Thursday, December 13, 2012

Debunking Mormon Myths: Mainland China Opening for Missionary Work

Over the years, members and missionaries have circulated rumors of the LDS Church preparing to assign full-time, proselytizing missionaries to mainland China.  Totally unsubstantiated, these false reports have increased in their complexity and prominence within the past two months as a result of the Church lowering the minimum age for missionary service to 18 for men and 19 for women.  Some members have erroneously suggested that this change in church policy has had a direct correlation with the opening of new missions in China due to the recent surge in missionary applications and the expectant rise of the full-time missionary force by the tens of thousands within the next couple years.

To illustrate the ridiculous nature of these false reports, I have indicated several points that currently prevent the assignment of foreign, full-time missionaries to mainland China.

1. Full-time missionaries that are Chinese nationals are not permitted to serve missions in mainland China.

The first Chinese national sister missionary completed her mission in 2001 whereas the first Chinese national elder missionary completed his mission in 2006.  By 2010, there were approximately 100 Chinese nationals that had served a mission or that were serving missions.  All mainland Chinese members who serve missions cannot serve within their home country due to religious freedom restrictions.  Most of these mainland Chinese missionaries serve in the United States, Oceania, Western Europe, and elsewhere in East Asia.  Rumors that North American members are receiving mission calls or special assignments to serve in mainland China are totally unsupported considering religious freedom restrictions barring formal missionary activity for both locals and foreigners.  The Church cannot assign foreign missionaries to serve missions in China if indigenous members cannot serve missions within their homelands.  Currently mainland China is not assigned to a proselytizing mission and is under the direct supervision of the Asia Area Presidency.  Although substantial numbers of Chinese nationals have joined the LDS Church within China and abroad over the past decade, members who have joined the Church in mainland China did so within the scope of the law.  These converts were referred, taught, and baptized by relatives - a practice permitted by the government.

2. Chinese law mandates the segregation of Chinese nationals and foreigners in religious services.

The Church cannot assign foreign missionaries to China if government regulations prohibit foreigner-to-national proselytism and impose the segregation of Chinese nationals and foreigners in religious services.  The Church has created two separate administrative systems in mainland China, one for foreigners and one for native members.  Foreigner units and administrative structure is public; meetinghouse locations for branches and the times for worship services are published on the Church's online meetinghouse locator.  However, there is no published presence of the names, locations, and meeting times for Chinese branches in mainland China.    

3. The Church does not widely publicize its presence among Chinese nationals and maintains a sensitive presence among indigenous members in mainland China.

The Church has experienced rapid growth in mainland China over the past decade.  Since 2002, estimated membership has increased from approximately 3,000 to nearly 10,000 and the number of Chinese congregations has increased from only a couple branches to scores of branches and perhaps hundreds of groups today.  The Church does not publish statistical data on mainland China, including membership figures and congregational totals for non-foreigner units.  The reason for the lack of information about the Church in China appears rooted in the Church's compliance with government regulations barring the intermingling of foreigners and nationals.  The Church has established an excellent relationship with government officials and will continue to respect all levels of the law.

The assignment of full-time missionaries to mainland China will only occur once the government permits the Church to assign Chinese nationals on missions within their own country and eases restrictions on religious freedom.  Foreign missionaries will only be able to serve in mainland China if the government reverses its policy on the religious assembly of foreigners and nationals.  For more information on the LDS Church in China, please click here to access our country profile on for mainland China.


Mike Johnson said...

Thank you for the update on China.

I had wondered about reports that there were about 10,000 members in China.

Given that it is illegal for Chinese nationals to meet with non-nationals for religious purposes, how does the Area Presidency preside over the Church in China?

I wonder if the national side of the Church in China isn't kind of like what happened in northwest Africa with nationals of various countries getting baptized elsewhere and returning to their native countries or who otherwise learned about the Church and began forming informal groups. These groups were for a while isolated from the Church.

Jonathan Mahoney said...

I think a lot of the confusion may come from the China Hong Kong Mission. I have seen people open mission calls to Hong Kong and everybody gasps that the Church has begun sending missionaries into "China". This should probably be mentioned.

Matt said...

The Church in Hong Kong plays a pivotal role in providing administrative support for the Church in mainland China. Some members have dual citizenship; another bonus for helping to effectively run the Church in mainland China.

I agree that many likely get confused with the "China Hong Kong Mission" and mainland China - especially considering there are increasing numbers of Mandarin-designated missionaries called to serve in Hong Kong and Macau.

MLewis said...

Hopefully this doesn't add too much to the Mormon myth machine.

There are a couple of things that are interesting to me when it comes to China opening up to missionary work. Someone I met at BYU said President Hinckley came and spoke with all of the Hong Kong missionaries while she was there on her mission (probably sometime in 1999 or 2000). There was a Q&A afterwards, and inevitably someone asked the question, “When will China be opened to missionary work?” President Hinckley’s response was that the reason China was not yet open to missionary work was because the Church was not yet ready for China. When the Church was prepared, we would find that China was already open.

