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?