A little over six months have passed since the Church held its mission president training meeting that was double-billed as a worldwide leadership training meeting relating to missionary work to which all members were invited (either in person at the BYU Marriott Center or virtually, by way of the internet) and which was preceded by unprecedented fanfare.
The Special Broadcast
The topic of the Special Broadcast was of interest to many because of President Monson’s October 2012 announcement in General Conference of the recent decision to change the policy governing the age at which men and women could choose to commence missionary service — women now having the option of beginning their 18 month missionary service at 19 instead of 21 and men having the option of choosing to begin their 2 year missions at 18 rather than 19.
As a result, the numbers of missionaries serving dramatically increased virtually overnight, and many expected that a similarly dramatic shift in the approach to missionary work would eventually result to accommodate these far greater numbers of serving missionaries in an otherwise unchanged missionary environment (no necessarily greater interest in the message by people in the various missions whose ranks of missionaries were greatly increased; no change in approach used to teach the Gospel — still based on the guidebook Preach My Gospel published nearly ten years previously, etc.). I think that many thought that the June 23, 2013 worldwide leadership training would be an occasion for an unveiling of new or different approaches to missionary work arising from the age policy change and the greater number of serving missionaries. (Shortly before the broadcast, I wrote about my guesses as to what might be discussed at the unusual worldwide broadcast.)In the broadcast, Elder Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles introduced one change in which missionaries would now be allowed and encouraged to employ Facebook as a means of advancing missionary work in their missions. The contours of this were uncertain and the initial implementation has been problematic on certain levels, as observed by J. Stapley with the benefit of a few months’ implementation of missionaries working on Facebook. To summarize, some missionaries had been going into Mormon related Facebook groups (including the angsty-type of Mormon-themed Facebook groups focused on often contentious discussions of controversial issues) and leaving essentially boilerplate spam announcements or Gospel-y invitations to learn more about the Church. To me, this seemed unsustainable and not effective as a missionary approach or an effective missionary use of Facebook, not to mention a breach of simple etiquette. Frankly, the approach taken by the missionaries who created the “spiritual thought” pictured above, as can be seen at their Facebook page linked in the caption below the picture, also does not seem particularly effective or desirable, though this approach does seem more respectful in not invading others’ Facebook space uninvited and without a substantive basis rooted in the purpose of specific Facebook groups.
Keeping More Missionaries “Busy”
More recently, I have heard several reports of mission presidents in different missions getting word out to members in their missions (in one case through a letter sent to be read in all congregations, including in all auxiliaries such as Primary) that there are so many more missionaries in the mission that they do not have enough people to teach and therefore requesting the members to have missionaries in their homes every single evening to teach principles of the Gospel to the members’ families in order to give the missionaries experience teaching. My heart goes out to such missionaries. I hope and pray that they are led to those whom the Lord has prepared to hear the message of the Gospel so that they feel that they are fulfilling their calling as missionaries to preach the Gospel to nonmembers rather than to member families.
In contemplating this problem — of having significantly larger numbers of missionaries in otherwise unaltered missionary circumstances, including in missions with the same mission boundaries and rules, etc. — it has occurred to me that a shift in our perspective about these missionaries’ day-to-day work activities could drastically change the success of their missions, both in terms of the number of people they are able to influence (and convert) through the Gospel and their own personal fulfillment serving as representatives of the Lord. I made suggestions along these lines about six months ago and in light of the current difficulties faced by our missionary force, have decided to summarize them once again here and flesh them out a little.
“Army” of Righteousness: A Worldwide Missionary Force with an Added Focus
The following list contains what I think would be the most effective way to adjust the missionary program to accommodate the greater number of missionaries, both enriching the experience for them and providing greater benefit to the communities where they are assigned (and, I firmly believe, resulting in a greater number of baptisms of committed converts worldwide):
- The description of the missionary program is updated to bring it in line with the updated “Fourth Mission of the Church” — caring for the poor and needy. The primary focus of missionary work and the missionary program remains specifically to preach the Gospel but formal recognition is given to this updated mission of the Church more generally.
- Reflecting the incorporation of this “Fourth Mission of the Church” into the formal missionary program, missionaries spend daytime hours primarily involved in full time service in activities and venues that provide permanent, reliable succor to the poor and needy worldwide, not limited to one-off and randomly identified service projects like painting a certain person’s house or helping to clean the Church one Saturday.
