Despite being a Mormon feminist, I confess there are times when I have been glad that our church does not demand of women what it sometimes does of men. I believe in service and in the transformative power that comes from the life experience gained on a mission. But I still have ambivalent feelings about proselyting, particularly about convincing others that our beliefs offer more than theirs, so I was glad when my gender allowed me to avoid the question of whether or not I would serve a mission. My younger brothers, however, have no such luxury. Although they share my ambivalence, a refusal on their parts to serve a mission entails a loss of their standing as good members and risks alienating friends and family. They cannot wait, as I can, to serve a mission when I feel ready. They must serve at age nineteen.
One of my brothers has now completed a mission, but the other still must decide if he will serve. Since I have not served a mission, I feel that I am poorly equipped to respond to him with the empathy and understanding that I believe his questions demand. But as I watch them struggle, I am convinced that it is important that they feel supported and not banished to a closet with their concerns. So, I am writing this post as an open invitation for people to share their thoughts on how they would approach a full-time mission and on how they would reconcile their beliefs with mission goals and imperatives that are sometimes at odds with them. I am beginning this thread by sharing a few insights that I have culled from conversations with those near me.
Called to learn: Our leaders are, I believe, deeply aware that we must strive to respect the competing beliefs of our neighbors. The current rhetoric that we invite others to ask what we can share with them or add to their already strong beliefs seems like a genuine attempt to exercise such respect. However, this rhetoric positions us as the ones doing the share, and it does not stress that we must in turn be prepared to listen. When we are missionaries, in all contexts, I believe it is important that we are prepared to ask not only what we can share but also what we can learn from others, because we as individuals also have imperfect knowledge of the gospel. Only if we approach conversations about faith with a genuine desire to listen and to learn can we really respond to others with genuine attention to their needs.
Learn a variety of things: Most missionaries I know agree that they learned a great deal on their missions. But not every missionary has learned primarily about his faith or has even had his testimony grow. We stress that missions build faith, but I believe we should be more open to asking what in particular God needs us to learn when we are in a missionary context – whether it is about poverty, humility, etc. Although we ask all young men to serve at age nineteen, these young men doubtlessly come with a wide variety of experiences and of things they need to learn.
Don’t distort the church: I no longer believe that anyone aside from our apostles can speak as a true “representative” of the church. Church members have a wide range of beliefs and backgrounds, and I think we make a deep mistake in believing that when are asked to share the gospel that we must adopt what we believe to be the church’s standard line. I believe that our non-member friends want to hear why we in particular value the church, and that we should represent the church through our own eyes without falling into preaching flat stereotypes about the general church body. That said, we owe it to potential converts to not depict the church too much in terms that we know they will be sympathetic to or that we find attractive if we know this depiction is misleading about actual church practice. We should not whitewash or distort the church, only to have converts feel disappointed when the church is profoundly different from one they thought they were joining.
[Edit: Some people seem to have interpreted my suggesting that we should not distort the church to mean that we should bring up controversial issues. While I think missionaries should know about issues that investigators themselves are likely to think up (who doesn't know about polygamy, for example), my intention was not to suggest that we should bring those issues up. Instead, I'm referring to the fact that when we want people to accept our beliefs or when we are uncomfortable with some aspects of our culture we sometimes reinterpret the church in a way that makes us more acceptable to others and to ourselves. This doesn't have to ocurr only around controversial issues. What I am saying is that we need be cautious about preaching too much of our own gospel in certain contexts so that people are not mislead. If we are going to go on a mission, then to some extent we need to be on board with the core principles, even if it is also important that we still make our remarks personal.]
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