Trying to count the Mormon sheep 101

It's one of the questions that veteran religion writers hear all the time in their newsrooms and usually struggle to answer. You are sitting at your desk and, let's say, a business writer walks up and asks: How many Jews are there in the state of Colorado? Or maybe it's a larger-scale question, such as: How many Southern Baptists are there in the United States, really? Or try this one: News stories keep saying that liberal Protestant churches are in statistical free fall, but does anyone have hard numbers that people on both sides of that debate would agree are accurate?

The religion writer rolls her or his eyes, hearing this, and tries to explain that large-scale numbers of this kind are almost meaningless when covering religion stories because all of these groups use different standards for membership and some update their membership rolls more often than others and, and, and, so forth. The business writer scowls and says, "Gee thanks a lot (or words to that effect). All I needed was one solid number for the background paragraph in my story."

So what are reporters supposed to do?

As a rule, I used to tell newsroom colleagues that you can quote national and regional statistics for individual groups, knowing that they are flawed, or you can quote the U.S. Religion Census or similar large-scale efforts, knowing that they are still flawed, but tend to be consistent over time.

At the local level, all you could really do is quote the number of congregations and then focus on attendance patterns. When in doubt, you have to go sit in pews and count people and then ask the congregational leaders to discuss the patterns. In the end, the numbers you really want for local coverage are (a) the number of congregations and (b) the average attendance in weekly services.

I experienced this Godbeat flashback while reading a short, but very clear, report by the Peggy Fletcher Stack in The Salt Lake City Tribune that focused on a question that will probably be asked a zillion times or more in the next six months. That urgent question: How many Mormons are there in the United States, anyway?

In this case, this veteran religion-beat pro had to walk readers through several levels of statistical twists and turns. The result is complex, but clear.

The hook for the story, she explains, was an eyebrow-raising number in the U.S. Religion Census:

Its report pegged U.S. Mormon growth at 45.5 percent, jumping from 4,224,026 in 2000 to 6,144,582 in 2010. The 2000 figure, though, was much lower than the 5,208,827 listed in the LDS Church’s almanac. If researchers had been given that figure, the percentage of growth would have been considerably smaller, closer to 18 percent. ...

Here’s how the LDS Church explains the discrepancy between the 2000 Religion Census figure and its own almanac for the same year.

"Total [LDS] Church membership numbers are derived from those individuals who have been baptized or born into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," spokesman Scott Trotter said Wednesday. "They are neither projections nor estimates." Trotter acknowledged that, in past years, LDS membership figures reported to the census researchers "were understated."

For those years, he said, the LDS Church "left out numbers of members who, although baptized, were not currently associated with a specific congregation. This year, we included total membership numbers to more accurately reflect all of those found on church records."

You can see clearly the dilemma in this shift. If accuracy is the goal, should religious leaders pick one big computer-records-based statistic or attempt to nail down a number that is real, but almost impossible to know -- which is the pew-level reality, which is then projected nationwide?

A Church of the Nazarene official, given several paragraphs to explain the basics, says that Mormon leaders have essentially decided to use a method that resembles the formula used in most Protestant bodies.

What you end up with, of course, is a number that includes Mormons who rarely ever pass through the doors of their local stake, let alone the doors of a regional temple. This is where Stack's story gets especially interesting.

The LDS Church does not remove any name from the list unless the person is excommunicated, asks to be removed or is dead. That means that a large number of members remain on the rolls who no longer attend or even consider themselves to be Mormon.

"We estimate that only 40 percent of LDS Church members in the U.S. attend church regularly," said Matt Martinich, an independent researcher who studies Mormon demographics for cumorah.com. "That number varies by region -- some areas have very high attendance like 70 percent and some as low as 20 percent."

Martinich gets that activity rate by comparing the ratio of members to congregations, LDS seminary and institute enrollment, and member and missionary reports.

Personally, I was fascinated that the Mormon pew rate estimate -- 40 percent -- was so similar to the national rate for Americans who claim (think decades of Gallup Polls) to attend some kind of worship service on a weekly basis. I was also intrigued by the reference to regional differences among Mormons. Where is that 70 percent number the norm? What region has so many "Jack Mormons" that the attendance figures are down around 20 percent? Is that Utah or Nevada?

Looking ahead: Is it time to admit that there is no monolithic "Mormon voter" or, to cut to the chase, "Mormon donor"?

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