One of the most common discussions on Reddit about Mormonism (or ex-Mormonism) is complaints and requests for advice for what to do about being pestered by the missionaries; these are raised by people who are either on the membership rolls (both active and inactive) or who have resigned. In general the answers to why the missionaries are suddenly taking a new interest falls into a few categories:
- Have ward leaders put you on an “inactive” or “watch” list?
- Are they looking for free food or to kill time because missions are so boring?
- Do you have a teenage daughter?
That first reason seems very likely, in particular when the person asking is someone who considers their family to be active (but while traveling a lot), or when they have made the decision to step away or reduce their commitment. On some level, it feels like being turned over to a collections agency. The second reason is the one that frankly sounds most familiar to me. There were some member families we just grew to love and enjoyed spending time with. The last one honestly makes sense and is a little horrifying on some level, but likely a common draw for 18 year old heterosexual boys.
One of the things potential investigators would say to us as a reason they didn’t want to meet with us when I was a missionary was that they didn’t want us to “comerme el coco,” a phrase that literally means to eat my coconut, but figuratively refers to brainwashing. Brainwashing is pressuring someone to adopt radically new beliefs, usually done systematically and sometimes through forcible means. I didn’t see our efforts as brainwashing because either our message spoke to them or it didn’t. More people said no than said yes, by far. If it was brainwashing, it wasn’t very effective.
But maybe converts weren’t the ones being brainwashed. A commenter on a Quora discussion (not Mormon) asked why they were greeted with hostility when they tried to share the gospel they loved with others out of concern for the eternal welfare of the recipient. One respondent said:
The entire process is not what you think it is.
It is specifically designed to be uncomfortable for the other person because it isn’t about converting them to your religion. It is about manipulating you so you can’t leave yours.
If this tactic was about converting people it would be considered a horrible failure. It recruits almost no one who isn’t already willing to join. Bake sales are more effective recruiting tools.
On the other hand, it is extremely effective at creating a deep tribal feeling among its own members.
The rejection they receive is actually more important than the few people they convert. It causes them to feel a level of discomfort around the people they attempt to talk to. These become the “others”. These uncomfortable feelings go away when they come back to their congregation, the “Tribe”.
If you take a good look at the process it becomes fairly clear. In most cases, the religious person starts out from their own group, who is encouraging and supportive. They are then sent out into the harsh world where people repeatedly reject them. Mainly because they are trained to be so annoying.
These brave witnesses then return from the cruel world to their congregation where they are treated like returning heroes. They are now safe. They bond as they share their experiences of reaching out to the godless people to bring them the truth. They share the otherness they experience.
Once again they will learn that the only place they are accepted is with the people who think as they do. It isn’t safe to leave the group. The world is your enemy, but we love you.
This is a pain reward cycle that is a common brainwashing technique. The participants become more and more reliant on the “Tribe” because they know that “others” reject them.
Mix in some ritualized chanting, possibly a bit of monotonous repetition of instructions, add a dash of fear of judgment by an unseen, but all-powerful entity who loves you if you do as you are told and you get a pretty powerful mix.
Sorry, I have absolutely no wish to participate in someones brainwashing ritual.– Some dude on Quora
So obviously, the commenter’s take is that sharing the gospel is a brainwashing ritual that reinforces persecution complex and in-group loyalty, and it’s hard to deny that these are possible outcomes, even if the term brainwashing is inflammatory and possibly hyperbolic. After all, #notallmissionaries. I knew plenty of missionaries who were certainly not brainwashed, or even converted to anything but avoiding family conflict, but I also know just as many who drank deeply from the dregs of the Kool-Aid. A lot of RMs are, well, pretty insufferable. They need a little time to turn back into normal people.
Many elements of this comment don’t match my own experience with the local populace, but this probably varies greatly depending on where you serve. Even those not interested in missionary discussions where I was, in the Canary Islands, were usually very friendly and protective of the missionaries. When we were robbed–twice–we had people who would never sit for a discussion defending us as if we were part of the community, benighted souls giving away free books about Jesus, girls who would never harm a fly (cockroaches beware, though). Locals drunks even dressed up as missionaries during the revelry at Carnaval. We were at least the butt of good-natured ribbing if not quite popular. If the Church’s goal was to increase in group loyalty, the results were mixed. I think many missionaries actually develop a strong fondness for the culture they temporarily join, and that fondness can be mutual. At least where I was, we weren’t greeted with relentless hostility.
That doesn’t mean that missions aren’t there for the express purpose of creating more in-group loyalty, increasing sunk cost, and converting the missionaries rather than the local populace. The Church even says that converting the missionaries is one of the main purposes of sending young people on missions. And it is often effective, more than it is not, whether that’s the main goal or not. (Bear in mind that I served before the “bar raising” of the 1990s–so long as you didn’t have a pregnant girlfriend you could probably go).
But part of my disconnect as a missionary was trying to figure out what the purpose of a mission was. Clearly the mission measured success in terms of convert baptisms and the steps that led toward those numbers (books given away, lessons taught). But daily mission life was more often taken up with listening to people’s needs and trying to help them.
