The Expanding Church


What’s happening to the Church in Europe, Asia, and Latin America? A symposium report

Thumb through a conference issue of the Ensign. Walk around Temple Square that first week in April or October. Those aren’t all Utah faces you see. And read the reports of a dizzying series of area general conferences in Denmark, Tonga, Australia, England, Taiwan, Korea, and other places. The conclusion is unmistakable: the Church has expanded far beyond Utah and stakes are springing up around the world.

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Council of the Twelve has summarized the sweep of the missionary program, the culture-transcending force of the gospel, and the growth of local Church leadership with a forward looking “Things are getting better.”

He made that statement last April at a special devotional that was part of a three-day symposium on “The Expanding Church,” hosted by Brigham Young University’s College of Social Sciences. There LDS scholars and ecclesiastical leaders presented significant information on that vital intersection between gospel teachings and varying worldwide customs.

There is no doubt that the greatest contribution of the symposium was a trio of sessions on the Church in Europe, in Latin America, and in Asia.

At these sessions, Regional Representatives, stake presidents, Church-school officials, and mission presidencies—all native to the regions they represent—spoke on the Church in their areas. Students, faculty, and community members crowded the lecture halls. Some of the names sounded unfamiliar (Ho Nam Rhee, Enzio Busche, Efrain Villalobos) but the message, which was both familiar and absorbing, told of members bound together in gospel brotherhood working devotedly through the obstacles before them. Those reports were the concrete, individual proof of the message Elder Hinckley brought: “The Spirit of the Lord will overcome the effect of any difference in culture.”

The European Area

For an audience used to equating Church strength with numbers of convert baptisms, the European session was a pleasant surprise. Elder Charles A. Didier of Belgium, first resident European called as a General Authority in this dispensation, Brother Enzio Busche, Regional Representative of the Twelve to Germany, and Brother Bo Wennerlund, Regional Representative to Denmark and Sweden, reported solid foundation-building, commitment, and growing public acceptance. The significance of this consolidation becomes obvious in the juxtaposition of two facts: (1) the Church has been involved in missionary work in Europe for 143 years; (2) according to Elder Charles A. Didier of the First Quorum of the Seventy, the “second-generation”—people in Europe who were born and/or grew up in the Church—is about fourteen or fifteen years old. Why aren’t there five generations for those 143 years? The answer lies in a century of emigration to the “Zion” in Utah that took most of Europe’s members for those five generations, in the shattering effects of two world wars fought across those countries, and in the agonizing depression and pessimism that followed. Brother Wennerlund of Sweden remembers when the General Authorities in 1951 publicly urged members of the Church to stay in their own countries. “We had been planning to come to the United States in 1953, but of course we gave up those plans right away,” he said. Fifteen years of being a Swedish Mormon produced a Regional Representative for Scandinavia.

Elder Didier, analyzing the last decade of Church growth in Europe, pinpointed ten factors that contributed to the “new feeling” among members there, factors reinforced by the other men:

1. A distribution center was established in Liege, Belgium. “Just to let you know what it meant,” he said, “when I joined the Church all we had was the Book of Mormon and twenty sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. No Pearl of Great Price, no priesthood manuals, no handbooks, no lesson manuals. I remember very well sitting in priesthood meeting with the missionaries—there were four or five of us—reading from one sheet of paper and passing it on to the next member. That was the lesson, and it was prepared by the mission. The Sunday School manual was also written by the mission and it was the same manual year after year. So you can imagine what it meant when in 1966 we received the first family home evening manual in our own language.”

2. Local members replaced missionaries in branch and district presidencies. “This made it possible for missionaries to spend their time proselyting,” said Brother Wennerlund.

3. The missions and districts were divided into smaller and more manageable units. “I remember when there existed only one mission in France,” said Elder Didier. “The missionaries saw the mission president only once or twice a year; now they see him every six or eight weeks. And the discussions mean that the missionaries are better trained. When they first came to my home, they had the Book of Mormon and some pictures of Indians and it took a very long time to convert people.”

