While there is a decline in numbers in some denominations, one religion has been experiencing great success in the United States. It grew approximately 170% in one decade (1990-2001). It has grown nearly 10-fold in the past few decades. Is this religion that is “rolling forth like a stone” the LDS Church? Nope. It’s Buddhism. But wait, some people may say, those numbers are misleading. There are good reasons for that:
– It’s a small religion, so percentage growth is misleading. Nope. The most recent estimate for the number of people who actively identify themselves as Buddhists in the United States is around 6 million, or roughly the same number as the number of LDS members in the US. And the number who actively identify as LDS is smaller.
– It’s due to an active missionary force. Nope. When was the last time you saw a Buddhist missionary? When was the last time you saw an ad on TV for Buddhism? When was the last “I’m a Buddhist” billboard you saw? Just like in the LDS Church, there are books and magazines and websites out there for people interested, but they aren’t necessarily promoted like our.
– It’s an “easy” religion. Nope. For someone truly following Buddhist principles, it is actually at least as rigorous as our LDS faith. There is daily meditation. There is an attempt to control one’s thoughts and words and actions throughout the day. Buddhists avoid intoxication. Many avoid meat all together. They even avoid jobs in industries that don’t promote certain ideals. Buddhists are generally very anxiously engaged in the whole world around them, not just with other members of their faith.
– It’s due to Asians immigrating to the United States. Nope. There is some growth because of people moving from predominately Buddhist countries, but this only accounts for around 30% of the growth. The majority of the growth is from “converts”, or US-citizens who change over to Buddhism from their prior beliefs. This means there are over 3 million converts in the past 2 decades alone just in the United States, not including natural growth or immigration.
– It’s due to older people looking for something they can’t find in traditional faiths. Nope. The majority off converts are people aged 30-49. They are generally well-educated, many with at least some college education. They are younger people who are yearning for spirituality which they hadn’t found in other faiths.
And the growth isn’t limited to the United States. Western Europe, Australia, the United Kingdom, and many other areas are also experiencing explosive growth. Why? Why is a religion like Buddhism growing, while the growth of the LDS Church is slowing down significantly? Some might argue that it is a loss of spirituality in general, but I would argue that is it something very different, something from which WE can learn if we, too, want to spread the gospel more effectively.
Buddhism is a very old religion. Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BC, or around the time of the early Nephites. Buddhism spread throughout SE Asia and flourished there for a combination of religious, political, and social reasons. Like most religions, it developed in the context of and in reaction to religions existing at that time (in this case Hinduism – and just like Christianity from Judaism or Mormonism from Christianity). For millennia, Buddhism was largely confined to one main area of the world. And like other religions, many social customs became incorporated into Buddhism.
Buddhism was first introduced to the United States just before the turn of the century in 1893 at a congress of World Religions. For the next few decades, growth in the United States was predominantly among immigrants from Buddhist countries or their descendants. One branch of Buddhism (Zen) began to have some growth in the 1950’s, but even as recently as 1970, there were still only an estimated 150,000 Buddhists in the US. But then it began to flourish, and it has grown at an ever increasing rate. So why?
There was much discussion in the “early” days of Buddhism on how to “share” the good message. People had their lives significantly changed by what they experienced and wanted to spread the news, much like we do in the LDS Church. One issue they faced, however, was many of the customs that came to define “Buddhism” in SE Asia. Many of these seemed very strange to Westerners, who wouldn’t accept them and couldn’t incorporate them into their lifestyle. So a concerted effort was made into determine what it actually meant to be “Buddhist”. People went back to the source – what did Buddha actually teach? What principles were essential to Buddhism? What is the “core” of the message? These principles were them incorporate into a Western context and presented that way. Because of this, there are a number of differences in the way Buddhism might be practiced day-to-day in the United States vs Thailand, for example.
