I’ll put up my next post on Mormon ways of knowing shortly. In the meantime I just wanted to touch upon some things I’ve written at my blog on LDS retention. I’ll not go over my main analysis again. (You can read it at my blog: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) What I wanted to go into is just how hard it is to figure out how well the Church actually is doing in terms of retention. I will only deal with the Church population in the US. If knowing what is going on here is hard, knowing what is going on in the international Church is probably a lost cause.
First it seems like most of what I’ve read comes from just a few studies. The best and most informative is the ARIS self-identification study which has statistics for 1990, 2001 and 2008. They have a separate report with the information on Mormons broken out and analyzed. (They also have a report on the rise of the Nones – which is probably as important since half of those leaving Mormonism appear to join the Nones) What’s best about the ARIS study isn’t just the three periods allowing us to identify changes but the relative size of the samples. The 1990 survey interviews 1742 self-identified Mormons our of 113,723 people total. The 2008 survey had 783 Mormons out of 54,461 people. That isn’t quite as good (more than half as few) but still enough to give some reliability to the study – especially considering the overall survey size.
The next most mentioned are the various Pew studies. I’ve been pretty critical of the recently released study. I just find some of the figures pretty hard to accept on their face which I think undermines the entire study. Pew also did a study in 2007 (released in 2008) which found a self-identified Mormon population nearly 2% of the population versus ARIS’ which found a 1.4% rate. That’s a pretty big difference. The sample of size of Mormons was also much smaller at 580 people. That’s getting down to the level where issues can start to pop up. (Of course I’m from the hard sciences – but I really do understand it’s harder to get data in sociology) Yes you get a margin of error of only about ±4.1% at 95% confidence or 5.3% at 99% but errors of other sorts can start to crop in due to the lack of diversity in the population. (Admittedly the 2008 ARIS is only a bit better at 783 but a different sort of questions are asked there where I’m not sure the diversity matters as much) An other problem with the recent (2012) Pew study is that my understanding is that the same people who had been contacted in 2007 were recontacted for the just released study in order to save money. (Presumably some people couldn’t be contacted and so the sample size is even smaller)
A source I’ve seen quoted (such as by Joanna Brooks) are some studies by Phillips and Cragun. However a lot of their data – especially for the period before the ARIS data – comes from the GSS. The problem is that the total number of Mormons across the GSS is only about 500 and for most types of questions you might ask it is much lower. I tried to replicate the retention figures quoted by them and wasn’t able to using the gss. (You can try yourself if you like – the data is easy to work with online) Anything I came up with had a sample size so small as to really be largely worthless. So you can use this data but I’d be really, really careful comparing it with other data to discern a trend. It’s just problematic.
The official Mormon numbers can be helpful at guessing at trends. However they don’t tend to publicly break out US vs. International numbers that I’ve been able to find. What we do find though is the start of a significant drop in convert baptisms in the 90’s that has continued to increase. Probably the best source of analysis of this information is Cumorah.com. They have the official growth rate declining from 4-5% through much of the later half of the 20th century to less than 3% in the new century. The number of baptisms per missionary has dropped in half.
I should also note the book American Grace goes through a lot of data. Unfortunately they don’t give their raw data. Much of what they mention comes from the above along with a few other surveys and polls such as Gallup. If you haven’t read the book it really is worth checking out.
I’ll not bore you with all my analysis of retention. The most interesting thing to me is that despite a lot of hue and cry about retention numbers the evidence seems to suggest that Mormons have among the best retention of most Churches. Around 70% of those born in the Church remain in the Church. That might be shockingly low to some but I think if you take a step back and think about it that it is actually quite good.
The second thing I discovered is that the growth of the Church in the US in terms of self-identification has actually increased. To quote from my blog. “The US population grew at 15.6% from 1990 – 2001 while [self-identified] Mormons grew at 7.7% during the same period. However from 2001 – 2008 the US population grew at 8.9% while the Mormon population grew at 15%.”
What’s remarkable are the implications of this for retention. Convert baptisms are down significantly yet our growth in self-identification actually increased fairly significantly. That suggests, even acknowledging the error rate, that our retention is getting better and not worse. Still it’s been four years since that study and a lot can happen in that time. One big change is the candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 which has brought a lot of media scrutiny of the Church. Has that affected retention? Thus far we just don’t have data to tell.