The rapid growth of the 1980s and 1990s which nearly quadrupled the size of the Mormon Church from 1974 to 2004, a mere thirty years, has only slowed somewhat in the early years of the twenty-first century. In 1995, Gordon B. Hinckley became President and Prophet to the Church. His predecessor, Howard W. Hunter had prophetically counseled all Mormons around the world to prepare themselves to enter the temple, even though many of them could not get to a temple. Their faith was answered as President Gordon B. Hinckley began the largest program of temple building in Mormon history. From 1995 to 2000 nearly 50 Mormon temples were built, equal to all those built in the previous 160 years. Today there are 122 Mormon temples all over the globe fulfilling the prophesy that one day Mormon temples would dot the earth.
These temples and the increasing public image of the Mormon Church has lead to many sincere seekers after truth meeting with the Mormon missionaries and joining the Church. Since the 1970s the Mormon Church had been producing TV and Radio commercials to spread their message and to distribute free copies of the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and inspirational videos. Mormon missionaries training in the MTCs take the incoming phone calls for those ordering the free copies and send that information to the local missionaries who deliver the products. The Mormons had also long been sending missionaries and choirs to international and local fairs. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has routinely sung at international expos and fairs around the world. In 1997, the Mormon Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Exodus from Illinois to Utah with much publicized celebrations and reenactments around the world. Ships sailed from Europe to commemorate the tens of thousands of European Mormons who left their homelands, sometimes fleeing persecution, to immigrate to America. Others reenacted the wagon and handcart trains that brought nearly 80,000 Mormons to Utah before the first railroads were finished. These activities generated much press around the world, and soon thereafter in 2002, Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Mormon Church’s headquarters are located, hosted the Winter Olympics. While the Mormon missionaries did not actively proselyte to attendees of the games, millions nevertheless visited Mormon visitor’s centers in Utah and many thousands of Mormons volunteered to help with the Olympics. Newspapers in the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and throughout the Americas published articles about the Mormon Church during the games.
Some of the explosive growth of this period has meant that more people were being baptized into the Mormon Church than the local congregations could absorb. This meant, unfortunately, that many people joined, but soon fell away again. Beginning in the late 1990s, President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Prophet of God to the Church, began to emphasize retention based on three key areas which ensured that each convert to Mormonism would have: a friend, a responsibility in the Church, and continual nourishment by God’s word. This new emphasis has sought to place more responsibility for missionary work on the local membership and to encourage the members to work more actively with the Mormon missionaries working in their area. President Hinckley has also stressed that higher standards need to be placed on outgoing missionaries. While this has decreased the number of missionaries slightly, the result is that those Mormon missionaries who do serve are more spiritual and more capable of preaching their message. This renewed emphasis on worthiness is called “Raising the Bar.” The result is that the Mormon Church continues to grow, especially in Central and South America and Africa, and that more converts are retained.
The real growth of Mormonism is not to be found in the numbers. Lists of membership totals, baptism rates, full-time missionaries, and countries visited, present the miracle of Mormonism in a sterile light. The real growth is to be found in the individual testimonies of every Mormon and in the sacrifice of tens of thousands of Mormon missionaries who leave behind family, friends, school, careers, and dating to devote themselves entirely to serving God and their fellowmen. Real growth can be better seen by seeing the growth in active congregations. Raw membership totals do not tell how many Mormons are participating and attending services and living according to their beliefs. It is more profitable to look at the growth in the number of congregations, because each Mormon congregation is run entirely by the congregation members, and it takes a certain number of active Mormons to justify a new congregation.
In 1974, when President Spencer W. Kimball became President and Prophet to the Mormon Church, there were 5,951 Mormon congregations (called wards or branches) worldwide. That number doubled by 1983 to nearly 12,000. By 2003 the number had doubled again to 24,000 congregations, and as of 2005 there were 27,084 congregations worldwide. 60% of Mormons live outside of the United States, and soon Spanish will surpass English as the most widely spoken language among Mormons. The Book of Mormon is available in 105 languages, and the Mormon Church lesson books and manuals are available in 157 languages. More than 120,000,000 copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed since 1830 with millions given away free every year to those interested. Today, Mormon missionaries continue to visit nearly every land, with the goal of preaching the Gospel to every “nation, tongue, and kindred.” They go forth, as the Savior Jesus Christ commanded, two by two, baptizing every one who believes in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The growth and history of Mormonism are best exemplified by the faith and sacrifice of every member and by the positive changes that the Mormon missionaries bring into the lives of those who accept their message. In the future, Mormon missionaries will continue to go forth preaching the gospel, until they have preached to every person and God commands them to cease. Joseph Smith, the Prophet, writing in 1842 said this:
Our missionaries are going forth to different nations … The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.