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

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Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: May 3rd, 2014

An area is the largest administrative division in the Church that generally encompasses an entire world region outside the United States. In other words, an area is a regional subdivision of church administration subordinate to general worldwide church leadership (the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) that supervises stakes, districts, and missions. Areas may include many types of lesser-order administrative divisions within the geography of the area including stakes, districts, missions, and isolated branches within countries not assigned to a mission. Areas within the United States follow traditional regional boundaries in most locations. Locations with large Latter-day Saint populations can have areas that consist of only a single individual state (such as Idaho) or a portion of a state (such as in Utah). 

Like other administrative organizations in the Church, an area presidency consisting of a president and two counselors lead each area outside of the United States with the exception of the Middle East/North Africa Area. In 2012, all members of Area Presidencies were General Authorities from the First or Second Quorums of the Seventy.[1]  However, in the past Area Authority Seventies and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have served in Area Presidencies.[2] Since 2004, members of the Presidency of the Seventy have served as area presidents for all 10 North American areas without counselors. Some members of the Presidency of the Seventy administer multiple church areas in North America at a time.[3] The Middle East/Africa North Area does not have an area presidency; instead two General Authorities provide leadership and administrative support.

In 1984, the Church announced the organization of 13 areas worldwide and the appointment of area presidencies to administer each area. Seven of these areas were in the United States and Canada (North America Northeast, North America Northwest, North America Southeast, North America Southwest, North America West, Salt Lake City North, and Salt Lake City South) and six were elsewhere (Asia, Europe, Mexico and Central America, Pacific, South America North, and South America South).[4] The Church steadily organized new areas throughout the remainder of the twentieth century but began to consolidate some areas in the 2000s and 2010s. In 2003, the number of areas reached an all-time high of 30. New areas organized in the 2000s included the Europe East Area (2000), the Utah Salt Lake City Area (2003), the Caribbean Area (2006), and the Middle East/Africa North Area (2007).

Several area consolidations occurred in 2007 as the Church consolidated the Brazil North and Brazil South Areas to create the Brazil Area, the Mexico North and Mexico South Areas to create the Mexico Area,[5] the Australia Area with the New Zealand/Pacific Islands Area to create the Pacific Area, and the Europe Central and Europe West Areas to form the Europe Area. In 2009, the Church consolidated the South America North Area with the South America West Area to create the South America Northwest Area. In 2012, the Church consolidated the Chile Area with the South America South Area. In August 2014, there were 25 areas worldwide (Africa Southeast, Africa West, Asia, Asia North, Brazil, Caribbean, Central America, Europe, Europe East, Idaho, Middle East/Africa North, Mexico, North America Central, North America Northeast, North America Northwest, North America Southeast, North America Southwest, North America West, Pacific, Philippines, South America Northwest, South America South, Utah North, Utah Salt Lake City, and Utah South).[6]

There do not appear to be any specific criteria for an area to operate. The number of nominal church members and stakes varies drastically by area. For example, at present the Brazil Area and Mexico Area each have over one million Latter-day Saints and more than 220 stakes whereas the Europe East Area has less than 50,000 members and only four stakes and the Middle East/Africa North Area has approximately 4,000 members and one stake. Historically, some areas have not had a single stake or mission within their jurisdiction. The creation and consolidation of areas appears rooted in four factors: Growth in active membership, self-sufficiency in leadership, geographic size, and maintaining common cultural and societal characteristics within individual areas.

Growth in active membership necessitates the organization of a new area once the size of the Church in a preexisting area becomes too large to be effectively administered by a single area presidency. The Church has historically split areas generally when church membership surpasses half a million members and continues to grow rapidly, such as in Latin America during the last few decades of the twentieth century. Increasing numbers of stakes reflects growth in active membership and has been a key determinant in organizing additional areas. When announcing the creation of the Utah Salt lake City Area, the Church News reported that the new area was organized to reduce demands on area leadership from increasing number of stakes within the two preexisting Utah areas.[7] In recent years, the Church has favored creating areas with larger numbers of church members and stakes. For example, the Brazil Area, Mexico Area, South America Northwest Area, and South America South Area each consisted of two separate areas at one time but today all four of these areas have over one million members and at least 150 stakes.

Self-sufficiency problems in leadership appear to prompt the organization of additional areas in many regions of the world. For example, the Church experienced some of the most rapid growth in the number of areas in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s at a time of rapid church growth but pervasive local leadership sustainability problems. In 2000, the Europe East Area became the only area of the Church at the time that did not have a stake or an operating temple without its boundaries. The Europe East Area was also the area with the smallest church membership. The Church in Eastern Europe has experienced some of the most severe and concerning trends in local leadership sustainability indicated by delays in forming stakes and few active priesthood leaders capable of holding leadership positions. The recent introduction of the Church in Eastern Europe, cultural factors such as low religiosity, and mission policies than promoted quick-baptism tactics all appear contributors to these self-sustainability problems. Church leaders have indicated that the consolidation of areas in Latin America have coincided with strengthening and maturing local leadership. Regarding the consolidation of the two Brazil areas, Elder Arnold stated that "the consolidation demonstrated the great confidence that our Heavenly Father has in the local leadership of the Church."[8] Regarding the consolidation of the Chile Area with the South America South Area, former Chile Area President Lawrence E. Corbridge noted that, "as we witness the expansion of the Church and the gospel throughout the world, we see a commensurate expansion of trust extended to local leaders.[9]

