In the Tanner Lecture at MHA this year, Philip Jenkins noted the substantial growth of Mormonism in Africa and asked the question: Why hasn’t it done better? After noting that the LDS growth rate is about the same as other Christian denominations, and pointing out that certain characteristics of Mormonism really resonate with African culture, he expressed surprise that it is not growing much faster. One of those characteristics he mentioned is the LDS doctrine of vicarious work for the dead, which really resonates with an African sense of connectedness to and anxiety for ancestors.
I heard something yesterday that really seemed to confirm Jenkins’s connection between African culture and Mormon work for the dead. While my wife and I were doing sealings in the Provo Temple, our sealer, a Dutchman and former mission president who served in Africa, shared a story to illustrate what he saw as the importance of the sealing ordinance . He told us about a Zulu man–he described him as being very tall–he met while he was serving in Africa. Despite mission policy that investigators must attend church for at least a month before baptism, this man insisted that he be baptized the following Saturday. He was so insistent that the missionaries sent him to the mission president. After the president explained to the man the mission policy, the man told the president that he (the president) just did not understand. Then the Zulu man related a dream. He had a dream in which he visited the spiritual world. There he saw his mother but his father was not with her–he was very far away. He asked his mother why she was not with his father and she explained that they were not married there and that they could not be together until they had been sealed in an LDS temple. Explaining that his parents had been apart for many years, the man insisted that he had to be baptized that saturday so he could go to the temple and do the work for his parents so they could finally be together. The mission president agreed; he was baptized that Saturday and confirmed the following day. On monday morning, as our sealer related, the president got a call from the temple saying that a tall man was “banging on the door” insisting that he needed to come in so his parents could finally be together. “You need to teach your people about temple recommends,” the temple staff chided him. Several months later he was able to go to the temple and perform the ordinances and later had another dream in which he saw his father and mother together.
So, Jenkins’s thesis seems to be right, in that respect. But what about his question: Why isn’t Mormonism growing faster? Jenkins suggested two main factors: (1)Drumming and dancing are a major part of African culture and have syncretized with most Christian worship in Africa but they have not been incorporated into LDS meetings; and (2) while many Christian churches have appointed indigenous leadership, the LDS churches in Africa are still very often led by white faces. These two factors, Jenkins suggests, probably account for an average growth rate that could potentially be phenomenal.
I caught rumor, a few days after MHA back in Salt Lake, that after Jenkins’s lecture he was approached by someone in the audience who had served in some leadership capacity in the Church in Africa. He informed Jenkins, or so the rumor goes, that the gradual growth rate in Africa is a very intentional move by the Church, in order to build a strong foundation of trained local leaders who will then be prepared for the phenomenal growth they anticipate in the future.
I, of course, did not hear that conversation (and I hope I got the rumor report right) but found it very much in line with what I perceive to be a somewhat recent emphasis on retention–an emphasis symbolized quite well by the past appointments of Elders Oaks and Holland to the Philippines and Chile.
Jenkins’s comments bring up some very interesting considerations for the global expansion of the LDS Church and point to what may be some of our most significant growing pains.
So my question: How might the growth of the LDS Church in Africa be changing the face of Mormonism? And how are the folks “back home” in the Mormon culture region (or elsewhere in Mormondom) responding to it?
 Sealings, in LDS worship, refers to vicarious marriage ceremonies that are performed by proxy on behalf of the dead; these ordinances are only performed in LDS temples. Latter-day Saints believe that these ordinances “seal” couples together in an eternal union.