Religion has become all quiet on the Western front, according to researchers, and the Czech Republic is a primary example of their claims. Sixty percent of Czechs declare themselves as non-affiliated, and statisticians predict that over 90 percent of Czechs will be irreligious by 2050. Membership in the Roman Catholic Church – still the number one religious affiliation in the country – as well as the Evangelical and Hussite churches has been steadily decreasing by half in each of the past three censuses. The promise of religious growth is looking miraculous to believers across the nation, except for those wearing black nametags on the pockets of their suit jackets.
These 20-year-old men in suits are missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith that sprouted on American soil in 1820 with the boy-prophet Joseph Smith, whom Mormons believe received a call from God to restore Christ’s church upon the earth. The missionaries volunteer and pay to preach the gospel for two years in just one corner of the world – some go to the Czech Republic.
Due in part to missionary work, the LDS Church is one of very few Christian churches that have, since their inception, steadily increased their membership. There are 14.4 million Mormons in the world, 2,300 of whom were baptized in the Czech Republic.1 In the last two years, missionaries stationed in the Czech Republic and Slovakia baptized 72 people each year. And the year before that, 132 people joined the Church.
“Certainly, without a question, (the current missionaries) are an excellent group,” said Mission President David Irwin. “They are young people, they are normal, and they need help at times remembering, being focused on what these two years are all about. These two years is an investment for the rest of their lives and for eternity.”
Most of these baptisms have been of investigators, people who learned about the gospel later in life and decided to join the church. But over the years, the Church in the Czech Republic has begun to have natural growth, or children born into the church and are, therefore, more likely to become members when they reach age eight, which Latter-day Saints believe is the earliest appropriate age to choose.
If the Church continues to increase its membership by 70 people each year, it could become one of the most widespread religious affiliations by the irreligious doomsday of 2050 with just 5000 members.
The big question is: Why? What does the Mormon Church have keeping it afloat while many other Christian churches are sinking to extinction?
Dr. David Václavík, Associate Professor in the Laboratory of Experimental Research of Religion at Brno’s Masaryk University, thinks the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is just one of many examples of the rise of contemporary churches.
“The so-called Czech atheism is not atheism really. Czechs have very great distrust to institutions, including churches,” he said. “The truth is, the traditional churches are declining: the Catholic church, the Hussite church, the Brethren church. But there are a lot of smaller Christian churches that are very successful.”
The LDS Church, Václavík argues, is one of these minority churches.
“Mormonism represents some alternative to traditional churches in the Czech Republic,” he said, pointing to the Church’s new communication strategies, one example of which is the Mormon.org initiative that began last year. “There are benefits to being Mormon.”
Rostya Gordon-Smith, Public Relations Director in the Czech Republic, believes there are several fundamental reasons, one of which is unintentional publicity.
“The general awareness of Mormons is growing. It’s not necessarily coming from the Czech Republic, but it’s coming from the world outside. And, of course, Romney is not a small part of it,” Gordon-Smith said. “The result of it is that we are not as peculiar, we are not as weird.”
Photo: Elder Di Angelis tearfully embraces Jirka Vymer to congratulate him on his baptism.
A helping hand
In the Czech Republic in particular, people are beginning to recognize Latter-day Saints for their humanitarian efforts. The Church calls a new senior missionary couple — a husband and wife who’ve retired and desire to serve — every two years to organize projects throughout the Czech Republic. Recent projects have included providing carpet and paint in the TyfloCentrum facility for the blind and partially sighted in Plzeň, donating kitchen appliances to youth leaving orphanages to live on their own, and providing specialized medical beds and equipment to hospitals in Jihlava. The Church has partnered with organizations like Let’s Give Children a Chance Foundation (Dejme dětem šanci) and Diakonie ČCE as well as other churches to provide the most extensive charity work possible.
Yet Elder Brian Page, one of the senior humanitarian missionaries, is quick to clarify that humanitarian efforts are not a way for the Mormon church to trick people into joining.
“Our primary goal here is to help people. It isn’t to help propagate the information about the church. Obviously it’s going to help, and it’s a very positive thing to do, but that isn’t why the church does humanitarian work,” he said. “As Christians, we believe it’s our duty…. We strive to help people, wherever they may be, and that is our primary goal.”
Another reason Gordon-Smith sites is the recent fiscal problems throughout the world.
