Roger Terry is editorial director at BYU Studies and is the author of books (both fiction and nonfiction), articles, essays, short stories, book reviews, and newspaper editorials. He blogs at mormonomics & mormonethics.
A few weeks ago, BYU Studies held an annual meeting for some our supporters. This year we invited a rather unusual speaker. His name is Robert Lively, dean emeritus and former professor of religion at the University of Maine at Farmington. Rob is not LDS. So why would we invite a nonmember to speak at our annual meeting? Because of the book he self-published in late 2015. It is titled The Mormon Missionary: Who Is That Knocking at My Door?
Many years ago, when Rob was working on his PhD at Oxford, he became interested in the LDS Church and its missionary program. He also met Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who became aware of his interest and opened doors for him. Well, Rob landed eventually at the small university in rural Farmington, and he started inviting representatives from various religions to make a presentation to his class. When he proposed inviting the Mormon missionaries, the class balked. They had all seen the young people with the nametags, and they had mostly avoided them. Some had refused to answer the door when they knocked. “If we don’t invite them into our homes,” one student asked, “why should we invite them into our classroom? Do we have to invite them?”
Exercising his professorial prerogative, Rob said, “Yes!” So two sets of missionaries came, two elders and two sisters, and the students were absolutely fascinated by why these young people would give up eighteen or twenty-four months of their lives to go around being rejected by everyone. The next class period the students talked about the missionaries’ presentation, and when Rob asked whether he should invite them back in future semesters, the answer was a unanimous “Yes!”
Eventually, it dawned on Rob Lively that no non-Mormon had ever written a book about Mormon missionaries, explaining to a non-Mormon readership who these young people are, what they do, and why. So he decided to. The result is impressive. He has interviewed almost 300 missionaries who have served from the 1930s to the present, all across the U.S. and in forty-seven foreign countries. He has interviewed President Hinckley, other General Authorities, mission presidents, MTC presidents, local ward and stake leaders, and parents of missionaries. He has left no stone unturned. I’ll be honest; I have served a mission, my wife has served a mission, we have sent three sons on missions, I taught for three years at the MTC, and when I worked at the Ensign, I was responsible for all the missionary-related articles, so I know a bit about “missionary stuff,” but I have learned quite a few new things about the LDS missionary program and about the missionary experience from reading Rob’s book. What he has done is truly amazing.
He starts with an overview of the Church and explains our missionary impulse. He then delves into the preparation (and pressures) to serve a mission in both LDS culture and LDS families. He covers the interview and application process, the receipt of the white envelope from Salt Lake, the MTC experience, and the arrival in the mission. He explores every significant aspect of missionary life, including illnesses, bad companions, transfers, mission president interviews, finding, teaching, and baptizing. He devotes chapters to sister missionaries and senior couples and international missionaries. He then discusses the departure from the mission, including the sometimes difficult transition and what comes after, both good and bad.
Because Rob is a non-Mormon, he can deal with both the positives and negatives without coming across as either boosterish or critical. And he is entirely nonjudgmental. His whole intention is to tell the story of Mormon missionaries, often in their own words. He is able to deal with issues the Church probably never would in an official publication, including stories about some missionaries who leave the Church after returning home, or who leave the mission early for a variety of reasons, and how they are treated when they come home early. He also presents the positives of the mission experience in his engaging and even-handed manner. There are a few statistics in the book, but mostly the content comes from his interviews, and every point is illustrated with stories from real missionaries. This isn’t a theoretical analysis of missionary work. It is a bunch of stories woven together into an intricate tapestry that tells the story of what a Mormon mission is all about.
Rob is a friend to the Church in the very best sense of the word. He is fair and honest, and the reader is absolutely certain that he cares a great deal about his subject matter and the people whose lives have created it. But he isn’t afraid to bring up uncomfortable topics.
Because of the nature of this unique book, BYU Studies has published a collection of excerpts from it in our latest journal, which will be available online within a week or so. The book itself can be purchased on Amazon, here. When I say that he leaves no stone unturned, I mean it. That’s why the book is 510 pages long. And it doesn’t read like a book from an outsider, someone who doesn’t understand LDS culture. He even gets the vernacular right. Sometimes he does it better than I could.
As I’ve been reading, it has occurred to me that while this book will be interesting and informative to Mormon and non-Mormon readers alike, perhaps the reader who could benefit most from it is the prospective missionary. I remember being pretty clueless before leaving on my mission about what exactly I was getting myself into. I wish I had had a book like this. Because he has interviewed missionaries from all over the world, and because he allows them tell their stories, he gives a very clear picture of what it is like being a missionary in a variety of locations and cultures. As Dante said, “The arrow seen before cometh less rudely.” A book like this would let prospective missionaries see some of those arrows in advance. The consequence might be fewer who are thrown for a loop (or permanently damaged) by the difficulties inherent in serving a mission.
As I said in my review on Amazon, this book really is a one-of-a-kind treasure. I doubt that anything like this will ever be written again. I mean, how many Yale- and Oxford-educated professors of religion are there who are willing to spend thirty years interviewing LDS missionaries and then write their story without being at all judgmental?
So take a look. If you’re interested in the LDS missionary experience, you’ll probably find it a fascinating read. And if you’ve got a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, a grandson or granddaughter who is thinking about serving a mission, this could be the most valuable gift you could give them.