Over at another blog, I recently commented on the evolution of the American military. Spouting off uninformed thoughts about institutional evolution having proved fun, I wanted to offer some thoughts about the evolution of the Church, particularly the missionary program. Of late, there have been two big shifts that are, I think, a symptom of a sea change in how the Church thinks about itself as an organization. The first is the call to “raise the bar” for missionaries, and the second is abolishing scripted missionary discussions. Here is how I see these changes.
Twentieth-century Americans, I would submit, were the most bureaucracy besotted people to every walk the earth. They had an enormous amount of faith in the ability of large, centralized institutions to centrally plan and mass produce success. The reasons for this faith lie, I think, in the Great Depression and World War II. These were the great mid-century American crises that were solved by bureaucracies. The New Deal – whatever the economic reality – has become fixed in the American imagination as a triumph of government bureaucracy. The TVA, the WPA, the Department of Labor, and the National Recovery Administration, while frequently based on parochial politics and stunningly obtuse economics, have been canonized as the bureaucracies that saved us from want. More powerfully, World War II represented a triumph of one of the largest centrally planned bureaucracies in the history of mankind: The United States military. After the war, huge centrally planned firms like Ford, Chrysler, IBM and Boeing emerged as the great engines of economic growth.
It is not coincidental, I think, that this is the period of time when the missionary program became standardized. Missionaries, missionary discussions, and converts were to be mass produced. I don’t want to be crass or cynical about this. I have a real testimony of missionary work, and I think that the General Authorities who created this system were inspired men of great faith and vision. My only point is that they were adopting a peculiarly mid-20th century approach to institutional organization.
In the 1970s, the faith in bureaucracy stumbled. The alphabet soup of the New Deal and the Great Society was not delivering a better world and was not delivering it at enormous cost. The corporate empires of the past were becoming bloated, inefficient dinosaurs. Even the military had to rethink its model of a mass produced conscript army after the debacle of Vietnam. Then came the 1980s and the 1990s. The alphabet soup found its budget reduced and government bureaucracies found that their main occupation was deregulation. The bloated firms of the 1970s were ruthlessly dismembered and sold for scrap by Wall Street raiders. The Army adopted a more decentralized, flexible set of tactical doctrines based on highly trained volunteers were specialized technical knowledge. In the 1990s, the successful organizations were those that were lean, flexible, innovative, decentralized, highly trained, and highly educated. Think silicon valley, Desert Storm, and The End of Welfare as We Know It. In other words, the mass produced, bureaucratic, centralized organizational model of mid-century seems to have been decisively rejected.
The Church seems to be adapting as well. Growth by increasing the number of mass produced missionaries seems to have been rejected. Instead, we are opting for higher quality, better trained, more flexible proselytizers. It is the difference between Chrysler and Dell or between the Army of Eisenhower and the Army of Tommy Franks. As someone who heartily dislikes bureaucracy, centralized planning, and mass production, I have to say that these things are heartening. However, they are not without their down side. The new organizational model seems geared toward the high-skilled and the high-functioning. It often lacks a place for the middling. Missionary experience has been idealized as a universal male rite of passage in the Church. This universal character is a result of the mass production model. However, if we opt for a leaner, more flexible missionary force might this change? The volunteer army in Iraq has clear advantages over the conscript army in Vietnam, however, there is an insularity in the current military that we didn’t see in the 1940s or even the 1950s. Of course, all of these sorts of concerns are no doubt premature and probably baseless. After all, at times the Church seems to move in only two ways: slowly and not at all.