The Church’s Cross-Cultural Encounters


“When I heard the story of Joseph Smith and the First Vision, I laughed. It was the funniest thing I’d ever heard,” says Jamileh Zaifnejad, an Iranian convert. “And I asked my friend, ‘Is there anybody else who believes these kinds of things? Or are you the only one?’”

Jamileh’s initial disbelief is certainly not a unique reaction. Many people have felt that the story of Joseph Smith is incredible—even Christians or Jews or Muslims who believe in the existence of Old Testament or other prophets. But what about those peoples of the earth whose religious and cultural backgrounds don’t even include the idea of prophets? And how do you take the gospel to those who aren’t familiar with the concepts represented by words like Savior and redemption?

Converts and experts in these cultures believe that as the Church expands its missionary work, one of our greatest aids will be understanding the cultural backgrounds of the people to whom we are taking the gospel message. As we are able to fulfill the Lord’s command to explain gospel principles to them “in [their] own tongue, and in [their] own language,” then the Holy Ghost can bear witness to them of the truth (D&C 90:11).

In addition to those things, Jamileh’s conversion required her own extraordinary preparation and the efforts of good members of the Church to bring her to baptism.

Her father, born and brought up in Russia until age fourteen, believed in principles of honesty, chastity, and righteousness, but not in any particular church. Her mother was a practicing Muslim. Jamileh was an atheist. At about age eleven, she became fascinated with religion and philosophy and read over two hundred books on the subject in the next several years. Her study only confused her, though, and when college did not hold the hoped-for answers, she was extremely depressed—even to the point of questioning her own existence.

But even though the Joseph Smith story at first amused her, she agreed to attend a Mormon church in Tehran. It was “a terrible experience.” She was disturbed by the crying children and frightened when a member told her that she was “a choice and special person.” When the sacrament was passed, her friend asked her if she believed in Jesus. Thinking “no,” she heard herself saying “yes” and thought, terrified, “They’ve hypnotized me.” She recalls the experience she had as one woman bore her testimony during testimony meeting: “I felt my whole body burning and I had to struggle to breathe. A voice came very clearly into my mind: ‘Behold, Jamileh, you asked if there is a God and now you are here. All of your life was a preparation for this.’” At the end of the meeting, she tried to avoid the missionaries who gave her their phone number and asked her to pray.

After struggling with confused feelings for several days, she prayed “more out of curiosity than faith or any desire to know. And then—it’s hard to describe what happened—I believed everything they had told me and longed to learn as much as I could. That was the turning point in my conversion.”

Accepting Jesus as her Savior was difficult. She had always admired him, “but why did he have to be more important than other great men?” She studied the scriptures and prayed intensely. Three “very sacred dreams” gave her a testimony. Joseph Smith, a foreigner from that very unpopular country, the United States, was another hard thing to accept. “My testimony there came more by reading the missionary pamphlets, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. How could he have made them up?”

The Challenge of Islam

Jamileh’s national and family background is Islam, one of the world’s great religions that claims believers (called Muslims) from many cultures and dozens of languages, found in countries all over the globe. Established in the seventh century A.D. by Muhammad, the man who they believe was the last prophet, the “seal” of all earlier prophets, Islam teaches that Jesus was an honored prophet, but not the son of God. Islam presents some giant-sized cultural obstacles to the preaching of the gospel:

1. Muslims fervently believe that they, like us, have “the true church.” Ardent proselyters themselves, it is against the law in most Muslim countries to attempt to change the religion of a Muslim. And nearly everyone is “active.” Muslims visiting Europe are shocked to see half-filled Christian churches during worship services.

2. Because their religion so deeply permeates their entire lives, a Muslim who changes religion is considered to be “‘a blasphemer of our Holy God, … a traitor to our country, and … a reprobate son’” (John D. C. Anderson, “Christian or ‘Cultic’?” Missiology 4, July 1976: 289–90). It is very difficult to retain national and familial ties if a convert breaks that great religious bond. Jamileh’s parents were unusual: her mother had been deeply grieved that she had raised a daughter who did not believe in God and was happy that Jamileh had found faith; her father had always respected his children’s right to make choices.

