The Most Important Question about the Future of Mormonism

A couple of weeks ago, Patheos had a fun series of blog posts on the future of the Mormonism. (I’m too lazy to provide a link; Google it.) Most of the contributions were insightful and interesting, but I was struck that none of them put front and center what I think is the more important question facing the Church today.

Mormonism is driven, ultimately, by missionary work. If you look at the development of our theology, for example, it has largely been formulated in the context of polemics driven by the needs of proselytizing. We articulate our theology through the process of trying to convert people, rather than trying to covert people to our previously articulate theology. More dramatically, whatever seems to be the most successful missionary message tends to come to dominate Church discourse and transform Church practices. We don’t necessarily invent new doctrines or the like for missionary purposes, but the way in which we present those doctrines is decisively influenced by missionary messaging.

Think about the way that Mormons talk and teach about the family. In the contemporary Church we generally present these doctrines in terms of the sacaralization of the nuclear family around a broadly speaking modern model of middle-class parenting. I don’t have the common intellectual reflex of disdain for the bourgeois, so my point here is analytical rather than critical. It is striking, however, that doctrines originally revealed in the context of a sacralization of the pre-modern, patriarchal family on steroids (i.e. plural marriage) have been repurposed in such a different context. In large part, this is because sacralized nuclear families proved such a productive missionary message in the generations after World War II. Ultimately, that successful missionary message came to dominate Church teachings and practices.

Now look to the future. Currently Church missionary efforts have stalled. This does not portend a crisis or the end of Mormonism or the like. Historically, the Church has gone through cycles of missionary growth followed by cycles of largely stagnant missionary efforts. The rather stagnant and staid Mormonism of the 1920s and 1930s was transformed a generation later into the dynamic, expansive Mormonism of the 1970s and 1980s by the discovery of a new missionary message and new models of missionary work.

My prediction is that in the coming generations Mormonism will be dominated by whatever message generates missionary success, and the Church will be remade in the image of that message. Among other things, this means that many (perhaps most?) of the discussions within the Bloggernacle are probably talking about the wrong questions if you want to forecast the future of Mormonism. This is because the Bloggernancle’s discussions tend to be inwardly focused, lavishing much concern on the faith crises of members, for example, but paying relatively little attention to how one might appeal to potential converts. There is nothing wrong with this, but such internal issues have not, in my opinion, been what has driven the development of Mormonism in the past.

I don’t know what the new missionary message or messages will be, but I do know that there is no reason to suppose that it is going to be the same message we have used in the past. The messages of restoration of divine gifts and religious utopianism that proved so potent in the 1830s and 1840s, were not the messages of family and community that proved so potent a century later. I will, however, hazard two less ambitious predictions.

First, there will probably be a greater diversity of missionary messages in the future. The global reach of Mormon proselytizing is greater than it has ever been before, and there is no a priori reason to suppose that there is a single optimal missionary message for the entire world. Of course, on one hand this has always been true, and on the other it may be that globalization is causing a kind of cultural conversion that makes a single message more likely. Still, I doubt it. Furthermore, a multiplicity of messages is not enough. Because ultimately the Church must necessarily remake itself in the image of its missionary message, I suspect that future success will require greater decentralization in the structure of Church programs.

Second, discovering the successful missionary messages of the future will also require greater decentralization. Ultimately, high levels of variation subject to feedback mechanisms that select for successful processes is a better way of finding solutions that centralized planning. Consider the successful post-war missionary program based on standardized discussions focused on a family-centric plan of salvation. The discussions were not invented at Church headquarters. Rather, they were a successful innovation by a mission president operating in a pre-correlation world in which there was considerable variation from mission to mission. The same is true on the emphasis on families as a proselytizing message.

Correlation was a mid-twentieth century administrative technology that effectively husbanded resources and propagated successful practices discovered in a pre-Correlation missionary program. However, with the decline in the success of that model of missionary work, I think that greater decentralization is probably a necessary and effective discovery mechanism for the next set of successful Mormon missionary messages. We should have a greater toleration for mission and regional variation in missionary work, and local mission presidents and church leaders should be encouraged to try new things out and report on what works and what doesn’t. Rather than acting as a central planner, Church headquarters should function as a gardener, weeding out messages and approaches that consistently fail and encouraging processes that succeed.

Once these new missionary messages are found, I predict, they will transform the Church more than any other single factor in the future.

48 comments for “The Most Important Question about the Future of Mormonism

  1. Brian Rostron
    August 24, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    I don’t think religious utopianism necessarily attracted people to the church in great numbers in the 19th century, nor did messages about the family in the 20th century. The church has attracted converts in large numbers when it has provided structure and resources to people in developing economies who were looking to improve the condition of themselves and their families.

  2. lastlemming
    August 24, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Here’s one to start with–How to survive in a world in which privacy is the ultimate luxury.

  3. AA
    August 24, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Could not an argument be made that missionary efforts stagnated once we took away the script and put the formation of lessons (based in PMG manual) in the hands of the missionaries?

  4. Clark Goble
    August 24, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    I’d agree to a point. But I think there’s a distinction between what we focus on as missionary work and what gets focused on at a more folk level at places like BYU. The latter has a big influence that can go beyond the former. Of course they can be intertwined (say Pres. Benson’s shift to focus more on the Book of Mormon combined with the rise of a lot of Book of Mormon apologetics such as Sorenson’s limited geography) I’d also add that within Church service what gets focused on might vary somewhat from what missionaries focus on.

