Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Does an Aging World Explain Lower Convert Baptisms?

Conversions per missionary

The number of converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints per missionary has been trending downward since 1983 as seen in the graph, “Convert Baptisms per Missionary Set Apart.”  Missionaries set apart is an imperfect representation of missionaries serving at any given period of time or the number of missionaries who served during a year.  Young men serve for two years; young women for eighteen months, and senior missionary couple for six, twelve, eighteen or twenty-three months.  If the number of senior missionaries has been rising over time relative to the number of young men and women, then the downward trend is overstated. The graph may overstate a trend of growing difficulty in finding converts, but I believe that it is a trend and I offer a possible explanation for the difficulty, an aging world population.

Traditionally, converts to the Church have been young.  The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life report, “Mormons in America Certain in Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society,” reports that

Roughly half of converts to Mormonism (51%) say they joined the church before turning 24, including 26% who converted before reaching the age of 18. One-third (34%) say they converted between the ages of 24 and 35, 9% became Mormon between the ages of 36 and 50, and 6% joined the church when they were over the age of 50.

To test the hypothesis that age matters, I took the net increase in membership from 2011 to 2012 for seventy five countries and applied a statistical analysis (ordinary least squares regression) that created a “line of best fit” using two other variables.  The first was the median age in each country and the second was the number of missions in a country.  The purpose of adding missions was to take into account the size of the Church in a country.  The United States experiences much more net growth than any country but it also has 153 missions. 

Both variables were statistically significant.  For those who care, the R squared was .84, and the two coefficients had t-statistics of –2.67 (median age) and 19.61 (missions).  The more important of the two was the number of missions. Over the long-run, the Church seems to adjust create mission where it is growing the fastest.  This is not a surprising result. 

Age had the exact impact that I had anticipated.  As my sons would say, BOOM!  Old countries experienced lower growth than young countries.  Obviously, an aging world will present problems for the missionary program.  I do not pretend to know how the Church should adjust outreach in aging countries.  The members of the Missionary Committee, the Twelve and the First Presidency are better informed than I and they have the benefit in being guided by the Spirit as missionary work falls under their callings and not mine.  With that disclaimer in mind, it seems that a natural mechanism is already in place.  As the Church ages, it will produce more senior missionaries, peers to the majority in aging countries.  

In the future, I will attempt to look back at time to see if missionary progress was greater in aging countries like the United States when the population was younger.  At some point, I will try a more elegant model.  Finally, I will attempt to add variables to predict growth.  One of interest, is the recent existence of a state church.  Other demographic variables such as the birth rate, and the fraction of males in a country.  Investigating one idea always spurs two or more.

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