AWOL: The Threefold Mission of the Church

July 10, 2009 | 38 comments
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I was cleaning up my blogroll yesterday and came across this post at Intelligent Life that prominently displays the threefold mission of the Church: preach the gospel, redeem the dead, perfect the Saints. It occurs to me I rarely hear this once-prevalent formulation in current LDS discourse. Where did it go?

Just to start at the beginning, the threefold mission concept seems to come from a 1986 talk by President Benson, “A Sacred Responsibility.” Here is the key passage:

We have a sacred responsibility to fulfill the threefold mission of the Church—first, to teach the gospel to the world; second, to strengthen the membership of the Church wherever they may be; third, to move forward the work of salvation for the dead.

It’s possible that the term and concept are still being used but I just don’t notice. I do nod off in sacrament meeting from time to time. But a search on “threefold mission” at LDS.org brings up mostly references from the 80s and 90s. I think the term has indeed fallen out of use.

I can think of a few possible explanations. One is that the “perfect the Saints” language implies perfection by good works and one’s own effort, whereas the Church has been trying to emphasize grace much more over the last ten years or so. So maybe the threefold formulation was dropped because “perfecting the Saints” was no longer on message. (It is also worth nothing that in President Benson’s talk he used the phrase “strengthen the membership of the Church” rather than the short and pithy “perfect the Saints” that has become the standard gloss.)

I recall hearing the threefold concept linked to the three quorums of the priesthood once upon a time. Redeeming the dead refers to temple work, a specialty of the high priests. Preaching the gospel was a duty of the seventies. Perfecting the Saints was kind of dropped on the elders (not quite a perfect match, I know). When the local seventies quorums went away in 1986, this useful way of using the threefold mission (at least in priesthood meeting) suddenly became confusing and was therefore dropped.

A third possibility is that the threefold mission formulation is too focused on the LDS Church and its membership, whereas the Church has been placing an increasing focus on interfaith outreach and community service over the last ten years. Again, on this view the threefold formulation was dropped because it was no longer on message.

These explanations might sound plausible, but they are pure speculation. I don’t recall hearing any comment from LDS sources about a downgrade or revision of the threefold mission. Any ideas?

38 Responses to AWOL: The Threefold Mission of the Church

  1. Dave on July 10, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Quick update: a post by ARJ at Mormon Mentality states the threefold mission language goes back to President Kimball, but gives no cites or links.

  2. Idahospud on July 10, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    While I agree that we don’t hear much about the threefold concept in GC or even in the Ensign (I’d have to do a search), in my own stake, the threefold mission is still prevalent and even emphasized. At Stake Conference, Ward Conference, and in stake auxiliary training, our stake president is fond of saying: “What is the threefold mission of the church? And how do we perfect the saints? By doing the other two!” It’s pretty central to the way things are (theoretically) done around here.

  3. Jim Jiminy on July 10, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    “My brothers and sisters, as the Brethren of the First Presidency and the Twelve have meditated upon and prayed about the great latter-day work the Lord has given us to do, we are impressed that the mission of the Church is threefold:

    • To proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people;

    • To perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation;

    • To redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth.”

    Spencer W. Kimball, “A Report of My Stewardship,” Ensign, May 1981, 5

  4. Dave on July 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks for the comment and source, Jim. I added a link to the Ensign article.

  5. Graham on July 10, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I don’t hear those phrases anymore, but I do hear the more familiar CHI terms of Ward Mission (proclaim), Temple & Family History (redeem), and Spiritual and Temporal Welfare (perfect).

  6. Mike on July 10, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I never liked this as a baseline church mission statement and I am glad we are moving beyond it.

    First, I think the work for the living is fundamentally more important than the work for the dead and I didn’t like to see it elevated to this level of importance, even though it is not trivial.

    Second, I thought that it was a conceptional flaw to divide the sheparding and fellowshipping of people along the line of before and after baptism. Having missionaries turn over new members to the ward leaders before they have even dried off is a formula for inactivity.

    Finally, what was that perfect committee anyway? If it was some kind of reactivation committee, then the three missions approach neglects the core active members, which should be the primary mission of the church. If it was the sum total of the Primary, YM/YW, Sunday School and Relief Society and every thing else, then it seems somehow redundant and lacks focus.