    Regarding stagnation, I’m not convinced the missionary work is as stagnant as some suggest. However there was a certain level of low hanging fruit opened up by a much more international Church. I think those efforts have achieved most of initial gains of the low hanging fruit. That said I think there are reasons to be worried about growth in central/south America and China where evangelicals have been having considerably more success than we have had. I do think our missionary work needs significant rethinking. Likewise as the 1st world secularizes it becomes harder and harder to gain converts. (Thus the changes in Europe since the 1950’s)

    Honestly I just can’t see us every returning to the growth rates of the 1950’s through 1980’s. Those days are over for the foreseeable future and perhaps for the next century. The interesting questions are in Africa. Will this require decentralization? To the degree that there will be greater and greater differences between secular first world countries and the poor in spirit in poorer nations, yes. To the degree that the hierarchy shifts, I’m more skeptical. I think modern communication which just keeps getting better will enable us to have regional differences without necessarily being decentralized.

  5. Clark Goble
    August 24, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    AA, I don’t think that’s the primary cause. However I worried about that when the shift happened. I think the especially with the younger missionaries we now have that a bit more structure may really help them. I’d assume however that the Church will conduct tests on materials and do empirical measurements on success. So I’m not sure my skepticism is warranted. It does seem quite clear that the Church has been innovating on missionary work. (Witness the shift to electronics in western missions) How many of these will work isn’t clear.

  6. Dave K
    August 24, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Nate, thanks for a thought provoking post. I agree that the bloggernacle is often too inwardly-focused. But isn’t that precisly that tact that modern missionary work is also taking. Apart from the age change, the biggest recent development has been an inward-focus towards retention, reactivation, and especially conversion of the missionary him/herself.

  7. Wilfried
    August 24, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Nate. Just a couple of quick items:

    – Message is important, of course, but at present our very ineffective missionary system reaches only a tiny fraction of potential converts. We may have a good message at present, or at least one that is still valid for millions, but just 1 out of 20,000 people hears about it (average in Europe). We also totally miss out on the vast population segment that treasures privacy and where most potential leaders can be found to form a stable basis (I assume lastlemming in comment 2 also hinted at that aspect).

    – Clark (4) raises good points, but I would like to nuance the secularization argument. Even if there is lower church attendance in some countries, we should not conclude to less openness to religion, on the contrary. Again, it is a question of massive reaching out to the millions who are seekers. Moreover, secularization, in its democratic meaning of separation of church and state, is the best guarantee for freedom of religion. Also, I would nuance the cliche of “the poor in spirit in poorer nations”. I realize the phrase is well-meant, but I know quite a few members in Africa who would interpret that phrase as kind of stereotyping and condescending.

  8. Terry H
    August 24, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    So, Nate, would this “diversity” in the missionary messages eventually include something like a “Mormon Liberation Theology”?

    Seriously, though, this is a good post and perhaps the Preach My Gospel manual is the first step in suc h diversity.

  9. Clark Goble
    August 24, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Wilfried, cold calling i.e. tracting is the worst form of missionary work. Don’t get me wrong, most of the converts I got on my mission came that way. When you pray for it you can get a surprising amount of guidance in where to go. However the best way to find solid people to teach comes from members. Members simply reach people who would never open the door for tracting missionaries. Yet most members really don’t do good missionary work. (And I condemn myself in that)

    By secularization I don’t mean the Church/state separation sense but the sense in which religion plays less significant a role in society. As I’ve noted in the post here and at my blog on the rise of the Nones the degree secularization is going on is debatable. I think it’s overstated in the US/Canada. However it’s definitely a fact of life in Europe. However more troubling are the places where people are religious seekers but we aren’t communication well with them or meeting their needs. Latin America and Asia are both places we’re doing much more poorly than we should do. I think in Asia it’s because our message tends to be tailored towards converting protestants and we do very poor in those environments. Correspondingly some think we need to tailor our message to the more secular societies both in Asia and in Europe.

    Sorry about the cliche. I was more thinking of the opposition between religious seekers who are excluded and those who tend to be more wealthy. It’s trope you find in both the NT and Book of Mormon. I think a big problem with the Church is dealing with the massive differences in wealth and adjusting the church correspondingly.

  10. Clark Goble
    August 24, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Terry, I think we can and should have a focus on relieving the practical inequities in the world without necessarily embracing Liberation Theology. (Which I think is much more wrapped up in Catholic and Marxist conceptions most would have difficulty with)

  11. fbisti
    August 24, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    I think the future of Mormonism is most critically tied to retention. For many years now I have read articles in Dialogue, Sunstone, Patheos, etc. or on the bloggernacle about the very low attendance percentages in Latin America. And, in the U.S. the average is only in the mid-30% range outside of Utah County.

    As articulate by this quote from Armand Mauss in one of the Patheos articles you referred to:

    “…departure of the disaffected, whether formally or informally, has never been easier or less costly in social and emotional terms. The resulting “easy come, easy go” situation will lead to a continuing decline in the proportion of LDS membership that actually participates in, or even identifies with, the Church as an institution.”

    both the lack of “conversion” of new members (for lack of a better term) and disaffection of long-term members are increasing more rapidly than the count of new members (converts or child of record baptisms). These two trends have different underlying causes, and, therefore, amelioration. The conundrum, it seems to me, is that making efforts to update our social justice/equality “doctrines” and “reveal” the/more truth about key aspects of Church history should help with the disaffection of younger and more open-minded members, but increase the disaffection of those at the more close-minded (TBM) end of the spectrum.

