Reaching the Nations

Latvia

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 64,589 square km.  Located in Eastern Europe on the Baltic Sea, Latvia borders Estonia, Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania.  Climate is primarily influenced by the nearby sea, creating warm summers and wet moderate to cold winters.  Fertile, marshy plains cover the landscape with few hills and no mountains.  Environmental issues include pollution and waste management.  Latvia is administratively divided into 26 counties and seven municipalities.

Population: 2,231,503 (July 2009)       

Annual Growth Rate: -0.614% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 1.3 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: 66.98 male, 77.59 female (2009)

Peoples

Latvia: 57.7%

Russian: 29.6%

Belarusian: 4.1%

Ukrainian: 2.7%

Polish: 2.5%

Lithuanian: 1.4%

Other: 2%

Latvians are the largest ethnic group.  Russians primarily live in the larger cities and in some locations outnumber Latvians.  Other ethnic groups tend to live near the nation's boundaries or in large cities. 

Languages: Latvian (58.2%), Russian (37.5%), Lithuanian and other (4.3%).  Latvian is the official language and only language with over one million speakers.  

Literacy: 99.7% (2000)

History

A Baltic tribe named the Latgalians dominated modern-day Latvia between 700-1100 AD until coming under rule of surrounding nations.  Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia ruled the region until independence occurred following World War I.  The Soviet Union annexed Latvia in 1940 and independence was not recovered until 1991.  Remaining Russian troops left in 1994.  Since independence Latvia has established stronger relations with Western Europe, joining the European Union and NATO in 2004. 

Culture 

Russian, Scandinavian, German, and indigenous practices influence Latvian culture.  Rye bread, grains, dairy products, and potatoes are staple foods.  Latvians tend to be passive in social interactions.  Women traditionally bear the majority of household responsibilities.  Latvian writers and artists suffered from Soviet censorship prior to independence and today contribute freely to the nation's culture.  Divorce rates are comparable to Scandinavia and less than the United States.  Latvia experiences high rates of cigarette consumption and alcohol use compared to Western Europe.

Economy

GDP per capita: $14,500 (2009) [31.3% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.866

Corruption Index: 5.0

Latvia experienced economic growth since the 1990s until the late 2000s, partially resulting from the global financial crisis.  GDP grew by 10% in 2007, but fell into steep recession, contracting by 4.6% in 2008 and 17.8% in 2009.  The unemployment rate more than doubled between 2008 and 2009 to 16.6%.  Latvia achieved its primary goal of European Union membership in 2004.  Services employ 62% of the workforce and produce 72% of the GDP whereas industry employs 26% of the workforce and accounts for 24% of the GDP.  Industry produces buses, street and railroad cars, synthetic fibers, various home appliances, and agriculture machinery.  Wood and wood products are a major export.  Agriculture products include grain, sugar beets, potatoes, and vegetables.  Primary trade partners include Lithuania, Russia, Estonia, and Germany. 

Latvia ranks among the least corrupt nations in Eastern Europe but corruption has worsened as a result of the fragile economy.  Corruption allegations include special interest favors by government for certain groups, misuse of EU funds, and tax evasion.[1]

Faiths

Christian: 35.9%

Other: 0.4%

Unspecified: 63.7%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Lutheran  437,375  301

Catholic   430,235  250

Orthodox  341,420  119

Seventh Day Adventists  3,940  52

Jehovah's Witnesses  2,483  36

Latter-Day Saints  1,073  7

Religion

Most Latvians do not consider themselves religious.  Lutherans and Catholics are the two largest religious groups followed by Orthodox Christians.  Orthodox Christians primarily reside in large cities and are mostly ethnic Russians, whereas Catholics live in the east. 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom which is upheld by the government.  Abuse of religious freedom by government or individuals is not tolerated.  Non-traditional religious groups face greater bureaucratic requirements.  Religious groups are not required to register to operate, but receive greater freedom to hold meetings, can have financial transactions, own property, and can obtain privileges concerning tax benefits to those who donate to the registered religious group.[2] 

Largest Cities

Urban: 68%

Riga, Daugavpils, Liepaja, Jelgava, Jurmala, Ventspils, Rezekne, Jekabspils, Valmiera, Ogre.

