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Mormonism is growing in Africa, but is its rise “exponential”?

Mike Stack | special to The Salt Lake Tribune LDS missionaries talking to local shopkeeper Lenore Ahwah in the Pig Hill section of Accra, Ghana. 03/05/2014

Earlier this month, the LDS Church announced that it had broken ground for its first temple in the Democratic Republic of Congo, bringing the number of temples on the African continent built or underway to four — with two more announced in Ivory Coast and Durban, South Africa.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church release said, "has grown exponentially in the past 30 years."
It seems like quite the accomplishment given that Mormon missionary work in Africa — except white South Africa — didn't get started until after 1978, when the Utah-based faith lifted its ban on black men and boys being ordained to the church's all-male priesthood and women and girls being allowed inside the temple.
Thirty years ago, the LDS Church had "137 separate congregations and about 22,000 members," the release said. "Today, there are more than 1,600 congregations and half a million members — that's 11 times more wards and branches and 20 times more members than in 1985."
Mormon demographer Matt Martinich, though, wonders if that really could be called "exponential growth."
Martinich, a project manager for cumorah.com, acknowledges the LDS Church's "rapid growth in Nigeria, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), and Cote d'Ivoire," where more than half of African Mormons reside.
Despite this progress, Martinich says on his blog, "LDS growth in Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be extremely limited. Overall growth trends have appeared much more modest than the 'exponential' growth claims in the recent LDS news release."
The demographer, who lives in Colorado Springs, cites several examples:
• "LDS growth trends over the past two decades have been slow or stagnant in seven nations, including Angola, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, and Tanzania."
• "Four or fewer cities have an LDS presence in 17 Sub-Saharan African nations."

• "There are 12 Sub-Saharan African countries where there are no official LDS congregations that operate despite sufficient religious freedom to conduct proselytism and no legal barriers for the church to obtain government recognition."
Martinich says "a lack of international church resources allocated to Africa, combined with a conservative interpretation of the church's 'centers of strength' policy, appear the primary causes for an extremely limited LDS presence in Africa today."
While Mormonism seems to be thriving in Western Africa, he says, it is stalled in the southeast.
Part of that is due to language.
When LDS area leaders in Kenya required all proselytizing and worship services to be conducted in English rather than Swahili, Martinich says, that slowed missionary momentum.
"Prospects for LDS growth in other areas of the continent also appear favorable," Martinich concludes, "but the outlook for growth will depend on the church assigning more missionaries to these areas, opening more cities to proselytism, and mission and area leaders engendering greater self-sufficiency in local church leadership."

Mike Stack | special to The Salt Lake Tribune LDS missionaries Thomas Fornaro (left) and Tyler Valdez(right) talk to a local Ghanaian while street contacting in Accra, Ghana. 03/05/2014

| courtesy LDS Film Festival Mormon missionaries in Monrovia, Liberia, are among those in danger during a civil war in a scene from ÒFreetown,Ó directed and written by Garrett Batty. The film, based on a real event, will screen Wednesday, March 4, at the LDS Film Festival in Orem.

| Courtesy LDS Church LDS missionaries in Africa

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