    Is that a rock and a hard spot or a damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

  12. August 24, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Nice post. Two points. “Currently Church missionary efforts have stalled.” This seems to be true, but nothing coming out of the COB suggests senior leaders agree. They seem to see problems with missionaries and problems with members but not problems with the program or the message.

    And you made a nice point that Correlation is an effective block to the bottom-up flow of innovation within the Church. I think local leaders have internalized a “change is bad, experimentation is bad” view (it took a generation or two for this to happen) and, as a consequence, one is much less likely now to see productive deviations from the program (see Handbooks) at the local level that can be adopted by senior leaders for the Church as a whole. Imagine how Correlation would respond to a stake that decided to de-correlate?

  13. Rustbeltmormon
    August 24, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    The missionary effort is certainly important and in my thoughts and prayers (with a son in the field it is hard for me to write objectively on the subject). But I do believe we as a Church will have to uncouple our convictions and faith from the growth statistics. From the rank-and-file to the top and back down again I think we’ve expressed far too much pride over the years in being the “fastest growing” religion or something along those lines. We’re not a corporation, but a religion of which it is definitely prophesied (Nephi’s vision) that we will never be anything more than a handful of the earth’s population. A stall in the conversion numbers, or even a shrinking of the Church’s membership would be painful in any event, but will be more so because of the decades in which we’ve implicitly treated expansion as a sign of the validity of our message.

  14. Owen
    August 24, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    As I’ve worked with full-time missionaries lately as a ward mission leader, I’ve been surprised how much structure there is in their lessons. I had been under the same impression that PMG was sort of a free for all. Instead they have less pamphlets (now on their ipads) that are little different from the discussions I had as a missionary, and while they don’t always do everything in the same order, they do teach each specific part of each lesson at some point. They track the lesson modules in their ipads, which then give them percentages of each lesson covered for each investigator. They aren’t doing nearly as much verbatim recitation as we did, but other than that I think the idea of a lack of structure vs the old way is overblown.

    I found the OP quite insightful. For me this is a really central question right now: what do we have to offer people? I don’t question that we have a great deal to offer, and I feel blessed in so many ways by the gospel and church, but for me the fact that we have so much trouble connecting with the first world is problematic. I know that many revel in the fact that the gospel is received more readily by the poor and downtrodden, but if all it takes to replace the gospel is a little material prosperity and lack of living in a war zone or under a completely bankrupt political system, that doesn’t suggest that the gospel has much to it. If the first world really is eating stale Twinkies when they could be eating the finest fresh-baked eclairs, it shouldn’t be so completely impossible to show *some* of them the difference.

  15. Owen
    August 24, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    Basically, I know plenty of non-Mormons, but how exactly am I supposed to “sell” them the church when I could never invite them to church for fear of them learning that I associate with extreme right-wing misogynistic homophobes? I wish I were able to be an example of someone enjoying all the gospel has to offer, but in practice the best I seem to be able to be is surprising evidence that Mormons aren’t so bad after all. And mind you, those prejudices don’t have to be based on anything far in the past like polygamy. We’ve done quite enough in our recent history to earn ire and suspicion. The barriers to entry are so high. But of course the 3rd world poor have so little access to information that they may never learn about our dirty laundry–and that’s the problem I have, that it seems to take being ignorant of the church in order to accept the church.

  16. Brad L
    August 24, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    Among other things, this means that many (perhaps most?) of the discussions within the Bloggernacle are probably talking about the wrong questions if you want to forecast the future of Mormonism. This is because the Bloggernancle’s discussions tend to be inwardly focused, lavishing much concern on the faith crises of members, for example, but paying relatively little attention to how one might appeal to potential converts.

    Although missionary work (with the meaning of gaining new converts) is clearly vital to church growth and sustainability, I would argue that the internal cohesion and strength of the current membership at the core of Mormonism (meaning the Mormon belt in the Mountain West and important Mormon clusters throughout the US and Canada (such as Phoenix, LA, and DC metro areas)) is even more vital to the future of Mormonism than missionary work. Multi-generational members in the Mormon core are individually more valuable to the LDS church than new converts, both within the core in the periphery. The multi-generational membership in the core provides the LDS church with most of its high-ranking leadership, its educators, apologists, thinkers, and so forth. They are the pillars that keep the LDS church standing. The core members usually have thick social networks with other Mormons who provide incentive for them to take initiative in the church, to accept demanding callings, and to devote lots of time, resources, and emotional energy towards building and strengthening the LDS church. These networks also act as deterrents against disaffection for core members, for they make it so that there is a much higher potential social cost for a core member to go inactive than a recent convert.

    The LDS church leaders used to be able to rely on the core membership to remain active and contribute quite generously to the LDS church. However, the increasing ease of access to information on the internet as well as social networking has affected the core. With the internet, core members now have access to all sorts of information and narratives against the church many of which have rendered traditional church defensive narratives less effective. Social networking has complicated matters in that it has enabled members to have new types of conversations about the LDS church that social convention would not permit in the chapel or even face to face with other members. It allows members to be more open an honest about negative feelings they have towards the church. If the core is hollowed out, missionary work simply cannot compensate for the losses.