Geography plays an important role in the organization of additional areas, particularly in locations where preexisting areas administer a large number of countries and dependencies, or where areas cover large geographical areas. For example, each of the three most recently organized areas outside North America include over a dozen countries and cover large geographic areas distant from the previous area headquarters. Forming additional areas in these locations reduces the administrative burden on area leadership, allows for greater allotments of mission resources, and can improve focus on opening additional areas to proselytism. For example, since the organization of the Europe East Area, the Church initiated official missionary activity in Kazakhstan (mid-2000s), Georgia (2006), and Turkey (2012).

The Church has regularly formed new areas along cultural and social boundaries. The Church has organized new areas in locations with comparatively few members but with blatantly different religious, political, and social characteristics.  For example, the Church formed the Caribbean Area in 2006 notwithstanding most of church membership residing in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean possesses many cultural characteristics distinctly different from the North America Southeast Area that previously administered the Caribbean. Organizing a separate area for the Caribbean permits area leadership to address unique societal conditions inherent in the Caribbean. The creation of the Middle East/Africa North Area stands as the most clear and obvious recent example of the Church creating an area among a world region that shares common societal, cultural, and religious characteristics. With the exception of Israel, all countries within the Middle East/Africa North Area are predominantly Muslim. Government and societal restrictions on religious freedom prohibit any official proselytism. The vast majority of members in the region are foreigner workers who originate from North America, Europe, the Philippines, and South Asia. These unique Latter-day Saint demographics, combined with the shared Islamic culture of the Middle East and North Africa, appeared to heavily influence the decision to organize of a separate Church area to service the region areas in Europe previously serviced the region.

Area leadership and policies strongly influence overall mission efforts to introduce the Church into additional cities. This finding has been most pronounced in the Europe East Area as the Church has repeated several cycles of splitting and consolidating branches to spur growth and prepare districts to become stakes. For example, many missions in the Europe East Area divided branches in the 1990s, consolidated branches in the largest cities during the early 2000s, divided branches in the mid to late 2000s, and consolidated branches in the early 2010s. The result of changing area and mission policies has produced a myriad of serious activity and leadership sustainability issues as social support systems at church are disrupted and members at times must travel greater distances to attend church. Other church areas have experienced more positive results. For example, the Africa West Area has numbered among the most proactive in opening additional cities for proselytism and aggressively planting many member groups and branches in lesser-reached and previously unreached locations. These efforts have subsequently resulted in accelerated active membership growth and strengthening local leadership.

The growth in the number of church areas presents a cloudy picture for assessing real growth. Various church leaders have indicated that the creation of new church areas indicates church growth but others have explained that area consolidations indicate increasing self-sufficiency from local leadership. For example, former Asia Area President Merlin R. Lybbert reported in 1991 that the creation of the Asia North Area from the Asia Area indicated "continued Church growth."[10] That same year, former Europe Area President Hans B. Ringger noted that the announcement of the creation of the Europe Mediterranean Area was "a sign of the growth and progress of the Church."[11] However, other area presidents in locations where areas are consolidated note that maturing and strengthening local leadership has permitted the consolidation of church areas. Consequently, assessing global or regional church growth through changes in the number of areas is unreliable to assess growth as there are no clear numerical standards for areas to operate. Furthermore, the decision to organize many church areas has appeared rooted in addressing common societal and cultural factors within a particular world region.

The Church may organize additional areas within the next decade in world regions that exhibit lower levels of self-sufficiency, significant cultural and societal diversity from other locations administered by the same church area, large numbers of countries administered by a single church area, and consistent and strong membership growth. New areas may be organized in South Asia and East Africa. Church areas with largely self-sufficient local leadership, few countries, and that are located nearby other church areas that exhibit similar culture and societal conditions may consolidate in the coming years, such as the Asia North Area.

[1]  "Area leadership assignments announced for 2012," LDS Church News, 5 May 2012.

[2]  "Church Administration," True to the Faith, p. 35

[3]  "Area leadership assignments announced for 2012," LDS Church News, 5 May 2012.

[4]  "News of the Church," Ensign, August 1984.

[5]  "Area leadership," LDS Church News, 9 June 2007.

[6]  "Church Announces Area Leadership Assignments for 2014,", 30 April 2014.

[7]  "30th area formed," LDS Church News, 14 June 2003.

[8]  "First Presidency Announces Consolidation of South America South and Chile Areas," Church News and Events, 14 November 2011.

[9]  "First Presidency Announces Consolidation of South America South and Chile Areas," Church News and Events, 14 November 2011.

[10]  "New areas created in Asia, Europe," LDS Church News, 7 September 1991.

[11]  "New areas created in Asia, Europe," LDS Church News, 7 September 1991.