- To execute this new approach, companionships in missions worldwide are placed with locally strong and established charities as permanent volunteer workers. For example, some will work on Habitat for Humanity crews, others with the Salvation Army in homeless shelters, others with Red Cross or Red Crescent, OxFam, or other disaster relief organizations. Some companionships will be nested in national or supra-national organizations around the world focused on providing clean water, vaccinations, clean-up, or other charitable services. Some will work as volunteer support staff for Doctors without Borders, Operation Smile, or other such services. Some will support the work of microlending organizations aggregated through and represented by such services as Kiva, Five Talents, or other similar organizations. In each case, it will be within the discretion of the local mission president to place these companionships into such organizations in the various cities and towns scattered across each individual mission, wherever missionaries are stationed.
- This organized, institutionalized service will be the missionaries’ “job” on business days from approx. 9am to 5pm, i.e. during normal working hours for the society at large in which they are serving. (This is often known as the “dead time” for many or most missionaries anyway because of the fact that these are working hours for the people to whom they would like to preach the Gospel.) Their focus during these business hours will be to serve in these capacities as directed by mission leaders without ulterior motive of winning converts but rather service for the sake of the service itself based on the inherent dignity of those receiving the service, in specific fulfillment of the “Fourth Mission of the Church”.
- For this full-time charitable service, missionaries (both men and women) will wear a uniform consisting of a clean and tidy polo shirt with Church logo on it and khaki shorts or trousers, possibly tidy jeans, context permitting.
- At 5:00 pm (or whenever the local mission president has designated that this “workday” as permanent volunteer staff in the various charitable organizations and institutions should end, maybe 3:00 pm or 4:00 pm in some cases), missionaries then make full use of the traditional “prime proselyting time” to find and teach investigators the Gospel using Preach My Gospel and other traditional methods of missionary work (including tracting, if necessary where there are not enough member referrals or referrals generated as a natural consequence of the many relationships created by the missionaries in their daily workday service). Ideally, as has always been the case, the missionaries’ efforts during this prime proselyting time following their daily charitable service as permanent volunteer staff in local charities, will focus on the teaching part of proselytizing.
- Missionaries might be required to put on the “traditional” missionary uniform of white shirt, tie, and dress slacks for men and “Sunday clothes” for women at the discretion of the local mission president during this prime proselyting time. Either way, traditional name tags will still be worn during the tracting hours from 5 pm to 10 pm (“prime proselyting time” would be extended in most areas to 10 pm as part of this change).
- My conviction is that through their behavior and Christian living in their work for the charities, they will be able to build relationships of trust with local ward members and others in the community so that those members trust the missionaries enough to help them find people to teach during their allotted teaching time each day.
- P-Day will be a weekday so that missionaries can spend the full day Saturday finding and teaching people about the Gospel. Sunday will be devoted to Church and having a real day of rest, teaching occasionally if “the ox is in the mire” and an investigator has not been able to schedule a different time, but in the main NOT proselytizing.
- The result of this adjustment to the missionary program, in an ideal situation, will be that missionaries gain the experience of working a full time job for various charities during their two years or 18 months in full time missionary service (though the job will only be four days a week instead of five because one of the weekdays is P-Day). I am convinced that they will also teach just as much as missionaries have traditionally done (and probably much more because of their new ability to build genuine relationships in the broader community through their work as permanent volunteer staff for local charities). This adjustment has the added benefit of eliminating almost entirely the innumerable “blank” hours of ineffective tracting that have been a central part of most missions since the late nineteenth century, at least.
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We all want our missionaries to work as effectively as possible in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for their missions to be spiritually, emotionally, and physically uplifting for them personally as well. Under the suggested adjustment to the missionary program summarized above, charitable service will be systematized on a mission by mission basis in an effort to incorporate the “Fourth Mission of the Church” formally into the mission program. Under this system, the missionaries will form a corps of reliable charitable volunteer workers in the charities in which they are embedded. This will be a reliable corps because the positions themselves will be permanent, even though an individual missionary is of course transferred out of the area after a few months of service — the replacement missionary then takes the leaving missionary’s place in that position on the volunteer staff of the charity.
It is amazing to think how helpful such a permanent, reliable corps of volunteer staff workers could be for such charities worldwide. They would have virtuous boots on the ground in areas around the globe, young men and women whose sole purpose is to serve their fellow man as a way to glorify and serve God, and to bring people to Jesus Christ through the much deeper relationships they are able to build with people through such real, authentic, and meaningful interaction (as opposed to the sometimes relatively artificial interactions that result from mere door approaches or street contacts).
Because charities will be able to rely on obtaining volunteer workers from the Church, they will be able to expand their reach and serve more of the poor and needy. The missionaries will bring Christian values and LDS resourcefulness, work-ethic, and even standards into those organizations merely by virtue of their presence there. And the local communities will benefit greatly. Zion will begin to form in innumerable places around the globe. And missionary success will surely be far greater, and missions will be far more fulfilling for the missionaries as well, under such conditions.
