The Mission

Why is the massive missionary program a central part of Mormonism? How did it grow so large?

From the outset, Joseph Smith believed that his revelation was a message for the whole world. He sent out family members as his first missionaries to win converts to the faith and make the church a vital force throughout the world. Everyone who joined his church became a missionary. By the 1840s, missionaries were in North America, Europe and many of the Pacific Islands. During the first 25 years of the church, there were 71,000 converts in Great Britain alone, and approximately 17,000 of them emigrated to the early Mormon settlements in Kirtland, Ohio and Nauvoo, Ill., and then to Utah.

At the end of the 19th century, missionary work had to take a back seat to the church's survival in Utah. The World War I, the Great Depression and World War II further restricted missionary work. "God's Army," as the mission is collectively called, shrank to under 300 missionaires worldwide.

But under LDS President David O. McKay in the 1950s and 1960s, the mission grew to 13,000. In 1974, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball called for all able, worthy young men to go on a mission, and within a few years the number had doubled. By 1978, the Missionary Training Center was built in Provo, Utah, and today is one of 17 training centers around the world.

Who are the missionaries? What is the training and commitment?

Each year, approximately 53,000 Mormon missionaries go out into the world to win as many as 250,000 converts to their faith. The missionary force has always been the engine that has driven the church's success. In the early years, older men were called to a mission, but now it is mostly young men and women who serve.

All Mormon men aged 19 to 26 are eligible to receive a mission call and concentrate two years of their life to what current LDS President Gordon Hinckley calls "this sacred service." Women over the age of 21 may also be called as missionaries, but they only serve 18 months. The vast majority of the missionary force -- 76 percent -- are young men. In addition to women, a few missionaries are married couples or older Mormons serving a second mission.

Missionaries are expected to cover all expenses of their mission; many Mormon children start saving for their missions when they first get an allowance, at 6 or 7 years old. Many young Mormons also work after-school jobs to save for their missions. If the cost is simply too high for a missionary and his/her family to bear, however, a missionary's local ward may help to bear his/her expenses. Once accepted, missionaries are trained at the nearest Missionary Training Center. The rigorous training can last up to three months of sixteen-hour days. The trainees learn six basic lesson plans designed to take the potential convert to the goal of baptism. Every aspect of their behavior and appearance is scrutinized. They are taught how to listen, to smile, to find common ground with a stranger on the street, and to answer difficult questions or deal with hecklers. The location where missionaries serve is entirely determined by the church.

The mission itself involves long work days, six days per week. A typical day involves two hours of scriptural study and eight to nine hours of going door to door "teaching and contacting" potential converts. One day a week is set aside for personal activities like laundry, letter writing or sightseeing in the host country.

While on their mission, missionaries can call home only on Christmas and Mother's Day; they must be with their missionary companion 24 hours a day; they cannot come within arm's length of the opposite sex; they cannot watch television or films; and they are only allowed to listen to music and read books that are of a religious nature. At the end of their mission they will return to their communities, often to a banquet where they can discuss their experiences with family and friends.

Many veterans of the missions describe their experience as transformative, but most missionaries make very few converts. Nevertheless, their missions are considered successful because these years of service train young LDS men to be leaders in their local wards.

Many young Mormons have felt tremendous pressure to serve on a mission. But in recent years, acknowledging that many young men are still experiencing difficult adolescences at age 18 or 19, the church decided to be more selective about whom is called to serve a mission. This selectivity has caused a drop in the number of missionaries, but it has probably not hurt the effectiveness of the missionary force.

What is the missionary pitch?

When first meeting with a potential convert, missionaries try to engage them and open a dialogue about faith. Missionaries then teach the doctrines and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, including the nature of God and God's plan for mankind.

Missionaries stress their fundamental belief in Joseph Smith as a modern prophet and the Book of Mormon as a new testament of Jesus Christ. Mormon missionaries will also teach a potential convert about the Mormon lifestyle.

When ready, potential converts will be asked to join the missionaries for a service with the local congregation. If the potential convert is ready to repent his sins and declare faith in Christ and the "Restored Gospel," then he will be baptized by immersion.

For decades, the pattern of conversation between missionaries and potential converts was carefully spelled out in a series of discrete lessons. This was exceedingly important when missionaries were serving areas where the local language is not English. These lessons are still available to the missionaries, but now they are encouraged to depart from them to use their own words. The basic elements of the missionary teaching remain the same.

Do missionaries try to convert Christians?

Yes. Mormons view all non-Mormon Christian denominations as misdirected from the true teaching of God. Their emphasis when approaching Christians is on the "Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ" as revealed to Joseph Smith. In their eyes, Christianity has suffered from a "Great Apostasy" ever since the formation of the early Christian church, necessitating the revelation of Joseph Smith and, therefore, the need to spread his message throughout the existing Christian world.