On its website lds.org the church has a nice item on how the church changed in 2018, mainly by streamlining its operation: by a massive fusion of branches and wards in many areas, a fusion of priesthood quorums and by limiting Sunday congregation time. Together with Clark Goble’s informative blog on happenings in 2018, this inspired me to think about the challenges facing the Church in 2019. At least as seen from overseas, from Europe.
1. Balancing the weight between the Domestic Church (USA-Canada, but mainly Deseret) and the International Church (rest of the world, biased towards Europe). In membership the International Church leads by now in numbers, but neither in lesson materials, nor for that matter in public presentation, has this shift become visible. In administration, like in the Twelve, the shift is starting. In a Dialogue article I once compared the relationship between the two with colonization: a missionizing American church colonizing the rest of the world. The comparison raised some ecclesiastical eyebrows, but still holds, I am afraid. One administrative measure in line with the streamlining policy could be to define a clearer mandate for the Area Presidencies: all decisions on bishoprics, stake presidencies and realignment of stakes and wards. Also, Area Presidents might at last choose their own counselors.
2. Culture. Increasingly the church is confronted with cultural issues since converted Asians/Europeans do not become crypto-Americans; a conundrum for the church is that culture equals diversity, which does not sit easily with a highly localized central administration. The goal of streamlining is effectivity, and inclusion of culture is an absolute must for an effective global ministry. So, for instance, cultural differences might be integrated into the lesson materials. At present French Mormons teach to other French Mormons about some great American examples in gospel living, and the same with Samoa, Tonga, Kenya, Japan and Russia. That does not work, in fact. As a teacher I always have to put in a large series of footnotes in each of the examples given in the manuals.
3. Missiology. Our huge corpus of missionaries is a tremendous force, but in most countries their success rate is minimal, if not abysmal. I know that the learning experience is at both sides, the missionary and the investigator, and I do appreciate this, especially with the very young envoys of today. The barrier to be taken, is – again – culture, and a discipline named missiology is needed to take cultural differences into account. Any simplistic referral to so-called ‘gospel culture’ does not work, that severely underestimates the depth and reach of culture. We have the scholarship to develop a solid missiology, not eschewing the experiences from other denominations. Missiology is not a panacea, for sure, but its absence is counterproductive. Anyway, our missiology should not rest – as it implicitly does now – on the status of the USA in the world, which in these Trump-times is at an all-time low.
4. History. CJCLDS history is extremely interesting, which in anyone’s past almost by definition means it is checkered, with ups and downs, things we are proud of and things we would like to forget or cover up. The latter is no longer possible, thanks to internet, and this is not easy for a church which for long controlled the information flow. The challenge is to open up historical sources in a regulated fashion and clearly the church is gearing to do so, viewing the information offered at lds.org on several of the issues and the ‘Saints’ publication, a move towards a new historiography. Much more will have to follow, but I am reasonably confident here. For 2019 I would vouch for integrating the newly opened material of the website into the lesson manuals, for that is still lacking.
1. From a theology of success to ??. Thus far our expansion and mission program have been the pride of the church, often cited as arguments for veracity, also in missionary and PR work. ‘The True Church grows, and will cover the world’, conform the famous (and often misused) Daniel prophecy. Now our growth is plateauing: all over the world branches are fused into wards, and the number of units has dropped drastically. Inside the International Church this is most evident, and almost all members in the Netherlands saw the composition of their wards change, since units of long standing were being integrated with others; many members have to travel a lot further these days. While on the whole this measure seems to work rather well, and the number of members that stopped coming to church because of increased distance seems to be limited, it is a signal that growth is slowing down, and that the leadership realizes that we have to hold on more than we can expect to expand. This may well have theological implications: we are no longer a church of spectacular growth, so that argument is fading away. What comes in its place?
2. Feminism. The priesthood-for-men-only rule will continue to generate opposition, and in the commentaries is increasingly being compared to the pre-1976 priesthood ban. This gender inequality will not become more popular and also, how long can we underuse more than half of the spiritual potential in our church? One key question is in what measure the church has really learned from the 1976 revelation on the priesthood and its long history? I have no immediate suggestions here, since this will take time, but we should not move too slowly. On the other hand, our leadership is probably well aware of what happened with our brothers, the Reorganized CJCLDS – now the Community of Christ – when they opened the priesthood for women. In terms of ministry and spirituality it was a boon, but the church did lose 1/3 of its members, mainly by wards splitting off. This raises the question where the problem in this particular gender issue of in fact resides, in the ministry itself or in members’ acceptation.
3. Addressing global issues. The issues raised above are mainly defensive, reacting on a world that is seen as impinging upon the Church. In the USA the church is now among the top five, which brings some responsibilities. I do think we are now at a stage where we can speak out on the problems of the world, the real ones that are not fights over definitions: war and peace, terrorism and violence, refugees and xenophobia, the increasing divide between poor and (super)rich, and finally the way we exercise our stewardship over our planet, so about depletion and climate change. I like to think that we are no longer a besieged minority, not a church under a barrage of critique any more, but a self-confident representative of Christ, reaching out to a world for which we do have an important message. And we definitely do a lot well: a strong message, a stable and coherent structure, a wealthy organization and above all a massive body of committed volunteers, with an above average educational background. Those are huge assets, that could well be used for goals more ambitious than just Church-oriented ones.
All this, I realize well, is highly presumptuous. The Book of Mormon urges us to take Gods counsel, instead of trying to counsel Him, so henceforth I intend to listen. Anyway, these are just some thoughts on the challenges, such as we see them from Europe: what challenges do you from other parts in the world see for 2019?
Walter van Beek