Church membership grows in an environment of stability

Whenever I reflect on the growth and strength of the Church in the 20th century, I can't avoid remembering two events in my experience as a convert. The first is the memory of the place where I was baptized in 1972, in my hometown, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Back in those days my ward met in an old and unattractive house with makeshift classrooms that were hot and uncomfortable. My parents and I were baptized in a makeshift font built underneath a large mango tree. After my baptism I moved to another neighborhood, but the memories of that old house where I learned my first gospel lessons on this earth and where I first made covenants with the Lord have been with me ever since.

My children and grandchildren will never see that place because it no longer exists. Instead, years ago that old house was demolished and in its place now stands a comfortable stake center. For some, that modern building represents a tangible proof of the strength and stability of the Church in that area.

My second recollection comes from a set of occurrences during a trip to Brazil in 1995, after five years away from the country. I had a chance to visit the ward where, until my departure, I had served as bishop. What a difference five years make. Although this was a neighborhood where comparatively few baptisms took place, about half of the congregation in attendance that Sunday morning didn't know who I was. In fact, moments after my arrival a brother approached me in the foyer and asked if I was a member of the Church. When I answered that I not only was a member but that I also had served as bishop in that ward, he replied in a rather skeptical tone: "Here? In this ward?"

I suppose there must be countless stories like these in countries and regions where baptisms take place by the hundreds or even thousands every month. Yet, in my mind I cannot avoid this question: "Are new buildings and large numbers of converts the real measure of the Church's growth?" From a purely statistical standpoint the answer would be affirmative. Yet, I prefer an alternative definition to the notion of Church growth; one that can reveal itself anywhere in the world at any time, and is not confined to tangible circumstances nor numeric rates of growth.

The growth of the Church can also be seen as the sum of the spiritual and temporal growth of each of its members, and numeric growth may be seen as just a natural consequence and a reflection of personal growth. Consequently, the strength and truthfulness of the Church would not really be represented by its financial assets, real estate holdings, or even by its number of converts or temples. No matter how marvelous all these things are, the real strength of the Church is found in the testimonies of the saints, received from on high through the power of the Holy Ghost and manifested in daily acts of humble obedience and sacrifice.

One may see the power, majesty, and strength of the Church not in the number of temples in operation, but in the countless examples of humble members making sometimes great sacrifices to attend those temples diligently, despite financial difficulties and large distances. The strength of the Church may not lie in the existence of thousands of comfortable buildings, but in the inspiring lessons taught by ordinary people in those buildings, who like the Nephites of old "left their labor to impart the word of God . . . not esteeming [themselves] above [the] hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength." (Alma 1:26; brackets added.) And the strength of the Church may not be completely demonstrated in its past rates of growth or statistical projections for the future, but it is manifested whenever the members "impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted," (Alma 1:27) and when these same members, through simple and selfless acts of Christian service to others "succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees." (D&C 81:5.)

Independent statistical projections for future growth became well-known among Church members in the late 1990s. But instead of asking whether the Church is really going to reach 60, 100, or even 260 million members in the 21st century, a far more significant question would be: "What could be the implications — if any — of such projections for the current membership of the Church?"

If we accept the idea that the growth of the Church is the sum of the spiritual and temporal growth of each individual member, we can then conclude that regardless of location or circumstance, each member has a significant role to play in the future growth of the Church. No matter if the member lives in a large ward in Salt Lake City or in a newly established small branch in Mongolia. Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, one might say that "[Americans] have planted, [many nationalities] watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase." (1 Corinthians 3:6-7.) Every prayer, lesson, ordinance, act of service and obedience counts. Any such acts performed anywhere will produce spiritual outcomes that will transcend time and space.

With that thought in mind, I propose the idea that the so-called "mission field" is any place on earth where the three-fold mission of the Church is being implemented. Or any place where there is a single soul yet to be baptized. Or any place where there is a single soul yet to be brought back into full fellowship or full activity in the Church. Or any place where there is a single soul yet to receive personal or family ordinances in the House of the Lord.

I expect that in the 21st century the Lord will bless us with means to reach spiritual heights and numeric attainments that will far exceed the achievements of the 20th century. Technological means will allow us to "knock on people's satellite dishes," even in remote regions of the planet, with the same ease that we knock on doors down the street. But technology will be the means, not the end, and it will always take a back seat to the power of the Spirit displayed in the lives of those who are the humble servants of Christ. If there be any limits for our possibilities they will be imposed only by the extent of our faith.

Marcus H. Martins, an associate professor of Religion at BYU-Hawaii, serves as a high councilor in the BYU-Hawaii 1st Stake.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed