A couple of weeks ago, Patheos had a fun series of blog posts on the future of the Mormonism. (I’m too lazy to provide a link; Google it.) Most of the contributions were insightful and interesting, but I was struck that none of them put front and center what I think is the more important question facing the Church today.
Mormonism is driven, ultimately, by missionary work. If you look at the development of our theology, for example, it has largely been formulated in the context of polemics driven by the needs of proselytizing. We articulate our theology through the process of trying to convert people, rather than trying to covert people to our previously articulate theology. More dramatically, whatever seems to be the most successful missionary message tends to come to dominate Church discourse and transform Church practices. We don’t necessarily invent new doctrines or the like for missionary purposes, but the way in which we present those doctrines is decisively influenced by missionary messaging.
Think about the way that Mormons talk and teach about the family. In the contemporary Church we generally present these doctrines in terms of the sacaralization of the nuclear family around a broadly speaking modern model of middle-class parenting. I don’t have the common intellectual reflex of disdain for the bourgeois, so my point here is analytical rather than critical. It is striking, however, that doctrines originally revealed in the context of a sacralization of the pre-modern, patriarchal family on steroids (i.e. plural marriage) have been repurposed in such a different context. In large part, this is because sacralized nuclear families proved such a productive missionary message in the generations after World War II. Ultimately, that successful missionary message came to dominate Church teachings and practices.
Now look to the future. Currently Church missionary efforts have stalled. This does not portend a crisis or the end of Mormonism or the like. Historically, the Church has gone through cycles of missionary growth followed by cycles of largely stagnant missionary efforts. The rather stagnant and staid Mormonism of the 1920s and 1930s was transformed a generation later into the dynamic, expansive Mormonism of the 1970s and 1980s by the discovery of a new missionary message and new models of missionary work.
My prediction is that in the coming generations Mormonism will be dominated by whatever message generates missionary success, and the Church will be remade in the image of that message. Among other things, this means that many (perhaps most?) of the discussions within the Bloggernacle are probably talking about the wrong questions if you want to forecast the future of Mormonism. This is because the Bloggernancle’s discussions tend to be inwardly focused, lavishing much concern on the faith crises of members, for example, but paying relatively little attention to how one might appeal to potential converts. There is nothing wrong with this, but such internal issues have not, in my opinion, been what has driven the development of Mormonism in the past.
I don’t know what the new missionary message or messages will be, but I do know that there is no reason to suppose that it is going to be the same message we have used in the past. The messages of restoration of divine gifts and religious utopianism that proved so potent in the 1830s and 1840s, were not the messages of family and community that proved so potent a century later. I will, however, hazard two less ambitious predictions.
First, there will probably be a greater diversity of missionary messages in the future. The global reach of Mormon proselytizing is greater than it has ever been before, and there is no a priori reason to suppose that there is a single optimal missionary message for the entire world. Of course, on one hand this has always been true, and on the other it may be that globalization is causing a kind of cultural conversion that makes a single message more likely. Still, I doubt it. Furthermore, a multiplicity of messages is not enough. Because ultimately the Church must necessarily remake itself in the image of its missionary message, I suspect that future success will require greater decentralization in the structure of Church programs.
Second, discovering the successful missionary messages of the future will also require greater decentralization. Ultimately, high levels of variation subject to feedback mechanisms that select for successful processes is a better way of finding solutions that centralized planning. Consider the successful post-war missionary program based on standardized discussions focused on a family-centric plan of salvation. The discussions were not invented at Church headquarters. Rather, they were a successful innovation by a mission president operating in a pre-correlation world in which there was considerable variation from mission to mission. The same is true on the emphasis on families as a proselytizing message.
Correlation was a mid-twentieth century administrative technology that effectively husbanded resources and propagated successful practices discovered in a pre-Correlation missionary program. However, with the decline in the success of that model of missionary work, I think that greater decentralization is probably a necessary and effective discovery mechanism for the next set of successful Mormon missionary messages. We should have a greater toleration for mission and regional variation in missionary work, and local mission presidents and church leaders should be encouraged to try new things out and report on what works and what doesn’t. Rather than acting as a central planner, Church headquarters should function as a gardener, weeding out messages and approaches that consistently fail and encouraging processes that succeed.
Once these new missionary messages are found, I predict, they will transform the Church more than any other single factor in the future.