Exposing the numbers behind LDS Growth in Latin America: A Missionary Confession

Once upon a time, I was a missionary in one of the highest baptizing missions in the world.  You see, as an LDS missionary, your heart is set on converting even just one soul to the Gospel of Mormonism during your 18-24 months.  In many missions around the world, you're lucky to even get that one savory experience.  When I arrived to Santiago Chile towards the end of April 1998, the monthly goal per each missionary companionship was 10 baptisms, month-after-month.  I had heard of the phenomenal growth before my arrival and call to serve in the great country of Chile, but I had no idea what was really going on down there to reach those numbers.  Not long after being assigned to my first senior companion, I learned that per-month baptism totals for our mission had been as high as 1,300.  That number alone exceeds the total baptisms of many missions combined, per year.  This is my confession and expose on how the LDS church grew their Latin-America numbers at a phenomenal, yet unrealistic and even harmful rate.

I'll keep this short and let the numbers do the rest of the speaking at the end (see attached images).  I was such a pure-hearted "greeny" when I reached the mission field.  I wanted every convert to remain faithful to the principles of the gospel and find the joy and salvation I then felt for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Mormons.  I quickly learned from my first companion that it wasn't to be.  Within my first week of Chilean missionary life, I heard the truth of just how this mission achieved so much superficial success.  This mission was all about the numbers, and primarily, baptism totals.  Pressure to reach the "Goal of 10" each month was such that the 6 formal missionary lessons were mostly abandoned after the first 2, and a commitment to be baptized reached.  Then it was into the water, sometimes within hours, or at most a couple days.  Confirmation came next, usually while the recipients hair was still drying.  After that?  Goodbye new "convert"!  There are far too many others in need of baptism to finish your lessons.  Maybe if we run out of leads we'll try to get you to church some Sunday morning, probably after you've already forgotten you had been baptized Mormon.

The above is a brief glimpse of the reality of how Chile, Santiago West missionary companionships achieved 20, 30 or even 50 baptisms in a single month.  My heart was broken, and the reality of Missionary life was too much to keep to myself, so my first letter home came in the form of 7 pages detailing all of the failings and disappointments I had for being the best missionary I could be in the "best" mission on Earth.  Unknown to me, at least until I was called into an emergency meeting with the mission president, my parents had forwarded that letter to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT, who forwarded it on to a General Authority.  I don't know who the GA was, but he called up my Mission President and must have had some choice words with him, either about the way baptisms were being achieved, or about my writing home too much detail for my parents to handle.  Maybe some of both.

I was reduced to tears in that meeting with "Presidente" Walker.  I had condemned the whole mission.  I was made to feel that I had betrayed the whole mission.  My letter apparently caused some problems for Walker, though I don't think he detailed what those were.  Apparently, parents can't handle the truth of what their 18-20 year-olds (then 19-21) go through in everyday mission life, and "over emphasize" those problems or experiences.  This scolding must have really convinced me of my error in writing home the truth about mission life.  From my journal entry that day, I wrote:

It was an awakening interview that I will never forget.  I love my companion and zone members.  All of them are the best missionaries.  I feel like I have betrayed them all through that first letter that I sent home which has caused a handful of problems for Pres. Walker.  I just hope those I have hurt will forgive me for the way I handled the situation with sending that letter home.  I didn't know my parents would respond the way they did.

Karma is a bitch President Walker.  The images and numbers that follow show just how little you cared about people, and how much you loved the bottom line, something you probably learned in your private business that made you millions before your call to serve.  I'm no longer on the rolls, so threats of excommunication mean nothing to me.  But the truth needs to be told.

When I arrived to the Chile Santiago West mission, we didn't have zone conferences each month.  We had full on mission conferences with all 200+ missionaries all in one church house.  These "conferences" were more like pep rallies, or Amway conventions (MLM).  The highest baptizing missionaries were paraded in front of everyone to cheers and standing ovations.  Music wasn't sung reverently, but shouted and yelled with everyone on their feet, arms around each other like drunks swaying to a bar chant.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  This wasn't spiritually feasting upon the word, but enforcing the all mighty bottom line: baptisms or else.  The image above is an example of the monthly stat sheets handed out at each of these pep rallies (total baptisms for each month are highlighted, click images to enlarge).  Instead of being motivated by the pure love of Christ, these rallies talked about being blessed after the mission with "La Esposa", meaning, the wife/spouse of your dreams.  There were even discourses emphasizing the importance of marrying a "beautiful" wife over a "sweet spirit" wife, since the latter will likely never improve their appearance according to them.

