Author: Matt Martinich
Posted: April 28th, 2014
The Church defines apostasy as "when individuals or groups turn away from the principles of the gospel." This broad definition encompasses a wide number of situations in which individuals and groups of people disregard or attack the teachings of the Church and its leaders. Within a church growth context, apostasy generally consists of individuals who do not follow the teachings of the Church and become inactive or receive church disciplinary action. Some individuals who apostasize may become excommunicated or resign their membership depending on how these individuals turn away from principles of the gospel and how it affects the Church. Causes for apostasy are rooted in testimony development and maintenance, and whether individuals consistently follow LDS teachings.
Apostasy has disrupted church growth in many areas of the world primarily due to inactivity problems and disenchanted members actively engaged in counterproselytism efforts. The high percentage of Latter-day Saints in the Intermountain West of the United States has increased the frequency of many outspoken apostate members who have created online websites and blogs that attack LDS doctrine, leaders, and church policies. Some of these members unite with other Christian groups who specifically target Latter-day Saints in counterproselytism efforts by distributing anti-LDS literature, holding conferences ridiculing the LDS Church, and running media campaigns to sour public opinion of the Church and its members. Apostate members frequently head attacks on LDS theology on a wide range of topics ranging to the historicity of the Book of Mormon to same-sex marriage. Not all counterproselytism efforts result in diminished growth. There have been some instances of counterproselytism efforts contributing to church growth. When the Denver Colorado Temple was under construction, an anti-LDS group distributed literature to homes within close proximity of the temple. Members reported that many individuals who received anti-LDS literature became interested in the Church, took the missionary discussions, and were later baptized into the Church. However, inactivity poses the most significant and pervasive influence on church growth trends in regards to apostasy as the Church in virtually every country experiences moderate to severe inactivity problems that stem from quick-baptism tactics, a lack of post-baptismal teaching and fellowship, and disconnect between full-time missionaries and local members and leaders.
Church members and leaders have expressed concern regarding the increasing amount of anti-LDS material on the internet in regards to possible reduced receptivity of individuals to the Church that encounter this material. The long-term effect of the increasing accessibility of the world's population to defamatory and derogatory information online concerning the Church and its members is unclear. Full-time missionaries and members around the world have frequently reported that many previously receptive investigators discontinue taking the missionary lessons once they encounter negative information on the Church online. One study indicated that there was no significant correlation between increasing internet usage and changes in church growth trends compared to previous decades.This study reports that "the positive and negative influences of the internet on LDS growth are nearly equal in strength resulting in little to no fluctuation in membership and congregational growth trends from the recent past in most countries around the world. Rather, fluctuations in membership and congregational growth rates appear caused by changes in convert baptismal standards, mission and area policies, initiatives in mission outreach expansion, and the level of religiosity and receptivity to nontraditional Christian denominations in individual countries. Countries in which internet usage is widespread have generally exhibited linear membership growth trends before and after the advent of the internet, suggesting that the internet has a limited influence on the number of convert baptisms if there is any relationship at all. Congregational growth rates have remained stagnant or have declined in the past decade in many of the countries with the highest rates of internet usage, but this has been largely the result of other factors."
Fears of apostasy, whether realistic or inflated, have curtailed the expansion of missionary work into unreached areas as mission and area leaders have judged some locations to be at high risk for the apostasy of individuals or entire congregations due to geographical distance from mission headquarters, cultural conditions, a lack of trained priesthood leadership, and the status of religious freedom. These concerns have been especially acute in Sub-Saharan Africa as most of these conditions are met in unreached areas. Long distance from mission headquarters to the nearest mission outreach center may delay the introduction of the Church to some locations with groups of self-affiliated, unbaptized, prospective Latter-day Saints for years, if not decades, due to fears of newly baptized members inadvertently or purposefully distorting church teachings and apostasizing. This fear centers on limited numbers of visits by mission leaders to remote areas and whether local members can attain self-sufficiency in their ecclesiastical and local leadership needs. There have been several instances of minor apostasy occurring in some remote congregations. These instances have mainly pertained to church administration and the integration of local culture into worship services or meetings. For example, in some locations in Sub-Saharan Africa returned missionaries report that local leaders and members will segregate congregations by gender for sacrament meeting services due to cultural norms regarding the meeting of men, women, and children in the same place. There have also been instances of members and church leaders incorporating practices or teaching doctrines that they have infused into their congregations that are not sanctioned by the Church. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the Church has discouraged the baptism of entire congregations of another religious faith into the Church due to concerns of apostasy. The role of the previous pastor and church leaders in these congregations appears one of the primary concerns for baptizing entire congregations of people as it is unclear how former church leaders may respond to limited or lost leadership control over their congregations. The Church has emphasized the importance of individual conversion to the Church in these circumstances to avoid the possibility that an entire congregation may become dissatisfied with church policy and procedure for administration resulting in the apostasy of the entire congregation either to their former religious faith or to the creation of another one. The high degree of syncretism between indigenous faiths and Christianity has been a cultural condition in Sub-Saharan Africa and Amerindian groups that has appeared to contribute to more cautious outreach expansion efforts. For example, in Mozambique a senior missionary couple serving in the early 2010s reported the emergence of a syncretic, LDS-related faith in the Quelimane area that had thousands of active members but was not officially sanctioned by the Church in any way. Senior missionaries reported cautious and oftentimes frustrating efforts to teach some members of this religious group with very few individuals joining the Church.
Fears of apostasy have also influence translation efforts and language use in the Church. Area and mission leaders, returned missionaries, and local members have reported that the Church in Sub-Saharan Africa has frequently maintained policies that prohibit the baptism of individuals who do not speak the national language of their country. The Church has delayed or not considered the translation of basic proselytism materials into some commonly spoken languages out of fear that administering the church in multiple languages with few church leaders may resulted in an increased incidence of apostasy. These policies have slowed church growth in many locations due to language barriers but have also contributed to high convert retention rates in some locations as highly committed individuals will learn the national language sufficiently well to pass their baptismal interview in that language.
The prevention of individual apostasy will be essential to accelerate church growth in the years and decades to come. Adequate pre-baptismal preparation that instills basic gospel living habits such as weekly church attendance and daily scripture study and prayer are necessary to achieve better convert retention and member activity rates. The development of resources to address common doctrinal concerns or transgressions is needed to help curtail apostasy in active members around the world. Official church resources are needed that specifically present common counterproselytism tactics or issues in a pro-LDS prospective to help individuals process and reconcile conflicting information from anti-LDS sources. The development of resources that address cultural issues that influence apostasy is also needed due to the strong influence of cultural characteristics on member activity rates. For example, apostasy resources that address pertinent areas of transgression and doctrinal concern among those from secularized countries may include how members avoid and repent of casual sexual relations, word of wisdom violations, and casual Sabbath day observance whereas resources that are tailored to the needs of Sub-Saharan Africa may include the role of local culture in formal church worship, how to determine which indigenous beliefs or practices may be retained after baptism in the Church and which beliefs or practices should be discontinued, and procedure and support for how individuals who have been or are currently enjoined to a polygamous spouse end these relations prior to consideration for baptism.