It seems to me that a mission can serve many purposes. When I was a missionary one comparison that I couldn’t help but make was to compulsory military service that is common in most countries (although not in the US). Young men (it varies by country) learn military skills in case they later are called up to a draft, and this compulsory military training occurs at the same phase of life that a mission does. For those with unstable family lives or limited support, military service can give them structure and support that has lifelong benefits in learning basic “adulting” skills, providing adult role models and mentors, and teaching them confidence while they have a time-out to develop maturity. before making big life decisions. In Thailand, they also do a compulsory stint as a Buddhist monk at this same age (men only). As a monk, they wear the orange robes and must beg for their food daily. This teaches them humility and grounds them in Buddhist teachings. They are not there to convert others, but rather to create a foundation for their adult life.
I learned through sad experience, repeatedly, what a mission was not about: helping women who were being abused by their husbands, something we constantly encountered but had no training or advice how to handle. This was even truer when the abused woman had had an abortion. But we were encouraged to help a young heroine addict who had served a mini-mission. That contrast makes me think that missions are idiosyncratic based on what the president sees as the priority. Our president had a pretty high tolerance for drug and alcohol addiction, even among the missionaries, and while he talked protectively of women in abusive relationships, like the Church, he seemed to have a blind spot about how to help them, especially since they made for risky converts. Conversion could make the abusive situation worse (or better if you consider divorce to be the best outcome for an abusive marriage). We had a great discussion about the ethics of missionaries’ impact on the local population when my mission memoir first came out (here).
The continual reduction in age of missionaries leads me to believe that we are trying to prevent the attrition that often happens between high school and mission (particularly among young men, but they are probably still losing women in that gap). But it also feels like we are trying to put new wine in old skins, trying to solve new problems with old solutions. Missions may still be an effective retention tool, but the more out of step our teachings are in a divided culture on things like the status of women, LGBTQ people, and minorities, the more missionaries will encounter hostility. We also need to figure out a social world that is changing dramatically in terms of norms due to the internet as well as in the wake of a global pandemic (and probably more to come!).
If the Quora commenter is right, though, missions that are ineffective may reinforce commitment to the organization even more. I’m just not convinced I believe that’s what will actually happen. It can also lead to cognitive dissonance. I’d be curious to know how many returning missionaries reduce their commitment once they complete the “family obligation.” This feels like a growing trend based on what I’m seeing on social media, although social media is more anecdote than data.
- What do you think are the main purposes of missionary work?
- Do you think missions “brainwash” missionaries? If so, do you think that’s intentional? If not, what do you think they do to missionaries?
- Are missions getting more effective or less effective? Explain your answer.
- Do you see Church commitment increasing or decreasing as a result of missionary service? Has it changed over time?
 I know it was really Flavor Aid used in Jonestown, which somehow makes it worse. Like, if you’re going to kill all the followers in a mass suicide, do you have add insult to injury with off brand drinks? Surely this is the time to spring for the expensive stuff!
The ROI -return on investment- is not great unless you measure potential lifelong commitment of the missionary instead of convert baptisms. But we now know that the Corporation can afford a fleet of cars in each mission, at least stateside. My son returned a year ago and actually quit his on-campus job at BYU recently when he was told to get a haircut. Proud Dad Moment !!
It’s easy to feel great about the Church after the emotional high (for some people) of General Conference, but we need to remember the recent Pew Research poll and status of women, LGBTQ people, and minorities as the OP points out.
Loved the discussion last week about recruitment of ages 55-70 for the missionary force and I am interested/scared poopless about the outcomes of that directive.
Not wanting to serve a mission was a significant factor in why I left the church, and as my friends start to trickle back home from their missions, I’m increasingly convinced I dodged a bullet. I know that missions aren’t all bad, and that they’re often very positive experiences for some people! Which is why I didn’t have any issue with said friends going out on one. But man, I worried about them, and man, that worry was justified in some cases. Reading some of their emails was heartbreaking at time—watching these smart, kind, *amazing* people feel guilty and not good enough all the time. So many unnecessary rules, needlessly obsessive leaders, and super stressful situations—I know for a fact I would not have handled all that well, and I’m mostly just happy that my friends got home mostly okay. I hope one day Mormon missions will change for the better, but from what I’ve seen and heard, they don’t seem to be. And of course, I don’t say any of this to try to *invalidate* the experiences of those for whom their mission was fantastic.
There is a lot to unpack in this post. I’ve read many missionary memoirs and served in many missionary callings. I very aware of the travistes in missionary work (Dyer, baseball baptisms, etc.) I lived with the tragic aftermath of such wrong headed practices in South America. The fundamental challenge in missionary work is the humanity of mission presidents as reflected in the tone and direction they set for their assigned mission. The Brethren are pretty clear in their training of new MPs but so many simply repeat what they did on their mission decades ago.
I was fortunate as a young missionary to have an MP that despite being a Air Force general was kind, patient, taught clear gospel centered principles and never put any emphasis on numbers. It was the humble missionaries that became leaders, not the prideful ones who measured thir worth by statistical measures. Not once in 2 years did my MP ask me about a single report or statistic. I couldn’t tell you how many people we taught that were baptized. The adage that Christ feed sheep and didn’t count them was the culture of our mission. I consider myself lucky after hearing so many horror stories from my peers of that era.
I do give credit to the Q12 for the way the train MPs and respond when the get wind of MPs pushing numbers. When I was bishop a young man in our ward was serving in South America. He wrote home about some horrific practices in his mission involving the baptism of youth. His father was a counselor in our bishopric. An apostle was visiting our stake and I encouraged him to write a letter and hand it to the apostle. Elder Scott soon there after visited that mission and set things straight. All was good for a few months then the missionaries that were used to recognition and reward reverted to the old practices.