Translation of the paragraph pictured above: Note the difference in the individual when they begin to fulfill the required commitment (baptism). You can baptize families, men, and even increase attendance and retention of all converts.  And thus, after [the mission] you can search and find "La Esposa" (THE WIFE)

These numbers mostly speak for themselves.  1040 baptisms that month.  Guess how many people were in church most Sundays in the wards I served in?  40-50 in the pews, but hundreds or even thousands on record in every ward.  Those 44 baptisms from the top companionship?  I can guarantee that 80% are probably minors, mixed with a few women and likely even a drunk or two (missionaries being told to focus on primarily men, women being considered less vital converts).  

Retention of converts was pretty much ignored until a change in mission presidents, and a visit from President Hinckley himself, chiding us for bringing people into the waters of baptism, and then letting them walk straight out the back door to never return.

Note the lack of retention totals on any of these stat sheets?  Note that attendance totals (Asistencia) are also either not listed, or don't increase by the average number of baptisms each month (700 is a likely average during these excessively high months).

Enough just isn't enough for this mission president.  These struggling wards and branches had no programs in place to welcome and retain the thousands of "converts" added to the rolls during the 4-5 years baptisms were so highly focused by Walker and his successor.

1,319 baptisms enough?

Nope.  1,324 baptisms is the highest month I could find recorded in the stat sheets I was given upon completing my 2 years.

Thankfully, by the time I was getting "trunky", the focus had turned around for the better.  Monthly baptismal totals had adjusted to an average of 100, and retention along with reactivation were focused on as much as new converts.  As for myself, I never gave in to the pressure of numbers over people.  I found out at the end of my mission, that I had converts attributed to my name that I had never met.  These were spontaneous baptisms that my senior comps did while on splits with other missionaries.  I was sometimes referred to as a "chupa luz", aka, "light sucker", because of my unwillingness to compromise on my principles, and allow for people to be baptized who weren't ready, or who hadn't been taught all of the lessons.  As a senior companion myself, I didn't artificially boost my weekly numbers, and also had a handful of "dry months" with no baptisms, either because of the lack of people wanting to join, or because the areas I were in couldn't even retain long-time members, and certainly not new comers.  I even served in a ward where the bishop was inactive.  My mission field may have broke my heart, but it couldn't break me.

Above is the last reported month before my departure (January, 2000).  Note the difference in numbers and focus.  

The LDS church loves their numbers, so much so that they spout them every spring at the church wide General Conferences. "15 Million strong!" Is their latest and greatest growth claim for 2014.  Ironically, they can't back these numbers up, at least the now 15 million strong total.  You see, they have a "missing Mormons" problem.  And how could they not?  With thousands of people baptized willy-nilly from my mission and other missions, plus they continue to count those members who have moved on to other religions or no religion, you end up with census data that reports far fewer self-identified "Mormons" than what the LDS church claims for that country.  The SLC Tribune reports that "Brazilian "membership increased by 362,918 members between 2000 and 2010 yet the censuses for these two years indicate a mere 26,050 increase in self-identified Latter-day Saints."  Chilean census report similar total discrepancies, and even a loss of self-identified "Mormons" from 2002-2012 census reporting years.  By most estimates, worldwide active LDS number only in the 4 to 6 million range.

So if it can be easily verified that the reported numbers don't match up with either the number of self-identified Mormons, or the number showing up in church on a regular basis, why all the fluff and pomp surrounding these yearly "convert" increases and total members of record?  Does "6 Million Strong!" just not cut it anymore, or are the numbers useful in other ways, such as creating the illusion of relevance, or of truthfulness of the gospel?  Only the insiders at the top echelons of Mormonism can know for sure why they boast these numbers so much.  However, they should take interest that to outsiders, these numbers just demonstrate one more area in which the church remains dishonest with its membership, whitewashing the story behind the actual, less-than-half of total baptized Mormons who report themselves as such.  They need to be called out on their lack of integrity, again.  In the financial realm, misreported numbers result in fraud charges and jail time.  Too bad religions can't be held to the same standards.

If you served a mission and witnessed similar methods of quick baptizing-for-the-numbers-only, please post a comment with your experience.  It's Missionary confession time.

