Visitors who step into one of the more than 40 congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Melbourne will most likely be surprised by the ethnic diversity represented.
They may find an African Australian man blessing the sacramental bread and water in south Melbourne. Or in Bairnsdale, a three hours’ drive to the north, they might learn that an indigenous Australian has the lead administration role for the local congregation’s records.
In Dandenong, to the east, a Sudanese man teaches Sunday school to other Sudanese in their own language, and in Narre Warren an Indian man serves on the congregational leadership team.
Three congregations meet in the outer western suburb of Deer Park — one each for members who speak English, Spanish and Tongan. The leader of the women’s group in Deer Park, the Relief Society, is a Filipina.
In Meadow Heights the congregation includes Lebanese, Italian, Samoan, Greek and Chinese churchgoers. A local leader with a Maltese background said of his congregation, “Each Sunday, it is like looking over a session of the United Nations.”
This image breaks the mold that most Australians have of Mormons as a white, middle-class, American church. The truth is that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found around the world.
Each culture, language and individual adds to the diversity of the Church. In fact, there are over 27,000 Latter-day Saint congregations around the world speaking a total of 178 different languages.
“There has been substantial growth in the Church worldwide and in Australia, and it’s not to be dismissed,” said Gary Bouma, professor of sociology and an Australian religious diversity expert. “It is now nearly 0.3 percent of the Australian population, which makes it about the same numerical size as the Churches of Christ or the Salvation Army. And it’s larger than the Seventh-day Adventist Church and growing, while many other Christian groups are declining. Where is it heading in Australia? Straight for the mainstream.”
Much of the growth of the Church, which now numbers almost 13 million members globally, is attributed to its volunteer missionary program, the largest of its kind in the world. More than 53,000 missionaries teach in 344 missions in over 140 nations.
Paul Coward oversees Latter-day Saint missionaries in the Melbourne area. His missionaries come from more than 20 different countries and speak a variety of languages to accommodate the needs of the community.
“Australians come from all sorts of backgrounds,” said Coward. “It is great that we have an equally diverse range of missionaries serving.”
The rapid growth of the Church causes a welcome challenge of connecting to all cultures and nations. A large translation department at Church headquarters keeps busy translating scriptures, conference proceedings, satellite broadcasts, curriculum manuals, magazines, software, Web-site information and other materials into more than 100 different languages.
Also with dramatic growth comes the challenge of unifying Latter-day Saints of many cultures. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest governing body of the Church — said that the growing diversity among the members is simply a condition, not a Church goal. The real goal is unity, not diversity.
“We preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population.”