While I cannot verify the content of that statement by President Hinckley as I was not present, and can find no record of the meeting (I haven’t tried very hard), it sounds very similar to an earlier statement by Elder Oaks in 1991: “People sometimes ask me about what can be done to "open China." In response, I state my belief that China is already "open"—it is we who are closed. We are closed because we expect the Orient to be the same as the West, China to be the same as Canada or Chile. We must open our minds and our hearts to the people of this ancient realm and this magnificent culture. We must understand their way of thinking, their aspirations, and their impressive accomplishments. We must observe their laws and follow their example of patience. We must deserve to be their friends.” (See

The other thing I am reminded of is a “prophecy” I heard in Japan. When I was there another missionary gave me a sheet with a series of statements by Church leaders about the destiny of the Church in Japan. If I remember correctly, one statement was attributed to President Kimball, basically saying Japan would produce tens of thousands of missionaries who would not only eliminate the need to have American missionaries in Japan, but that these Japanese missionaries would go on to take the gospel to Russia and to China. This sounds very similar to a statement Kimball made in 1974 at a Regional Representatives Seminar (see, so I wouldn’t be surprised if what was presented in a meeting in Japan as “aspirational” became “prophetic” in the translation. Needless to say, some Japanese members point to a couple of Japanese missionaries getting called to Russia and Hong Kong as beginning to fulfill that prophecy, but Japan is nowhere near producing tens of thousands of missionaries, and the changes in the missionary age is unlikely to produce much of a boost over there.

I have often thought these two “prophecies” could be looked at together. Maybe the reason China isn’t “open” is not because the Church in general isn’t ready, but because the Church in Japan isn’t ready. While the spoken language is sufficiently different that a Japanese learning Chinese will still struggle, because of shared characters in the writing system (and even borrowed readings for most of those characters) and a long history of interaction, the Japanese would be at a significant advantage when it comes to learning Chinese and adjusting culturally. Not to say American missionaries can’t successfully pull it off. Enough of them do. But the learning curve would definitely be shorter for the Japanese. If the 1998 “prophecy” of Elder (now President) Eyring comes to pass, maybe we won’t just see a miracle in Japan. Maybe that miracle will spread to China as well.

(See Henry B. Eyring, “A Child and a Disciple,” Ensign, May 2003, 29 for a reference to Elder Eyring’s prophecy. I only have access to Japanese translations of parts of the actual prophecy. Most members in Japan are pretty familiar with it.)

Scott Smith said...

I always find people's concern over the "opening of China" to be somewhat comical. Why are people focused on opening china when India is already open. Sure the church is very small there, but with a simaler population size to China, it is as daunting a task. Why aren't people freaked out about the billion people we can teach? The billion people we can't talk to yet will wait.

Adam said...

In Spencer W. Kimball's When the World Will Be Converted he said that, "I believe the Lord can do anything he sets his mind to do. But I can see no good reason why the Lord would open doors that we are not prepared to enter. Why should he break down the Iron Curtain or the Bamboo Curtain or any other curtain if we are still unprepared to enter?"

Any quote from Hinckley or Oaks or anyone else comes from that. And even that being said, many such stories/prophecies are in many other Asian countries as well, I know we had some in the Philippines that were almost to the T to the ones you mentioned. Who knows, maybe just all of Asia needs to get their act together.

Japan may have had that potential the way things were going in the 70's-80's but they are in no way the model these days. That prophecy was probably more like a patriarchal blessing "iffy" blessing. Twelve straight years that they have had negative congregation growth. This happened over a lot of the world but most countries are now getting back into the positives, Japan still hasn't. They have not done a good enough job following through to qualify for the blessings of the prophecy. If we are relying on Japan, China won't be opened for quite a while. Luckily there are other Asian countries that are holding their own and progressing who might be able to qualify for it.

MLewis said...

To Scott Smith: Do some members focus too much on China? Probably. I think it is primarily due to the allure of the forbidden. People are interested in knowing when China will open because it is the biggest “forbidden” country in the world. We used to hear similar discussion and speculation when the Soviet Union was alive and well, but now that Russia is “open”, people don’t seem to care nearly as much as they used to, even though parts of the former-Soviet Union are still closed (like Turkmenistan), and new regulations and restrictions on Church activity in Russia-proper are constantly giving the Church legal department nightmares. People in the religious legal community tend to worry more about religious freedom in these countries than they do for China, because the “openness” of these countries hides the limitations and restrictions, whereas China is “the enemy we know”. We know where the limits are in China (and the truth is the restrictions aren’t as great as most people think), but it’s not always clear in these other countries.

As for India, even though it is “open”, due to a combination of legal and logistical challenges, the Church is still not ready to go there in full force. From a legal standpoint, India is only partially “open”. Many regions are closed off entirely to foreigners, some only allow foreigners in for 10-17 days with a special permit, and many of these areas are even closed off in one degree or another to Indian nationals. Some states that are “open” have anti-conversion laws, and legal action has been taken against Christian communities for coercing the poor into getting baptized by giving out financial enticements like education and welfare. From a logistical standpoint, India is home to 22 “official” languages and over 1,500 other languages. Basic Church materials are only translated into a handful of these languages. Tracing title to land is complicated, visas for missionaries are restricted, and the Church risks stretching itself too thin in balancing the need to open new areas with the need to strengthen established units.

