Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.
By David Stewart and Matt Martinich
Area: 1,564,116 square km. Mongolia is a large land-locked nation between Siberia and China occupying square kilometers. Much of Mongolia is semi-arid or arid, with the Gobi Desert occupying the southern portion of the country. Sporadic mountain ranges appear in the northern and western parts of Mongolia, many of which are forested. Large lakes dot western Mongolia, yet the rest of the country has limited water resources. Most of semi-arid Mongolia consists of grassy plains with few trees. Due to Mongolia’s continental location, it is subject to great extremes in temperature with warm or hot summers to very cold winters. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world. The current boundaries of Mongolia only contain what was historically known as Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is one of the People’s Republic of China’s autonomous regions. Mongolia is the world’s least densely populated independent nation with one person per 4.4 square miles. Mongolia is divided into 21 administrative provinces.
Population: 3,041,412 (July 2009)
Annual Growth Rate: 1.493% (July 2009)
Fertility Rate: 2.23 children born per woman (2009)
Life Expectancy: male 65.23, female 70.19 (2009)
Mongolia has a very homogeneous population. About 95% are Mongols, most of whom belong to the Khalkha subgroup. Turkic peoples, mainly Kazakhs, form most of the remaining 5%. Kazakhs are particularly concentrated in the far western province of Bayan-Olgii in which they constitute about 90% of the population of about 100,000. Other nationalities, such as the Chinese and Russians, make up less than one percent of the population.
Languages: Mongolian dialects (90%), other (10%). The Halh dialect of Mongolian is the official language. Mongols speak the Mongolian language, which has several different dialects; the most popular being Khalkha. Turkic peoples speak a variety of different Turkic languages such as Kazakh and Uzbek; Kazakh being the most prevalent. Only Mongolian dialects have over one million speakers (2.7 million).
Literacy: 97.8% (2000)
Mongolia is known for its powerful empire conquered by Genghis Khan during the 1200s. With specially-bred ponies, the Chinese stirrup, thumb-ring shortbows, and skilled Mongol riders, the Mongolian hordes conquered vastly more populous nations. At its high point, the Mongol Empire stretched from Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East to the west, Iran, Tibet and southern China to the south and to the Pacific Ocean to the east. Westward Mongol expansion was halted only by the death of Genghis Khan in 1227 AD. The empire fragmented into smaller Mongol states. The Eastern portion came under Chinese control in the 1600s, whereas the Russians eventually overcome their Golden Horde overlords in the West and the Mongol states in Central Asia eventually fell to Turkic tribes. Genghis and his direct descendents were exceptionally prolific due to many wives and widespread rape of conquered peoples; some 8% of men across a wide region of Asia carry a Y-chromosome lineage believed to go back to Genghis Khan. Thus a strong Mongol legacy, both genetically and culturally, persists in nations once under the Mongol yoke.
Mongolia became an independent nation in 1921 with help from the Soviet Union and had a communist government set up in 1924. Throughout the Soviet era, ties to Russia were closer in Mongolia than in many Eastern European nations, as Russia offered Mongolia a degree of independence and protection from absorption into China. The government in Mongolia transitioned like many Eastern European communist nations to democracy and capitalism in the early 1990s. The transition between communism to capitalism resulted in shortages of food and goods throughout the country in the early 1990s. Recently, Mongolia has suffered from periodic naturally disasters such as prolonged droughts, flash flooding and severe winters.
Buddhism, over six decades of communism, and a nomadic legacy and lifestyle influence Mongolian culture. Many Mongolians live in portable tent-like structures called gers (or yurts) made of felt and wood on the outskirts of cities or in the country. In Ulaanbaatar, many live in aging apartment buildings from the communist era or in gers just outside the city. Limited housing challenges young people to marry and live separate from their parents. Horse racing, archery, and wrestling competitions occur during Naadam, the largest annual festival celebrated in July. The Mongolian language was originally written in the Mongolian script developed in the 13th century and later adopted a modified Cyrillic script to increase functionality with the Russian language. Mongolia experienced little contact with the international community prior to the early 1990s and has had little exposure to Western culture until recently. Alcoholism and immorality have increased in recent years.
