SALT LAKE CITY — It is almost as if Rodney Stark had taken up the ultimate "set a date" missionary challenge — by the time 2080 rolls around, 267,452,000 people will be Mormons.
"Set a date" refers to a common practice among members the LDS Church to make goals to introduce someone to their faith by such-and-such a date. But it wasn't a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who made this prediction. Stark is a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a private Baptist university and made that prediction in 1984.
Since that time, his prediction has been argued, dismissed, challenged, and, particularly by some Mormons, embraced — leaving Stark to wistfully comment in his book "The Rise of Mormonism," that he should have just said, "the Mormons are destined to become a large religious group, with a significant membership around the world."
Actually, Stark made two general predictions. The first was, as stated above, that by the year 2080 there would be 267,452,000 Mormons. That was the high estimate. The other was a low estimate: By 2080 there will be 63,939,000 members of the LDS Church. Either way, Stark described it as the emergence of a world religion.
How fast is the church growing?
In November last year, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced in a leadership meeting that membership numbers had passed 14 million in July 2010.
Scott Trotter, a spokeperson for the LDS Church, said that it took 117 years — from 1830 to 1947 — for the church to grow from six members to 1 million. It took only 16 more years to reach the two million-member mark in 1963, and eight more years to reach three million. "This growth continues with about a million new members now being added every three years or less," Trotter said. "Of course, membership growth is a wonderful and welcome challenge for the Church."
Since Stark's 1984 projections, the church has often surged ahead of his higher estimates and, at other times, lagged behind. Stark's high estimate had church membership at 15,654,000 by 2010. But, even with 14 million members, the church is ten years ahead of Stark's low estimate for 2020.
"It's slumping slightly," Stark said. "But it is still awfully good growth."
Trotter said that much of that rapid growth is taking place in Central and South America as well as in Africa and Asia. "However, much of the Church's growth is also happening right here in the United States," Trotter said. "It is important to remember that the Church does not target certain regions or demographics with its missionary efforts. Rather we strive to take the gospel to those that are eager to embrace it, while recognizing our scriptural charge to take the gospel to the whole earth."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and writes a column on Mormon-related topics for the Deseret News' Mormon Times section. "We are not growing at the pace Stark saw," Peterson said. "I tend to think these things are cyclical. The church is going to continue to grow. Right now it is at a slightly reduced rate, but it may pick up later."
In a recent column, Peterson talked about how church members should not expect huge numbers. "Scriptural prophecies seem to indicate that, while the restored gospel will spread throughout the earth, church members will always be a minority," he wrote.
Peterson thinks this may be a good thing from a religious perspective — although he was quick to say he doesn't think goals should be reduced. "Mormons tend to get smug and complacent if they assume that church growth is booming," Peterson said. "It is the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they think it is growing, they do less to make it grow."
Stark said he thinks most people have forgotten about his 1984 predictions and he hasn't checked up on them in years. But that doesn't make him back down. "People were telling me 50 years ago that Mormons were going to disappear," Stark said.
His advice to Mormons is to "Keep on doing on what you are doing." He said church growth comes, from his studies, when people reach out their friends and invite them to church. The churches that are shrinking just do not do that, he said.
Trotter said the LDS Church doesn't make any statistical comparisons with other churches — and does not claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination either. "We are not interested in growth for the sake of numbers," Trotter said. "Rather, we are focused on each individual. Each is a son or daughter of God and we love them as such."