Culture Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

I hope they call you on a Mormon mission

Three sister missionaries kneel in prayer with a family in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

In January 2013, the week after my mother died, I came down with a high fever. I could feel a deep fatigue starting even before her funeral but managed to stave off the illness until the service was over – when it descended quickly and mercilessly.

I’ve written before about the small miracle story that ensued: that when I was ill and helpless and wishing for a priesthood blessing, two LDS missionaries showed up at the door of my mom’s house. At first I thought they might be there because my bishop or home teacher back in Cincinnati had asked someone from the local ward to check up on me, but it soon became apparent that was not the case. No one had contacted them, and they had no idea who would be behind that door. They had simply been tracting on Mom’s street, going door to door in the random hope of finding someone who would speak to them. They seemed as stunned as I was that they found me.

They blessed me with peace and comfort, which was a beautiful gift. And even beyond that, they gave our family tangible aid. They returned the following month when I had recovered and our family had convened back at Mom’s to empty her home of forty years’ worth of stuff. Again and again, those missionaries traced a path from the attic to the dumpster or the charity bins.

They received payment only in pizza, Girl Scout cookies, and a couple of truckloads of used furniture that we set aside for an influx of new missionaries soon to arrive – this was right after the missionary age had been lowered, so the area mission was furnishing several new apartments to handle the “surge.”

I thought about this experience several times recently when I got a private tour of the newly kitted out Missionary Training Center in Provo.

The place is beautiful – spacious and filled with light. To demonstrate the contrast, part of my tour included one of the old classroom buildings that will soon be demolished. Those spaces were cramped and mostly windowless, and felt subterranean. The new buildings, by comparison, have been designed to take advantage of the beauty of the mountainous surroundings (and how!), with huge windows and open terraces for gathering outdoors. (Public tours are going on for a couple more weeks. If you can’t get a ticket to tour the place physically, you can watch the YouTube virtual tour here.)

Everywhere around us were young missionaries clustered in groups, preparing spiritually, intellectually, and even physically for their missions. (Missionary work can be physically demanding, so they do an hour of exercise a day.) We met a group of elders heading soon to Serbia, and I found myself wondering what they would encounter there.

And because of the Next Mormons research project I’ve been enmeshed in for the last year and a half, I wondered also how they would fit into some of the main findings we’ve encountered about Mormons and missionary service:

  1. The vast majority of returned missionaries—even those who have subsequently left the LDS Church—said their mission was a “very” or “somewhat” positive experience that helped them in various areas of their lives, from preparing them for a career and a family to teaching them to appreciate diversity. They may not have been “the best two years,” but most RMs see them as very valuable in shaping the people they become as adults.
  2. Percentage-wise, more missionaries have served from the Millennial generation than any older generation of Mormons. The spike in young women’s service is especially notable.
  3. On the other hand, more missionaries are also returning home early now than they did in previous generations. I’ll say more about that in a future post.
  4. Mormons who complete a mission are more likely to stay in the LDS Church than those who did not. The mission is particularly important in making the religion “sticky” for young men and women whose families were not very active when they were growing up. (A “sticky” religion is one that keeps its adherents engaged throughout their lives. A very technical term, of course!) Not all missionaries stay active, but the numbers are significantly higher than the activity rates for those who grew up in the Church but never served.

I’ve written many times about issues that I or other people have with the LDS Church in modern life. I’d like to see the Church navigate LGBT and women’s issues with more sensitivity, strive for greater diversity, stop deifying its top leaders in ways that are unhelpful to members and to the leaders themselves, and . . . yeah, it’s a bit of a list.

But there are always far more things I love about the Church than I want to change about it, and one of those things I love is the way we call our young women and men to serve. All over the world, at this critical juncture in their lives, we give them this priceless opportunity to learn about Christ and to serve others.

The missionary program isn’t perfect, and I imagine that the physical changes to the Provo MTC are part and parcel of larger changes that are coming to the experience itself. Some of the old methods that were once successful in missionary service just aren’t working anymore (and that’s not just true for Mormons; throughout Christendom missiologists are grappling with fresh ways to evangelize a world that is indifferent or even hostile to sales pitches but open to holistic efforts that blend humanitarian service with authentic personal relationships).

So, to those who are thinking about whether to serve a mission: I hope you do. Statistically, you’re unlikely to regret it.