GDP per capita: $3,200 (2008) [6.9% of US]
Human Development Index: 0.727
Corruption Index: 3.0
Mining and agriculture account for the majority of the economic activity in Mongolia. There are large amounts of valuable minerals or fossil fuels extracted such as gold, copper, tungsten and coal. Many of the people subsist on agriculture, particularly herding. China is Mongolia’s biggest trade partner for both imports and exports. Mongolia also maintains close ties with Russia, on which it depends for energy needs. The small, predominantly rural population finds it difficult to compete and lags other larger, more developed economies. Nonetheless capitalism has taken hold in the country and has helped create many small businesses. Ulaanbaatar is also home to the world’s smallest stock exchange.
Environmental problems present long-term economic and health concerns. Overgrazing in the areas by the Gobi desert has lead to some desertification as fragile vegetation is destroyed and unable to grow back after top soil is blown away. Roads connecting cities in the country are poorly maintained and oftentimes have long stretches where there is no defined road but instead a network of trails mingled together, a result of areas of roads being impassible due to periodic mud or water.
Shamanist and Christian: 6%
Denominations Members Congregations
Latter-Day Saints 8,444 21
Seventh-Day Adventists 1,419 4
Jehovah’s Witnesses 195 3
About half of the population of Mongolia follows Buddhism and 40% consider themselves non-religious, a result of decades of atheism from the communist government. The remaining 10% consider themselves Christian or Shamanists. Most Turkic peoples are Muslim.
Persecution Index: 59th
The constitution protects religious freedom which is upheld by the government. Proselytism is limited by legislation. Religious visas are difficult to obtain. Law requires that a certain percentage of individuals affiliated with foreign organizations must be staffed by Mongolians. Government requires religious organizations to have Mongolians holding over half of the total number of clergy or employee positions. Between July 2008 and October 2009 around 70 foreign religious workers were forced to leave Mongolia. Christians and Muslims in some areas report that local government refuses to register new congregations.
Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet, Darkhan, Choibalsan, Moron, Ulaangom, Olgii, Khovd, Sukhbaatar, Bajanchongor.
Seven of the 10 largest cities have a congregation. 41% of the national population lives in the 18 largest cities.
LDS Membership: 8,444 (2008)
It was once considered the most closed country in the world. In 1989, it was thought that there were only four Mongolian Christians – none of whom were Latter-Day Saints. Today, Latter-Day Saints make up approximately 25% of the 35,000 Christians in Mongolia.
The growth of the Church began when the Mongolian government requested Church assistance with the higher education institutions in the country. Six senior couple missionaries were called and arrived in Mongolia in September of 1992. Missionaries also came with the purpose of preaching the gospel, which was understood by the Mongolian government. Mongolia faced large shortages of food and other necessities during the transition from communism to capitalism. All six of the senior couples were assigned to serve in the capital of Ulaanbaatar and assisted Mongolia in its transition from communism to a free market economic system primarily in the country’s higher level institutions.
Mongolia was dedicated for the preaching of the Gospel by Elder Neal A. Maxwell on April 15th, 1993. By this time, there were 20 people attending Church services and five senior couples served in the country. The Church became legally registered with the government in 1994.
In 1996, there were about 400 members. Membership growth became more rapid, and by the beginning of 1998 there were 1,100 members. For the following five years, exceptional growth was achieved. Membership increased from 1,850 at the end of 1999 to over 6,300 by the end of 2004. In the mid-2000s, greater emphasis began to be placed on the establishment of a stake in Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar. Membership and congregation growth slowed dramatically after 2004 as attention was focused on reactivating less-active members and training members for stake responsibilities. Membership growth rates slowed from 15-32% a year from 2000 to 2004 to 5-9% a year from 2005 to 2008. Country membership was reported to be about 8,800 at the time of the stake creation.
Wards: 6 Branches: 16
The Ulaanbaatar Branch was organized in 1993. The Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission was created in 1995. By 1996 there were three branches in Ulaanbaatar and a district was created. A fourth branch was created the following year. In 1999, at least 70 full-time elders served as missionaries in the mission, which covered six branches in Ulaanbaatar, one in Darkhan, and one in Erdenet.
