Mormonism globalizes on leadership and lay levels

The recent appointment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ newest apostles suggests that the global growth of Mormonism is being expressed at the leadership level. The Conversation magazine (April 9) reports that the two new members of the LDS church’s second-highest governing body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, announced at its recent semiannual General Conference, are a son of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and a native Brazilian—the first non-white apostles in the church’s history. Matthew Bowman of Henderson State University writes that the selection of Gerrit Gong and Ulisses Soares is an “indication that the church has begun to take seriously the task of growing outside the United States.” The growth of the church in Brazil and the rest of Latin America has been so strong over the past decades that members have expected a Latin American apostle for the last several vacancies. But “while Soares’ selection reflects the Mormon present, Gong’s may point to the future of Mormonism,” Bowman adds. Mormon growth in China is taking place “through expatriates and Chinese citizens converted by Mormon missionaries abroad.” The current president of the LDS church, Russell Nelson, has studied Mandarin and spent a great deal of time in China over his career.

Nelson’s interest in the Chinese church has “been matched by signs that the church as a whole is interested in cultivating a higher profile there. For instance, the church recently launched a website devoted to its relationship with China.” Dallin Oaks, one of the members of the church’s First Presidency, announced that the church has been building “a relationship of trust with Chinese officials”—an effort that may be aided by the appointment of Gong, who has worked at the State Department and Georgetown University. Bowman adds that the globalization of the church could also be seen in moves announced at the conference to decentralize church administration, thereby strengthening local congregations worldwide. In each local congregation, the leadership would be consolidated and simplified. Another change cut the paperwork and bureaucracy surrounding the practices of “home teaching” and “visiting teaching,” where congregants check in with each other monthly to ensure everybody in the congregation is doing well. By loosening its control of this work, the church will be allowing for more local autonomy. It was also announced that seven new temples would be built in such distant locations as India, Russia, and the Phillipines—more signs that the church “sees potential for strong local leadership.”

Meanwhile, at the lay level, Mormonism is still growing far and wide, although recently released figures from 2017 show that its rate of growth has slowed considerably over the last few years, and is now just under 1.5 percent. “This is the fewest converts we’ve had in 30 years,” said Matthew Martinich, founder of the LDS Church Growth blog. In her blog Flunking Sainthood for Religion News Service (April 21), Jana Reiss reports that church statistics show the church added 233,729 new converts in 2017, while that figure was closer to 300,000 just four or five years ago. Another area of concern is ward and branch creation, which is stagnant. “The increase in congregations was the lowest we’ve had since 2011,” largely because of a lack of U.S. growth, adds Martinich.

The growth rate in the United States has declined to .75 percent, down from .93 percent in 2016. U.S. growth has not been this low “in approximately 100 years or longer,” according to Martinich. He says that, once again, there was no net increase in the number of congregations in the United States, with a particular decline occurring in California. He notes, however, that church defectors are not numerous enough to change much in global membership trends. Among the bright spots are a growth in stakes, which suggests that there is more vitality among people who are already Mormons; a growth in missionaries; stronger and larger wards abroad; and particular growth in West Africa.
(The Conversation,