Annual statistics released at April general conference indicate the Church is rapidly approaching 13 million members worldwide. This steady growth pattern has continued with about a million new members now being added every three years or less.
These figures were announced just weeks after the National Council of Churches published its 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, where it listed the Church as the fourth-largest religion in the United States. However, the Church itself makes no statistical comparisons with other churches and makes no claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination.
“The Church is unusual in that it creates membership records and updates them constantly,” said Church statistician Glen Buckner, who is also a member of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
In 2006 there were more than 272,800 convert baptisms. The net increase for children of record during 2006 was more than 94,000.
Church membership growth numbers are often interpreted inaccurately, which can lead to misconceptions in the media, Brother Buckner said. Therefore, it is important to clearly understand what these numbers signify. They represent the number of Church members, but they do not represent activity rates. The Church does not remove an individual’s name from its membership rolls based on inactivity.
Like other faiths, the Church has varying degrees of growth among its members throughout the world. For example, the Church has relatively slow growth in Northern Europe, where many other churches are declining. It has steady and manageable growth in the United States, and is expanding rapidly in Africa, the Philippines, and South America.
For decades the Church has identified growth as its single greatest challenge. The Church has a lay ministry, and experience has shown that new members are more likely to slide into inactivity when they are not offered opportunities to serve or when they feel inadequate to accept a position.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has emphasized how essential it is that new members’ involvement not end after baptism and confirmation. “The challenge now is greater than it has ever been because the number of converts is greater than we have ever before known. … I plead with you … I ask of you, each of you, to become a part of this great effort. Every convert is precious. Every convert is a son or daughter of God. Every convert is a great and serious responsibility. … In my view nothing is of greater importance” (“Converts and Young Men,” Ensign, May 1997, 48).
In the Philippines, where many people are being baptized, mission presidents and local Church leaders aim to ensure that potential converts fully understand the commitment they make at baptism. “We are more concerned with personal conversion than the number of baptisms and confirmations,” said Elder D. Rex Gerratt, President of the Philippines Area. “The stronger our converts, the stronger our congregations. The stronger the Church is, the more it will be able to bless the people and strengthen the families of this country.”
In the Philippines, while convert baptisms per missionary have increased in each of the last three years, activity rates of new converts are also on the rise.
The Church has also refined its missionary program to aid in the retention of converts. Potential missionaries are held to a higher standard to qualify for missionary service, and in 2004 the inspired missionary training publication, Preach My Gospel, was instituted to help missionaries focus on more comprehensive and personalized teaching of potential converts. The goal is stronger commitment from newly baptized members because of a deeper conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In addition to membership, the Church’s increase in meetinghouses also indicates growth. There are currently 8,254 meetinghouses internationally, which shows a 10 percent growth rate over the past five years. That trend is also reflected in the United States, where there are 6,361 meetinghouses—or a 9.6 percent growth rate for the same time period. Many of these meetinghouses accommodate several congregations.
“Ultimately, the strength of the Church is really measured by the devotion and commitment of its members,” said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The Lord has never given us a mandate to be the biggest Church—in fact, He has said our numbers will be comparatively few—but He has asked that we commit ourselves to living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In Harlem, an African-American bishop leads his congregation in prayer. In Miami, neighbors enter a bright yellow chapel and greet each other in Haitian. In Salt Lake City, a teacher instructs her New Testament class in Chinese.
This picture is a striking contrast to the stereotypical image many have of members of the Church in the United States as white, middle-class people from Utah. Yet it accurately portrays the changing face of Church membership, which is becoming increasingly diverse, mirroring a wide range of cultures and experiences.
For example, in the United States, more than 150 Latter-day Saint congregations speak a total of 20 different languages, including Polish, Navajo, Russian, Spanish, and German.
Much of the Church’s growth is attributed to the global volunteer missionary program, the largest of its kind in the world. More than 52,000 missionaries teach in 347 missions in more than 140 nations.
The Church is also growing more diverse internationally. More than half of all Church members now reside outside of the United States, a milestone that was reached in February 1996.
Such growth among diverse cultures and nations has become the Church’s primary challenge. To help meet it, the Church translates scriptures, conference proceedings, satellite broadcasts, curriculum manuals, magazines, software, Web site information, and other materials into more than 100 languages. As a result, the Church’s translation system is one of the largest in the world.
With dramatic growth comes the challenge of unifying Latter-day Saints of many cultures. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that the growing diversity among the members is simply a condition, not a Church goal. The real goal is unity, not diversity. “We preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population,” he said.
As a result, efforts are made to teach Latter-day Saints around the world the doctrines of the Church and to train local leaders without imposing American culture.
“Sometimes our culture and the Western culture are very different,” said Seung Hwun Ko, a Church member from Seoul, Korea, “but when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we meet.”