Sunday, May 29, 2016

Two indications of positive LDS church growth



One narrative about the my faith is that it is too "conservative"/"pious"/"rigid" for modern society, and that, for this reason, activity rates in more liberal/secular areas are declining. (See Footnote 1).  Let me suggest that, contrary this narrative, the LDS Church has shown an increased success in going 'to the rescue'-- that is, helping those who have left church activity feel Christ's love through the institution of the church, and return to full fellowship.


Two sources confirm this: First, the number of stakes being created each year has been high worldwide for the last several years, and appears to be accelerating this year. Second, Elder Cook said in April 2015 that the number of resignations is at historic lows, and John Dehlin (hardly a church supporter) agreed with him.

1. One robust measure of activity rates is the net number or new stakes created. Given the consistent requirements for the creation of new stakes, such as having a certain number of male active temple recommend holders (to fill callings), we can use this statistic as a proxy for the activity rates that go unreported to the public:

YearNet number of stakes
201031 (probably an outlier)
201150
201259
201346
201463
201560
2016 (through 5/28)33

See the right sidebar of http://ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com/ for more details about these statistics.

The chart above demonstrates that, if present trends hold, the church is on track to have a net gain 55 stakes or more in the last three years-- and quite possibly more than 65 this year (depending on the rest of 2016).  This three year period is higher than the previous three-year period. Individual years are subject to a whole host of variables, but 3-year trends can be seen as more significant. As church growth via convert baptisms has not been increasing, the only way such growth could be accomplished is through increased reactivation and retention.

And this growth is worldwide.  If you look at the two-and-a-half year time period that I mentioned, you get the following increase in stakes, sorted by area.

Area of the World
Net number of stakes, Jan. 2014-May 28, 2016
Net number of stakes, Jul. 2011-2013
Utah
12
7
North America (but not Utah)
46
20
Central and South America 
33
30
Africa
38
24
Asia
17
20
Europe
4
10
Islands
7
16


This shows, of course, that there is substantial-- and increading church growth in Africa.  However, another story is the continued growth in North America--particularly outside of Utah.  With convert baptisms as low as they are, this provides evidence that reactivation and retention rates in North America have increased, indicating that fewer individuals are leaving the church.

2.  In his April 2015 Conferene Talk, Elder Quentin L. Cook commented

"Some have asserted that more members are leaving the Church today and that there is more doubt and unbelief than in the past. This is simply not true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger. The number of members removing their names from the records of the Church has always been very small and is significantly less in recent years than in the past.  The increase in demonstrably measurable areas, such as endowed members with a current temple recommend, adult full-tithe payers, and those serving missions, has been dramatic. Let me say again, the Church has never been stronger. But, “remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” We reach out to everyone."

John Dehlin, a former church member, commented on Elder Cook's statement by saying:

"I spoke with someone today who has access to LDS Church activity rates. Their position is that the number of total active members globally is higher than it has ever been, and continues to grow (even if at a slowing rate)...and in that sense....Elder Cook was telling the truth when he said that the church is stronger than ever. I actually believe him."

Thus, the data about stakes above matches what those who have access to more complete figures are saying about church growth.

---

Both of these sources indicate activity rates and retention rates are rising-- not falling-- in North America.




Footnote 1:   I am using these terms somewhat stereotypically, and won't quarrel with you if you explain that my faith is, in actuality, quite liberal/progressive.  But I think the stereotypes are well enough entrenched to make them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"And All Was Well": Writing my own footnote 15.


In 2011, I began law school. As I began, I had goals. One was to be a constitutional lawyer. The other was to be a human being, and figure things out about life, serve in my church, and maybe even find my wife. I was told, of course, that you needed the top grades in order to be a constitutional lawyer. Those well-versed in my life will note challenges I faced in other aspects of my life in 2011, and on through the present; others will not.


These challenges left me needing a great deal of faith. I found comfort in a story President Uchtdorf told in the October 2011 general conference:


"Let me share with you a personal experience that may be of some help to those who feel insignificant, forgotten, or alone.

Many years ago I attended pilot training in the United States Air Force. I was far away from my home, a young West German soldier, born in Czechoslovakia, who had grown up in East Germany and spoke English only with great difficulty. I clearly remember my journey to our training base in Texas. I was on a plane, sitting next to a passenger who spoke with a heavy Southern accent. I could scarcely understand a word he said. I actually wondered if I had been taught the wrong language all along. I was terrified by the thought that I had to compete for the coveted top spots in pilot training against students who were native English speakers.