 As I discussed previously, and as President Monson explained in detail, the October 2012 announcement streamlined Church policy on missionary age, bringing North America and the rest of the world into harmony with the change in policy that had been implemented in numerous other countries, primarily in Europe, over the previous years. President Monson noted that “[f]or some time the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have allowed young men from certain countries to serve at the age of 18 when they are worthy, able, have graduated from high school, and have expressed a sincere desire to serve. This has been a country-specific policy and has allowed thousands of young men to serve honorable missions and also fulfill required military obligations and educational opportunities.”
This change in policy had been necessary in those European and other countries where it was implemented (like the Uk, Germany, etc.) in years preceding the October 2012 general announcement because the US-centric policy of allowing men to serve missions at 19, when applied in those countries with different educational systems and expectations, had effectively caused an entire generation — possibly two full generations — of Latter-day Saints in those countries to need to choose definitively between serving a mission and obtaining a university education. As a result, the number of Latter-day Saints in “the professions” in those countries as a percentage of their overall population or as a percentage of the total LDS population in those countries was drastically lower compared to the United States, where the 19 year old mission policy was at home because it was a smooth process to graduate from high school, attend one year of university, and then defer university attendance for the mission period and return to resume studies after completing missionary service.
The universal application of the change in policy was announced from the very beginning as an “option” rather than as a new mandatory age. President Monson stated that “I am pleased to announce that effective immediately all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the option of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of age 19. I am not suggesting that all young men will — or should — serve at this earlier age. Rather, based on individual circumstances as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available” (emphasis added). This was reiterated by Elder Nelson and remains the Church’s position as described on its website.
Nevertheless, the policy change does not appear to have been received in this light by Church members who immediately appear to have defaulted to 18 as the new “mandatory” 19 (though 19 also was not previously mandatory) for men.
this approach of spamming Mormon themed Facebook groups with a boilerplate post is extremely unsustainable. If every missionary did that, it would shut down Mormonism on Facebook. How could Mormon themed Facebook groups possibly endure for their various different intended purposes (many of which are to foster discussion about niche topics, like environmentalism/earth stewardship, for example) if thousands of missionaries begin trolling the groups under the guise of their new mandate to bring their missionary work to Facebook? It goes without saying that such trolling would be happening independently of the trolling of all other missionaries half a world away.
Traditionally, a missionary would have been unable to venture outside of his mission and proselytize in a neighboring mission. This facilitated an orderly approach to the work. A London missionary was not allowed to venture south of the Thames to begin knocking doors in the London south mission, though he or she might live in a neighboring area a short walk away.
But now a missionary in a mission in California can post such a boilerplate in any Mormon-themed Facebook group (or, presumably, in any Facebook group at all) but so can a missionary in Texas, or New York, Scotland, Spain, Hungary, Russia, Taiwan, Japan, or Hawaii (i.e., anywhere in the world).
My guess is that some guiding principles will soon be implemented to prevent this — at least I hope so. For one thing, why should random missionaries come into a Facebook group with a specific focus and begin proselytizing. At the very least, it does not seem to accord with common standards of etiquette or politeness.
I think the intention of allowing missionaries on Facebook was so that they could friend members of their local ward to which they are currently assigned and then start to interject themselves into discussions between those members and their vast networks of friends. That alone invites some anxiety and contemplation about whether such interaction between missionaries and a member’s Facebook friends is actually going to be a positive encounter, especially considering the types of substantive discussions that are often occurring on Facebook, often about politics and current-event type news stories. But this new approach of spamming random Mormon-themed Facebook groups is of even greater concern.
We all want the Church to be able to present itself in the best light possible and as effectively as possible. I have serious concerns about whether this particular approach does either. In fact, I am worried that it could set us back significantly in the image we are presenting and in our ability to interest a wide range of people in our message about the Restored Gospel.
The itinerant preacher who went door to door was a staple of antebellum and rural postbellum American culture. I think the Southern States Mission in the late 19th century is really an interesting case study. All the missionaries labored in the rural areas, because they could still do the old things (travel without purse or scrip, and be welcomed or at least find places to eat and sleep). There was essentially no missionary work in the cities, because they didn’t know what to do there (you had to pay for food and lodging). Then they decided to change how they proselytized and found great success in the cities, but it require abandoning the dominant mode of evangelization. I think we are at a similar point, but we haven’t found the new methodology. The problem is compounded by the reality of the mission boom. We have too many missionaries to do anything constructive with them under the standard program. It is a crisis and church leaders know it. It has sucked up the budget and everyone is trying to figure out what to do. It is the biggest logistical, budgetary, and perhaps spiritual problem we have right now, and all the general leaders are talking about it because they want to find a solution. This trickles down to local areas; however because the pressure trickles down, but no solutions, local leaders are left holding the ball.