  17. geo
    August 25, 2015 at 12:17 am

    Hey, why doesn’t the church stop with the high pressure sales tactics? Stop challenging baptism at the first or second meeting? Actually do something that is a net benefit, in the present, for the population, like spreading the billions it has around? Stop with the promises of future benefit while taking resources from the present members. Maybe this will stop the hemorrhaging of internet seekers.

  18. JAT
    August 25, 2015 at 4:52 am

    I think the quest for a new intellectual missionary message is doomed. Correlation, conformity and stubbornness are powerful forces against that needed innovation. Besides, that’s too cerebral for anyone besides Nate ; ) We will revert to brute force – sweat equity. We will draw upon our agrarian pioneer roots and try building the kingdom again with our bare hands and the sweat of our brows. (At least we will try to.) Essentially, if you can’t fix the machine by tinkering with it, give it a good whack. It sometimes works.

    Already, tens of thousands of mostly bored missionaries are reverting to daily service projects instead of teaching. They knock on doors simply looking for any chores to do. (The “Ammon” strategy). It is possible that the missionaries become a service organization- a peace corps of such. We would need to develop a much more genuine approach to our service, backing off from conversion expectations and “simply” try to eradicate hunger and poverty and ease burdens. According to this post, the importance of a strong missionary message is so vital to the future, we probably won’t be able to sincerely sustain an “un” message.

    However, a service-based shift would become the mode as message. It might just be way of relevance for the future, something that draws upon authentic core Christian actions and connects to our mormon millennial zeal.

  19. Rolf
    August 25, 2015 at 6:04 am

    Interesting post – I agree that the future of the church is linked to the missionary program in many ways. In short, I feel that the local Bishop should hold the missionary keys. Members are not participating due to many years of frustration with inactive investigators becoming inactive members. Mission presidents should instead be called as Missionary presidents. I believe that the members will over time feel better about participating in this important work when they see true converts become active members. I think with more participation from the members new clear missionary messages will surface. We should not underestimate the frustration level that local leaders feel in regards to the missionary program. I have spoken to very many local leader though the years and all have in private conversations been critical with how the missionary program is organized. They say they really have no say when it comes down to it – so they leave it to the mission president and missionaries. We are not one, in this great work.

  20. larryco_
    August 25, 2015 at 6:39 am

    “The church has attracted converts in large numbers when it has provided structure and resources to people in developing economies who were looking to improve the condition of themselves and their families.”

    I agree with the above statement. I think the Church has always adapted their message to the audience. The message to South and Central America (and it’s adaptation to the Polynesian Islands) that the BOM was the ancient history that they’ve never had, putting them at the center of “Israel”, was much different than the message that I gave to born-again Christians in Tennessee. But, whether it’s 1840’s British wanting to flee the dreadful conditions in London or the struggling folks in Latin America and Africa today, economics plays a role in their interest in the church.

    This also is a factor on the local scale involving reactivation and proselytizing. Look around your sacrament meetings: when you see a face that you are vaguely familiar with, there’s a very good chance that the week before they were meeting with the bishop to receive assistance. I know that sounds horribly cynical, but it is accurate. I love that our ward will rush over to these folks to make them feel welcome, but once their crisis passes (or they figure out that most bishops will help them irregardless of sacrament meeting attendence) they disappear from the scene. This is hardly a new phenomenon, Jesus dealt with the same thing (John 6:26-27).

  21. Brian Rostron
    August 25, 2015 at 7:19 am

    I think that LDS missionary efforts would be infinitely more successful and productive even in terms of converts if they were reorganized into something resembling Peace Corps or Americorps.

  22. Any Arc
    August 25, 2015 at 9:19 am

    “However, a service-based shift would become the mode as message. It might just be way of relevance for the future, something that draws upon authentic core Christian actions and connects to our mormon millennial zeal.”

    I am fully in agreement with any refocus in the direction, but only IF that redirection toward meaningful service is accompanied by teaching of Christ and the Atonement as the ultimate example of love of your neighbor and freely giving for their benefit.

    I think all too often we approach our service projects in a way that is (mentally) divorced from Christ and don’t end up receiving the additional “benefit” that comes with true doctrine is united with action. In that sense, we’d be no different than a bunch of helpful Buddhists, etc. Not to cast stones at helpful Buddhists, but my point is that ought to make the ultimate exemplar of our service clear and testify of the atonement in the process.

    Saving from sin, is after all not less important than saving from immediate suffering. The Lord would have us do our part and point others to him so he can do his.

  23. Brother Sky
    August 25, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Good, thought provoking post. On this, I’m in the camp with Owen (15). It has taken a long and arduous faith journey (the case with most of us, I assume) to stay in this church and I’m not sure I’d want to subject friends I care about to the various intellectual and spiritual gymnastics it takes for me to be a member of this church. I care to much about them to subject them to that burden. This is probably why I’m not a very good member missionary.

    On another note, I wonder if those more wise than I (which I assume is everyone on this blog) could tell me if this point has been brought up before:

    Could the trouble with retention be that the bar for baptism is set pretty low (a “desire to be baptized” and little else, I think) and that the bar for full-fledged membership (tithing, word of wisdom, law of chastity, strict obedience to LDS cultural norms as well as doctrine if one wants to avoid being ostracized, etc.) is set fairly high? Maybe this is just part of what programs like “The Rescue” are supposed to be dealing with, but it’s always been a question for me.

