The Truth About Mass Defections

On Sunday morning, I went to Church.  People in my congregation gathered in our local chapel and taught lessons on the words of early church prophets, participated in discussions about Book of Mormon teachings, and then gathered in one large group to take the “sacrament,” the Mormon version of communion, where bread and water are consumed in remembrance of Christ.  In my little congregation, which covers eight or so blocks in the heart of Salt Lake City, there were probably about 150-200 people gathered to worship.  In other words, this was an example of Mormons “Religiously Demonstrating en Masse.

That last line is a play on the extensive media coverage that followed an unusual event last week.  Somewhere between 120 and 150 people gathered in Salt Lake to publicly renounce their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  They wrote letters to the church, signed a “declaration of independence,” hiked a local hilltop that holds some historical significance for the church, and there exchanged hugs and shouted out with whoops of freedom.

Judging by the extent of the media coverage of this event, at least half of those 150 people were reporters.  But despite the variety of media outlets who covered the story, they seem to have collaborated on the headline: “Mormon Group Quits LDS Church en masse,” wrote the Salt Lake Tribune.  “Mormons Quit Church in Mass Resignation,” shouted Reuters.  And so on.

While it is surely true that this sort of thing is uncommon, and therefore notable, it is also a bit of a head-scratcher that so many publications found it so interesting, and characterized it as a mass event.  What other gatherings are described as mass events?  A 150 person flashmob?  Surely not.  150 person little league crowd?  We know that 150 people quietly attending an LDS meetinghouse on a Sunday morning certainly is not a “mass” event.

While the stories on this publicity event were factually accurate, they add to a rising mis-impression that has begun to creep up among critics of the LDS Church, which is that the church is hemorrhaging members, and is on a track to fold up in a few years in light of all of the defections.  A related argument I hear from my LDS-averse friends is that the Church’s official membership numbers are wildly inflated as a means of cynically exaggerating the Church’s reach.

There is no evidence for these claims.  Yes, it is true that the LDS Church, like all modern religions, sees people leaving its ranks, possibly more now than in the past (such losses are not net losses, as they are offset by new growth).  But has the rate of defection reached any kind of critical tipping point that threatens the viability of the Church?  Certainly not.  A few good data points are useful here.  First, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a massive survey in 2007 in which 35,000 respondents self-reported their religious affiliation.  The survey found that 1.7% of Americans identify themselves as Mormons.  Based on a population of 301 million that year, this works out to about  5,117,000 American Mormons (a very small fraction of that total would belong to Mormon splinter groups, not the LDS Church).  While the number of self-identifying American Mormons falls below the 6 million or so the Church claims, it is not outrageously so.  This number demonstrates that the Church continues to believe that some people are Mormons who may have moved on, but rebuts the idea that there is a major inflation of the numbers going on.  A second useful data point is the new estimation by Business Week* that the LDS Church takes in approximately 8 billion per year in tithing receipts.  This number is the product of major estimation and guesswork, and should not be relied upon for any purpose requiring precision.  But as a basic approximation of the Church’s support base, it is impressive.  It means that there are many, many faithful Latter-day Saints out there, still going to meetings and sending support to the Church.  However one measures mass apostasy, self-reports of millions and millions of American members, and monetary donations in the many billions, do not suggest an anemic church about to collapse.

Speaking more anecdotally, the defections of the people documented in the recent reports also do not presage any great calamity for the LDS Church.  Many of the people described in the media stories have been out of the Church for a very long time, meaning that their participation in the resignation now was solely symbolic.  Others indicated that their faith had been so weak all along that a resignation was no surprise.  One woman told a reporter that she decided to leave upon determining that the timeline of events in the Book of Mormon is hard to reconcile.  Someone else said they left the church after hearing that church leaders were taken in by a set of forged historical documents some 30 years ago.  That is, people who had previously given their entire lives to the LDS Church found a few minor (and fully explainable) facts online and just had to walk away.   The Church laments the withdrawal of any of its members.  These defections are sad to see, where reconciliation might have been possible.  But there is little anyone can do about faith so shallow– a lifelong religious commitment that can be destroyed by a handful of questionable, one-sided facts.  Members of the LDS faith are always encouraged to deepen their spiritual knowledge, to explore their doctrine and scriptures, and find stronger spiritual confirmations of their faith.  The fact that some have chosen not to do so should not be construed as some massive epidemic confronting the Church.

Despite last week’s defection event, the number of attendees in my little meetinghouse last Sunday did not decline.  Unfortunately, there were no breathless reporters sitting in to record that mass event.

Photo via Salt Lake Tribune

*We’ll have more in response to that article in the future.

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