I served as MP we dealt with inactivity rates that were astounding. I soon realized that the church simply could not baptize its way out of the problem. We did 2 things. We told the missionaries to be true servants in the wards we received approval for them to have ward callings, and told them they could do as much community service as the wanted. We never reported a single statistic to the missionaries. All they saw was a list of names each week of individuals and families that were new members or returning members. We had happier missionaries, few mental health issues, and very few early returns.
The sad thing is, as we were concluding our service, a change was coming in the area presidency. I could sense the change in approach and was so glad we were leaving. The new AP reverted the entire area to a numbers based system and the results were predictable. This despite Elder Nelson visiting the mission to get a look at what was being done. Months before our mission was designated a pilot. He announced in a meeting of all the local leadership that it was no longer a pilot but the way we would do missionary work going forward. My point is that it will take generations to do away with false traditions and the pull of corporate America in the running of missions by MPs who want to do it the way they did in the old days and count sheep like widget. I do give the Q12 credit for trying.
As to the questions above. 1)The main purpose of a mission is for missionaries to find Christ. And more often than not he is found in the faces of the poor not in zone conference or weekly reports. 2) Brainwashing, hell no. If the missionaries are brain washed they’ll eventually leave. 3) Explained above. Overall yes as long as you don’t define more effective in quantitative terms 4) Don’t know, but antidotally if continued commitment to Christian principals, then yes.
I think there is an element of “mission president roulette” at work here that impacts several of your prompts.
There are some really amazing people who lead some missions, a husband and wife that work together in harmony and with a sense of humor, who deeply care about each missionary (and the missionaries feel that and know that- it’s real), who get that the missionaries should be in the process of learning to love and serve others without expecting anything in return, and without resorting to numbers- worship or other negative cultural baggage. Unfortunately, there are those called to lead missions who do none of those things. I think more of those missionaries who serve under positive, spiritual, loving and caring mission leaders will end up finding the best parts of the gospel of Jesus Christ, becoming new and better people, and can go on to live more unselfish lives where they continue seeking the healing and love of others. Some of the lesser mission leaders can have the opposite impact on a lot of young people.
I don’t know how to figure this out (and maybe I put too much stock in mission leaders). But changes need to happen so that more missionaries can have a life-changing (in the best sense) experience, and powerful loving people can impact them at a crucial time in their development.
The COJCOLDS is so utterly inefficient when it comes things like missions and temples. We all know current missionaries and / or return missionaries and if we are honest we recognize that much of their time was wasted. That includes my own mission (Argentina in the 1980s). I was a good missionary who followed the rules and worked pretty hard and yet my “production” (baptisms) was pretty low and I bet 75%+ of those folks aren’t in the Church anymore. when I think what else I could have done for myself or the Church those two years seem very inefficient.
Then there’s the temple. The Church spends tens of millions of dollars for buildings that are often idle, at least outside of Utah. And yet, we are announcing 30 more temple each year. For those of us who have attended the temple and are willing to admit it, the activity inside the temple is very inefficient and not very uplifting. To me it’s a huge waste of time and money. And yet, that’s the best we have to offer in terms of the Covenant Path.
As bad as missions and temple activity is in terms of efficiency and efficacy, maybe the alternative is worse in the eyes of the Brethren. Without a brainwashing experience (mission) and ongoing loyalty test (temple attendance0, maybe we’d lose even more members. Maybe we really keep some folks in because their missions and temple attendance cemented loyalty to the institution. But it sure seems empty to me.
When I was a missionary, talking to other missionaries, we theorized that if you have a “good” president, the next one’s going to be a hardass (we might have said “hard case” the way missionaries say “fetch” but we all knew what we meant). In reality, though, there are more shades of gray than that.
Our president was mostly a great guy with a big heart, but he also had blind spots. He didn’t give universally good advice, but he tried, based on his own limited worldview, just like we all do. He focused on the numbers too much and promoted the wrong types of elders, but in a way that often felt like they were in on the joke, that they knew they were just there to hold pep rallies and that it was a little tongue in cheek, except the ones who let it get to their heads. He had a sense of humor and took feedback when it was given, but didn’t seek it out. His Spanish was appalling (our mission had two languages, and he spoke Portuguese).
He used the Dyer model, but not for baseball baptisms specifically (although baptizing foreign workers was common, but they were adults); we just didn’t require meeting attendance and we issued baptismal challenges breathtakingly fast (your first meeting might be your baptism). Did people join because they didn’t understand it? Hell, I’m not even sure I understand it, and I’ve been in the church for 55 years. Were our retention numbers low? Incredibly low, but I’m not sure that’s different elsewhere. He probably did better than his own president because I’m sure he used that as his baseline, just as we all try to be better parents than our own.
I really appreciated Lawrence’s comment that Jesus fed sheep; he didn’t count them. If only that message got through to everyone involved in the mission program, we’d be actually building disciples and not an annoying sales force.
I really grew up on my mission. I learned how awful mission leaders (both young and old) can be. I got away from home and learned about all sorts of people different from my family and community. I think it can be a great opportunity for a young person to expand their horizons and focus on following Christ.
I agree with both Lawrence and FOF that the sort of atmosphere of the mission is very important. A numbers based achievement approach can be destructive for many reasons.
