A little bit of Mormon inside baseball: The recent re-organization of the First Presidency (the highest governing council of the Mormon Church) left a lot of Latter-day Saints sad or concerned that Elder Dieter F. Uchdorft, a widely admired and perceived moderating influence on Church councils, had been dropped from the First Presidency. He remains a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Church’s second highest governing council, and it was announced that he would be getting some important new assignment. Today the Church issued a statement that:
Elder Uchtdorf will represent the Office of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in his capacity as chair of the Missionary Executive Council, where he will direct the global operation of all missionary activities of the Church. [He will also chair the Correlation Executive Council.] The Correlation Executive Council reviews and approves all Church materials and products.
The initial reaction on social media among my Mormon intellectual friends focused on his direction of the Correlation department. Not surprisingly, bookish people are going to be most interested in the books (and other materials) that the Church produces, and they (we!) are rightly concerned at the way that the homogenizing effect of Correlation tends to dumb down official Church materials in a way that whitewashes difficult questions and trades inoffensive cliches for real spiritual content. Cheering all around that Elder Uchtdorf, known for a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and engage sensitively with difficult questions, will be in charge of Correlation.
I suspect, however, that directing the Missionary Executive Council is far, far more important. Mormonism is nothing if not an evangelizing, missionary religion. Historically, I think that the messages and interpretations of Mormonism that have ultimately triumphed both within Mormon culture and within the institutional Church have been those that have proved successful as proselytizing tools. In the 19th century, you can see this in the early emphasis on restoration and spiritual gifts. In the 20th century you see it in the Mormon emphasis on the importance of nuclear families.
Church growth goes in cycles. For example, after the waves of converts in the 19th century, the missionary program of the Church had only modest successes for the first half of the 20th century. Then, after World War II, the Church hit upon messages and methods that resonated with potential converts and growth once again took off. The Church had a good run with it, but the post-War model of Mormon missionary work — door-to-door tracting, standardized discussions, nuclear families at the center of the theological message, etc. — seems to have run its course. We are now in a moment that looks a lot like the early 20th century: low growth rates and the tentative search for new methods and messages. There are lots of starts and stops and the Church as an institution tends to be conservative and risk adverse, but I think that the over all trajectory suggests the search for a new missionary model.
I don’t know what that model will look like. I don’t know what aspects of the Mormon tradition are going to be an appealing proselytizing message going forward and how the re-interpretation of Mormonism around that message will look. The same is true of the institutional structures and practices that will carry that message to the world. What I am willing to wager on is that once a successful proselytizing model — message and practice — is discovered, the Church will gradually be transformed in the image of that model.
And it would seem that for the time being, that finding that model is the job that has been given to Elder Uchtdorf. Hence, I suspect that he will be plenty influential on the Church going forward. That is encouraging.