It would have been nice to know if the new face of Mormon missionaries was a Scandinavian-looking Utahn, a dark-skinned Brazilian or an ebony-hued African. After all, the number of Americans among the church’s nearly 54,000 missionaries is slowly declining. Today, about a third come from other nations.
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While many Utahns are still being sent to far away lands, more and more missionaries serve in their own countries, seeking converts in their language and culture. Instead of heading to Provo to be trained in the art of proselytizing as generations before them did, many now go directly to one of 16 training centers in places like Johannesburg, San Paulo or London.
Ever pragmatic, the LDS Church has repeatedly tweaked the system to respond to changing social climates. It once required missionaries to grow beards to seem older and more respectable, but starting in the rebellious 1960s, facial hair was forbidden. Once married men left their wives for months, even years, to scour the earth looking for converts; now 80 percent are young, unmarried men, 13 percent young, single women and 7 percent retired couples.
Once they went primarily to European nations, inviting all who joined to gather with the Saints in the mountains of Utah. Now they want converts to stay and build up Zion societies from Tokyo to Tanzania, Rio de Janeiro to the French Riviera and Russia.
The millionth missionary “is a stunning milestone for the church,” says David Stewart, an LDS physician in Henderson, Nev., who has spent a decade studying Mormon missionary and conversion patterns. “When we look at taking the gospel to India, China and other parts of the developing world, no multiplication of North American missionaries can meet the needs. The only way is to improve recruitment of indigenous missionaries.”
Now there are people like Joseph and Gladys Sitati, who joined the church 20 years ago in Kenya and are now leaving to take charge of a group of missionaries in Nigeria. Or Sister Unbyul Catherine Cho of Seoul, South Korea, a missionary on Temple Square. Or Elder Samuel Tavares Pelaquim of Brazil, who is learning Japanese in Provo for the mission to Nagoya, Japan.
With help like theirs, the LDS Church continues to add more than 200,000 new members to its rolls every year. But the missionary program does more than increase the church’s population. It also helps solidify a missionary’s commitment to the church and create a future generation of Mormon leaders.
“This is a success story,” says John-Charles Duffy, an LDS graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has analyzed aspects of the missionary system. “It’s amazing how quickly the missionary force and mission fields have grown in the last half century.”
The Mormon program is, in a word, “audacious,” said social historian Harold Bloom in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. “No other American religious movement is so ambitious. The Mormons fully intend to convert the nation and the world; to go from some 10 million souls to six billion. This is sublimely insane. . . . Yet the Mormons will not falter; they will take the entire twenty-first century as their span, if need be.”
It’s a long way from that first corps of Mormon evangelizers, who threw copies of the Book of Mormon into their knapsacks to sell in neighboring villages. And, like most successes, it’s been tempered by temptations and trials.
Many are called: In the beginning of Mormonism, it was the top male leaders who carried the church’s message far and near. Then the evangelization team was expanded to include a percentage of the faith’s most devoted male followers and a handful of its female members.
In the past few decades, the church recognized that it was not reasonable to expect everyone to go. Some were too poor to support themselves on missions. Others had military obligations (during World War II, for example) that took precedence over church service.
Of the top 15 men in the church’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles, 10 (including President Gordon B. Hinckley and his second counselor, James E. Faust) went on missions, while five (including First Counselor Thomas S. Monson) did not. Singer Donny Osmond didn’t serve a two-year mission, nor did former Phoenix Suns Coach Danny Ainge. Neither did several of Brigham Young University’s greatest quarterbacks, including Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Steve Young.
LaVell Edwards, BYU’s legendary football coach, didn’t serve an LDS mission as a young man – he got married instead – so he went after he retired.
Now approximately 30 percent of all 19-year-old Mormon men in the United States serve, while between 80 percent to 90 percent of those from active LDS families go. At BYU, for example, there are virtually no 19-year-old men.
Every week, the missionary department receives between 700 and 800 missionary applications, detailing a candidate’s background, church involvement, strengths and weaknesses. Each has been approved by his or her ecclesiastical leader and is willing to serve anywhere the church decides. Each one is evaluated by department employees for completeness and accuracy. The church’s physicians comb medical records of prospective missionaries for “red flags,” such as obesity, asthma or conditions that require medication.
As a result of the church’s recent push to “raise the bar” on missionary qualifications, candidates must have repented of “serious moral transgressions.”
“This isn’t a time for spiritual weaklings,” LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard said in his 2002 speech announcing the increased standards. “We cannot send you on a mission to be reactivated, reformed, or to receive a testimony. We just don’t have time for that.”
Missionary candidates must also be in good shape physically and emotionally. A person taking depression medication can serve, Ballard said, but only if he continues taking it. Others with more problematic conditions may have to find alternative missions.
After tightening the requirements, the number of missionaries dropped from a high of nearly 61,000 to 54,000 this year.
But it’s been worth it, Ballard said. The church now has one of its strongest proselytizing teams ever.