3. Accepting the Latter-day Saint teachings about God is very difficult because they are so unusual. “We call ourselves monotheists,” says Donna Lee Bowen of BYU’s Department of Government. “Muslims are really monotheists and are confused and outraged when you explain that there are really three members of the godhead—Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.” Another difficulty is accepting Joseph Smith, since Muhammad was the “last” prophet.

Observers feel, however, that there are some strong attractions to Mormonism for people in the Arab world. The Church’s structure and its high standards of morality were extremely appealing to young Coptic Christians in Cairo, according to Lynn and Hope Hilton who lived there for three and a half years. Dr. Bowen remembers conversations with Moroccan religious leaders who were impressed by the Church’s family-centered teachings, the Word of Wisdom, and practices like fasting, welfare, and help that members gave each other.

Omar Kader of BYU’s College of Social Sciences grew up an orthodox Muslim in—of all places—Provo, Utah, but joined the Church at the age of twenty-four because of “the example of honest people and a life-style of happiness. I saw people who were successful, but not boastful. I saw fair employers. I saw people who were satisfied, happy, and kind.”

Even though his family felt that his conversion was “my worst betrayal,” and even though he had to “take a leap of faith to believe in Christ and Joseph Smith,” he found the fruits of the gospel irresistibly persuasive.

And he is not discouraged by the nations still legally closed to the gospel. “There are 800,000 Muslims in America, especially in Detroit, Cleveland, and San Francisco. Latin America is heavily populated with them. And they are uprooted, torn from their own cultures. They are asking themselves questions as their culture fails to provide the answers.”

The African Challenge

Part of Africa—the north—is Muslim and has been for generations. In West Africa, particularly Nigeria and Ghana, where Church representatives have been working for over a year, missionaries can build on a solid foundation laid by five centuries of Christian missionaries. Spencer Palmer of BYU’s Religious Studies Center, who recently traveled through those two countries, noticed particularly “their great love of the Savior” and their enthusiasm for the restored gospel.

For example, the president of the Bariga Branch in Lagos, Nigeria, Brother Kaluoku, once attended school at BYU but was not baptized until 1978. At his own expense, he then prepared a letter which he mailed to four hundred friends, relatives and business associates announcing that the Church of Jesus Christ “was restored into the world by Jesus through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” He urged them to learn about the Church and prepare for baptism. How effective is this approach? There are now two branches in Lagos, largely due to the enthusiastic proselyting of members like Brother Kaluoku.

Thus the rich Christian tradition in Africa, as well as the desire for direct personal religious experience, are factors directly assisting the growth of the Church there.

In areas of Africa that have been less thoroughly Christianized, reports William F. Lye, dean of Utah State University’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, tribal patterns are still a heavy influence. For instance, since every tribe has its own religion, they are very tolerant of others’ beliefs, but it is hard for them to see anything uniquely important about Christ or Joseph Smith.

“If you tell them that you believe in a living prophet,” Brother Lye notes, “many Africans will say, ‘Great. Let us tell you about ours.’” Furthermore, as Africans gain more education and leave the tribe for cities where they enter the urban social environment, they frequently change to a religion more “acceptable” to their new associates. “The most urbanized Africans belong to the most conventional Christian churches: Catholic, Anglican, or Wesleyan. The least Westernized retain their tribal traditions. Such ‘mission’ churches as Baptist, Apostolic, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists are usually the first churches that they join when they become Christian, but there are also over 1,500 separatist churches—native variations of the mission churches.”

The European Challenge

We aren’t used to thinking of the Western world as a culture that could impede the spread of the gospel, but Douglas F. Tobler of BYU’s History Department points out, “We have little idea how thoroughly Europe has been secularized. We’re talking about people who find it difficult to believe in God.”