    About 10 years ago I was the EQP and I put my foot down and refused to organize these three committees at the quorum level. Others in the ward followed my lead. People at that time were being asked or were trying to organize eveerything at church including the Primary along these three committees and it was getting ridiculous. Two of them, the Proclaim and Redeem committees do make sense on a ward level and have functioned under other names for decades. I threw whatever resources I could to these ward level committees. I focused my energies towards better Priesthood lessons, better activities, and so forth. I was happy when the Stake President spoke in Stake Conference and stated that he had discovered that the three committees work best at the ward level and cancelled all the other committees.

    I also have had quite a bit of fun mixing up the three committees. Proclaim the Dead, Perfect the Gospel, Redeem the Missionaries, etc.

    What would make better sense for a family centered church is to have organizational structure based on stages of family life:
    1. Before children come, including young married couples and independent singles, etc.
    2. Families that are intact, mixed, or otherwise; who are actively raising children. They would run the youth programs with needed help from the others.
    3. After children have left home, including empty nesters, older singles, etc.

    Some wards that lack many of the second group have been referred to as the newly wed and nearly dead, but I can’t think of good names for these three committees.

  7. iguacufalls on July 10, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Are any quorum still doing the committees that used to be so prevalent? These were always centered around the threefold mission of the church.

  8. Duke of Earl Grey on July 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    These days I usually hear as a Church “mission statement” the more encapsulating, “Bring souls unto Christ.” I’m not sure who originated that phrasing, but it seems popular.

  9. Jonathan Green on July 10, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    If the statement of the church’s mission is undergoing revision, then most likely because “perfect the saints” isn’t all that good of a description for a lot of different things that the church does. “Proclaim the gospel” and “redeem the dead” succinctly explain two important areas of church activity, but that leaves a lot of other things, from picking up after hurricanes to marching in handcart reenactments to holding Sunday meetings, to fit under the third category.

  10. Ardis Parshall on July 10, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    I still here it locally from time to time.

    Jonathan, I submit that the threefold mission as defined are those tasks that only the church has the power to address. While the church can and does help pick up after hurricanes, etc., so could any non-church organization and any Latter-day Saint on his own without help from the church. That’s what makes the three missions different.

  11. Ardis Parshall on July 10, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Egads. I still HEAR it.

  12. mg on July 10, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    We implemented the 3 committees in our EQ this past year. They are organized along home teaching districts. I have yet to participate in any committee related activity – I can’t even recall what committee I am assigned too.

  13. Peter LLC on July 10, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Having missionaries turn over new members to the ward leaders before they have even dried off is a formula for inactivity.

    Then you will no doubt be relieved to know that the church has never advocated such a formula. By all accounts, the ward should be involved in saving souls from the very beginning.

  14. Rob on July 10, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Discussion of 3-fold mission is still alive and well here in PA. But I think organizing our work (as quorums or wards) around it is difficult because there seems to be a lot more enthusiasm for ward socials than for missionary work and family history research or temple attendance! :-)

  15. Keri Brooks on July 10, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I last heard a discussion of the 3-fold mission of the church when I was on my mission. It was the substance of the sixth discussion. Preach My Gospel came out two months before I went home, and I don’t recall whether it’s emphasized in there.

    Since coming home, I’ve been in two different wards, and I’ve never heard talk of the 3-fold mission. It may be happening behind the scenes, but nothing over the pulpit.

  16. Bert Ungricht on July 10, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Maybe the three-fold mission of the Church doesn’t come up as much in talks to the general membership in Conference and in Sacrament Meeting, but in my calling on the High Council, we frequently discuss the three-fold mission of the Church.

    The pithy three-fold mission of the Church actually is first stated by Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13. We usually use these scriptures to explain the organization of the primitive Church, but it does go on to say what the purpose of the organized Church is.

  17. Naismith on July 10, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Heard it in last week’s RS lesson.

  18. DavidH on July 10, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    We have the three committees in our ward, the membership of which includes high priests and elders. As far as I know, I do not think the RS has ever had such committees.

  19. Mike H. on July 10, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    “First, I think the work for the living is fundamentally more important than the work for the dead and I didn’t like to see it elevated to this level of importance, even though it is not trivial.”

    Mike: Pres. Kimball said back in the 1970′s that Redeeming the Dead was as urgent as Missionary work. And we know how important he felt that was.

    I do think Elders should shoulder more of Redeeming the Dead, ad High Priest should shoulder more of Missionary work.

  20. anon on July 10, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Follower: “Why doesn’t the church do X?”
    Leader: “Brother, it doesn’t fall under the 3-fold mission”

    That’s the only time that I hear it referenced.

  21. Ian Cook on July 10, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Like mentioned before, it was covered in the 6th discussion before PMG for the missionaries. Each part was also the substance of it’s own new member discussion. Also, it is part of at least one lesson in the 12 – 13 year old manual.

