SALT LAKE CITY — Satellite technology and the Internet allow The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to send its message to members worldwide — but church president Gordon B. Hinckley is interested in reaching those a little closer to home.
Hinckley called on Latter-day Saints to incease church membership in North America, Saturday, at the opening session of the church’s annual two-day conference.
“But that could be said of everywhere throughout the world,” the 96-year-old Hinckley said, speaking to thousands of Mormons at the church’s General Conference and millions more around the globe through satellite broadcasts and the Internet.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “the harvest is great with members in the some 160 nations.”
Membership in the Salt Lake City-based church grew to more than 12.5 million in 2005, according to statistics released in April.
There are just under 5.7 million Mormons in the United States and 172,000 in Canada, a church Web site reports.
Although he offered no specific proposals, Hinckley said he would like to increase baptisms in the United States and Canada.
Recent conference sessions have called upon more young men to enter the mission field, something typically done for two years beginning at age 19.
Mormons believe they are called to share the word of God, and the church is known for its proselytizing missionaries around the world. The church said it has 56,000 members on missions, about 75 percent of them men under 26.
Eighteen percent are women, and 7 percent are older couples.
The Mormon church last year reported a 1.74 percent increase in U.S. membership, No. 2 among the 25 largest churches in the United States, according to the National Council of Churches.
The Assemblies of God was first with 1.81 percent growth (2.7 million members), and the Roman Catholic Church was third with 0.83 percent growth (67.8 million), according to the National Council’s Web site.
Growth of the Mormon church is faster around the world than in the United States, where the church was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, church spokesman Michael Otterson said. The church is growing most rapidly in south and Latin American countries and some growth patterns may be directly tied to the focused efforts of missionary programs.
Hinckley’s emphasis on the U.S. and Canada may be driven by statistics that show poor results for missionary work there, said David Stewart a Mormon and physician who since 1999 has studied missionary strategies and outcomes.
Despite being home to about one-third of all church missionary programs, the U.S. and Canada combined result in only about one-fifth of annual church baptisms.
“It’s really a very meager outcome,” said Stewart, who will publish his studies in a book.
For all churches, North America is a “relatively stagnant religious market,” Stewart adds, attributing that in part to an increasingly secularized society.
Whatever the reason, growth in the Mormon church has slowed over the past 10 years, said Carl Mosser, a professor of biblical studies at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University who has studied church growth. In 1996, the church was on track to surpass a sociologist’s predictions in 1984 that membership would top 256 million members by the year 2080.
Slowing membership has driven some changes in missionary programs, Mosser said, including an overhaul of missionary teaching materials in 2004 and a drop in the number of young missionaries worldwide.
Hinckley’s focus on North America may also be tied to concerns for church finances, Mosser said.
“North American Latter-day Saints give a lot more in terms of financial resources than those in other countries,” he said. “The fiscal well being of the church is quite dependent on the North American membership.”
Mormons gather in April and October for a two-day conference, hearing messages of faith from church leaders at their 21,000-seat conference center in downtown Salt Lake City. The sessions are broadcast around the world in 85 languages.
Afternoon conference speakers called upon members to maintain the church’s high moral standards, remaining worthy for blessings by living lives that are “clean and pure.” A challenge was also issued to members who currently don’t meet the church’s 10 percent tithing standard. Tithing funds are used by the church to fund growth programs, including the construction of temples, where members perform sacred church ceremonies.
Hinckley closed the first day of the event by calling on the church’s male members to improve their lives, speaking out against pornography, profanity, and saying men should “never be guilty of abuse.”
“We must rise above these things,” he said.