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.