In Harlem, an African-American bishop leads his congregation in prayer. In Miami, neighbors enter a bright yellow chapel and greet each other in Haitian. In Salt Lake City, a teacher instructs her Bible class in Chinese. Meanwhile, in Florida, an entire congregation sings in American Sign Language in poetic gestures, and in California a young child gives his first talk in Sunday school in Spanish.
This picture is a striking contrast to the stereotypical image most Americans have of Mormons as white, middle-class people living in the Intermountain West. Yet it accurately portrays the changing face of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a faith that is becoming increasingly diverse, mirroring a wide range of cultures and experiences.
This diversity has not gone unnoticed by media trumpeting headlines such as “Mormons Gain in Inner Cities — Church Is Attracting More Blacks and Hispanics” in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “LDS Church Follows Members to Inner Cities” in the Denver Post, “Colorblind Faith” in the Chicago Reporter and “For Mormons in Harlem, Bigger Space Beckons” in the New York Times.
Mormon scholar Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University, said reporters often call her surprised by the growth of the Church in inner cities. “ ‘Where are the Mormons?’ they ask. I tell them, ‘They’re everywhere.’ ”
In fact, over 150 Latter-day Saint congregations in the United States speak a total of 20 different languages, including Polish, Navajo, Russian, Spanish and German.
Much of the Church’s growth is attributed to the global volunteer missionary program, the largest of its kind in the world. More than 52,000 missionaries teach in 350 missions in over 140 nations.
President Bill Price oversees missionaries in the Washington, D.C., area. His missionaries come from more than 20 different countries and speak a variety of languages to accommodate the needs of the community. “The people in the inner city are humble and have open hearts and minds. They don’t change their lives because of any social program but because of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Cathy Stokes, a recently retired health care administrator for the State of Illinois Department of Public Health, changed her life and embraced Mormonism after visiting a temple open house in 1978.
“I signed a slip requesting more information,” Stokes explained, “and several weeks later two nice little white guys knocked at my door in Chicago. I listened; my questions were answered. The questions about life were like a brick of Swiss cheese and the gospel filled in most of the holes.Joining the Church was the most important thing I have ever done in my life.”
“We work hard to send out a message that brings hope,” said Earl C. Tingey, senior president of the Presidency of the Seventy. “We share messages that help families. We bring hope of how a father can be a father, a mother a mother, and all of it is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
At the same time, Tingey is quick to point out the distinctiveness of the Mormon faith in the Christian world. Tingey says the Church is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a restoration of the ancient Church of Jesus Christ.
Shipps believes a main reason the Church is continuing to grow and become more diverse is its unique theology of the family. “The idea that families remain together throughout eternity resonates with all sorts of people. This belief, plus the remarkable support system the LDS Church provides for families appeals to people from many cultures, African American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian” she said.
The Church is also growing more diverse internationally. More than half of all Church members now reside outside of the United States, a milestone that was reached on 25 February 1996.
This worldwide membership of almost 13 million Latter-day Saints is a far cry from the six members in April 1830 when Joseph Smith organized the Church in upstate New York.
Such growth among diverse cultures and nations has become the Church’s primary challenge. To help meet it, the Church translates scriptures, conference proceedings, satellite broadcasts, curriculum manuals, magazines, software, Web-site information and other materials into more than 100 different languages. The resultant translation system is one of the largest such networks in the world.
In a 2000 speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said that Church growth has brought some serious challenges. “The first is the training of local leadership,” noted President Hinckley. “The second … is providing places of worship as we grow so rapidly.”
In an effort to address the need for more places of worship, hundreds of new buildings are being constructed around the world each year.
But training leadership in congregations where no one has been a Church member for long brings special challenges. Unlike the lay members assigned to lead local congregations in the United States and Canada, the lay leaders in many other countries are relatively new members.
In some countries where the Church has only recently been established, some leaders have received their leadership assignments only a few months after joining the Church. These new leaders have few leadership role models.
Recognizing this challenge, the Church has established area offices around the world, overseen by senior officials in the Church called general authorities. They meet regularly with new local leaders and train them in their native language.
Also with dramatic growth comes the challenge of unifying Latter-day Saints of many cultures. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles 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."
As a result, efforts are made to teach Latter-day Saints around the world the doctrines of the Church and to train local leaders, but without imposing American culture.
“Sometimes our culture and the Western culture are very different” said Seung Hwun Ko, a Church member from Seoul, Korea, “But when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we meet.”