LDS focuses on retaining its converts
Mormon church claims to have more members in other countries than Census data reveals
By Eric Gorski
PROVO, Utah -- Although retaining members is a challenge for all evangelizing faiths, the Mormon church appears to have a particularly poor retention rate in some countries.
Increasingly, classroom conversations at the Mormon church's flagship Missionary Training Center have centered not just on winning new believers but on keeping them.
The foreign retention rate is critical to the future of the Mormon church. An American-born denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now boasts more members abroad than at home -- about 55 percent of the world's 13 million Mormons live outside the United States, according to church figures.
The Mormon church does not publish retention figures, and it is hard to make comparisons because denominations count their members and measure participation differently.
Timothy Heaton, a sociologist at Brigham Young University, used census data from Mexico, Brazil and Chile to show the number of citizens who claim Mormonism as their religion in those countries was only 20 percent to 25 percent of the church-reported membership figures, suggesting low retention.
Some scholars suggest the church is struggling to retain members because it resists accommodating the cultural trappings of other countries. The Roman Catholic Church, in contrast, has allowed drumming in African parishes, something Mormon leaders frown on.
Even in the African bush, Mormon missionaries still wear white shirts and ties. And designs for Mormon meeting houses are conceived in Salt Lake City.
"It's like a McDonald's that stands out in Tokyo," said Jan Shipps, a prominent non-Mormon scholar of the religion.
Others believe that although the Mormon church describes itself as a universal faith, American aspects of its theology are probably costing it members in other countries.
"God's prophet was a New Yorker, the Garden of Eden is here in the states and Christ is to return in Missouri," said Gerald McDermott, a professor of religion at Roanoke College in Virginia. "At a time when America is not really popular overseas, that's not going to win friends and influence a lot of people."
Then there are the demands of the faith that can turn some away -- such as donating 10 percent of one's income and forsaking coffee, which is a big part of Latin American culture.
"Becoming a Mormon if you live in California is hard enough," said Richard Bushman, a Mormon scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia University.
"The different kinds of people around the world, they will keep their personality and their traditions," said Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, a top Mormon governing body. "The point is that the core doctrine brings the members together."
Uchtdorf said Mormon retention is remarkably high, given that the church relies on lay, unpaid congregational leaders.
Uchtdorf also said that in areas with fast growth potential, the church must grow "slowly and in a natural, healthy way" so that local congregational leaders are well grounded in doctrine.
"In some parts of Africa, we could baptize full villages," said Uchtdorf, 66. "We could immediately explode our membership. We're going slowly to have sufficient leadership."
There are signs of change: Missionaries are being urged to spend more time following up with new believers. Also, the church's online disaster-preparation manual urges storing not just wheat but rice.
In a recent broadcast of a worldwide training meeting, some Mormons noticed that a church apostle sitting alongside Filipino church officials wore not the standard suit and tie but a short-sleeved dress shirt. He still wore a tie.
Mormon president faces challenges
Expansion of the church one of Thomas Monson's top priorities
By JACQUELINE L. SALMON
The new leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson, is taking the reins of the church at a time of unprecedented scrutiny and significant challenges.
The selection of the tall, affable 80-year-old Monson as president of the 13 million-member Mormon church was announced Monday.
He replaces Gordon B. Hinckley, 97, who died last week after serving 12 years as president.
The globe-trotting Hinckley left behind a denomination that is better known than it used to be — partly because of the presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney — but also one whose growth rate has slowed and whose dropout rate troubles its leaders.
Worldwide Mormon church membership grew as fast as 8 percent a year in the late 1980s, but the growth rate has decreased since 2000 to less than 3 percent. The Seventh-day Adventist Church and some Pentecostal churches are among the denominations now growing faster.
Analysts cite several reasons for the cooling off, including the declining birth rate among U.S. Mormons; a drop in the number of missionaries since 2002 as a result of tighter recruiting standards; and Mormons' reluctance to embrace local cultural practices to advance their missionary work, a reluctance that complicates the effort to make overseas converts.
Other faiths "are willing to express the local culture in many ways that the LDS has been slow to do," said Richard N. Ostling, co-author of Mormon America, a book about the faith. "Should missionaries have to wear white shirts and ties (worldwide)? Do all of the hymns have to be approved in Salt Lake City? Do appointments have to be as centralized as they are?"
More worrisome to church leaders has been the dropout rate. David Stewart, a Mormon who analyzes church growth, said barely one in three converts becomes an active participant in the church, which cuts active membership to 4 million from 4.5 million.
Part of the reason, Stewart and others say, is that LDS missionaries tend to baptize converts quickly, in some countries after they have gone to services only a few times.
"When people have attended a meeting one time or even two times, to expect that ... they're going to keep coming forever is something that is not reasonable or logical," Stewart said.
In recent years, church leaders have taken steps to remedy the situation, requiring missionaries to spend more time with new converts and requiring potential members to attend more services before baptism.
Asked at a news conference Monday about the attrition rate, Monson said his message to those who are wavering is: "Don't give up. We need you."
"My purpose is to provide ways that we, as active members, can put our arms around those who are less active and bring them back into the fold," he said.
The ascension of Monson — the church's 16th president since its founding in 1830 — came as little surprise to church members. He has served in the top tiers of the leadership since 1963 and, by tradition, the longest-serving member of the leadership becomes head of the church upon the death of its president.
Monson was unanimously selected Sunday by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the top governing bodies of the church. Monday, he promised "no abrupt change" from Hinckley's leadership, although "practices and programs will be adjusted from time to time."
The position of president, who serves for life, is revered in the faith. According to Mormon doctrine, the church's leader is a "prophet, seer and revelator" who is able to receive divine revelations.
"This is not just the head of the Lutheran Church or a Methodist bishop," said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of the church. "It's something different. He is a prophet. ... He can speak for God."
Monson became a bishop — the Mormon equivalent of an unpaid parish priest — at 22. In 1963, at 36, he became a Quorum member. When Hinckley rose to the presidency of the church in 1995, Monson became his closest adviser.
Monson named Henry B. Eyring, 74, as his First Counselor.
Deseret News cuts 34 jobs, kills extra edition
The Associated Press
The Deseret News says it eliminated 34 editorial jobs, including the paper's Washington, D.C., correspondent, and plans to kill an early edition and consolidate sections to cope with declining revenue. The Mormon church-owned newspaper made the announcement Tuesday on its Web site.
The Deseret News says the staff reduction was achieved through layoffs, attrition and buyouts. The newspaper will no longer print a Utah Valley edition and will operate a bureau there on a reduced staff. Business news will be relocated inside the A section. Other sections, including the Sunday arts and travel sections, will be consolidated.
Revenues have dropped by 32 percent since January, mostly because of fewer classified ads.
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