Sunday, August 30, 2015

Expectations About Growth--George's Post

1.    Expectations about Growth; Growth for Growth’s Sake

What are the expectations of the members about the growth of the Church over the next several generations?  Occasionally, one sees projections of worldwide Church growth, taking into account historical rates of convert baptisms and child baptisms (i.e., the baptisms of the young children of existing members).  Extrapolating from current numbers points to exponential growth, not only in the United States but throughout most of the world, especially in third world countries, including those in Africa.  Of course, the projections may not play out, because one or more of the underlying assumptions behind the modelling are not met.  The Church may meet greater opposition than anticipated, retarding growth; historical conversion rates may taper off; birth rates among members may decrease; the number of full-time missionaries may fall below projected levels.   Membership turnover may also be higher than expected. 
While members generally expect to see the Church’s continuing growth, together with the opening up of new missionary fields currently closed to missionary activity,[1] they do not necessarily subscribe to the argument that the Church itself will become, with time, one of the largest Christian denominations.  Members’ attitudes toward growth are primarily shaped by a number of well-known scriptures and themes.  Even in the earliest days of Mormonism, before the Church had started to expand beyond the borders of the United States, statements taken from the Book of Mormon or revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith spoke of the Church’s spreading throughout the world.   “And now I say unto you that the time shall come that the salvation of the Lord shall be “declared to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.  Yea, Lord, thy watchmen shall lift upon their voice; with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.”  Mosiah 15: 28-29.  “And I give unto you a commandment that then ye shall teach them unto all men; for they shall be taught unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people.”  D&C 42: 58.  “And this gospel shall be preached unto every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.  And the servants of God shall go forth, saying with a loud voice: Fear God and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment is come.”  D&C 133: 37-38.  Mormons see the Church’s establishment as being the “ensign of the people” to which the Gentiles will see,[2] the second gathering of the House of Israel,[3] the raising of the mountain of the Lord’s house, to be established in the top of the mountains, exalted above hills, to which all nations shall flow.[4]   Likewise, the Church’s growth is seen as the literal fulfillment of Daniel’s prophetic vision, where God will “set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed” and which “shall break in pieces and consume all” other kingdom, just as the stone cut out of the mountain without hands rolled forth to fill the whole earth.[5]
In addition, the Church’s growth is viewed as a sign of the times, a harbinger of the ushering in of the last days.    While this is the case, Mormons do not believe that the gospel will be widely embraced before the great and dreadful day of the Lord’s coming.  “And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.  And it came to pass that I beheld that the great mother of abominations did gather together multitudes upon the face of the earth, among all the nations of the Gentiles, to fight against the Lamb of God.  And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.”  1 Nephi 14: 12-14.  The Church’s strength is evidenced by the righteousness of its members—however few there may be—and the purpose of missionary work is to find those, wherever they may be found, willing to make sacrifices to be numbered among the saints.   Spiritual power is not found in numbers, but in the lives of the righteous.  This brings to mind the Old Testament story of the winnowing of Gideon’s warriors called upon to fight the Midianities, reducing the force from over 30,000 down to 300.[6]
Consequently, the Church is not about growth for “growth’s sake.”  Growth is positive, but only if it is the right kind of growth—adding new members committed to gospel principles and willing and able to be a light unto the world.[7]  Church members are expected to be an influence for good.  Were the Church’s primary aim to attract as many members as possible, Church leaders might consider undertaking a number of steps to make the Church more attractive to mainstream populations--thought might be given to softening doctrinal positions, especially on high profile social issues, harmful to the Church’s public profile and potentially limiting Church growth; approving policy changes designed to make the Church more appealing to conservative, but mainstream, populations; making it easier for nonmembers to become members—such relaxing the moral standards expected of new converts.  In addition, the Mormon message might be customized to make it more palatable to local populations—for example, allowing Africans to bring local customs into the Church, rather than expecting them to shed traditional customs considered inconsistent with gospel principles, would likely enhance growth.   President Erickson, at the senior conference held in March 2015 in Lilongwe, reported briefly on a results of a report done on the Church’s growth in Africa, shared with the mission presidents during one of their training sessions with the Area Presidency of the African Southeast Area.  The report noted that the Church has experienced solid growth in Africa in the recent past, but at the same time, reported that a number of evangelical churches had even enjoyed better results over the same period.  He then noted that the Church, if its sole concern were growth, could consider “franchising” its model, using local paid clergy, and adopting some of the member recruitment tools used by other churches, to achieve faster membership growth.  But, of course, Church growth is not to be achieved at the expense of its basic principles.
Convert baptisms, defined as the baptism of individuals who are not the children of record of existing members, has the potential for invigorating local congregations.  The new members often bring great enthusiasm, energy and zeal, which in turn uplifts and strengthens existing members.  Shortly after joining the Church, new converts are frequently asked to accept callings, allowing them to grow in their understanding while at the same time helping and supporting others.  They serve as primary teachers, work in the Relief Society, help with training young men and young women.  Their talents are quickly put to work.  And, especially in the missionary field, where the Church is new, these new members may within just a few years, or in some cases just a few months, be enlisted to hold important leadership positions—serving as counselors or heads of elders quorums or relief society presidencies, or as branch presidents or new bishops.    There are no arbitrary restrictions on how fast they move through the ranks of Church leadership, though it is likely they will wait longer for such callings where the Church is well established and move more quickly where the Church is new and growing fast.   New member conversions usually elevates the spirituality of congregations.  It reminds longer-tenure members of the enthusiasm they enjoyed when first exposed to the restored gospel. 

[1] The Church does not currently have missionaries in China and most of the Muslim countries of the world.
[2] Isa. 11: 10.
[3]  Isa. 11: 11.  “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people….”
[4] See Isa. 2: 2-3.
[5] See Daniel 2: 44-45.
[6] See Judges 7: 1-7.
[7]  “Ye are the light of the world.  A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.  Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”  Matt. 5: 14-16.