Centers of Strength Policy
Author: Matt Martinich
Posted: March 8th, 2014
The "centers of strength" or "building from centers of strength" policy is a policy that has guided the expansion and allocation of mission resources for at least the past two decades within the LDS Church. The primary principle of this policy centers on a greater allotment of mission resources to areas with larger numbers of church members rather than in locations with few or no members. The goal of the policy in most countries centers on the allocation of missionary resources into select locations to augment active membership by baptizing and retaining new converts, strengthening current active membership, training local leadership, and reactivating inactive or less-active members. Once church leaders determine that a critical mass of active members has been sufficiently stable and self-sufficient for a particular city or area, outreach expansion may occur into previously unreached locations with the aim to establish additional centers of strength. Although it appears counterintuitive to assign the vast majority of missionary manpower to locations with comparatively large LDS populations, the logic in this philosophy converges on assigning missionaries to locations where there are a sufficient number and activity of ordinary members providing teaching referrals, local leadership support, and investigator and new convert fellowship.
The Church has not provided official statements on the development and implementation of this policy. Rather, the centers of strength policy has appeared as more of a loose philosophy that guides outreach expansion in most areas of the world. Several church leaders have referenced the centers of strength policy. In 1988, Elder Francis M. Gibbons related that full-time missionaries have consistently served in areas with a strong church membership in an effort to build centers of strength. In 1994, Elder James O. Mason of the Seventy noted in a General Conference address regarding missionary activity in Africa that " efforts are focused to create centers of strength. The goal is to establish deep pools of leadership that will become the foundation for future Church expansion." In 2003, Elder Dallin H. Oaks remarked, "...followers of Christ are found in every land where the gospel and the Church have been established. We have many of them in the Philippines, and we are working to encourage more of them. We do this by growing from centers of strength, concentrating our teaching where there are sufficiently large groups of committed members to provide the friendshipping, the teachings, the role models, and the needed assistance to the struggling newly born members who are just learning what the gospel asks of us and gives to us." In 1997, area leaders in South America reported that, "the Church in these countries has grown and will continue to grow from centers of strength. However, we are also finding more clusters of strength in unexpected, remote places. We find that because of the efforts of latter-day pioneers our members are located throughout these countries." In 2008, President Dieter F.Uchtdorf indicated that the centers of strength policy is implemented in some areas of the world in order to develop sufficient leadership to accommodate new converts. President Uchtdorf reported, "in some parts of Africa, we could baptize full villages...We could immediately explode our membership. We're going slowly to have sufficient leadership."
Some church leaders have avoided organizing additional congregations in lesser-reached areas or expanding missionary work into unreached cities and towns due to efforts to establish stronger centers of strengths within their jurisdictions. In Latin America, many church leaders do not organize dependent units closer to members' homes or in lesser-reached communities but rather focus on strengthening operating wards and branches to create centers of strength. High member inactivity and convert attrition rates incurred by quick-baptism tactics have sacrificed the development of centers of strength and have led church leaders to promote reactivation versus outreach expansion. Addressing chronic and pervasive inactivity problems has taken precedence over outreach expansion in many areas of the world notwithstanding often poor outcomes to reactivation efforts. An imbalance in the need to address reactivation and outreach expansion has resulted in the Church extending no known outreach in more than 400 cities in Brazil that have 20,000 or more inhabitants. The Church in Brazil generally opens less than a dozen previously unreached cities to missionary work a year. The justification given by church leaders for the slow outreach expansion process in Brazil is linked to following the centers of strength paradigm of concentrating mission resources into a handful of select cities which are perceived as the most receptive and capable of becoming strong church centers. What has resulted from this approach is relatively few cities that emerge as centers of strength meanwhile thousands of cities and towns continue to receive no LDS outreach notwithstanding often more favorable conditions for missionary work in many of these locations.
