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An LDS general authority agrees that the share of Utahns who are Mormon is shrinking, but insists that about 70 percent of residents are still members of the state's predominant religion.
Merrill J. Bateman, a member of First Quorum of the Seventy, appeared Wednesday on KUER's RadioWest program to respond to The Salt Lake Tribune series "Mormons in Utah: The Shrinking Majority" published in July. It was the first public comment from a high-level church leader on the membership issues raised by the series.
He said The Tribune "inappropriately used" county-by-county membership data The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides the state government each year.
State demographers only use the LDS numbers to project overall population growth. The Tribune used the numbers to show the LDS share of Utah residents has declined from 70.4 percent in 1989 to 62.4 percent in 2004, and if the trend continued Mormons would be a minority group in Utah by 2030.
The Tribune "was absolutely right in saying there is a declining majority," Bateman said. "We are aware of it."
But he also said the data provided to the state excluded the "in-transit members."
He defined "in-transit members" as "people who are moving," but Bateman didn't describe how the LDS Church counts those people.
One in 10 Utah Mormons - or 182,873 - were in the "in-transit" category in 2003, according to Bateman's on-the-air explanation of why numbers the church provides to the state are significantly lower than those published in the Church Almanac. Using the higher numbers, 70.5 percent of Utahns were LDS in 2003, not 63 percent as The Tribune analysis showed relying on member numbers the church provided to the state. Those county-by-county numbers were kept secret by the church and state until The Tribune obtained them through an open-records request. Inactive Mormons who rarely, if ever, attend church meetings, are included in all membership numbers.
The accuracy of the in-transit numbers is impossible to judge without looking at the underlying calculations, says University of Utah economist Pam Perlich, who was surprised by the 10 percent Mormon in-transit rate.
"That does sound like a pretty high migration rate," said Perlich, who reviews the LDS data as part of the Utah Population Estimates Committee.
Robert Spendlove, of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, said researchers, including the U.S. Census Bureau, are often forced to use numbers that were originally meant for another purpose, as The Tribune did in this case.
"You work with the data you have, not the data you would like," he said.
A 10 percent migration rate for Utah Mormons is possible, he said, if the LDS Church was counting all people who are moving, instead of just those who are moving between counties, as government demographers regularly do. Some of those in-transit Mormons are most likely missionaries, but the overwhelming majority would be residents.
"Utah is a fairly fluid state in terms of migration," Spendlove said.
The LDS Church declined The Tribune's requests for an interview before it published its series, but the church did respond to some written questions, one of which asked about membership-count differences between the LDS Church's Web site and the state numbers.
The difference "reflects members in transit," the statement read. It also said the church provides the state year-end numbers, while using midyear numbers for its Web page.
As Utah's LDS majority continues to slide, whether it is around 70 percent or 60 percent, Bateman urged Mormons to be welcoming of their new neighbors and to make friends, even if they are not interested in learning about the LDS faith.
"We need to be friends for friends' sake," he said. "We need to be good neighbors. We need to respect them for what they believe."
Bateman also responded to Tribune articles about the LDS Church's slowing international growth rate and low activity rates in many countries. He agreed that conversions have slowed, but he tied it to changing nationwide demographics and the shrinking pool of missionary-age U.S. citizens.
As the number of missionary-age adults declined, the number of converts also started to decline. It is a "very close correlation. It's not one to one, but it is almost," he said. "This is the primary reason we have this dip in the growth rate."
In a previous interview, LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said the smaller pool of young adults was a factor but not the sole reason for a decline in the number of LDS missionaries. He acknowledged that in raising qualification standards in 2002, "the church anticipated some decline in the number of missionaries serving."
Bateman expects the number of religious ambassadors, now at just above 50,000, to grow in the next five to seven years as a new generation of young men and women become missionary age. He also expects new missionaries to be more successful under the church's 3-year-old "raise the bar" program.
While Bateman said raising standards has resulted in a slight decline in missionaries, he said it has started to result in an increase in "missionary productivity."
As to low activity rates reported in much of South America, Africa and elsewhere, Bateman said the rates will rise as the church becomes more established over the years.
He agreed the LDS Church's worldwide membership, reported at 12 million, includes many who no longer consider themselves Mormon, but he disagreed with researchers who estimated active Mormons equal only 4 million.
Bateman said that number doesn't count those in undeveloped countries who find it difficult to attend sacrament meetings.
"So you might have in the neighborhood of . . . 4 [million] and 5 million members attending church at any given time, but those who are active would be more than that."