I first started dabbling in buying stocks back in medical school. I say dabbling rather than investing, because it wasn’t very rational. For example, at one point I had some money from student loans for the year. I used $6000 of it to buy shares in America Online, Yahoo and Amazon. This happened to be right at the beginning of the “internet bubble”, and in a few months, I sold some of the stocks for $9000 to pay off some debts (and take a nice tropical vacation with my wife), and still had around $13,000 left from the same stocks. A nice return. Certainly NOT what I would recommend to do with your student loan money, but we lucked out.
Around the same time, I also bought some stock in a company called Iomega. I bought it for relatively cheap, around $5-6/share. Iomega was a great company that made portable media. Their product may seem strange to many of you, so I’d like to give a little historical context. Just after I wrote my first program for IBM in the very early 1980’s, they came out with the IBM XT. This was a top-of-the-line computer that costaround $3000 in 1982 dollars and was characterized by actually having a hard drive – a whopping 5MB. That would hardly hold a single MP3 song today, but it was really cool at the time and a huge step forward. By college and medical school, hard drives had increased in size, but the main way to transfer information and files was still diskettes. There are probably people reading this who have never actually seen one, but they started at 160KB and gradually worked their way up to around 1.2MB. When working on a project, however, even this 1.2MB often wasn’t enough.
This is where Iomega came in. They had a really cool technology where a spinning floppy disk would be sucked against a metal platter (Bernoulli effect) and could effectively act as a hard drive. A Zip disk could hold 100MB. In an era before flash drives and CD burners and online cloud resources, this was amazing. Every computer up at the University of Utah had a Zip drive. They were ubiquitous. Everyone had Zip disks in their backpacks. The company was on a roll. The stock went up, and was above $30, so I’d made a 500-600% return, again in a short time.
Around this time, a friend asked me what stocks I was playing around with. I told him about Iomega, with the usual caveat that I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I liked what the company made and had made some money so far. He was also using Iomega Zip drives at the time and thought it was a good product, so he bought some stock. The stock drifted down a bit and I sold. He kept hanging on for the bounce. It drifted down some more. Soon, rewritable CDs became available, which held 760MB. People began emailing files. Hard drives got bigger. Eventually flash memory took over. Iomega tried to expand their existing technology in size, etc., but eventually the world passed them by. My friend hung on to the stock for a long time, not wanting to admit the decline, but eventually sold at between $1-2 a share, essentially losing the entire investment. And in a world where phones come with 48GB of memory and storage is ubiquitous, Iomega forms a minuscule part of the market. They still have great technologies, but they just don’t fit in with society’s needs. They eventually did try to change, but it was too little, too late.
This phenomenon is well described in a wonderful book, Good to Great. It talks about companies who try to cling to the way that worked in the past. They tend to drift, with the conservative management trying to cling to how things were done in the heyday. Eventually, they drift into obscurity, much like Iomega. They truly successful companies are willing to make changes that seem sudden at first and at odds with “traditional” practices, but which enable them to be at the forefront and be a “great” company.
So what does this have to do with the Church? My last post made some predictions as to membership numbers, and the numbers are in. I want to look at these numbers a bit and expand on a few things from the comments on the last post.
Total Members: Prediction 14,110,917. Actual 14,131,467. I was off by 20,550 (0.15%). Most of this came from being off in the Converts category. More on that below. This is a net growth of 306,613 members since last year, or 2.22%. While this is better than going backwards, it is still the lowest percentage in at least the several decades for which I have data. Around year 2000, the net growth was around 3%. Around year 1990, net growth was around 4-5%. So our growth rate is slowing down – we are growing at half the rate we were just 2 decades ago.
Converts: Prediction 249,472. Actual 272,814. I was off by 23,342 (8.5%). Ouch. The trend for the more than the past decade was negative so I extended that for my prediction, but for the past few years, we’ve flattened out to a more neutral level, making my prediction off. Just for comparison, the number of converts for 2009 was 280,106 and for 2008 was 265,593. However, while the number flattened, because the total membership grew, as a percentage of membership the convert rate is the lowest it has ever been at 1.97%. Again, just 10 years ago it was around 3%, or 50% higher.So as a percentage of membership, our number of converts continued to trend downward.
