Over on LDS Phil there have been several interesting threads the last day or two. The first was regards to the church’s actions towards “heretics” who publish in Signature. That’s been discussed in many blogs and it’s probably pointless to bring it up here. The other discussion though dealt with the decrease in the growth of the church the past few years. It got tied to the internet.
Allow me to steal some statistics that were brought up there. These are from the number of units (branches and wards) which provides a fair guess at actual growth as opposed to mere baptisms. (Many of whom don’t stay active)
Year Units % Growth 1995 22,673 1996 23,516 3.72 1997 24,669 5.03 1998 25,553 3.46 1999 25,793 0.94 2000 25,915 0.47 2001 26,084 0.65 2002 26,143 0.23 2003 26,237 0.36 2004 26,670 1.65
Now there are many other ways to calculate the statistics. By some recent government statistics based upon how people self-identify, our church has had fairly flat growth the last decade. Probably the best source for a discussion of all this is at Cumorah.com. My point isn’t to claim to know all the reasons for the slowdown. Nor is it to discuss the all the reasons I think might apply. Rather I want to focus on one that is very relevant here. The role of the internet in church growth.
If you look at those statistics you’ll notice that the growth decrease largely correlates with the use of the internet by the public. Do a few google searches on the church. I dare say that most of the time the majority of sites that come up are anti-Mormon ones. Imagine an investigator who, curious about what the missionaries are teaching, does a google search. It is undoubtedly far worse than the anti-Mormon fare we had to worry about on my mission.
Some have suggested that the church needs to do more. To have more of an internet presence. Personally I think that thus far the church is doing an outstanding job utilizing the internet. I’m not sure apologetics are best done by the church though. Yet, I suspect actually engaging problem areas rather than obscuring them would benefit the chruch. Especially in Sunday School and Priesthood lessons. But that’s certainly not my call but the prophet’s. And I’d certainly trust his insight on those matters more than my own. However just like missionary work is best done by members, I think this aspect of missionary work is best done by members. Every member a missionary has been a cry since the days of Pres. Kimball. Yet while there are sites out there we could do better.
Contrast the experience of searching Mormon topics to searching general Christian topics. Now Christianity in general has the same basic issues as Mormonism. I think the weaknesses that anti-Mormons attack can be found in equal measure in most religions. The anti-Mormon plays a Quinn’s Mormonism and the Magic World View and you’d think you’d find a Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician mentioned, making similar claims about Christianity in general. But you don’t. Do a google search. How many critics of Christianity do you find versus how many Christian apologist sites? Outside of evolution and a few related issues, you aren’t likely to find antagonistic sites.
So what can we do? I think we can improve. I think we can do more. I’m calling myself to repentance on this one. I get around 200 – 300 google searches a day coming to my site. I really ought look through those and put up better responses. I also think that the two Wiki projects and a forthcoming LDS theological Wiki could use help. Consider first the LDS Scripture Wiki which attempts to provide commentary to all the LDS scriptures. Maybe for your daily scripture study you can help enter things in there. That way when investigators or even members have questions about passages of scripture you’ll have helped them. Then there is the new Mormon Stories wiki which Jonathan Stapley brought to my attention. It appears to be attempting to grapple with controversial issues in a faithful fashion. If people read those then the anti-Mormon views might not have the same impact. Also there will hopefully be a forthcoming LDS theology wiki that will try and deal with more theological issues.