I recently wrote a a short subsection for a Burnside Writer's Collective piece on the trends and events of the past decade in American Christianity. My contribution was on the issue of the mainstreaming of the LDS Church. I'm expanding on the discussion with this post.
The last decade has seen a continued growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormons), especially in South America. In 2000, there were over 11-million members and nearly 61,000 missionaries, according to the LDS Church. In 2008, there were 13.5-million members in a decade where many Christian denominations saw flat growth or even decline. Living in Salt Lake City, I often Mormons argue that this fast growth support the LDS church's validity as the one and only "true church." This is a flawed argument, but the church records do seem to show explosive growth. However, we need to remember that these statistics do not reflect the number of members who have gone inactive or left the Church without removing their names from the records.
While very challenging to document, their growth might be, in part, a result of the mainstreaming of the Mormon faith. What do I mean by mainstreaming? Basically, there's an effort, intentional or not, to bring the Mormon Church under the umbrella of orthodox Christianity. In the past ten years, more Mormons have raised to public positions of prominence than ever before. This decade, Mormons have followed the Osmonds into the entertainment spotlight, appearing on nearly every reality television show in prime time, landing on best-selling author’s lists, and singing to the masses. Sixteen Mormons presently serve in the US Congress, including the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid from Nevada, and Orin Hatch who ran for the Republican nomination for the US Presidency in the 2000 election. Mitt Romney, one of a good-sized handful of Mormon Governors, also ran for the US Presidency, thrusting the LDS Church into the public eye even further. And let’s not forget conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.
In 2002, Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of the LDS Church, hosted the world during the Olympic Winter Games. Before the coming of the all the cameras and attention, the Church adjusted its logo so “Jesus Christ” is larger and more prominently displayed. And the Mormon members were discouraged from calling themselves Mormons, in favor of “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Slowly, the LDS Church is working to slip into the term “Christian” without sharing in much of the same theology. Many Mormon Facebook users list their religion as “Christian,” and they often take offense when challenged on the issue. Mormons are doing more to give out a King James Bible with a Book of Mormon now. And the missionary discussions place greater focus on Jesus, albeit many (including the late LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley), argue that Mormons do not view Jesus the same way Evangelicals do. Two of the three Evangelicals ever to speak in the Mormon Tabernacle, two did so in the latter half of the decade. Ravi Zacharias and Nic Vijucic were guests of Standing Together, a Christian organization attempting to bridge the divide by focusing on the similarities. Other Christian groups, such as Mormon Research Ministries are opposed to such mainstreaming without centering the discussions on the differences in theology. While those who want to focus on the simularities say it reaching out to Mormons in love, others suggest that it leaves Mormons no reason to leave the faith. Additionally, the LDS can use the bridge efforts to further the mainstreaming. Both approaches make some valid points, but the best Christian apologetic efforts might be best to settle somewhere between these too positions.
The LDS Church appears to greatly want to be included in the evangelical voting block and be seen as part of the Christian family. But as long as the LDS missionaries continue to try to convert Christians, they continue to show the world where they really stand on this issue.
Only time will tell of the mainstreaming efforts will favor the Mormons. They had less full-time missionaries in the field in 2008 than in 2000, down to about 52,400. The new convert rate has remained flat over the past decade, around 265,000 per year, with the remaining growth coming from births. More recently, the LDS Church almost seemed surprised that many Evangelicals opposed Mitt Romney for the Presidency. And the backlash of California’s Prop 8 is lingering with little sign of letting up.