While the overall number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States continues to increase, the number of congregations for these members has slowed down significantly. That’s according to notable LDS demographer Matt Martinich.
The LDS Church has thus far only organized 11 units (wards and branches – the Mormon term for congregations) in the United States in the first trimester of 2017, a sizable drop from the typical increase of 30 congregations in other years. Recent years have seen an annual increase of 100 or so congregations a year. At the current pace, that number could be closer to 30-40 by year’s end.
A longer-form analysis, with data from Cumorah.com, shows an overall decline in the number of congregations with some notable surges. 2014 and 2015 saw congregational growth north of one percent in each year, perhaps the result of the surge in the number of missionaries that started in 2012, though the number of convert baptisms remained largely the same over that period.
Of interesting note, however, is the number of branches versus the number of wards in the stateside Mormon Church. A branch is the first level of local organization for Mormon congregations, with higher authority sometimes overseen by mission presidents, but also by stake leaders. A ward, on the other hand, represents a greater level of organization and permanence for Mormon adherents. Wards are typically larger in number of attendees than branches.
The chart below shows how regardless of overall congregational growth rate, the number of branches continues to decrease in the United States while the number of wards increases.
Indeed, from 2007 to 2016, the percent of branches with respect to the total number of LDS units decreased from nearly 17 percent to just over 13 percent. This could very well be the result of the consolidation of units, a popular pastime across the Church. Martinich also notes that the slower rate of congregational organization coupled with mostly steady rates of consolidation, driving down the net increase in the number congregational organizations.
In addition, the Church’s program for “better utilization” of meetinghouses—essentially encouraging congregations to be larger, and for more congregations to share meetinghouses—has resulted in a lowered need to create new units. (I can attest to this, having recently been in a stake with four wards sharing one building.) This is designed to save on meetinghouse costs, meaning your quest to get the FM group to bring back paid janitors for church buildings is likely to go unheeded. In addition, as part of this program, the Church is encouraging the use of 75 percent of available seats in sacrament meetings.
While the LDS Church’s growth rate continues to decline on a global level, that rate in the United States remains lower than the Church at large, and the chasm is widening. In 2007 the US growth rate was 20 percent less than the global one. In 2016 it was 42 percent, dipping below 1 percent overall.
It is important to note, however, that the growth rate slid more dramatically between 2012 and 2014 than it has in the years since. Still, if current trends continue, the LDS Church could be facing permanent growth rates in the United States under 1 percent and even approaching half a percent.
Many Latter-day Saint faithful sit in April General Conference, eagerly awaiting the announcement of Church membership numbers (the total of which has stubbornly stayed in the 15 millions since 2013, though that will likely change in the 2018 meeting). As Mormons become a normalized part of society, it stands to reason that membership numbers and even congregational growth will slow. But that does not necessarily mean the Church is failing. This is about shoring up those who are already here just as much as it is bringing the gospel to those who’ve yet to receive it.