Exhumator Esoterics

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

The Missionary Experience And The International Church
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

In 1978, the Missionary Training Center near Brigham Young University consolidated language training at a new $15 million campus. The "MTC" has handsome buildings, lush greenery, and the military efficiency of early hours and dedicated study. About 600 young men and women arrive each week. In 1997, 27,000 missionaries went through the MTC. They spend up to two months learning the rudiments of the fortyfive languages now taught there, studying the Scriptures, drilling on missionary techniques, and disciplining themselves in this culture of hard work. A telling joke asks the difference between the MTC and a nearby prison. The answer: You can call home from the prison.

As the Church grew internationally, fourteen new training centers were established in South America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. The first was begun in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1977. In 2002 the first fifty-four missionaries entered the training center in Africa, in Ghana. Young people serve missions all over the world without coming to the United States. These centers reflect the vision of President Spencer Kimball who, in 1974, with his eye on wide-world expansion, proclaimed that the gospel should be preached to a wider geographical area and in greater density, declaring that "every [worthy] young man should fill a mission." He urged each country to provide a missionary force of people who knew local customs, and language. He hoped for enough well-trained, young people to carry on the work if the doors were closed against Americans. President Kimball called for worthiness, doctrinal knowledge, personal testimony, and saved money.

Missionaries are supported by themselves and families, not by the Church. The earliest missionaries traveled "without purse or scrip" (meaning no metal or paper money), New Testament style, finding meals and accommodations as they could. But today missionaries save their money; their families make sacrifices, work second jobs, and go into debt. Donations from affluent Church members put other missionaries "in the field." Missionaries work six days a week, including Sunday, and write home, do the wash, and clean house on the seventh. They use telephones, but only for their church work, calling home only on Christmas and Mother's Day. Missionaries are allowed to e-mail once a week from libraries or public facilities-not from Church members' homes.

Missionaries today are taught what to preach. In 1844 Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith's brother, exhorted departing elders to "Preach the first principles of the Gospel . . . to make them plainly understood . . . , so that you meet scarcely any honest man who will not obey them. . . . [give] sufficient reason to prove all things, and you can convert every honest man in the world."

Gradually leaders created curricular materials, publishing the first Church-wide set of lessons, the Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel in 1952. The lessons are fine-tuned from time to time. A program adopted in 1961 had six discussions to be memorized perfectly. The Uniform System for Teaching Families, adopted in 1973, advised missionaries to memorize the discussions and then use their own words, providing teaching techniques. "Keep in mind how you want the family to feel," the manual instructs. "Do not force them to say what you want them to say- TEACH THEM-help them feel good about the gospel. . . . Seek to understand their real reservations."

The lessons adopted in 1985 suggest that missionaries master principles, not memorize lessons, asking open-ended questions so people can share their feelings. Missionaries should prepare people to "feel the Spirit." Missionaries are sent out, in the words of Mormon Scripture, to "preach [the] gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth." They are to teach simply and let the Lord do the converting.

In 2003, the new plan focused on memorizing key scriptures, depending on the missionary, to determine what each person or family needed. This plan moved customized teaching from "structure-based" to "principlebased." Preach My Gospel, a missionary manual released in 2005, stressed goal setting and planning, adding emphasis on "using time wisely, finding people to teach, improving teaching skills, [and] helping people make and keep commitments."

Missionaries travel in pairs after the New Testament model where Jesus sent forth missionaries "two and two." As a returned missionary noted, "You are constantly with someone else and this someone is not of your choosing. In some cases, he is definitely not of your choosing." These companions "eat, work, study, and pray together; they sleep in the same room." They cannot part, even for a walk or a shopping trip. "From day one, my companions were like another part of my body, although at times I thought that amputation might be in order." Mission presidents pair new missionaries with more experienced "senior" companions for several months until a "transfer day." A senior companion, like an older sibling, explains things, particularly in a foreign-language mission. With the mission president and wife functioning as surrogate parents and the other missionaries as additional siblings, the group is another family, with all its warmth and stress.

A missionary divided the elders into "those that do and those that don't." Motivation levels differ, and sometimes one pulls while the other feels dragged. One elder recalled, "We were at each other's throats in our minds, but outwardly didn't show hostility. It turned out to be a total waste of a month. . . . I vowed after that transfer to try to be more accepting." Missionaries learn teamwork. "I learned when to put my two bits in and when to just listen." Ideally, missionaries transcend differences in personality to serve productive missions.

The complex culture of missionary life extends to girlfriends left behind. Thousands of young women wait for their missionaries-or, they don't. Some create shrines with pictures, countdown calendars, gifts, and candles to remind them of that distant special someone. Brigham Young University has 6,000 nineteen and twenty-year-old women compared to the 300 men of the same age not out on missions. The missionaries write their girlfriends weekly, usually with faith-promoting tales rather than sentimental love letters. Missionaries dread the "Dear John" letters by which girls end the relationships. Hayward Alto, who studied girls waiting for missionaries, concluded that 90 percent of the girls eventually give up on their men. Of the 10 percent who wait, 7 percent resume the relationship to break it off later. Only 3 percent of couples where the girl waited actually go to the altar together.