Why so many new temples when the growth of the LDS Church is stagnant?
If the temple of yesterday was an award given to members of the region when they reached certain growth milestones, today it is a flying cable, a tool to re-energize the spray engine of faith.
In April, President Russell M. Nelson surprised members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by announcing his intention to build 20 new temples around the world. Earlier this month he surprised us once again as the church has decided to save the historic Manti Temple artwork by redirecting some attendees to a brand new temple to be built near Ephraim.
In all, according to an independent website on the growth of the LDS Church, this will bring the total number of existing or planned temples to 252, of which 70 were announced in the almost 31/2 years that Nelson led the church.
I have two opinions on this. For one thing, I know members are naturally excited when they hear that their area is in the process of building a temple. Particularly outside the United States, they sometimes have to travel to a faraway city, travel for hours or even days to reach a temple. Having more temples in remote locations increases the chances that members can participate in temple rituals, and it helps equalize access.
On the other hand, the church has experienced years of slowing growth. Besides a slight uptick in 2019, there has been steady erosion, both in terms of new converts and “record kids”. Certainly, the 2020 figures reflect the unprecedented restrictions of COVID-19. Missionaries were recalled and church buildings were closed for part of the year. Even so, the pre-pandemic growth trajectory of between 1% and 2% per year was not so stellar that it deserved a 28% increase in the number of temples planned in the past three years alone.
In addition, some of these temples are hardly intended for growth areas. Think of Oslo. There are only about 4,600 Latter-day Saints throughout Norway, and has been for at least a decade. The church barely enters it.
These are the figures for 2019, as the the church has not yet released its country-by-country figures for 2020. Usually they are published shortly after the General Conference in April. But this year, the church released the aggregate statistics report on April 3, just in time, but not the individual statistics for each nation. I have contacted the public affairs department to ask when these documents will be available and I hope it will be soon.
In my most cynical moments, I fear they won’t, that this one concession to transparency – the closest thing to ordinary members of a shareholder report – may quietly disappear. It’s hard, psychologically, for a religion that has long prided itself on being the fastest growing faith in the United States to openly admit that its trend lines are now mostly horizontal. (I would note, if I were to write the disappointing “religious shareholder report”, that our walk on water is always better than the collapse of the membership numbers experienced by many religions. We might be struggling, but this religion market just sucks. Much of this is not our fault.)
It takes maturity to recognize that we no longer attract and retain members like we did before. Instead, we do what most businesses do when they’ve had a series of less-than-stellar years: we pivot. We focus on the new brilliant product line, which in our case are branches. Temples, temples everywhere! Let’s think positively, people!
Someday, a graduate student in media studies will write a dissertation that quantifies our positive versus negative media coverage during this time. What I suspect they’ll find, just from my own trawling of new Mormons every week, is that when we get positive media coverage a significant part of it relates to our temples.
It’s not just the members who love temples, or at least their idea. Temples invite the curiosity of foreigners, especially during the brief period of construction, and then when they are open to the public. They are a conversation starter, an “entrance”, a missionary moment.
In short, there is a sort of perpetual Latter-day Saint optimism in our current temple-building whirlwind. There is no purely reasonable reason for us to announce 70 new temples in Nelson’s administration so far. The denomination as a whole is not enjoying the kind of growth that would make these temples a need rather than a luxury, especially since some of them are located in areas where Mormonism is at risk, such as the Western Europe.
But temples have never been about what makes pure sense. This is all the more true in recent times, when they have become less of a reward than a hoped-for catalyst. If the temple of yesterday was an award given to members of the region when they had passed certain growth milestones, the temple of today is a flying cable, a tool to re-energize the spray engine of the church. Each temple announced represents our hope that positive community interest today could translate into converts tomorrow: “If you build it, they will come.”
But will they?