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

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Religious Freedom Restrictions

Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: March 8th, 2014

Restrictions on religious freedom occur in some areas of the world due to government policies, legislation banning proselytism for some or all religious groups, and societal norms that discourage or prohibit missionary activity or conversion to nontraditional faiths. Government restrictions on religious freedom often originate from societal restrictions on religious freedom, especially in countries with predominantly Muslim populations. LDS Church growth trends including outreach expansion patterns, local leadership sustainability, and efficiency in missionary work in countries with restrictions on religious freedom largely depend on the availability of church materials in native languages, the frequency of visits from mission and area leaders, the receptivity of the general population to LDS teachings, and policies favoring or hindering the baptism of native converts. The LDS Church can experience strong membership and congregational growth in nations with governmental and societal restrictions on religious freedom as these conditions require strong dedication from converts to investigate, join, and remain active in the Church and often force local members to fill leadership roles rather than nonnative full-time missionaries and expatriate members.

The Church generally experiences the highest convert retention rates in countries that experience restrictions on religious freedom or that have minimal involvement from full-time missionaries in the finding and fellowship processes due to local members undertaking these responsibilities. Religious freedom restrictions limit finding methods to member referral and passive proselytism approaches, resulting in greater member-missionary participation and oftentimes more interested investigators than in countries with few or no religious freedom restrictions. Higher convert retention and member activity rates and more self-sufficient local leadership has not been entirely the product of church policy complying with governmental and societal laws and standards for religious practice. Converts who join the LDS Church must make a major decision to incur any persecution, disapproval, harassment, and ostracism that stems from their conversion. This often higher level of devotion of converts when they are baptized has been a significant contributor toward the strength and efficiency of the Church in nations that experience restrictions on religious freedom.

Government and societal restrictions on religious freedom appear to have fostered self-sufficiency in the Church in several countries as foreign missionaries generally do not serve in these countries, contact with mission and area leadership is limited, and ordinary members must assume responsibility for administering their congregations with no other church leaders or officials to fall back upon. Natives constitute the majority of church membership in Burma, mainland China, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, and Vietnam.  These six countries offer unique and interesting insights into LDS growth as government and societal restrictions on religious freedom limit interaction with international LDS membership and leadership. These conditions generally spur self-sufficiency in leadership and church growth, with the greatest growth occurring in mainland China and Pakistan notwithstanding substantial restrictions on religious freedom and moderate to low levels of receptivity to Christianity.  The Church may only assign local members to serve as full-time missionaries in two of these nations (Pakistan and Vietnam) whereas no proselytizing missionaries serve in mainland China, Laos, and Nepal. Limiting the number of missionaries assigned results in healthy, commensurate growth in these nations as there is little if any dependence on full-time missionaries for administrative tasks and there tends to be more accountability for preparing investigators for baptism and retaining new converts.  Social and governmental restrictions on religious freedom also require higher levels of commitment from converts to join the Church compared to converts in countries where no such restrictions exists.

Moderate to high levels of self-sufficiency in locations where government and society limit religious freedom often fosters a sense of LDS community, although this condition generally coincides with reduced national outreach capabilities.  Members in countries like Pakistan, mainland China, Nepal, and Laos must rely on each other to live LDS teachings, conduct missionary work within the confides of the law, and develop leadership skills to meet local needs.  Many of these countries produce a high number of full-time missionaries notwithstanding religious freedom restrictions due to the development of LDS community.  Returned missionaries provide valuable leadership manpower in these nations, especially when they observe the Church operating in locations like the North American and Oceania where most members reside in stakes with well-trained leadership.  These missionary experiences can help returned missionaries proficiently fill leadership and understand the role of leaders upon their return home but can also increase the probability that they may emigrate.