When I arrived on the air base in the small town of Big Spring, Texas, I looked for and found the Latter-day Saint branch, which consisted of a handful of wonderful members who were meeting in rented rooms on the air base itself. The members were in the process of building a small meetinghouse that would serve as a permanent place for the Church. Back in those days members provided much of the labor on new buildings.

Day after day I attended my pilot training and studied as hard as I could and then spent most of my spare time working on the new meetinghouse. There I learned that a two-by-four is not a dance step but a piece of wood. I also learned the important survival skill of missing my thumb when pounding a nail.

I spent so much time working on the meetinghouse that the branch president—who also happened to be one of our flight instructors—expressed concern that I perhaps should spend more time studying.

. . .. For my part, I enjoyed being an active part of this tiny west Texas branch, practicing my newly acquired carpentry skills, and improving my English as I fulfilled my callings to teach in the elders quorum and in Sunday School.

At the time, Big Spring, despite its name, was a small, insignificant, and unknown place. And I often felt exactly the same way about myself—insignificant, unknown, and quite alone. Even so, I never once wondered if the Lord had forgotten me or if He would ever be able to find me there. I knew that it didn’t matter to Heavenly Father where I was, where I ranked with others in my pilot training class, or what my calling in the Church was. What mattered to Him was that I was doing the best I could, that my heart was inclined toward Him, and that I was willing to help those around me. I knew if I did the best I could, all would be well.

And all was well."

At the end of the story, President Uchtdorf dropped a footnote, footnote 15: "Dieter F. Uchtdorf graduated first in his class."

What a comforting story that was for me as a young law student. I often wondered what I would put someday in my own footnote 15 about my law school experience. Would it match his, only with my name inserted in place of his? What would life hold in store for me? Would I be able to do work in my area of interest, religious freedom?

Well now I have a start to my own footnote 15, formed from the same principles that led to President Uchtdorf's footnote 15: trusting in the Lord. It is a much longer footnote, but I hope it conveys how richly blessed I have been since 2011:

Michael T. Worley met the future Alizabeth Worley on December 11, 2014. On October 6, 2014 they were married, and their first son <Name redacted> Worley, was born on March __, 2016. Michael is able to work from home, thus maximizing his time with Alizabeth and <N.R.W.> (not his real initials).

After being told for years that he would have to leave his beloved Provo to practice constitutional law, Michael and Lizzie are living in Provo. Michael routinely assists more seasoned litigators on briefs for the United States Supreme Court. In his first case ever in Federal District Court, Michael and his senior partner won on constitutional law grounds. Michael routinely represents clients of many religions and is working to defend religious freedom.




Saturday, March 5, 2016

In the long run, all is well: A case study in LDS Church Growth (Glendale, California)

Being from California, I am not ignorant of the trends that make it difficult to raise a family in California if you are debt-avoidant and socially conservative (spend five minutes on Zillow and latimes.com if you doubt this assertion).  But I also served a mission in California, so I am acutely aware that God loves the people of California greatly.

So when my stake at the time, the La Crescenta California Stake, was combined with its neighbor to the south, the Glendale California Stake, many assumed it was a result of the socioeconomic conditions which disfavored families from moving to the Glendale area.  They were probably right, at least to some degree (Spanish speakers in Glendale attend a different stake, and I don't know how big/small those wards are, though I once heard that they were big from one source).

When the two stakes were combined in 2006, the Glendale Stake had 5 units (four family wards and a singles' ward), that were quickly combined to be 3 units (two family wards and a singles' ward).  This was sad, but it reflected the size of the LDS Church in the Glendale stake.

Here is the miracle: since these stakes were combined in 2006, the Glendale area has added two new units-- a Filipino ward and a Single Adult ward, bringing the Glendale area back to the original 5 units it had prior to the stakes combining, and presumably reflecting a larger presence of the LDS Church in Glendale.  This doesn't mean Glendale will get a stake again--LDS Church leadership generally splits stakes when they have 11-14 units and given the history involved I suspect the leaders will want to wait for any proposed split to yield 7 units in one or both stakes, which may not be forthcoming.

