Let’s think about lines, circles, and time. The fall issue of Dialogue arrived today, and I was most interested in Henri Gooren’s article on church grown in Nicaraugua (“Latter-day Saints Under Siege: The Unique Experience of Nicaraguan Mormons”). What got me thinking was less the story that Gooren tells (although it is fascinating and worth a read) than the way in which he identifies cycles in church growth in Nicaragua: slow beginnings, rapid growth, a sharp drop, renewed growth, who knows what for the future… In the 1980s and 1990s there was a certain giddiness among Mormons at the sheer numerical success of our missionary efforts. Everyone gleefully quoted Stark’s predictions of a New World Religion, and dreamed of what the world would be like at the end of the 21st century when there were more Mormons than Frenchmen. (Indeed, in my first-ever published article I quoted Stark myself, although I am proud to say that I expressed some reservations.)
I don’t think that informed Mormon opinion still subscribes to the Stark thesis. (Yes, I realize that “informed Mormon opinion” is a loaded and elitist phrase; deal with it.) We realize that retention is horrible, attrition is high, and exponential growth is probably unsustainable. Indeed, I’ve even heard some informed (but mistaken) Mormon opinion talk darkly about the Church’s road to permanent decline and a future of small, fixed nominal growth that fails to keep up with attrition. From a demographics of millennial growth we go to a demographics of apocalyptic decline.
What is interesting about Gooren’s article is that it tells a story of cycles. Good apocalyptic believers that we are (we’re Latter-day Saints after all), we naturally think of time in teleological terms. We are moving from past through present to a conclusion in the future. Indeed, almost all of our theological narratives about the Church take a teleological form: this is the stone cut out of the mountain that is rolling toward its final destiny, etc. etc. Again, we think linearly and think about ultimate end-states. We could also, however, think of things cyclically. We don’t have good theological narratives for cyclical time, but Gooren’s research suggests something other than a dichotomy between unbounded future growth and inevitable future decline. Rather we have periods of growth and periods of contraction, with no inevitable cosmic sequence.
I suspect that both the historical reality and the actual future reveal not a single story of growth or decline, but rather cycles that include growth, contraction, and stagnation. Which poses the question of what sorts of theological stories we have to make sense of cycles? The clearest example I can think of is the Book of Mormon, but its cycles are embedded in a deeply teleological story of decline and fall. In the end, our doctrine seems to require a certain level of apocalypse, but we would do well — I think — to find a least some place for more circular notions of time.