4. The building of chapels. “This was the signal that the Church would not disappear with the missionaries,” said Brother Wennerlund. Brother Busche reported that in Germany, between 1960 and 1965, twenty-two chapels were built; twelve more followed in the next four years; between 1971 and 1975 a second set of twelve were constructed; and about sixteen are planned as of this year.

5. As members began to stay in Europe and the young members began to marry each other, “We have real Mormon homes that are producing a generation of future leaders,” said Elder Didier.

6. These leaders are showing up in the increased numbers of local missionaries. Elder Didier recalled, “When I was mission president in 1970, we had fifteen local missionaries in three missions, out of 10,000 members. Three years later we had twenty-five local missionaries; in a few years, we’ll have more than a hundred.” Brother Busche added that young people are now admired by their Mormon peers when they choose to interrupt careers or schooling to go on missions. Brother Wennerlund corroborated, “There are more local missionaries than ever. There were fifty-eight last week, seven just in my ward. Five more will be called before the end of the year.”

7. There was a great decentralization of the Church administration. Regional Representatives began training local leaders; the finance, law, real estate, and building departments established a branch office in Frankfurt. It provided better control and more help to local leaders.

James R. Christianson, former European regional director for the Church Education System, added his personal testimony about the power of decentralization, using his experiences with the seminary and institute program as an example. “In 1971, the decision was made to have the reviewing and correcting of materials done in Europe. This may seem like a small thing, but it was incredibly important. We had always needed to allow about eighteen months from the time something was okayed for translation until it was ready for distribution. By doing all the work in Europe, that time dropped to three months. When you consider the thousands of pages involved, material that had to be there on time, it literally made our success possible.”

8. The seminary and institute program. According to Brother Christianson, between 40 and 60 percent of the students eligible in European countries are involved in the seminary’s home study courses. In Sweden during the first year they had 231 participants and 96 percent completed the course. “If you know anything about home study problems, you know this is remarkable,” he pointed out.

9. Area conferences. As Elder Didier describes it, “In Munich, in 1973, for the first time in our history we had a gathering of more than 13,000 members of six or seven different nationalities to listen to the prophet and the other General Authorities. I think that was the uniting factor of the Saints in Europe.”

10. The creation of stakes. “The first stake [in France] was created in Paris in 1975,” said Elder Didier. “Our goal is to have a stake created in what I call the Latin area of Europe every two years. It will require a lot of effort and sacrifice, but the Church will grow as it grows everywhere else in the world.”

There are other signs of Church consolidation and reinforcement. Although the rate of growth in the Church in German-speaking Europe is around 10 percent, temple attendance has increased by 30 percent. The first native German mission president, Hans-Juergen Saager, has been called to preside over the Germany Düsseldorf Mission. Elder Joseph A. Wirthlin, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve and Europe’s area supervisor, has “instilled a new drive and enthusiasm in the missionaries,” reported Brother Busche.

Brother Wennerlund, commenting on the amazing strength found in the Copenhagen and Stockholm stakes (created in 1974 and 1975), attributes it to several eras of mission presidents who stressed the law of sacrifice. “I remember how some members talked about how they were a little too tough. They were tough—not unkind, but tough. One of them told me, ‘I never hesitate to ask a member to make a sacrifice because I know he will be blessed and I know that he needs the blessings.’ Before that time we did not know about building funds, and ward budgets. Now there is a willingness to sacrifice. We see activity as never before. We see bishops assume their responsibilities as branch presidents rarely did. The member missionary program is building. I remember a couple of months ago that there were forty-four names left over at the end of the month that missionaries had not yet had time to visit! That has never happened before. A new spirit is coming into the schools; I had the privilege of working very closely with a doctor of divinity in Stockholm who writes books on religion for the board of education. Over 275 copies of The Restored Church by William E. Berrett have been requested for libraries. And we feel united with the other Saints. It was interesting when Elder Didier was called that my Swedes said, ‘Isn’t this great? We’ve got a General Authority.’ We’d never said ‘we’ about France or Belgium before.”