In many parts of Europe, religion has primarily a traditional and ceremonial function: christenings, marriages, and funerals. “Thus, some Europeans are actually shocked by the demands of a living religion that insists on an emotional and spiritual commitment and that wants you to sacrifice time and money. Moreover, the wars have left a scar of doubt on the older generations: having been believers in ideologies that proved to be false, they are loathe to accept new beliefs in the future.”

However, Brother Tobler’s studies also convince him that Europe may be on the threshold of important growth. “Like the Church in the United States in the thirties and forties, the Church in Europe appears to be entering a period of consolidation. Whole families are growing up in the Church. People aren’t leaving the branches for other areas; there are stakes, buildings, temples, all of the teaching materials. And most importantly, there are a growing number of solid families who are finding happiness in living the gospel. As the emptiness of secular society becomes increasingly prevalent, their neighbors will be more likely to see and remember a life-style of closeness and happiness that they’ll want themselves.” He foresees a steady kind of growth, similar to that enjoyed in the Church in the United States during the fifties and sixties, coming to Europe as well.

He also sees the universities as one of the most potentially fruitful missionary areas, if we can successfully speak the students’ language. “Many of them are passionately interested in philosophy, ethics, and idealism of all sorts; and many of them turn to Marxism because it offers an outlet for their idealism and a hope for a better world. Often the Church sounds to them like the ceremonial religion that they lack confidence in. It sounds too much like traditional churches and uses a vocabulary with which they are unfamiliar. But asking them why there’s such a high suicide rate among the youth, why people feel so lost and lonely, how people can have a genuinely happy life—such questions touch personal and social concerns, and they feel an urgent need to find answers for them. And the gospel has those answers.”

The Latin American Challenge

F. LaMond Tullis of BYU’s Government Department sees a similar pattern among university students in Latin America. He cited one stake president who noted that the Church programs provide a very balanced social environment but sometimes do not establish an intellectual environment at the very time when ideas are the most crucial thing to young people. Brother Tullis added: “Latin American university students enjoy discussing ideologies and can handle abstractions and ideas on a level I wish I could see consistently in my own students here.”

In some ways the Latin America culture is one in which, by definition, “men are simply nonreligious. Many Mormon converts have been women, single individuals, and the poor—relatively powerless people who have not been advantageously fixed in the social structure.” The Latin American social and family network takes care of a person’s employment and marriage, but joining the Church “knocks you out of that network.” Too often, competence is less important than having influential friends, and many members of the Church are seriously disadvantaged because of their religion.

Brother Tullis cited an encouraging example, however. In a small village north of Mexico City there are fourth-generation Mormons. When a cement factory was established nearby, one of the workmen hired was a Mormon. By his diligence, he came to the foreman’s attention and acquired some influence with him. As a result, “job openings frequently went to Mormons.” As the Church grows in such areas, it can provide its own network of friends to assist disadvantaged converts.

The Asian Challenge

In much of Asia, as in much of Latin America, joining the Church removes a convert from his social and cultural fabric; the Church there is most successful where it is strong enough to offer a genuine counter culture. In many parts of Asia, marriages are arranged for the youth. When a young person joins the Church, his family may disown him, thus cutting off standard avenues for marriage. But the Church can fill that gap. As Paul V. Hyer of BYU’s History Department notes, “Many stake presidents and mission presidents help young Latter-day Saints meet each other.” The Church thereby, at least in some ways, becomes an alternate social structure.

Countries like Japan find very appealing the gospel’s teachings about happy families, the Church’s meetings and activities that create another society for its members, and its beliefs about hard work and achievement. And as Asia gradually draws away from its traditional religions, the Church finds opportunities to present the gospel answers to life’s bewildering questions, just as it does in Europe.

However, one element of Japanese culture creates real challenges for new converts: the strong emphasis on group loyalty. Employees in the same company socialize together, go on vacation to company-owned resorts, and have a strong emotional commitment to their employers. In some important ways, affiliation with a demanding religion is seen as disloyalty to the employer, observes R. Lanier Britsch of BYU’s History Department.

