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.[1] 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?


[1] 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!