Future of Mormonism
Europe and Mormon Growth
‘Real' growth in many European countries is either very low or practically non-existent and this is clearly a concern for church leaders. In a very big world, with a limited (and drastically reduced) missionary force, the responsibility for sharing the gospel is being increasingly focussed upon the local membership at the same time that increasing secularism and the ‘new' atheism is gaining normative and popular ground. The social costs of religiosity (especially for a peculiar church) are high indeed, especially among white natives. The places where missionaries are needed the most are those countries or continents where the social costs of sharing the gospel are highest. I do not think this shift will happen, but if the church wants to build strength in Western Europe it cannot rely alone upon the local membership.
The popularity of the church outside of Europe is also noticeable inside it due to conversions among immigrants. The outward spiritual ease of many of these non-European converts suggests that new members will increasingly be drawn from peoples comfortable with ‘preaching the gospel' with their friends and family (i.e., non-Europeans). This influx may create unanticipated challenges for a pre-dominantly white middle class leadership which, if handled badly, may cause disaffection. Increased cultural sensitivity and spiritual diversity might need to be encouraged if the Church is to retain these peoples. Though Mauss is optimistic, I am more sceptical. The newly globalised GA is a far cry from the parochial local Bishop or SP, and there will be increased tension between local and general leaders if cultural diversity is promoted to local groups who have already made cultural sacrifices during the Americanization of the 1970s-80s.
Another dynamic concerns the temple. Jan Shipps has argued that the temple will increasingly become the focus of Mormon belonging. This shift allows the church to promote multiple centres of identification in disparate areas. Yet, Bennion & Young's research has observed serious challenges in areas outside of the U.S. with retaining potential Melchizedek Priesthood holders. Consequently, potential tithe-payers and temple recommend holders are being steadily lost. Temples will continue to be U.S.-centric unless the church develops and diversifies its temple building activity. The ‘great symbol of our membership' will be in paper only and not inscribed upon the bodies and identities of these international Saints unless temple worship is made more readily available. However, even if these temples are offered, as they have been, finding people to regularly go is increasingly difficult with low activity rates.
Consequently, the future of Mormonism in Europe seems neither exciting nor hopeful. Though religious tolerance may increase while social stigma decreases, I suspect that growth will be slow, if at all. Further as the church's general leadership increasingly emphasises other parts of the world, the special peculiarity of being Mormon will cease to be an indication of "chosenness." Rather, European Mormons will come to feel just plain "peculiar."
Aaron Reeves is currently completing a Ph.D. in Sociology with the Institute for Social and Economic Research. When he is not writing for By Common Consent, a Mormon-themed blog, he teaches courses on the Sociology of Health and Illness and Research Methods. He lives in Romford, England with his wife and two children.