It would be easy to assume The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the same worldwide - that despite a possible language barrier, any UtahMormon could stroll into a sacrament meeting in a far-flung country and feel right at home, seeing the bishopric on the rostrum and recognizing the liturgy of testimonies, hymns and prayers.
But there are numerous cultural differences between Mormons of different nationalities that aren't immediately recognized and present formidable challenges to a church striving to spread its message throughout the world.Challenges facing an international church were discussed Thursday at the 20th annual Sunstone Symposium by a panel of church members who have lived overseas and saw profound differences among Mormons in different countries.
While working in Europe, Brook Derr sat in on a Swiss bishopric meeting where the bishop advised his counselors to be leery of American Mormons. "Watch them for at least six months before you give them something to do because they are sloppy livers of the gospel," Derr recalled the bishop saying.
Derr, director of the global business program at the University of Utah's business school, attributed the bishop's attitude to the Swiss emphasis on efficiency and hard work.
"They are called the Japanese of Europe," he said.
Both the Swiss and French place importance on social class, Derr said, often shunning prospects or new church members who don't appear to fit in. He noted a Swiss ward fasting and praying to stop the number of Africans joining the church.
"Where do you draw the line on what's acceptable and what's not?" Derr asked rhetorically. "Should you agree that a ward mission leader can smoke and drive a taxi while he hands out Books of Mormon? Should you agree when the French don't distribute the Especially for Youth pamphlet because they believe sex is a private matter?"
In South America, anthropologist David Knowlton has found different cultures giving different meaning and motivation for church activity and service - interpretations that would be unacceptable to North American members.
For example, to be asked to step down from any church position after serving for a period of time is equivalent to stripping a man of his honor in Bolivia, Knowlton said, which is why some men never return to church after being released from a calling.
Knowlton suggested the answer to dealing with these cultural differences may lie in examining how Catholicism and Islam have succeeded in establishing their religions worldwide.