As a professional Mystery Worshiper, I would say that their web presence is possibly the least visitor-friendly site I’ve seen. The services are lackluster, noisy and unprofessional without much music and no technological bells and whistles. The messages are shallow and amateur at best, the dress code rigid, the women oppressed, and the moral life of their founder sets the standard as a sex-obsessed charlatan. Decisions that affect the world-wide church are made by a tiny group of old men to whom complete obedience is expected. Yet the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) continue to show rapid growth and continued impact around the world.
By any standard, other than adherence to anything close to orthodox Christian theology, this is a successful church.
What’s the deal?
Two things: organizational genius and a well-developed method of meeting one of the greatest of human needs: a sense of belonging both socially and spiritually.
The Mormon Organizational Genius
The LDS church is a tightly run, autocratic institution. The twelve Apostles and Prophets make all necessary decisions, including coming up with any new revelations about Mormon doctrine which can be pretty fluid. No democratic process to slow things down. No general or local conferences where everyone might have a say in the decisions. It’s tight and clean, well-funded and efficient.
There are no paid clergy or staff at any location. Various councils meet periodically and assign roles and responsibilities to the members. These responsibilities are frequently changed, so no one gets stuck in any particular service position for an extended period of time. The Sunday messages actually consist of “testimonies,” usually two per week, about twenty minutes each. These are also assigned. Each ward has its own Bishop, who generally stays in office for about five years. He oversees the functioning of the entire ward. Despite the fact that this is an extremely time-consuming job, there again is no financial compensation.
Buildings are functional, spacious, and utilized by several different “wards,” which are geographical groupings. Because Mormons are required to tithe, massive amounts of money flow into the central offices which permits them to fund rapid and worldwide expansion. Those monies then are used to build the local meeting places. Utilities and building maintenance needs are also funded by the central organization. I was unable to find any information about LDS finances on their official website so I don’t know their yearly revenue, and the Wikipedia article about LDS finances stated that “The LDS Church has not publicly disclosed its financial statements in the United States since 1959.” But they’ve got to be taking in billions every year.
Even without knowing the details, it is clear that such a structure frees the local gatherings from any fiscal concerns so energy can be spent on building and expanding their communities.
The Mormon Community
Because the wards are arranged geographically, people attend services with those who live close to them, and children and youth see their church friends at their local schools. There is no such thing as a mega-church where people come from extended distances for a worship show. They are there with their friends. Home groups are a piece of cake to set up. There is an active ethos of caring for one another. They are not alone.
From the time they are eight or nine years old, boys have an active role in the church services as those who distribute the sacraments (pieces of white bread and cups of water) to the congregations. They are ordained deacon at age 12, and can obtain full priesthood, the Melchizedek Priesthood, by age 18. At that point, they have the authority to give special blessings to family members and others and, under authorization of their own presiding priesthood leaders, can ordain other men to the priesthood.
Then there is the strongly encouraged two years of mission, which in my opinion is the cornerstone of the community. Young men may being their missions at 18, and the young women have just been granted permission to begin theirs at age 19. It used to be age 21 for the females, which effectively kept many of them from mission since early marriages are fairly common among Mormons. However, it is now expected that far more women will engage in that two-year service period.
Those who go on mission are very much isolated from their families and deeply enculturated into Mormon rules and regulations, doctrine and theology. They learn above all to be obedient to their superiors in the church. It’s not an environment that they would easily leave upon their return. It is also not an environment that teaches or encourages independent thought. Those years of mission would function much like initiation rites into fraternities or shared combat experience among veterans. It bonds them tightly to one another and to the church which sends them.
Add to this the extreme secrecy that surrounds the Temple rituals and the theology that says unless a woman is “sealed” in a Temple marriage, she will not have a place in the Celestial kingdom. The combination creates strong in-group cohesiveness with multiple social benefits. People always have a group to offer support and friendship. Furthermore, by means of their missionary training, essentially every Mormon knows how to explain the basics of their faith and invite others into the church.
Outsiders see attractive, friendly, family focused, generally moral people. Behavioral standards are high: no alcohol, coffee, tea, (soft drinks are fine), or tobacco. Although the LDS church no longer condemns outright those who experience same-sex attraction, sexual contact is reserved only in marriage, and only between men and women (hence again the young marriages).
In addition the LDS church can and does excommunicate members for thinking and speaking outside accepted faith guidelines. When one’s entire social and support community is found within the Mormon culture, the threat of excommunication carries significant weight. Although those who are excommunicated can still attend services, they may not partake in the sacraments or participate in any leadership role. It’s an effective shunning practice that keeps people in the fold. According to the 2006 church leadership handbook “formally joining another church constitutes apostasy and is an excommunicable offense; however, merely attending another church does not constitute apostasy.” Anyone aware of these rules will be extremely hesitant to investigate other religious traditions and beliefs, although there do appear to be growing numbers of disaffected Mormons.
In this year of retirement from being a United Methodist pastor to becoming professional church visitor, I’ve written many analyses of various fast growing church plants. United Methodists are certainly not among them. I keep looking for the commonalities and why we United Methodists, with our rich theology of grace, structures of accountability and important connection and more open arms are seeing such serious decline.
Two reasons are obvious:
1. We’re fighting like cats and dogs over issues of sexuality which is really a fight over biblical interpretation.
2. Our bureaucratic structure is just about to kill us. We are incapable of making quick decisions. There are times when it seem that every single detail of every single proposal has to be debated by every single delegate at outrageously expensive conferences.
But a third may be the death knell we absolutely don’t want to acknowledge: the decision to ordain women and bring them to positions of highest leadership. Things change when women–or any previously oppressed group–take leadership roles. But I’m writing specifically about women here. I am one, after all. One who very much believes God called me into the ministry of the ordained.
But it hurt us. The fast growing churches as a rule do not have female clergy. They also do not employ collaborative decision-making processes, which most women prefer. I know I’m speaking in generalities here, but have to start somewhere. As a rule, women are less interested in empire building–and that appears to be a major motivation in some of the fastest growing churches I’ve looked at–but more in the healing of the world and active engagement with those on the margins. We don’t have as much access to the male-dominated uber-wealthy who often provide massive funding for the highly conservative churches.
I’ll write more about this later, but this thought has been dancing at the edges of my mind for some time, and I wanted to go ahead and put this out there.
I welcome all comments. I think it is time we talk about this.