Growth of LDS Church has upside, downside

Deseret News/November 25, 2000
By Christi C. Babbit

Members must find way to retain converts OREM - Future growth for the LDS Church is a "good news, bad news" situation, with helps and hindrances present within the cultures of other countries, said a noted sociologist Wednesday.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is projected to grow to 250 million members during the next 100 years and will meet various challenges along the way, said Armand Mauss, a professor of sociology and religious studies emeritus at Washington State University. Mauss has authored various works studying past and future growth of the LDS Church.

His presentation at Utah Valley State College was the first in a series on Mormon culture sponsored by UVSC's Religious Studies program. "We like to think we are a worldwide church, but we're not. We are a hemisphere church," Mauss said. Eighty-five percent of the LDS Church's membership lives in the western hemisphere, he said. "We ought to be, I think, a little bit more humble about how we describe our present score geographically."

The church will have to contend with the political and cultural environments of other countries while it tries to increase membership. In most countries of the world, religion is intertwined throughout all other institutions of the culture; a person's education, employment and family life are all tied tightly to their religion, making it difficult to change to another faith.

"Where does that leave the Mormons? Sort of out in the cold in a lot of ways," Mauss said. Some countries have no religious freedom at all, with harsh penalties for those who promote other religions. "This means that membership in the LDS Church is very costly," he said.

The way those in other countries view members of the LDS Church will also need to be addressed. "We have a hard time, I think, in America seeing how Mormonism is looked on in America," he said, adding that many people see the LDS Church as just another cult.

"There is a real need for the church to have a public-relations program that will provide a kind of spin of respectability on what is put out because you're not going to get it in the local presses," Mauss said.

He listed worldwide migration, unrest and instability as factors that will actually aid the church in its future growth. As people move away from home and their roots, they also become disconnected from constraints such as family members that may keep them from joining a new religion.

Most of the LDS Church's worldwide missionary work is done in urban areas, where English is more prevalent and people who have moved from their hometowns are looking for something new and different. The church appeals to these types of individuals, he said.

Offering more good news for the church is the fact that people in other countries are attracted to America's way of life and entrepreneurial values.

America is also in many ways a country that other countries like to emulate," Mauss said. People in foreign countries who are trying to improve their life may see the LDS Church as a guide that will help them do so. This has a downside, however: "Wherever America as a world power engenders hostility, Mormons will share that hostility," Mauss said.

The popularity of the English language throughout the world will prove to be a boon to the church as it grows, as it provides an "automatic conduit" through which the religion can be spread.

Discarding its image of "weirdness" and building one of "belonging" can be difficult for the church, Mauss said. He questioned where the line could be drawn to define the required core doctrine one needed to follow to be considered "Mormon" and what aspects of a foreign culture would be considered acceptable within the church.

He posed several questions about what kinds of cultural traditions the church could assimilate without assimilating too much. For example, people in India have a totally different idea about what type of music is reverent and inspirational; Mauss questioned whether it would ever be considered appropriate for these members to sing Indian music in church instead of the traditional LDS hymns.

If a Japanese LDS couple is not yet worthy to be married in an LDS temple, would it be all right for the couple to have a Buddhist marriage in the meantime? "How would we feel about that?" Mauss asked. He didn't answer these questions, but instead, he pointed out that these are the types of issues the church will have to wrestle with in the future. Mauss did say the church's future will depend greatly on the retention of converts and their children. One can't assume that high numbers of new members will equate to what he called "durable growth." "We've got to figure out a way to hold on to people who have joined the church," he said.

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