Once upon a time, a little over three years ago, I returned from serving a mission in Lithuania. It was a fantastically, terribly wonderful experience. If you summed up my experience in numbers, it would look absolutely dismal. And it sounds crazy. Like, absolutely bonkers. I flew over to Lithuania and knocked on doors for 8-10 hours a day, having most of those doors never opened or opened to be slammed in my face. And then did that day after day for two years. Crazy. Sounds awful. But I loved it.
So, serving a mission is a rite of passage of sorts for Mormons. Especially for Mormon young men. Now, while I had a fabulous experience as a missionary, many people do not (I recently read an account of a guy that became atheist partially due to his time as a missionary). Whether that’s due to the individual or outside factors varies from case to case and probably is a combination of the two.
Not to mention the stigma that faces those that return early from or never serve a mission (a stigma which is growing to encompass all young adults in the Church given the age change), which is unhealthy for everyone and drives wedges between individuals and the community of members.
Given all this (and some thoughts that a friend shared on Facebook comparing serving a mission to the induction/hazing process of a fraternity or sorority, which is, I think, a worthwhile comparison, once you get past the negative connotations), I’ve been thinking about the structure of missions and if there are changes that can be implemented to improve the experience for a greater number of people.
There are loads of facets of missionary work and ways that things could change, so I’ll probably just touch on a few, but I hope in a way that will be useful.
- Who is the Focus? There is some debate about who the focus of missionary work is. Is it the missionary? Or the people that are being served? Or perhaps a combination of the two? Understanding the focus determines at least in part how we change the experience. I’m not really sure how to answer this question. I think that serving a mission is primarily for the individual that serves. Not entirely, but primarily. However, I think that the benefit for serving is only achieved, if the person serving is doing it for God and for the people that they are surrounded by, not for themselves. If this were not the case, it wouldn’t matter what sort of person a missionary is, but we would be totally on point for determining a returned missionary’s righteousness based on the number of converts they had, copies of the Book of Mormon they handed out, lessons taught, etc.
- Required? Another big question is whether missions should be required or not (depending on what you mean by required). I think there is a benefit to having a required bit of service (which probably sets me apart from the majority of my ProgMo friends…). However, I also think that for this to remain the case there should definitely be more options available to people to fulfill that service. Not everyone is cut out to proselyte, the culture can be rough and soul-crushing. I was lucky enough to have a solid group of awesome people to work with in the beautiful land of Lithuania, but have heard horror stories about the mission culture other places. (And here’s maybe my most radical idea—require missions for everyone. Regardless of gender. Make them the same length and otherwise equalize the mission playing field. Don’t hate me.)
- Service? The biggest change that I’ve seen people advocate for is a switch to service missions. There is certainly value in service and I think there should be better ways to incorporate service into regular missionary work. However, I think pushing for purely service missions misses something about the mission experience. If one of the key purposes of serving a mission is to convert the missionary more firmly to the faith, I don’t think that would happen in a 100% service-oriented context. I think there needs to be a component of teaching and expressing religious conviction for the conversion to really take place. Yes, when we serve our fellow wanderers here on Earth (or space if that’s your thing) we are only in the service of our God and there’s benefit there, but I personally haven’t experienced direct spiritual growth from the service experiences that I have had. And, if we really find value in our Mormonism and believe that it makes our lives better, isn’t sharing it one of the greatest acts of service that we can do? (I’m not saying that if people believe in Jesus that suddenly all their problems will disappear, just that it’s a disservice to discount the act of proselyting as an act of service.)
- Customizable? Here is probably THE question, at least for me—should missions be more customizable? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. How, exactly? Well, that is quite a different and more complicated question. And I don’t have an answer. Sorry (not really, I mean, do you really come to me for answers to everything? Because that’s probably a terrible idea. Sure, I’m smart and opinionated, but I’m more of a question than an answer person). I do have some thoughts that may be useful. I think length of time should be up for some customizing, as well as the sorts of activities that are available. More service-oriented experiences should be made available (yeah, that’s not a very meaningful part of my spirituality, but I know loads of people that feel like they grow closer to Christ through those acts of service, so they should have that option). Maybe create more tech options for people to teach from home or for a few hours a week, while doing other things. Again, I think part of the value from my experience was the extended, full-time dedication to God, which would be difficult to replicate if you only do missionary stuff every once in awhile. But we are expected to do that for our entire lives, so maybe there is more value in that sort of set-up.
