The Mormons have adopted a strategy that is quite different than other churches in China, as Latter Day Saints leaders have negotiated a presence in the country under a tight system of restraints, according to an article in the current issue of the journal China Perspectives (No. 1, 2014).
Author Pierre Vendassi notes that where other churches have operated and grown outside of the legal system in China, the LDS church has cultivated dialogues and negotiations with the Chinese government going back two decades to gain official authorization to conduct its religious activities.
The church has accepted China’s dictates forbidding any proselytism and instead has created a number of cultural initiatives, including educational exchanges between Brigham Young University and certain Chinese universities, LDS charities working in the least developed areas of China and a large number of English teachers working in prestigious schools. The acceptance of China’s anti-proselytism laws has not meant that the LDS has refrained from spreading its gospel in more acceptable ways. According to Vendassi’s sources, China now has several thousand practicing Mormons and congregations in every province.
While that number might seem low compared to the Christian movements operating in China since the 1980s, the centralized nature of the church makes it comparable in size to many evangelical denominations and networks in the country. “Furthermore the development of the movement may appear to be slow, but it seems to be constant,” Vendassi adds. The largest congregations are in dynamic urban centers, such as Shanghai and Beijing, and they are organized along the lines of the standard Mormon organizational model. Much of the growth is through returned Chinese expatriates—often business middle managers—who were converted in other countries and are allowed to evangelize their families in China.
But the LDS strategy places some limits on the church; converts have to go to another country to be baptized, and there is a strict separation between foreign Mormon leaders and church headquarters and local converts. Yet the level of retention of converts after baptism might range from 50 to 70 percent, a rate considerably higher than the rest of the world. Because the Mormons are so diligent in being transparent and following Chinese religious regulations, converts tend to de-emphasize the particular markers of Mormon identity—something that is in sharp contrast to other Christian groups.
Vendassi concludes that “the constraints imposed by the state and the willingness of the LDS Church to bend to these constraints appears to be producing, when all is said and done, a slow rate of growth that could also help it take root at the local level.”
(China Perspectives, http://chinaperspectives.revues.org.)