Births and Baptisms

January 15, 2005 | 13 comments

Over on the side bar, I’ve linked to an article about Russia’s–indeed, Eastern Europe’s–indeed, all of Europe’s-abysmally low birth rates. This is bad in itself, of course.

Is it also bad for missionary work? A cousin and a handful of friends of mine served their missions in Russia. They did not convert many souls. In fact, their missions sounded a lot like mine, in Spain. The main difference was that while my mission in Spain was only slightly impoverished, theirs in Russia were very much so.

This contradicts the conventional wisdom, that the work of conversion goes best in poor countries. I wonder if, in truth, the work of conversion goes best in fertile countries? Tell me what you think. Why would people in fertile countries be more likely to convert? How does this square with the conventional wisdom that most converts to the church aren’t whole families with children?

13 Responses to Births and Baptisms

  1. Brandon on January 15, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    In the Eastern European case (counting Russia), I can tell you that the people are typically either strongly Orthodox or are against organized religion. In many parts of Russia, there’s just a malaise that doesn’t lend itself to enthusiasm for religion. That’s not based on a whole lot of evidence, just my impression. One thing to think about is that maybe people that are wealthier tend to be more able to worry about religion, in the sense of spending disposable time, income, etc. I still don’t think that even comes close to overwhelming the “poor bias”, but it’s maybe a small factor.

  2. Adam Greenwood on January 15, 2005 at 11:25 pm

    Yes, in Spain there’s a malaise too. I’m just trying to figure out why there’s a malaise. Is it connected to childnessness, and if so is childnessness a cause or an effect or both?

  3. J. Stapley on January 15, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    Wilfried, a while ago, gave us this link (at the Cumorah Project) to an excellent analysis of the Churches missionary effort (Word Document). The bottom line: The Seventh Day Adventists and the JWs have rocked in the post-Cold War ecclesiastical vacuum. I had the opportunity to teach the mission prep class for the last couple months, and sent my last young man off…to Poland. I looked up its info (also at the Cumorah Project) and there are all of 251 active members (this after 16 years of missionary work). Russia for example has the following:

    Active LDS: 4,538
    Total LDS: 15,126
    7th Day Adventists: 52,512
    JWs: 114,284

    As to the reason for the disparity, that is hard to discern. I imagine that it has a lot to do with imposing the Utah church onto Kirtland saints. Had Joseph done the same, I imagine that things would have turned out much worse than they did.

  4. Wilfried on January 16, 2005 at 9:24 am

    I remain convinced there is still a significant potential for missionary success in any country, whatever their birth rates, especially those countries with a Christian background, including Western Europe and former Soviet countries where the Orthodox Church has a cultural layer. Many people continue to hanker after religion as appears from regular inquiries and analyses. The relative success of other churches/religions in converting people (Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Pentecostalism, Buddhism, Islam…) and the interest of people in freelance spirituality (all kinds of meditation) show that religion is not dead, on the contrary. But it seems we fail to capitalize on that potential. The reasons are many, the variables complex. I would just point at one: our failure to reach people with our message. I feel confident in saying that less than 0.1 % or worse (one out of thousand) Europeans has ever heard the message of the Restored Gospel, even in a succinct way. It seems most of us are in agreement that our present missionary system is not the most efficient any more in a media-oriented world. However, if we accept the Church is true, guided by a living prophet, must we not trust in the way things are being done? Perhaps the Lord has his own timetable for the conversion of the world? But it is frustrating to see other churches grow more rapidly and to read the figures of our active membership abroad. It is also frustrating to hear some members in Utah naively declare we have become a World Church and the fastest growing Church in the world. It would sound “negative” to dispute that illusion. At the same time it is obvious our top Church leaders are aware of the statistics and that the efficacy of missionary work and of retention is a top priority in their discussions.

  5. Mark Hansen on January 16, 2005 at 10:28 am

    It’s true that we are a church that is rapidly expanding into the world. I’m not convinced yet that we are a “world-wide” church. There are many traditions in the “american church” that are exported as doctrine, and many worthy traditions in the “non-american” church that are rejected as blasphemous at worst, or contrary to the Spirit at best. I see this a lot in church music.


  6. Gilgamesh on January 16, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    In my opinion a major factor can be the difference in the message we bring. In earlier years we emphasized the millenial reign was at hand (similar to SDA and JW messages today) now we emphasize family. In european cultures, family is becoming less emphasized and therefore the message does not stick. The millenial message gives hope and in many ways equalizes the poor with the rich. More are likely to turn to the judgemental God with wrath for the oppressors and rewards for the oppressed message that evangelical churches offer than the obey your government, and do your temple work message the church currently emphasizes. I also feel we are not an aggressive people in these countries, and therefore we end up with fewer converts.

  7. J. Stapley on January 16, 2005 at 4:15 pm


    My impressions of Europe were that Family was in greater focus than in the US. The idea that siblings would live thousands of miles apart and away from their parents (like me) seemed rather impalatable to most. Now if you are talking social values (premarital sex, SSM, marraige), then I will agree with you.

  8. Wilfried on January 16, 2005 at 8:51 pm

    I will not surprise that I am interested in the topic.
    1) Let’s be careful not to generalize. Premarital sex is, according to social studies, not on the rise

    From my experience, family situation and family values

  9. Wilfried on January 16, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    Oops, that got posted without waiting…

    It will not surprise that I am interested in the topic. Let’s be careful not to generalize.