The centers of strength policy has often restricted outreach efforts to just a handful of the most populous cities in many nations and has contributed to a slowdown in international LDS membership and congregational growth rates within the past two decades. The Church in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has operated an official branch for approximately two decades or more in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, the Republic of the Congo, and Tanzania yet the Church currently reports an official presence in three or fewer cities in each country. At times returned missionaries have reported that mission and area leaders discourage opening new cities under the premise of the centers of strength policy. Justification for delaying outreach expansion has centered on church leaders voicing a greater need to build up the Church in locations already reached by the Church until they become completely self-sufficient before exploring opportunities elsewhere. Unfortunately this logic has had catastrophic results worldwide as many congregations never become adequately self-sufficient, large numbers of missionaries assigned to a single unit erodes the independence of membership and leadership to administer their own congregation, and populations in unreached areas generally become less receptive to missionary work as they remain untouched for years and decades.
Mission and area leaders have concentrated on establishing a center of strength in a handful of locations in an effort to improve self-sufficiency of the Church in individual countries. This approach has become problematic for the Church achieving greater growth and outreach expansion largely because the small number of locations targeted often fail to reach the anticipated size and strength of active membership. The consistent allocation of the majority of mission resources to the same targeted cities siphons international mission resources into relatively fruitless reactivation and less-active efforts. Some mission and area leaders have appeared obstinate in reaching previous unattained goals while neglecting more receptive and promising prospects in opening unreached locations to missionary activity. This has been especially apparent in locations with low receptivity and where it is unfeasible to have ward-sized congregations due to local leadership development difficulties such as in Eastern Europe.
The centers of strength policy has been legitimized by many area and mission leaders to reduce logistical challenges faced when proselytizing large geographical areas, address leadership development, and take advantage of proselytism opportunities in densely populated urban areas. However, church leaders often struggle to open additional areas to missionary activity in a timely fashion when utilizing this approach, resulting in years or decades transpiring with no noticeable expansion of LDS outreach into previously unreached areas. Receptivity generally declines as opportunities to start missionary activity in new areas are delayed resulting in an under-realization of growth potential. Meanwhile, other proselytizing faiths shepherd many receptive individuals into their congregations and deplete growth potential for the LDS Church.
Data from Austria and from many other nations around the world do not support the claim of the centers of strength approach that a "critical mass" of members and mature local leadership serve as catalysts for more rapid growth and higher retention. Many congregations with a large number of members and well-developed local leadership have experienced stagnant or little growth whereas rapid growth has been achieved in previously unreached regions recently opened for missionary work. These data demonstrate that growth is achieved primarily as the result of effective missionary and member-missionary programs, strong convert retention, and local populations exhibiting good receptivity and has much less to do with the number of members in an area or the duration of church activity and membership since baptism.
Overstaffing small branches with multiple missionary companionships has often occurred under the rationale that additional missionary support strengthens local members and improves retention under the centers of strength policy, but this approach has frequently accomplished the opposite as local members depend on full-time missionaries for administrative duties and finding investigators. Many of these members struggle to develop self-reliant gospel living skills meanwhile additional cities throughout the region are unable to open for missionary work as mission resources are dedicated to a handful of cities with tiny branches. Some members in small congregations suffer from member burnout as a result of the overburdening of active members with administrative duties. The LDS Church has faced serious challenges maintaining member activity rates among seasoned active members in some nations due to conflict and social tensions between members at church and unsuccessful although diligent intervention from full-time missionaries and senior couples to diffuse such situations.
Excuses for not capitalizing on receptive populations in unreached cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants are diverse and complex. Many mission leaders demonstrate little or no desire to expand outreach within their jurisdictions as opportunities for missionary activity are not totally realized in locations that already have an LDS presence. Some feel that it is unwarranted as many areas already opened to proselytism struggle with member activity and leadership problems that need to be addressed. Others rationalize that long distances and few or no known Latter-day Saints in an unreached city require church leaders to make no conscious effort to visit these locations and ascertain conditions for establishing the Church. Many church leaders are unfamiliar with successful instances of church leaders in other areas of the world who have planted new congregations and steadily increased national outreach responsibly. Consequently, there is a lack of vision for the Church in many countries on how to make progress expanding outreach.
