A Response to Some Oft-Repeated Lies about the Alleged Decline of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
I couldn't care less if people express views contrary to mine about politics, religion, or whether pineapple goes on pizza, and I'm thick-skinned enough to care little if at all when they decide to be unnecessarily rude about it. On the rare occasions that someone as witty as John Safran or Emo Philips makes fun of my religion, I'm inclined to find it hilarious. But when people say downright stupid and/or dishonest things about my religion or someone else's religion (usually Islam) or current events or history or science or pizza that are subsequently accepted as unquestionable fact by whoever wants them to be true, something inside me breaks. I feel a desperate, un-Christian yearning to grab said people through my phone or laptop screen and shake the fake news out of them. And that's why I also feel a neurotic compulsion to address some stupid lies about my religion today. I'm under no delusions that this will stop people from continuing to spread and accept these exact stupid lies, but it will be very therapeutic for me to address them for posterity with the respect and thoughtfulness they deserve.
The truth or falsity of any idea is not affected one iota by how many people choose to accept it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims something like 0.02% of the world's population. Actually, the Book of Mormon prophesies that its members will be few but will be represented among every nation and culture on Earth, so it would be a bit problematic if there were billions. It's wrong for Latter-day Saints to claim that the Church must be true because of how fast it's growing, especially since its growth rate has declined considerably over the last three decades and at last count was at its lowest rate since 1937 for the third year in a row. It's also wrong for the Church's critics to claim, as they often do, that it isn't growing at all or that it's declining. You can acknowledge that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing, and still not believe that it's true. The two propositions are not incompatible. You clearly aren't very confident in your conviction of its falsity if you have to make things up to reassure yourself. So these are the stupid lies about church growth that I've seen (in addition to many other times) in just the past two weeks.
- that people are starting to find out "the TRUTH"™ about the Church and get out.
I must agree to disagree on what constitutes "the TRUTH"™ and disregard the astounding arrogance of statements like this, because for more than eight years I've examined virtually every historical or doctrinal issue that people leave the Church over and I still believe for many spiritual and intellectual reasons, but I take issue with the part where critics act like this is a recent phenomenon. People have been losing their faith and leaving the Church since 1830. During the Kirtland era, they left at a much higher rate than they do today. The number leaving today, however significant it may be and however important each individual, is very much a minority compared to those who stay, join, or return. People who have left the Church often hang around with people who have left the Church, looking for a support system to replace the one they've lost, and this results in echo chambers where they convince themselves that everyone is leaving the Church. And some of them calculate the Church's growth rate based on this without taking into account its two to three hundred thousand baptisms per year. Seems like a sliiight oversight.
Yeah, well, get used to it, Dr. Horrible. I never claimed to be original. Why don't you go bother Penny - OH WAIT.
- that in recent years the Church has declined by 30%.
I only heard this from the one guy, whom I'll keep anonymous because I'm in a good mood. Pardon my French, but this is a textbook example of pulling statistics out of your butt. Whether he was referring to the raw number of members, the percentage of members who attend church, the raw number of members who attend church, or even the growth rate (which in context I'm pretty sure wasn't the case), his statistic is 100% incorrect. It's so incorrect that I'm not even going to dignify it with more of a response than that. And I love writing.
- that in recent years the Church has declined at all.
Unlike the previous more specific claim, this one is - oh, I'm sorry, did I say "unlike"? Autocorrect. I'm too lazy to go back and fix it. Like the previous more specific claim, this one is false. I think the confusion here is because the Church's growth rate has declined, and some people naturally assume that means it's reversed. I understand. I didn't grasp the difference between linear growth and negative growth until I was in second grade, and I understand that people have to learn at their own pace.
- that when people stop attending church but don't resign their membership, the Church counts them as part of the membership total until they die or turn 110 years old, and that's an underhanded thing to do.
This is true except for the absurd negative spin. I made a little post about it, and Jon Hansen memed it, and I said it was beautiful, and then I felt bad for calling a horrific tragedy "beautiful", and I had to repent. But you get the picture. (The zeppelin represents critics of the Church.)
Seriously. People flip their shtick every time the Church excommunicates someone who's actively fighting against it. Imagine how they'd cry and stomp their little feet if the Church excommunicated people for staying home on Sundays. Sure, a decent chunk of these many, many "less active" members don't believe in or consider themselves affiliated with the Church at all, but it isn't the Church's place to decide which ones they are. Every week in various parts of the world, people who hadn't been going to church, sometimes for decades, start going to church again. And of course some stop going and the cycle continues. And of course some people who go to church are closet atheists trying to please their families. So basically the Church does exactly what it should in not trying to guess people's testimonies. I, for one, stayed home from church for most of summer 2012, but I never stopped believing, and I would have been highly offended if someone had deleted me from the membership records. They put me in the "Address Unknown" file instead. That makes me feel so dark and mysterious.
- that the Church closing its Missionary Training Center in the Dominican Republic is proof of its membership decline.
Even disregarding the fact that the Church has more missionaries now than there it did in 2000 when the DR MTC was dedicated, the confirmation bias here is nothing short of incredible. The nineteen future temples that the Church announced this year? Those mean nothing because reasons. Some people actually claim that the Church announces temples to create a "facade" of growth. Well, I can't really say anything to people like that, can I? If you assume that the leaders of the Church are always acting in bad faith (no pun intended) and that everything they say is a lie, your world becomes much less complicated. As long as you don't think about it for very long.
- that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's "prophecy" of 100,000 missionaries by 2019 has failed to come true.
