The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger. The number of members removing their names from the records of the Church has always been very small and is significantly less in recent years than in the past. (Elder Quentin L. Cook, April 4th 2015)
Maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a time of – I’ll call it apostasy like we’re having now (Elder Marlin Jensen, January 18, 2012)
If you find those two contemporary quotes at odds, that’s a sign you’re awake! If you think there has been a massive improvement in three years, I’d say you’re a creative interpreter!What explains them? Is the first a public relations message and the second a wake-up call to the faithful? What is going on here?
It is reckoned that as many as 70% of Mormon members are ‘inactive’. This is hardly a sign of strength. It suggests many people simply take the easy route of disengagement rather than the formal process of resigning membership.
The worldwide activity rate for the LDS Church at present is estimated at 30% whereas the activity rate outside of the United States and Canada is estimated at 22.5% (source)
In other words, when we read of Mormon membership statistics, we can say that only about a quarter to a third are active in attendance at their place of worship etc. In the UK, active membership is only 18% (source).
So if total membership is 15,372,337 (source), what is the number of active participation? If it stands at about 30% then the true figure is nearer to 5,000,000 worldwide.
Of course, Mr Cook’s phrase, ‘has never been stronger’ is a relative term. Perhaps this state of affairs is better than it was a few years ago. I don’t know. But to an outsider it hardly appears impressive. If this is the restoration of the true church of the lamb then the number of those of the church of the devil are thousands to one in favour of hell over heaven. A strange state of affairs for Jesus who is presiding over the restored church on earth.
What could explain the high attrition rate? One reason could be that missionaries are less than forthcoming about the demands and true doctrines of their church.
One person, still a member of the church, cited the common reasons people leave the church (John Dehlin). He groups these as
1. historical issues (Joseph Smith as a gold-digger, the Kinderhook Plates, Book of Abraham, Mountain Meadows Massacre, Smith’s polygamy and polyandry etc);
2. scientific issues (some of these are in common with Biblical Christians to do with an historical Adam and Eve, Flood etc, but specifically the problems with the Book of Mormon – Native Americans have Asiatic DNA, horses and steel in the Americas etc;
3 doctrinal issues (e.g. is the LDS the only true church? etc);
4. Social-political issues (e.g. Church’s stance on homosexuality etc);
5. Spiritual issues (e.g.not receiving the promised witness of the Spirit etc)
These are all weighty matters and John Dehlin goes on to say that in the process of disaffection the church’s perceived silence on these matters only makes things worse. If church leaders have no answers to my doubts, people reckon, perhaps my doubts are justified.
So let’s go back to the beginning. What was the context for Jensen’s more pessimistic quote? The reason for the apostasy was, in his words, ‘Google’. Which can only mean that people are looking for information on the Internet and coming across information that is not controlled by the church. This means they can look up the historical, scientific issues etc mentioned above.
Logically speaking, the failure of the Mormon church to retain converts has nothing to do with whether it is a true church.
…it does not prove or disprove anything about the truthfulness of the religion. What it does tell us is that a significant number of Mormons are dissatisfied with their faith. (Mormon Coffee)
And maybe the drop-off rate is linked to what they are finding out online. Has Mormonism really never been stronger? Can it survive the Information Revolution?
Mr Andersen rightly pointed out the need for the Holy Spirit in the life of a child of God. He rightly noted the need for a changed heart and the joy of the Spirit. In short, he rightly noted that mere doctrine by itself is no more sufficient than dancing is without music.
So what do we learn of Mr Andersen’s pneumatology – his doctrine of the Spirit? We learn that he believes in baptismal regeneration:
“When we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost after baptism, we are filled with the heavenly music that accompanies conversion. Our hearts are changed”
Baptismal regeneration is the belief that a person receives the Spirit at baptism. It is a belief held, if not officially endorsed in many churches, but especially those that practice infant baptism. Note how he links conversion and change of heart with receiving the Spirit. This is correct. What I deny is that this takes place after baptism.
Why is it wrong?
There are two reasons. One is that his teachin is denied by the Holy Spirit in the pages of the New Testament. The second is its theological implication that the work of God is dependent on the work of man.
First, the New Testament evidence.
When the gospel was beginning to go to the Gentiles, Peter received a vision (Acts 10). He went to Cornelius and preached the gospel to him.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message Acts 10:44
Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we? (Acts 10:47)
In other words, Peter’s thinking was the reverse of Mr Andersen’s. Peter baptised on the basis that Cornelius had already received the Spirit. Peter felt able to baptise them because they were converted and had the Spirit.
In short: conversion first, then baptism.
Theologically the Spirit changes hearts through the preaching of the gospel not the administration of water. Water baptism is a sign of union with Christ that has taken place (Romans 6). Union with Christ comes only by explicit personal faith in Jesus upon hearing the gospel.
“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23)
The Holy Spirit does not say, ‘you have been born again through baptism’ even though Mr Andersen does.
And here’s the problem, if we do not know the truth about the new birth and conversion, how can we hear, to use Mr Andersen’s illustration, the music of the gospel?
The theological problem is this: the Mormon gospel emphasises the work of man and downplays the sovereign work of the Spirit. Speaking of the Spirit as the wind (same word in Greek), Jesus said:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. John 3:8
The wind is not controlled or subjected to human power. It is a law to itself. It answers to no man. It is the same with the Spirit. He changes whichever heart he pleases, whenever he pleases.
This is not to deny that man plays any part. Men of God are called to preach the gospel. And God has ordained that through the preaching of the gospel the Spirit will work – in the way he wishes. The work of preaching is likened to watering, but it must never be confused with ‘God who gives the growth’ (1 Corinthians 3:7) by his Spirit.
There was much to like in what Mr Andersen had to say. He was making a case that we be patient and act with kindness in our families. All this is good. And all this is a fruit of the Spirit of God.
And so for that reason we need to beware of falling into the trap of baptismal regeneration. There are many people who believe they are converted because they were baptised. They have been made false converts. We cannot produce the fruit of the gospel if we have cut ourselves off from its life-giving source.
Conversion happens when we hear the true gospel. We hear of the one, true God whom we have offended by our sins. We see we are under the wrath of a holy God. But we see too the love of God in Jesus who paid the penalty for our sins. Our eyes are open to feel and see we are deserving of wrath. We feel that our efforts to gain a right standing with God are sinful and futile. We abandon any claims upon God and simply cry out for utterly undeserved mercy. But then we stand amazed: we are given the grace to repent and trust in Christ and Him alone for forgiveness. What joy fills the sinner’s heart! Our tongues are loosed and we sing a new song:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And this music rings in our eyes all the days of our earthly pilgrimage until that day ‘when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease.’ Yet that will not be the end of the music but merely its beginning:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.