In a move that may strike some as ironic, the LDS Church is bringing more of its full-time missionaries to southern Utah, a place dominated by Mormons, and sending fewer to places such as Germany, Ireland and Australia, which have a tiny LDS presence.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also is beefing up its missionary numbers in Latin America, the Philippines and Africa, according to an announcement Friday of 10 new missions and the merging of 14 others.
Peru and Mexico are each getting two new missions, for example, while Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Democratic Republic of Congo are adding one. There will also be new missions in St. George, Utah; Iloila, Philippines; and Farmington, N.M.
The expansion in Utah's Dixie will bring the number of missions in the state to six.
By and large, this shuffling represents the 13.5 million-member church's global shift away from more developed societies that have been a mainstay of LDS converts for a century and toward the Third World.
It's not surprising, says Utah Valley University anthropologist David Knowlton.
A religion such as Mormonism is "not on the whole interesting to Europeans," says Knowlton, currently doing research in Bolivia. "Churches play an important social role but the religious aspect may well be the least important."
Like the rest of Christianity, the American-born church is finding many more converts south of the border.
"There, religion is still a major basis of life and provides important social benefits," Knowlton says. "There are also increasing segments of socially mobile people for whom Mormonism is attractive."
Likewise, Mormon missionaries are finding many new converts among southern Utah's burgeoning Latino population, says Bishop Stephen Quinn, of the St. George LDS Fifth Ward, who had not heard of the new mission in his area. "The missionaries working with us are busy as they can be. We could always use more."
This change, one of the largest restructuring of missions in recent years, also reflects a need to stretch the church's shrinking proselytizing force, which is down to about 52,000 from a high of 62,000 in the mid-1990s.
"While raising the bar [on missionary qualifications] had an initial impact," says LDS spokesman Scott Trotter, "the primary reason for changes in missionary numbers is the fluctuating population of available missionary-age members."
In 2008, the church had 348 missions, which was the highest number since its founding in 1830. After this realignment, the faith will have 340 missions.
"A year ago we had 140 missionaries in the Spain Barcelona Mission; today we have 100 and we are scheduled to have 90 later this year," mission president Clark Hinckley, son of late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, wrote recently to his missionaries and family members. "Overall, the number of missionaries serving in Spain will be less than 300 this year. This is a dramatic decrease from several years ago, when we had nearly 800 missionaries in five missions in Spain."
A similar decrease took place in Germany, where the Hamburg mission now will be folded into Berlin.
"We were told that the church was pulling about 900 missionaries out of Europe," says University of Utah student Alex Curtis, who completed his two-year stint to Berlin last year. "Our mission president told us that he expected the 90 of us to do the work that 120 of us used to do."
The church expects to load much proselytizing onto area members. It's already happening in some places.
In Bolivia, for example, one almost never sees blond-headed missionaries from Utah, Knowlton says. The LDS Church has built a solid base of committed members.
"I expect these Latin American members to increasingly rise in leadership," he says. "And, if they follow the pattern of Scandinavians, then sometime in the next hundred years, probably toward the end, we can expect them to take control of the reins of authority."
There still are vast areas of the globe the church has not even begun to tap, says David Stewart, a Las Vegas physician who has studied LDS growth for more than a decade. He points to places such as Bangladesh, a Muslim country of more than 156 million people in southeast Asia, which allows proselytizing.
The LDS Church has a problem of "unlimited needs and limited resources," Stewart says. "A strong local member-missionary program will be crucial to the growth of the church in these areas."
Africa -- 185 percent increase
Asia -- 61 percent
South America -- 64 percent
Mexico -- 54 percent
Europe -- 23 percent
Source: BYU sociologist Tim Heaton, using the 2010 LDS Church Almanac
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City South
Salt Lake Temple Square
St. George (newly announced)