Converting the Missionaries?

April 26, 2005 | 7 comments
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There has been a very interesting and vigorous discussion on Blake’s thread on “raising the bar” for missionary service. I’d like to pick up a theme from early in that thread that I think needs more attention: what sort of spiritual development should we be hoping missionary service will provoke in the missionary? This theme comes up here, here, here, and here, for example (it then gets left aside in favor of mainly two other themes: a) how far has “raising the bar” affected the number of new missionaries? and b) how should serious sin affect one’s eligibility for missionary service?). The theme resurfaces in one of my favorite comments here.

One sort of influence we hope it will have is before missionary service, to give young people a goal to focus on, particularly during seminary years, to focus their efforts in developing their knowledge of the gospel, their convictions, skills, and so forth. This can be a very good thing. It will inevitably also serve as some extra motivation to avoid serious sin, since mission service is something of a badge of honor, and serious sins can affect one’s eligibility. This is not all bad, though seeking missionary service merely as a badge of honor is not the greatest motivation, and will have to be replaced by something better if the missionary is to serve properly. The goal of mission service also provides an excellent focusing device for parents and local leaders, whose efforts in guiding a young person can have a huge impact on his or her development. Elder Ballard’s recent talk clearly indicates this “raising the bar” is raising the bar for parents and leaders at least as much as it is for the prospective missionaries.

The influence of the actual missionary experience on the missionaries is another major part of the value of the program. But there are several ways this can work. A missionary who sincerely believes is likely to gain dramatically in knowledge, experience, abilities and awareness that will be helpful in future service to the church, as well as in family life and career. A missionary who is shaky in his belief (this is more likely among young men, since for young women there is less expectation to go) will have a sort of trial by fire, and may emerge transformed. A missionary who hasn’t seriously faced the question of whether he believes will be forced to confront that question, and the mission context may be a good place to come to the right answer. Then there are missionaries who pretty much don’t believe, and have been conducting themselves accordingly, but go because they don’t want to bear the social costs of not serving. I’m not sure what to think happens to them. And then there are the missionaries who go with all kinds of idealism and trust in the gospel and the church, and are demoralized by the shenanigans of a few other missionaries, and the inefficiencies that result. The ones who would really benefit from having a mission president who has time to think positively and carefully about how to make the work more effective, and to train missionaries, rather than wasting his time on damage control because of missionaries who don’t really want to be there. What is the development we should hope to see in them?

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7 Responses to Converting the Missionaries?

  1. N Miller on April 26, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    I was a missionary that definitely received more out of the mission than anybody I contacted. In a sense, I was Alma the younger and have since turned around. I feel a great appreciation to a Father who allowed me the opportunity to grow spiritually by going on a mission. But when I am honest with myself, I was not prepared to go, even unworthy to go. I went with the pushing of my parents, friends, and church leaders who all thought I had a testimony. I didn’t. I found it in the mission.

    My younger brother was different. At the impressionable age of 16, both Mom and Dad decided the church was not the true church, left it, and started to become anti as my younger brother continued to go to church. He told me that they would start to question him after he got home from church and belittle the faith that they had instilled in him. But what happened to him, was much different from me. Where I grew up on my parents testimony, my brother could not. He had to gain his own testimony, which he did, and with that testimony came a conviction when he spoke. That made all the difference in the mission.

    There is a lot of talk about successful missions, missionaries, and correlations between number of missionaries and converts. When it comes down to it, the missionary’s job is to open their mouth, with words to be carried to the heart of the listener by the Holy Ghost. My brother had a much stronger testimony than I did when he served a mission. This allowed him to touch more people a lot more than I could. But he is not the only one I have seen prepared for missionary service. Those who came into my mission prepared, had the spirit stronger with them than those who were not prepared. I can say only that you could feel the spirit around those that were prepared and would not feel that strength with those that were not prepared.

    President Hinckley has said in conference:

    “Now, my brethren, those are the parameters within which this priesthood must find expression. It is not as a cloak that we put on and take off at will. It is, when exercised in righteousness, as the very tissue of our bodies, a part of us at all times and in all circumstances.
    And so, to you young men who hold the Aaronic Priesthood, you have had conferred upon you that power which holds the keys to the ministering of angels. Think of that for a minute.
    You cannot afford to do anything that would place a curtain between you and the ministering of angels in your behalf.
    You cannot be immoral in any sense. You cannot be dishonest. You cannot cheat or lie. You cannot take the name of God in vain or use filthy language and still have the right to the ministering of angels.
    I do not want you to be self-righteous. I want you to be manly, to be vibrant and strong and happy. To those who are athletically inclined, I want you to be good athletes and strive to become champions. But in doing so, you do not have to indulge in unseemly behavior or profane or filthy language.
    To you young men who look forward to going on missions, please do not cloud your lives with anything that would cast a doubt upon your worthiness to go forth as servants of the living God.
    You must not, you cannot under any circumstances compromise the divine power which you carry within you as ordained ministers of the gospel.”

    What does a young man need to prepare to serve the Lord? Clean hands and a pure heart.
    How can one tell if he has clean hands and a pure heart? Through the holy spirit of promise.

    In answer to Ben’s question above; A missionary in preparation needs a true testimony of the Savior, His mission, His church, and His gospel.

