SALT LAKE CITY — The expanding international footprint of the Mormon church will be on display this weekend during a biannual conference that brings 100,000 church members to Salt Lake City to listen to words of guidance and inspiration from the faith's leaders.
Thousands of the attendees will be coming from countries outside the U.S. — most stopping on their way into the 21,000-seat conference center to grab headphones so they can listen to speeches translated into 94 different languages.
It is widely anticipated that one or more of this weekend's speakers will deliver an address in a language other than English, marking a first in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' biannual general conference. Church leaders recently announced they would make that option available to speakers.
A non-English speech would be an important representation of the internationalization of a church that was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, say scholars who study the religion.
"It's a hugely important symbol, because it reveals that the religion is becoming less and less a small, interesting American sect, and more and more a diverse, global religion," said Matthew Bowman, a Mormon scholar and history professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The number of church members outside the United States first surpassed the number within the country in 1997, and today more than half of the faith's 15 million members reside in non-U.S. countries, said Matt Martinich, a Mormon who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.
The faith has established footing in several Latin American countries that are rooted in Catholicism, including Brazil and Mexico, which both count more than 1 million church members.
Since 2000, there have been more non-English-speaking Mormons than those that speak English, LDS spokesman Eric Hawkins said. At last October's conference, people in 216 countries watched broadcasts of the event, he said.
Membership growth is driven by a missionary force of young men and women who proselytize around the world. The nearly 85,000 missionaries serving around the world are more than at any time in church history.
But behind the glowing international membership numbers lays a real and challenging problem for the church — keeping new converts active in the faith, Martinich said. His group's analysis shows that foreign church members are significantly less active in church activities than Mormons in the U.S.
Many factors play into this, he said, with the most pertinent being a disconnect between missionaries who lured them to the faith and local church members tasked with keeping them active, he said.
Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said retention of international members is a real challenge because the church tends to baptize converts quickly. That makes their commitment "vulnerable and tender," Barlow said.
But hearing a general conference speech in their own language this weekend could be a special moment that will make international members feel more a part of the faith, Barlow said.
"It will reinforce the international spread of the church, but will also signal a deepened sensitivity and respect for those speakers and listeners who are not fluent in English," Barlow said.