Strict adherence to the centers of strength policy has resulted in missing the window of opportunity to reach locations that have become unfeasible to open to missionary work at present day. Employing a "centers of strength" strategy to church growth in Cote d'Ivoire resulted in the failure to open additional cities in the interior when political conditions were more stable in the 1990s. Civil war and political instability have made outreach expansion efforts in many areas difficult and dangerous within the past decade. In late 2012, the Church in Cote d'Ivoire reported nine cities that had wards or branches established notwithstanding an official presence since the late 1980s and nearly 20,000 members nationwide. Emphasis on establishing centers of strength in the former Soviet Union when missionary work commenced in the early 1990s has coincided with an official LDS presence in only one Central Asian former Soviet republic (Kazakhstan) and dozens of unreached administrative divisions in Russia at present. Continuing to delaying outreach expansion in many countries that have few or no restrictions on missionary activity at present may result in missing opportunities to establish a presence if religious freedom and political stability deteriorate at a later time.
The effect of the centers of strength policy on outreach expansion and church growth is well illustrated in contrasting the growth of the LDS Church and Jehovah's Witnesses in Albania. The LDS Church assigned almost all of its missionaries to Tirana during the first decade of missionary activity. Witnesses quickly established congregations throughout the country resulting in a Witness missionary presence in most major cities by year-end 1993 at a time when Latter-day Saints operated branches only in Tirana and Durrës. A centers of strength policy adopted by LDS leaders continues to target locations with established congregations in an effort to augment active membership at the expense of opening additional cities to missionary activity. Lackluster outreach expansion efforts resulted in the LDS Church reporting branches in only three cities by year-end 2000 and seven cities by year-end 2010. Today the LDS Church does not operate a branch in 11 cities with over 10,000 inhabitants whereas Witnesses do not operate congregations in only two cities with over 10,000 inhabitants. In recent years, the aggressive church planting and outreach expansion vision of Witnesses has resulted in many small cities and towns with a Witness presence whereas all small cities and towns remain untouched by LDS proselytism efforts due largely to the centers of strength policy.
In recent years, there has been progress with mission and area leaders less stringently following the centers of strength policy. The Church stationed missionaries in three cities within the first year of missionaries assigned to Bosnia and Herzegovina notwithstanding no center of strength established Sarajevo; the most populous city in the country. In Madagascar, the Church limited missionary activity to the capital city of Antananarivo for the first decade and a half of formal proselytism in order to establish a center of strength but since 2005 has experienced a major proliferation of branches and groups to reach more than a dozen previously unreached locations. In Papua New Guinea, the Church underwent two waves of outreach expansion in the early 2000s and early 2010s resulting in the number of cities, towns, and villages with an LDS unit doubling in the early 2000s and increasing from 35 to 62 in the early 2010s. Several countries have experienced accelerated national outreach expansion following the organization of the first stake such as Cape Verde, Hungary, and Ukraine. Church leaders in these and several other locations have developed a balanced approach to further saturating already reached locations meanwhile delegating sizable amounts of resources to opening previously unreached locations to formal missionary activity.
In Sunyani, Ghana the Church made a major step towards reevaluating its centers of strength policy by opening a previously unreached city to missionary work that had no known members. Missionaries opened three home groups simultaneously and within less than two years had baptized and retained a sufficient number of members to organize four branches and establish a district. So called the "Sunyani Model," this church planting approach was highly effective in saturating a previously unreached location with multiple new units while simultaneously stressing the importance of establishing a center of strength for the Church in the city that could potentially service outlying areas. This reformed interpretation of the centers of strength policy has enormous potential in many areas of the world and has begun to be more readily used in several locations in West Africa at present.
For more information regarding the shortfalls of the centers of strength policy, see below for an extended excerpt from David Stewart's book The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work.
"Building from Centers of Strength"
Since approximately 1993, the "building from centers of strength" policy has governed international LDS expansion. This policy focuses on building congregations in selected "centers of strength" and often directs missionaries to spend large amounts of time working with members and attempting to reclaim inactives. It relies on the assumptions that "critical mass" of members is necessary for church growth and that congregations become more effective and mature over time. The "centers of strength" program demonstrates awareness that prior methods of expansion often failed to build healthy and sustainable congregations and represents a response to very real concerns about poor convert retention and inadequate unit strength.
