear GA’s pushing member involvement, and in zone conference missionaries are trained to encourage member involvement as the strongest, most effective way to find, teach, and baptize. But I would argue that tracting is very much alive in missionary work and will always be part of the program.

  20. I’ve said something similar on other blogs dealing with this topic, tracting may be very inefficient but it’s magnitudes more efficient than doing nothing. If you have no referrals you can choose to sit around or you can go out and talk to people. Which one will give better results?

  21. Although tracting may gain a few converts here and there, the choice isn’t between tracting and nothing at all. The choice is between tracting and more effective techniques. The Church needs to innovate. If it chooses not to step up service missions, then it needs to at least come up with some new proselytizing strategies. It’s trying to do this with its social media missionaries, but I doubt this will be very effective for gaining new converts. A better strategy might be to copy the evangelicals and throw block parties, festivals, or other fun social events where the faith can be preached to a captive audience. Alternatively, perhaps service and proselytism could be combined; the missionaries could go door-to-door offering to help clean houses, fix cars, that sort of thing, and they could share their faith as they work.

  22. Interesting ! If the conclusion is right then the convert numbers could remain static in the next 2 years while the missionary surge ebbs out. A lot has been said about the severe damage the internet does, but I have yet to see a drop of convert baptisms by 1/3 = 100 000 converts. Most of the converts and or at least one of their friends would have internet access in cities / libraries around the world.

  23. Christopher, I think this is one area where never having been a missionary is working to your detriment. When you are a full-time, 24/7/365 missionary you are going to have time when you have nothing to do. That will be true whether you are doing social networking or service or any other more effective technique. The biggest conundrum for me as a missionary was, “what do I do with all of this time?” And again, tracting is terribly inefficient, but it is a way of talking to people, it is a way to put to use that hour or two or ten that you are faced with nothing to do and plenty of time to do it. In those situations, tracting is vastly more efficient than doing nothing, and be assured, many missionaries end up doing nothing when they confront that problem.

  24. All the changes and permutations of the missionary program the brethren have led it through should be a giant red flag to thinking people. Market driven human wisdom is no substitute for divine guidance. The missionary program, and the brethren directing it, appear to be cast about and driven by the wind; not the wind of the Spirit, but the wind of trial and error, Wall Street designed, utilitarian human wisdom.

  25. Great analysis, Christopher. And Marcello!

    One aspect of the discussion that seems to be missing is that, statistically, it appears that the Church is losing more members per year than it is converting, at least in the United States.

    This is seen when comparing numbers of children per family in Mormon homes versus the population at large in the United States.

    The average number of children per adult female in the U.S. at large is approximately 2 (i.e., 2 children per adult female). (Coincidentally, the worldwide average is 2.5 children per adult female.)

    The average number of children per Mormon adult female, in Utah, is approximately 4.5.

    The average number of children per Mormon adult female, outside of Utah, is 3.5

    Thus, discounting any members joining or leaving, the population growth in the Church should be at least double the population growth in the U.S. at large.

    The U.S. population growth rate is approximately 1.5%. Considering the larger Mormon family size (and, again, not counting joiners/leavers), one might expect a Church growth rate of at least 3%. (Those with statistical proficiency can correct me if I’m wrong here.)

    According to Marcello’s excellent charts (which I can’t fully read, thanks to my lack of Spanish ability), appears to indicate that the recent growth of the Church has been as high as about 2.5% (2007) and as low as about 2% this past year (2013).

    Thus, it appears that *even adding in joiners (converts) and subtracting out leavers (removing names from the record),* the Church lost at least 1% of its membership in 2013 and has lost about 0.5% to 1% of its membership in each of the past few years.

    Again, I have no background in statistics. In fact, I’ve been told that lawyers are notoriously bad at mathematical analysis — so I’d be glad to be corrected on any of these points.

  26. I’m sad to see returning missionaries who (often privately) feel demoralized, not uplifted, at their return. At this impressionable age, men and women need many positive opportunities, to plan and reach goals with short- and medium-term achievable objectives. We (the Church collectively) should create missions where success is most likely, not thin and scattered.

    Adding to #23 above, I suggest a few more mission ideas:

    1.) A mission call to enroll in a distant university and buoy up that U’s Institute program (or adjacent high school seminary programs). As a fully-enrolled student/missionary, he pursues the same/similar academic interests that he would pursue back home; his credits are transferable to his post-mission university or professional trade school.

    2.) Building on (1) above, mission plans are offered that align with a teen’s natural interests; for example, a teen with medical interests may select a service mission to give med shots, phlebotomy, or surgical assisting. A teen with engineering interests may select a mission destination needing bridge building or water systems in remote areas. A teen with law/legal interests may become an attorney assistant for socially-important cases. Teens with plumbing, electrical or HVAC interests may become “Habitat for Humanity” journeyman and overseers. The list of ideas is nearly endless. Every professional topic has a charitable or service opportunity with clear and measurable rewards. Further, the “mission homecoming” discussions can become more diverse, interesting, captivating.

    3.) Building on (2) above, such missions may be no or low paying, indexed to that missionary’s finances. If needed, IRS reporting may be managed by family back home as the missionary focuses on service over income. Consider framing it as a net-zero financially, emphasizing service, life experience, and future profession.

    4.) If these ideas do not pass ecclesiastical review, then include some proselyting component that best serves each area. Out-of-box ideas may include “home-teaching splits”, a spin on the established missionary splits; team with local members as they fill HT duties.

    5.) As a final idea. Team with the members (and clergy) of other churches to build on common goals and downplay differences. Add to their goals; invite them to add to ours.

    Conclusion: The world has more honorable projects than people to complete them. We don’t have time to waste, to squabble, to split doctrinal hairs. Let’s use more carrots, fewer sticks.

  27. I went on a mission to France 50 years ago and tracting didn’t work there and then. Many good missionaries went home without a baptism. Mission paperwork encouraged exaggeration. And foreign-language missions were either 2-1/2 or 3 years.

    So in some areas (like Western Europe) we’ve known for years that tracting doesn’t work. We need to move on. More service missionaries would be great. I live part-time in Africa, service missionaries could good a lot of good there. And it would be a great experience for young Mormon adults.

  28. So many analytical comments and statistical reviews… This discussion is lacking a vital element found in the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 18: It’s not about numbers, it’s about individuals. (That’s why the Lord left the 90 & 9 to find his lost sheep.)

    …I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written;

    4 For in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock.

    5 Wherefore, if you shall build up my church, upon the foundation of my gospel and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.

    6 Behold, the world is ripening in iniquity; and it must needs be that the children of men are stirred up unto repentance, both the Gentiles and also the house of Israel…

    10 Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;

    11 For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.

    12 And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.

    13 And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!

    14 Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.

    15 And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!

    16 And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!

    17 Behold, you have my gospel before you, and my rock, and my salvation.

    18 Ask the Father in my name in faith, believing that you shall receive, and you shall have the Holy Ghost, which manifesteth all things which are expedient unto the children of men.

  29. A few years ago the Church got away from the “canned” missionary discussions and went to a free-form discussion format. I’ve sat through a few of those and in general, I think the missionaries are unprepared. They speak platitudes and stammer and hem-haw until I’m embarrassed and want to take over for them. But I don’t. It appears to me that having some memorized presentations would not be a bad thing!

  30. a returned missionary i talked to said that his mission president said that 1 in 3 sister missionaries returns home early from their mission, and that the church was very poorly organized to process and employ the missionaries in a meaningful way