Foreigners constitute the majority of church membership in most sensitive and semi-sensitive countries due to religious freedom restrictions, low receptivity stemming from cultural attitudes towards nontraditional Christian groups, and few missionaries assigned if missionaries are permitted to serve at all. Foreign-membership majority countries include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Foreign members often play an important role in establishing the Church among the indigenous population where government and society permit Christian missionary activity. However, due to the transient and temporary nature of many foreign members residing in sensitive countries for employment and military purposes the Church can fail to establish itself among the native population before foreign members relocate elsewhere. For example, the Church once operated a tiny branch in Damascus, Syria that consisted almost entirely of foreign members. By mid-2012, there did not appear to be any LDS presence in Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War as all foreign members likely fled the country. The Church has been largely unsuccessful in establishing a self-sufficient presence in homogenously Muslim nations due to strong ethnoreligious ties of the indigenous population with Islam, a lack of Muslim-specific teaching approaches and resources, and compliance of the Church to follow local laws and policies forbidding the proselytism of Muslims by Christian faiths.

Corruption has negatively impacted LDS missionary activity in a variety of ways and often overlaps with government and societal restrictions on religious freedom. Organized crime has interfered with missionary activity in some countries such as Mexico. Corruption has hampered efforts to expand missionary work in countries where local or regional government authorities refuse to grant registration to the Church notwithstanding no legal grounds for these actions. In Russia, corruption and restrictions and abuses of religious freedom have been closely intertwined such as local government authorities interfering with meetinghouse construction and missionary proselytism.[1] Corruption has limited employment opportunities for many members in the Philippines and other countries resulting in emigration to other countries where better employment opportunities can be secured. Corruption has also been financially taxing on the Church. Organized crime has required the Church to pay fees to avoid the damage or destruction to church property. Senior missionaries serving in several different Sub-Saharan African countries report that they have to pay bribes to law enforcement and government personnel in order to cross international boundaries or if they are stopped while traveling from city to city. The Church has been unable to obtain needed government permissions to station foreign missionaries in some locations due to corruption in local, regional, and national government as no legal restrictions prevent the Church from assigning missionaries to these locations.

Conditions to establish an LDS presence were once more favorable in several nations but the Church missed its opportunity to gain a foothold before political and religious freedom conditions deteriorated. For example, there were few restrictions to proselyte and send missionaries to several Central Asian countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) in the 1990s but the Church failed to initiate missionary activity in all three of these nations for reasons that are not entirely clear. Distance from established missions, limited worldwide missionary manpower, and little regional self-reliance in the Church in South Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe appear likely contributors to the lack of an LDS presence in these countries today. At present there are no realistic prospects for the Church to establish a presence in any currently unreached Central Asian nations due to the decline in religious freedom and the increasing influence of Islam on government. The Church may miss its window of opportunity to establish a presence in other unreached countries without insurmountable religious freedom restrictions if the Church fails to establish a presence in a timely manner. For example, the Church would likely be unable to establish a presence in Mongolia today due to declining religious freedom and tolerance for foreign missionary groups. Other proselytizing Christian faiths such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses have more aggressively established a presence worldwide when opportunities to enter new nations arose. Consequently Adventists and Witnesses report a presence in all but approximately a dozen countries notwithstanding both these denominations originating in the United States decades after the founding of the LDS Church.

Prospects appear mixed for the growth of the Church in countries that experience religious freedom restrictions as the majority of countries without an LDS presence experience severe restrictions on religious freedom that make the establishment of a church presence among the indigenous population nearly impossible. The Church will likely continue to experience steady growth in countries with restrictions on religious freedom and an established, indigenous church membership base such as in mainland China and Pakistan but will continue to face difficulties expanding national outreach in many of these nations due to no overt missionary activity and church planting. The Church in mainland China may be the only country with major restrictions on religious freedom that will experience national outreach expansion within the foreseeable future due to many Chinese joining the Church abroad and facilitating the establishment of the Church in additional locations.

[1]  "Russia," International Religious Freedom Report 2008, retrieved 22 March 2011.