Crosshead: During most of the 20th century, Mormon missionaries were immediately recognizable for their white shirts and ties, going up and down the streets, knocking on doors. This approach was known as “tracting,” that is, offering church tracts to anyone who would listen. It was slow, arduous work that produced a lot of rejection and few results.
Eventually, some innovative mission presidents initiated programs of their own.
In the 1960s, some missionaries in England hosted athletic events like baseball games, telling youths that they had to be baptized to be on the team. Such “baseball baptisms,” as they become known, were soon discontinued, but not before hundreds of kids unknowingly were listed on church rolls.
According to a recent profile in The Boston Globe presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried several unique tactics while on a LDS mission to France in the ’60s. In a letter to his parents, Romney talked about reaching out to people through “singing, basketball exhibitions, archeology [sic] lectures, street meetings . . . . Why even last Sat night my comp [companion] and I went into bars, explaining that we had a message of great happiness and joy.”
Noticing some French people’s interest in America, Romney staged USA nights to show slides about America; in one city, he offered a talk on American politics, the Globe said.
These days the church finds many more converts through member referrals, guest lists at the church’s visitor centers near its 100 temples, and media campaigns on television and in such publications as US News & World Report and Parade. They offer free copies of the Bible, Book of Mormon and LDS videos about Christ.
Until recently, missionaries still used a set of seven scripted lessons to share their faith. They were meant to guarantee a uniform approach, but written from a decidedly American approach.
But missionaries were going all over the world into all kinds of situations, Duffy says, so the approach needed to be “adaptable to all kinds of cultural settings and socioeconomic class settings that missionaries will encounter.”
So in 2003, the church inaugurated a new program, known as “Preach My Gospel,” to teach Mormon doctrine to interested seekers.
Missionaries no longer memorize a set of six standard missionary “discussions,” (or detailed descriptions of LDS beliefs), but rather focus on key scriptures that help explain and define Mormon teachings. Each missionary can adapt his or her approach to respond to specific questions and needs of potential converts.
“We still ‘tract’ [go door to door]. Missionaries have to find people all kinds of different ways.” Ballard said this week. “But now they teach in their own words by what they know and have studied. It’s done with the [Holy] Spirit and it’s much more acceptable to people.”
The church has seen dramatic results with the new approach, he says. “It’s the best we’ve ever done in the history of church.”
Challenges continue: Even with the increasingly strong and diverse missionaries and a new system, the church’s growth has slowed down.
Stewart, who analyzed all missionary and convert retention statistics in his new book, Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work, points to two areas that need improving: the number of people missionaries contact every day and failure to adequately prepare people for baptism.
“The average missionary companionship [pair] spends only four or five hours a week trying to contact investigators to teach,” says Stewart. “There’s too little emphasis on meeting new people.”
Once missionaries do find receptive listeners, they are in a rush to baptize them without fully explaining what it means to be a Mormon. If potential converts attended Mormon services for a full month and agreed to abstain from tobacco and alcohol during that time before being baptized, the chances that they would remain committed to the church would improve.
And if new members had a higher level of commitment, they would eventually produce more indigenous missionaries, who are the key to the church’s future, Stewart says.
Stewart’s ideas have merit, but could add even more pressure to an already overworked group of young people.
Judith Moore, a physician in Provo, spent from March 2005 to October 2006 overseeing the health of LDS missionaries in Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. She was surprised by the number of physical problems she saw that were related to stress and anxiety.
Upon her return, Moore sent out a survey to about three dozen of the missionaries she had seen, asking about their experience.
“They reported feeling a need to be perfect. They put pressure on themselves as well as felt pressure from leaders to do more than they were able to do,” Moore says. “Others had emotional issues that came from dealing with problems at home.”
Those who suffered emotional breakdowns while on their missions needed to go home and not feel guilty, as if they have failed. They are so terrified of what awaits them, they would rather stay on their missions and suffer.
“I have seen kids going way beyond their abilities,” she says. “It took almost force to make them go home. Their friends come home and are treated like conquering heroes. They feel like outcasts.”
Certainly a mission can be stressful – six-day weeks, being assigned to a companion with whom you’ll spend 24 hours a day, few chances to talk to family, the great responsibility of representing your faith to a skeptical audience.
Still, for the vast majority, those two years are the best of their lives. They emerge more mature, confident and strong in their faith.
“It’s a rite of passage that taps into the idealism of youth,” Duffy says. “I can say as a former [Mormon] missionary, the experience stays with you. It can transform your life.”
Sidebar: By the numbers: Missionaries
LDS: 53,868 full-time missionaries; 13,000,000 members
Southern Baptist Convention: 5,184 full-time missionaries (including: 3,029 career, 390 four year renewal term, 724 apprentice, 347 2-year terms, and 381 2-year for young people, 309 2-year retired); 16,300,000 members
Jehovah’s Witnesses: 250 full-time missionaries, who work at least 130 hours a month; 6,741,444 active members who do at least an hour of proselytizing a month; 248,327 new members baptized in 2006