Conversion, Culture, and Buying Members

November 29, 2005 | 11 comments
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The mufti here in Bishkek spoke at a conference on religious tolerance a few days ago. He has recently returned from a trip to the United States and said that if Muslims want Islam to be more respected in America, Muslim countries need to allow religious freedom in their own countries.

The mufti’s only concern with allowing religious freedom is his perception that many of these Christian sects buy their members. I’ve read this accusation over and over in the news here in Central Asia and it is by far the most common criticism of new Christian sects.

Certainly there is reason for the mufti’s concern- there are many who do join a specific church because of the financial assistance they might get. But what is a Christian to do? We’re commanded to help those in need. Many denominations do give assistance to a variety of people, but is it any wonder that they probably feel a greater responsibility to those who have joined their church?

This is major reason why I think the LDS church’s humanitarian aid is so important. It goes to water projects, wheelchair donations, mitigating natural disasters, and so much more. A load of wheelchairs was sent to Kyrgyzstan when there were almost no members here, and none of those members needed a wheelchair. Uzbekistan has requested humanitarian aid when there are no local members in the country- they wouldn’t even be allowed to practice if they were. Of course, there are plenty who think this humanitarian aid is an effort to influence governments which brings along its own set of problems.

The other common concern- especially from foreigners’ perspective- is that becoming a Christian takes away a person’s culture heritage. For example, we spoke to an attorney who was advising some missionaries from another church about an Afghan refugee family living in Kyrgyzstan that had joined their church. That church was trying to help those Afghans go to Canada as refugees. But when the Canadian officials were checking into their background, the neighbors told the officials that they were no longer Afghan because they were Christian. The Canadian government refused their application because the government was worried that this family wouldn’t be able to integrate into an Afghan immigrant community in Canada.

Many people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan wouldn’t feel quite so strongly about this. I have asked a number of Kyrgyz if changing religions is acceptable and nearly all have said it’s fine as long as the family agrees. Afghanistan is much more religiously observant than Central Asia. But still, Central Asians are culturally Muslims in much the same way that most Jews are culturally Jewish instead of religiously Jewish. And even though very few of those cultural traditions conflict with the gospel, it is still seen as a radical change for many people. It’s also important to remember that there isn’t any one correct way to be a Mormon.

These two issues, and many more, come up all over the world, but it’ll be a little different everywhere. It’s interesting that even though almost no one has heard of the Church here, there will be, as always, plenty of preconceptions about it.

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11 Responses to Conversion, Culture, and Buying Members

  1. Adam Greenwood on November 29, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    Obviously we don’t want to buy members. Neither I suppose do the new Christian sects that participate in the practice of buying members. So the question I have is, (1) are the sects really buying members (in other words, how many folks are participating cynically for the benefits) and, if the number isn’t great, (2) do the negative effects of the perception of buying members outweigh the positive effects on retention and conversion. (Note the assumption in what I’m saying: that some temporal aid can have positive affects on retention and conversion that is not tantamount to buying members).

    I *hope* the church is trying to influence governments.

  2. slam smith on November 29, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    After the war in Germany a lot of the new members were called “Dosen Mormonen” literally can mormons. They had joined the church to get the aid sent by American saints. As soon as the aid stopped or wasn’t needed, these “members” fell away. I not sure I can really condemn them. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and joining a religion you don’t believe in, doesn’t really seem all that desperate. I heard this story from a member who joined the church shortly after the war. He refused to take aid for a while because he didn’t want anyone to think that he had joined the church in order to get handouts. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar situations have occured in Central Asia as well to various Christian groups.

  3. manaen on November 29, 2005 at 8:46 pm

    I’ve wondered for a while how non- and anti-LDS view and discuss the PEF, with its concentration on RMs in less-developed countries.

  4. Christian Y. Cardall on November 29, 2005 at 10:14 pm

    Central Asians are culturally Muslims in much the same way that most Jews are culturally Jewish instead of religiously Jewish.

    For some weird reason I cannot justify or rationalize—perhaps I’m simply parroting it from somewhere—the time when a majority of adherents of (insert religion here) are culturally (insert religion here) without being religiously (insert religion here) strikes me as a sign that (insert religion here) has reached “world religion” status.