The number of congregations increased from eight in 1999 to 20 in 2001. Mongolia’s second district was organized in Darkhan in 2000. New branches were created in additional cities including Khovd, Choisbalsan, and Moron, as well as smaller towns like Nalaikh and Sukhbaatar, which are on the peripheries of Ulaanbaatar and Darkhan respectively.
Only one new congregation was organized between 2004 and the beginning of 2009 despite membership growth from 6,346 to 8,444. One of the obstacles for forming a stake was the small number of families and married members, as it was reported in December 2007 that about 70% of the 3,700 members in the Ulaanbaatar Mongolia District were single, and that there were 600 students enrolled in institute and about 700 students enrolled in seminary. Although most of the converts were youth, full families were also joining the Church.
On June 7th, 2009 the first stake was created in Mongolia. The Ulaanbaatar Mongolia West Stake was created from the Ulaanbaatar Mongolia District. There have been very few times in Church history when a stake was created only from a portion of a district instead of the entire district becoming a stake. The new stake consisted of the Enkhtaivan, Khan Uul, Sansar, Selbe, Songino, and Unur ward. The remaining branches stayed in the Ulaanbaatar Mongolia District, which covered just the east side of the city. Many of the branches in the district were not ready to become wards due to their smaller sizes and lower activity rates. Many hope that the district will become a stake in the coming years and help prepare the way for a temple in the country.
As of September 2009 there were three independent mission branches not a part of a stake or district in Khovd, Moron and Choibalsan. The Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission Branch included members living in remote areas unreached by independent branches. A senior missionary couple reported that a small group of members lived in a mining camp in southern Mongolia but were not their own independent Church unit.
Most church growth has occurred among young men and women. Elder Lewis, a returned missionary, notes serving in one branch of over 200 members where only ten members were over the age of 30. When asked whether the growth among young people was because of English-teaching programs, Elder Lewis replied: "perhaps somewhat. But mostly, that's the age that is receptive to the gospel." Many older individuals, he notes, are less likely to join the Church because of old habits and the sway of traditional religion.
Tracting and street contacting are not allowed in Mongolia, and so almost all new converts are found through the efforts of existing members or through spontaneous inquiries of students in English classes taught at the high school and university levels. Getting referrals from members was never a problem, explained Elder Lewis, because members were enthusiastic to share the gospel. While most Mongolians are nominally Buddhists or Shamanists, he explained, many of the younger generation know little about their own Buddhist beliefs because of religious prohibitions during the Communist era. Because of this, they were relatively easy to teach and had few hang-ups with gospel principles. While there are occasional problems with tobacco and alcohol use, these vices are much less prevalent in Mongolia than in surrounding nations. Even strict Buddhists, he states, were wonderful to teach because they did not use alcohol or tobacco excessively and generally observed high moral standards. One returned missionary noted that he was once assigned to teach a group of Buddhist monks. "They were some of the friendliest people I ever met," he states. "They bore no animosity towards Christians. When people asked them how they could learn about Christianity, they would give them our church address and meeting time."
One of the greatest blessings Mongolia has provided the Church is the great number of local missionaries. In 2001, a visiting General Authority at a fireside in Shanghai, China, announced that 40% of missionaries from the Asia Area come from Mongolia. Mongolia also has consistently had the highest baptism rate per missionary in the Asia Area. All of this has grown out of one of the smallest missions in the church - growing from 16 young missionaries serving in Mongolia in 1995 to 34 in 1997. The 100-missionary mark was crossed in late 1999. As of June 2009 there were 155 Mongolian missionaries who were serving or who had received calls to serve; 115 were currently serving in the Mongolian Ulaanbaatar Mission. 200 missionaries were serving in the Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission. In mid-2009, there were a total of 660 known returned Mongolian missionaries, 402 of which were living in Mongolia. At the end of 2009 the number of Mongolian missionaries in the mission field reached 226; more than half of which served in Mongolia. This represents a large increase from two and a half years before when only 40 Mongolians were serving missions.
Only 59% were still active in the Church, an improvement from before senior missionaries were tasked to find and reactive them. There is likely no other nation in the Eastern hemisphere that has as high of a number of returned missionaries as Mongolia, where nearly 8% of members have served a mission including those who emigrated. It is unclear whether native Mongolian missionaries serving in the Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission have facilitated the growth of the Church more than non-Mongolian missionaries in the mission. However, emigration accounts for some attrition, as 39% of returned missionaries were living outside of Mongolia.