  2. JKS on April 26, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    In order to go on a mission, you need to go to the temple. There are serious covenants that you make there.
    My first child is seven. As I face her upcoming baptism, how accountable is she for this decision (I have inactive siblings so I have thought about how little they really remember about the gospel and how . She does not know everything about the gospel. In fact, she understands so little of life and the world. How can she be old enough to make the decision to be baptized? What is going on in her head. I remember being eight. I felt ready. And of course, I had hundreds of thoughts going through my head and my parents did not hear all of them.
    How sad that a mission and therefore going to the temple is such a socially expected event that young men are willing to answer all the questions right “Yes, I believe Christ is my Savior.” “Yes, I believe Joseph Smith had a vision.” simply because if they do not, their parents will be mad and they will be embarrassed.
    Missionaries who have testimonies? Sounds great.

  3. Aaron L. M. Goodwin on April 26, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    Missionaries without strong testimonies are the largest burden I saw in the mission I served in. They were what gummed up the gears, and so I think it is very important that we don’t send missionaries out until they’ve truly proved their understanding of the gospel and their testimony.

    In my home ward, my bishop had developed a missionary preparation program because so many missionaries had been sent home from our stake. This involved a notebook with a daily check list. Things in the check list were: Read Book of Mormon for an hour, pray at least three times, provide a random act of service, tell mom and dad that you love them, etc. Doing these things everyday really made a tremendous difference. Along with the daily tasks, we were required to write a talk each week and every Sunday be interviewed by the bishop. This really weeded out people who just wanted to answer “yes” to the right questions. More amazingly, however, it got more people out into the field. We put out more missionaries than ever from that ward, and they all were well prepared. Only one of them came home early, and that was for physical problems. The program was very effective because it built testimonies.

  4. Ben H on April 26, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    Aaron, that sounds great! An hour a day is a lot of Book of Mormon, but it’s a mild warm-up compared to a full-time mission, which is about right. If kids are going to be building custom lessons out of Preach My Gospel, they’d better be able to produce one talk per week; not only that, but answer questions about it.

  5. Aaron L. M. Goodwin on April 26, 2005 at 5:34 pm

    It was great Ben, and the bishop would interview you on the talk you wrote, so as to make sure you understood the doctrine. I assume they’ve made some changes with the raising the bar, and the new teaching method.

    And as far as one hour of Book of Mormon reading a day, I got so into it before my mission that I’d do an hour of BoM an hour of NT, and an Hour reading the missionary library. I had A Marvelous Work and A Wonder read, and Jesus The Christ halfway finished by the time I got to the MTC. It was a wonderful experience.

  6. N Miller on April 26, 2005 at 5:48 pm

    I think that all of what you guys did was great. There is no doubt that if every missionary-to-be did those things every day for at least six months before he could go on a mission, the spirit would touch his heart and ensure that the testimony needed to be a missionary was there.

    I was taught that I should read my scriptures every day for a half hour. I figured that I already had a testimony. What I thought I had and what I didn’t have only came apparent to me later. I wish I had done it before the mission rather than during. I know I would have been a much better missionary those first three or four months.

    Kudos to the bishop (and any other person who helps a young mans testimony grow) for taking a young man under their wing and giving them the time it takes to be nurtured and fed by the word of God.

  7. J Larsen on May 2, 2005 at 12:23 am

    One of the most peculiar trends that I’ve noticed since returning from my own mission slightly more that four years ago is the decline in the number of full-time missionaries. As I recall, the number of full-time missionaries serving in the field when I returned (2001) was about 61,000. As of last conference’s statistical report that number had dropped to around 51,000. That’s a drop of almost 10,000 missionaries, or about 20% of the harvesters!

    I’m not quite sure what to attribute to such a decline. I’ve hypothesized that perhaps the younger generation in the church is becoming less valiant. But to be honest I don’t think that’s really the issue here. Besides, I’m not really sure if there is a practical way to go about quantifying the actual righteousness of one generation of missionaries with another (although this does of course happen quite often, i.e. “Missionaries these days are so much more/less (insert comparative adjective here!), when I was on a mission….).

    I think what’s really going on here is a transition phase between the new standard for missionary conduct and the old one. In essence, the bar has effectively been raised and fewer missionaries are being called because they are not measuring up. Unfortunately I think that many church members have adopted the wrong attitude in regards to Elder Ballard’s “Raise the bar” message. I think that church leaders’ intention was to get the message out to prospective missionaries, parents and priesthood leaders that they need to work together in order to “clear” the bar, rather than let it hit them in the head!

    Instead I think that some church members, youth in particular, have twisted the “Raise the bar” talk as an excuse for excusing themselves from missionary service rather than shaping up and getting their act together so that they are worthy to serve. I think this has produced an attitude shift in general among some segments of the church population. I would say that it is somewhat more “socially acceptable” not to serve a mission than it has been in the past “every member a missionary” days.

    As a result, some prospective missionaries are opting out of missionary service not because they have committed heinous moral sins, but because the feel missionary service just isn’t for them (perhaps they feel they are not as spiritual as some other stand-out scriptorian in their seminary or institute class).

    As a student at BYU it seems that this is happening more and more to freshman friends of mine. These members still want to be active members of the church and hope to marry in the temple one day, but they don’t really care for interrupting their life for two years in order to serve a mission.

    But who knows, the shortfall of single young elders who decide, for whatever reason, not to serve a mission may be made up for by an increase in elderly couples joining the missionary ranks. Also, it was interesting to note that in the last general conference a clarification was made as to the contribution that potential single sisters missionaries can make to the if they so choose to serve (i.e. sisters don’t have a priesthood obligation to serve a mission, but oh what a contribution they can make! Translation: we need you sisters, get in the field!). In the mean time, let’s get more prospective elders to try and clear the bar rather than not even attempting!