The Impossible Mission of the LDS Church
The scriptures set an expansive, perhaps even overwhelming assignment for the modern-day church to accomplish. From four chapter summaries and a verse we can read about these goals and prophecies:
3 Ne 21
Israel will be gathered when the Book of Mormon comes forth—The Gentiles will be established as a free people in America—They will be saved if they believe and obey; otherwise, they will be cut off and destroyed—Israel will build the New Jerusalem, and the lost tribes will return. About A.D. 34.
3 Ne 22
In the last days, Zion and her stakes will be established, and Israel will be gathered in mercy and tenderness—They will triumph—Compare Isaiah 54. About A.D. 34.
3 Ne 29
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon is a sign that the Lord has commenced to gather Israel and fulfill His covenants—Those who reject His latter-day revelations and gifts will be cursed. About A.D. 34–35.
2 Ne 30
Converted Gentiles will be numbered with the covenant people—Many Lamanites and Jews will believe the word and become delightsome—Israel will be restored and the wicked destroyed. About 559–545 B.C.
15 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Although it is conceivable that someone might argue 1) that we have already fulfilled all of these prophecies and assignments, simply because the church has a significant presence on the Earth, or 2) that Christ needs to come again for all of these prophecies to be fulfilled, I believe that would be a very minority position and interpretation of the scriptures. The phrase "for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" seems to be far from complete today. It may be true that the Internet has made available almost everywhere on the Earth plenty of information about the Lord and his Church, but that seems rather meaningless if almost no one understands or heeds or implements those words.
Since we are part of that modern-day church, the question now is whether under current conditions it appears that it would ever be feasible for the church to accomplish its assigned mission. Here are the current parameters: From my preferred way to make the calculations, the church is currently spending about $60,000 in direct costs for each new person who is brought into the church and becomes a long-term member. Counting all costs -- all the money and volunteer labor that is expended while bringing in a single new long-term church member -- the total comes to $400,000. For a family of five, that means that the church spends $2 million somewhere while that single family of five is being brought into the church.
When we have church leaders coming up with programs and slogans such as "Lengthen Your Stride" or "Hasten the Work," in our current setting that basically presents the question as to how many more increments of $2 million in cash and volunteer labor can be put together to expand the number of church families using current policies and methods. For example, if we were hoping for a significant expansion of the church by adding one million new long-term members, there would be a need to spend one million times $400,000 for a total cost of $400 billion to expand our membership by that full one million active members. (Notice that the very fact that the church leaders come up with these various goals and plans for accelerating the work of the church means that they do not interpret the scriptures as having been fulfilled already.)
That addition of one million members would be a noticeable expansion, but it would still be only the tiniest beginning towards flooding the earth with the gospel. The obvious question arises as to where the extra needed $400 billion in total resources would come from today. (I assume the church today has a $6 billion monetary budget each year and a similar $6 billion volunteer labor resource budget each year, for a total of $12 billion in annual resources.)
If the Church were truly going to flood the earth with the gospel, it might hope to acquire one billion (one thousand million) new members out of the current 6 to 7 billion people on the planet. But, at a cost of $400,000 for a new long-term member, that would require expending $400 trillion based on current policies and methods. How likely is it that the church's membership is ever going to raise $400 trillion anytime in the next century? It seems highly unlikely.
The question for serious church members today then is whether there is any chance in any living person's lifetime, or beyond, to see the church accomplish the mission prophesied for it and assigned to it in the Book of Mormon? The answer seems to be a resounding "no" at this point. In other words, if we are ever going to take this scriptural assignment seriously, we are going to have to get a great deal more creative about how we spread the message, otherwise the church will never get much beyond its small, regional footprint.
This naturally presents quite a complex question or set of questions. I have studied about a dozen different major changes which seem necessary to get the church back on a success track to rival the 10% growth rate experienced just after the life of Christ, as opposed to our current 0.2% growth rate. Mostly those potential changes consist of re-adopting the exact same policies and practices of the church that were in use just after the end of the life of Christ, and again from 1830 up until the death of John Taylor in our own time.
Some detailed calculations:
Each year, the church grows by about 30,000 long-term members, as evidenced by the approximately 300 meeting places it constructs every year, providing meeting space for about 100 people in each of the 3000 new wards and branches organized each year. (The church counts about 300,000 people as joining the church each year, but it is evident that only about one in 10 of those people remain in the church for the long term.)
I assume the church today has a $6 billion monetary budget each year and a similar $6 billion volunteer labor resource budget each year, for a total of $12 billion in church resources. Starting with a total resource budget of about $12 billion, and dividing by the 30,000 new members each year, that gives the $400,000 figure for each new long-term member. For a family of five, that would be $2 million. If we use the figure of 15 million as the current membership of the church, the 30,000 new members each year represents a growth of 0.2%.
The basic missionary cost of bringing a new person into the church on a long-term basis might begin with a $10,000 cost to keep a missionary in the field for two years. We might then add $40,000 for the actual effort of the missionary for a period of two years, registering a volunteer labor cost of $10 per hour for 4000 hours of labor. If we then add another $10,000 as the cost of operating the general missionary system we would reach the $60,000 cost figure. The direct missionary cost would then be about $300,000 for a family of five.