 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

25 Comments

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  • I’m an RM and I’m an LGBT member who was excommunicated and eventually totally driven away from the Church. I’m happy with the majority of my Mission experience in the Montana Billings Mission (MT & WY). I loved my first President, George T Frost, but I could barely stand to be in the room with the second. So much so, that I can’t even remember his name!

    I understand the “stickiness” issue, that you mention, as a reason to go on a mission for the LDS Church. As to the other benefits reaped, I think that folks of the same age group can also find those benefits in service through the Peace Corp and AmeriCorp.

    They also likely won’t suffer the embarrassment & shame often associated with coming home early. When I was a missionary, folks, mostly guys, were usually sent home early for mental or physical health, disbelief, inability to follow the rules and various forms of unchastity/sexual sin. It would be interesting to see if that has changed much.

  • Thank you for the post and the link to the Provo MTC tour. It was great to see how the place has and hasn’t changed. Although I served an 18 month Mission back in the 80’s I shortly thereafter stopped attending church. I only ever attend these days for supporting special extended family milestones. My understanding, my faith and my life in general continue to evolve and in large part I no longer believe in many of the LDS specific testimony definitives that I professed almost daily to the Colombian people. However, I am forever grateful to my mormon upbringing and acknowledge the importance of lessons learned through my church membership and in particular the opportunity afforded me to serve a mission.

  • My mission president was an ass. Total guilt-tripping. If we weren’t baptizing it was due to some rules infraction or lack of faith. He was the perfect errand boy for Spencer Kimball’s ugly theology. Pretty much hated my mission.

  • The missionary program is one of the thing that your LDS church does so very well. As a mainline Protestant, I look wistfully at all those young adults, willing to give 18-24 months of their prime years (as well as many hundred dollars a month…) to go WAY outside their comfort zone and talk to others about their faith. Its hard enough to get teen agers to show-up at a Sunday afternoon Youth Group fun-and-games session… I really admire how you engage your youth to make that commitment. I always like to talk to the elders, and most of them are very polite. They are just kids
    My one wish: that they would be trained not to consider faithful Christians of other denominations as ‘Gentiles’ and in need of aggressive evangelization. I’m afraid I was a little short last year with the elder who launched in telling me about the Great Apostasy and how God doesn’t honor Protestant Sacraments ….

  • I’m curious David: what are the things you still see today as positives of your experience on a mission?

  • 2 points- There is no impartial study that looks at how a mission is viewed from the perspective of current active, inactive, and exmo.
    There is no scientific study that shows priesthood blessings actually cure or they have a higher rate of recovery from illness in hospitals in high mormon concentration areas where blessings are given to patients vs other areas.

  • I wasn’t a boy going on a mission because as a convert at 18, my local leaders didn’t feel that I was ready for a call until I was 21. But I was still a very timid, quiet young man when I was called. In the mission field I learned to be well spoken and more outspoken. I also learned leadership and public speaking skills that later prepared me as a liberal Christian pastor to the LGBT community through the darkest decades of the 80s & 90s of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the US. I was able to move way out of my comfort zone to be a ministry of presence to the infected, their families and their caregivers, voluntary and professional. Assistant pastor to Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) congregations and volunteer chaplain to AIDS hospice facilities. And as an outspoken civil rights advocate in my local community. It also gave me the skills to later live in Mexico for a decade and serve as assistant pastor and co-founder of an MCC congregation in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, MX to an LGBT community that was just waking up to fight for it’s rights and confront its own experience with HIV/AIDS.

  • Not regarding any one faith, but there are peer reviewed scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer in the health life and recovery of the ill in hospitals.

  • A few observations about Mormon missionaries:

    1. author Riess states “to those who are thinking about whether to serve a mission: I hope you do. Statistically, you’re unlikely to regret it.”

    I’d like to know the basis for this claim, as well as other claims the author makes–preferably, from some trustworthy source.

    Gee, I can’t imagine why I’m a little skeptical of the ability of the LDS “church” to be candid and transparent about things like this, when it’s been so honest and transparent about other matters, such as Mountain Meadows Massacre, its finances, finding the sources of racism, sex abuse…..

    2. My experience (as a heathen who;’s invited missionaries into the house to talk) has been that despite their “training”, there are lots of questions they are unable to answer. And when you write to LDS HQ with a question, you do not get an answer–instead, you get an offer to send a missionary to your house.

    Of course, the reasons for this are obvious:

    a. LDS HQ can disavow anything a missionary says–“well, you know, they’re young, inexperienced…”
    b. LDS HQ is obviously afraid to answer some questions in writing. Not surprising–a dishonest answer is easily shown to be dishonest, and an honest answer would undermind LDS claims.