The unique demographics of the Church in Mongolia -- coupled with the high missionary enthusiasm of new members -- have contributed significantly to the high rates of missionary service in Mongolia. Many serve one-month local mini-missions before embarking on full-time missions. The number of Mongolians desiring to serve missions was so great at one time that prospective missionaries were required to serve at least six months in a significant local calling, often as a branch missionary or in a local leadership or teaching position. After serving missions, some returned missionaries marry other returned missionaries and start their own families. While economic challenges are a fact of life in Mongolia, Lewis remarks on the exceptional faith of many Mongolian members who faithfully pay tithing and fast offerings even in the face of severe hardships.
Returned missionaries in Mongolia have greatly strengthened the congregations of the Church throughout the country. In Ulaanbaatar, all but one of the 12 members of the two stake or district presidencies and their wives have served a full-time mission.
Activity and Retention
Activity was approximately 50% in 1997, and substantially less at present. Many Mongolians become Christians only for a year or two, and sometimes much less, before dropping out -- a trend that has been noted with concern by non-LDS Christian groups as well. Training local priesthood leadership is also a challenge, and home teaching rates in Mongolia have always been poor. There are also far more active women than men, and -- recognizing that the prospects of some female members of marrying within the Church are slim -- special classes have even been organized by some senior couple missionaries to train female members to proselytize non-LDS boyfriends or acquaintances. The rural nature of Mongolia presents unique issues, as Ulaanbaatar is the only city in the country with more than 100,000 inhabitants. While it is easy to find individuals to teach in small towns, keeping track of people logistically after baptism can be a problem, especially when members move without notice. The ratio of membership to congregations has rapidly increased between 2000 and 2008 from 157 to 402 respectively as congregations only increased by four (24% increase) while membership tripled (316% increase). Active membership is likely around 3,000, or 35% of total membership.
Languages with LDS Scripture: Mongolian, Russian
All LDS scriptures are available in Mongolian and Russian. The Church has translated a large number of unit, temple, leadership, priesthood, relief society, Sunday School, young women, primary, missionary, audio/visual, and family history materials in Mongolian and Russian. Church materials in Kazakh are limited to sacrament prayer translations, the Articles of Faith, and selected hymns and children’s songs.
The first chapel in Mongolia was dedicated in 1999 in a remodeled building colloquially known as the “Children’s Cinema” because it was used decades before to show films for children in Ulaanbaatar. In early 2010 several large Church built chapels had been built in Ulaanbaatar and Choibalsan. Other meeting houses were typically remodeled buildings.
Humanitarian and Development Work
The Church has conducted many humanitarian activities in Mongolia. In 2000 members of the Church in Utah donated food and clothing to Mongolia following a harsh drought followed by a severe winter. In 2003, the Church provided relief after flooding in Ulaanbaatar. Supplies were sent from Salt Lake City and distributed by missionaries in Mongolia. During the same year the Church News reported that humanitarian and welfare missionaries in the Mongolian Ulaanbaatar Mission were teaching skills such as knitting to help the Mongolian people. In 2004, the Church provided medical training to Mongolia via video recordings of surgical procedures for surgeons in the country. The Church News published a lengthy article about humanitarian work done by the Church in Mongolia in 2005. Examples of service provided included wheelchair donations, clean water projects, vision restoration programs, and neo-natal resuscitation programs. Humanitarian projects continue in Mongolia today, with many now currently carried out by local Church leaders instead of aid sent from abroad to Mongolia. Examples of such projects include a local member quilt making activity in Ulaanbaatar for those in need and removing litter from city streets and public places.
Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects
Laws which restrict proselytism challenge the scope and freedom which the Church may conduct missionary work, yet have also motivated members to assist in finding investigators for missionaries and increase outreach and Church growth. In 2009, significant challenges arose with the government regarding foreign missionary visas. No foreign missionaries were expelled from the country, but the government refused to issue visas to prospective new missionaries. Some portions of the visa issues were resolved in early 2010 when several senior couple were granted visas. In early 2010, many American missionaries were temporarily reassigned to missions in the United States while they waited for the Mongolian visas. Missionaries report that one of the reasons for the government refusing to issue additional visas was that government officials expressed concern about ecclesiastical activities of foreign missionaries in addition to humanitarian work and teaching English.
