Many people have noticed Mormon missionaries on the street, and perhaps a pair of them have rung your doorbell. At any given time, there are over 50,000 full-time, volunteer missionaries serving worldwide in the 344 missions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most full-time Mormon missionaries are young, single adults. Young men serve for two years, beginning at age 19, and young women may serve for 18 months, beginning at age 21. There is an age limit of 26 for young men. Missionary service is not compulsory, but most Latter-day Saints who are active in their religion hope their sons will serve in the “mission field.” There is a standard of worthiness which must be met. A potential missionary must be sexually chaste, honest, a full tithe-payer, and must live the health laws of the Church.
When a young Mormon adult desires to serve a mission, he or she pays a visit to the bishop of the ward (congregation). The bishop conducts an interview for worthiness. If the young person is not worthy to serve, the bishop helps him or her through a process of repentance. Once worthy, the potential missionary “submits missionary papers” to the General Authorities of the Church. Missionary papers include the ecclesiastical endorsement, general information about the potential missionary, medical and dental records, etc. A potential missionary may request a location in the world where he or she would like to serve, but the final decision is made by the apostles of the Church through inspiration from the Lord, and the missionary goes where he or she is called to go. Once the decision has been made by the General Authorities, they issue a “mission call.” Receiving one’s mission call in the mail is an exciting event for the potential missionary, and the family usually gathers for the opening of the envelope. Sometimes, the potential missionary has never heard of the place he has been called to, and some geography research ensues. Mormon missionary service often necessitates learning a foreign language. The gift of tongues is manifest in abundance in the mission field, and many missionaries return from their missions with a language and cultural fluency that is a boon to their careers later on.
Mormon missionaries serve at their own expense, though the Mormon Church pays the transportation costs. Some places in the world are much more expensive than others, and for young adults, the Church has averaged the costs, so all missionaries pay the same amount each month for their support. At the beginning of 2011, this amount was $400 each month. Some young people are diligent enough to have worked during their young years to save up a portion of their mission expenses. Others are supported completely by their parents. (Since Mormons tend to have large families, some families have more than one child serving at a time.) Mormons can also donate to a missionary fund to help those who can’t afford to serve. Missionaries give up everything to serve — education, career, family togetherness, romance, social networking, hobbies, sports, and worldly music.
A Mormon mission begins with training in one of 15 missionary training centers (nicknamed “MTC”) worldwide. Those who must learn a foreign language spend a longer time in an MTC, but the training lasts for weeks, not months. Missionaries are not trained to “sell” the gospel, but to learn to be humble and obedient, and to teach by the Spirit. The guiding text for missionaries is a manual called “Preach My Gospel,” which focuses on the doctrines of Christ and living by the Spirit. Once in the mission field, a Mormon missionary is assigned a companion. Companionships and locations within the mission are changed often. This widens the experience of the missionary, and keeps investigators and new converts from bonding too strongly to a lovable missionary, thereby basing a testimony of the gospel on the teacher instead of on Christ. Mormon missionaries have one day each week, usually called “preparation day” or P-day, to do laundry, catch up on shopping, and engage in wholesome recreation. Missionaries write home (now often by email) once each week, and are allowed to call home on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Missionaries do more than preach. They engage in community and public service, teach English, sometimes perform if they have talent, and provide assistance in community emergencies or disasters.
One good example of the above was a devastating earthquake in Chile. The mission president was warned by the Spirit ahead of time that the disaster was coming. The mission president made certain that all the missionaries were prepared, including with water and food storage for an emergency. When the earthquake hit, the missionaries, all of whom were unhurt, launched into giving aid to victims of the disaster.
Young people are not the only ones who serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retired couples may serve together in a companionship, and single retired sisters may also serve. There is great flexibility in senior missionary service. Missions vary in length from one year to 23 months. Those with health or financial problems may serve part-time and live at home. Senior missionaries do more than proselyte. There are many types of missionary service for seniors. These include humanitarian aid missions, leadership, public relations, hosting at church historical sites, grounds maintenance, music, military base service, teaching English, health services, employment services, etc. Some couples serve multiple missions. Again, except for transportation costs, senior missionaries pay their own way. Monthly support costs vary widely between missions, and seniors are never called to locations they can’t afford. At the beginning of 2011, mission costs ranged from $500 per month in the Argentinian countryside to $4,500 per month in some areas of Europe.
