The Disproportionate Mormon Missionary Effort

Besides polygamy, the Mormon Church is best known for its missionaries. That may be because there are so many of them. Consider these numbers:

In 2014, there were 435,000 Christian missionaries of which 85,000 were Mormon, almost 20%. In contrast, of the 1.57 billion church-going Christians that year, only 4.6 million were Mormon, a mere 0.3%.

That means there are almost 70 times more Mormon missionaries than one would expect based on the number of active Mormons, when compared to other Christians (check out this FAQ-article to learn whether Mormons are Christians).

Number of Mormon missionaries and members compared to other Christians.

This disproportionate emphasis on recruitment is a typical characteristic of cults. Like a multi-level marketing scheme, the Mormon Church recruits hundreds of thousands of new converts every year, most of which become disengaged within 12 months.

The Mormon Church suffers from the same plague that affects any MLM-scheme: market saturation. Mormon growth rates have been declining since the early 1960s, a trend that accelerated with the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s. Unlike other MLM-schemes, however, the Church cannot easily switch products.

For a while, the Church has tried to stem the tide by increasing the number of missionaries, from 25,000 in the 1970s to 85,000 at its peak in 2014. But by the early 1990s the law of diminishing returns started to set in. From about eight converts per missionary, the conversion rate dropped to 3.41 in 2013.

Converts per missionary 1977-2015. You can dynamically view this and other charts related to Mormon membership growth on our statistics page.

The cost of maintaining such a huge but increasingly ineffective recruitment program is prohibitive. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that only five years after the Church’s last-ditch attempt at propping up conversions by lowering the missionary age in 2012, Church leaders are now looking at down-sizing the missionary program and modernizing it through the use of technology.

The core product hasn’t changed, though. The rate at which new recruits, and even long-time members disengage likely isn’t decreasing either. More and more, Mormonism is becoming a tough sell in today’s religious market place.