But, and this is important, a practitioner in both places still values the SAME PRINCIPLES and is improving their lives in the SAME FUNDAMENTAL WAYS. The core of Buddhism has been lifted out of the society in which it has developed, and has been adapted to other societies around the world. And it has flourished. Growth is increasing. It is having an increasing impact on the societies in which it is found. And the fundamental principles of Buddhism are appealing enough to people that this is all being done WITHOUT a missionary force.
I would argue that the exact same thing is what is holding our own Church back. The core of our message is beautiful and appealing. We have the priesthood. Families can be together forever. We have the potential to be like God. Messengers can still speak to God and bring His words directly back to mankind. And so on. It is a beautiful message. It is universally appealing. It is powerful. But it is lost.
Today, our message is lost under cultural baggage that encumbers it. When it comes to what it practically means to be a Mormon, we don’t talk about that. We get talks on what things we should do on Sundays. We get messages on earrings and tattoos and white shirts and beards and keeping our little girls’ shoulders covered and the evils of Coke. We get societal racism institutionalized into our canon for over a century. We get United States Prohibition bans used to change the Lord’s supper from using the wine that He Himself instituted. We get sermons on the current “correct” name of the Church. We get shopping malls and hunting preserves and multi-billion-dollar for-profit corporations. We get slick ad campaigns. We have no new addition to our “open” canon for decades and decades. We heard on national TV from our leaders that we don’t really teach that we can become like God, and don’t even really know what that means. None of these have to do with our core message, and therefore our missionary program is broken.
And what do we do? We rearrange the deck chairs. We come up with a new way to teach the discussions – teach principles, no memorize word-for-word, no teach principles. We get “inspired” programs that are only replaced by more “inspired” programs a few years or even months later when they don’t work. We guilt our missionaries with promises that they will be more successful if they are even more obedient. We show ads of people skateboarding. We come up with program after program after program. We try to implement our franchise model of religion throughout the world, with a common handbook and an exportation of Wasatch Front culture to the world and a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all building style and meeting plan.
But it’s not working. Our convert baptisms as a percentage of membership are 50% lower than they were even a decade ago. Our one-year convert retention rate is only 20-30% throughout much of the world. We are losing a whole generation of young people, even along the Wasatch Front which is our bastion of strength, where YSA activity rates are in the teens.
So what should we do? I would take Buddhism as an example. We should step back and refocus on the core. We should focus on what is essential to being a Mormon. We should talk about the beautiful truths that God lives, that Christ is His Son, that the Church can help us get closer to God and toward fulfilling our eternal destiny. If we claim an open canon and continuing revelation, we should add to it. We should jettison all of the generational and cultural opinions that are taught as pseudo-doctrines. We should stop building malls and start building people.
I’ve listed a few specific ideas in the “If I Were In Charge” series, but there are many more, from many people. Real voices need to be heard. If someone raises a concern, they don’t need to be branded an apostate. There are myriad people who care deeply about this Church who have been marginalized because they disagree with some non-doctrinal thing and who have been made to feel uncomfortable. Open the doors. Invite them back. Don’t just say they are welcome, but truly change the non-essential things that drove them out in the first place. And invite the world to see our beautiful message. Change the things that are keeping the work from going forward. Stop making incremental readjustments, but shift paradigms.
Maybe I’m too positive, but I think an increasing number of people are yearning for spirituality as evidenced by the growth of Buddhism. In a recent Gallup/USA today poll (2010), 92% of Americans say they believe in God. The number of Americans who say religion is “very important” in their life (as opposed to “fairly important” or “not important) was 56% in 2008, compared to 52% thirty years ago. So, we are still a spiritual county. And this yearning for spirituality is taking place in a large and wondrous and beautiful world, filled with amazing people of different cultures and races and backgrounds. Instead of telling everyone they have to become us, let’s meet them halfway. Let’s stop clinging to non-essential things that make our message non-appealing.
Let’s spread the good news more effectively…
- What do you think has contributed to the rise of Buddhism in the West?
- Do you think people are more spiritual or less spiritual than the past?
- Do you think it is possible for an institution like the Church to actually change this fundamentally?
- Will changing the focus to the core of our message work?