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

Return to Table of Contents

Ethnoreligious Ties

Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: November 8th, 2013

Missiology researchers refer to the traditional religious affiliation of an ethnic group as an ethnoreligious tie.  Ethnoreligious ties promote the religious, societal, cultural, and political imposition of a traditional faith's values and expectations on members of the ethnic group.  Depending on the influence of secularism and fundamentalism on society, ethnoreligious ties can result in disinterest in nontraditional faiths as a result of indifference to personal religiosity within the framework of organized religion or authoritarian allegiance to the traditional faith.  More commonly, ethnoreligious ties have a strong correlation with nominalism as there is a societal expectation to affiliate with the traditional religious group but there is often less pressure to actually practice the tenets of the faith outside of observing special observances and holidays.  Consequently many of these individuals exhibit low receptivity to LDS missionary efforts due to low levels of personal religiosity and disinterest in other religious groups. 

Investigators and converts from ethnic groups that exhibit strong ethnoreligious ties experience significant difficulties acculturating to the LDS Church and enduring opposition from family, friends, and the community.  Consequently, many converts who join the Church from these ethnic groups achieve a high degree of devotion and dedication to living church teachings and actively attending church in order to voluntarily incur societal disapproval.  LDS converts in some locations experience severe hardships from joining the Church and remaining active that have included ostracism, losing employment and housing, harassment, persecution, and in extreme cases threats against personal safety and physical harm. 

Ethnoreligious ties pose the greatest challenges for LDS missionary efforts in locations where ethnoreligious ties have a strong influence on the societal attitude of religious practice altogether.  For example, the Church has struggled to adequately address the difficulty of retaining formerly Catholic converts in many Latin American countries as many new members continue to exhibit a lackadaisical approach to personal involvement and commitment to religious practice.  The Church in Latin America has successfully helped many formerly Catholic converts join the Church notwithstanding the cultural heritage tied to the Catholic Church largely due to the extremely small percentage of practicing Catholics in the region.  Many of these societal attitudes of religious practice carry over into the LDS Church from formerly Catholic converts and have contributed to low member activity rates throughout the region.  

The Church has taken few steps to address the complexities of proselytizing ethnic groups that exhibit strong ethnoreligious ties.  There are essentially no teaching or missionary resources instructing how to assist converts struggling to reconcile the conflict and upheaval inflicted by severing their ethnoreligious tie to their traditional faith.  These issues influence the relationship of converts with nonmember family members and relatives, the commitment to remain active in the Church if family disowns or distances themselves from a convert, and the willingness to perform member-missionary work among others within their same ethnic group.  The development of resources to assist investigators and converts struggling with issues pertaining to ethnoreligious ties may improve convert retention rates, member-missionary participation, and active membership growth among ethnic groups that exhibit strong ethnoreligious ties.  The few approaches in place to help accommodate new converts struggling with ethnoreligious issues center on socialization with other members, especially among young single adult (YSA) members.  Failure to develop greater resources to address this need will likely result in the ongoing emigration of many converts to countries where they can escape these difficult conditions.  The steady emigration of active members has devastated the strength and size of the LDS community in many countries where there are strong ethnoreligious issues such as in Armenia and Poland.

The infusion of religion into government occurs in many countries within the Muslim world and has dissuaded LDS leadership from conducting missionary activity in most of these nations.  Strong ethnoreligious ties in these locations present not only a major obstacle for assigning foreign missionaries if government officials permitted Christian proselytism in the first place but also pose safety concerns for prospective converts.  Consequently the Church does not perform official missionary activity in nearly all of these nations due to these insurmountable barriers.  Most unreached countries by the Church are homogenous Muslim nations where national and local governments ally themselves with Islam and prohibit or strongly dissuade the Christian proselytism of Muslims.  Some countries continue to have laws that technically decree the death penalty for apostasy from Islam although there are virtually no countries that openly and regularly enforce this law. 

Prospects appear dim for the Church to change its current trajectory in addressing ethnoreligious issues among investigators and converts due, in part, to a lack of awareness of this issue on a worldwide scale and reliance on full-time missionaries and mission presidents to improvise solutions within their jurisdictions to address these needs.  Opportunities for church growth are favorable among many groups that exhibit strong ethnoreligious ties but these opportunities are often time sensitive.  Many ethnic groups undergo a transition from strict, staunch observance of the traditional faith to a nominal affiliation that continues to link ethnicity with religion but with reduced emphasis on the personal and familial relationship with God and religious practices.  The critical timing for LDS proselytism efforts to be most effective rests in the narrow period between the staunch observance of a faith and the imposition of secular values that result in nominalism.   The development of teaching and missionary resources to assist church leaders, missionaries, and new converts facing ethnoreligious issues will be crucial for achieving noticeable improvement in addressing this multifaceted and often deeply personal predicament.