  5. Erica Merrell on November 29, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    According to every news story I’ve read (obviously taken with a grain of salt) about new Christian churches, most members join for financial reasons. And after talking to various Christians here, I have no doubt that there are churches who are happy to have people join for any reason- the faith might come later if they can just keep them coming to church. Whether many people do change religions for financial reasons might not matter because news reports contribute a great deal to the problem. For example, this article ran shortly after Elder Nelson visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2003.

    So, yes, the question is whether the negatives outweigh the positives. The trouble is that all Christians get lumped together and the negative effects from one church get applied to all churches. The positives don’t seem to get so nicely distributed.

    Christian, if that were the standard, then there would certainly be fewer world religions. But the cultural connection to a religion is important in identifying what a person is. Even if there is little belief, much less practice, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. have all played a major role in the world. I’m more inclined to say a religion’s worldwide effect is more important than the number of adherents or their personal level of commitment.

  6. Wilfried on November 30, 2005 at 12:37 am

    Erica, I fixed the link in your comment 5. I hope that was the article you meant. The topic is fascinating, and I guess many Mormons would be surprised to hear that we are not being waited for with open arms. In this news item, I think from Central Russia in Muslim territory, we are “a devilish, dangerous sect of CIA spies”.

    The focus in this thread has been on members being “bought”. But there are of course also many genuine converts. I would like to draw the attention on the immense responsibility we have, as Church leaders, members, missionaries, when we bring people into the Church in such areas. Religiously we do our duty in trying to convert people. But if we break up families, if we cannot provide these converts enough protection, if we cannot guarantee, at least minimally, their happiness, are our efforts ethical? It’s something I have been struggling with. Of course, our Church history shows those problems and tensions have always existed in missionary work, but in times past we encouraged and effectively helped all our converts emigrate to the U.S. This is not the case any more. Moreover, the missionaries have an efficient exit-plan if things go sour, but what about those we leave behind?

  7. Erica Merrell on November 30, 2005 at 5:49 am

    Thanks for fixing the link, Wilfried. Sometimes it’s amusing to see what people can come up with about the Church in Russia and Central Asia, but the reason that the Church hasn’t been recognized in Kyrgyzstan is because of conflicting reports about whether we are helpful or dangerous and it’s not quite so amusing. It does matter what people think about us.

    I wish there were more that could be done for those that get left behind- or for those that never had anyone else there in the first place. This lack of support happens to be another criticism leveled against new Christian churches in Central Asia and especially in Mongolia where there is significantly more Christian activity. But if the missionaries leave or were never there, who else is there to support those members besides each other? Sometimes that’s enough (like I’ve said before, I’ve been impressed with the members in Kyrgyzstan in this regard), but sometimes it’s not.

    I know it would only be a partial solution to a big problem, but I do wish more LDS families would live overseas and actually be involved with the local members. Certainly not to run things or to be in any kind of leadership position, but simply to give some much-needed support.

  8. Seth Rogers on November 30, 2005 at 11:36 am

    Money represents many things:
    -Hard Work
    -Dedication
    -Priorities

    It also represents some negative things.

    But money is how so many things are expressed, it would be irresponsible for the Church not to spend in on taking care of its members and others. Dedication of funds is an essential communication from the Church that certain things matter.

    Of course the Church is buying us off (at least a little bit). Money talks. It has immediate credibility with people, because of what it represents. People want assurance that our Church cares about them. Money is one very good way of demonstrating that compassion.

    So yes, I think the Church is buying people off. And no, I don’t have any problem with that whatsoever.

  9. lyle on December 1, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    So much for Canada’s vaunted open door policy & acceptance. What a joke. Not accepting refugees based on their religion when it didn’t match the religion of their “ethnic/nationality”.

  10. Bookslinger on December 1, 2005 at 1:55 pm

    I’m led to believe that there is not an insignificant number of members in the States who show up on Sundays in order to qualify for church welfare.

  11. Kevin Graham on January 23, 2006 at 11:57 am

    Islam is the most respected religion in America, as evidenced by their privileges no other faith could claim.