Jana Riess: Why so many new temples when LDS Church growth is flat?

If yesterday’s temple was a prize bestowed on area members when they had achieved certain growth milestones, today’s is a jumper cable, a tool to reenergize the faith’s sputtering engine.

(Rendering courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Helena Montana Temple.

In April, President Russell M. Nelson surprised members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by announcing plans to build 20 new temples around the world. Earlier this month, he surprised us yet again as the church decided to save the historic artwork in the Manti Temple by redirecting some attendees to a brand-new temple that will be constructed in nearby Ephraim.

All told, according to an independent LDS Church growth website, this will bring the total number of existing or planned temples to 252, 70 of which have been announced during the nearly 31/2 years that Nelson has led the church.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I know that members get understandably excited when they learn that their area is getting a temple. Particularly outside the United States, they sometimes have to schlep to a distant city, traveling for hours or even days, to reach a temple. Having more temples in far-flung locales increases the odds that members can participate in temple rituals, and it helps to equalize access.

On the other hand, the church has seen years of slowing growth. Apart from a slight uptick in 2019, there’s been a steady erosion, both in terms of new converts and “children of record.” Granted, the 2020 numbers reflect the unprecedented restrictions of COVID-19. Missionaries were recalled and church buildings shut down for part of the year. Even so, the pre-pandemic trajectory of growth between 1% and 2% a year was not so stellar that it would merit a 28% increase in planned temples in just the past three years.

What’s more, some of these temples are hardly planned for growth areas. Consider Oslo. There are only about 4,600 Latter-day Saints in all of Norway, and that’s been the case for at least a decade. The church is barely treading water there.

That’s also the case for a couple of the other announced sites (Belgium, with 6,600 members and a temple two hours away in the Hague, Netherlands; and Austria, with just under 4,700 members).

Those are 2019 numbers, as the church has yet to release its country-by-country figures for 2020. Generally, these are released soon after General Conference in April. But this year, the church issued the overall statistical report on April 3, right on time, but not the individual statistics for each nation. I have contacted the Public Affairs Department to ask when these will be made available and hope it is soon.

In my more cynical moments I worry that they won’t be, that this one concession toward transparency — the closest thing ordinary members have to a shareholder report — could quietly disappear. It’s hard, psychologically, for a religion that long prided itself on being the fastest-growing faith in the United States to openly concede that its trend lines are now mostly horizontal. (I would note, if I had to pen the disappointing “religious shareholder report,” that our treading water is still better than the plummeting membership many religions are experiencing. We may be struggling, but this market for religion simply sucks. Much of that is not our fault.)

It takes maturity to acknowledge we’re no longer attracting and retaining members like we used to. Instead of that, we are doing what most businesses do when they’ve had a string of less-than-stellar years: We pivot. We emphasize the shiny new product line, which in our case is temples. Temples, temples everywhere! Let’s think positively, people!

Someday, a graduate student in media studies will write a dissertation that quantifies our positive vs. negative media coverage during this period. What I suspect they will find, just from my own trawling of Mormon news each week, is that when we do get positive media coverage, a significant portion of it is related to our temples.

It’s not just members who like temples, or at least the idea of them. Temples invite curiosity from outsiders, especially in the brief period when they’re being built and then when they are open to the public. They are a conversation starter, a “way in,” a missionary moment.

In short, there’s a kind of perpetual Latter-day Saint optimism to our current flurry of temple-building. There’s no purely sensible reason for us to announce 70 new temples so far in Nelson’s administration. The denomination as a whole is not enjoying the kind of growth that would make these temples a need rather than a luxury, particularly since some of them are being sited in areas where Mormonism is endangered, like Western Europe.

But temples have never been about what is purely sensible. That’s all the more true lately, when they have become less a reward than a hoped-for catalyst. If yesterday’s temple was a prize bestowed on area members when they had achieved certain milestones related to growth, today’s temple is a jumper cable, a tool to reenergize the sputtering engine of the church. Each announced temple represents our hope that positive community interest today could translate into converts tomorrow: “If you build it, they will come.”

But will they?