What Does the Budapest Temple Mean for the Church in Europe?

King Saint Stephen helped transform Hungary into a Christian state using methods that today would no doubt cause a stir.

A couple of weeks ago I started drafting a post entitled “What Does the Rome Temple Mean for the Church in Europe?” but didn’t get around to finishing it for a variety of reasons. Now I’m glad I didn’t because with the recently concluded General Conference some of those thoughts have been overtaken by events.

From my worm’s-eye view, the announcement of the Budapest temple is an encouraging sign of the church’s engagement in Europe, for it builds on a growing trend—e.g., the dedications of the Paris temple in 2017 and the Rome temple in March of this year and the planned dedication of the Lisbon temple this September and the re-dedication of the Frankfurt temple in October—of investing in an area of the church where membership density is low.

Back when I first set pen to paper in March, I had just attended a stake leadership training meeting focused on missionary work. The national director for public affairs had given a presentation on the use of social media and suggested that the coverage of the Rome temple dedication was a great angle for our own missionary efforts. I have to admit that I was skeptical.

My dour outlook is no doubt a function of a deep-rooted character flaw, but it is also informed by some on-the-ground experience, such as the two years I spent here as a missionary some twenty years ago. At the time, we were baptizing less than one person per companionship per year. Still, I remember a visit by Elder Eyring. He was in Salzburg on vacation and graciously agreed to speak to us missionaries where he promised us that the harvest would come. A few months later, in January 1997, Elder Wirthlin came for the creation of Austria’s second stake. The usual membership numbers weren’t there, but there was a sense that if we built it, they would come. There was a sense that big things were in store for the area, which helped buoy flagging spirits after days on end of first contacting with little to show for it.

Well, twenty-odd years later, the harvest has yet to be brought in. Instead, units have been closed down, and what used to be four missions covering Austria, southern Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland has been combined into a single mission with fewer missionaries than before. Since moving back to Austria in 2005 I have spent a number of years as ward mission leader, and I have always remained an interested party in light of my own investment in the growth of the church in Central Europe. While there have been some great experiences, the overall trajectory has not been one of obvious growth. We struggle not only to baptize but also to retain; in the last 12 months we have welcomed three new members into our ward, and while I don’t have numbers from other units to compare, I imagine this is pretty good. And yet it barely compensates for the number of members who have passed away in the same period.

But in January of this year, Elder Andersen came to visit. He was the Area Authority on my mission, so I was interested to hear what he had to say about how the church was doing in Europe. I was a little surprised to hear Elder Andersen declare that he didn’t “totally know why” the church does better in some areas than others. He then noted that while the Lord has said that He will raise up a people in every land, He never said that it would be a lot of people. The grand visions of the 1990s had been replaced by some serious expectation management—just hang in there, guys! Defend the faith and prepare for your eventual death.

Following the meeting, I shared my sense with the BCC permas that “If the Rome temple hadn’t just been built, [Elder Andersen’s] visit last night would have convinced me that the church has basically written Europe off.” It may have just been an off night for us both, however, since the fact that a temple was built in Rome is pretty remarkable given the overall condition of the church in Italy. Missions and units have been in decline since the 1990s there too, and church membership as a percentage of the Italian population—just 0.4% or 1 in 2249 Italians is a member—is lower than in every other European country with a temple besides Ukraine.

Still, the announcement of a temple in Budapest shows that it’s not just “the most influential cities in the history of the world and in the history of Christianity” that will be receiving the church’s ultimate stamp of approval but also relatively small countries with low membership density much like my adopted home of Austria (though it is still higher than in Italy!). In fact, Hungary and Austria are nearly identical in terms of per capita membership: 1-in-1876 Hungarians and 1-in-1889 Austrians are members. The fact that the church’s far longer and better established presence in Austria (official recognition since 1955 compared to 1988 for Hungary) has resulted in similar membership levels suggests that the field in Hungary is somewhat whiter and more ready to harvest than in its neighbor, but overall it seems like a fairly level playing field.

The fact that a temple will be built in Hungary ought to give members in Austria hope too. If the church is willing to build a temple in a Central European country very much like the one I have spent most of my adult life in, where the harvest has been, well, modest, then it is clear that Europe hasn’t been written off yet. Maybe this announcement will put the spring back in our step, and visiting General Authorities may find cause to rediscover a more hopeful vision for this corner of the Lord’s vineyard.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this uplifting post. I believe there is a hunger in each of God’s children to know Him. I believe we can spark that dormant memory of Him and home with visible symbols. I believe temples are part of that. I am also in favor of making it easier and less expensive for members around the world to attend the temple. My personal experience with genealogy has convinced me of the desire of my ancestors to be baptized. They really do provide help from beyond the grave for those seeking to find them. And they make it very clear they want to be found.
    As someone with a personal investment in the Italian saints, I rejoice with them. And I rejoice with the members and non-members who might find the gospel more easily with a temple in their midst in Budapest. I have never forgotten the people I met in central Europe in 1995, who openly asked me about religion and did I know anything about the Mormons. Not your usual conversation on a train while vacationing for a couple of weeks in places you know no one and no one knows of your religion. So I am hopeful that many will be blessed by gospel teachings about the reality of Jesus Christ, the call of apostles in modern times, and the power and comfort of the teachings of the Book of Mormon. I am hopeful for people who seek light that they will find it nearer at hand and in less time. I am grateful for all the tithe paying saints who make these buildings possible. I too am hopeful.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Peter. Having been a missionary in Europe at the same time, I can definitely relate. Per you point about the optimism of the 1990s, I found these charts from the church newsroom to be remarkable in their descriptive power of those trends (source: https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/facts-and-statistics# )

  3. Stapely, that is fascinating.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I have very little experience in Europe, but in 2013 I spent a little time in Italy. The Church was very small there, but what made an impression on me was how engaged and committed the young people seemed to be. I remember having the thought that with those young people in the fold, there is hope for the future.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    In November it will be twenty years since temples were dedicated in Regina and Halifax. The Regina temple district is three stakes, and Halifax’s is two stakes, same as twenty years ago I believe. The Winnipeg temple now being constructed apparently will be for a single stake currently served by the Regina temple. When Gordon Hinckley shared “some thoughts on temples” in 1997 he said, “There are many areas of the Church that are remote, where the membership is small and not likely to grow very much in the near future. Are those who live in these places to be denied forever the blessings of the temple ordinances? While visiting such an area a few months ago, we prayerfully pondered this question.”

