News Story

Bishops See National Trend in Mormon Congregations

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report this week surveying the faith landscape of the United States. Based on interviews with 35,000 Americans, the report finds that religious affiliation in this country is increasingly diverse and fluid.

Religion scholar Stephen Prothero commented on the implications of the Pew survey in the New York Times. “The trend is towards more personal religion,” he said, speaking of evangelicals in particular and religion in general.

Prothero points out that even in mega-churches seen in today’s American religious landscape, members are grouped into smaller ministries within the larger church body.

Latter-day Saints identify with that. Mormon congregations are kept small enough to maintain a close and intimate relationship between members and their congregational leaders. At the same time, they are large enough — usually a few hundred members — to pool talents and resources for the entire group’s benefit.

According to Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at Virginia’s Richmond University, the practice of providing universal volunteer service opportunities to youth and adults in any given congregation leads to personal and social benefits.

“The value of the system is that it prevents religion from ever becoming a spectator sport. One doesn’t go to church to be ministered to, but to minister,” he said.

“And since we tend to love those people and institutions we invest in,” he adds, “lay service forges powerful bonds of interdependency and unity.”

In order to understand what makes Mormon congregations “unusually cohesive faith groups,” as Givens calls them, a closer look is necessary.

According to former Mormon bishop Chris Rutter, lay service “gives members a chance to learn new skills and knowledge, strengthening their faith and enhancing their religious experience.”

Rutter says that young people, new members and all others who are capable of contributing are given a church duty, such as leading the music, teaching a class or organizing the scout troop.

“Frequently, when a new assignment is accepted there’s a steep learning curve, initially, in order to do it well,” he said. “But people learn quickly and enjoy serving each other.”

Mormon bishops say the system of backup help from dozens or even hundreds of members is essential. “Bishops have demands on their time,” Rutter said. “With full-time jobs and family responsibilities, it’s not always easy to find the time needed each week to lead a flock.”

Mormons say children in the faith grow up seeing religion as something you do, not something you just believe. As children grow into teens, they learn that religion can be practical and helpful to them and to those around them.

From a pastoral perspective, communal member-to-member ministering also leads to more positive outcomes within the faith community and beyond.

“When you have 300 or so members in a congregation all contributing,” Rutter says, “the accumulated service is often substantial.”

Bishop Richard C. Edgley of the Church’s Presiding Bishopric spoke recently of the close-knit support that Mormon congregations offer.

“No one knows better how to bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort,” he said in the Church’s October 2007 general conference. “I choose to call it ‘enduring together.’ What happens to one happens to all. We endure together.” 

Additional Resources

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.