Cities in bold do not have congregations.

Four of the 10 largest cities have a congregation.  51% of the population lives in the 10 largest cities. 

LDS History

The first missionary work in Latvia was conducted briefly in 1903 by Hungarian convert Mischa Markow.[3]  The first Latvian members joined the Church in Germany in the 1950s.[4]  The Russia St. Petersburg Mission sent the first four missionaries to Riga to open Latvia for missionary work in June 1992.  Missionaries baptized the first convert the following month.  There were 40 Latvian members when Elder James E. Faust dedicated Latvia for missionary work the following year.[5]  The Church created the Latvia Riga Mission, which also administered Estonia and Lithuania, in the summer of 1993.  The first Latvian family sealed in the temple occurred in 1993 in the Stockholm Sweden Temple.[6]  The Latvia Riga Mission was renamed and moved to Vilnius, Lithuania in 1996; headquarters returned to Latvia in 2001.  Latvia became part of the Europe East Area in 2000.  The mission was renamed the Baltic Mission in 2002. 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 1,073 (2009)

In the late 1990s there were approximately 200 members.  By year-end 2000, membership reached 508.  For the past decade membership has increased by 40 to 100 members a year, usually at a rate between 5-10%.  Membership numbered 692 in 2003, 920 in 2006, and 1,025 in 2008. 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 7 Groups: 1

Missionaries were assigned first to Riga and Liepaja by June 1992.[7]  In the late 1990s, there were five branches.  Missionaries opened Daugavpils in 2000.[8]  By the end of 2000, there were three branches: Two in Riga and one in Liepaja.  In 2002, a fourth branch was created in Daugavpils.  The following year the Church created the Baltic Mission Branch for members living in remote locations or detached groups throughout the mission.  In 2006, two Russian congregations were created in Riga, named the Riga 2nd and Imanta 2nd Branches, bringing the total number of branches to seven.  Missionaries opened the city of Jelgava in the late 2000s and as of April 2010, a group met in the city.

Activity and Retention

In 2000, 200 youth throughout the Baltic States traveled to Lithuania for a youth conference.[9]  In 2009, over 400 throughout the Baltic States attended a fireside with Elder L. Tom Perry in Latvia.[10] 65 young single adults from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania met in Riga, Latvia in March 2010 for a young single adult conference. 

In Liepaja, membership reached 240 by 2000.  25 baptisms occurred in 2005, but sacrament attendance dropped to 20%.[11]  The Daugavpils Branch had 20 out of 75 members attending church regularly in July 2009.  In June 2009, the Jelgava Group had around 10 members and investigators attending Sunday meetings.  In 1999, there were 55 attending the Latvian branch and 80 attending the Russian branch in Riga.  Today branches in Riga range from 30 to 90 active members.  During the 2008-2009 school year, 52 were enrolled in seminary or institute.  Active membership is likely around 300, or 28-30%.  

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Latvian, Russian, Lithuanian

All LDS scriptures are available in Latvia, Russian, and Lithuanian.  Latvian and Lithuanian Church materials include selected unit, temple, Priesthood, Relief Society, Sunday School, young women, primary, missionary, family history, and institute materials.  Russian has the greatest number of materials available.  The Liahona magazine has two issues in Latvian and 12 in Russian a year. 

Meetinghouses

Larger branches, including those in Riga, meet in Church-built meetinghouses.  The Liepaja Branch meetinghouse was completed in 2009 and was the largest in Latvia at 6,500 square feet.  Meetinghouses for other congregations are renovated buildings or rented spaces. 

Humanitarian and Development Work

In 2002, the Church donated 20,000 pounds of relief supplies to the city of Daugavpils for needy unemployed residents.[12]  The Church has also donated office supplies and appliances to organizations that assist the needy.[13]

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The Church faces no restrictions on its missionary effort with full-time missionaries or local members.  High levels of religious freedom allow greater variety of convert finding activities.