I have particular concerns as more and more, our culture is supportive of LGBTQ people and yet ultimately at church LGBTQ people are 2nd class at best. So there are more LGBTQ people out expecting to be treated well. Missionaries ought to be trained and prepared to teach and include LGBTQ, but we really aren’t prepared as a people to do that. Meanwhile more and more families in the church have close loving bonds to LGBTQ people both in and out of their families.
It feels counter productive to serve a mission for a church that willingly makes your child or sibling into a 2nd class citizen in the heavens, and may make life on earth more dangerous for LGBTQ folks by the emphasis and bias reinforced by it.
It’s an issue that will not go away. It will continue to undermine the church’s moral high ground until they resolve the issue in a Christ like (inclusive) way.
I went back and was re-reading the linked T&S article that Wilfried Delco wrote, and one of the points that feels salient here (and that struck me in a new way today) is that the focus on numbers, which most of us would agree is not great and leads to some bad outcomes, is also a way to prevent cognitive dissonance in the missionaries.
From the article: “They call their targets “investigators”—often loners or messed up people who let the missionaries in and who loosely acquiesce to lessons they vaguely understand. These targets are precious souls, ailing, but no patients for inexperienced teenagers. When genuine seekers or religious enquirers are eager to chat with the missionaries, the dissonance is awkward. The teenagers use testimony to dodge reasonable questions and objections. They repel the more thoughtful investigators by prematurely requiring commitments to baptism. They see Satan in the critic. It’s “us versus them.” They have no time to waste on tangential topics because the weekly report is due . . .”
Lawrence, I really appreciate the approach you describe. But I am not buying the idea that the top leadership are all about training MPs to ignore numbers and focus on service. Do they ask for reports of numbers of baptisms? If they’re so interested in service instead of baptism numbers, all they would have to do is ask for a report of service performed instead of baptism numbers. Do they do that?
My mission president had been a high-ranking officer (c-suite) in a multinational corporation. I served in the mid 1970’s. Everything was numbers and reports. The hardest thing for me was when I confessed a sin (the one next to murder for young men, according to SWK and The Miracle of Forgiveness). No counseling, support, guidance from the MP. I was told to immediately stop and if the problem continued I would be sent home. My mission was a very difficult experience as I spent the entire two years feeling my lack of success (baptisms, etc.) was due to my lack of worthiness. I even saw my “Dear John” letter as a sign from the Lord that I was unworthy. I came home with some very messed up thinking. I spent many years post-mission trying to repent and become worthy.
I loved my mission, and I have good feelings towards the church (and I don’t think the church is a cult). But to be honest, after studying cults and the BITE model, being a missionary is 100% being in a cult. (I would say that for most missionaries, it’s not a destructive cult, but it still has the elements of a cult.) https://freedomofmind.com/cult-mind-control/bite-model/ The following points on this list are points that are common in cults-the author was not talking about LDS missionaries at all when this list was made.
-cult members are told where they will live, and who they will live with (without their input or control)
-cult members are told who they can interact with/what type of physical contact is allowed with others.
-cult members have a very strict schedule and very strict rules they will follow
-cult members are paired with someone who watches them 24/7 and will report misbehaviors to a superior.
-cult members are not free to travel geographically where they want to go (often, someone else has control of their passport)
-cult members are given a new identity/new name that they will be called by
-cult member are encouraged to only have “good” or proper thoughts/thoughts that align with the group’s doctrine
-cult members are taught to pray often and listen to an outside voice rather than their own thoughts
-cult members are restricted in how often they are allowed to talk to family/friends. They are restricted in subjects they can discuss with family/friends.
-cult members are restricted in the type of media they can consume (t.v. shows, movies, books, newspapers)
-cult members are to solely consume information provided by the organization that they belong to
-cult members are encouraged to self-report/confess any transgressions/misbehaviors
-cult members are taught that they are elect/special/chosen and that they are doing the work that will save the whole world- they are also taught that their failure can cause the damnation of themselves, others, or the world.
-cult members organize people into us vs them (and often encouraged to recruit, or save others)
-cult members are taught to suppress certain emotions (discouragement, homesickness, doubt, anger, etc…)
-cult members are taught that happiness is only found within the group- no happiness is found outside of the group.
-cult members are warned of terrible consequences if they leave the group (diseases, accidents, spiritual death, no fulfillment, etc…)
-cult members are taught that there is never a legitimate reason to leave the group- those who leave are weak or have been lead away by satan so seduced by the world.
-cult members are given a new “map of reality” that is different than how most people experience the world. They have special knowledge and special responsibility that comes with the knowledge they are given.
So yeah, when I look back at my time as a missionary- I think, “Oh yeah, I was totally a cult member.” But still, I loved it. And if you look at most cults, people love being in the cult until something goes really wrong. By limiting missions to 2 years (or 18 months), it’s possible for people to have a great cult experience and then get out before stuff gets too terrible or too weird. It certainly wouldn’t be sustainable or healthy for anyone to live like a missionary forever- 2 years is probably the max without causing permanent psychological damage.
The MTC does a great job of “brainwashing” missionaries… or teaching them their true purpose as a missionary. Even though it is very cult-like, I think a lot of great things can come about from serving a mission.
I did 2-1/2 years on a mission, and 3-1/2 yrs in the service (I lost the lottery). Neither one was too bad. My mission was in Belgium and France. Not a bad gig. About all we were given to do was tract. But nobody can tract 50+ hrs a week. We gave few discussions. And by what we know now, the 6 discussions were full of half truths. To keep my sanity, I enjoyed studying history and traveling around. I had no problem finding other missionaries to travel with. What testimony I had, I lost in the temple and on my mission. The Church of Dyer, JFS, McConkie was not my church. Baptisms in my mission were few and far between. Some missionaries went home with none. My time would have been better off participating in the civil rights movement going on in the States. Instead I was preaching the curse of Cain.
