For many people, the extent of their interaction with the LDS Church has been responding to a knock on the front door from a pair of smiling young men or women announcing, “Hi! We’re representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and want to share a message with you.” In most cases, the door is shut before you know whether you’ve just been visited by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the youngest FBI agents in history.
Who are these young people, and what are they up to?
I was very surprised when I began serving my mission in 1985 to run into people who had been “prepared” by their friends or ministers as to how to handle LDS missionaries when they encountered them. More disturbing to me than the misinformation behind some of the questions directed at us was the underlying notion that LDS missionaries were trained either in brainwashing or some mystical dark arts against which people needed to protect themselves.
Boy, did they give us too much credit.
“Who Are Those Guys?”
At any given time there are more than 50,000 members of the Church serving full-time missions. The majority are young men (typically between the ages of 19 and 23), but young women also serve, as do retired couples. The male missionaries are referred to as “Elders,” reflecting their priesthood office in the Church. The female missionaries are referred to as “Sisters.” The formality really is there to help remind the missionaries that they have set themselves aside from personal worldly pursuits to focus on service to others.
Missions are voluntary and unpaid. Missionaries and their families pay for their room and board with their own savings. People apply to be missionaries after interviews with their local church leaders to ensure that they are living the principles that they will be teaching. Applications are sent to Salt Lake City, and “calls” are sent out by mail. Missionaries have little to no input as to where they will serve (although some factors, like medical issues, might limit where a missionary will be able to go).
New missionaries report to a mission training center (the main one being in Provo, Utah). Beginning from that time through the end of their missions (two years for young men, 18 months for young women), missionaries are expected to live by a set of mission rules. There are some things they don’t do on their missions: Dating, watching TV and movies, and generally engaging in the typical life of a person their age. More important are the things they commit to do, including studying the scriptures each morning both individually and with their companions, praying several times a day, adhering to a set work schedule during the week, and devoting certain numbers of hours to proselytizing and other types of service.
Missionaries stay in the training center for three weeks if they will be serving in their own language, six weeks if they are learning a new language. Most of that time is spent learning the mission rules and the material they will teach. Obviously, only so much can be accomplished during such a short time, so missionaries really learn on the job.
Missionaries usually serve in pairs, and never alone. They are supervised by a mission president, and they are moved from place to place and from companion to companion as needed. (That’s why they might not know that someone else knocked on your door a month ago). Usually they will serve in at least four or five cities during their missions and will have 8 to 10 companions (some of whom, if my experience means anything, they will at least briefly contemplate killing).
Missionaries have limited contact with their families at home, through weekly letters or emails and a couple of calls home during each year.
It is not easy work. It can be lonely, frustrating, and tedious. At the same time, it is incredibly rewarding. The objective of full-time missionaries is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people in the communities in which they serve, and to provide service to people who need it. The most challenging work they do is that which is most visible: Knocking on doors and running from dogs.
What Are They Up To?
A little bad news for critics of the Church and our missionaries. There is no secret agenda, no clandestine training, no religious “black ops.”
Missionaries are trained to teach a series of “discussions” to people who have an interest in the Church. Such training is surprisingly informal, and missionaries have a great deal of discretion in terms of what they teach and in what order. If you are really interested in finding out what is taught, the Church doesn’t keep it a secret: Their manual and other materials are all available on the Church’s official website. If you are just dying to know what they are up to, here you go: http://www.lds.org/manual/missionary?lang=eng.
Ultimately, the goal of LDS missionaries is to teach what they believe to be true and encourage other people to consider it, pray about it, and commit to act upon it if they feel it is true.
In our current society, many take offense to any sort of proselytizing, believing that it reflects an assumption that everyone else in the world is wicked and fallen. In my opinion, this leads to some knee-jerk hostility to Mormon missionaries, and I have personally been on the receiving end of some impressive dress-downs at people’s front doors.
My only response to that, honestly, is “lighten up.” If I am eager to tell you about a new movie that I saw, that doesn’t mean that I think every movie you’ve ever seen is awful, or that you are an idiot for not having seen my movie at the same time I did. I am just excited and want to share what I enjoyed. It’s the same for these missionaries. They are excited and energized about the things they believe, and they have given up a great deal in order to share it (education, employment, romances, athletic opportunities–ask American Idol runner-up David Archuleta, who has set aside his career to serve in Chile).
Obviously, I think they are worth listening to. I think it’s the greatest message in the world. But if you don’t want to hear it, just politely tell them so, and they will move down the road to the next person. And they will keep moving, day after day, until it is time to return home and pick up their lives again.
I owe a lot to these guys. Two elders knocked on my parents’ door in 1973 and changed our lives forever (thanks, Elders Holyoake and Ames, wherever you are). I’d encourage you to give them a chance or, if not, at least give them a break.