One of the great challenges for the growth of the Church in Mongolia is the difficulty of couples face in getting married and finding a home to live in together. Housing in Mongolia is expensive and usually unaffordable by newly married couples, as so many hesitate to marry until they are able to find a place to live. Other cultural and social including promiscuity, alcohol use, and some cultural practices, like the drinking fermented milk, stand in the way of the Church’s teachings.
Currently about one-third of the population lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The Church has a strong presence in the city with six wards and five branches. However, there has been hardly any increase in the number of congregations in Ulaanbaatar since 2001 due to the focus on maturing branches into wards, as well as a general decline in growth rates and growing inactivity problems. With continued growth, additional congregations may be created within the boundaries of the new stake. Züünmod, a small town near Ulaanbaatar with about 15,000 inhabitants, might open to missionary work in the coming years.
With the Church most established in the largest city of the country it is able to influence the Mongolian people who visit the city from other outlying areas of Mongolia. The Church has a congregation in the next four largest cities of the country, which have populations ranging from 30,000 to 75,000. It is not until cities below 30,000 inhabitants do we see cities which as of yet have no congregations established in them. Many of these cities are in western or southern Mongolia and are very isolated from the rest of the country. Most of the 21 provinces have no Church presence and each have about 100,000 people or less. It is most likely that the Church will grow the most in the larger cities in Mongolia due to their already existing Church presences and bigger populations. However if the Church is to preach the Gospel to the entire population of Mongolia, greater progress is to be made in establishing branches in the smaller cities throughout the country and among those who reside on the steppes and live nomadic lives. This will also create challenges in establishing congregations in the future when many of the potential members in a rural area live far apart from each other and periodically move their homes as they tend their livestock. However since over 90% of the population speaks Mongolian the Church will be able to penetrate many areas of the country without problems with a large number of different local languages.
The city of Khovd has provided missionaries serving in Mongolia with the unique experience of teaching the Gospel to some Muslims. With a strong branch numbering well over 100 active members, missionaries are able to come into contact with more Turkic peoples than in any other regions with a Church presence. Just to the west of the city Khovd is the province of Bayan-Olgii, where the majority of the population is Kazakh. However, no missionaries currently serve in Bayan-Olgii.
The majority of Mongolians do not reside Mongolia, but in neighboring countries, chiefly in China. The Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China contains about four million Mongolians. The Liaoning Province, which is between Inner Mongolia and North Korea, contains over 600,000 Mongolians. An estimated one million Mongolians live in Russia. Since the Gospel has taken hold in Ulaanbaatar and larger regional cities in Mongolia, it has a greater chance to spread to these other areas among the Mongolian population as family members share the Gospel with relatives who many reside one of these locations. Mongolians living in Inner Mongolia may one day join the Church when Mongolian members bring it to them. This could provide greater strength and opportunity for the Gospel to go forth to neighboring China.
Member Activity and Convert Retention
Decreasing member activity over the past decade challenges Church growth in the future due to little increase in congregations. Although the small increase in congregations has partially resulted from branches growing in membership in preparation to become wards, convert retention and activity rates have declined. Some branches have grown so large that they are unmanageable for one branch presidency to administer. Additional branches may not have been organized due to a lack of able priesthood holders, difficulty in locating a meetinghouse or the highly transitive nature of nomadic members in rural areas. Malaysia is the only country which experienced a greater increase in the ratio of members to congregations out of countries with over 1,000 members.
Single adults and youth comprise the majority of converts. These groups carry greater needs for fellowshipping and teaching in order to remain active and marry within the Church. The missionary program has provided a valuable resource in the retention of youth and young adults, but many become inactive after serving their missions. Inactive and less active members provide finding opportunities for the Church as they likely have more non-member friends and associates which may want to learn about the Church compared to active members who tend to decrease their non-member social interaction over time.
