Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Purpose of Membership Records

The prophecy that states that the gospel “shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:31–45 and D&C 65:2) is being fulfilled. The number of members exceeds 15 million, stakes span continents and temples dot the land. Like Joseph, the Church he restored has been greeted with devotion, curiosity, and skepticism. As the Church grows, some question membership claims correctly noting high levels of inactivity in some areas, hinting perhaps that the generous counting of members is a marketing ploy designed to create a bandwagon effect or talking points for missionaries. Compare this belief to a Church news story dated April 11, 2007 that reads, “…the Church itself makes no statistical comparisons with other churches and makes no claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination.” Yet, the membership records are consistent with the purpose of the Church that Joseph restored through direct revelation.

Moroni explains whey records are kept (Moroni 6: 4).

And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.

The emphasis added is mine. Members within the Church attempt to care for the spiritual and temporal needs of all our members, both the committed and the disaffiliated. It has been my experience that most disaffiliated members accept visits with some degree of hospitality. Those that do not are generally visited less frequently and of course, there are disaffiliated members that can’t be found despite diligent attempts to locate these “lost sheep.”

The basics of membership accounting are given in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 20. It establishes a two track system of membership, one for adults who become members and another for the children of members. A person becomes a member of the Church through baptism. Verse 37 describes the spiritual requirements particulars.

…All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church.

There is procedure that verifies that the spiritual requirements have been satisfied. A person considering Church membership, referred to as an investigator in Mormon lingo, is taught by the missionaries. The missionaries teach the gospel, including commandments, that members are expected to follow. At some point, the investigator rejects the message or accepts it and commits to the commandments as taught. The investigator is then interviewed by a set of missionaries other than those who taught him to verify that the conditions of baptism have been met. After the investigator has been baptized, missionaries create a membership record that is forwarded to the central records of the Church and the congregation in which the investigator resides. The membership record is maintained in the congregation in which the member resides and in the central records of the Church until the person dies, asks for his name to be removed from the records of the Church or is excommunicated. (D&C 20: 82-83)

The record of the children of members follows a different path. Section 20: 70 reads

Every member of the church of Christ having children is to bring them unto the elders before the church, who are to lay their hands upon them in the name of Jesus Christ, and bless them in his name.

There are three ways a child’s name enters the records of the Church. Children of members are blessed shortly after birth and a record of the blessing is maintained. Children of converts who are not yet eight are also placed on the records as are children of inactive members if the parents request it. These children are referred to as children of record and are counted as members of the Church until they turn eight. If they are baptized, they are still counted as members. If they turn nine without being baptized, they are no longer counted as members and if they are baptized at a later date, will be counted as a convert baptism. Removing unbaptized nine-year-old children from the membership count is a relatively new procedure announced in the April 11, 2007 news story the announcement did not have an implementation date.

Much has been made by critics of the practice of maintain the names of members who can’t be located until they turn 110. Certainly, the probability of death at an earlier age must approach one. As technology improves, the number of lost members who have died and are yet counted because their deaths are not know will shrink as a percentage of the Church membership and perhaps absolutely. Maintaining the membership record of members with unknown addresses is consistent with the goal of spiritually and temporally helping all members. It is better to maintain the records of ten who have died than remove the record of one who still lives.

As a final point, any procedure that increases membership without increasing births or convert baptisms will result in a lower growth rate. For example, last year the Church membership increased by 341,127 or 2.36%. If the Church had established a procedure that removed members from the records of the Church if they have been lost for ten years and that procedure reduce membership to 9 million members in 2010, the growth rate of the Church in 2012 would have been 3.79%. If I were marketing the Church, I would rather have a large rate of growth then a large membership.

The Church does not claim that the total membership count represents active members. Every home teacher, visiting teacher, ward clerk and bishop knows that the records maintain many disaffiliated members. The records are maintained so that members might more effectively help each other with spiritual and temporal needs. The membership records also help pave the way disaffected members to return to full fellowship. My next post on Church membership will compare the methods of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to other churches.

No comments:

Post a Comment