    The experience in those Canadian provinces appears to have been sufficiently satisfactory to go even further in that direction with a temple for the dispersed saints in Budapest.

  6. Thanks for those graphs, J.; that does indeed explain a lot.

  7. Thanks J., for those graphs; they’re revealing.

    I would highlight, to be sure, that the growth in “Africa” tends to be in pockets–not continentally. Ghana and Nigeria are doing well; Senegal _just_ established its first branch. Democratic Republic of the Congo is growing with some speed; Tanzania is quite middling in its numbers. Also, the Church’s presence in Nigeria compared to other actively proselytizing groups (e.g. Watchtower/Jehovah’s Witness) is…not amazing.

    But the growth rate _is_ notable, even if we choose not to compare it others. Accessing an LDS chapel in Enugu is not difficult–in some ways, easier than in Michigan (provided you’re willing to have the keke experience).

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Russell, agreed. I chose them to compare as the numbers were roughly similar. The linear trend is evident in the North American data, and the we-built-it-but-they-didn’t-come trend is present in South America, though not as dramatically as in Europe.

  9. Bob Powelson says:

    The “American religion” has long had its detractors in Europe. When Pres. Monson was a very young member of the 12, the church had an easier time getting a temple in East Germany that in the west. Most of Europe is in a huff over Trump and America is not well regarded.

    On the other hand I was in Korea when 9/11 happened and the Koreans showed great pro American sentiment at that time.

  10. John Taber says:

    Italy may have fewer congregations now than when I was there as a missionary in 1992-1994. Much of that has come from smallish branches being closed, often folded into wards. There were two stakes in the entire country when I was there, but now there are ten. In the places where I served:

    Arezzo: Had a tiny branch then, now part of the Valdarno Branch that covers Arezzo province and part of Florence province. Five baptisms in the branch when I was there, but at least two of those members have died.

    Rimini: Branch then, ward now. Then included Pesaro-Urbino province, which now has its own branch.

    Rovigo: Part of Padova Branch then (though the members generally didn’t recognize it), presumably part of Padova Ward now.

    Pordenone: Two branches then (one Italian, one American), now two wards, again one Italian, one American.

    Pistoia: Small branch then, now part of Prato Ward.

    Ancona: Small branch then, still a branch now. IMHO should be combined with Ascoli Piceno Branch just to the south, which is in a different stake and mission. The one baptism when I was there now lives in Utah.

    Treviso: Part of Mestre (mainland part of Venice) Ward then, now has its own branch.

    Bologna: Mid-sized branch then, now ward.

    Yes, there are two missions now when there were four, but with so few members on the ground it hardly seems useful to dump a bunch of missionaries there. The typical branch I served in had 20-50 members coming and two or three sets of missionaries. One branch had the mission office, and missionaries for that city, and us in Rovigo, for a total of seventeen missionaries. Elders’ Quorum often had more missionaries than members.

    I don’t see more stakes being created any time soon, even with those ten stakes covering all of Italy and Ticino canton in Switzerland. I do see potential for future growth.

  11. I served my mission in Hungary about 20 years ago. It was only branches back then, but I remember the members there talking of a stake and a temple with faith. I can only imagine their excitement at the announcement. We had about 3000 members in the country back then, and there are only around 5000 now. Slow growth for sure, and I hope they aren’t overwhelmed with the responsibility of staffing and running a temple. I expect they’ll be sending senior missionaries there to help out.

    So many of those I worked with were barely able to keep two-and-two together financially. It was a huge burden to travel to Freiberg to attend the temple. In that regard, building a temple in Budapest is going to be a great benefit, for the surrounding countries as well, which also struggled after communism to get their economies going.

    President (then Elder) Nelson dedicated the country himself in 1987. I’m sure that personal involvement in opening the work makes this something special for him, too (and maybe influenced the choice of Budapest over other options in the area? could be?).

    Isten, áldd meg a magyart.

  12. It was a huge burden to travel to Freiberg to attend the temple. In that regard, building a temple in Budapest is going to be a great benefit, for the surrounding countries as well

    Excellent point. As a Vienna resident, travelling to Budapest will be MUCH easier than to any of the existing temples. A visit to the temple in Budapest could be realistically done as a daytrip from eastern Austria, whereas the temples in Germany are far enough away that only the most masochistic (with a car; no way to do it with public transportation) could contemplate not spending the night.

    Thanks for your Italian insights John Taber. And thanks to John Mansfield as well for some insights into the Canadian experience.

    Most of Europe is in a huff over Trump and America is not well regarded.

    Certainly Europeans are not looking to America for their spiritual well-being, but the obstacles the church may face on account of being (perceived as) an American religion predate Trump’s tenure.

  13. Hallvard Wie says:

    I was really surprised to hear the announcement of the Budapest temple. ( I would have guessed another temple in the UK) Hungary has about 5000 members and Austria about 7000, but the other neighboring countries like Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia have only a few hundred members each. So there does not seem like there are enough members really for a temple. But I hope there are greater things ahead in the future.

  14. Wonderful post