    Personally, I don’t think there is anything that doesn’t fall under the threefold mission of the church.

    Perfect the saints: Do work to help members of the church come to Christ.

    Preach the Gospel: Do work to help non members come to Christ.

    Redeem the dead: Do work to help those that have died to come to Christ.

    Who exactly does this exclude? What work does it not include?

  22. Jim F. on July 10, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    The last time I heard the 3-fold mission of the Church referred to was last week when I used it while teaching a class to train some newly-ordained members of an EQ presidency. It’s alive and well in my stake.

  23. queuno on July 11, 2009 at 12:27 am

    I attended a ward in the East Bench in SLC a couple of weeks ago, and heard at least three references to it. Our stake presidency referenced it in the last Stake Priesthood meeting a couple of months ago.

    Two data points (one from inside the Curtain and one from without) does a trend maintain… :)

  24. Tatiana on July 11, 2009 at 12:53 am

    Last I heard it was taking the lessons before my baptism in early 2001 before Preach My Gospel had come out. I thought it was still in effect, though.

  25. Bert on July 11, 2009 at 1:26 am

    Ian, I agree with you. The three-fold mission of the Church is all-inclusive, and each of the three missions is equally important. The worth of a soul is great in the eyes of the Lord. It doesn’t matter to the Lord is that individual is living or dead, member or non-member, active or inactive. The three-fold mission of the Church is for us, as members, to try and reach every soul.

    Mike, I disagree strongly with your statement that the work for the living is more important than the work for the dead. I feel that your statement in which you divide shepherding before and after baptism is flawed – the Ward involvement should begin as the missionaries are teaching the investigators. Perfecting the Saints refers to the Saints – all of the members of the Church. It is not only reactivitation – it is shepherding all of the members. I would be interested to know what your emphasis was as the EQP. Did you attend the Temple as a Quorum? Did you encourage missionary work? Did you try to have good lessons in your quorum meetings, to strengthen and spiritually feed your brothers? Did you encourage your Elders to watch over their Home teaching Families? If you did these things, you were performing the three-fold mission of the Church. If you did not do these things, I believe that you were not fulfilling your calling as EQP.

    And as far as your statement that we “are moving beyond it”, as I stated earlier, this three-fold mission of the Church was first stated by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians. We are not moving beyond it. The redemption of souls is the mission of the Church.

  26. Mike on July 11, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Bert:

    My best friend was the Ward Mision Leader. I took the Elder’s quorum proclaim committee and transferred them over to the ward mission leader. He needed more ward missionaries. This eliminated the quorum proclaim committee and streamlined ward mission efforts under one capable leader.

    The temple is on the same property as our ward house. We had tons of temple workers including the temple president in the ward and an abundance of excellent leadership. i organized a temple night nursery to facilitate younger couples attending the temple and otherwise supported the leadership of ward level temple and family history efforts. Again the quorum redeem committee was eliminated and united support was placed where it was needed.

    “Did you try to have good lessons in your quorum meetings, to strengthen and spiritually feed your brothers?” Ditto exactly, that was first priority. Attendance went from the teens to the 40-50 range and I thought the quality of the meeting increased proportionally. We stopped using quorum time for three committee meetings that everyone avoided.

    What I saw of the conversion process was less than 5% retention of dozens of baptisms in the ward after one year. Whatever we were doing was not working. We had one set of ward members working with people before baptism and a different set of members working with them after baptism. They functioned under the banner of these different committees. I thought perhaps the same set of people needed to continue to work with people both before and after baptism. This idea met resistance since it did not fit the three committees approach. I assigned who I thought were the most diligent members of the quorum to fellowship investigators from the eariliest time and it still didn’t work.

    It is not the underlying principles that I dislike. It is more the organizational chaos that resulted when we had too many redundant committess and too many meetings and not enough people to fill all of the slots. Although the effort to save souls dates to the New Testament times and even back beyond, you will not find Paul describing these three committees in the same way as they have been in the last few decades. We can move are moving beyond programs without abandoning underlying principles.

    As for the living and dead, just because you quote some windy GA proclamation, I still do not personally believe that it is more important to go to the temple and get endowed for and in behalf of that 13th great grandfather who was hanged in Scotland for piracy, if it comes at the price of, say, missing scout camping trips with my son and he eventually concludes that dad really doesn’t gave a rat’s @$$ about him so why not get high, get layed, get stupid. I know of devoted LDS fathers who are in the temple every week and go camping or hiking with their sons maybe once a year. This is not right. Perhaps there is a balance and we can try to do both. But often our time is limited and we have to make choices. I choose church work for the living over the dead when I can’t do both. Just my opinion.

