10/5/23 Update from guest columnist Emily Jensen:
The church clarified its article about service missions just before this RNS column was published, and I was unaware of the changes. In doing so it added details that included how service missionaries would be integrated into the teaching mission structure.
The implementation looks to be more like a procedural change instead of what I believed would be a structural change. However, this description of the pilot program shows that they will be doing some teaching but still mostly service.
We will see in January 2024, but I’m now hopeful it will still be service-oriented and maybe the teaching missionaries will learn to integrate more service from their example.
Original 9/28/23 Guest column by Emily Jensen
(RNS) — An LDS missionary’s No. 1 goal is to gain converts for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now that will be a goal for LDS service missionaries too, as beginning in January 2024, all young service missionaries will be integrated into teaching missions under the leadership of mission presidents.
This move is indicative of the pressure church leaders must be feeling about recent growth trends. While growth has increased slightly over the past few years, with official membership numbers topping 17 million, there continue to be troubling signs of poor retention among young adults and nonmembers’ negative views about the church.
If recent past trends are discouraging, projections about the future are even more so. Latter-day Saints have long depended on a three-pronged strategy to fuel membership growth: attract converts, have large families and keep young people in the fold so they can serve missions and have babies, repeating the cycle of success.
But all three elements of that structure are weakening.
We’re still attracting converts, which is great in comparison to the declines other religions are already experiencing, but the numbers aren’t strong. This summer, the church trumpeted with some excitement the fact that we got more than 258,000 new converts in 2022. And if you compare that only with the COVID years of 2020 and 2021, 258,000 does indeed look fantastic. But it’s still just a blip in a long-term and ongoing downward slide — in the 1990s, we routinely had more than 300,000 converts annually.
In terms of family size, the church’s “children of record” numbers have hovered around 100,000 babies a year for the last several non-COVID years. This is what the stats were back in 1987 when we were only a 6.4 million-member church. Church members are either having fewer children or choosing not to have those children blessed (or some combination of those things), which is bad news for long-term growth.
And as stated above, retention appears to be a deepening problem. Low activity rates used to occur primarily in regions of the world where most members were converts. But now more members are dropping out in the United States as well — even in the stronghold of Utah. These people are often still on the membership rolls, but they’re not holding callings, paying tithing or raising their kids in the church.
So it’s not surprising that church leaders want an all-hands-on-deck approach for evangelism. They’ve revised the Preach My Gospel manual for the first time in 20 years to be sensitive to cultural changes and hopefully attract a new generation of converts.
But putting all this pressure on missionaries is problematic. Making service missionaries proselytize seems like a misstep in the church’s effort to gain more converts. Why not let the service stand on its own? Why not allow service missionaries the choice if they want to integrate teaching instead of making it mandatory?
A service missionary’s job currently, by the church’s own definition, “is to help others come unto Christ by serving them as the Savior would. We serve voluntarily in charitable organizations, Church functions, and within the community.” These missionaries can live at home and serve locally and don’t fall under the local mission president’s purview.
It is a beautiful purpose, a less pressure-filled option for young missionaries who may not be able to or may not choose to serve a full-time teaching mission. All of this changes in January 2024.
This pressure for converts, I believe, may be pushing current teaching missionaries into more dangerous situations. First off, we’ve had seven deaths just this year alone. And the year’s not over. In 2022 I found very few deaths reported, but in 2021, there were 11 by the end of the year. Hopefully 2023 is not on that same track. But in many parts of the world, the health care system is ill-equipped for missionaries who need medical interventions. I’m surprised missionaries aren’t asked to mask at the very least when there is a COVID surge, like right now.
We as a church have often pooh-poohed the dangers of missionary service, especially for men who serve in riskier areas of the world. Brutal examples are here and here. In fact, we laugh at these missionaries’ near-death experiences when they get home and tell the stories they “weren’t supposed to tell their moms” while on their mission. We marvel at their survival and chalk it up to God’s protection, which, for the families of missionaries who die while serving, is just cruel.
If you are pressuring these missionaries to get converts, mixed with a superhuman belief that as missionaries they will be protected and then laughing off their dangerous experiences as part of the mission experience, you are doing a huge disservice to their physical, mental and emotional health. And later, when they see how they were so ill-treated, it can damage their spiritual health.
Added to those dangers, there is so much emotional pressure. There is a lot of lamenting going on about how many youth are choosing not to serve missions. This leads those who do serve to be considered “stronger” somehow, but that’s just an extra layer of pressure. So you have the pressure of leaving your family for 18 months to two years to go a foreign environment mixed with this pressure to be even better because you are one of the only missionaries from your ward to serve.
You also can’t be one of the weak ones who have “mental health” problems. This can lead you to hide anything mental health-related. So maybe your hair falls out, or you don’t eat (which has an added “bonus” of keeping you thin). Or you get ulcers. Or much worse. The stigma of coming home early from a mission is better than it used to be, I grant you. But it’s still there, especially for those missionaries who are told they were “strong” and “special” for choosing to go out when their peers did not.
I believe we’ll see some ardent missionary talks this weekend at General Conference, aimed at getting more missionaries to combat the worrisome growth trends. Unfortunately, I think we are going backward in forcing service missionaries to serve teaching missions. Instead of pushing all missionaries into the same box, we should allow for much more flexibility in missions, both in type and time. I also believe the stigma of coming home early needs to disappear completely and missionaries should have much more physical and emotional health resources both on the mission and after. And finally, it’s time that mission areas that are “too dangerous for sisters” be deemed too dangerous for everyone and closed.
(Emily W. Jensen is the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and co-editor of “A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern-Day Zion.” When she’s not exploring the world, she loves swimming in the lakes and skiing in the mountains of northern Utah with her family.)
10/5/23 Update: Based on the new information Emily Jensen mentions in the update at the top of this column, I’ve changed the headline and the tagline of Emily’s original RNS column. Her conclusions about possible changes to service missions were based on the earlier version of the Church’s article before it was amended at 11:36 a.m. Eastern on September 28. By that time her piece had been submitted to RNS and was in the process of being edited. We appreciate the readers who brought the updated version of the Church’s statement to RNS’s attention.