Children Born: Prediction 116,603. Actual 120,528. I was off by 3,925 (3.3%). This was the hardest number to predict as it bounces around a lot. The last 3 years have been higher than the previous 10 for whatever reason. I take my estimate here as just lucky. This may continue to bounce in the future, but I don’t think it’s going to go too high. Societal trends around the world are for fewer children per couple rather than more. This won’t change much, but as shown below, may be all we have.
Loss: Prediction 80,012. Actual 86,729. I was off by 6,717 (7.7%) as my prediction based on historical trends was too low. In essence, more people left the Church/died in 2010 than any previous year, both as an absolute number and as a percentage of membership. Assuming death rates haven’t increased, this represents more people leaving the Church – not just drifting into inactivity, but actively removing their names. Around the year 2000, this number was around 30-40,000. In a single decade, it is now more than double that.
– Given the continued decrease in missionary work and the increase in loss, the latest predictions if current trends hold are that in 21 years, around 2032, there will be as many people leaving the Church as converting to the Church. The only net growth at that point will be children born into the Church. This may seem like far away, but it’s only around 20 years. And 20 years ago, Iomega’s Zip disks were ubiquitous.
– Various analyses suggest that only around 30% of converts are active 1 year after their baptism. This suggests that of the 272,814 converts for 2010, there will be 81,844 active in one year. With 86,729 leaving the Church (and an assumed 0% activity rate for this group), this suggests a net loss in active members ALREADY, except for children born into the Church – which is the last remaining area of growth.
Overall: The Church does a lot of good for a lot of people. It is a good organization that makes people better people. But, are we content with just being a “good” Church. We are clinging to things that may have worked in the past, but they are not working now. Our missionary program is stagnating. Our membership is flattening out. People may argue that this isn’t true, but it’s hard to argue with actual numbers. If the goal of the Church is to bring the blessings of the Restoration to as many people as possible, and if we argue that it is essential for EVERYONE to receive temple blessings to be exalted, are we truly working towards that goal?
It is easy to point at the outside world for blame. Society is “more wicked”. The forces of Satan are arrayed against us. The influence of the media is too much. But perhaps it’s us. Perhaps, like a good company, we need to truly look at ourselves and see if there is something WE can change to make what we offer more appealing to the people around us, in order to be a GREAT company.
A few suggestions:
This is our sales force. We still essentially do the same things we did in the 1960’s. We still dress them like 1960’s salesmen. From another website (with references there):
Yet annual LDS growth rates have progressively declined from over 5 percent in the late 1980s to less than 3 percent from 2000 to 2005. During this same period, other international missionary-oriented faiths have reported accelerating growth, including the Seventh-Day Adventists, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, and Evangelical (5.6 percent annual growth) and Pentecostal churches (7.3 percent annual growth). Since 1990, LDS missionaries have been challenged to double the number of baptisms, but instead the number of baptisms per missionary has halved. The average LDS missionary in 1989 brought 8 people into the church, while the mean number of annual baptisms per missionary averaged between 6.0 and 6.5 between 1985 and 1999. From 2000 to 2004, the average missionary experienced 4.5 convert baptisms. When one accounts for actual activity and retention rates, approximately 1.2 of the 4.5 converts baptized annually by the typical missionary will remain active. The sharp decline in LDS growth rates occurred even at times with record numbers of missionaries serving. This declining growth comes in spite of the LDS Church entering fifty-nine new nations for proselyting between 1990 and 2000.
(ED: The growth rate is now down closer to 2%)
Why are we doing something that obviously isn’t working? Why are we clinging to an outdated model? From my own comment on the previous “membership poll” post:
I would change the mission program completely. I would change missions to service missions. I would have the Church become known as a Church that has an army around the world that gets things done. I would go to poor countries or inner city areas or where ever there is need. I would have them build wells and schools. I would have them teach. I would tithe the Church and spend 10% of what we take in on humanitarian needs (ie. $300 million/year instead of the current $17 million/year average). I would get rid of the “uniform” of 1960′s salesmen and let the missionaries look more “normal” for the culture in which they are serving.
We could do AMAZING things with this. As a comparison, the Peace Corps currently has around 9000 volunteers. Its budget is around $300 million. We would have 50-60,000 volunteers with a similar budget.
– We would be helping the poor among us
– We could “lower the bar” and let everyone go
– We would vastly improve the image of the Church
– People will naturally ask questions about our role. The missionaries could teach them.
