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LDS Church relies on global leaders as it spreads its message

September 30, 2018

New members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, right, and Elder Ulisses Soares, talk before the afternoon session of the 188th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, March 31, 2018, at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

After April, the highest sections of leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appeared to increasingly represent the global membership of the church. The church now has about 15 million members worldwide, with only about 6.6 million residing in the United States, according to Mormon Newsroom.

During the April general conference of the church, Elders Gerrit W. Gong and Ulisses Soares were called as the newest members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. According to Mormon Newsroom, Gong is the first Asian-American apostle, and Soares is the first apostle from South America.

They join other people of color and different cultures within the general leadership of the church, including: President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Twelve Apostles, Elders José Teixeira and Carlos A. Godoy of the Presidency of the Seventy, Bishop Gérald Caussé of the Presiding Bishopric, Sister Reyna I. Aburto of the Relief Society Presidency and Sister Cristina B. Franco of the Primary Presidency.

To some members, and non-members as well, these recent additions to leadership seemed long awaited.

As early as 1920, then-Elder David O. McKay traveled the world for a year, dedicating foreign lands and countries for the preaching of the gospel — meaning he prayed over the lands that God would bless the people there to be open to the gospel of the church. Since that time, church membership grew in these different nations. For some, the growth was slow, like in China, where there are almost no LDS members, and only about 24,000 in nearby Hong Kong. But in the Pacific Islands, church growth spread rapidly until today, when there are almost 553,000 members there.

Membership in this American-born church reached a major milestone in 1996 — the year when estimates showed there were more church members living outside the United States than there were members living within, according to lds.org.

Since that time, members and non-members have seen a change in the focus of its leadership moving toward global doctrine and leadership. But despite these numbers, some feel it is taking the church a significant amount of time to reach diversity within its leadership ranks.

Brent Top, Brigham Young University religion professor and former dean, explained that prophets are “not blind to diversity and culture,” and may even have a more expansive view of it, because they see it every week as they travel around the world visiting members in their homelands. He cautions members against looking at these recent leadership changes as if there was a conscious effort to call leaders based on race, culture or language.

“That minimizes inspiration. It makes it look as if the church is man-made, not driven by God,” Top said. “As the church expands, of course it’s going to change because it’s driven by God. But don’t go down the path of thinking that President Nelson (Russell M. Nelson, current president of the church) and the Twelve sit around and look for Asian and Latin American in new apostles. It’s the Lord that calls them.”

Top explained that there are some areas, like parts of Russia, where the church is a newer presence and barely 25 years old. Those areas have not had sufficient time or foundational strength to be able to produce upper leadership.

But in other countries, leadership roles on the local level has been diverse since the early days, Top explained. Even in new areas, local leadership relies on members local to that land. Such is the way for all areas across the globe.

Top said an example of this can be seen in the Quorums of the Seventy. Men of color and different languages have served for years as members of those quorums.

“We have more Seventies across the world than those sitting in those red chairs (at general conference). They are the leaders all over that reflect every language, every culture,” Top said.

Casey Griffiths, BYU associate religion professor, echoes that same sentiment, pointing out that the majority of the church and its local leadership is indigenous to the countries these members reside in. And that is exactly how the church, which utilizes a lay leadership, should work.

“A Brazilian bishop knows how to lead his Brazilian congregation better than I would. And I know how to lead a Utah congregation,” Griffiths said, explained that he is a bishop in a local Utah County congregation.

J.B. Haws, also a BYU associate religion professor, explained that the prophet and apostles teach the universal truths of the doctrines of the gospel for all members across the globe.

“In a diverse world, with different problems and different questions, the universals are really what resonate,” he said.

Leadership local to villages, towns and cities across the world then use those truths to help their members where they are, finding unique solutions for their unique situations. For example, Griffiths pointed out that a bishop or stake president in an American town may feel inspired to encourage husbands to be more affectionate with their wives. This same direction may not be taught in an African congregation, if public displays of affection between husbands and wives are not culturally acceptable there.

Haws said this “local ownership” is how the LDS church expands across the world, building its leadership from within and maturing through its diversity.

“We are maturing as a people,” Haws said. “We are realizing how important it is to have different views than our own. We are all enriched by different backgrounds and experience. All this is part of the beautiful maturing and development and growth.”

He credits the prophet and apostles for this push.

“The leaders recognize the need. It enriches revelation. We do better as we have more resources, more knowledge, more light and truth. We just have more to work with, and we do better collectively when we have more voices and ideas,” Haws said.

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