“During the (economic) crisis, people are turning more towards faith,” Gordon-Smith said. “People are losing jobs and, in this country, they are not used to it. We are not used to having this security blanket yanked out from under us. I think the temperate situation of life is giving people impulse to look for something permanent.”
The gospel through exercise
But the LDS Church has been around longer than the recent media buzz and economic crises. Missionaries have been teaching in the Czech Republic since 1884, when Thomas Biesinger became the first missionary to visit Prague. Anthon Just, a man who testified against Biesinger in a trial that led to his arrest for preaching, later became the first Czech member of the Church. For the next hundred years, membership grew despite the rise of communism and totalitarian regimes, which prevented the Church from sending official missionaries.
According to President Irwin, many of the people who hold leadership positions today in the Czech and Slovak missions joined the Church as young single adults in Brno through the teachings of Otakar Vojkuvka in the late 20th century.
“The Church was not allowed to function during communist times, but the Church grew during that time much to the credit of a man by the name of Otakar Vojkuvka. He ran yoga classes, but they weren’t only yoga classes,” President Irwin said. “They would do yoga and then Otakar Vojkuvka would teach the principles of the gospel without the Book of Mormon. And when he could see that people were really attracted to it, he’d tell them where those principles were from.”
Those who wished to join the Church would go to the woods late at night and find a pond, where Vojkuvka would baptize them. The now-president of the Prague Branch, Martin Pilka, and his wife joined the Church through Vojkuvka’s yoga group. President Pilka then became the first Czech to serve a two-year mission.
A social network
Václavík is skeptical that it is truly the principles that attract people to the LDS Church.
“I’m not sure that the doctrine is the most important thing for members of any church,” he said. “I think the most important thing is social relationships.”
Indeed, the Mormon Church is filled with community-building activities. Every Monday night is set aside as Family Home Evening (FHE), where families are encouraged to spend time together doing some sort of fun activity like a game as well as something spiritual like scripture study. Young single adults living away from home and people who are the only members of their families are welcome to come to their local church buildings on Monday nights to gather with what they call their church families.
Martina Bendova, 28, who was baptized just last month, has fond memories of her first FHE.
“I remember this very well because it was a strong impression for me. I didn’t understand it so much, because (the people) were so friendly and so excited about new people,” she said. “That high energy that’s usually here — it’s really nice and it lifts up people’s spirits.”
Other activities during the week include optional religion classes called Institute, game nights, and sports days.
“It allows people to get together, to relax, and to spend some time with friends. To talk, to get to know one another, and to just have fun, have a good time and feel the spirit of friendship amongst other people,” said Elder Matthew Stradling, 19, who is serving in the Czech/Slovak Mission.
Gordon-Smith reasons that being able to serve in the church is also appealing to many. Aside from full-time missions, members of the church often have callings. Believed to be assigned by God, these callings allow for the church to run without paid employees by spreading the duties around amongst the congregation. Examples of callings include Sunday School Teacher, Primary Chorister, and Ward Missionary.
“The ability to work in the church, to be useful rather than a passive observer — because when people are involved they feel that they have the power because they are living it,” Gordon-Smith said.
However, Gordon-Smith still disagrees with Václavík, for she also believes that the doctrine is an essential part to not only members, but how others perceive Latter-day Saints.
“As a group, I don’t think we are better than anybody else, but we are very close to doing what we are saying,” Gordon-Smith said. “I would say, we are the closest — as far as any religion is concerned — to doing what we proclaim. And I have heard this from several corners of the world, from different religions. They recognize that someone is Mormon because when they say they don’t drink, they don’t drink.”
If the Mormons are, indeed, a people of their word, Czechs can expect the LDS Church to continue to grow throughout the country. Each mission — whether it is in a high-membership area like Apia, Samoa or a low-membership area like Warsaw, Poland — has a target amount of baptisms for each year to motivate the missionaries. The Czech/Slovak Mission’s target for this year is 108, a 50 percent increase from last year.
When asked to predict whether the pattern of consistent growth will continue, Václavík was uncertain.
“I don’t know,” he said simply. “I’m not a prophet.”
About the author:
Stephanie Scerra is an intern for The New Presence. She is the former Managing Editor for the newspaper at Mills College, where she is also majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. She spent a semester in Prague in the spring 2012. To read more of her work, visit www.stephaniescerra.com.
published: 1. 7. 2012