But this growth does mean the church in Glendale is stronger than it was.

It may seem like a small thing-- two new wards in a decade-- but to me it these new wards a reminder that God loves his children.  While world conditions may seem to disfavor religious observance through organized religion, and many stereotype California as being very secular and not socioeconomically friendly to families, God is still finding a way to bring thousands of Californians to him via his restored church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is indeed true that:

The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.-- Joseph Smith




As always, these thoughts are my own, are intended to help, but do not reflect the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thanks for reading,
Michael





Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Obedient but not judgmental: A lesson from Fast Sundays

In my faith, one Sunday a month church members fast. In conjunction with what we call 'Fast Sunday', a sizable chunk of the worship service ("sacrament meeting") is devoted to members sharing their feelings about the church in a pseudo-"open mic" setting.   No lay member is asked to bear their testimony; the member chooses for himself or herself whether to speak.

Church leaders have instructed that these meetings are designed to help many members "express a brief, heartfelt testimony of our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, and the truths of the restored gospel." This is done "so that more members may have the opportunity to participate."

All that is pretty standard.  But much of the time, some church members will either not be brief or not be focused on their testimonies when speaking in fast and testimony meetings.

Let me suggest today that we should follow strictly the instructions of the church leaders regarding how we personally should bear testimony. I also believe that local church leaders should emphasize this counsel as needed.

But I would like to suggest that when we, as lay members, are the listeners during the fast and testimony meeting (which will be the majority of every meeting), we avoid thinking about this counsel as we listen to others' testimonies. True, we can and should lead by example and share these principles in appropriate settings, but that doesn't mean that we should think about it while others are bearing their testimonies.

Why am I suggesting that we avoid thinking for a time about counsel from the prophets?  My feeling is that when we remember this counsel when listening to other testimonies, we will inevitably "grade" others' testimonies for being too long, too short, or too tangental. When we choose to "grade" such testimonies, we will be judgmental of their efforts to bear their testimony. When we do this, I suggest that we are more likely to zone out and miss important truths from their testimonies.

In a mortal world, elements of truth-- even important core truths-- can be delivered in imperfect ways.  The church's missionary program-- powered by imperfect teenagers and young adults-- is an example of this: investigators learn important truths of the gospel in ways that are inevitably less than ideal.  Likewise, a part of attending fast and testimony meeting is learning important truths from imperfect individuals.

Just as in Fast and Testimony meeting, I believe throughout our lives, as we strive to adopt standards of conduct in keeping with the doctrine of Christ and the guidelines of his leaders, we should remember to not judge those who may not be following the doctrine and guidelines in the ways that we think our best.

As always, these thoughts are my own, are intended to help, but do not reflect the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thanks for reading,
Michael

Monday, February 15, 2016

Gambling away the Supreme Court


It is an insult to politicians that are flip-floppers to call Donald Trump a flip-flopper. As a Casino owner, he is a bona fide dice-roller, making what he would do in office a complete gamble. ------
Consider just six of his many positions on who he likes to be Supreme Court Justice. Die side 1-Trump would appoint his sister, who has held that the Constitution protects the practice of partial-birth abortion.
Die side 2: Justice Thomas is the best Conservative Justice.

Die face 3: Justice Scalia was wrong on affirmative action

Die side 4: “Justice Roberts turned out to be a nightmare for conservatives . . .I’m going to appoint people that have great reputation that are great within the legal profession.” Die side 5: Trump would 'consider' appointing a judge who would overrule the same-sex marriage ruling.

Die side 6: Trump supports the liberal decision Kelo v. United States and laws that would restrict religious freedom in violation of the First Amendment.

-------
Each of Donald Trump's comments represent both inconsistency and ignorance about the Supreme Court that is inexcusable for someone who is seeking to have the power to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court. First, No one should suggest appointing anyone pro-choice if they hope to get the Republican nomination-- yet Trump did. True, Trump admires Justice Thomas, but this does not explain whether his admiration will translate lead him to appoint a judge who yet opposes his views on affirmative action, eminent domain and religious freedom. Third, Trump wants to appoint people of great reputation to the Supreme Court-- and yet slams Justice Roberts (who had such a reputation). Last, Trump's statement that he would 'consider' appointing a judge who believes our Constitution does not require same-sex marriage is inadequate.

