Most of us have heard Mormon friends or relatives increasingly claiming, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, how prophetic the “home-centred, church-supported” (HCCS) program was. This claim has spread faster through the church than the virus itself. However, few claimants come close to the smugness of Daniel Peterson, who shared these words from his Sic et Non website a few weeks ago.
“In the midst of a global pandemic during which public religious services are being heavily reduced and even canceled, wouldn’t it be great to be affiliated with a religious movement in which, although supported by the church, devotional and instructional life was actually centered on the home? A movement that has invested enormously in electronic media, including films and the like? Media that can be safely used without any need to emerge from the safe confines of one’s own house?”
The Brethren have made no claim that the HCCS program was introduced because the world was about to face a virus pandemic. The only miraculous thing happening here is the invention of an LDS miracle. Peterson knows it, we all know it; just like all of us ordinary mortals, President Nelson had no inkling of what was coming.
The emergence of the HCCS pandemic myth prompted me to take a closer look at the introduction of the HCCS program in 2018. Could there have been other forces that inspired the HCCS change? The prophet clearly did not shift one hour of church into the home because he knew a future pandemic was imminent. If he did know a pandemic was coming, why did he give no warning to members in regions of the world currently being hardest hit? Many members will lose loved ones and suffer enormous financial hardship. Since the prophet did not know a future pandemic loomed, what other events could have inspired these changes?
Changes Accompanying the HCCS Program
The HCCS program was announced in October 2018 General Conference, however, its introduction did not occur in a vacuum. It was the culmination of a series of major changes that occurred throughout 2018 that directly impacted the operation of local units (wards and branches). During 2018 Elders Quorums and High Priest Groups were combined, the church exited scouting and Young Men’s Presidencies were abolished. Reducing the length of church from three to two hours almost halved the number of classes held at church. Alternating weeks of Sunday School with Relief Society/Young Womens/Priesthood Quorums, also allows for significant duplication of callings, especially in smaller units.
There is a common element in all of these changes. They each result in a reduction in the number of callings required to run a church unit. Collectively, you now need far less people in callings to staff a ward or branch. This strongly suggests the Brethren were feeling pressure in the form of declining church attendance. The biggest problem facing the church in 2018 was increasing numbers of people leaving the church resulting in a dramatic slow down in growth. I believe the problem the HCCS program was aimed at resolving was not an invisible pandemic, but an increasingly visible decline in church growth.
LDS Church growth: How Africans saved the Church
Accurately quantifying LDS church attendance is complicated by the fact that the church is extremely secretive about true attendance figures. The Brethren know precisely how many attend each week as ward clerks submit this data weekly. But since the Brethren never reveal this data, the best surrogate we have is reports on the number of church units being created or closed.
The figure below shows the net increase in the number of LDS church units created globally from 1995 to 2018. The Brethren could not fail to be alarmed by these figures. In the 1990s the church was growing by about 1000 new units each year. This growth came to an abrupt halt in 1999. In the 20 years since, growth in church units has rarely exceeded 400 in any given year and it is frequently less than 200. Most alarmingly, in 2018, the church grew by just 30 units. There can be little doubt that this dramatic deceleration in the creation of new units reflects declining attendance.
Net growth in wards and branches (units) between 1995 and 2018
While the growth in church units plummeted globally, the trend was not uniform. In many western countries, growth has been stagnant or declining since 1999. In some countries, like South Korea, the church has not grown in a single year since 1999. The number of church units in South Korea fell from a high of 175 in 1999 to just 103 in 2018, a decline of over 40%. However, in some parts of the world the church has witnessed explosive growth. Since 1999, the number of units in Nigeria has grown by about 400%, from 169 to 649.
LDS unit growth in selected countries
Members of the church are largely unaware of how dramatically church growth has slowed because when the Brethren talk about growth they always refer to total membership, a figure far removed from the number of bums on seats. The dramatic global slow down in growth has also been masked by two other important factors. There has been moderate growth in the United States, where half the church resides, and there has been explosive growth in Western Africa (predominantly Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast). Over the last ten years church unit growth in Western Africa jumped from contributing just 3% of total church unit growth to 100% by 2018. In fact, if it wasn’t for Western Africa, the church would have recorded a decline of 50 units in 2018. Together, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast added about 80 units in 2018.
(A) US unit growth (B) Percent of net global growth derived from Western Africa.
However, sustained growth in both the US and Western Africa is uncertain. There are clear signs that unit creation in the US has slowed dramatically in recent years. Church leaders (Marlin K. Jensen) and apologists (Terryl Givens) have admitted that the church is in a period of apostasy in the US. The US birth rate has declined to historically low levels, both among Mormons and non-Mormons.
Growth in Western Africa is also vulnerable given rapidly increasing access to the internet. There is little doubt widespread access to the Internet in developed countries is a major driver of the recent apostasy. Nigeria is the most rapidly developing country in Africa and most of the population speaks fluent English. In 2014 only 20% of the Nigerian population had access to the Internet. It has just reached over 40% of the population and is predicted to reach 85% by 2023.
The Brethren are undoubtedly fully aware of the alarming growth problems described above, given their front row access to all church statistics and teams of church employees analysing the trends. Over the last few years it would have become clear that if they didn’t do something quickly, the church would soon be reporting negative growth for the first time in living memory. Virtually all of those changes were made in 2018, the year Western Africa saved the church from reporting its first negative growth.
Suppressing Membership Statistics
A clear sign that the Brethren were concerned about the decline in growth was seen in March 2018. Webmasters of several websites that reported weekly changes in church growth figures received letters from the church’s lawyers, Kirton McConkie, asking that they stop publishing weekly unit growth figures. The most well known of these websites is the LDS growth blog maintained by LDS demographer Matt Martinich who, together with David Stewart, maintains the cumorah.com website. Prior to March 2018 the blog reported regular changes in ward and branch numbers. Now it only regularly reports growth in missions, stakes, districts and temples.
Fortunately, not all LDS demographers are cut from the same cloth. The webmaster of Fullerconsideration responded to the legal notice by creating a better website that publishes almost daily updates on the creation of wards, branches, stakes, districts and missions along with a useful global map showing the location of each change. The individual running this website remains anonymous and the source of his data is a tightly guarded secret.
Screen capture from the Fullerconsideration website showing creation (green circles) and closure (red circles) of units.
To make it even more unlikely members would become aware of the slow down in growth, the Brethren directed in April 2018 that the statistical report no longer be read out in General Conference. Interested members were directed to the church website where the annual growth figures are reported. Both the letters to the LDS demographers and removing the statistical report from General Conference are two moves aimed at shielding members from the fact that the church is actually shrinking in most parts of the world.
There is no question President Nelson was inspired to introduce the HSSC program. The real question is whether he was inspired by fear of an unknowable pandemic or by fear that members would soon learn the church has essentially stopped growing. Church growth has slowed dramatically in the last 20 years and appears headed for decline. In response the Brethren directed LDS websites to stop publishing embarrassing growth data and they removed the statistical report from General Conference. Changes to the leadership structure accompanying the HCCS program significantly reduce the number of leaders required to run a church unit, a major factor when considering unit creation or closure. These changes will result in much lower pressure to close smaller units and increase the likelihood of more unit creation. Not surprisingly, in 2019 the church created over 400 units, the highest annual unit growth the church has seen since 2005.