From June 2000 to July 2002, I served a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Ohio Cleveland Mission. I’m supposed to say that I served an LDS mission because I loved the gospel and because the prophet commanded me to serve. Or because I prayed about it & received inspiration that God wanted me to serve. Or because I wanted other people to know the same joy I felt because of my participation in the LDS Church. But none of that was true. I felt indifferent at best about the LDS church and I had more questions about the gospel than I had answers. I had prayed numerous times to know if I should become a missionary, but had never received anything I could recognize as an answer. I had a sincere desire to help people, but I had serious doubts that convincing them to join my church was the best way to do it.
So why did I go?
I know a lot of Mormons who felt an incredible amount of pressure to serve a mission from parents or relatives. I knew my mother wanted me to become a missionary, but it wouldn’t be fair to say she pressured me – at least not explicitly. I can’t recall a single time where she so much as encouraged me to serve.
However, there is an incredible amount of institutional pressure within the LDS church to serve a mission. From a young age, all male Mormons are taught that they WILL serve missions when they are older. Primary kids age 3+ are taught songs with lyrics like “I hope the call me on a mission, when I have grown a foot or two.” A significant goal of the Young Men’s organization for boys ages 12-17 is to prepare them to serve missions. Certainly, serving a mission in the LDS church is a right-of-passage, even though the leaders of the church have taught that it shouldn’t be. Many youth programs judge their successfulness by how many of their young men serve missions. Even the Young Women are sometimes encouraged only to marry men that successfully complete an LDS mission. Indeed, all to often 19-year-old Mormon men feel like they have only two options: 1. Become a missionary 2. Leave the church entirely.
If family wards provide institutional pressure, singles wards & BYU provide the social pressure. BYU is the only college campus in the world where you won’t find many males age 19 or 20 because they’re nearly ALL off being missionaries. And since every 18 year old freshman male on campus is expected to go, it’s a fequent topic of conversation. Sacrament meetings each week are marked by announcements of who will be serving where for the next two years. Romantic relationships evolve around the common understanding that any male age 18 will be MIA for the next two years – so don’t bother getting attached. When you meet someone new on campus who is obviously not a freshman, after the obigatory, “Where are you from?” get-to-know-you question, the next question is often “Where did you serve?” Nobody wants to answer, “I didn’t.”
So why did I serve? To argue that I was immune to the insitutional and social pressures overestimates my integrity. I served a mission because I was too much of a coward to stay home. I didn’t want to be a missionary, but staying home didn’t seem like a viable option. I didn’t want to disappoint my family or friends, & I didn’t want to carry around the social stigma of not serving. I didn’t even give serious consideration to the idea of staying home. Because everyone goes, so I did, too. I became a missionary for the LDS church.
My decision to become a missionary for the LDS church was easy, but it was far from painless. Although the outcome of becoming an LDS missionary was inevitable, I still navigated a process of convincing myself that it was a good idea – or trying anyway. Like many prospective missionaries, I was scared & naive – completely unaware of what I was signing up for. But I was not faithless.
I had faith in God – that he would accept my efforts, despite my doubts & fears regarding Him – I had faith that he knew me, my heart, my intentions.
I had faith in myself – that I could accomplish anything I set out to do – including serving an LDS mission.
I had faith in prayer – despite God’s apparent unwillingness to answer mine.
I left on my mission unsure if I was doing the right thing, but I knew I was doing something in God’s name – whether He wanted it or not. I was terrified by the prospect of becoming a missionary – but just as terrified as choosing to stay home. At worst, I knew it would be a trivial exercise of performing acts for a God who didn’t want them in the first place. I wasn’t sure God wanted me to be a missionary, but I wasn’t sure he didn’t want me to be a missionary either.
I believe that having faith can be a courageous act – that believing in things not seen is a gift from God – something to be urgently sought after and cherished – that taking additional steps forward before seeing where your feet will land is part of God’s glorious plan. But I believe that faith can also be an excuse to avoid answering difficult questions – that sometimes it’s easier to follow the crowd into the dark than wait for God’s light to shine. Sometimes it’s not clear which is which. I became a missionary for the LDS church as an act of faith, I’m just not sure which type of faith.