The influx of immigrants, singles, and other non-traditional believers into Mormonism is challenging the religion’s structures and methods of outreach, reports the independent Mormon Sunstone magazine (March/April).
Mormon leaders have allowed the existence of ethnic and single wards (or congregations) on a temporary basis, with the expectation that such members would eventually be integrated into the “mainstream” wards. This attitude was evident in a controversial 1997 directive from Mormon leaders in California (where Mormon diversity is especially strong) which called for the closing of 205 ethnic Mormon wards in the state.
Local LDS leaders and their ethnic members resisted the move, causing enough protest that church leaders backed away from the plan. The turnabout by church leaders was also partly due to their discovery that ethnic wards — which use foreign languages — are often more successful than English-speaking ones, and that ethnic members are more loyal to the church than others.
At the same time, the younger more Americanized generations in these ethnic wards often chafe against the exclusive use of foreign languages. The ethnic wards that work are those permitting members more flexibility in such matters as language. Bishop Ignacio Garcia says that even outside of multiethnic California, Mormonism is changing. “The old idea of nondiversified, English-dominant wards will one day be a thing of the past.”
The same conflicts are taking place among wards ministering to singles. Like the ethnic wards, it was assumed that wards ministering to singles were transitional, leading to the mainstream, family-oriented wards. Karen Southwick writes that Mormon leaders have sought to send older single members from these single-based wards to the mainstream ones — a proposal that has been resisted by members. In the strongly family-based Mormon culture, these wards may suggest that singleness may no longer be a temporary phase among all members, Southwick adds.
In urban areas like San Francisco, where the wards minister to both heterosexual and homosexual members, these single ministries have become increasingly popular. But, as with ethnic wards, these congregations show the new pluralism in Mormonism and raise questions about whether assimilation is the best method of drawing and keeping members.
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215)