LDS Growth Encyclopedia on Missionary Work and Church Growth (Missiology)

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Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: September 2nd, 2013

Receptivity is a term used by religion and sociology researchers to describe the level of interest populations exhibit towards religion and openness to discuss and engage in religious matters.  Receptivity significantly varies on an individual, ethnic, cultural, gender, national, and religious basis.  Individuals from certain ethnic groups, cultures, countries, and religious backgrounds exhibit high interest in LDS teachings whereas others may exhibit moderate or low interest in LDS teachings due to societal and cultural conditions.  Significant factors that influence receptivity include government and societal restrictions on religious freedom, the influence of secularism on society, the degree of economic development and modernization, the common public opinion of the LDS Church, the prominence of substance abuse and practices that oppose LDS teachings, and the strength and characteristics of ethnoreligious ties.  Generally speaking, women are more receptive to LDS teachings and missionary work than their male counterparts according to hundreds of reports from returned missionaries, ordinary members, and church leaders around the world.

Sociologists and religion researchers identify that the growth of religious groups largely depends on the interplay of supply-side and demand-side factors.[1]  Supply-side factors denote the availability of missionary resources to spread a religious faith whereas demand-side factors denote population characteristics that promote interest in converting to a different religious faith.  Receptivity primarily pertains to demand-side factors as these factors determine how interested the population is in nontraditional religious faiths, the commitment to follow and become an active member in a religious group, and the value and importance placed on the personal expression and engagement of religious behaviors and habits.

There are many factors that contribute to how receptive populations are to LDS teachings and proselytism efforts.  For example, there is a strong negative correlation between the prominence of secularism and the degree of interest in LDS teachings.  Nominalism is often associated with lower receptivity as individuals exhibit little if any personal commitment to following religious tenets when they are only nominally affiliated with a traditional religious faith.  Nominalism often corresponds with ethnoreligious ties to traditional religious faiths with little, if any, expression of personal religious commitment and belief.  At times ethnoreligious ties are nearly insurmountable as culture, society, tradition, family, and friends all oppose conversion to nontraditional faiths and often ostracize, persecute, and harass converts to the LDS Church.  Consequently strong ethnoreligious ties reduce receptivity as many individuals interested in joining the LDS Church are hesitant to break what is often a long family tradition of identifying with the dominant religious faith in their area and are reluctant to incur any negative response from their families and communities.  Receptivity may be good or high in some locations where populations are only nominally affiliated with a religious group but the Church has struggled to instill personal religious habits such as daily personal scripture study, personal prayer, and weekly church attendance in investigators, new converts, and seasoned members.

Receptivity to nontraditional Christian faiths is often poor in countries where secularism predominates.  The LDS Church generally reports stagnant growth in secular countries where the majority of the population is unaffiliated or nominally affiliates with a traditional religious group.  Finding investigators to teach is often challenging due to disinterest in organized religion.  Investigators and prospective converts often experience greater struggles in testimony development and following church teachings in countries with a strong influence of secularism on society than in countries where secularism has a weaker influence.  A lack of religious influence on society has often exacerbated behaviors that stand in opposition to LDS teachings such as substance abuse, casual sexual relations, cohabitation before marriage, and shopping and recreation on Sundays.  Some issues pertaining to faith, belief, and attitude also present challenges such as approaching the traditionally conflicting views of science and religion, the belief of one's relationship with God, and the role of personal revelation and Sunday worship in religious identity.

Receptivity largely determines how successful LDS missionary programs are in certain locations or where missionary programs target certain ethnic groups.  Flexibility in adapting proselytism approaches and teaching methods to local cultural and societal conditions can significantly influence receptivity and the success of missionary programs.  Populations exhibit the greatest receptivity to the LDS Church in locations where there is a high societal emphasis on attending and participating in religious meetings, where basic religious behaviors such as individual prayer and scripture study are commonly followed, where religious pluralism is present, and where modernization and economic development has disrupted the traditional hierarchal social systems of a society resulting in greater opportunity for individuals to redefine their religious identities as other aspects of their identity adapt to their changing environment.  Success in baptizing and retaining sizable numbers of converts in many areas of the world has more often occurred as a function of the level of receptivity to the LDS Church rather than to the availability of mission resources or the Church's standardized missionary program.  For example, in Latin America populations were most receptive to LDS teachings in the latter portion of the twentieth century when there were fewer mission resources allocated to the region than at present.  The Church managed to channel greater resources into the region in the 2000s and early 2010s but populations became less receptive, resulting in diminished growth.  In Europe, the Church experienced rapid growth as tens of thousands of converts joined the Church within short periods of time in northern Europe during the mid-nineteenth century.  However, by the latter-half of the twentieth century when mission resources were more plentiful to extend farther-reaching outreach in the region, fewer converts were baptized due to reduced receptivity.