I have focused on Trump's statements prior to Justice Scalia's passing, because they paint a more credible picture of how Trump really feels than statements made in the heat of the campaign. The choice could hardly be clearer: Republicans must not vote for Trump if they value the Supreme Court.

It should not be a surprise that a vote for a casino owner is a gamble. With Supreme Court nominations on the line, we have no time to gamble.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Statement regarding Donald Trump's victory in the New Hampshire primary

Today, the world lost. Civility lost. Religious freedom lost.  Mexicans lost. Christians lost.  Muslims lost. Glenn Beck, Matt Walsh, Russell Moore, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and many other voices that condemned Donald Trump all lost

In New Hampshire, at least, Loud voices won.  Anger won.  Fear won.

Rather than be upset at these events-- returning anger with anger-- let us direct our energies towards re-educating our fellow Americans-- whatever their political views-- in the doctrines that made America great.  Civility, religious pluralism, family values, all played a role in making America, like many other countries, great.

I do not deny that Donald Trump's appeal is rooted in dissatisfaction with many people presently in power.  It is simply a universal truth, however, that one's actions-- even radical actions-- should not be based in anger, fear, and bullying absent a clear, thoughtful vision of the future.  When this happens, the solution is worse than the problem.

Donald Trump's bullying plays to both anger and fear.  While the problems with the political system that Donald Trump supporters mention are real, the proposed solution (Trump) is, almost unquestionably, worse then those problems.  His solutions are purposefully vague.

And if I'm wrong and the world wins by Trump's candidacy, the reason that the world wins is almost certainly an accident: neither Donald Trump's positions and attitude now nor his positions he held before he ran for office will solve the problems Trump's supporters raise. And, to the extent Trump's positions would 'solve our problems,' the solutions he suggests are completely opposed to my values.

If Donald Trump is good for our nation, it is because he'll completely change his mind and heart once elected.

If this election has shown anything, it is that Donald Trump is an expert in manipulating individuals.  Only education, not politics, is likely to starve his support.  His campaign only works as long as people don't understand the value of religious freedom, cultural diversity, differences in opinion, and civility in society, regardless of how much anger they may feel.

May we all go forth to educate others.

--------------

There may be exceptions to these broad conclusions I have drawn above.  For example, if Donald Trump means what he published in the heat of the Iowa campaign about abortion and judge-made law, and if he makes such issues a priority in his administration, we could have a landmark restoration of what he called a "culture of life."

I am skeptical he will keep his word on this issue (his publication 10 days before the Iowa Caucus seems very opportunistic), but, if he wins and does keep his word, I will applaud the positives that will come out of his presidency, just like I have about past presidents that I did not vote for.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Mourn With Those that Mourn


We sometimes forget to read scriptures in absolutes. For example, take this one, where Alma explains the consequences of taking upon us the Name of Christ:
"And it came to pass that [Alma] said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
"Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—"
Note Alma did not say "mourn with those that mourn, so long as you agree with their worldview" or "mourn with those that mourn, so long as their mourning is based on confirmed information." The command here makes no such exceptions.
(To be sure, one will mourn different events to different degrees, but that is true of any commandment. See Mosiah 4:27)
I choose this morning to reaffirm the LDS Church statement from yesterday mourning reports of deaths in the LGBT Community.
Yes, reports conflict about the number of deaths; Indeed, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that the Utah Department of Health weighed in and said there was not a large spike in the suicide rate, and no suicide they investigated was related to the policy. (They did not release figures about the proportion of suicides that were in the LDS Community or the LGBT community.)
But the Church statement clearly says that they are "mourning" even these unconfirmed reports. And, given Alma's counsel, how could they do otherwise:
"Every soul is precious to God and to the church, and the loss of life to suicide is heartbreaking[.] Those who are attracted to others of the same sex face particular challenges and pressures in this regard, both inside and outside the church. We mourn with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope."

This is not in any way a policy change by the LDS Church: it is simply a reflection of what Alma teaches. (Indeed, I stand by my previous statements defending the LDS Church Policy.)

There is hurt and there is mourning today. There may not be names of those who died and we may never know until heaven the true figure.
But today we can "mourn with those that mourn."


As always, these thoughts are my own, are intended to help, but do not reflect the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thanks for reading,
Michael