Cultural Issues

Irreligiosity resulting from decades of communism and the recent increase in materialism presents the greatest cultural and social challenge for mission efforts.  Most do not regard religion as important in everyday life, making efforts for finding interesting individuals more difficult.  However, Latvians appear more open to learning about the Church compared to other European nations.  High cigarette use increases the incidence of investigators who face challenges overcoming addiction.  Relapse in tobacco use following baptism may be a cause of member inactivity. 

National Outreach

Proselytism efforts remain limited to the four largest cities.  Tracting, street contacting, member-missionary work, service projects, and English lessons have been used by missionaries to find contacts interested in learning about the Church.  Cities with mission outreach centers account for 42% of the national population.  Congregations function in four of the seven municipalities and in none of the 26 counties.  Outreach in rural areas appears unlikely for the foreseeable future as not all major cities have congregations.  Once outreach centers are established in all the largest cities throughout the country, unreached rural areas may experience some mission outreach - particularly in areas surrounding large cities - with the coordination of local members.  There are 13 cities with 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants and about 50 towns with 1,000 to 10,000 inhabitants without mission outreach.  In addition to Riga, Daugavpils, Liepaja, and Jelgava, some limited missionary work may occur in Jurmala due to its close proximity to Riga and large population. 

The Baltic Mission also administers Estonia and Lithuania and consequently mission resources must be distributed among three nations.  Admittance of the Baltic States into the European Union in 2004 resulted in greater ease for missionaries traveling throughout the Baltic Mission since the late 2000s.  This has allowed for greater ease in missionary transfers, especially for Russian-speakers who serve in all three countries. 

The Church launched an Internet site for Latvia in both Latvian and Russian in the late 2000s at http://www.jezuskristusbaznica.lv/.  The site provides information on Church teachings, meetinghouse locations and times for branches and groups, missionary contact information, and a video on the Restoration.  The Internet site provides an opportunity for those wanting to learn about the Church but hesitant to met with missionaries or living in areas where there is no Church establishment. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Convert retention was poorest in the 1990s when investigators received the least amount of pre-baptism preparation and few members and local leaders were able to provide fellowshipping.  Low member participation and poor convert retention in the 1990s likely contributed to the consolidation of congregations in Riga in the late 1990s.  Convert retention has improved in the 2000s, indicated by the number of congregations doubling in the past decade.  However. member activity remains a concern as increases in Church attendance has been less than nominal membership increases.

Many active members are noted for their high devotion to the Church.  Local members serving as Church leaders are instrumental in the progress of missionary work to ensure the retention of new converts after baptism.  Continued increase in the numbers of active members will strongly depend on increasing local leadership potential and member-missionary efforts.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Despite cultural and language differences, there is little friction between Latvian and Russian members which together account for 87% of the population.  Other ethnic minorities are more challenging to reach as there are few members from these ethnicities. 

Language Issues

The large number of Latvian and Russian-speaking members allows for the organization of language-specific congregations in Riga.  Outside of Riga, congregations must accommodate speakers of both languages.  In Daugavpils, most speak Russian whereas in other congregations most speak Latvian.  However non-native speakers of the dominant language in Church services can experience marginalization due to language barriers.  The translation of all LDS scriptures in both languages allows greater ease in pre-baptismal teaching and understanding of Church doctrines.  Lithuanian speakers are too few to merit concentrated outreach for this minority group, but interested speakers of Lithuanian can obtain translations of Church materials in their native language. 

Missionary Service

There were approximately 35 missionaries serving in Riga in September 2009 and about 100 throughout the Baltic Mission.  Latvia remains unable to become self sustaining in its full-time missionary force, but reactivation efforts with youth and regularly involvement of young men and women in member-missionary work may help increase the numbers of Latvian missionaries. 

