Saturday, October 07, 2006

North American Church Growth

Mormon prophet urges more membership in U.S., Canada

Associated Press writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- Satellite technology and the Internet allow The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to send its message to
members worldwide -- but church president Gordon B. Hinckley is
interested in reaching those a little closer to home.

Hinckley called on Latter-day Saints to incease church membership in
North America, Saturday, at the opening session of the church's annual
two-day conference.

"But that could be said of everywhere throughout the world," the
96-year-old Hinckley said, speaking to thousands of Mormons at the
church's General Conference and millions more around the globe through
satellite broadcasts and the Internet.

"Nevertheless," he said, "the harvest is great with members in the
some 160 nations."

Membership in the Salt Lake City-based church grew to more than 12.5
million in 2005, according to statistics released in April.

There are just under 5.7 million Mormons in the United States and
172,000 in Canada, a church Web site reports.

Although he offered no specific proposals, Hinckley said he would like
to increase baptisms in the United States and Canada.

Recent conference sessions have called upon more young men to enter
the mission field, something typically done for two years beginning at
age 19.

Mormons believe they are called to share the word of God, and the
church is known for its proselytizing missionaries around the world.
The church said it has 56,000 members on missions, about 75 percent of
them men under 26.

Eighteen percent are women, and 7 percent are older couples.

The Mormon church last year reported a 1.74 percent increase in U.S.
membership, No. 2 among the 25 largest churches in the United States,
according to the National Council of Churches.

The Assemblies of God was first with 1.81 percent growth (2.7 million
members), and the Roman Catholic Church was third with 0.83 percent
growth (67.8 million), according to the National Council's Web site.

Growth of the Mormon church is faster around the world than in the
United States, where the church was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830,
church spokesman Michael Otterson said. The church is growing most
rapidly in south and Latin American countries and some growth patterns
may be directly tied to the focused efforts of missionary programs.

Hinckley's emphasis on the U.S. and Canada may be driven by statistics
that show poor results for missionary work there, said David Stewart a
Mormon and physician who since 1999 has studied missionary strategies
and outcomes.

Despite being home to about one-third of all church missionary
programs, the U.S. and Canada combined result in only about one-fifth
of annual church baptisms.

"It's really a very meager outcome," said Stewart, who will publish
his studies in a book.

For all churches, North America is a "relatively stagnant religious
market," Stewart adds, attributing that in part to an increasingly
secularized society.

Whatever the reason, growth in the Mormon church has slowed over the
past 10 years, said Carl Mosser, a professor of biblical studies at
Pennsylvania's Eastern University who has studied church growth. In
1996, the church was on track to surpass a sociologist's predictions
in 1984 that membership would top 256 million members by the year

Slowing membership has driven some changes in missionary programs,
Mosser said, including an overhaul of missionary teaching materials in
2004 and a drop in the number of young missionaries worldwide.

Hinckley's focus on North America may also be tied to concerns for
church finances, Mosser said.

"North American Latter-day Saints give a lot more in terms of
financial resources than those in other countries," he said. "The
fiscal well being of the church is quite dependent on the North
American membership."

Mormons gather in April and October for a two-day conference, hearing
messages of faith from church leaders at their 21,000-seat conference
center in downtown Salt Lake City. The sessions are broadcast around
the world in 85 languages.

Afternoon conference speakers called upon members to maintain the
church's high moral standards, remaining worthy for blessings by
living lives that are "clean and pure." A challenge was also issued to
members who currently don't meet the church's 10 percent tithing
standard. Tithing funds are used by the church to fund growth
programs, including the construction of temples, where members perform
sacred church ceremonies.

Hinckley closed the first day of the event by calling on the church's
male members to improve their lives, speaking out against pornography,
profanity, and saying men should "never be guilty of abuse."

"We must rise above these things," he said.

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