Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

The Missionary Experience And The International Church
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go, Dear Lord.
-Hymns (), #270

On a Sunday morning in July, people gather in an LDS chapel for the "farewell" of a young man soon to leave on a Mormon "mission." The Sacrament Meeting congregation includes his family, his grandparents, his mother's siblings and their children, uncles, aunts and cousins, and friends from other congregations, some from distant states. Like infant blessings, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, missionary farewells are family events. Other priesthood holders are much in evidence in the service 's standard rituals. The bishop asks the congregation to endorse the promotion of a twelve-year-old to be ordained a deacon and two sixteen-year-old young men to be priests. Three young priests, sixteen or seventeen years old, stand to break the bread while the congregation sings a hymn. Then the priests kneel and bless water and bread for the "sacrament." These ritual ordinances are handled by boys of junior high and high school age. Ten deacons and teachers, twelve and up, pass the bread and water trays to everyone in the room. They will all be missionaries in a few years.

When the handsome young elder, a year of college behind him, stands at the pulpit to speak, he discourses on faith, quoting Joseph Smith, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. He works out the parameters of faith, sets up analogies, and distinguishes between our own accomplishments and those from heaven. Faith begins as a gift from God, but we should strive to increase what we have, nourishing the seed by practice.

Faith had led him to serve a mission. He had been taught to go, but he wanted assurance for himself. His BYU friends had received their assignments. His papers were in, but he had not received his "call," the letter telling him where to go and when. Despite his prayers, he had no confirmation that he should go at all. One sleepless night, as he read the Scriptures, paced the halls, and prayed, he felt peace. But he wanted more. He looked at a world map where other missionaries had marked their destinations and prayed to know where he would go. The feeling came that he would go to Russia. When the call came, it was to Samara, Russia, the assurance he had been seeking. He was elated to go to a challenging, distant place.

The elder's parents gave the two final talks. Although his mother had mixed feelings of pride in her son's commitment and sorrow at his departure, she had decided to be happy about this event for which she had prepared since his birth. Glad about her son's willingness to go, she thanked his teachers for their preparation. She also believed the things he would teach, that Heavenly Father hears our prayers and guides us.

The elder's father proudly identified his son's missionary potential: He had grown up in Europe and survived a French grammar school, becoming bilingual and cosmopolitan. He loved people and had a heart of gold. The father advised his son to seek the Spirit, to obey the rules, and to lose himself in the work. He should be humble enough that he could help change lives and establish righteousness. The father prayed that his son would be "led to the honest in heart," people willing to listen to him. The closing song, "We Are All Enlisted," a Civil War-period borrowing from a Protestant hymnal, underscored the militant style of young men leaving families and friends to live among strangers in foreign countries. Their callowness compelled them to rely on God for strength and wisdom. No one doubted that the missionary would face rejections and severe trials. Again, the Church has entrusted its difficult and important work to inexperienced young men.

Two years later, the family again gathered to welcome this missionary home. The elder was taller and thinner, and he gave the perfect talk, beginning with his mission struggles. He related three discouraging incidents, such as the time when he and his companion were invited for a visit, only to be yelled at and thrown out. He then showed how each experience ended well. The landlady invited them to teach the gospel to her friends. The new ward took hold and grew. The cab driver was baptized. The elders felt that the Lord was using them to do His work. He believed that if he trusted the Lord and lived the gospel, he could act according to the Lord's plans. He left for his mission believing the gospel was true; he returned knowing that it was. He had seen miracles. He felt that he had fallen short of being a good missionary, but he could still improve.

In 2002, soon after this event, the Church issued an edict to families to scale back their elaborate missionary farewells. In some wards, so many missionaries left each year that farewells monopolized the Sundays. From then on only the missionary himself could speak. Open houses and receptions were to be simplified or eliminated. Many families were relieved to be spared the competitive aspects. Others regretted the limitations. Soon after, the Church announced that it was "raising the bar" on missionary qualifications. Elder M. Russell Ballard said, "This isn't a time for spiritual weaklings. We cannot send you on a mission to be reactivated, reformed, or to receive a testimony." In the future, he said, "we need vibrant, thinking, passionate missionaries who know how to listen and respond to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit." Missionaries would have to keep themselves honest and pure, avoiding drugs, pornography, immoral conduct, and profane speech, not indulging now to repent later. They were to have a solid understanding and testimony of the gospel. Ballard asked bishops to recommend only young men and women who were "spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally prepared" for the rigorous work. Those who did not make the cut could stay home and be local missionaries. The ruling pressured young men to reform their checkered lives. President Hinckley later noted that "Missionary work is not a rite of passage. . . . I am confident that raising the bar on eligibility will cause our young people, particularly our young men, to practice self-discipline, to live above the low standards of the world, to avoid transgression. . . . We will not knowingly send young men to reform them." Prospective missionaries would have to shape up to clear this raised bar.

Each year more than 20,000 Latter-day Saints leave on missions to keep a labor force of about 45,000 to 50,000 missionaries in the field. About a third of the young male members in North America serve missions along with increasing numbers of young people from other countries. Missionaries strong in energy, exuberance, and enthusiasm set out for unknown places to knock on doors, talk to people in crowds, deliver lessons, and to give community service. They may baptize many people, maybe two or three, maybe none. They are lively and inquisitive, short in experience and even good sense. Elders Bardsley and Crismon, for instance, made the news when they climbed a fiftyfoot water tower in Paterson, New Jersey, to photograph the city. Dressed in suits and ties, the pair scaled an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire and were climbing the tower itself when spotted by the police. Fears that they were contaminating the city's water supply proved unfounded.