The Massive Missionary Program

Some views on the mission program's role in the church, its history and challenges it confronts today.

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

If you look at the role of the missionary program in the 21st century, it serves two very important purposes. The first that they clearly point to is carrying the message of the new and restored Gospel throughout the world. ... But it also serves a very important role for young men coming of age in the church. ... It bonds them to the church; it makes them brothers in the conflict.

All missionaries share the stories. Just as if you've ever been around veterans of World War II, veterans of Vietnam, and they talk about going through boot camp, ... you can talk to missionaries, and they talk about going to the Missionary Training Center [MTC] ... and then getting the assignment and going overseas and becoming foxhole buddies, if you will, with their missionary partners, people they've formed lifelong friendships with.

And … when they come home they're ready to take the next step in their life. Just as veterans return from war and they want to get married and start their families and begin a career, you talk to these young missionaries, they want to do the same thing. But invariably they come back with the spirit of their faith at the highest level it will ever be. ...

Teryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

... One of the favorite stories in Mormonism of missionary work comes from the year 1839. Now, in October of the preceding year, the Haun's Mill Massacre had occurred, followed by the expulsion of all the Saints from Missouri. ... Most of the Saints were destitute. They suffered terribly under the persecutions. They were without resources or adequate housing or lodging.

In the fall of that year, of 1839, Joseph Smith called all the 12 apostles on missions to England. ... He knew that by sending missionaries to England that he would be laying the foundations not for immediate success but for an international church that would extend into future generations and far beyond. It was an extremely forward-looking and even courageous gesture on his part. ...

I think it's because of the origins of missionary work in the midst of that kind of hardship and suffering and deprivation that Mormons to this day associate missionary work with personal sacrifice. Though it's not as dramatic, that same tradition continues, I think, when you consider that all Mormon missionaries serve at their own expense. They take two years out of their lives, and, using their own funds or their family's funds, they serve the Lord for two years. ...

Marlin Jensen
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

There is a high percentage of returned missionaries who become inactive afterwards. Is there some kind of malaise after the mission because of its intensity? What is your theory?

I think there really is in the church a genuine concern about what we call the returning missionary. … Think about the fact that roughly 25,000 young men are coming home each year from all over the world, having been gone for two years, many of them having learned a foreign language, having lived almost a monk-like existence in a sense. I think reentry from that kind of world back into more conventional civilization is going to be difficult. And I think we've probably done a much better job so far as a church in preparing young men to get ready to go than we have in reintegrating them when they get back. …

The other concern is retention rate of new converts. What do you think about that?

Yes. In fact, one of President [Gordon B.] Hinckley's themes as our prophet has been the retention of the new converts. A great deal of effort has gone into investigating just what that whole process is for someone to meet the missionaries, engage in a study of the Gospel, and make a life's change that would qualify them to be baptized and be confirmed a member of the church, and then to come into full activity in the church. And to do that all over the world in 170 different cultures -- we're in 170 lands -- so you just know that that's a tremendous challenge for a church that has a unified doctrine and, in a sense, a unified way of life, to pick up all of those people.

I often think of the savior's parable of the fishnet being likened unto the kingdom of God, and you throw that net out into the ocean and you bring it in and it's got a lot of things in it, from seaweed to pop cans to people. When we cast our Gospel net, that's what we get. We get all kinds of people -- poor people, rich people, educated people, uneducated people -- and the key in the long run is our ability as existing members of the church to reach out and to fold these people into our lives. ...

So we need to be better, I think, in the teaching process. We need to make sure that people really are committed before they join the church, and then I think as members, we've got to be ever so loving and careful in bringing them into our midst and making them feel a part of our society, our Gospel. Not easy.

D. Michael Quinn
D. Michael Quinn is a Mormon historian who was excommunicated in 1993.

Psychologically, [the mission seems to be] a searing rite of passage. Why?

... When you become an LDS missionary, you have a companion who is assigned to you 24 hours a day. You never leave the sight of that companion except to go to the bathroom. You are with that person 24 hours a day, and you are told to tell that missionary companion that you love him, or if you're a female companion with a lady missionary that you love her, for the lady missionaries. Missionary life is even described as being like a marriage. I was told as a missionary, "You will never be as close with your wife as you will be your missionary companion," which was irony, because I was a gay male. But all missionaries are told this, because … the missionary leaders would say, you will never be with your wife 24 hours a day. If you're a woman, you will never be with your husband 24 hours a day, day in, day out, for two years of your life, but you are with these missionary companions.

Then you not only have this bonding experience that is so intense; your life is utterly controlled by the missionary experience. You don't do anything unless it is approved for you as a missionary. If it isn't approved to listen to radio, you do not listen to radio. If it isn't approved to watch television, you do not watch television. If it isn't approved to read a newspaper, you will not read a newspaper. You follow the rules for this two-year period. There is nothing in the contemporary experience of 20-year-olds in America and Canada to compare with this. The only thing that would be close to it would be going into a seminary, a young man who takes the position of having a calling to become a priest. That's the only thing that would be similar to it.

Yet in the Mormon experience, it's this two-year, temporary experience. After two years it's over, and these young men and women are expected to go back to a normal life, and it's difficult because they have experienced something utterly alien to the contemporary civilian life that they go back to. ... You feel, this isn't real. What's real was the missionary experience. It isn't real for me to be in college again; it isn't real for me to be working; it isn't real for me to be trying to date. What's real is serving God 24 hours a day, sharing the message of the Gospel. And it is this searing, overwhelming experience that usually lasts for two years that every missionary will look back on and very often say, "There were a lot of hard times as a missionary, but this was the best two years of my life." ...