One of the most exciting developments in making the Church better known is growing out of a project in Sweden. In 1974–75, Swedish students were polled by the Department of Education to find out which church they’d like to learn about. According to Brother Christianson, “the overwhelming majority of them wanted to learn about Mormonism.” Contacted by the Minister of Education, the Seminary and Institute Department swung into action and produced a kit with four filmstrips that related the history of the Church and provided work materials for the students as well. Social studies teachers have eagerly accepted seminar invitations from missionaries and Church Education personnel to learn how to use the kits—ninety-three met in one area, seventy-five in another. “One noted newspaper in Stockholm received so many calls from young people who wanted to know where to locate the Mormon Church because they wanted to join it that the newspaper contacted the Church and asked if we could give them some information they could publish. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in Europe.”

But that iceberg is emerging out of troubled social waters, and the visiting leaders were frank about sharing their concern and solutions. Brother Busche told of his nineteen-year-old son who had given his parents “the most valuable gift that a son can give; he showed his feelings in an eight-page letter. I always thought that I was very close to my children, but I was in some ways shocked. I saw a great cry for help. German teenagers are in a desperate situation. When he was sixteen, his teacher challenged him to have sexual intercourse within five weeks, and they were in classes with girls they could practice with. His two closest friends, the best young men he could find, are both living with women they are not married to and feel no shame. You in this country have maybe five or six years to plan what you will do, but we are faced with this now. All the young people growing up in Germany have to make the decision very early, when they become deacons. When they stay clean, then they are really strong, and you will see how strong they are, how devoted, how much they know that the Church is true.”

Brother Wennerlund shared an experience that showed how members of the Church can influence their community. “In the schools they are showing films of instruction in sexual matters. We were concerned. We didn’t want our children to see them. And at the Home and School meeting no one said anything, so I thought, ‘I’ll say something.’” He proposed that parents first screen the films so they could approve what their children were seeing. Immediately and unanimously the other parents in the room agreed. “While people live together without being married and think nothing of it, there are hundreds of people who do not like it but who do not dare speak up against it. If you speak up, they will agree. That’s my experience and my conviction,” Brother Wennerlund concluded.

The same intensity of purpose and high commitment characterized the leaders from Asia and Latin America as well—even though the challenges were different.

The Latin-American Area

In Latin America, the main problem is growth. Lamond Tullis, chairman of the symposium, drew laughter from the audience by quoting a statistical projection done in 1960 that foresaw a total membership in Mexico of 70,000 by 1975. In fact, Church membership now easily exceeds 100,000 there.

Brother Harold Brown, Regional Representative of the Twelve to Guatemala and El Salvador and associated for years with Latin America, said frankly, “Fifteen years ago, when the first stake was organized, we were heading into a leadership crisis. There was a pretty thin veneer of priesthood leadership.” As president of the first stake, he launched leadership training programs, taught leadership to the young men and women as teenagers, and saw business and professional members bring in their friends. “We no longer have a leadership crisis. Last year we organized fifteen stakes in one day, and the weakest stake was stronger than that first Mexican stake.”

As an example of the Church’s growth among all social classes, he pointed out that ten years ago there were not enough Mormon college students to form an institute group in Mexico City. “I was the institute director at the time,” he commented wryly, “so I know. Now there are approximately 1,400 such students in Mexico City alone.” He added, “It might surprise some of you to know that Latin American students tend to be more conceptually apt than western Americans. Having taught seminary in the West and religion at BYU I was delighted at the relative facility of my students in Mexico to grasp and vocalize gospel concepts.”

President Enrique Rittscher of the Guatemala City Stake fascinated the audience with his account of the devastating earthquake that woke him and his family at 3:03 A.M., February 4, 1976, and drove them to take shelter in their van. “To some of us who found ourselves suddenly in key positions, the earthquake made us realize how very valuable the week-by-week, month-by-month building of form and substance in our faith has come to be.”