  24. Wilfried
    August 25, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Brother Sky (23), yes, the point of the bar for full membership versus the bar for baptism has been brought up before. It’s “the gospel” versus “the church” contrast, in Elder Poelman’s famously changed conference talk. It’s conversion versus mormonization. I discussed it in this post on retention and sacrifice.

  25. Wilfried
    August 25, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Also, Brother Sky (23), your first point on member reluctance (with reference to Owen, 15) to do missionary work is well-taken.

    Armand Mauss (in Shifting borders and a Tattered Passport, 2012, p. 44) tells how in the 1980s he was involved in a large scale study of the conversion process and determinants of missionary success. One finding was that “the participation of LDS members as friends of the investigators greatly increased the likelihood of conversion and retention . . . but that only 3 to 5 percent of members were thus participating” (Armand Mauss gently adds in a footnote that in a subsequent Ensign article hailing member participation the “3 to 5 percent” became 35%).

    It seems the 3 to 5 percent is sill valid in many cases. The question is why so few members are willing to identify potential investigators and collaborate with the missionaries, in spite of the repeated requests to do so. Potential reasons are easy to imagine:
    – Respect for the identity of others, particularly in countries where religious belonging is an intrinsic part of the national or the familial culture, and where trying to convert someone is simply “not done.”
    – Concern by some members that bringing people into Mormonism will not make them happy in the long run because these members’ own happiness is not optimal; for they are staying in the Church not so much because of their own happiness as out of conviction, loyalty, or social image.
    – Consciousness that the costs of Mormon membership are high and that there is a 50 to 70 % chance that converts will leave the church— which then might undermine relationships with those one has introduced to the Church as they depart.
    – Fear that the missionaries will be pushy, rushing people to baptism, exacerbating all the above reasons for resisting the call by leaders for member missionary work.
    All of these reasons could be tackled to a certain extent, but not in the way things are going now.

  26. Brother Sky
    August 25, 2015 at 10:11 am


    Thank you for the reference. A most interesting post. I wonder, too, if there’s another tension here that might be related to both retention and conversion, one that Rustbeltmormon’s great comment (13) got me thinking about in terms of Mormon exceptionalism. I think we sometimes put ourselves at an unhelpful crossroad between a kind of vague universalism (“the gospel is for everybody”) and a very specific, some might say, arrogant, exceptionalism (“we’re the ONLY true church” etc.). This crossroad then could allow us to play down our unsuccessful missionary work by playing up the “peculiar people” aspect: (“there aren’t many true believers and our church membership is small [compared to say, Islam or Catholicism], so we must be the true believers”). I’m not suggesting leadership or even members are doing this with a great deal of regularity, but I think it could be a possibility. Just thinking out loud.

  27. Hedgehog
    August 25, 2015 at 10:19 am

    I’m a lousy missionary, though that used not to be the case when I was younger and more idealistic. These days, though, yes, I feel much like Owen & Bro Sky too. Why would I want to ask anyone to subject themselves to this? I can’t see how it’s going to improve their lives any.

    Oh, and I enjoyed the linked post in #24 Wilfried, still very relevant. My has ward merged with the neighbouring ward who shared the building early this year, and the reduced pressure on individual members to be “full” participants, simply because there are more people to do stuff, has really helped reactivation. It’s something I was discussing with my brother currently serving as a Bishop in a small ward elsewhere here in Britain; he would like to see his ward merge with the also small neighbouring ward sharing their building, for much the same reasons.

  28. Greg
    August 25, 2015 at 10:28 am

    I agree with the OP here. Walk in to any church visitors center (SLC, Nauvoo, Winter Quarters or elsewhere) and you’re sure to see a huge corner or section dedicated to the feel good message of being w your family forever. The Mormon narrative for the first 150 years had nothing to do with forever families. It was about gaining salvation no matter the means. There were wives who bypassed marriage w some to marry into polygamy only because than man had already proved his celestial worthiness. It wasn’t about families – it was about salvation. The message clearly changed.

  29. Robert Slaven
    August 25, 2015 at 11:02 am

    The problem I see is that you have a tug-of-war between a) possibly creating and delivering “new” missionary messages, and b) a church leadership that appears to be almost fanatically dedicated to stomping out the kinds of questions and exploration among members that is most likely to lead to new ways to look at and share the gospel. They can’t have it both ways. The church COULD be a “big tent” with all the “orthodox”/”Iron Rod” types in the centre, and all the “exploring”/”Liahona” types around the edges, pushing the tent wider and wider …. or it could be a SMALL tent with JUST the “orthodox”/”Iron Rod”/”Stepford people”, and with questioners shamed into silence and inactivity, with the heat kept high with the occasional excommunication (Kelly, Dehlin, Waterman, the Calderwoods, and back to the September Six). Even with Pr. Packer now on the other side of the veil, I fear that leaders like Elder Oaks and Elder Bednar will keep the church going in that “small tent” direction.