    3. The missonary program is notoriously cost-ineffective. So why does the church keep doing it?

    I’ve heard people suggest that one reason is a well-known psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. In brief: a Mormon who, years after his or her mission, is contemplating leaving the fold, may be likely to think “I put in all that time, and worked hard to raise the money to support myself, and now I’km thinking of leaving??? Huh? That makes no sense.”

  • Point me to these studies. I would love to read them. I wonder why the Church has never paid for a solid, well put together study of priesthood blessings? Probably for the same reason all other studies such as BOM, Book of Abraham, and all others have failed.

  • David: you’ve done some very important work Christ and your fellow man – thanks for your witness.

  • What questions do you ask LDS Missionaries that you think that they can’t answer?

    Why do you think the missionary program is cost ineffective?

    How many churches of any kind are open and completely transparent about their “finances?”

    As one with degrees in psychology, that isn’t cognitive dissonance.

    Is you purpose for interacting with LDS folks to share what they believe or to disprove what they believe? If the latter, why do you feel called to do that?

  • It’s been long enough that I don’t recall all the questions, but here are a few I recall:

    1. What’s the purpose of that granite vault in SLC, when you could easily duplicate that, and with much less work, by just storing records on a variety of computers around the world?

    2. How many things/what kinds of things do you believe without any evidence?

    3. What about the numerous contradictions in the NT in the Synoptic gospels?

    4. Why do you think the church is so nervous about Mormons studying history(Boyd Packer)?

    5. If the church is so nice and Xian and so on, how do you explain the viciously racist statements of ET Benson?

    As to cost-effectiveness, my recollection is that mishies in fact have very low rates of conversion–tho I have heard numerous stories about how helpful and nice they are (and I believe those).

    As to financial transparency, I will have to do some research and find out about openness etc of other Xian denominations. Seems to me they must be required to file 990’s. TTBOMK the LDS church is far less open about its finances than all other churches; iac I thank you for the challenge, which I will explore.

  • You make a common mistake of many regarding institutions with which someone is affiliated. Elder Packer and Elder Benson spoke what they felt to be true. But either as a lone voice did not speak for the Church as a whole. The united voice of all the General Authorities of the LDS Church, the First Presidency & the Quorum of the 12, are who speak for the Church. In other religious institutions that may be the same or different.

    Some of your questions seem to be about Mormons and others seem to be about Christians in general. Some seem relevant and some seem a bit bizarre.

  • Quick point: re your last question, I asked those questions because I was interested in observing their thought processes, particularly when faced with info that contradicted what they’d been taught, or believed. I was/am well-aware that it is impossible to disprove a person’s beliefs about religion.

    More later.

  • “The mission is particularly important in making the religion “sticky” for young men and women whose families were not very active when they were growing up. (A “sticky” religion is one that keeps its adherents engaged throughout their lives. A very technical term, of course!)”

    In my view, a “sticky” religion is one that keeps its adherents engaged throughout their lives in teaching and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

    Without Christ’s transforming power, church membership is both meaningless and useless. The social benefit of the comraderie derived from such membership are quite similar to that received from belonging to a country club–or a gang!

  • As a former Mormon missionary (“honorably” returned for whatever that’s worth) I have mixed feelings on this.

    To Jana, I would say that my understanding is that she is a convert married to a non-member and that she has not had any of her children serve missions a this point (assuming her children even identify as Mormon). Thus, from her point of experience I think it might be easy to slightly romanticize a mission.

    I’ll say this: I got a number of positive things from my mission (not the least of which was being immersed in a foreign culture and language) and I don’t necessarily view it as a “negative” experience but if I had to do it all over again I honestly would choose not to serve and would spend my time elsewhere. I also was fortunate enough to serve in a country where Americans were treated kindly and during the early 00’s when baptisms were still high and the public perception of Mormons was still largely positive. Despite these relatively positive circumstances I still wouldn’t serve if I could do it all over.

