By David G. Stewart, Jr.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes referred to as the LDS or Mormon Church, is a restorationist faith that claims to restore anew the model of the scriptural church with ongoing revelation received by modern apostles. In an era when most American Christians behave much like non-Christians, the Mormon emphasis on lifestyle as well as belief has become increasingly distinguishing. Compared to the general public, most active Mormons refrain from sexual relations before marriage, experience lower rates of divorce, achieve higher levels of education, live longer average life spans, and benefit from strong, cohesive support systems. The responsibility to share faith is a key tenet of Mormonism, resulting in the mobilization of a large full-time missionary force as well as many congregational member-missionary initiatives.
Mormon outreach has focused on positive lifestyle and values, public service, strengthening families, and study of scripture. The Church has been careful to respect local laws and the beliefs of others, in distinction from other groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, which are often perceived as more aggressive or confrontational. In contrast to many other faiths that have traditionally asked adherents simply to believe, or that have asserted authority through the Bible without giving "investigators" any mechanism to verify or refute the veracity of their post-biblical denominational teachings, Mormon missionaries ask investigators not to believe their words alone, but to study and ponder both the Bible and the Book of Mormon and then to turn to God in prayer to receive a personal witness through the Holy Spirit.
Despite its worldwide reach, the LDS Church remains a heavily American faith with nearly two-thirds of its missionary force and over 80 percent of its membership in North and South America. LDS growth rates have decreased from over 5 percent annually in the late 1980s to less than 2 percent at present, due to a combination of declining birth rates, slowing growth, and lackluster convert retention. Membership growth has significantly outstripped the rate at which new congregations are organized. In parts of Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe, numerous congregations were closed or consolidated during the 2000s, and church attendance remained stagnant even as nominal membership increased. The widening gap between nominal and participating membership reflects difficulty retaining new members, and has placed increased strain on active membership and church resources.
Due to declining birth rates and a "raised bar" of higher standards for prospective missionaries, the full-time LDS missionary force has seen no increase over the past decade. Missionary time has increasingly been diverted away from proselytism in efforts to reclaim "inactive" members and to strengthen "active" ones. Facing limited missionary manpower and the need to strengthen established congregations, the Mormon Church has become more selective about entering new areas. To date, Mormon missionaries have never been sent to Bangladesh, Senegal, Kosovo, and some other nations that allow wide religious freedoms. Even in areas with established missions, outreach outside of the Americas is generally confined to a small number of major population centers. Questions of how the LDS Church might potentially handle increased religious freedoms in China, Iran, or other restricted nations are presently moot, as missionary manpower is inadequate to meet the needs of accessible unreached areas or even to fully staff established missions under current paradigms.
Twenty-first century Mormon missionary work will require paradigm shifts, some of which are already beginning: increased emphasis on member-missionary work, re-allocation of missionary resources to reflect population needs rather than merely to support existing members, increased standards for prospective converts, continued humanitarian and service initiatives, increased use of internet and other media, and long-term investment in international Mormon educational institutions.
1) Missionary work will increasingly emphasize the role of local members. Limited missionary manpower, cost, logistical difficulties, and missionary visa restrictions make traditional missions staffed predominately with North American missionaries impractical for reaching large segments of the population in Europe, Asia, and Africa. A greater focus on extended "mini-missions" for youth, in which young Mormons spend as little as a week or as much as several months working with full-time missionaries, mobilization of non-traditional native missionaries (particularly women and older couples), and improved member-missionary resources and training will all be important. New resources to train members are needed that go beyond mere referral programs and help Mormons to develop the skills needed to regularly engage in meaningful gospel conversations with their non-Mormon acquaintances.