Two regrets. First, that we didn’t do any service work. Second, I didn’t develop a more Christian message. But my mission presidents were okay. But there was a focus on stats. Activity rates among members was about 10 percent. So when they announce that Church membership is 17M, I have to smile.
Most of those points on the list can be applied to one’s experience in the U.S. Marines as well. But even so, I agree that even though that kind of lifestyle can have cultish elements in it–it can still be a worthwhile experience if it is not extended beyond the limits of it’s usefulness.
I wouldn’t say that Mormon missions are *practically* brainwashing, IMO Mormon missions perfectly fit the modern definition of cult-like .. https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/global-catalytic-ministries-announces-another-124100047.html
I found the mission was less cultish than the MTC. On Day 2 I was ready to leave due to the oppressive levels of control over every little thing. Then it became interesting to watch everyone else respond to the brainwashing. Worst part of the MTC (aside from the food) was the insufferably arrogant paternalism of the MTC staff and presidency. In the field, we were lied to about the work. We were “brought in on the secret” when new missionaries arrived. We were told not to tell them how it was but let the MP and APs spin their tales. I spent several months trying to be a perfect missionary just to see if it made any difference. And thereafter I pretty much went my own way and occasionally tried to find ways to not be a burden on the host country. That, of course, meant butting heads with a very corporate MP. I’ve done my best to remain a TBM for the past several decades despite that experience. So, I guess it worked.
@Jack- I work in a military community and I’d agree that many/most of the cult tactics are used in boot camp and throughout the military (and frankly I’m surprised that cult-researchers, and society at large doesn’t make a bigger deal out of it). The general feeling that people have about the military is that people know what they are getting into when they sign up.
I feel like missionaries also generally know what they are getting into when they sign up as far as mission rules, schedule, transfers, etc… but new missionaries are generally unaware of the psychological effects of becoming a missionary (the brainwashing). The church can do a better job of informing missionaries exactly what they are getting into- and also tamping down some of the rhetoric that’s harmful (anything to do with worthiness). Re-assure missionaries that you are not causing people to get sent to hell because you didn’t wake up on time. Re-assure missionaries that you can still keep your same personality and be interested in basketball, pokemon, your friends, and anything else that interested you before your mission. Re-assure Dark Traveler and others who had experiences similar to theirs that outcomes are not related to your worthiness… and your worthiness is not related to your obedience… you are worthy because you’re a child of God.
I feel kind of presumptuous saying this because I’m not a mission president. Even so I can imagine — if I were in the position of having to counsel a new missionary I might say something like:
Remember, first and foremost, that you are loved because you are a child of God. So let there be no question in your mind as to how precious you are to the Lord–who paid an infinite price for your eternal wellbeing. And as if that weren’t enough, you should know that the Lord favors those who are willing to serve him–not that he loves others less. But because he recognizes the sacrifice you are making in order to serve him he will bless, comfort, and prosper you in your efforts to do his work.
And as you do his work–remember that you are not required to be a fanatic. Remember Alma’s counsel–that while it is important to be diligent we must not forget that doing the Lord’s work also requires patience. A perfectionist approach to missionary work can be counterproductive–especially when it doesn’t allow for the flexibility that acting on faith requires at times. Even so, being a servant of the Lord *does* require that you do your best to live the gospel covenant–as per the sacrament–which includes taking the name of the Savior upon yourself, remembering him, and keeping his commandments. [and I might elaborate a bit on how those three elements can empower those called to serve as missionaries.] And if you do these three basic things as best you can–then you will have his spirit to be with you. And the companionship of the spirit is the most important asset that a missionary can have.
Now remember, after all that has been said, we receive the spirit because of our *willingness* to follow the Lord and not because we follow him perfectly–though try as we may.
Speaking as a TBM GenXer, the mission was a hero’s journey. I watched older kids leave and return in glory and knew that was the experience I needed to have. Note that I wasn’t enthusiastic about going on a mission but I knew I needed to go through it.
And I did go through it and the experience was spiritually transformative, in a good way. On the flight home I was able to look out the window of the plane and see the stars in the sky. In that moment I received the spiritual confirmation that I had successfully completed that part of my life’s journey.
But was my mission effective? I did have a direct hand in bringing a few lifelong converts into the church. I also spent countless hours in efforts that bore no lasting fruit. I endured tremendous emotional highs and lows, nearly killed myself twice on my bicycle and had multiple stupid experiences common to being 19 and 20 years old. I did come back a better person. I am a mission success.
Looking at the missionary program with my now aged perspective I’m not sure what to make of it. I see it as a good thing. But in pursuit of the good a lot of failure is tolerated. My jaded view is the leadership loves the mission program as it helps filter out future LDS leaders – by testing both missionaries and mission presidents. I say jaded because the mission program and the expectations about it creates personal doubts and failure – do the leaders care about the hearts and testimonies they break with their one size fits all mission push?
It is the reluctance of leadership to tackle the serious issues of the mission program that has me concerned. They tweak the age and dress code and the instruction manual. They allow more communication to home. But it is the same old hierarchical, two by two program. Is it working?