Ethnic Issues and Integration
Ethnic issues have not been a factor which has limited Church growth as no organized outreach occurs in regions with significant non-Mongol populations. The Church may experience some issues in western provinces between Mongols and Turkic peoples meeting in the same congregations.
Individuals in small towns and villages are often not as educated as those in Ulaanbaatar, and many lead simpler lives. Nonetheless, literacy is excellent. Elder Lewis states that he never met a Mongolian who could not read.
While senior couple missionaries made up almost 50% of the missionary force in 1995 and approximately one-third in 1997, the only ones to become proficient in Mongolian were the wives of the first two mission presidents. The first senior couple missionaries taught the gospel in English, while those serving more recently have largely limited their efforts to teaching English-language classes, mentoring local Mongolian leaders, and working with retention. Teaching the gospel to non-members is handled almost exclusively by young missionaries who are proficient in the local language. Mongolian is a challenging language for foreigners to learn, stated one missionary: "It takes about six months before you start to feel comfortable with the language."
The Book of Mormon was published in Mongolian in 2001. Interestingly, there was no Book of Mormon and few church materials in Mongolian during the initial years of the most rapid growth.
The large number of young men and women from Mongolia that have served or are serving missions is astounding as proportion of total membership. Most nations with less than 10,000 members send out very few missionaries. With well over a 100 missionaries serving full-time missions as of the summer of 2009, Mongolia is a model to many nations with smaller LDS populations which struggle to send out native missionaries in appreciable numbers. Perhaps most importantly, Mongolia is one of few countries in the world which has become largely self-sufficient in meeting its own missionary needs and producing a surplus which can serve in other countries. Nations where the Church has been long-established in Latin America, Europe, and other regions of Asia remain highly dependent on North American missionary manpower.
Currently Mongolia is assigned to the Hong Kong China Temple District. Members typically travel by train across China to attend the temple in groups. Members look forward the possibility of a temple in Ulaanbaatar once membership growth and activity requires one.
Mongolia is the mainland Asian nation with the highest percentage of Church members, at 0.3% or one member per 346 people. This is impressive as the Church has only operated in Mongolia since 1992. The country in mainland Asia with the next highest percentage of members of the Church is South Korea, where the Church has functioned for over 50 years, with at about 0.17%, or one member per 606 people. To suggest that this is due to Mongolia having a smaller population than South Korea or other populous Asian countries is unsupported; Singapore has only 1.5 million more people than Mongolia yet the ratio of LDS Church members to the population is one per 1,595. Mongolians have been uniquely receptive to the Church – due to a combination of factors including intrinsic receptivity from culture and circumstance, the Church establishing itself on a strong foundation, the willingness of youth to serve missions, and the great attention given to humanitarian relief. Missionaries serving in Mongolia also report that the Mongolian members of the Church feel a strong affinity for the Book of Mormon, perhaps because they relate very much with the peoples of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps one of the reasons for why Mongolia has been such a fertile land for the Gospel compared to many others is that there is a strong concentration of the tribes of Israel. Missionaries report that lineages of all of the tribes of Israel have been declared among Mongolian missionaries’ patriarchal blessings.
Protestant groups have utilized radio and television as a means of spreading Christianity in the country. Other strong missionary oriented Christians such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have a small presence in Mongolia. Seventh Day Adventists claim about 1,300 members in four congregations whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses claim about 200 members in three congregations.
Recently membership growth has again begun to increase more rapidly. In 2008 membership increased from 7,721 to 8,444. Missionaries reported that they were some months of 2009 were among the highest recorded baptizing months. Whether this small increase in membership growth is reflected in retention of new converts, or whether this increase in growth will be sustained, will be seen from future growth in congregations. This will be determined by whether more congregations are created in the country, particularly in areas where large numbers of Church members already reside. The large number of Mongolian missionaries serving in 2009 and 2010 will provide significant leadership resources for the Church upon completing their missions, remaining active in the Church, and not immigrating to other countries. Additional congregations may be organized and remaining districts may become stakes.
 Zerjal et al., The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols (PDF), American Journal of Human Genetics, 2003.
 Searle, Don L. “Mongolia: Steppes of Faith,” Liahona, Dec 2007, 18–23.