This sounds like it should be the easiest to answer in this “What is the Point . . . ” series, but on closer examination, there’s reason to wonder whether it is really so straightforward. Obviously, the first answer to this question is that this program is about preaching the gospel to potential converts, right? But, is that really right when so many hours are spent in activities that don’t yield convert baptisms and many serve two years with no baptisms at all? Another purpose of missionary work that is often cited is that the missionaries are the real converts. If the point were convert baptisms, we’d require all women to serve since they are at least anecdotally more effective at getting people to listen to the discussions. Or we’d require everyone to “tithe” by bringing a visitor to Church once a month. Or to tithe in proselyting time like the Jehovah’s Witnesses do. Or we’d do a personality test and only send those who are skilled at this type of work.
Let’s keep this week’s post short and sweet. Here are the contenders for the “point” of missionary work:
Winning new converts / baptizing. Clearly if we were only trying to develop local branches or to create stronger commitment levels among our young people, we could accomplish this in many ways: EFY, Helping Hands projects, short term leadership development callings to these areas, etc. But we are specifically trying to find people unfamiliar with the Church to entice them to join it, to share a gospel message, to help new members bond with their local ward or branch. The success of the program is measured in terms of convert baptisms.
Converting / developing the missionaries. Someone in a previous post observed that if you want to know what a mission is like, just watch Groundhog Day. This speaks to the tedium involved, but this tedium is also developing habits in the missionaries, habits the Church considers productive like a steady sleep schedule, daily scripture study, “weekly companion inventory” discussions that can translate to more open communication in marriage later on, and other beneficial practices, many of which most young people (and older ones) lack. In this way, the mission serves as a Mr. Miyagi, teaching missionaries to wax on, wax off, so that when they neeed to defend against the wicked Kobra Kai Dojo, the defensive habits are so ingrained, they don’t even have to think about them. Additionally, in the process of teaching and attempting to convert others, many missionaries themselves are converted. Some of these are rather miraculous conversions, and others are more the testimony that comes over time, a stronger belief in something that your every day is fully dedicated to furthering. Particularly in missions where baptisms are rare, this is cited as the main reason for missionary service: the development of the missionaries themselves. And truly, we are killing ants with baseball bats if we consider the number of missionaries vs. the number of convert baptisms. There are many more full time missionaries than needed to do just the teaching and baptizing that we do. It’s the tedium, the seemingly fruitless activities, that are the bread and butter of the work.
Correlating / developing local wards and branches. People living in Utah sometimes call every place outside of Utah “the mission field,” implying that it’s under the purview of the missionary program rather than seeing the Church as a global enterprise. In this view, the Church is colonizing these outlying areas, or franchising the Church’s programs and overseeing them to ensure consistency and to avoid local scope creep or customization. In my experience, the more fledgling the branch was, the more callings the missionaries held, teaching the classes, playing and leading the music, finding a church building, and leading the branch. Even in stronger areas, some missionaries were assigned to “oversee” teaching or branch leadership to ensure they were following the program correctly. In business, that’s how franchising works. You’ve sold “the model,” and you want to make sure that the model is being used as designed. In our church especially there’s a strong desire to have uniformity, that the lessons taught follow the manuals, etc. This was definitely one of our mandates as missionaries.
Increasing member commitment (among RMs). Since young men have long been harder to retain than women, making mission service nearly mandatory (a “Priesthood duty”) creates a level of “stickiness” for these young men rather than letting them file out the door at the time when they are most likely to do so. It also shapes their futures in unique ways, exposing them to caring for others in a way they may not have otherwise done. Additionally, the sunk cost of having served a two-year mission adds a hurdle to leaving later in life. Considering two years to have been for naught is a tough pill to swallow, depending on how someone views their missionary service from the distance of time. The sunk cost fallacy is real. The downside to this approach is that not having served a mission has historically created the opposite effect: a near certainty that the young man will leave the Church. But the pressure to serve is so high that perhaps these risks are not serious enough to outweigh the benefits of those who serve.
Strengthening Mormon marriages. When I was in YW, many moons ago, we were told that divorce (which was cited as the scariest and worst thing ever) was much more rare for a temple marriage, but practically unheard of if both the spouses had served missions. If I remember correctly, the statistic that 98% of these marriages avoided divorce was floated at the time. (For the record, I definitely don’t believe that number to be correct now if it ever was). Missionary service was almost always the reason someone attended the temple for the first time unless it was a woman getting married (and then she usually attended the first time on her wedding day or the day before); the link between mission service and future marriage is solidified by the weekly temple attendance required in the MTC. Additionally, mission service has a strong domesticating benefit for men (who have to cook, do their own laundry, shop, etc.) which leads to stronger marriages down the road. Living and working with a companion improves one’s patience, communication skills, and ability to weather the normal storms of personal idiosyncrasy that are inevitable in a marriage. Marriage is seen as the real crowning achievement in the Church, with the endowment and missionary service as a step toward it in the male Mormon “covenant path.”
Your time to vote. What do you believe is the main purpose of missionary work?