SALT LAKE CITY — New LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson will embark on a major international tour in April to Africa, Asia and Europe, yet another sign of the increasing globalization of the faith, the church announced Tuesday.
President Nelson will preside over his first general conference as the new leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on March 31 and April 1. He then will depart April 10 for a two-week trip with his wife, Wendy, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Pat.
President Nelson has visited 133 nations during his 34-year ministry as an apostle, but this time he will be traveling as the faith's revered prophet. And this trip will be among the most ambitious undertaken by any LDS president during his first year in that role.
"This trip signals that as the 21st century proceeds, the international church will be increasingly important to the church as a whole," said Matthew Bowman, an assistant history professor at Henderson State University and author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."
"Before long, the international church will outpace the U.S. church in terms of influence," Bowman added. "It already has in terms of membership. Church leadership is keeping an eye on that."
Nearly 60 percent of Mormons, or nearly 9.3 million, live outside the United States, which has 6.5 million LDS Church members, according to the last official church statistics released in April 2017.
In his introductory press conference last month, President Nelson noted that the membership of the church's Quorums of the Seventy is increasingly diverse. "Wherever we go," he added, "the leadership of the church is from the local communities, and those are the real leaders."
A new Pew Research Center study showed that the American brand is suffering around the world, and another Mormon scholar said President Nelson's tour can help with perceptions of the LDS Church as an American faith.
"This is an opportunity for him to show his desire to connect and be the prophet for the whole world, not just the prophet for America," said Melissa Inouye, associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review and professor of Asian studies at the University of Auckland.
The trip serves another function, she said.
"It shows he's serious about addressing the global challenges we have. As churches grow larger, they face challenges of scale."
President Nelson's vast international experience and facility with languages will help him tremendously, Inouye said. He speaks more than half a dozen languages. In October, he visited seven Eastern European countries in 10 days, and spoke Russian at multiple stops.
"That's super important," Inouye said. "Being able to speak someone else's language represents this huge investment of time and effort. It's important they know he's listening, as well."