I wanted to do a series of posts on aspects of the LDS church that I consider to be sheer religious genius. These are religous practices or concepts that have given Mormonism its staying power, and when compared to other religions are “best-in-class” (to borrow a term from business). The first practice I will address is full-time missions.
John Hamer did a post in April of 2008 called Laymen = Clergy: The Genius of Mormonism. Although the title from my series is derived from his excellent and well-researched post, I will take my series in the direction described above to do a series of OPs.
First of all, what do other churches do that might be considered on par with a “mission” experience? Here are a few, and why they don’t quite stack up to LDS missions effectiveness-wise:
- Bible camp. Religious retreats are just that, retreats from the world to rally kids to have their own born-again experience and to put Jesus first. The nature of a retreat is temporary, and these are mostly for kids, not independent adults making their own way. These are more like EFY than a mission, and can even be a great place to hook up. Impacts are nowhere near as long-lasting as a 2 year mission. Like EFY, you may pull out your faded baggy tee shirt later and chuckle to yourself about how naive and cute you were back then, as you reach across your live-in girlfriend to take another hit off your bong (OK, I made that last part up–anyone paying attention out there?) Grade: C-
- Peace corps service. These are great for those who want to make a huge difference in developing countries and find purpose in their life. These can often be non-religious, though, and the plight of developing nations can become a life-consuming quest for those who render this kind of service, one that supercedes one’s religious devotion or personal life and family. Highly effective at making first rate human beings. Less effective at promoting religious aims or transferability into daily life. Grade B
- Lay member proselyting. Jehovah’s Witnesses tithe their time through regular proselyting by lay members. This certainly rates high on the effectiveness scale for increasing commitment, but over time, it’s got to be a bit of a grind. One good thing about Mormon missions is that they end after 2 years and you can return to normal life. Given the enormous sense of relief most missionaries feel once they are released, I have to think a lifetime ongoing missionary experience would be tough to face. Grade: B–
- Vocation or entering the priesthood. Those who wish to devote their lives to Christ in Catholicism can become a nun or priest. This is usually considered someone’s calling in life that they feel compelled to do. On the upside, this requires a lifetime of devotion and service. On the downside, a lifetime of celibacy and its accompanying, uhm, feelings. Very effective for those who enter it and who are cut out for it, but it does nothing for the average member personally, making it kind of an all or nothing choice. Grade C
So, what makes “Missions” an ingenious practice? Here’s my list of reasons:
- A Personal Hero Myth. Missionaries experience their own personal hero myth, with them in the role of hero. They heed the “call to adventure.” They see things others overlook. They set aside the “normal,” and in so doing, they become leaders and heroes to those they serve. They learn many positive things about themselves. To their families, their GF/BF, and themselves, they are very much the hero in the story of their mission, and these experiences can provide the spiritual foundation for a lifetime. And like all good Hero Myths, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Transferable Skills. Many missionary skills are transferable to life: how to get along with someone who drives you completely nuts day in and day out, how to meet new people, speaking in front of a group, language skills, being persuasive, listening, and new cultural exposure.
- Persecution. Let’s face it, obstacles and persecution bolster devotion. At this stage of the game, it’s tough to get one’s undies in a wad over the suffering of Pioneers and early saints (particularly for those with no Pioneer heritage). A mission is an excellent opportunity to be persecuted for your religious beliefs. At most, you could get kicked out of a country, and at bare minimum, you might suffer the personal trials of a Dear John (or Jane) letter. Personally, I didn’t get a lot of persecution, but some kids did bowl oranges down the street at us one day which was kind of surreal.
- Testimony / Conversion. As the saying goes, even if you don’t convert anyone but yourself, a mission is worthwhile. Missionaries are confronted with the need to find their own religious conviction as they work to help others find theirs.
- A Timely Distraction. There are far less productive ways for young adults to spend their time, from a religious standpoint. The need to remain worthy to serve a mission, the temporary celibacy of a mission, and the need to save money to go on a mission all provide helpful distractions from things that get teens in trouble. This is also the time when many young people first establish their independence. Doing so in a religious environment can build spiritual resilience.
- Personal Ties to Others in the Community. Missionaries love the people they serve. Those ties are strong and can help missionaries develop a foundation of loving and serving others in the LDS community and throughout their lives.
On the downside, missions are not perfect. Here are some of the potential issues that lessen the effectiveness of missions:
- Boys are compelled to go. Because a mission is so strongly encouraged for young men, there may be instances where those who go are neither physically nor emotionally fit for a mission, but they go due to social expectation.
- Women are not encouraged to go. While many women do go on missions, women are not encouraged to go. The alternative path for women in the church can be passive by default. A passive path may result in women missing out on some of the above benefits of a mission or even create inequities between men and women in marriages or in church.
- Missions can be intense. The pressure in a mission can sometimes result in practices that are at best stressful, at worst faith-shaking. You may deal with a lot of rejection. Oddly, not everyone enjoys that.
Overall, I would give LDS Missions an A- for their religious effectiveness. Despite the flaws of the program, the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives for the majority. While the program could certainly be improved, it is a best-in-class program that is unsurpassed by other religions’ programs. Do you agree or disagree?