    1) Premarital sex is, according to social studies, not on the rise nor at a younger age. What has become common in many European countries is “living together” for a number of years before marriage.

    2) From my experience with missionary work, family situation and family values have little to do with missionary success. I would even dare to say that we may have a little more success with problem families (tensions, divorce, instability), for these people are open to help that may come from joining a new Church. Strong balanced families are less likely to give up their stability and their traditional Church.

    3) Even if family problems, divorce, SSM etc are on the rise, there remain millions and millions of stable families in Europe. The traditional family, and the careful education of children, still characterize a majority of the population.

  10. Ben Huff on January 17, 2005 at 12:07 am

    In many places it seems a lot of our converts are relatively young. One might suppose this is because young people, especially high school, college, and twenty-somethings are still setting their direction in life and are more ripe to hear suggestions. I’m sure that factors in. However, I also suspect the age of our missionaries has a lot to do with our success in reaching people in that age range. Older people probably don’t find it as appealing to be taught by nineteen-year-olds, partly out of pride, but perhaps also partly because they may be looking for a more sophisticated teacher, someone whose presentation of the message draws on (more education and) more life experience. So it makes sense if places where there are fewer young people show fewer conversions. But this, I’m suggesting, may have more to do with the age of our messengers than it does the particular slant of our message (such as millenialism vs. family). What are the ages, typically, of the people doing the evangelizing for the JWs? In Japan, the JWs who knocked on my door were often in their thirties or so. Thus the need for, among other things, more couple missionaries.

  11. Jeremiah J. on January 17, 2005 at 2:15 am

    Adam, I did a summer project on the politics of population growth when I was an undergrad. Around that time (late 1990s) a large, very good study on the effects of democratization actually found that people have more kids in authoritarian regimes. The reasons for this are very mysterious.

    Russia is the most fascinating (but of course very sad) case among the growing set of countries which have very small or negative population growth–largely because Russia is not affluent. Much of the sadness about Russian comes from the fact that the lack of growth comes from the death side of the equation–violent death and accidents are shockingly large contributors to the overall deaths. One possible theory is that the USSR put in place popuation control mechanisms such as easy birth control and abortion at the same time that it was removing economic incentives to have children for economic reasons. Of course we in the US have these same things taking place but relatively high growth, so questions remain.

  12. Wilfried on January 17, 2005 at 8:29 am

    Good point, Ben. From my experience (many years in mission presidencies) somewhat older missionaries (not necessarily older couples, but in their mid twenties) are often and immediately more succesful — if they succeed to “get in”. JW’s often work with mixed age: a young man with an older one knocking on doors. A basic problem remains reaching people: the ratio who gets to hear the message is extremely low because of our tracting system. Raising that ratio is a priority. Also, the Church sometimes counts too much on the small group of local members who often have totally exhausted their own small circle of acquaintances. Hundreds of thousands are still outside that circle.

  13. Jim Richins on January 17, 2005 at 11:40 am

    It is an interesting topic – and perennially important – to consider the effectiveness of missionary efforts relative to local socio-economic factors.

    I have never found any substantial evidence in my own experience upon which to base the notion that the success of the gospel message is inversely proportional to economic affluence. Conversely, I have found that rich or poor are pretty much equally likely to accept the gospel.

    Several other factors for effective missionary work have been brainstormed: age of the messenger, the nature of the message itself, the social/political environment… I am certain all of these, and many others not yet identified, are all in operation. I doubt there is a single or small group of factors that can ultimately predict missionary success.

    The age of the messengers (19-23) may be a negative factor in many individual cases. However, I am sure it is a positive factor in many others. If the age of the messengers does finally figure to have a net negative effect, I bet it is relatively small.

    Certainly, a factor with a larger net effect than age is the skill/fluency of the messengers (fluency in the gospel, not just the language). Missionary preparation isn’t as great as it could be, even in the homes of the most faithful saints. Another practical aspect of missionary preparation is the amount that America, especially Utah, still has to “subsidize” the missionary force around the world. A messenger will not be as effective if he/she is a cultural foreigner, and who struggles to form even the most basic sentences.

    Missionaries have been in Russia for about 15 years. Maybe we should not expect a truly effective, native, missionary force to evolve in such a short amount of time. Of course, the gospel has been firmly established in lots of other places for many years, and a strong native missionary force is still not forthcoming…

    It is also true that members of our Church are frequently not as aggressive (perhaps assertive is a better word?) with member-missionary efforts, especially when compared to an actively proslyeting church like JW.

    This can also be said of our message. The soft-pedaling and dissembling of many luke-warm members when talking to their neighbors may be linked to our softer “family” message, versus a more black-and-white “Jesus is coming” type of message that forms the centerpiece of other churchs.

    Our finding methods are frequently not the most effective, either. How many hours do Elders spend tracting house-to-house vs. following up on specific leads developed via the media? I am certain that our church employs the media much more successfully in North America than in Europe… I wonder what can be done about that?

    However, I personally wonder how much success we can ultimately ever expect to see in Europe or Asia. I know, I know… the church will fill North and South America, and then go on to fill the world… But, does that mean 90%+ membership rates in every city in the world? On the other hand, when Joseph said “visit every clime” and “penetrate every continent”, it really does mean just “one of a city, and two of a family.” Perhaps church membership will remain a tiny minority in most places in the world even after the Second Coming. That being the case, diminishing conversion rates in some areas of the world may be the natural course of events before the Second Coming.


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