  30. Joel
    August 25, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Very interesting post, and the more I think about it the more I agree. As others have pointed out, the Church’s primary growth will come from retention of members and birth of new members. Nonetheless, the missionary message does influence the general theme of the church in important ways. For instance, the focus on the Book of Mormon was integral to the missionary effort of the ’80s and continues to be felt in the Church today. Also, when the Church tried to emphasize its focus on Jesus Christ in its branding and message to outsiders, that translated to an added focus on Jesus Christ and the atonement within the Church.

    I wonder if a service focus in missions could lead to a service focus at all levels of the Church. I think appeals to authority, truth claims, and testimony are less appealing these days, but opportunities for service and community and living a Christ-like life could be great selling points in the mission field.

  31. Clark Goble
    August 25, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Fbisti (11) And, in the U.S. the average is only in the mid-30% range outside of Utah County.

    Where are you getting that figure? It seems to me that the ARIS and Pew data suggest retention is much higher than that.

    both the lack of “conversion” of new members (for lack of a better term) and disaffection of long-term members are increasing more rapidly than the count of new members (converts or child of record baptisms).

    While the conversion rate has dropped, it’s still much too high to say it is a lack. It’s at least high enough in the US to make up for those who were born in the Church and leave such that we are growing at the same rate at the population as a whole in the US.

    Dave (12) Nice post. Two points. “Currently Church missionary efforts have stalled.” This seems to be true, but nothing coming out of the COB suggests senior leaders agree. They seem to see problems with missionaries and problems with members but not problems with the program or the message.

    I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve been surprised at the number of changes the past few years in the structure of missionary work. I’m not sure it’s enough. I think we are going to have bigger regional differences. But I don’t think we can say the Brethren think the problem is the missionaries. If anything it appears to me that they are doing far less pressure on the missionaries compared with say the 70s or 80s.

    Owen (15) how exactly am I supposed to “sell” them the church when I could never invite them to church for fear of them learning that I associate with extreme right-wing misogynistic homophobes?

    Well that might be judging people a tad too harshly. However clearly some people won’t be attracted to us simply because of the big cultural gap. I’d add that’s probably a gap towards Christianity in general except to the most liberal types. (At which point we might ask what a very liberal Christianity offers – which is why those movements are losing members at the fastest rate) But what you say largely does explain the rise of the Nones. I think there are, however, others who would find our message interesting.

    Geo (17) So in other words deny what we see as essential? Cease teaching and challenging by the spirit? I don’t quite see how this will help.

    Wilfried (25) I think this question of why so many members don’t do missionary work is a good one. Obviously on the one hand there are good reasons. Most people are scared to approach their friends because they don’t think their friends would be interested and would be offended. I confess I feel that at times. The reasons you list are also good. I suspect we don’t know others as well as we think we do though.

  32. Chuck
    August 25, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    “.. that’s the problem I have, that it seems to take being ignorant of the church in order to accept the church.”

    Yep, all that. I generally agree with the OP and have been saying this. Where I disagree is re the blogernaccle. The same things causing “faith crises” are the same reasons nobody is interested in the church… because it’s hollow and simply not “true.” The organization simply doesn’t live up to its claims. Period. And this is apparent without looking very hard.

  33. Don
    August 25, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    I really don’t care about our missionary efforts. Unless we care more about the sheep already in the fold, we will just be beating our heads against the wall.

  34. Clark Goble
    August 25, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Chuck, I think most here would strongly disagree with you. Further, while the growth of the church has slowed, it’s still growing much faster than most religions. Now someone might say that the fact Nones are growing fastest of all that it’s evidence disbelief in organized religion is true. However that seems as wrong as pointing to the fast growth rate in past decades as evidence Mormonism is true. (I recognize some did in fact make that argument, but it was a bad argument then and it’s a bad argument today)

  35. Josi C.
    August 25, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    I wonder if the magic missionary message will be equality. I served a mission to a Caribbean Island in the mid 90’s. The family message and promises of temporal blessings based on obedience were probably key factors in conversion. However, perhaps stronger was the benevolent patriarchy that Mormonism demonstrated. Of course, it was always easier to find women who were interested in joining than men. Perhaps it was also because female investigators were surprised to see women in Primary, YW and RS Presidencies and teaching positions. I think that level of participation, that they may not have experienced in other organized religions, was attractive. It appeared to me that married couples also had to learn to figure out how to pay their tithing together, which also meant that they had to learn to talk about their finances and plan together. Whereas, it seemed that whatever money was had by the breadwinner he would use it to self-medicate with alcohol to treat the depression of such limited opportunities and subsequently women and their small children suffered. In short, Mormonism helped move sexism from hostile patriarchy to benevolent patriarchy.

    So, I wonder if the future successful missionary teaching subject will include seeing Bible stories differently than we see them today. I wonder when our church will teach that women witnessed the resurrection or a woman in Mark anointed Jesus’ feet (Thanks, Julie Smith!) If women were given the authority to preside and officiate alongside of men, then wards and stakes might multiply because women could be counted whereas now men are the only ones that count. No, this is not my own original idea, but I heartily subscribe. I wonder if our church demonstrated humility and apologized for their racism, sexism and homophobia if they could attract future global converts.

  36. Josh Smith
    August 25, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Social networking has complicated matters in that it has enabled members to have new types of conversations about the LDS church that social convention would not permit in the chapel or even face to face with other members. It allows members to be more open an honest about negative feelings they have towards the church.