Other areas of Asia have their own challenges—and there are as many problems as there are cultures. “Nationalism is the greatest single force in Asia today,” says Brother Hyer soberly. “The Chinese people have passed through a century of humiliation from Western imperialism, and national salvation is important to many of them—much more so than individual salvation. Many Chinese now see that socialism has failed and are looking for alternatives: Is a return to feudalism the answer? Is the cold technology they see in the West the answer? If we know how to present our message, we can show them that the gospel is an alternative to ways of thinking and living that have not always been successful.”

In a country like Thailand, for example, it’s almost unthinkable to be Thai and not also be Buddhist, according to former mission president Harvey D. Brown. Although Christian missionaries have worked there for over 150 years, less than one percent of the population is Christian—the same percentage as in Japan.

Like Latin America, the Thai social fabric is complete and covers every aspect of life. “Age, education, and social status are the three most important things in Thailand,” summarizes President Brown. “A nineteen-year-old missionary is young, has little education, and has absolutely no standing because he’s a foreigner.”

Other cultural problems are associated with the Christian ideal of morality; for many Thais the word for adultery refers only to immoral relationships with close relatives or with a friend’s wife. Sexual experimentation, both homosexual and heterosexual, is often an accepted part of a young man’s experience. Prostitution is legal and many men have semi-official “second” wives. The change of life-style that adhering to gospel principles requires of LDS converts is often enormous.

Like other areas of the world, Thailand is accustomed to an authoritative pattern of leadership, and the gospel model of leader-as-servant is sometimes hard to grasp. Face-saving is also a factor. “If a member fails to prepare a sacrament meeting talk, he may never return to church. Similarly, if a branch president is asked a gospel or administrative question he doesn’t know the answer to, he often feels that he should be released,” says President Brown.

Preparing the Messenger

Given the range of cultural diversity, how can we possibly prepare the messenger to be sensitive enough?

The answer is not necessarily more instruction in cultural differences—such instruction is already part of reading materials for members and the curriculum at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. And even that has limitations. “We might be able to teach missionaries—and all members—what not to do,” agree John L. Sorenson and Merlin G. Myers of BYU’s Anthropology and Archaeology Department, “but it’s almost impossible to teach people what to do.” Instead, they see the most vital part of a Latter-day Saint’s missionary education to be spiritual. As Doctrine and Covenants section 4 emphasizes, a missionary, whether set-apart or fulfilling each member’s obligation, needs humility and charity. [D&C 4]

Brother Myers points out that many people feel they have witnessed God’s hand in their lives. “Being humble and intelligent enough to acknowledge that other people have been loved of God and have felt his presence and influence in their lives opens the door to share our own experiences of God’s goodness to us and then to put those experiences in a broader context—the gospel context.”

But it is charity that reinforces that message. “When we say that we know,” Brother Sorenson pointed out, “all too often we are implying, so you don’t know. Charity is to see a person as an individual with gifts and needs (a son or daughter of God), not as a place to dump a message (a mere ‘contact’). I recently participated in a conference with some Protestant ministers, and it became apparent to me that we frequently build barriers where we don’t mean to. One minister summarized a discussion by asking me, ‘How can you Mormons act as if we don’t know anything about Christ?’ Of course they do! Charity, then, is to see them as equally beloved children of our Heavenly Father and to meet them, joyfully, on the level of experience they’ve had themselves.”

As the great missionaries of all dispensations have discovered, the only essential conversion factor is the Holy Ghost. However, being aware of our own cultural biases and being sensitive to the cultural differences of others can help us present a message so that it can be understood intellectually by others and testified to spiritually by the agent of conversion, the Holy Ghost.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Parry Merkley

[illustration] As the gospel goes to non-Western cultures, its followers show their new spiritual heritage in their cultural art. Here, Moroni gives the plates to Joseph Smith as stylized to fit Arab artistic traditions.

[illustration] The First Vision, as stylized to fit African artistic traditions.

[illustration] Missionaries, as stylized to fit Latin American artistic traditions.

[illustration] A baptism scene, as stylized to fit Oriental artistic traditions.