In his first meeting with his bishops, they set shelter as the first priority and began improvising tents from rolls of plastic purchased by the mission. They used fast offering funds to purchase food for members. A baker in one ward made bread and the elders quorum delivered it. A member with a pickup delivered water in big plastic jugs. The radio broadcast a message to Mormons to have a special fast for the needy and bring the savings of the fast to the bishop; excited nonmembers now want to know about fasting and bishops.

And what were the lessons of the earthquake? “It was heartwarming to see how the leaders started taking care of their groups. We had only to give some guidelines, some suggestions, some congratulations, some money, and it works. The form of the organization, even though quite incomplete, is giving substance to the more obvious needs of our people.” The earthquake thus became a symbol of sudden change that emphasized the need for continued growth.

In more general terms, President Rittscher discussed their challenges in the Church:

1. Leadership—“We are learning that when we follow instructions as set down in the manuals, we will work less and do more.”

2. Perfection of the Saints—“To the extent that teachers and leaders express spirituality by kind words and efficient acts, the substance of Church work improves even though the form might be deficient—that is, incomplete organization, improper meeting places, lack of punctuality, etc.”

3. Adequate and appropriate buildings—He cited the example of an enthusiastic ward that moved into a new chapel and suddenly saw attendance plummet to half of what it had been. “What happened? The best we could figure out from interviews was that the inactives belonged to a type of personality and economic level that felt uncomfortable in this new chapel and could not adapt to the change. Therefore, consideration as to the degree of difference from the former surroundings is recommended.”

4. Adequate time and preparation in prayer meetings.

5. Identifying and using those special spirits endowed with extraordinary faithfulness—“One man in our ward back home is a carpenter. He has four little children. His wife ran away, but he hopes she will come back so he has not taken steps to remarry. He always attends all meetings punctually with his children; he has a ready smile and is willing to stay cheerfully to late hours even though he lives far away and the buses stop running early. He never criticizes anyone. He finds a good word to say even to those that might grieve him. He sings in the choir. Shall I go on? Yes, he is a full tithe payer.” President Rittscher says that he urges his bishops to identify and use these special spirits. “They will fill with spiritual substance the real work of the ministry.”

Efrain Villalobos, superintendent of schools sponsored by the Mormon community in Mexico, reported on the growth of educational facilities in the last few years. There are forty-one schools, all but four organized since 1960, with an enrollment of 9,653 in 1975–76. He referred to the “challenges” of operating a Latter-day Saint school in a system where the curriculum is set by government standards, where private schools must be relicensed every year, and where each teacher must sign a document that he is not a minister.

They meet that challenge in three ways: First, their professional standards are so high that government and educational officials apply to send their children there. Second, each teacher is an example of the gospel in action. And third, the program of the Church flourishes, but in separate quarters—family home evening in the dormitories, institute in the chapels. Fifty-three of Benemerito’s graduates are now on missions; dozens more serve in stake presidencies, bishoprics, and other leadership positions.

Brother Orlando Rivera, former bishop of the Spanish-speaking ward in Salt Lake City and associate vice-president for academic affairs at the University of Utah, focused on another relationship of the Church and Latin America: the Chicano community. A fourth-generation Mormon himself, his great-grandfather was converted after he gave shelter to the freezing Mormon pioneers sent to colonize the San Luis Valley in Colorado. Brother Rivera pointed out that only Mexico and Argentina have more Spanish-speaking citizens than the United States, which has fifteen million people of Spanish-speaking descent. “Why is it,” he asked, “that in Latin American countries, particularly those with Lamanite populations, the missionary work is progressing so rapidly? In the Mexico Hermosillo Mission they have 1,400 baptisms in one month; but how many are there among the fifteen million in this country? I venture to say that we have very few.”