  27. CAW on July 11, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Does anyone else remember a talk given (maybe Education week?) where the speaker (the voice I hear in my head is Brad Wilcox, but I’m not sure) tells about sitting next to an apostle on an airplane and in their discussion the apostle asks him what the mission of the Church was and the speaker replied with the list of 3 things in the 3-fold mission and the apostle asked him again what the mission of the church was and the speaker again replied with the same list. Then the apostle told him that the mission of the Church is to bring all the world to Christ and that list of the 3 things are the means by which we accomplish that mission. Sorry I can’t remember the reference, but everything else made a clear impression on me that we sometimes put the emphasis on the wrong goal.

  28. Ian Cook on July 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Mike,

    It’s fairly clear that you have no problem with the threefold mission of the church, but with how your ward/stake was executing that mission. I’ve never seen a ward or stake execute it in quite that manner. I think, in principle the plan your ward/stake had sounds good, but in reality, it was too cumbersome and not effective. We as a church should avoid the mistake of adding too many unnecessary meetings and committees. One of my favorite sayings is “work smarter not harder.”

  29. Bert on July 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Mike,

    I’m happy to read that you, as EQP, served faithfully and did all you could to fulfill the three-fold mission of the Church. By using the appropriate resources available in your Ward to accomplish missionary work, temple work, and ministering to the members of your Quorum, it sounds as though you were doing all that could be done to appropriately emphasize each of these three missions of the Church.

    I think that you are confusing Church programs with Gospel principles when you so vehemently denounce the three-fold mission of the Church. The mission of the Church is to bring souls to Christ – the living and the dead, the member and the non-member, the active member and the less-active member. The three-fold mission of the Church, as stated by “windy GA”s, such as Paul the Apostle in ancient times to modern-day Prophets in our time, serves to remind us of our duty to serve all of Heavenly Father’s children. When I served as EQP, I also found that the committee system was poorly suited to the Quorum. Instead, each us in the Presidency focused on a different area of the three-fold mission of the Church. As President, I focused on perfecting the Saints. One counselor focused on temple worship; the other on missionary work. Just because the Church program for accomplishing the mission of the Church doesn’t fit your situation, you don’t throw out the mission of the Church; rather, you use your available resources to fulfill your calling as best you can. And actually, it sounds like that is exactly what you did when you served as EQP.

    With respect to your final paragraph, I am not aware of any “windy GA” who states that going to the temple is more important than being a good father and spending time with your children. With the number of temples around the world, most members can probably attend the temple monthly and have it not interfere significantly with their family life. In fact, the example set by the parents by regular temple attendance will teach their children the importance of the temple, making it an important part of their lives. When I travel with my family, we always try to visit the local temple. My oldest daughter is studying at Cambridge University in the UK this summer, and she is planning on doing baptisms for the dead while there. Doing a reasonable amount of temple work can only strengthen the family.

    I agree that over-emphasis of temple work can be detrimental to the family. But ignoring temple work and missionary work is also detrimental.

  30. Horatio on July 11, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    One thing that I struggle with is where humanitarian service falls as a Church function. When the Church helps hurricane victims, which part of the mission statement does that fall under? Proclaim the gospel? Does the Church not have a mission of helping just to help, or is it always part of a missionary effort?

    Or does it fall under Perfect the Saints? Serving others is a way to perfect ourselves. Would that mean that humanitarian aid is an individual obligation, and the Church as an organization only encourages/facilitates individual efforts?

  31. Ian Cook on July 11, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Horatio,

    If you could create a fourth mission that would include things you talked about (service), then what would you call it?

    In my opinion, humanitarian aid falls under proclaiming the gospel and under perfecting the saints, take your pick. Humanitarian aid is implied in the threefold mission of the church, just as passing the sacrament is implied.

  32. Horatio on July 11, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Ian, I guess I would call it “help the needy”, “ease suffering”, or “improve the world”, something along those lines. I agree that humanitarian aid is implied, but presenting the mission statement this way, I think, gives members the impression that the ONLY way the Church (as an organization) can help non-members is by converting them. At the risk of steadying the ark, I guess I would like to show my non-member friends a local soup kitchen, battered women’s shelter, job training program or something that is supported by the Church but directly benefits the community, not just members.

