“Conversation: The Church in Western Europe,” Ensign, Dec. 1997, 66–67
The opening of the former Soviet bloc has allowed the Church to grow and expand in Europe, which is now divided into three administrative areas. The Church’s Europe West Area is made up of Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland, as well as the Azores, the Madeira Islands, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde in the Atlantic. To learn more about the progress of the Church in western Europe, the Ensign spoke with Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Seventy, President of the Europe West Area; Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy, First Counselor; and Elder F. Burton Howard of the Seventy, Second Counselor.
Question: Could you give us a picture of the Church’s progress and growth in western Europe?
Response: We are really feeling a groundswell of hope and anticipation for what the future will bring for the Church in Europe. The Church here has had a wonderful history and has made wonderful progress, but in a sense it has just begun. The Church is at different stages of growth in various countries. In the Germanic countries, missionaries first began proselyting and establishing units in the 1840s, and hundreds of immigrants journeyed to Utah. Today there are many multigenerational Church families in these countries. In Germany, for example, it is not uncommon to hear a member say, “My grandfather joined the Church in 1901.” The same pattern applies in the Netherlands, where the Church’s first non-English-speaking stake was organized in 1961.
As one moves south, one finds more recent growth. Before World War II, there were few members in France; the Church didn’t start to really catch hold there until the 1960s. At one point recently, of eight stake presidents in French-speaking areas, only one had grown up in the Church with parents who were members. The Church was not allowed into Italy until 1965, and formal legal status was not granted until as recently as 1993. Modern missionary work did not begin in Spain until 1968 and in Portugal until 1974. In the more mature parts of the Church the challenge is baptizing new members, while in newer areas where baptism rates are higher the challenge is retaining converts and encouraging activity.
One sign of the Church’s strength in western Europe is the progress in organizing stakes and building temples. Stakes have recently been formed in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and the Germanic countries are now almost completely organized into stakes except for one district in northeast Germany. The temple under construction in Madrid, Spain, will unleash wonderful spiritual power in the Iberian Peninsula. The members continue to make good use of the two temples in Germany and the Swiss Temple; many plan their year to spend at least a week working full-time at the temple.
Looking statistically at the entire Europe West Area, some 170,000 members are organized into 45 stakes, 55 districts, 219 wards, and 594 branches. The area is served by 26 missions, and 7 different languages are spoken throughout the area.
Q: How do members of different nationalities in western Europe work together to build a unified church?
R: There is a realization more and more that this is not a church of nationalities but a worldwide, universal church. This is reflected in the Europe West area council, which is made up of leaders from all over Europe, including Austria, Germany, Portugal, France, and Italy. Also, the Church in western Europe is benefiting very much from the calling of Area Authority Seventies by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. For many years, American General Authorities visiting stake conferences in Europe would have their remarks translated from English into the local language. However, now an Italian Area Authority Seventy might preside over a stake conference in France, or a French brother might preside in Spain, or a Portuguese brother might preside in Germany. This is a wonderful transition in the Church that encourages Europeans to cooperate and to take care of the Church in Europe.
Recently in Germany, the government formed a committee to look into religious groups and organizations because of concern about some developments in that area. As an Area Presidency, we had the opportunity to appear before the German parliament in Bonn. It was significant that Elder Uchtdorf, a European and a German, spoke for the Church in Europe rather than an American representative. The Lord really blessed him to represent the Church well and to respond in an appropriate way to some very heavy questions. Discussion about sects and cults might sometimes reflect negatively upon our church as well as other religions, but great opportunities can arise to represent ourselves accurately and persuasively to important dignitaries and organizations. The German parliament was particularly interested in the Church’s humanitarian efforts both in Europe and worldwide. Many of the government’s representatives already had good feelings about the Church because of temple open houses and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Q: What are some other ways in which members in western Europe are striving and being blessed in the gospel?
R: For members in western Europe to embrace the gospel, they have to exclude many other things. In some countries religious traditions are woven tightly into the fabric of society. At the same time, resistance to new religions is high. Many people say they don’t believe in God or that there couldn’t be a God with all the suffering in the world. Yet we see examples of faith in those who have resisted the strong winds of negativism and received a witness of the restored gospel and have given their all for it. We see over and over again how people are willing to give their whole lives to establish the kingdom of God in their lands. One family in Portugal, for instance, joined the Church after two missionaries knocked on their door and subsequently turned down a wealthy inheritance of family vineyards because of the conflict with gospel standards.
Members in western Europe are increasingly serving their communities. One of the most impressive things is when whole units do service projects together, often in celebration of a significant local anniversary such as the founding of a branch. One mayor said in a public speech that he wished more citizens would be members of the Latter-day Saint church because of its strong values. After some Latter-day Saint youth gave community service, another mayor wrote an appreciative newspaper article pointing out that money is often donated but rarely is heartfelt time and labor contributed. Efforts in community service can reach far beyond what is immediately apparent.
We are noticing a real groundswell of attention to activation and retention. A lot of leaders in western Europe are taking the commitment upon themselves as a stake presidency or a bishopric or a quorum presidency that not one new convert will be lost on their watch. That is not an easy thing to do, but they are putting in the effort. One stake presidency in the Netherlands has been making sure they meet with every new convert to see that the men have been ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood and are working toward the Melchizedek Priesthood and that both men and women have a Church calling and have set a goal to attend the temple a year after their baptisms. Another area of success is teamwork between members and missionaries, with members going out proselyting with the missionaries and missionaries helping with activation.
Things are on the move in Europe, and we feel very encouraged. Members have been excited to have President Gordon B. Hinckley visit several places in Europe recently, and they are taking his instructions and challenges seriously. With devotion and righteousness increasing among members, it is clear that the greatest times of the Church in Europe still lie ahead.