Supply-side challenges for the LDS Church have not appeared to have influenced the receptivity of populations to the Church other than the Church missing opportunities to proselytize populations when they are most receptive to a Latter-day Saint gospel witness when there is limited availability of mission resources.  The delayed establishment of the Church in some locations has created greater challenges for growth as natural growth and member-missionary programs are the most effective means in achieving any growth in locations that exhibit low receptivity to LDS teachings.  It can take years or even decades to develop natural growth and strong member-missionary programs in some areas of the world.  This finding appears to explain how Jehovah's Witnesses have managed to achieve slow but steady growth in most European countries within the past decade whereas the LDS Church has experienced stagnant growth or slight decline in most locations.  Witnesses established a widespread presence at a time when populations were more receptive than at present and today have self-sufficient missionary programs in most locations in Europe.  On the other hand, the LDS Church has relatively recently established its presence in most European countries and has congregations operating in comparatively fewer locations than Witnesses and with dramatically lower levels of self-sufficiency than achieved by Witnesses.

The excessive allocation of mission resources into a handful of locations where populations exhibit low receptivity has resulted in little, if any, progress in achieving church growth in many areas of the world.  The assignment of multiple missionary companionships to a small congregation in these less-receptive locations frequently results in oversaturation of missionary resources.  The point of oversaturation depends on several factors, namely the size of the target population, the degree of receptivity to LDS teachings, the strength and quality of member-missionary activity, and the size of active LDS membership.  Oversaturation in small congregations generally occurs because missionaries find few productive proselytism activities over the long-term and gradually undertake member and local leadership responsibilities such as home and visiting teaching, blessing the sacrament, and teaching primary.  Locations where there is low receptivity to the Church, few active members, and local leadership that cannot properly function without outside assistance are especially vulnerable to oversaturation as assigning multiple missionary companionships seldom increases convert baptisms without reducing convert retention rates.

The percentage of Latter-day Saints in a country often reflects long-term receptivity to the LDS Church for two reasons.  First, the percentage of Latter-day Saints in a country reflects the proportion of the population that has converted to the LDS Church.  Second, higher percentages of the population affiliating with the LDS Church corresponds with  national outreach expansion.  LDS membership constitutes the largest percentages in countries in Oceania, the western United States and Canada, and several areas of Latin America where the Church has generally had a long-term presence and where other outreach-focused faiths also report membership comprising a large percentage of the population.  Interest in organized religion, comparatively few cultural barriers that stand against LDS teachings than in other world regions, relatively favorable public views on the LDS Church, widespread background in Christianity but with weak to moderate ethnoreligious ties to particular Christian denominations, the establishment of LDS community, few if any restrictions on religious freedom, modernization in some countries, and increasing religious pluralism appear to have made these locations more receptive than others.  Double affiliation is a frequent challenge in many of these countries due to high receptivity in the population to outreach-oriented faiths.  Many individuals change their religious affiliation resulting in two or more churches claiming the same individuals on their records.

Receptivity influences the effectiveness of certain finding methods.  In locations with high receptivity to the LDS Church, street contacting and door-to-door proselytism can be effective proselytism activities due to sizable percentages of the population exhibiting interested in organized religion and LDS teachings.  However, these finding activities number among the least efficient and effective according to returned missionaries and church leaders in most areas of the world.[2]  The primary challenge baptizing and retaining individuals found through street proselytism and door-to-door finding centers on the socialization of these individuals into their assigned congregations.  Individuals who were initially found by full-time missionaries but make friends at church have the greatest prognosis for long-term activity as they do not depend on full-time missionaries for ecclesiastical and social support.  In locations with lower receptivity, passive finding approaches such as teaching English, humanitarian and development projects, and holding special musical performances and social events can number among the most effective methods for finding investigators.  However, member-missionary work invariably results in the highest quality of investigators and the best outlook for conversion and long-term activity regardless of the level of receptivity to the LDS Church.

The concept of receptivity also pertains to the degree of interest and devotion to LDS teachings among Latter-day Saint populations.  Less-active and inactive members vary on a continuum of receptivity to reactivation efforts, with some that have sincere interest to return to Church but often lack the courage and planning for how to begin and complete the process of returning to full activity.  On the other hand, other inactive members have totally divorced themselves from the Church and express no interest to return back to activity on virtually any level.  The most successful reactivation programs concentrate on the most receptive less-active and inactive members rather than all less-active and inactive members.

The outlook for changes in global receptivity to the LDS Church appears mixed.  Many countries currently experiencing steady economic development and modernization will likely become less receptive to the LDS Church as the influence of Western secularism and materialism become more widespread.  These locations may include Latin America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Ghana.  Some countries may experience increased receptivity, namely locations in which greater religious pluralism evolves and strong ethnoreligious ties weaken.  However many countries will likely experience no noticeable change in receptivity to the Church for the foreseeable future such as Western Europe, Oceania, and industrialized East Asia.  Further adaptation of LDS teaching and proselytism methods to local social and cultural conditions will be requisite for the Church to maintain or accelerate growth over the long term.


[1]  Lawson, Ronald, and Ryan T. Cragun. 2012. "Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51(2):220-240.


[2]  Val Johnson, R.  "How to Be a Great Member Missionary," Ensign, August 2007.