    To be fair, maybe I should be supporting those kinds of programs and telling my non-member friends I do so because the Church teaches me to.

  33. Ian Cook on July 11, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I do agree with you that there should be more focus on humanitarian aid. I know that, on the worldwide level, there is quite a bit of humanitarian aid. When large disasters occur, the church leadership does a great job. It’s when we get to the ward/stake level, it’s not so well done. Your examples are good ones. When was the last time you heard of an ELQ activity to work at the soup kitchen or any of those other programs? My wife’s young womens program worked a soup kitchen one time, but I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this. I think that sort of thing should be emphasized more.

    I think the threefold mission is great, but at the same time it is really broad. It leaves a lot open for interpretation.

  34. Chris O'Keefe on July 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    FWIW, Pres. Donaldson of the CA San Diego Mission recently gave a talk at our Stake Conference (San Diego North Stake) in which he pointed out that if you look, you’ll notice that the phrase “three-fold mission of the church” hasn’t been mentioned by general authorities in conference since the mid-90s or so. He pointed out that they have abandoned the phrase in favor of something akin to “Inviting People to Christ.”

    Of course, I can’t find any information that points out what his full name is, etc. He said he learned this from his work with the church before his mission; the missionaries often point out that he worked closely with the First Presidency, Apostles and General Authorities before his mission. IIRC, he made a similar point. I realize that this rings with unconfirmability and hearsay, so take it for what you will. It sounded pretty authoritative to me.

  35. DavidH on July 11, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    I am uncomfortable with the wording of “perfect the Saints” and prefer President Benson’s wording of “strengthening the members”.

    I am uncomfortable (1) because I think it indirectly feeds the perfectionism that is common in our LDS culture, and (2) because I think it may lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. That is, one might take it to mean that it is by coming to the Church that one is perfected, rather than by coming to Christ–that the Church perfects people rather than Christ’s perfecting people. For many, of course, the Church and God are the same–and implying that coming to the Church is the same thing as coming to Christ supports that position.

    I like to think that perhaps it is because of the re-emphasis on the Book of Mormon, which teaches the principle of coming to Christ directly in order to become “perfected in Him” that, to some extent the prime mission of the Church–helping bring people to Christ–is more emphasized than three components that were devised or determined in the 1980s.

  36. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 14, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Many of the Protestant Mega-churches are finding that their focus on bringing people to accept Jesus as their savior, to the exclusion of teaching them what to do with themselves afterward, has led to disaffection and loss of long term members.

    What I always liked about the phraseology of the “three-fold mission” was the reminder that we as members of christ’s church have an obligation toward ALL of god’s children. We aren’t justified in thinking that we can let the rest of the world go to hell (literally). And we must not forget that the duty to seal parents to children is about saving OURSELVES as much as those who have died.

    This of course does not mean that we split up our time equally three ways. When we are young missionaries we are 95% working on saving those outside the Church. When we are a leader in Relief Society, we are concentrating on helping those within the Church. But we should not forget that, between our callings and our individual and family efforts, we are collectively working together to save and exalt ALL of God’s children, to bring them, living and dead, Saint and otherwise, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.

  37. Kruiser on July 15, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Just recently our new HP Group Leader announced that the committees would be reinstituted. As a former HP Group Leader, when the committees were in their prime, I experienced the same problems as mentioned here. One thing that kept them more or less alive was that we met during the last half of quorum meeting on the first Sunday of the month.

    Thinking about the three missions, I did some mental calculating trying to figure how much of our (adult) man and woman hours are spent on each of them. I am not a great calculator, so others may come up with different numbers. As a percentage, I think perfecting the saints takes about 90% of our man and woman hours. Proclaiming the Gospel 9%, and redeeming the dead 1%. Well that last one might go to 2 or 3% depending on the dedication. Anyhow, as a former Ward Mission Leader, we got to talking about that 9% from time to time and wondered if our proselyting and retention efforts could use a change in that percentage.

  38. Dennis on July 19, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    When I thnk of redeeming the dead (and I am a member of the Church in good standing) I cannot understand what it really means. The Thesaurus in “Word” uses the words release, liberate, free, emancipate, deliver, rescue, and save. What condition are our kindred dead in that they need to be rescued. Are we saying that they are all in prison and only through our works they can be released? I think some other words could be used to better-describe what we are doing. The non-mormon world cannot understand the word “redeem.” I have always referred to Temple ordinances as “doing work for the dead.” I think a lot of the dead may think of the ordinances as helping them….but “redeeming” them or releasing them from some “detention” seems pretty presumtive to me.