Mormons' message goes global


Missionaries: At its Utah training center, the church prepares young men and women to propel its aggressive worldwide expansion.

August 07, 1999|By Teresa Watanabe | Teresa Watanabe,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PROVO, Utah -- Not so long ago Edmundo Alarcon, a 19-year-old from the suburbs of Los Angeles, was like so many California kids -- break-dancing with his buddies, coaching soccer, romancing his sweetheart and caring for his sweet little Nissan car.

Now he is a dark-suited disciple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Eleven hours a day, six days a week, he studies the Japanese language, Gospel teachings and techniques to win converts as he prepares to embark on a mission to the largely Buddhist Asian nation.

He reads no newspapers, watches no television, makes no calls home. His head is stuffed with information, from why he should never knock on a Japanese door four times -- the word for four, "shi," also means death -- to how to progress from general discussions of God to specific Mormon doctrines. Except for his one day off, Alarcon's life is tightly controlled, from the 6 a.m. wake-up time to the 10: 30 p.m. lights-out.

Here at the Mormon church's Missionary Training Center, one of the nation's most demanding religious boot camps is whipping Alarcon and 2,000 others into spiritual shape for what is believed to be the single largest missionary corps in the world.

How the Mormons manage to take young people fighting raging hormones and competing preoccupations with romance, college and career, and redirect their energies into two years of selfless, self-paid spiritual service, is a key to one of the remarkable expansions in modern religious history.

Alarcon and his fellow missionaries represent the global vanguard of a church that in 1996 reached a major milestone: The quintessential American faith registered more members outside the U.S. borders than within them. The church's 10 million members now reside in 192 nations.

Membership is projected to explode to 267 million by 2080 in what University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark has declared is the rare emergence of a new worldwide religion.

In its aggressive global outreach, the church has doubled its missionary corps to 60,000.

The Mormon missionary effort is a "creative program truly exceptional among Christian faiths," says Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University and Purdue University, Indianapolis.

But the globalization of the once-insular church is also raising questions. Will the force of diversity reshape its doctrines, leadership and culture?

Church leaders in Japan and elsewhere have called for more autonomy from Salt Lake City, for instance. And former missionaries say that convert retention rates in some countries overseas are low, in part because new members find themselves losing touch with their heritages, friends and even family members as they embrace the intense Mormon culture.

The church declined to provide data on convert retention rates. But Hideki Mori, who recently started a support group in Japan for former Mormons like himself, estimates that fewer than 20 percent of converts there stay with the church. The low rate, he says, is partly caused by high church demands on time and an overly Americanized atmosphere in which people are expected to shake hands rather than bow, as Japanese traditionally do, and are asked to give up such cherished cultural rituals as the tea ceremony, in keeping with Mormon bans on caffeine.

In addition, Mori says, some members join not because they truly embrace the Mormon doctrines but because they find it hard to say no to the polite and disarming missionaries.

The standardized church culture the missionaries promote is sometimes called "McMormonism," Shipps says. The program features a guidance manual called the "Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel," frequent drills on standardized teaching techniques and a prescribed dress code and packing list. For missionaries like Brian Hand headed to Fiji: One suit. Ten short-sleeved shirts. Six slacks. Six ties. Eight pairs of dark socks. Sandals are allowed.

Keith Atkinson, manager of the church's public affairs office in Los Angeles, sees not conformity in Mormon culture, but a liberating tradition in striving to become of one mind and heart with God -- just as Jesus taught, he says, in the New Testament.

It's lunchtime at the training center, a 19-building campus next to Brigham Young University. Rows of ravenous students are downing the day's cafeteria fare. These are the training grounds for the heart of the Mormon global outreach: those earnest, instantly recognizable teams of mostly young men in white shirts and ties, striding door-to-door with cheerful smiles on their faces and the Book of Mormon in their hands.

By the time they're ready to serve -- age 19 for men, 21 for women -- many will have spent years in supplementary religious classes and other activities that hammer home Mormon doctrine.

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