LDS Growth Encyclopedia on Missionary Work and Church Growth (Missiology)

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Sensitive and Semi-Sensitive Countries

Author: Matt Martinich

Sensitive countries are countries where the Church does not report an official presence but has members and congregations functioning.  Oftentimes the Church does not have all of the needed legal recognitions and registrations to officially publish a presence.  Reasons for the Church not reporting a presence in a country may also be due to safety and security concerns for members, low levels of religious freedom, and concern that publishing this information may damage relations between the Church and government officials.  The Church reports no membership or unit statistics for sensitive countries but reports unit statistics for semi-sensitive countries.  At year-end 2011, total church membership within sensitive and semi-sensitive countries was approximately 18,500, or about one-tenth of one percent of worldwide church membership.

In mid-2013, sensitive countries where the Church had at least one ordinary, independent branch but reported neither the number of congregations nor annual church membership totals included Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), mainland China (for non-foreigners), Egypt, Laos, Macedonia, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Tunisia, and Vietnam.  Semi-sensitive countries where congregational totals and names are publicized but church membership totals are not include Afghanistan, Belarus, mainland China (for foreigners), Cuba, Djibouti, Gabon, Jordan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Montenegro, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  Due to changing political conditions, the Church once reported membership data in some countries such as Belarus and Lebanon but at present reports only unit totals.

Foreigners constitute the majority of church membership in most sensitive and semi-sensitive countries due to religious freedom restrictions, low receptivity stemming from cultural attitudes towards nontraditional Christian groups, and few missionaries assigned if missionaries are permitted to serve at all.  Foreign-membership majority countries include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Macedonia, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Foreign members often play an important role in establishing the Church among the indigenous population when government and society permit Christian missionary activity.  However, due to the transient and temporary nature of many foreign members residing in sensitive countries for employment and military purposes the Church can fail to establish itself among the native population before foreign members relocate elsewhere.  For example, the Church once operated a tiny branch in Damascus, Syria that consisted almost entirely of foreign members.  By mid-2013, there did not appear to be any LDS presence in Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War as all foreign members likely fled the country.

Natives constitute the majority of church membership in Burma, mainland China, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, and Vietnam.  These six countries offer unique and interesting insights into LDS growth as government and societal restrictions on religious freedom limit interaction with international LDS membership and leadership.  These conditions generally spur self-sufficiency in leadership and church growth, with the greatest growth occurring in mainland China and Pakistan notwithstanding restrictions on religious freedom and moderate to low levels of receptivity to Christianity.  The Church only assign local members to serve as full-time missionaries in two of these nations (Pakistan and Vietnam) whereas no proselytizing missionaries serve Burma, mainland China, Laos, and Nepal.  Permitting only local members to serve missions in these countries results in healthy and commensurate growth in these nations as there is little if any dependence on full-time missionaries for administrative tasks.  These conditions also tend to foster more accountability for preparing investigators for baptism and retaining new converts.  Social and governmental restrictions on religious freedom also require higher levels of commitment from converts to join the Church compared to converts in countries where no such restrictions exists.

The presence of the Church in sensitive countries begs the question as to why there is no LDS presence in other nations that experience fewer restrictions on religious freedom and similar socioeconomic and political conditions.  For example, there is no reported LDS presence in Burkina Faso, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, or Timor-Leste notwithstanding other proselytizing Christian faiths maintaining an active presence that has been sustained for several decades.  No LDS presence in many unreached countries around the world has occurred primarily due to the Church's reliance on fortuitous church planting to expand outreach worldwide.  As a result, the Church has a presence in several sensitive and semi-sensitive countries that experience low levels of religious freedom but lacks a presence in other countries where there are few or no restrictions on religious freedom.