The international Church has continuing growing pains. The problems of dealing with local bureaucracies at home to build chapels and temples are multiplied abroad. Long legal and technical delays and expenses sometimes exceed construction time and building costs. The Church built a large meetinghouse in Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia, at a cost of over $2 million dollars, obtaining all necessary legal permissions. Months later the building was still unoccupied because an adjacent property was under construction. An official spokesman warned that "this should not be construed as oppression of believers by the local authorities." Mormons are not singled out. An Adventist building in Turkmenistan, legally constructed in the early 1990s, was bulldozed to rubble in 1999 with three days notice. Building chapels and temples in the U.S. is difficult; building them abroad is much harder. Critics have warned that the future success of the international Church depends upon Mormonism's capacity to adapt to other cultures. Mormonism comprises a distinct way of life, but world religions must adapt to the diverse ways of world cultures. As colonialism and Western culture fall under attack from a variety of directions, the Mormon message stands at a crossroads. Can the Church adapt to other parts of the world? Will Mormonism produce ethnic forms transcending indigenous culture, or will it produce little Utah enclaves? Will a global Church reproduce American wards? Church growth has always been uneven suggesting the complexity of a single strategy.
Mexican Church member Eliseo Escalante Hernandez sees the Church as native to each place. "One has nothing to do with the other," he says. "You can't link political things with religious things." Another leader agrees: "Our concepts are neither Mexican nor American; they are universal. We respect the sovereignty of each country and uphold its laws." Others, however, see complications arising from Church interaction with international cultures. David Knowlton, an anthropologist living in Latin America, observed the tensions of the American church, noting that Chile, with high Latin American LDS membership also has a high incidence of Mormon chapel bombings. He reported local suspicion of this "new religion," beginning with the "massive invasion" of young, blond Americans who quickly constructed "lavish" new buildings. Natives feared exploitation.
Knowlton saw LDS expansion in Latin America as part of a larger conflict between the established Catholics and growing non-Catholic groups involved with socioeconomic development. In this widespread politicization of religion in the area, Mormons, considered conservative, have been used politically by governments to undercut the rebels challenging their authority. Also notable is that local LDS leaders are often employed by the Church. Members, dependent on the jobs, create a local professional clergy, giving the leaders more incentive to hold on to power than in the central Church. These characteristics create an organization freighted with more than religious aims.
Mark L. Grover, a BYU scholar, gives another interpretation of the Church situation in Latin America. He suggested that the explosive growth in the 1980s, now purposefully slowed down, resulted from the movement of millions of people to the cities where they lost touch with family and their traditional Catholic Church, and from the replacement of several military dictatorships with democracies between 1983 and 1988. The growth outstripped the Church's ability to train leaders and retain converts. He quoted President Hinckley as saying, "The days are past, . . . when we will baptize hundreds of thousands of people in Chile [who] drift away from the church." Hinckley was almost "driven to tears over the terrible losses we have suffered in this nation." After his visit, baptisms dropped from 900 to ninety a month. Latin American membership is still expected to be more than half of the LDS Church by 2020.
Vast changes have been made in some areas, but as historian Jan Shipps points out, the process of assimilation is far from complete. "Notwithstanding the rosy picture of a world filled with Mormons which is being projected by the Church News and the official Ensign, the power of the LDS gospel to sustain communities of Saints throughout the world without requiring them to adopt peculiarly American attitudes and stereotyped life styles has not yet been fully proven."
Directions, interpretations, and methods are likely to change. The Church now seeks to relate to other nations through technical help and humanitarian aid, a burgeoning part of its program. But missionary work will doubtless remain dominant. Missionaries will continue to travel the world to engage listeners, and the Church will seek to open channels, through diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives, to put its young men and women on the ground. This effort will continue, so Mormons believe, block by block, elder by elder, sister by sister until Christ comes again or the work is done, whichever situation comes first.