Each Mormon mission is run by a mission president with his wife serving by his side. Serving as a mission president is also a “calling” in the Church, but there is basic financial support provided. A mission president brings his children along, and the term of service is three years. A mission president might have 150 young adults serving in his mission, plus a handful of senior missionary couples. This kind of service has obvious challenges, but is very rewarding. Success is calculated not upon the number of converts won for the faith, but in the kind of people missionaries become.
Rewards of Missionary Service
The Mormon Church has a new form of missionary service, and that is online teaching, accessible through Mormon.org. All other missionary work is performed by people on foot. This is not the most effective way of disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in this age of mass communication. But there is great wisdom manifest in the missionary program, and its fruits show that it is founded on revealed patterns from God. The fruits are obvious in the missionaries as they return, especially in the young adults. These youth face great opposition in the mission field, not only from the people who reject them (sometimes violently), but from their own natural inclinations and the worldliness of the areas in which they serve. A missionary might go out “tracting,” which entails knocking on door after door, only to have them slammed in his face. A Mormon missionary frightened by social situations must learn to teach, sometimes in a foreign language. He must learn to function in a foreign culture and face health and dietary reactions caused by foreign food and a lean pocketbook. He is isolated from family and the circle of friends that supported him at home. He must learn to depend upon the Spirit and to nurture his ability to receive personal revelation from on high. He must learn the scriptures and rely on prayer. He must learn to love his companion, not chosen but assigned, and develop a deep abiding love for the people he serves.
Missions vary greatly in the receptivity of the people to the gospel message. Some missions see hundreds of converts each month; others only one or two. Some missionaries labor with all their hearts for two years and win only one convert, sometimes none.
As a result, the returning missionary is a different person than when he departed for the mission field. His capabilities have blossomed. He is a capable leader and supportive follower, and he is a spiritual giant. Compassion grows, desire for service grows, leadership ability grows, and then there is the cultural and language education, which cannot be surpassed by any other method. Returned missionaries are coveted by the major hiring companies in the United States; they know what an advantage it is to have served a mission. State Department careers and careers in international business are open to applicants with foreign language and leadership mastery. An example is Jon Huntsman, Jr., pictured above. Now the U.S. Ambassador to China, he learned Chinese on his Latter-Day Saint mission. This said, there is no greater joy than witnessing a true conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To see a person come out of darkness into light, from despair into joy, and from sin to righteousness is the great reward of missionary work.
Why Missionary Work?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a four-fold purpose: 1) to perfect the members of the Church in order to qualify them for eternal life in the presence of God; 2) to redeem the dead through temple work; 3) to help the poor, needy and afflicted; and 4) to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation, tongue, and kindred.
These purposes are those commanded us by the Lord. The Lord has said:
…that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; That faith also might increase in the earth; That mine everlasting covenant might be established; That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers (Doctrine and Covenants 1:18-23).
And ye shall go forth in the power of my Spirit, preaching my gospel, two by two, in my name, lifting up your voices as with the sound of a trump, declaring my word like unto angels of God. And ye shall go forth baptizing with water, saying: Repent ye, repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Doctrine and Covenants 42:6, 7).
For, verily, the sound must go forth from this place into all the world, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth—the gospel must be preached unto every creature, with signs following them that believe (Doctrine and Covenants 58:64).
And now, verily saith the Lord, that these things might be known among you, O inhabitants of the earth, I have sent forth mine angel flying through the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel, who hath appeared unto some and hath committed it unto man, who shall appear unto many that dwell on the earth. And this gospel shall be preached unto every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people. And the servants of God shall go forth, saying with a loud voice: Fear God and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment is come; And worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters— (Doctrine and Covenants 133:36-39).