Positive changes to LDS missionary work reflects changing world

Mormon missionaries go door-to-door in Connecticut.
Mormon missionaries go door-to-door in Connecticut.

Last October, President Thomas S. Monson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that instead of waiting until they were 19, young men could serve missions at 18, so long as they had finished high school. For young women, the change was even more significant: 19 instead of 21. This opened the floodgates as the number of missionaries currently serving has surged from 52,000 to 70,000 over the past eight months, and is anticipated to reach almost 100,000 by the end of this year. As one who would have loved to serve a mission at 19, but was otherwise engaged (literally) at 21, I’ve been thrilled — and just a little jealous — to see the huge number of young women stepping up to serve.

It makes sense that such an enormous influx would necessitate some adjustments and growing pains as the church determines how best to utilize these increasing numbers of fresh-faced missionaries, eager to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.

This past Sunday, church leaders scheduled a two-hour broadcast entitled “The Work of Salvation”. Worldwide training broadcasts are not all that unusual; they happen a few times a year with various iterations of local leadership invited, depending upon the topic to be presented. This one, however, was somewhat unique in that it came with an official request that local ward meetings be rescheduled or curtailed to allow everyone to attend.

A few interesting changes were announced: missionaries will spend less time tracting — or knocking on doors — and more time online with social media making contacts and communicating with those they are teaching. They will also be available at church buildings to answer questions and give tours to those interested. The bulk of the meeting, however, was spent reiterating a message members of the church have heard many, many times: speak up about your faith, invite your friends to church, and be partners with the full-time missionaries in finding and teaching those who may be interested in learning more about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For all our focus on missionary work and conversion, Mormons can be a very insular people. Part of it is simple human nature; people often feel more comfortable with those who are most similar to them, and feel threatened by difference. But I think it goes deeper for Mormons. Perhaps a cultural memory of the persecution that left hundreds dead, thousands homeless and destitute, and eventually drove my ancestors out of this country to a desert wasteland where they hoped to finally be left alone, still reverberates more than 150 years later and manifests itself today as a hesitance to open up to others.

(I remember the shock I felt the first time I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, “A Study in Scarlet”, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. The villains are a conniving group of Mormons who baptize people under duress, murder those who will not acquiesce, and kidnap women to be married off against their will. If that’s how people of the time viewed us, I thought, no wonder we were driven out at gunpoint from every place we settled.)

So we hear this message again and again.  On Sunday, Monson counseled that, “Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together to work together, to labor in the Lord’s vineyard to bring souls unto Him.”  Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminded us that, “[Our] greatest responsibility…no matter our calling or station in the church is to preach the gospel.”  He urged us to share our faith with our friends as part of our responsibility to “help others come to Christ”, but cautioned us to make sure they know that our friendship “is not simply a means to an end but a lasting and true friendship.”

As a church that believes in continuing revelation, we know that changes happen. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reiterated this on Sunday, “As the Lord reveals His will to us, there will continually be improvements in the way we perform missionary work.” The surge in women serving missions has already led to changes in the structure of mission leadership councils as more sister missionaries are included and given leadership roles. Elder Holland also pointed out that when church leaders were considering changing the age requirement for missionaries, they “counseled with all the presiding councils of the church, including the presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary [which are all women]. Their counsel and advice were crucial in that decision. That is how we hope it is in your stake and ward councils: hearing everyone, the brethren and the sisters, on all vital issues.”

Another hopeful change I see coming is a greater focus of the missionary program toward community and humanitarian service. There are reports of a pilot program called Just Serve being used in a few areas (including Denver, Dallas and northern California) where missionaries spend daytime hours providing service in partnership with local organizations, and evenings are reserved for the more traditional missionary activities of teaching and proselyting. I’m overwhelmed thinking of all the good that could come from 100,000 missionaries performing community and humanitarian service and I sincerely hope this program expands to other areas soon.

Our central message of “the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, and living prophets” is not new, nor is the charge to “go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  A changing world and growing missionary force require adaptation both institutionally and individually and I’m glad to see that happening.

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