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" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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