For the second time in three years, the LDS Church is the subject of a major news magazine cover story, complete with a night shot of the Salt Lake LDS Temple on its cover.
U.S. News & World Report offers a six-page spread on the church in its Nov. 13 issue, headlined "The Mormon Way: How a Utah-based church became the world's fastest-growing religion."
Written by the magazine's veteran religion reporter, Jeffery Sheler, the story calls The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "one of the world's richest and fastest-growing religious movements" that has "sustained the most rapid growth rate of any new faith group in American history."
The story is reminiscent of Time Magazine's 1997 cover story on the church, which evaporated from local retail shelves once word of the magazine's content got out. That piece, which also featured a night view of the Salt Lake Temple on its cover, was more pointedly focused on the church's finances and business operations, estimating the value of assets held by the church and the annual cash infusion it receives from tithing and its business holdings.
The church issued a statement following that story challenging the accuracy of the financial figures and pointing out that the vast majority of its assets are cash consumers such as temples and meetinghouses rather than revenue producers.
LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said that while the U.S. News & World Report profile has "a few things . . . to which Latter-day Saints will take exception (e.g. overemphasis on finance and politics), overall it represents a genuine effort to understand the church and objectively portray its members, doctrine and good works."
"This cover feature confirms growing international interest in the worldwide progress of the church. . . . Months in the preparation, this article reflects considerable effort to fairly report" the church's international expansion, Bills said.
Focusing most of its attention on the highlights and hardships of the church's dramatic membership growth, the story quotes Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve. He attributes the burgeoning of membership to the LDS message, "which strikes a spiritual resonance in people."
A chart detailing U.S. membership growth compared to other denominations shows the LDS Church's membership up 220 percent since 1970. The figure far outstrips the growth rate of 33 percent among Southern Baptists and 29 percent among Catholics numbers that seem closely tied to U.S. population growth, which rose by 34 percent during the same period.
It notes that LDS growth comes as the result of "an aggressive missionary program that enlists more than 60 percent of all young Mormons; a powerful hierarchy of lay leaders who maintain organizational discipline and marshal the church's vast resources with a businesslike efficiency unrivaled in other religious movements."
Also, "a highly motivated membership that submits in overwhelming numbers to the church's strict moral code and to its taxing demands on their time, money and allegiance." It's just such demands that church leaders have long touted as one of the drawing cards of membership in an active faith.
"We have a demanding religion, and that's one of the things that attracts people to this church," says a quote by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
The piece examines the major points of LDS theology, saying that the church's "heavy emphasis on a 'wholesome lifestyle' is so pervasive, one academic observer wryly notes, that while many of their young peers get into trouble experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol, when Mormon teenagers rebel, 'they sneak off and drink a Pepsi.' "
It also examines the challenges posed by worldwide membership growth, questioning whether cultural factors in areas such as Africa and Japan will override the cultural and doctrinal practices of the church itself. The challenge of growing up non-Mormon in Utah is also touched on, as is doing business in a Mormon-dominated state, local liquor laws and the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit over the Main Street Plaza.
The piece is the latest in a series of major media stories on the church in recent years, including President Hinckley's televised interviews with the CBS News program, "60 Minutes" and "Larry King Live," his speech earlier this year to the National Press Club and his column in the Wall Street Journal in July 1997 on the history behind the re-creation of the Mormon pioneer trek. That event garnered international press coverage, with stories in many major U.S. newspapers as well as British and Japanese media.
Religious media observers have also noted the church's fast-growing membership and debated its theology.The church and its missionary program were featured in a cover story in Christianity Today, a major evangelical publication, shortly before the Southern Baptist Convention came to Salt Lake City in 1998, and a major piece discussing whether Mormons are Christians appeared in the March 2000 issue of the semi-scholarly journal "First Things," published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
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