Missionaries are brainwashed. But no different than an employee is indoctrinated that their company is best and has the best products. Where the ideology creates a nagging concern is on the expectation that people can be converted in a few weeks and they will understand they made a sacred, life long commitment. Baptizing people because they agree to it, and not because they are spiritually ready, trivializes the meaning of all holy covenants. Shouldn’t the church do better? But if convert baptisms were reduced as quality replaced quantity, what would that indicate about the effectiveness of proselytizing missions?
Many have already identified the commonalities of indoctrination that accompany various experiences, the mission among them. The distinction, in my mind, is that the military and even corporate training programs have tangible goals. The Marines would like to create service men and women who follow orders so they stay alive in battle and become an effective fighting force. Corporations would like to create effective, committed employees who contribute to overall goals and sell more products and services. The church would like to create missionaries who … what? Gain a testimony for themselves? Convert families who remain multi-generational members? Grow as a result of the experience? These things are happening, to be sure, but with what frequency? Not as often, I would argue, as the church would have us believe.
The problem I see with the temple and mission experience combined is the absence of informed consent, a key component in the BITE model. Do Marines give consent and pretty much know what they are going to experience when they enlist? I think so. Did I know what I was signing up for when I agreed to serve a mission. No, not really. Did I grow from it? Yes, and I have reaped the benefits ever since, but the combined temple and mission experience was also the eventual death knell for my church participation, and I know I’m not alone in that. So, sure, some member testimonies are solidified by the mission, and some are forever driven away.
In my mind, the Marines engage in necessary indoctrination. The Mormons brainwash. The two are not the same.
The main purpose of the mission is to keep the church in the periphery functioning. I think I’m many areas the church would collapse without them. Missionaries check in on the membership and act as an important tool in keeping church attendance rates up. They aren’t really needed for that purpose in the Mormon belt or in areas where the membership is largely descended from the Mormon belt, such as Washington DC. Second they serve to build a leadership class asking the youth. I highly believe that it promotes much longer activity rates for those who serve.
Missionaries are horribly brainwashed, and the membership knows this but it is taboo to say or to admit out loud that this is the case. But it is difficult to have normal conversations with someone while they are missionaries. We all know that once someone gets off their mission that they are a little weird for a while and that it takes a few months for that to wear of and for them to be normal once again. My nephew is currently on a mission in El Salvador. I liked his emails at first. They were sincere and very entertaining to read. His emails now that he has been out for 18 months are too much. I don’t bother to read them now. But we all know that that is not him speaking. It is the mission culture that he has been breathing in for considerable time and will wear off rapidly after his return. Those who served missions were all like that. We understand.
What I find interesting is that I know of no one on the church, no matter how believing, who has any desire whatsoever to continue to do missionary-like work after coming home from their missions. Which leads me to think of another purpose of missionaries, which is to have the awkward and high-pressure encounters that regular believers simply can’t have lest they completely ruin their relationships with friends and neighbors.
While serving as bishop, I experienced the serious implications of MP roulette and the far-reaching consequences. A worthy elder who grew up in our ward was assigned to a particularly challenging foreign mission. Upon arrival, his new MP emphasized the mission goals were to achieve a 50% “annual compound growth rate” as measured solely by baptism numbers. The MP elaborated that his patriarchal blessing stated he would serve as an apostle, and he viewed his MP assignment as a step towards that goal. In his view, serving as an MP was simply a sifting process for achieving GA status.
The MP implemented a strict regimen that included absurd limits on food expenses, no eating at members’ homes and working until 9:30 pm daily. Long story short, our elder lost 35 lbs. in his first 90 days. He became weak and dehydrated and was obviously ill. Rather than provide care, the MP decided to send him home for medical reasons. Bottom line is that this elder wanted to stay and should have received medical treatment in the field. The MP dropped off the elder’s passport and plane ticket – there was no transportation provided to the airport which was 40 miles away. Little did the MP know of this elder’s family connections.
Upon arriving home, the elder’s family was justifiably furious. The MP never contacted them, he simply called the SP and informed him the elder was returning home early. Within a week, the elder and his parents met with President Hinckley. Although the elder was offered an opportunity to return, he declined and returned to his educational pursuits. My understanding is that the MP received some harsh criticism but was allowed to stay. 18 years later, I am happy to report his name has never surfaced as a GA.
The elder’s entire large family – including 7 children, spouses, etc. subsequently left Mormonism largely due to this experience. So, to answer the OP question, sometimes the purpose of missions is to glorify ambitious MPs as they abuse their power for self-interest.
I would feel a lot better about missions if young men were not required (really blackmailed) to go on them. Forcing missionaries to go on missions and then putting them through all of the stuff a missionary has to go through is basically just emotional and religious abuse.
aporetic1, I think you hit the nail on the head that the church isn’t a cult but that the mission environment most certainly is. The comparisons between military service and the mission are inapt and fall apart quickly. The military has to train people to be willing to risk their physical health and actual lives in the event of war. There is a totally different training and philosophy behind it. To be a soldier does not involve going door-to-door to persuade others to be, I don’t know, citizens of a country or members of the military.
Similarly, comparisons between the mission and a job in some industry are wholly inapt. Missionaries aren’t paid a wage or salary, nor is money a motivation behind a missionary to serve a mission.