Hmm. Strange. Let's see what Elder Holland actually said, shall we? "We're projecting out probably within four years, the base-line number for the missionary force will be something around 100,000." Hmm. Well, it's not like I'm an English student or anything (Full disclosure: this is a playfully sarcastic statement; I am an English student, and probably will be for the rest of my life, and the fact that I've already used two adverbs in this sentence makes me deeply uncomfortable), but I think I see a couple problems with interpreting Elder Holland's words as a prophecy. I'll list them.
verb (used with object) pro·ject [pruh-jekt] /prəˈdʒɛkt/
8. to set forth or calculate (some future thing): They projected the building costs for the next five years.
1. in all likelihood; very likely: He will probably attend.
Okay, I get it. Both of these words start with the same three letters as "prophesy" or "prophecy". And some people have an infantile view of prophets and apostles that requires them to not have opinions or be wrong about anything. (I'm not talking about legitimate faith-challenging issues along those lines because this isn't one of them.) I'm pretty sure it wasn't even his projection, and that he was quoting some number-cruncher in the Missionary Department. Big whoop. I don't expect this projection to be met, and I won't be particularly disturbed if it isn't, but I do think it might also be pertinent to point out that 2019, let alone the four year mark from this statement (February 27), isn't here yet. Wait a couple months, and then gloat over this statement if you still feel like it. Preferably without calling it something that anyone can see it isn't.
- that the Church is only growing in Africa because people don't have as much internet to find out "the TRUTH"™.
It's a.) false and b.) kind of racist to insinuate that Africans are being duped because they don't have access to information. Speaking anecdotally, I have a Ugandan friend who owns a smartphone and regularly uses something called an "internet cafe", so it's possible that one or two others on the continent do as well. But more to the point, books, pamphlets, radio, newspapers, television, and transatlantic mail and telephone systems all existed and were used by Africans long before Al Gore claimed he invented the internet. West Africans living in West Africa started finding out about the Church on their own and requesting baptism in 1946. That's not a typo. Within less than two decades, there were tens of thousands. (See this page for more information.) Want to hear a far more plausible reason for the Church's success in many (not all) parts of Africa? Maybe because Africans tend to be far more humble and religious than Westerners, more because than in spite of the same war and poverty and disease that rich white American and British atheists point to as proof of God's nonexistence.
Little-known fact: The Church could be growing much faster in the parts of Africa where it's growing fast, but deliberately takes things slow to ensure proper conversion and leadership development instead of baptizing entire villages at a time. There is still a great deal of untapped potential here. Currently, the baseline membership in Africa is so small and such a small percentage of the global total that its growth doesn't affect the overall rate much, so the decline we've seen is mostly reflective of North America and Europe. I'm projecting out probably within ten years, the growth of the Church in countries like Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and South Africa will start to have a much larger impact on the overall rate (and of course on global LDS demographics and culture). I believe we'll soon see the Church exponentially again, because there are untold millions of receptive individuals out there - just not, for the most part, in the secularized regions that the Church has depended on since it was founded.
- that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized/co-authored from a manuscript written by Solomon Spa(u)lding.
Wait, what? How did this get in here when it has nothing to do with church growth? Oh well. I saw it last night so I guess I'll address it anyway. Okay, so I try to be charitable. I can't fault guys like this for not knowing everything or being completely up-to-date on church history developments. Until the actual Spa(u)lding manuscript was discovered and found to have very little in common with the Book of Mormon, it was possible for intelligent people who had never read the manuscript to sincerely believe that there was a connection. The manuscript was just discovered a couple years ago, in 1884, so I can't fault guys like this for not yet having heard that. Okay, but really, dude? Is that really the best you can do? Really?
- that "[w]e are witnessing the slow death of a religion."
Though it's hardly a unique sentiment, I had to quote this one directly. It's just too precious. Okay, so I have few sociopathic tendencies and I really love it when people straight-up say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or the "LD$ Cult"™ or whatever mindless buzzword they use) is dying, or that they're excited to watch it die, or can't wait for it to die, or whatever. I love it because I lay awake at night with a smile on my face thinking of how disappointed they're going to be. I don't care what your religious views are. I don't care if you don't believe in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But if you think it's going to die at any point - well, I won't call you a fool, because then the Bible says I would be in even more danger of hellfire than I already am, but just know that I'm thinking it. I've compiled a page of quotes from people who have predicted (or should I say "prophesied"?) the Church's demise from 1830 to today. Those people either didn't see their predictions come true within their lifetime, or won't see their predictions come true within their lifetime. I feel like I need another picture here so this will have to do.
Sorry, that was a little overdramatic. Anti-Mormons don't use torches anymore. My point is that if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was ever going to die, it would have died in the nineteenth century when it was much, much smaller and faced attempts to annihilate it on a regular basis, including but not limited to the murder of its founding prophet. It doesn't take a scholar to figure that out. Oh, but what about how people say that the Church is going to die now because the recent invention of the internet has enabled its members to find out "the TRUTH"™? Spoiler/plug for my page of quotes: at least one person said basically the same thing about the arrival of telegraphs and railroads in Utah. In 1866. Precious, right? And none of this even proves that the Church is true. You can accept that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is invincible, and still not believe that it's true. The two propositions are not incompatible. Some religions that I don't believe are quite as true as mine will undoubtedly last alongside it, while others actually will go extinct, and I bear no ill will toward any of them because sometimes I act like an adult.
I can't wait to share this post every time I see someone lying about the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being in decline. I'm projecting out probably within four years, I will have shared it at least two thousand times.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.