    –Brad L (16)

    Yes. Personal story. Two weeks ago I found the Mormon Spectrum website ( It pointed me towards two groups in my area of the world of folks who are culturally Mormon, but whose thoughts diverge a bit from correlated LDS thought. I went to one meeting and it was a breath of fresh air. For the first time in a long time I felt like I was able to talk openly with people about what I honestly think about the world. Basically I’m culturally Mormon, yet deeply agnostic. Surprise, surprise, there are other folks in my community who are culturally Mormon and agnostic. Very refreshing. I’d be happy to discuss this more if anyone here has questions.

    Second anecdotal story. Recent converts in my local ward are folks who want to be accepted. They want to belong. My neighbors and fellow church members are genuine Christians who honestly care about people. This last Sunday I looked around our congregation and saw a lot of people who feel belonging, but probably not too many people committed to deep doctrinal beliefs. I bet only 20% of my ward is committed to doctrine and 80% are interested in the genuine communal nature of Mormonism. Just a guess.

    Future of Mormonism? More of the same. People want to belong. People want community. People want to know their neighbors. People want meaningful relationships. People want safety nets.

  37. Josh Smith
    August 25, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Forgot to follow thread. Sorry.

  38. August 25, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    For all of those questioning how they could ‘subject’ someone to Mormonism, don’t you see the gospel as a net positive? If you don’t, by all means don’t spread it around. But I find it to be a net positive in my life.

    As for the question of why don’t more members do missionary work, that’s easy. Who would we do it with? Do active members of the church really have that many friends? I know my neighbors, but they could be considered acquaintances at best. I don’t share any interests with them. The closest that any of them came to offering to hang out together was the time one of them offered to share some beers with him at his place. It’s kind of hard to live my standards as socialize in that environment.
    When do most middle class neighbors associate with each other? At little league sports events on Sundays. Kind of strikes down the whole keep the Sabbath Day holy if I’m attending those.
    On the other hand, lets say that one of my co-workers would be open to an invitation to learn a little bit about the church. With the way that boundaries are drawn, none of them live in my ward, my stake or even the mission I live in! It’d be quite the drive for them to come out to my ward, and unless they’re in hook, link and sinker, it’d seem very odd to them to have me attend with them in a congregation near their house; where I would stop attending with them once they got baptized.
    In between keeping the Sabbath Day holy and Home Teaching and callings sucking up most week nights, when would I even get a chance to make friends?

  39. Hedgehog
    August 26, 2015 at 2:17 am

    “For all of those questioning how they could ‘subject’ someone to Mormonism, don’t you see the gospel as a net positive?”
    Hmmm. I’m a second generation British member. I’m here because I was brought up this way. As such it’s a community I understand. So for me there are now more positives to staying than going. There are also a lot of negatives. Most of my friends are in fact religious folk with their own religious communities and practices. So far as I can tell, we all have the gospel, we just worship differently. Do I think they will be better served joining me at an LDS church? I don’t think so. Where they are part of the established CofE in their own local communities they experience more positive than I do myself, who because of my LDS upbringing feel permanently separate, divorced from my local community.

  40. Clark Goble
    August 26, 2015 at 11:26 am

    It’s probably not surprising that those who don’t have a testimony of the restoration won’t want to do missionary work. I think the bigger issue is how those with a testimony who feel it is important to share with others react in the future. I certainly agree with Nate changes are coming. I’ve no idea what they will be. My sense is that the Church has listened to those with suggestions on improving missionary work. Several years ago people started doing demographic studies on their own and publishing some of the stuff on I’ve no idea the process behind the scenes but I have noted that many of the suggestions I saw there (and discussed in blogs as well) appear to have ended up implemented. (Although I don’t think anyone suggested 18 yo missionaries – I’m still not convinced that is a good idea although it probably is more about college and the missionaries themselves rather than effectiveness at missionary work)

  41. Hedgehog
    August 27, 2015 at 2:21 am

    Clark, speaking personally, I do have a testimony of the restoration. I don’t believe we are the only denomination preaching the most important elements of the gospel however. And in the cost – benefit discussion in Wilfried’s linked post, I’m really not seeing how the maths would pay for my friends who are happy, active participants in their own faiths, given how grim and hidebound by the unwritten order our own worship services are, and how difficult it is to be involved in the outside community.

  42. Clark Goble
    August 27, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Sorry for making that assumption. There are other aspects of the gospel that others can access of course. If anyone prays to God for forgiveness I think God will forgive them for instance. However salvation in the Celestial Kingdom requires more than they have. I think that’s important.

    While I think you’re being a bit hyperbolic about our worship services, I do agree that for many people they go to church because of their testimony and thinking they should rather than necessarily feeling enriched. That said, I think the primary purpose of church is to provide a place for us to serve rather than necessarily be enriched. I think a big problem of the church is thinking that church attendance is for us rather than a place for us to serve others. This leads to problematic expectations and disappointment. That said, I sure wish we rethought how we do church.

    Regarding others though, is the issue church or the fulness of the gospel. That’s not to say church isn’t an issue. Believe me, I was on my mission primarily teaching black investigators with wards primarily made up of white often somewhat bigoted members in the south – dealing with the reality of church was a huge issue. Yet I just recently was contacted on Facebook by an investigator from 25 years ago thanking me for bringing her into the gospel. And a few years after coming home I heard that most of these nearly all white wards were now half black. So I think we can focus on the limits of church service and neglect the power of the gospel and what a testimony really empowers.