The Mormon mission is simply unique and it’s pressure tactics and brainwashing aspects are similarly unique. I reject attempts to portray the mission and it’s culture and environment as normal by making really, really bad comparisons with military service and working itself (activities which are normal). A better comparison would be the missionary activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or other cult-like religions whose focus/obsession is some sort of purity of spiritual belief, and not national defense or making money. But even there, there are very important distinctions to be made between them and Mormon missionaries.
For almost all LDS the behaviors and social engagement on the mission are absolutely unique to that period of time. For 18-24 months the LDS missionary adopts a persona that they will discard soon after their return. This persona involves an extreme confidence and presumption in telling others the way to improve their life is to accept Jesus and join the LDS church.
Evangelists and Jehovah Witnesses are different. They accept the duty to testify and persuade others to Christ is lifelong. Consequently we have the experience of the hair stylist badgering the client about coming to Jesus and the adult JW couple spending Saturday mornings handing out pamphlets.
Mormons simply don’t do this. It is not in our culture. But it is in our culture to send young men and young women around the world to do it as a stage of life experience.
The temporary, situational approach to LDS missionary work is unique. But the similarities to putting on the uniform for a job or military duty are real. For example it is common for returned LDS missionaries to be recruited to do summer sales – to sell pesticide or solar panels, doing so with the temporary persona that the product will improve people’s lives.
Now, it is true that many returned missionaries find that while they could sell the Church – because they believe in it – they are not able to sell solar panels, because they don’t believe in it in the same way.
After I published my mission memoir, I met up with one of my best friends from high school, someone I hadn’t seen since we were 19 (not LDS or religious in general, although his wife is Jewish, and they are raising their kids to respect their Jewish heritage). He was reading my book which surprised me because I wrote it for a Mormon audience, and there’s a lot of inside baseball there.
He said it was bizarre to read because it was like I was a completely different person than the one he knew, nothing like his friend. He said I was this punk rock “eff you” attitude cool girl in high school (probably also an exaggeration), but in the book I was something completely different than that. I think that’s kind of true, that a mission in particular can created a bifurcation of who we are. We have our pre and post mission selves, but the missionary persona is not really us. We are playing a role in a culture that has a specific set of rules to succeed and survive, and it’s nothing like real life. Church can also be like that. But we exist apart from all of that. We just forget it when we are wrapped up in those dominating cultures.
I remember going hometeaching with my father, just a couple weeks after returning from my mission. There, I’m ashamed to say I challenged a part-active family to pray about returning to church. It was pretty standard missionary stuff–it’s what had been pushed onto me from every angle as a missionary–and I’d become, at least temporarily, a different person. A couple of weeks wasn’t enough time for that to wash off.
After, my father expressed his surprise and said that he wouldn’t have been as forward. I could tell he wasn’t pleased. But he’d been a major factor in pushing me towards the mission in the first place–he shouldn’t have been surprised about how it would affect me. Perhaps he imagined my mission would be like the laid-back mission he experienced in the early ’70s.
Tim: There was a not-that-recently returned missionary in a Gospel Doctrine class about two years ago who challenged everyone to accost the less-committed or less-active members they knew and tell them that they knew what was right and just weren’t doing it, and that they were damning their families, and that they needed to be called to repentance–he was incredibly heavy handed and self-righteous. He said that it was how he had handled people on his mission, and that one person one time had thanked him for it and said he was right, so therefore he knew he was right and that everyone should take that approach all the time with everyone. Nobody in the class contradicted him even though it seemed pretty obvious to me that it was the least Christlike approach I’d ever heard of under the guise of “being righteous,” and that if anyone ever tried that crap in my house, he’d find himself uninvited in perpetuity.
Just thinking out loud here, but I can’t help but think that more than a few of the “rules” that missionaries follow were originally NOT developed as some kind of controlling tactic – but, rather, a response to someone, somewhere, doing something stupid as a teenaged/early 20’s missionary. I guess one could say that it slid into the BITE model that way, but frankly what could be characterized as “controlling” in one environment could also be seen as an extension of trying to parent newly-independent, still immature “adult” kids to try and keep them from doing something stupid.
As far as the rest of the discussion goes, I’d have to note that so much of every different person’s opinion derives from their own set of experiences and – importantly – expectations. More than a few comments have seemed to suggest that they had no idea what the mission would be like/they knew what they were getting into. I find that hard to swallow from anyone that served a mission from 1995 onwards (when the Internet became a regular presence in most homes). It’s not a big secret! If anything, that lack of knowledge of what they were getting into speaks to their lack of information, either from not bothering to find out or from not having access to find out.
And it is always sad to see those who had a “numbers” experience on the mission. I served in an area where there were few baptisms on average, and never had to deal with shady baptismal tactics (here I am now talking about my own set of experiences). If I had been asked to basically fool people into getting baptized without knowing what they were committing to, I would have (1) struggled with it in discussions with the MP (which were admittedly infrequent for me anyway), and (2) quietly done my own thing anyway in trying to only baptize those who seemed to actually understand what they were doing. Perhaps that was also an offshoot of the culture I served in, which was much more on the by-the-book side of things.
It seems the mission for youth is used by the institution as a type of finishing school. It helps the sheltered, infantile LDS youth, particularly young men, to integrate into the secular world.
I don’t think the missionary work nowadays is about baptisms or conversions, but instead, the aim is to solidify loyalty to the institution—kind of like what the endowment presentation has been reaching for prior to recent changes. I think youth missionaries realize this, and are turned off by it.
