“Conversation with the Europe Area Presidency,” Ensign, July 1994, 78–79
To find out more about the Church in the Europe Area (Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Switzerland, Ukraine, White Russia, and the republics of the former Yugoslavia), the Ensign talked with Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy, Europe Area president, and Elders Robert K. Dellenbach and C. Max Caldwell of the Seventy, counselors in the area presidency.
Question: How fast is the Church growing in countries that make up the Europe Area?
Answer: We are experiencing substantial convert growth in some missions and moderate to good growth in others. In all of these countries we desire sustained growth and want to see solid priesthood holders and families. We are channeling our efforts in that direction.
The significance of growth in the countries where the Church is new is not so much in the numbers but rather in the strength of those who are coming into the Church. Wonderful people are being baptized. That makes for a strong Church. Many people have been in the Church less than a year or two but are already serving in branch and auxiliary presidencies, as district leaders, and in other priesthood leadership positions. The miracle of the influence of the Spirit results in the missionaries’ finding people who are responsive and prepared. They grasp hold of the gospel. It is a marvelous thing to see.
We’re particularly blessed in eastern Europe with what we feel to be a high concentration of the children of Israel. The people’s educational level and curiosity, combined with seven decades of restricted freedom of religious expression, help explain what is happening in eastern Europe and why the people are looking for something beyond a temporal and economic approach to life.
Many factors contribute to the acceptance of the Church. In eastern Europe, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the only church that is active. Many churches have found a very fruitful field. There is a religious awakening underway in the countries of eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Ukraine. The Church is part of this, much the same way it was part of the religious interest during the Prophet Joseph Smith’s time. Out of this great cauldron of activity around religious themes and activity, the Church is establishing itself.
Q: Help us get an idea of the size of the Church in your area.
A: We have more than sixty thousand members in twenty-two stakes and eighteen districts. By July 1994, we will have twenty-two missions. The western part of the area is very stable—with stakes, mature priesthood leaders, and a long history of Church activity, with many third- and fourth-generation families. General Church activity is reflected in the 48 percent sacrament meeting attendance. In the eastern part of our area, we have our greatest growth in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. We have a very active missionary force there, with thirteen missions located in that area. Of the twenty-nine cities with more than one million inhabitants, we have missionaries working in slightly more than half. Generally, the Church is not well known yet, but the message seems to be well regarded. Missionaries are well accepted and respected in most mission areas.
Q: Are there many native missionaries laboring in the Europe Area?
A: Actually, we have quite a few, and the number is increasing. As soon as new converts are prepared, able, and have been members of the Church long enough, many of them are called on missions. The big advantage of native missionaries is their ability to work with their own people and within their own culture. Of course, they need no visas or special registration. Missionaries are now beginning to return into many of our branches. The future of the Church is in good hands.
It is important to note that the Saints in western Europe have been tremendously generous in assisting the Saints in eastern Europe—materially and spiritually. For example, a German couple opened the work in Minsk; we have a couple from the Netherlands serving in Novosibirsk; we have had a missionary couple from Switzerland serving in Hungary and a couple from Germany serving in Poland.
To their credit, the Saints in western Europe have shared their wealth in a way that is beyond the understanding of most people and have been greatly blessed as a result. That is an aspect of the growth of the Church in eastern Europe that is not often talked about. The members in western Europe have made available to the eastern Saints substantial amounts of food, care packages, and personal letters and notes. It is one of the reasons we see increased activity among the Saints in western Europe. They have been exceptionally generous with their prayers, faith, interest, and concern for their east European brothers and sisters.
Q: How has the presence of temples strengthened the work?
A: The impact of temples is far-reaching. Participation in temple ordinances has blessed the lives of many members from east European countries. Groups of forty, fifty, or more come from many of the eastern European countries to spend several days at the temple. Czechs, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, and Russians regularly attend the temple.
Q: What are the biggest challenges the Church faces in your area?
A: Leadership training is a big challenge. Getting materials translated fast enough to meet our needs is another. We are working with seventeen languages, yet we haven’t even started working in some important languages yet. For example, in Albania we are still doing most everything in English. We are further along with preparing materials in Russian than in most other languages.
Another challenge is that during the rapid opening of eastern Europe a few years ago, the ideals of communism were overthrown, and it created a moral vacuum. There was a rush to rediscover principles of morality and ethics. Many churches were invited to teach in the schools and in the universities. The religions from the West were welcomed. But following that, there has been a very conservative backlash. Many who support the historical institutions of society in those nations are now active in curbing some of the activity of the Western churches. This is understandable, but it has created some difficulty because we are, after all, guests in their countries. The future will be just fine, but we are currently passing through a sensitive period of time.
Q: How does the economic situation in the former Eastern bloc affect missionary work?
A: When you are worried about whether you are going to eat today, you don’t worry too much about a lot of other things. Many people are just worried about survival. Somehow, though, we find wonderful people. They are intelligent, well educated, and they come to the Church with an ambition to embrace the gospel fully. The hand of the Lord is reaching out to them and raising them up. Many are generous, Christlike, humble, and unsullied by the world.
Members in these lands base their faith on the spiritual dimension of the gospel. They don’t have many Church buildings or materials, and they don’t have community association. They are dependent upon their own personal testimonies. That sustains them. Their faith is strong and growing.
Q: Can you discuss in greater detail how their faith helps them through difficult economic and political times?
A: The Church convinces the people that there is something even more important than bread on the table—eternal salvation. It’s amazing how brave and courageous they are. Not long ago in a meeting in Moscow in which we discussed the welfare program, a number of Relief Society presidents and district presidents simply said, “The purpose of the gospel is to strengthen our spiritual lives. If you will do that for us, we will take care of the rest of our problems.” That seems to be the attitude of many people who come into the Church. You cannot attend a meeting in the former Eastern bloc lands without feeling a vibrancy, a confidence in the future despite the difficult situation in which members may now find themselves.