Leadership

The Church has achieved success in developing local leadership despite few members.  In early 2010, all six branches were led by local branch presidents.  The few Church employees do not appear to hold a disproportionate amount of leadership positions.  In 2005, Gvido Senkans was called as an Area Authority, one of the first from the former Soviet Union.  Elder Senkas was central to the Church's early establishment.[14]  Increases in the number of active Melchizedek Priesthood holders capable of leading congregations will not only prepare branches to become wards in the future but also allow for additional congregations to be organized. 

Temple

Latvia is assigned to the Stockholm Sweden Temple district.  Unlike Estonia and Lithuanian, Latvia does not pertain to the Helsinki Finland Temple district due to cheaper airfare from Riga to Stockholm.  Members benefit from the close proximity of the temple and temple trips occur regularly for the district. 

Comparative Growth

Latvia has experienced comparable growth to Estonia and Lithuania as these nations have between 900 and 1,100 members.  Estonia has the highest percentage of LDS members which is twice the percentage in Latvia and four times the percentage in Lithuania.  Latvia is the only Baltic State with multiple Russian and non-Russian congregations in one city, indicating a greater degree of success in mission efforts among the native population and Russians.  Riga is the city in the Baltic States with the largest number of active members followed by Tallinn, Estonia. 

Many Christian denominations report little membership growth.  Seventh Day Adventists are among the more successful denominations in Latvia and have had approximately 100 baptisms a year for the past decade but no increase in membership.  Adventist churches have increased by eight during the past decade.  Jehovah's Witnesses have also seen steady growth. 

Future Prospects

Developed local leadership, continued convert baptisms, and expanding national outreach create a positive atmosphere for future growth.  Additional large cities may open for missionary work or have more active missionary outreach including Jurmala, Ventspils, Rezekne, and Jekabspils.  Continued growth in the next decade may lead to the establishment of a stake, but the current number of active members is likely half that needed for a stake creation.  Greater outreach and progress in the Church will likely rely on local member-missionary efforts, especially due to the limited number of full-time missionaries which must be shared with Estonia and Lithuania. 


[1]  "Latvia's Corruption rating takes a dive with economy," Monsters and Critics, 17 November 2009.  http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/europe/features/article_1513911.php/eca-126-Latvia-s-corruption-rating-takes-dive-with-economy-News-Feature

[2]  "Latvia," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127319.htm

[3]  "History of Church in Russian republic," LDS Church News, 16 November 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/20772/History-of-Church-in-Russian-republic.html

[4]  "Missionary moments: ‘I was among friends'," LDS Church News, 16 November 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/21149/Missionary-moments--I-was-among-friends.html

[5]  "4 European lands dedicated," LDS Church News, 12 June 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/23051/4-European-lands-dedicated.html

[6]  "From around the world," LDS Church News, 25 September 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/22938/From-around-the-world.html

[7]  Stahle, Shaun D.  "Faith renewed," LDS Church News, 12 January 2008.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/51538/Faith-renewed.html

[8] "20,000 pounds of aid," LDS Church News, 6 April 2002.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/41545/20000-pounds-of-aid.html

[9]  "Baltic youth conference draws from four countries," LDS Church News, 11 November 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/38856/Baltic-youth-conference-draws-from-four-countries.html

[10]  Jegina, Inara; Klundt, Jo Ann.  "History visit to Latvian saints," LDS Church News, 26 September 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57926/Historic-visit-to-Latvian-saints.html

[11]  Stahle, Shaun D.  "Faith renewed," LDS Church News, 12 January 2008.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/51538/Faith-renewed.html

[12]  "20,000 pounds of aid," LDS Church News, 6 April 2002.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/41545/20000-pounds-of-aid.html

[13]  "Projects - Latvia," Humanitarian Activities Worldwide, retrieved 11 March 2011.  http://www.providentliving.org/project/0,13501,4607-1-2008-16,00.html

[14]  "New area seventies," LDS Church News, 16 April 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/47170/New-area-seventies.html