The LDS Church remains one of the nation's top four churches in membership size and growth rate, despite 2008 statistics that didn't reach '07 numbers but mirrored the past decade's annual averages.

At its recent April general conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported a worldwide membership of 13,508,509 through Dec. 31, 2008 — an increase of 314,510, or 2.38 percent, over the end-of-'07 total of 13,193,999.

The year before, the church recorded an increase of 325,393, or 2.53 percent.

Over the past 10 years, the LDS Church has averaged an annual membership increase of 310,407, with a high of 348,536 from 1998 to 1999 and a low of 263,716 from 2002 to 2003.

As for membership in the United States alone, the church went from 5,873,408 at the end of 2007 to 5,974,041 through '08, keeping it No. 4 among the nation's top 25 churches as ranked by the 2009 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches and among the fastest-growing as well.

The 2009 yearbook was published before the LDS Church's 2008 statistics were available and includes the church's 2007 numbers.

The yearbook lists the five largest churches as the Roman Catholic Church at 67.1 million, the Southern Baptist Church at 16.3 million and the United Methodist Church at 7.9 million, followed by the LDS Church.

However, the top three reported slight membership decreases last year of 0.59 percent, 0.24 percent and 0.80 percent, respectively.

Four of the 25 biggest churches had growing membership. The LDS Church's improvement was 1.63 percent from 2006 to 2007 and 1.71 from 2007 to 2008.

The other three: Jehovah's Witnesses, up 2.12 percent to a U.S. membership of 1.09 million; Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn., up 2.04 percent to 1.05 million; and Assemblies of God, up 0.96 percent to 2.86 million.

Churches with the most substantial membership decreases included the United Church of Christ, down 6.01 percent; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, down 3.01 percent; Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.79 percent and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, down 1.44 percent.

Now in its 77th year and its 10th with the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner as editor, the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches provides an annual snapshot of religious statistics for the National Council of Churches. The publication goes beyond the NCC's membership and represents information on more than 200 churches and their combined membership of 146.6 million.

Lindner called the LDS Church's membership increases "a very vigorous growth rate," adding that of greater interest is not the church's domestic growth but its substantial increase outside of the United States and Canada.

She said measuring church membership is difficult, since some churches count membership after a child's baptism, christening or blessing, while others wait until a youth confirmation or an adult affirmation. Membership accountings by some churches may be approximations or may be based on an ethnic or racial population in a specific neighborhood.

"The reliability and viability of church statistical information is not precision work," Lindner said. Rather, the greatest benefits are in comparing data over several years and noting the trends.

For 2008, the LDS Church reported adding 123,502 children of record, nearly 30,000 more than the previous year and the first time over the 100,000 mark after five years in the 90,000s.

Also, convert baptisms totaled 265,593 in 2008, the first time in four years that the annual total was lower than the previous year. Over the past 10 years, the church's total number of converts has averaged 272,723 annually, with a high of 306,171 in 1999 and a low of 241,239 in 2004.

While the 2009 yearbook underscored membership decreases in most of the nation's largest churches, Lindner added that "theories of oversecularization are misstated," citing studies showing a church-affiliation rate of 63 to 64 percent in the United States, or roughly twice that in Western Europe.

She cited several factors, including an outmigration of members of traditional Christian churches to other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism or to spiritualistic organizations.

Also, as a mother of two young-adult sons, Lindner said that while younger generations participate, assist, serve and sometimes even proselyte in churches, there is an increasing reluctance to actually "join" in church membership.

E-MAIL: taylor@desnews.com