Perspective: Latter-day Saints aren’t going anywhere. Look at the numbers

Utah, where 56% of the state affiliates with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has the highest rate of weekly church attendance in the country

This week, millions of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will gather in homes and meetinghouses around the world to listen to inspiring messages. General conference, the biannual gathering of Latter-day Saints, is a natural time to reflect on the state of the church and its members.  

There’s a compelling story to tell — from rising enrollment at church schools to near record numbers of missionaries and growth in temples to expanding church membership and established financial sustainability amid economic and global upheaval.

In more normal times, this would be a story of success. 

But given accelerating cultural headwinds against religiosity, the full storyline is even more dramatic. And yet, these more positive details are too often overlooked as part of the unfolding story of faith in society today. The dominant news headline is effectively captured in one skeptic’s comment recently featured in a Washington Post story, asserting that “everywhere you look” people are turning away from faith.

Of course, many of us do see friends and family stepping away from religious participation. And let’s be clear: Even one person walking away will always be cause for sorrow among former brothers and sisters of faith. But too little attention is given to the other side of the story, in a way that would provide a more accurate picture of at least one faith that continues to add members, wards and stakes each year.

One recent analysis by the University of Chicago’s Devin G. Pope leveraged cellphone data to examine weekly attendance at church across various faith groups. According to an early abstract of his study, he found that while there are 14 times more Americans identifying as Catholics than Latter-day Saints, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had more comparative weekly attendees at church among over 2 million people sampled in the study.

Additionally, data scientist Ryan Burge found that Utah, where 56% of the state affiliates with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has the highest rate of weekly church attendance in the country.

Saddening disaffection amidst heartening growth, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Just 712 years after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830, between November 1837 and June 1838, “possibly two or three hundred Kirtland Saints withdrew from the church, representing 10%-15% of the membership there,” according to historian Milton Backman. Later, in a nine-month period in Missouri, Frederick G. Williams, a member of the First Presidency, four members of the Twelve Apostles, and several members of the First Quorum of the Seventy left the church.

Since that period, however, the Church of Jesus Christ has grown over 1,000 times in size (from over 16,282 members to over 17 million today). Those numbers alone — quite apart from media and social media amplification — guarantee a higher likelihood of hearing more negative stories.

Do parents care if their kids grow up to be religious?
The number of Latter-day Saint missionaries is rising rapidly

It’s young people, more than most, who can be vulnerable to often overstated messages of dwindling faith. And yet even there, we see clear indications that a popular narrative of youth with no interest in religion has been vastly oversimplified.

After acknowledging that less importance is placed on religious participation by more recent generations overall, Justin Dyer at Brigham Young University recently highlighted data confirming a more nuanced picture. 

Broader trends of general youth disaffection do not hold for Latter-day Saint young people, whose attitudes among the recent generations — millennials and Gen Z — are on par with or actually more favorable to religion than some earlier generations.

“In comparing the generations when they were high school seniors, millennial Latter-day Saint youth feel religion is more important than all other generations,” Dyer summarized.

Furthermore, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently announced that despite fewer children being born today in most countries there are expected to be over 72,000 missionaries serving by the end of 2023 (up from 56,000 at the end of 2021). 

In turn, convert baptisms have also increased and were up 25% in the first quarter of 2023 compared to the previous year.

The signs of heightened engagement among young adults doesn’t stop with missionaries. Look no further than the recent Utah Area YSA conference, “Together in Christ,” which represented the largest gathering of young single adults ever in the church.

Enrollment at church schools is also up considerably over a 10-year window — with approximately 145,000 total students enrolled in CES higher education. These are the kinds of figures that would need to be at least acknowledged in any sincere attempt to paint a complete picture of Latter-day Saint faith today.

The fact is that there is still a demand for the spiritual, and the church can help fill that need. Empty pews notwithstanding, traditional religious beliefs like God, angels, heaven and hell are, even in 2023, still held by commanding majorities of the U.S. public, with only about a third of people not believing in the devil, and about a tenth not believing in God. Furthermore, Pew and others have predicted that the world will become increasingly religious over the next several decades as religious families have more children. While we might see pockets of growing irreligion here and there (and even those tend to be exaggerated, as strong majorities of Europeans still believe in God, and many in the biblical God), religion and spirituality has a powerful, natural part to play in our society, and the church is a part of that story. 

Whatever personal proclivities individual journalists and social media influencers may have about faith and religious community, here’s to hoping that a desire for the full truth, fairness and objectivity can win out in the end. Even while rightfully scrutinizing the various challenges facing faith communities, let’s not forget to take a moment to appreciate the many reasons to be encouraged by positive religious developments and hopeful about even better things on the horizon of faith today. 

Jacob Hess is the former editor of Public Square Magazine and is a contributing writer for Deseret News. Stephen Cranney is a nonresident fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion and teaches at Catholic University of America.

Correction: A prior version of this story said more missionaries are serving today than prior years. It’s estimated 72,000 missionaries will be serving by the end of 2023, while its estimated there were more than 80,000 Latter-day Saint missionaries serving in 2015.