- Who Makes the Choices? Let’s say that we totally re-vamp the mission experience. Now there are oodles of options, varying lengths of time for your service, what sort of things you can do, what else is allowed, etc. Who decides what sort of experience is best for each boy and girl? Do they decide for themselves? Is that all incorporated into the revelatory process of assigning calls? Are they called to a place and then the mission president works with each missionary to find the right combination of time and activities? This is a messy question (there seem to be lots of those floating around). The missionary should definitely have a say, but again, value is found in throwing yourself into something without really knowing what to expect. I mean, we don’t really grow and develop unless we challenge ourselves and do things that suck (like talking to strangers on the bus, when they clearly don’t want to talk to you and every part of you is screaming “leave the man alone! If you were sitting there minding your own business you would hate the young obnoxious foreigner who disturbed your peaceful pondering”). Sure, some girls and boys will choose an experience that would challenge them, but most would probably start viewing a mission as some sort of vacation, which totally devalues the experience. I believe in revelation, but don’t see that as a really workable option. Too much to work through (not that I’m putting limits on what God can do…just what can happen working with fallen, imperfect humans). I think the most workable would be some sort of counseling between mission presidents, missionaries, perhaps parents of the youth or other local leaders to create a perfect experience to build each individual’s spirituality and to utilize their talents to bless loads of other people that surround them.
- Contact with the Outside World? A key factor of missions as they currently are is the isolation from the past life and the world in general. You email friends and family once a week, don’t watch the news, only listen to spirit-inviting music (MoTab, EFY, classical, Disney, instrumental bluegrass covers of Linkin Park, you know all the things that bring Jesus to mind…), talk on the phone (or via Skype) with your family twice a year for an hour or so, no movies (I survived, so probably anyone can), only reading a handful of approved books (which sucked. Our Heritage is dull, Our Search for Happiness takes like an hour to read and is meh, True to the Faith isn’t really a book to read, but a resource for definitions, which leaves Jesus the Christ, which I read three times or so and loved. However, I could have read SO MUCH Church history related stuff—Givens, Bushman, Brodie, Arrington, Nibley, the Journal of Discourses, etc. Alas, wasn’t meant to be I suppose…), and essentially living removed from the world. Is this good? I think there’s value in being removed from your surroundings, comfort zone and typical support networks, but again, there should probably be more flexibility in how this is implemented. I think all people should disconnect a bit from the world (it’s been fantastic being relatively removed from stuff here in Grasmere, although, I still engage at least daily, so I think there’s room for adjusting the current set-up).
- Numbers? Missionary work is driven by numbers. The Key Indicators as they’re called. And I hate it. Maybe because my numbers were usually crap and I felt insignificant and like a failure (not really true, I actually had a surprisingly spiritually affirming experience as a missionary not having numerical success. Many moons ago, when I was but a wee lad, I remember telling God that if someone needed to go to a place where they never baptized anyone and didn’t really see success, I could do that. And that happened. So, kids, careful what you tell God, He/She/They might just take you up on it). I get it, there needs to be something driving people and a way to measure what’s going on, but I think that numbers can skew the focus that people have and cause HUGE problems. Missionaries can start baptizing people for the numbers and totally ignoring that these individuals aren’t ready and all that sort of stuff. Part of me wants to just chuck the number reporting and have missionaries simply talk about notable things that happened, people they teach, that sort of thing. Focus on the individuals and stories rather than the numerical outcomes. Similar things seem to happen with home-teaching. I’m not sure it’s necessarily wise to totally throw numbers and reporting out the window, but I think it’s an experiment worth trying.
Basically, I think stuff should change. Not quite sure how, but I think dialogue about the possibilities is a good place to start. Even if it is just among my small circle of friends. Maybe one of you will be in a position of power one day and can bring up some of these thoughts or your own possibly sparked by what I wrote. Maybe I’ll be there and can do it myself (HA. We all know that’s not going to happen…).
I came closer to Christ during my mission than I had at any time up to that point in my life. It was a deeply rewarding and spiritual experience, despite all the apparent suckiness that it entailed. I want that to be available to EVERYONE. All people deserve the opportunity to spend two years (or whatever) dedicated to serving God, growing spiritually in ways that are incredibly difficult to replicate elsewhere (not that people that don’t serve missions are inherently less spiritual, just that they sorts of growth that happen differ).
Lithuania will always be my Waters of Mormon (Mosiah 18:30). And for that, I am incredibly grateful and will forever be changed.