Missions have been on my mind lately for several reasons. One reason was I just just re-read Craig Harline’s book “Way below the Angels”. I highly recommend it for returned missionaries. My copy of the book (which I was lucky enough to get signed by the author when I had a nice chat with him) has been passed around quite a bit. I love the subtitle, “the pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic confessions of a real live Mormon missionary.” It can be helpful to realize others didn’t have miracles several times a day while on their missions – a thought that was seen as showing little faith (at least within my mission).
Another reason I am thinking about missions is I am in a season of life where my kids, their friends, and all the youth that I worked with over the years are serving missions. I can hardly keep track of who is about to go, gone, or come back. I have managed to keep track of MY kids though. Just a weeks ago I was able to spend a bit of time visiting one my mission areas when on a business trip. My mission was SO long ago, but still remember parts like they were yesterday. I was at this one area for quite a while and driving down the streets that I tracked over and over again brought back a ton of memories. That was comforting not only for remembering the good times, but also that I must not be suffering from memory loss in my old age (yet).
Some things have changed since I was on my mission. I think people would think a bit different about the rainbow discussions as “rainbow” has taken on a new meaning. No question there was pressure to go on a mission when I was young, but I have more than one friend that didn’t serve a mission. They both have stayed active, married in the temple, and served in many significant leadership positions. Looking back I think the pressure to go wasn’t quite as different as it is now, but it does seem the black mark of not going on a mission is written with a much wider tipped marker with much darker ink than in days past.
It seems like one of the trendy words in the church to use now is “salvific”. I must be a bit dyslexic as whenever I read the word I tend to read “Slavic”, but when I hear the word I tend to think that the root word is “salvia.” This fashionable word is defined as, “leading to salvation.” I have heard some talk about which ordinances of the gospel are salvific and which are not.
I heard someone say that a mission was not a salvific ordinance. Salvific ordinances are ones such as baptism and being sealed in the temple. It does seem clear that missions are not an absolute requirement given most of the top leaders of the church did not serve missions due to wars and other conflicts (even if some have able to go if they really wished). But to me it is clear that the pressure for young men to serve a mission has never been higher than it is now. I would argue the same is true for women. Even though the pressure coming from church leadership is substantial, there is much of it is cultural and social.
Some of this pressure certainly is from church leadership and some top leaders have even said the main reason for going on a mission is to convert the missionary. I think that the social and cultural pressures have also increased. Many of these pressures are before the mission age, but some deal with the consequences of not serving a mission. Not serving a mission usually will be disappointing to parents, friends, and local leaders. But if one desires to marry within the Mormon faith, not serving a mission is a substantial negative impact for young men – and to a lesser extent even for young women. There have been several posts on the Wheat & tares site (here and here for example) that dive into the statistics of activity going from youth, young single adult, and even single adults. The trend is clear that delaying marriage in the Mormon faith increases the probability of inactivity. I would be shocked if a young woman going through the young women’s program didn’t hear the phrase of “you have to have a temple marriage to a righteous young man” many times over. And to me as a young man it is clear that a truly “righteous young man” will be an returned missionary, or “RM”. So for a young man that wants to stay active in the church, but does not serve a mission is limiting his marriage pool within the Mormon population and thus increasing his chances of going inactive. The reverse is true also in that young men are told to marry a righteous young lady in the temple is a requirement. All other things being equal, an RM sister is going to be seen at least a bit more righteous than someone that did not go on a mission.
There is an additional pressure, and it seem especially to be true in Utah. It comes down to the dating scene. The dating prospects of a young man that didn’t serve a mission among single young women certainly is dictated on looks, personality, prospective earning potential, and certainly that “RM” status. I know of one young man that knew physically he probably couldn’t make it through a mission, but went anyway – partially to serve and even admittedly because, “you gotta be an RM to get chicks.” He made it more than a year before needing to come home for surgery and he was fine with his mission ending there and he proudly considered himself an RM (which was good for him because he was). So if one of the steps to salvation is to marry in the temple, a non-returned missionary has the odds stacked against them in the dating world.
I would also argue that the pressure is even on for young women, especially on the dating side. It seems it is getting closer to being an assumption that a “really good” young women will serve a mission. And a “really good” sister that is a return missionary potentially has a leg up on an equivalent peer that didn’t serve. For a women that wants to marry an RM, they can increase their “desirability” for male RM by being an RM themselves. Given the proportion of male RM’s compared to the number of women in the dating pool this could be a big factor.
This would be especially true in Utah where there are 3 active LDS single women for 2 men active LDS single men (see LDS dating crisis). It would not be hard to imagine if a young woman with a year or so into college without as many dates as she expected starts to think that they can make themselves more “attractive” by going on a mission.
Taken together, to me it feels that for young men and young women that desire to stay in the church, we as a culture certainly have moved more than just a little bit towards missions needing to be more than just the norm and to nearly a requirement. To not fall into the standardized mold of serving a mission, a young man can quickly diverge into “not on the right track” and seen as “less than” with real-life consequences. This isn’t limited to just young men as there seems to be rising pressures for young women to also.
I do want to mention that there are positive items with these pressures. I really like that more young women are going on missions. I am glad they have (limited) leadership roles now within the mission. In my experience a common issue I have found (mainly in the workplace, but certainly in the church) is on average women seem to have less self-confidence. I have seen many RM’s come back with much more confidence and that is a welcome positive. That change occurred with me. I leaned a bit towards a shy introvert up to my mission. I am absolutely still an introvert, but overcame most of my shyness on my mission. I am grateful for that. Even though my relationship with the church is complicated, I support my kids going on missions. This includes not only my sons, but my daughters. But I also tell them I am still fine if they don’t want to go and will support them in that decision.
Does it seem that missions are coming close to being “required” for young men and even somewhat for young women?