Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We're Increasing the Number of Missionaries! (Aw, crap)

In February of 1999, Gordon B Hinckley -- then President of the Church -- spoke about the Church's missionary efforts.  He noted that in the previous year there were almost 300,000 convert baptisms into the Church.  He then went on to say, "I am not being unrealistic when I say that with concerted effort, with recognition of the duty which falls upon each of us as members of the Church, and with sincere prayer to the Lord for help, we could double that number1."

We have yet to see the realization of that dream.  The following figures are an illustration of convert baptisms and number of missionaries reported during the Annual General Conference each April.  The first of these shows that since that statement, the number of convert baptisms declined for several years.  There has been a slight increase, but still well short of what was happening around the time of President Hinckley's challenge.

Of course, this doesn't tell the entire story.  As we see below, there has been a significant drop in the number of missionaries serving.  Could this be a contributing factor for the reduction of convert baptisms?

To answer that question, we'll break a few statistical rules.  Just note that the images I'm about to portray are intended to be descriptive in nature.  The first thing we'll look at is the trend of number of converts relative to the number of missionaries.  It appears that there is a relationship between the number of missionaries and the number of converts2.

So, theoretically, an increase in the missionary force should translate to an increase in convert baptisms.  In raw numbers, this is true.  But it turns out to be a rather inefficient way to increase baptisms.  Let's take a look at the number of baptisms per missionary.

Wait a minute!  Increasing the number of missionaries increases convert baptisms, but it reduces baptisms per missionary?  How can that be!?  The reason for this is that the graph "Convert Baptisms as a Function of Number of Missionaries" is a misrepresentation of the data.  A better representation appears next.  The change in new converts per new missionary is steeper on the left part of the graph than the change in coverts per new missionary on the right side of the graph3.

One way to interpret these results is to say that, for the past decade, our missionary force has been most efficient when it has consisted of about 54,000 missionaries.  Fewer missionaries means our missionary force can't reach all of the people who are interested, and more missionaries means that there aren't enough people interested in Mormonism to keep the missionaries busy.

This is where things get really interesting.  The LDS missionary force consists of about 55,000 men and women.  Due to the recent reduction in age of eligibility for missionary service, it is projected that the missionary force will grow to almost 90,000 men and women4.  That is a 64% increase in the missionary force!  (To all my non-mormon friends: you will probably see missionaries on your door step more frequently for the next couple of years.  Sorry about that)

Looking at these numbers brings to mind a very interesting question.  What exactly are all these new missionaries going to be doing?  I have a few ideas, and it terrifies me.  My biggest concern is that there will be a lot of emphasis on "working smarter, not harder."  On that principle, the Church will double down on the rhetoric that "every member is a missionary" and that we should all be actively preparing our friends and neighbors to receive the missionaries.

So let me point out right now that this approach is not working smarter.  It's working harder.  We've been approaching missionary work this way for several decades.  "Member referrals yield more baptisms" may as well be the slogan of the LDS missionary effort.  We have very little to show for it in the past ten years; and this approach certainly hasn't brought us anywhere near the doubling of convert baptisms President Hinckley envisioned.

The natural response to this point is that members aren't pulling their weight.  They aren't referring enough people to the missionaries (and this is almost certainly true).  I get this impression every time the missionaries come to visit.  Every time, they stress how important it is for me to refer my friends5.  Now, with even more missionaries working in even smaller areas, those reminders are sure to increase.

Without question, if the members did a better job of preparing their friends and neighbors to be open to the missionaries, we would have an increase in convert baptisms.  But merely increasing the referrals is not the equivalent of preparing them.  If we simply referred more people, we'd see the same pattern of diminishing return on referrals as we see in the increase of missionaries--less bang for the buck.

So while increasing member referrals should certainly be a part of the future of the missionary program, it isn't enough.  There need to be new and innovative ways to reach out to individuals and share with them the benefits of the Gospel of Christ and participation in His Church.  If we send this missionary force out to work on the same proselyting model (doing things the same way we've always done them) we've been using for the past 150 years, we're going to have very little to show for this remarkable increase.

(That's kind of a down note to end on, but this will provide the framework a few more posts about the missionary program.  Consider it a cliff hanger.)

1 "Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep," Ensign, April 1999.
2 For those of you who are interested, this is based on a simple linear regression. The p-value for the coefficient was 0.071.
3 Modeled with a restricted cubic spline.  (See my R code)
4 Projections were cited at a leadership meeting my father attended a few weeks ago.
5 We'll get to the reasons I don't refer my friends in a later post.....maybe.....if I can figure out a way to write it clearly....without thoroughly offending the sensibilities of my fellow saints.


  1. With all the new missionaries they are adding new areas too. And more service missionaries are going out. To help build trusting relationships between the general public and Mormons. Which I think is a start to helping change the missionary model.

  2. Adding new areas could be effective if existing areas that already have not-so-busy missionaries are not affected. But if you split an area where the missionaries are not getting a lot done, you're just going to have two sets of missionaries not getting a lot done.

    I'm hoping that LDS Philanthropies takes up a lot of the new missionary force. And not the kind of service that I hear our missionaries ask about all the time (can we help you paint your house, or weed your garden?) I mean real, meaningful, community affecting service. But more on that later.

  3. Suzie:

    Good points. Also why aren't members referring their friends and family to the missionaries? This seems to be a rather common issue and certainly not new.