Views: 12067

Comment by StillConfused on July 9, 2014 at 10:45am

Very interesting.  Also quite disheartening for the young men placed in that position.  I guess that is why so many RMs have issues with the church

Comment by JetSkiMamma on July 9, 2014 at 10:58am

My stepson served in that same mission from 1997-1998 in the Santiago South.  He said the same exact things--it was all about the numbers.  His mission was the beginning of the end for his activity in the church.  He told me the other day he still suffers from PTSD and dreams about his mission all the time.  I just talked to him and he confirmed everything you said and called it ping pong baptisms.  He said they would have "cooling" centers where kids would be really hot and the missionaries would tell them they could cool off in the font and they would baptize them and they wouldn't even know what happened.  Gross!  He also said they would get 20 people at church yet the entire village was baptized already so they couldn't convert anymore.  It would be interesting to see how many of those guys are inactive now just from that mission time frame...although my stepson said way too many guys bought into it and were so into the numbers and competition.  They are probably the jerks who are in leadership positions now who married someone way too pretty for them.  You know the ones where you go how did HE get HER?  The church seems to be full of them.  Just saying....

Comment by MikeUtah on July 9, 2014 at 10:59am

I know I'm not alone in this experience.  Here's a similar sounding, South American missionary confession (a letter to a GA):


Comment by mraymus on July 9, 2014 at 11:04am

Fantastic article.  I also experienced similar things in Haiti in 84-86, although the numbers were never this insane.   There were missionaries in my mission who were baptizing many and the mission president would hold them up as examples.  However, when you looked at the numbers, most of them were teenager girls who really dug the charismatic missionaries.   I decided then and there that I wouldn't follow that same pattern and focused mainly on the harder to get converts.   Strong mean and women.   I was looking for stake presidents and RS presidents.   We made that our intention every day.  Not just the easy kills.   It's all ironic now that I'm not a member any longer, but it was serious business back then.  I only baptized a few on my mission, whereas others baptized a few every month.  I now say that the best thing I got from the mormon church was Haiti.   It's true.  It changed my life forever.  And I'm proud that I only baptized a few now more than ever.    On your last couple of paragraphs you discuss the 15 million strong phenomenon.    I wonder how many of those 15 million are in this forum or many of the thousands if not millions of others who are disaffected by the mormon church, inactive, or so many who are afraid to have their records removed from the church.    I am excommunicated, but in my own family, my younger sister left the church 20 years ago and just barely had her records removed.  How many millions are in her situation I wonder.   The church will go on counting people who are essentially not supposed to be counted.    Thanks again for the article!   Awesome!  

Comment by Nodin on July 9, 2014 at 11:06am
My eldest grandson is leaving this month for a primarily Hispanic mission in California - I wonder if he'll see the same thing there? He's very competitive but also a real straight-shooter, calling bull where he sees it. It should be interesting.
Comment by Lee on July 9, 2014 at 11:09am

My mission had a similar feel when I first arrived. I served in Spain - Las Palmas (Canary Islands). We were the highest baptizing mission in Europe when I got there because a few enterprising Elders figured out they could baptize the Africans who would come in on boats to the Port of Las Palmas. They would combine the 1st and 2nd discussions and get the DL or ZL to get them in the water the same night they were contacted. The new converts would be gone the next day to some other port. One companionship had 50 baptisms in one month using this technique. It was rare for an entire mission to get 50 anywhere else in Europe. I had 10 my entire mission. The little branch that included the port had 1,300 members with only 25-30 attending week to week. Our mission president was asked by the branch president of that little branch to not allow the missionaries to continue working this way, and so he simply assigned 'non numbers' guys to the port and the practice stopped, but it went on for at least the first 6 months I was there. Those missionaries were treated like royalty, but sometimes I wonder if they can so easily justify the tactics they used.

Comment by Lavender on July 9, 2014 at 11:10am

Why tout such grossly inflated numbers?  Because of the power of social proof!  The more Mormonism seems like the norm and that everyone is doing it, the more they can sell it.  Advertisers love to inform us when a product is the "fastest-growing" or "largest-selling" because they don't have to convince us directly that the product is good, they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough, this according to the book "Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion".  I swear the church was built around every single one of those compliance tactics.  I loved this article, thank you!

Comment by MikeUtah on July 9, 2014 at 11:15am

@Jetskimamma.  Wow!  Maybe I have some PTSD too.  I still have dreams of being back in the mission, far from home and annoyed that I'm still serving in my head...  I wish every pre-missionary could read our real experiences, and not the fluffed-over versions we give in our homecomings, and decide to do something better with their time and money.

Comment by JetSkiMamma on July 9, 2014 at 11:17am

I think the 15 million number is anyone who has ever been a member of the church regardless if they are deceased, inactive, or have had their names removed. 

Comment by Nodin on July 9, 2014 at 11:43am
My sons's name is still on their rolls and he quit in the early 1990's. He STILL gets visits every time he moves for his job no matter how rude or threatening. I sure hope they don't try that with me!


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