    However, these days I honestly wonder how the Church sleeps at night knowing that baptisms are at historic low numbers, and that they’re sending ever-younger kids out and leaving them incredibly unprepared for what they’ll face. My suburban Midwest ward currently has 2 companionships (it used to be 3!) assigned to it (and over half the wards in my stake also have multiple companionships). We’ve had maybe 5 baptisms in as many years and only 1 of those is still active. As a former missionary I can say I would have gone absolutely crazy if I had been confined to proselytize in HALF OF A WARD GEOGRAPHIC AREA in the suburban Midwest. As a parent I think it’s unfair to your child to not at least honestly have the discussion of “is it really a good use of your time to go knock doors in suburbia in a geographic area that includes half a ward and in which you’re highly UNlikely to baptize anyone?” After all, the stated purpose of a mission is to bring people into the Church and there’s a very real argument that a young man or young woman could be just as successful (if not more so) at producing baptisms by enrolling in the their local state university (i.e., not BYU) and just being a good Mormon amongst his or her classmates.

    And none of the above even begins to address that the Church is sending these kids out without first making them aware of the crazy Mormon historical issues. These issues are absolutely material to one’s choosing belief in the Church yet these kids don’t even know that Joseph was marrying teenagers or that the historical record indicates that the BoM as we currently have it came entirely from a seerstone in a hat.

    Anyway, I think all of the above is the reason we’re seeing a trend toward missions becoming more and more about “converting the missionary” and less about converting others. I think the “converting the missionary” line is what the Church leaders use to soothe their collective consciences about the time and life of these missionaries that gets wasted knocking doors in neighborhoods like mine. It feels like the “stickiness” that Jana mentions is the real end game here. The Church doesn’t care how many kids have negative experiences or who waste 2 years of their lives as long as the odds of them staying Mormon goes up.

    If these young men and young women are given a fully honest view of what a mission is like, along with fully honest review of Church history and the reasons it is material to someone joining the Church–and if after this they still want to serve then I think they should do it and I would wish them the best of luck and would hope they have a truly positive experience. As it is, I find myself actively seeking out opportunities to chat with the missionary-aged individuals in my family and to try and at least give them a realistic view of what the missionary program has become and why they might consider not serving (and remind them that none of the current first presidency served missions).

  • In general, I think missions are a great idea but a discussion I have never seen is what if you served a honorable mission but hated it? I served in the early 90s (completely my choice and yes, I was worthy). Having been devout my entire life I was shocked to find myself miserable. I could not give a single explanation as to why but when I expressed unhappiness to either mission authorities or my family, I was told it was due to spiritual deficiency. I was either a) not worthy b) self-centered or c) lazy. I gutted it out but returned home believing that something was horribly wrong with me, which is destructive in a young 20 something. In retrospect I don’t think anything was wrong with me or the mission, a mission experience was just not a fit for my personality. However simply not liking a mission is not officially discussed in the LDS Church, which only reinforces the myth that not liking a mission is in itself a sin.

  • there are many places you can go for answers to difficult questions about the church. many different websites, books and people.

    as for the church being open, i found easily on LDS.org about the mountain meadows massacre.

    “finding the sources of racism, sex abuse” not really sure what you are on about. sources of racism in the world? people are racist, not really sure it is the Churches fault if a member says something dumb. if you have questions about the church i can answer some, or many other people can.

  • All organizations–and especially, religious ones–have a strong tendency to present themselves in the best light.

    Therefore, the info with the highest credibility would be something from a neutral site or historian, i.e. not associated with the LDS church.

    As for Mountain Meadows, I think I recall that *now* the church is more open about the Massacre than it was, say, 5 or 10 years ago. So if you could find me a LDS statement on MMM from 10 or 15years ago, that would be very useful. Think you can do it?

  • “I gutted it out but returned home believing that something was horribly wrong with me…” That was me in 1982. The damage to my self-esteem and sense of own worthiness was substantial. It affected me for years. I didn’t begin the recovery process until leaving the church 3 years ago.

  • The bits and pieces of your story as they appear in your responses are genuinely interesting. I grew up Mormon and liberal, and I knew I was LGBT at age 14. At age 18, I told the bishop about my few encounters with another boy, and had to wait years to go on a mission, and go through an interview with an General Authority. I totally bought into the “pray it away” nonsense, even though it never worked at all, not even for a minute. I married in the temple after my mission, raised a family, and then found activity in the Church increasingly impossible after Prop 8 here in California, going totally inactive in 2010. My marriage quickly fell apart but we did not separate for several years. I’m glad for having been a dad, but my marriage mostly leaves scars on my heart. I’m glad your Mormon experience paved the way for a different spiritual path for you where being LGBT and a person of faith works. I am not ready to be part of any religious community, yet, but if and when I am, it sure won’t be the Mormons or any other anti-LGBT group.

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