While its intentions are noble, the way in which the "centers of strength" policy has often been implemented has created new difficulties. The diversion of vast amounts of missionary time away from finding and teaching receptive people to less productive reactivation efforts has contributed to the sharp decline in LDS growth rates from 5 percent annually in the late 1980s to less than 3 percent at present. Directives to "strengthen members" and to "spend more time with less-actives" are often presented as nebulous vagaries that offer little practical insight, and reactivation successes have been meager. The "centers of strength" policy has drastically reduced the rate at which new, faster-growing congregations are organized in receptive areas. Expansion into new areas is based primarily on logistical and administrative considerations, while making little allowance for local conditions, needs, and opportunities. It is common for congregations to be established in several small cities surrounding a mission headquarters, while much larger cities in the mission area remain without any gospel witness for years or decades.
From both scriptural and practical standpoints, the "centers of strength" policy faces substantial difficulties. Neither Paul's missionary journeys nor Dan Jones' methods would be permissible under the modern "building from centers of strength" policy. Unique modern opportunities like that presented by the man from Macedonia in Paul's vision have been routinely declined. In Mongolia, the request of a local group with over one hundred families, who expressed a desire to join the LDS church, to send missionaries to their city located midway between two cities with existing congregations was declined without further investigation. One Latter-day Saint who traveled to Kenya noted: "I was told that even if a whole village was ready to be baptized, they could and would not oblige them. They were to stay in the large cities or areas where they already had large populations of Church members and build up a 'Center of Strength.'" The number of Protestants in Kyrgyzstan has grown from virtually zero to over 60,000 since 1993, although no LDS missionaries had been assigned to the country through 2005. The Kostroma region has been a rare island of exceptional religious freedom in Russia since 1989 and is located in close proximity to the two Moscow missions, yet there have been no LDS efforts to proselyte anywhere in the entire region. Hundreds of other examples could be cited of remarkable opportunities that have been passed up while vast numbers of missionaries assigned to less productive areas experience little success.
It is difficult to see how policies that drastically restrict outreach can be construed to be consistent with repeated scriptural mandates to spread the gospel tent over the whole earth and "spare not." While the need for the Church to be established "in wisdom and in order" is undeniable, one wonders if there is wisdom in unresponsiveness and inflexibility that do not allow the utilization of even the most remarkable opportunities. The "centers of strength" paradigm lacks the vision of sounding the gospel in every ear embodied in saturation church planting approaches, which maintain that local congregations should be available to all people based on their receptivity and that outreach to new areas should not be held hostage to the problems of stagnant existing units and carnal members in other areas. LDS missionaries belatedly arriving in new areas often find that many of the seekers of earlier years have already been disciplined into other churches, making outreach more difficult. The limiting factor in church growth should be the receptivity and willingness of local people to accept the gospel message, not our failure to provide them any opportunities.
If the concept of an obligatory "critical mass" of members represented the key to building successful congregations and if maturity were an inevitable result of time or of missionary visit quotas, we would expect to see great strength in nations where the Church has been established for many years. Such areas -- Japan, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and so forth -- should represent model successes for the Church in new areas. Yet in these nations, we find crises of rampant inactivity, low home teaching, and declining growth rates far more frequently than we find positive examples. If we are to believe that the "centers of strength" in nations where the Church has long been established represent successful worked models, then the future of "Mormonism" looks bleak indeed. Fortunately, saturation church planting offers more productive and exciting possibilities.
The real difficulties of the "building from centers of strength" policy arise from misidentification of the root causes of congregational instability, slow growth, and low convert retention. Small international congregations are not unstable because they lack a "critical mass" of members, but because continued quick-baptism tactics generate vast numbers of inactives while producing few committed converts who join the Church prepared to serve. Low retention is not primarily a problem of socialization that is solved by conglomerating larger and larger congregations but is improved by rigorous prebaptismal preparation of prospective converts to ensure lasting commitment. Members gain strength not by quotas of missionary social visits but by a consistent focus on daily scripture reading, personal prayer, tithing, church attendance, and adherence to other gospel laws. Properly organized new congregations can more quickly and consistently achieve rapid growth and spiritual self-sufficiency than older and larger ones with less flexible members and entrenched problems. When the true pathologies are understood, they can be remedied in more effective and scriptural ways that do not compromise our core mission to make the gospel message available to all people.
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