The development of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always been marvelous, but our sense of just what it is doing has changed quite dramatically from one decade to another. When Joseph Smith first went to (what in hindsight we call) the Sacred Grove, he was seeking guidance for his own spiritual life. He wanted to know that he was right with God and received the most dramatic reassurance. It took him a while to absorb the idea that he was also being called to restore the Church of Jesus Christ to Earth.
When the Saints gathered to Ohio or Missouri, they wanted to build Zion, in preparation for Christ’s imminent Second Coming. They laid out the plan of a new Jerusalem. It took a while for it to become clear that church headquarters was going to be in Salt Lake for a century or two. When the Saints gathered to Utah, they were gathering to Zion. Perhaps the Civil War was the beginning of the end of the world, and we would shelter behind the mountain walls until war was replaced by millennial peace. It took a while before we started to think of gathering as something that happens in stakes of Zion all over the world.
When President Kimball said that every worthy young man in the Church should serve a full-time mission, we thought of the image of the stone in Daniel’s vision, rolling forward to fill the Earth (Daniel 2:45 D&C 65:2). As the missionary force grew, and the numbers of converts grew over the decades that followed, the stone seemed to roll forward just as the image suggests. When the Iron Curtain came down, we were eager to send missionaries to new lands, and many living there were eager to join the Church.
As the initial rush of converts died down, it became clear that the growth of the Church in numbers was much greater than its growth in vitality, as in most parts of the world, many, many converts did not remain active. We built many more temples, to strengthen members across the world. Elders Holland and Oaks went abroad to better understand and address the problem of inactivity. The missionary teaching materials were dramatically revised. Based on what I hear from my brother on a mission, though, and what I see in my wards, the growth of the church in vitality, in the form of active, committed, members with testimonies, is still much more modest than it had appeared for a time. It seems better for the changes, but still doesn’t quite seem like a flood. We are responding to the gap between what we had in mind and what has really been happening, but the explosive growth of, say, the Utah period seems unlikely in the near future. As the 20-teens approach, what is our marvelous work today?