This began a lively discussion on the problems of assimilation and its challenges. But President Rittscher had the all-embracing summary statement: “I think that you need an earthquake. People become very good friends under such circumstances.”

The Asian Area

The Asian section was a spirited meeting, irradiated by the quick wit and sparkling humor of its three visitors: Augusto Lim, president of the Manila Philippines Stake; Ho Nam Rhee, president of the Seoul Korea Stake; and Seiji Katanuma, counselor in the Japan Sapparo Mission.

President Lim focused on the Church’s quick growth in the Philippines as the main problem—“but one we are glad to have,” he added. The Church has had a mission there only since 1967, less than ten years, but membership now numbers 22,000, with one stake, 400 missionaries, and two missions adding a ward or branch each month. More than 3,200 converts were baptized in 1975. Contributing to the problems of absorbing so many new members are the serious challenges of language, money, and facilities.

The language problem, as President Lim sees it, is the anomaly that English is the official language for the country and consequently for the Church. Although literacy is quite high, only 25 percent of the members of the Church are fluent enough in English to be considered available for leadership positions. “The rest, 75–80 percent, are able to communicate just enough to gain a testimony.” He speculates on the possibility of a Tagalog-speaking mission. Even though there are six or seven major languages in the Philippines, 10 to 12 million speak Tagalog, which the government is now having taught in the schools as a national language. “The Tagalog-speaking region could be a mission in itself in the next ten or fifteen years.”

The Philippine economy is somewhat depressed, and only five percent of the converts, by President Lim’s estimation, could be called middle class. The estimated average income of a Latter-day Saint family in the Philippines is about $60 a month, with 65 percent going for food, 25 percent for shelter, and only 10 percent left to accommodate the demands for transportation, clothing, education, etc. The cost of subscribing to the Ensign, for instance, would be equivalent to buying a dishwasher for an American family.

Naturally, with mushrooming growth and not much money, it’s hard to finance adequate chapels. President Lim described one hall designed to hold about 200–250, where the average attendance is 400–450 for each meeting. He also pled for a redefinition of “adequate” and pointed to “my white hairs” acquired in trying to pay the upkeep on Utah-style buildings that are overly elaborate for the members’ needs.

President Lim sees the Welfare Services program as inspired for their situation. “One bishop told me that in his ward the young people have practically given up; even now they assume that they will not find adequate employment to acquire education.” Career planning and skills improvement programs could make all the difference to them.

President Rhee, division coordinator of seminaries and institutes in Korea, picked two problems facing the young people and emphasized that “these are two of many, many, many.” He explained why he has focused on the problems of the youth: “They will be the first generation of Mormons born and raised in the Church. Our energies must be directed to this generation.”

The first problem is marriage. The ancestral custom of contracting marriages according to a code of propitious times and signs still holds, and a girl born in the dread “year of the horse” is “totally undesirable.” He told of a Latter-day Saint boy and girl who wanted to marry but were refused permission by the groom’s parents because the girl was born in the year of the tiger and would, therefore, have “caused” the young man’s early death. (President Katanuma quipped, “I would like to inform you that I am now completely calm, but don’t get me angry because I am born in the year of the buffalo.”)

President Rhee’s eyes twinkle: “I go around and interview the bishops and high counselors and ask, ‘How is your daughter? and how is your son?’ We want our children to grow up and marry each other. This second generation is our hope for the future. And I also tell the members to be very careful about quarrels. I tell them, ‘No evil speaking of any brother or sister. We are all going to be in-laws in the next generation.’”

The second cultural problem is the highly competitive education system. “I call it exam hells,” President Rhee said, and described a typical day for a student. It begins at 4 A.M. and seldom ends before midnight. One boy tried three years to pass the entrance exams into a prestigious university, and his mother telephoned the stake presidency at midnight to tell them when he finally passed. “This schedule is typical and difficult,” he understated, “but makes students extremely well-read.” For leaders the dilemma lies in their desire to see young people excel in their educational goals, while, “on the other hand, we want them to come to their meetings and develop a strong testimony. We have not yet truly succeeded in resolving this kind of problem.”