  43. rah
    August 30, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Riffing of comment #26. I agree with Nate that this is one of the most important questions facing Mormonism if one assumes the missionary focus remains the animating one of the church. However, this is less clear to me. I see two disctinct narrative and identity paths the church can go down. One is the “stone cut out of the mountain” where success and failure of the institution is predicated on growth especially through missionary work. If that is to be the case then we are in serious need of deep soul searching for a new message or new something. It would put pressure on the church to reconsider some very core issues that are currently moving more and more out of step with the evolving morality in the world – namely on gender equality and the place of LGBT issues. There is of course precidence for this in the racial priesthood ban being lifted due to growth pressures in Brazil, Africa and elsewhere as well as increasing marginalization within the US.

    However, there is another path we can go down (see #26) which is one where we identify as the small, persecuted band whose marginalization is not as important as purity and continuity. Personally, I see a LOT of that narrative coming from members and leaders. There are two reasons I think that we could go down this path much farther than we have in the past. First, the church is rich. For the first time in our history we have money, lots and lots of money. So much money that we don’t know what to do with it except buy large tracts of land. If there has been one huge success of the church since McKay it has been the financial prowess and discipline of the church. However, hese resources can insulate the church, especially the central bureaucracy of the church from being forced to “compromise”. You see this in other institutions all the time. Wealth from past success slows the rate of change even in the face of radically shifting and altered external circumstances. Given this the leaders will have to decide that membership growth matters to them because economically it doesn’t have to. Second, is simply critical mass. The growth of the church from the 50s on has simply made the church much bigger and therefore more stable but it is still small enough to show some growth through organic growth from children born into active families. There is a lot to be said for a narrative that focuses on “quality” of growth of “quantity”. Its a bigger base so our days of being “fastest growing” are going to be over no matter what. The church has been burned in painful ways from overexpansion in places like much of South America and Africa. The “paper” wards of Chile are a prime example. That was a real headache to clean up.

    My point is that I don’t take for granted the assumption of the OP that a missionary growth orientation is the one that church will inevitably embrace. I honestly hope it does because that is more likely to create a church I am more spiritually comfortable in. It is only these pressures that appear to have led the church to make any moves toward a more moral place in regards to the equality of women and LGBT people. I am most fearful that the church will simply retrench and insulate itself with its wealth. There are signs that lead both ways at this point. I pray we choose the more open and “market” responsive path.

  44. nateoman
    August 31, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Two quick points in response to rah:

    First, historically, missionary work and what drives its success has repeatedly transformed the Church. This doesn’t create a logical necessity, but it is very likely. The race isn’t always to the swiftest, but that’s the best way to bet.

    Second, I think that it is a mistake to assume that liberalizing church positions on SSM or the like is the rout to missionary success. It might be, but I don’t think this is self evident. Outside of North America and Europe, I’m not sure that the embrace of SSM is foreordained or a proselytizing boon. Within Europe and North America, were the Church to embrace SSM etc., I am doubtful that cultural liberals would begin flocking into the pews.

    In a sense, Mormonism is still too small to be a real mass movement. If you are 2-3 percent of the population, you don’t have to appeal to 50 or even 40 percent of the population to experience massive growth. You only need to appeal to about 5 to 10 percent of the population.

    I can think of changes in the Church that I would like to see, but I think it’s a mistake to suppose that changes-I-would-like-to-see=increased-missionary-success.

  45. Clark Goble
    August 31, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    It seems, for instance, those churches that have tended to embrace the liberal critiques of Christianity – primarily mainline Protestantism – are the very ones that are losing members the fastest.

    That said it does seem like within Evangelical Christianity, or at least some forms, that women have more roles open to them. I’ve seen many smaller evangelical groups with female pastors – although admittedly a lot of Evangelicals have tended to go the opposite direction in many ways. Far more than Mormons. I’d love to know which group maintains their membership better.

  46. Mike
    September 1, 2015 at 9:09 am

    > My prediction is that in the coming generations Mormonism will be dominated by whatever message generates missionary success, and the Church will be remade in the image of that message.

    So just like the plot of The Book of Mormon, the musical?

    I agree. I agree that the primary direction of religious beliefs is whatever is popular and accepted by the current generation. But it still doesn’t necessarily tell us what those beliefs will be, just where to look for the leading edge.

  47. Dave K
    September 1, 2015 at 10:32 am

    (#44) “Within Europe and North America, were the Church to embrace SSM etc., I am doubtful that cultural liberals would begin flocking into the pews.”

    The realpolitik premise for embracing SSM is not to attract new liberal converts, but to retain the rising generation of liberal (at least on this issue) youth.

  48. Clark Goble
    September 1, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Dave K, while SSM is a strong signifier for that, I don’t think it’s the real underlying issue behind the rise of the Nones. That is I suspect it clusters with other views, although I am skeptical of the common view that the rise of the Nones signals a rising secularization ala Europe. Things are complex such as we see in the rising near puritanical sex rules on campus. (Not really puritanical of course since the idea of a single person you bind yourself too seems to still be verboten) The point is that even as people rebel against norms there are countermoves to create new norms.

    We’re in a period of norm shifting probably on par with the changes in the 60’s. It’s not yet clear what will result from that.

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