– Importantly, missionaries could raise the image of the Church in an area and the MEMBERS could teach them. This would do wonders for the retention rate.
– This could be a “discontinuity” shift and help the dying missionary program.
Just an idea. Our sales force needs to change.
Do we need to change the product? It doesn’t matter how good Iomega’s salesmen were, the Zip drive eventually became a doomed product in the changing world. The concept of the Zip drive was great – limitless storage, portability, etc. The specifics were what killed it – 100MB, physical presence. They weren’t able to bring the concepts forward as they were trapped by the specifics of the product.
Are we doing the same thing? The core concepts of the gospel are beautiful and unique. Priesthood. Temples and eternal families. Living prophets. But we are trapped in the details, and that’s holding us back. A few examples to show what I mean:
– Does it really matter if someone wears flip-flops, a non-white shirt, more than one pair of earrings; or has a tattoo or a beard? Absolutely not. There are just societal preferences. But we voluntarily make them into stumbling blocks unnecessarily. Why?
– Does it really matter if someone has a glass of wine or a beer with dinner? The Word of Wisdom suggests that barley drinks are good for man, and also talks about wine. It really only prohibits “strong drinks”. Christ and Joseph Smith drank wine. Joseph Smith drank beer. Are these eternal principles or just something that makes us seem strange? And we routinely ignore parts of the Word of Wisdom anyway, such as rules on eating meat. (This section for Jeff S)
– Does it really make sense to stick our heads in the sand and ignore parts of our history that aren’t “faith-promoting”? Does anyone really think that if we close the archives and keep faithful LDS scholars from exploring our history that people aren’t going to talk about it? People will still talk about it – it just won’t be from the faithful. In the Brigham Young “Teachings for our Time” it never mentions polygamy, even in the 10-15 page section at the beginning which is a biography of his life. Seriously? No one is going to know if we hide it? They are going to talk about the strange things. They show up on the first page of a Google search for “Mormon”.
We need to put our money where our mouth is. People go to companies and routinely pay more because they agree with a company’s principles in giving back – “Do well by doing good”. We talk about our charitable giving, but actions always speak louder than words. Bishop Burton can talk about humanitarian things the Church has done, which is great, but the cash he has spent on this has averaged around $13 million annually for the past 25 years. Instead, people talk about the “crowning jewel” of his administration as being the City Creek mall, for which the Church has spent an estimated $3 BILLION. We spent tens of millions on various parcels of land in downtown SLC in the past year.
This image of the Church as a real estate magnate is also difficult to reconcile with our image and practices. We heard a lot of talks on tithing this past conference. We understand that tithing is an eternal principle. (Disclaimer: I am and have always been a full tithe payer, so this isn’t a personal issue). However, the Church makes giving a specific amount of money a REQUIREMENT to have a temple recommend and partake of the blessings there. It also has now specifically made having a temple recommend a requirement to perform priesthood ordinances, such as confirming your 8-year-old child after baptism. So, in essence, you have to pay a certain amount in order to participate and get blessings. From the outside, this could seem like it is starting to drift down the path towards “indulgences” that we hear derided so much in conference and other talks, where specific spiritual blessings were contingent upon the giving of specific amounts of money.
Overall, our model isn’t working. The problem isn’t with the core principles of the gospel. Our missionary program is broken. Our non-eternal practices are making us increasingly obsolete and out-of-step with the world around us. And most importantly, our clinging to these non-essential things is making it so people can’t see the beautiful things. Again, as mentioned in conference this past weekend when talking about welfare, if someone is hungry, they don’t care about the gospel message. In this case, if someone has an issue with a non-essential part of our Church, they don’t care about the essential and beautiful parts.
Are we going to fade away like Iomega? Or are we going to be proactive and change?
What do you think?
- Is the growth of the Church stagnating? If not, what evidence do you have for this?
- Should we change the missionary program, or do we just keep doing what we’ve done for 30 years and hope that, hopefully, next year will be different?
- Even with a revamped missionary program, have the non-essential peripheral parts of the Church become so large that they have made our “product” non-appealing to society?
- Do we keep doing what we’re doing and expect society to change, or do we take a critical look at ourselves and perhaps point the finger inward?
- Do you think the structure of the Church is too ingrained to actually change any of these things? Are we IBM? Or America Online? Or Iomega? They were useful in their day, but where are they now? They couldn’t change in time. Can we?