Missions are flourishing in Mormonism in the year-and-a-half since the church lowered the minimum age for full-time missionary service, but it might not be helping to jumpstart the slow growth the church is experiencing, according to the Salt Lake Tribune (April 26).
The faith has seen its proselytizing force grow from 58,500 to more than 83,000 (a 42 percent rise), while the number of convert baptisms last year grew to 282,945, up from 272,330 in 2012 (a increase of fewer than four percent). The main dilemma is that the new missionaries were largely assigned to areas such as the United States and Latin America, where the Latter Day Saints are well-established and the “market” for the religion might be saturated, according to researcher Matt Martinich. “Most of the surplus in missionary manpower was allocated to less-productive areas, where the church has more developed infrastructure that could accommodate such a sudden, massive increase in missionaries serving,” he says.
“In U.S. missions outside of the Intermountain West, every congregation had a companionship [pair of missionaries]. It was hard to keep even one busy. Now they have two or three [pairs].” The LDS Church has added 58 missions (totaling 405 around the world) after the missionary ages fell to 18, down from 19, for young men, and to 19, down from 21, for young women (see March RW for more on that subject).
The Mormon missionary system is built on a “centers of strength” strategy, starting usually in big cities with a single congregation and then dividing as it grows larger. This strategy ensures slow yet steady growth. At a recent conference in Los Angeles, an LDS mission president instructed his missionaries not to “tract” (go door to door) or contact potential converts on their own, but to rely exclusively on “referrals” from members. To deal with retention problems, missionary-minded members also are seen as vital players in helping converts maintain their new faith.
But if missionaries fail to engage in independent finding efforts, increasing their ranks will not appreciably increase convert baptisms, according to another researcher. LDS leaders have been experimenting with new missionary approaches, such as doing humanitarian work as well as tracting. In parts of Africa, LDS officials have begun to break with the “centers of strength” policy by creating “member groups,” made up of a single member or a missionary companionship, meeting somewhat informally before there are enough members for a “branch.”
These groups typically turn into branches, which are smaller congregations than LDS wards, more quickly than traditional models.