These challenges are not unique to India, but the combination of all of these problems on the scale that exists in India can be intimidating. I asked some of my classmates in my Hindi class who had served missions in India, and they said to cope with the situation, the Church has long had a policy of refusing to baptize anyone in India who could not speak English. The English rule ensures that the converts are generally well-educated, and most likely financially self-sufficient, thus insulating the Church against accusations of coercion and other legal complications. The only standard exception I heard to this rule is the request of an immediate family member of someone who is already a member of the Church. Though application of the rule is uneven, I was told that even friends of members have sometimes been turned away, as have English-speakers who live in the wrong city.

It sounds like the Church is focusing on developing local leadership to be prepared for the day when the English-only restriction is lifted. Missionaries are certainly capable of learning Indian languages like Hindi and Tamil (at least they’re no more difficult than Chinese, which is taught in the MTC), so I imagine it’s only a matter of time before we change the policy and engage in greater outreach. Needless to say, the Church is definitely progressing in India, but it is doing so slowly and with caution.

On a side note, I had a sister-in-law whose patriarchal blessing said she would see the day the “Hindu and Muslim nations” would be open to the Gospel. She is almost 15 years older than me. At the time she got her blessing we didn’t have full-time missionaries in India at all, and now we have two missions. The Hindu nations are definitely opening up. The Muslim nations might take a little longer. So, while there may be an inordinate amount of focus on China because of the “forbidden” element, not everyone has forgotten about the other global giant we have in India.

MLewis said...

To Adam: The Kimball talk that you reference is what I linked to in my comments. Oaks probably was influenced by this talk in speaking of China, but he upped the ante by saying that the Lord doesn’t need to open the door. It’s already open.

As for the prophecies in other countries, can you cite any sources? I’ve heard dozens about Japan from members and missionaries, but I’ve only been able to find legitimate sources for about eight or nine. I’ve heard a couple Philippine prophecies, but the only one I’ve found a good source for was by President Hinkley when he said: “What we begin here will affect the lives of thousands upon thousands of people in this island republic, and its effects will go from generation to generation for great and everlasting good.” (From the 1961 dedication ceremony and quoted in the Philippine Islands Area Conference, Aug. 1975. See I would love to see more if you know of any, especially regarding the impact Filipinos may have on the Church outside of the Philippines. I’m also really interested in any statements about the Academy for Creating Enterprise in Cebu. Those wouldn’t even need to be prophecies. Any comment from the Brethren about the Academy would be interesting.

As for Japan’s potential, I agree that the outlook for the Church there was far more impressive near the end of the 80’s. The Church has successfully built a strong foundation in Japan, with amazing leadership, but recent trends are undeniably moving in the wrong direction. When I was in Osaka I served in a ward that was consolidated four times, in a mission that was consolidated twice, and nearby stakes had also been consolidated. Elder Kikuchi came and spoke to the priesthood leadership in the region (I was at this meeting) and chastised the members for only doing 7% of their hometeaching. He told them they could get that number to 17% by assigning every man five names, with his wife as his companion or the missionaries if he was single (practices not uncommon in smaller units of the Church, but a little unusual in long-established stakes). You could literally hear the murmurs as people debated whether 17% would ever be possible.

Japan’s problems aren’t just in the Church. The decade plus of negative congregation growth has been accompanied by an even longer period of a stagnant and sometimes shrinking economy, and an ageing and now shrinking population. One Church leader in Japan (supposedly an Area Authority Seventy, but this is one of the many quotes I can’t verify) said the economy would not fully recover until Japan remembered the importance of the family. To say that Japan is in a crisis would be overkill (Afghanistan is in a crisis), but the entire society is stagnant. There is very little growth or progress in social capital in Japan no matter how you measure it. The Church is no different.

This situation makes Eyring’s 1998 prophecy all the more remarkable. That statement was made after what the Japanese call “the lost decade”. Eyring basically said the Church members needed the courage to live their religion--to not hide or deny that they are members of the Church. When that day comes, he said a miracle will occur in Japan. Eyring didn’t say people would suddenly start joining the Church, but one version I saw said it would be a miracle the likes of which was unknown in the history of the Church. This is pretty bold considering the miracles the Church has witnessed over the course of its history in the United States, England, South America, etc., but that particular detail may be an elaboration. This is a prophecy Eyring doesn’t deny (see link in my earlier comment), but it was a talk at the JMTC, and an official transcript doesn’t exist--just notes from missionaries, most of which were in taken down in Japanese as conveyed through a translator. Needless to say, considering the current situation in Japan, if they do anything even approaching what many have hoped, it would take a miracle.

Unknown said...

Commenting on the opening of Muslim nations... Missionaries were sent to Turkey about a year ago. It falls under the Bulgaria Sofia mission, and a few sets of Elders are there. Turkey is 99% Islam/Muslim. So I would definitely call that the opening of a Muslim nation. Definitely a good start to working into the middle east.

Phil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil said...

In Hong Kong we taught Indonesian sisters from a very Muslim country. For a while we work working on starting an Indonesian Branch in Hong Kong.