It seems to me that brainwashing occurs within every institution, from sports teams and political parties, to religious organizations and resistance movements. The institution that manages the Church is no exception.
A Disciple, I didn’t quite understand your comment. My point was that comparing the LDS mission experience to the military or general work experience is less apt than comparing it to missionary service in other churches. Yes, there are important distinctions between LDS missionaries and missionaries in other Christian denominations, as I acknowledged in my previous comment. But you seem to be saying that the work environment is more of an apt comparison to the LDS mission than missionary work in other religions, and in particular summer sales. As someone who attempted summer sales in Florida for three weeks and failed miserably (like most who attempt it) at it, I can say that the comparison really doesn’t make much sense. Yes, the managers consisted largely of people who had served missions and they tried to craft the business model and work environment to the mission experience to some extent. But we were on our own. We were incentivized by money, didn’t see the product as God-given, and after we left we wanted literally nothing to do with the product or the company. We cared about financial incentives. That was it. It didn’t matter the company. The missionaries who serve LDS missions come back mostly caring about the organization still. I don’t know how you can say that they don’t. So, no, not an apt comparison.
Tim/Angela – these stories of generational differences and zealous RMs remind me of the frog in the boiling water analogy. Our gospel salesmen and saleswomen come home “boiling” with fervor after extended service while the rest of us are just trying to pay the bills and sometimes to enjoy Dairy Queen, honky-tonks and TikTok. But then we get smacked down by Kevin “Are You Still Willing” Pearson and Elder Haynie – remember to recycle correctly.
Or maybe it’s local leader roulette – I can’t imagine being harangued for not attending the temple enough.
While it’s certainly possible that the story you share (above) is accurate I can’t help but believe that it’s a bit one-sided.
I do not feel like I was brainwashed on my mission. I believe my eyes were open. I wondered, what in the world! This is NOT the same church I thought I belonged to. I could not understand why most of the other missionaries did not see it. Even years after, away from the mission, I could not get other missionaries to admit the spiritual and physical abuse we were told to accept.
I recall getting letters from friends serving in San Diego ( I was serving in the northern far east) during the 70s. Hartman Rector Jr was their mission president. It was reported the sisters in that mission were used as attractors to gather young men who then joined the Church and added to the “ baseball baptisms” numbers. It caused quite a stir.
I always thought missions helped the boys become men. They had to be responsible . Doing their own cooking, laundry, good study habits, learning how to relate and talk to people from all cultures whom they don’t know, etc. But now they live with ward members, the ward families cook for them. Support is great but so is gaining the skills to live on your own.
What an interesting discussion. It’s like … everyone went through a traumatic experience and is trying to process it by talking with others who have been through the same experience. It’s been decades for most of us, and we’re still talking about it trying to understand what it did to us.
The problem with terms like “cult” and “brainwashing” is they don’t have solid and objective definitions. They function more like epithets than descriptive terms. One example: no one throws the term “cult” at LDS more than Evangelicals. But I read a detailed account of the sort of popular week-long come-to-Jesus retreats that Evangelicals do, lots of singing and praying and scriptures, not much sleep, persuasion and manipulation and peer pressure … more cult-like than anything in the LDS Church, even the MTC. But tell an Evangelical this as evidence they belong to a cult and watch the defensive justifications fly. So I don’t really see the MTC or an LDS mission as cultish or brainwashing. That’s even more true as they have finally made long overdue changes relaxing things like missionary dress and allowing more contact with home.
Another problem. In an average LDS congregation, there might be five or ten people who are true LDS zealots. In Utah that might be ten or twenty. But I’ll bet two-thirds or more of the average congregation are just going with the flow, not buying most of the stranger LDS beliefs, happy to avoid time-intensive callings, and looking forward to retirement (golfing, hobbies, seeing Australia, visiting the grandkids) rather than doing three or four LDS senior missions. Whatever brainwashing a mission or the LDS Church tries to do (using different terminology, of course, like “perfect obedience” or some other Bednaresque term), it doesn’t work very well.
I think there are better terms than brainwashing. How about “acculturation”? Or assimilation? I know that post-mission could be described as “accommodation”.
I think the purpose of missions is to teach missionaries how to lie. “A testimony is found in the bearing of it,” remember? If you testify that often, and sacrifice that much, your brain will rationalize that it must be true based on that.
Besides that, there’s the elephant in the room. Or the metaphorical elephant’s trunk.
Basically all young men do The Thing That Makes You Unworthy. Basically all bishops and mission presidents know that. But it’s basically impossible to verify. Worthiness interviews, then, are a way to weed out the honest and scrupulous, and punish them for caring.
As is the rest of LDS Mormonism.
Angela, “A mission in particular can create a bifurcation of who we are. We have our pre and post mission selves, but the missionary persona is not really us. We are playing a role in a culture that has a specific set of rules to succeed and survive, and it’s nothing like real life.”
I love the way you articulate this and it helps me feel more compassion for the young man I was when I returned home. I was definitely the most assertive and confident I’ve ever been as a missionary but I was also the most arrogant, ignorant, controlling, and incurious I’ve ever been as well. Perhaps deep down I felt I needed to be in order to survive the ordeal.
Many returned missionaries struggle to jettison their missionary “self” when they need to reintegrate into real life. I know I did. Turns out many of the qualities and behaviors that may get you points with your MP don’t actually go over well with friends, roommates, family, potential romantic partners, etc.
What do you think are the reasons the missionaries are taking a new interest in ex-Mormons?