News Item: The Mongolian Miracle
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The Mongolian Miracle
By David Stewart
Cumorah News Service
December 16, 2001
It was once considered the most closed country in the world. In 1989, it is thought that there were only four Mongolian Christians -- none of whom were Latter-day Saints. Yet on a recent visit to the United States, the ambassador of Mongolia joked that Mongolia is "99% Buddhist and 1% Mormon." And it's almost true -- or it seems like it, anyway. Today, there are over 3,500 Latter-day Saints spread across 17 congregations in 9 cities. While LDS members make up only 0.13% of the population, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest Christian church in Mongolian. With approximately 10% of its members either having served or currently serving missions, it is probable that the tiny country of Mongolia has the highest missionary service rate in the world relative to total membership. The rates of native missionary service are so impressive that it was recently announced by a visiting General Authority at a fireside in Shanghai, China, that 40% of missionaries from the Asia Area come from Mongolia. Mongolia also has consistently had the highest baptism rate per missionary in the Asia Area. All of this has grown out of one of the smallest missions in the church - growing from 16 young missionaries serving in Mongolia in 1995 to 34 in 1997 and slightly more at present.
Returned missionary Jacob Lewis, who served in Mongolia from 1995 to1997, was kind enough to fill us in on some details regarding the Church's remarkable growth in Mongolia. Missionary work in Mongolia started with the arrival of senior couples sent to teach English in September 1992, although the first baptisms did not occur until February 1993. Since then, the Church has grown rapidly, with 1800 members in 9 congregations at year-end 1999 and nearly twice as many members and congregations at present as 2001 draws to a close.
90% of the 2.6 million citizens of Mongolia are ethnic Mongols. 6.6% are Turkic peoples, predominately Kazakhs and Uriankhai, and another 3.4% are Russians, Chinese, Korean, Evenki, and others. Missionaries in Ulaanbaatar teach native Mongols as well as a smattering of other nationalities. In the Western city of Hovd, missionaries work mainly among the predominately Muslim Kazakhs, who present unique opportunities and challenges for evangelization. When asked about Mongolian values, Elder Lewis stated: "Mongolians value close family relationships. Anyone who is related to them they call 'brother' or 'sister.'"
Tracting and street contacting are not allowed in Mongolia, and so almost all new converts are found through the efforts of existing members or through spontaneous inquiries of students in English classes taught at the high school and university levels. Getting referrals from members was never a problem, explained Elder Lewis, because members were enthusiastic to share the gospel. While most Mongolians are nominally Buddhists or Shamanists, he explained, many of the younger generation know little about their own Buddhist beliefs because of religious prohibitions during the Communist era. Because of this, they were relatively easy to teach and had few hang-ups with gospel principles. While there are occasional problems with tobacco and alcohol use, these vices are much less prevalent in Mongolia than in surrounding nations. Even strict Buddhists, he states, were wonderful to teach because they did not use alcohol or tobacco excessively and generally observed high moral standards. Elder Lewis was once assigned to teach a group of Buddhist monks. "They were some of the friendliest people I ever met," he states. "They bore no animosity towards Christians. When people asked them how they could learn about Christianity, they would give them our church address and meeting time."
While senior couple missionaries made up almost 50% of the missionary force in 1995 and approximately one-third in 1997, the only ones to become proficient in Mongolian were the wives of the first two mission presidents. The first senior couple missionaries taught the gospel in English, while those serving more recently have largely limited their efforts to teaching English-language classes, mentoring local Mongolian leaders, and working with retention. Teaching the gospel to non-members is handled almost exclusively by young missionaries who are proficient in the local language. Mongolian is a challenging language for foreigners to learn, states Elder Lewis. "It takes about six months before you start to feel comfortable with the language."
Most of the church growth in Mongolia has occurred among young men and women. Elder Lewis notes serving in one branch of over 200 members where only ten members were over the age of 30. When asked whether the growth among young people was because of English-teaching programs, Elder Lewis replied: "perhaps somewhat. But mostly, that's the age that is receptive to the gospel." Many older individuals, he notes, are less likely to join the Church because of old habits and the sway of traditional religion. Certainly, the unique demographics of the Church in Mongolia -- coupled with the high missionary enthusiasm of new members -- have contributed significantly to the high rates of missionary service in Mongolia. Many serve one-month local mini-missions before embarking on full-time missions. The number of Mongolians desiring to serve missions was so great at one time that prospective missionaries were required to serve at least six months in a significant local calling, often as a branch missionary or in a local leadership or teaching position. The 100-missionary mark was crossed in late 1999, while cumulative missionary service today is approaching 350. Unlike most international mission areas, which after decades of missionary work still meet only a fraction of their own missionary needs, Mongolia has been abundantly fruitful from the outset, with the number of native missionaries who serving from Mongolia greatly surpassing the number of foreign missionaries who brought them the gospel. After serving missions, some returned missionaries marry other returned missionaries and start their own families. While economic challenges are a fact of life in Mongolia, Lewis remarks on the exceptional faith of many Mongolian members who faithfully pay tithing and fast offerings even in the face of severe hardships.
Some of the challenges of the Church in Mongolia center around retention, leadership, and the membership gender imbalance. Activity was approximately 50% in 1997, and substantially less at present. Many Mongolians become Christians only for a year or two, and sometimes much less, before dropping out -- a trend that has been noted with concern by non-LDS Christian groups as well. Training local priesthood leadership is also a challenge, and home teaching rates in Mongolia have always been poor. There are also far more active women than men, and -- recognizing that the prospects of some female members of marrying within the Church are slim -- special classes have even been organized by some senior couple missionaries to train female members to convert non-LDS boyfriends or acquaintances.
The rural nature of Mongolia presents unique issues, as Ulaanbaatar is the only city in the country with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Individuals in small towns and villages are often not as educated as those in Ulaanbaatar, and many lead simpler lives. In spite of this, literacy is excellent. Elder Lewis states that he never met a Mongolian who could not read. While it is easy to find individuals to teach in small towns, he says, keeping track of people logistically after baptism can be a problem, especially when members move without notice.
The paucity of LDS materials in Mongolian has also been a challenge. Without a Book of Mormon in Mongolian, missionaries asked investigators to read and pray about informal Mongolian translations of 3 Nephi 11 and other selected passages during the discussions. Some Mongolians could read the Book of Mormon in Russian, English, or occasionally in Japanese or Chinese, but many were not able to read other languages. Elder Lewis states that many investigators had already read Book of Mormon passages they had received from other members before the missionaries, citing "an enormous amount of faith." Members and missionaries are now delighted to have the full Mongolian translation of the Book of Mormon, which was just completed in October 2001.
While there is as yet no stake in Mongolia, Mongolian members who have received patriarchal blessings while studying or serving abroad appear to be mainly of the lineage of Manasseh or Ephraim. In discussing the remarkable receptivity of the Mongolian people, Elder Lewis notes hearing from General Authorities addressing the Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission on several occasions: "This is Israel."
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