President Katanuma, as assistant professor at Hokkaido National Education University in Japan, made the hit of the day by announcing, “I am the man from the exam hells.”

He expressed his complete understanding of President Lim’s situation. “When I joined the Church twenty years ago, Japan was in exactly the same economic situation. It is very difficult.”

His discussion focused on yet another challenge facing the Church in Asia—it is closely identified as an American church, and paradoxically, contains elements that prevent Church members from changing the image by keeping them so busy that they don’t have time for community affairs. He related a case study of Brother Yamada who moves to a new town and is invited to help clean up the streets on Sunday. Of course, he must refuse. Conducting twenty-two meetings a month as branch president also prevents him from accepting a position as a Parent-Teacher Association officer—and at the same time, he is eager to teach the gospel to his neighbors. “If you are his neighbors, what do you think of this Mormon?”

Another link is the language. Although Japanese terms exist for such programs as Primary, Young Adult, Special Interest, and Melchizedek Priesthood, members still use the English terms, possibly because it is easier for the missionaries, most of whom are still, unavoidably, Americans. Furthermore, Japan is a visual culture, not a verbal one, and Western-style teaching is not always effective. He demonstrated a possible resolution by trying to stuff all of his books, camera, and equipment into his Western-style airlines bag. It didn’t quite fit. Then from his pocket he drew a large silk kerchief and neatly tied up everything, including the airlines bag. “What this mysterious oriental magic means,” he explained, smiling, “is that there should be another approach.”

It is difficult to evaluate the success of such symposia. Three additional sessions made valuable contributions on such topics as accommodating cultural diversity as the Church expands, dealing with the problem of secularization, and explaining resemblances between the gospel and practices in other cultures. (See excerpts.) But undeniably, the greatest impact came from listening to the ecclesiastical leaders themselves—not transplanted Americans, but gospel-transformed Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans. Their vigor, their commitment, and their keen intelligence made it obvious that the Church is in good hands all around the world. And for a relatively insular audience of Utah residents, it was an occasion for some sober evaluation.

For instance, it became obvious that a country’s economy has a direct effect on the ability of members in those countries to sustain the full program of the Church, send their children on missions, and prepare themselves for leadership positions.

As another example, it became obvious that the gospel could flourish across a wide range of political and social conditions. Despite the tremendous challenges to personal independence and morality in Europe, the Church is seeing a strong generation of teenagers prepare themselves for the future. At the same time, the existing radical political philosophies that include atheism break the hold of the established churches on young people by separating a generation from the traditions of their fathers. Such philosophies also provide a channel for the idealistic hopes of young people who wish to improve the condition of humanity in the future. During one session, when the question of contemporary humanistic Marxism came up, two men rose spontaneously from the audience to say that this philosophy had kept them thinking about significant questions until their hunger for answers led them to the gospel. One was Seiji Katanuma. The other was Arthur Henry King, British convert and now a professor of English at Brigham Young University.

Chairman Lamond Tullis, an associate professor of political science at BYU, expressed the thanks of the entire audience. “They have taught us. They have shown us how to distinguish between what is cultural preference and what is gospel principle. Local leaders, as we have seen, are rising to the challenge of the expanding Church, making decisions of historic consequence at this watershed time.”

An experience Brother Wennerlund related was, in microcosm, the experience of the conference: “In 1956 my wife and I went from Sweden to the temple in Switzerland. We came there late one night, and went early to Sunday School the next morning. To hear the hymns of the Church sung in German, we started crying, my wife and I. The same spirit was in the song. You could feel the same feelings. A man bore his testimony and the thought came to me: ‘The same Spirit that gave him his testimony gave me my testimony.’ Without doubt, that’s the spirit of the gospel.”

[illustrations] Illustrations by Parry Merkley