If there is a genre of literature unique to Mormon letters in terms of the church’s social culture (as opposed to being unique, say, in terms of its theology), it is the missionary memoir—the autobiographical account of the two years a young Mormon man (and the occasional woman) spends spreading the message of the church in distant lands.
For a kid from Provo, Utah, that “distant land” may well turn out to be Los Angeles. For a kid from upstate New York, it was Tokyo, Japan. This is certainly not to say that the narratives penned by ministers of other faiths possess less literary merit or a less interesting perspective. The Mormon missionary memoir measures itself only against its own historical standard: always the same, only different.
The typical missionary hails from North America and the suburban middle class, begins his service at the age of nineteen, and sallies forth with a thin comprehension of his religion (but making up for it with confidence to spare). In the end, he’s been there and done that with the rest, been subject to the same institutional regimes and regimens, has dealt with the same sort of heroes and jerks.
And yet the inescapable mystery remains—that these identical pressures and deformations, punishments and rewards, produce such wildly different products at the end of the spiritual assembly line.
The majority, to be sure, are spared any true physical hardships or trials of the soul. They carry purse and scrip and wear shoes made for walking. They are weekend warriors in a lay army. The work is the kind that tempers a young mind for the challenges of the post-industrial world: long, dull hours of seemingly pointless work interrupted by moments of inexplicable wonder and discovery.
These moments can propel them into the shocking embrace of a world completely different from everything they thought they knew. It shakes the complacency out of them, and a good complacency-shaking is what the average teenager needs.
This is not, of course, the stated purpose of the program—the stated purpose being Preaching the Gospel and Saving Souls. Except that as a purely evangelical enterprise, the missionary program hardly constitutes the most efficient use of the church’s resources. The number of graduates from the Missionary Training Center has more than doubled since I spent my two months there—evidence of enormous success, one would think—except that baptisms per missionary have dropped by half over the same time period.
And as I illustrate in the largely autobiographical account that follows, those baptisms have only an abstract statistical relationship to the official membership numbers the church publishes.
Hence the admonition that “every young man” serve a mission has been qualified of late to mean not every young man (and you slackers know who you are).
Similar and understandable objections are raised by professional soldiers when presented with proposals to reintroduce the draft—not to better fight wars, but in the pursuit of high-minded goals of social engineering.
From a purely practical standpoint, the mission should not have become the venue of choice for Personal Growth and Rehabilitation. But we are an imperfect species, and if not now, when? More importantly, the church remains in short supply of what universal conscription supplies the nation in times of crisis (an organized religion, by definition, being constantly in a time of crisis): a common cause and experience that reaches simultaneously across generations.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neil observed, and that is especially true of religious politics. Such a geographically concentrated church can only achieve “worldwide” status by uprooting its youth and sending them abroad—as metaphysical pirates, scavengers, and ambassadors of good (and bad) will—so that they will bring home with them a more expansive sense of the world “out there.”
Self-funded and run and staffed by volunteers, the missionary program is not sustainable in its current form. But important things are always lost in the pursuit of efficiencies, beginning with that universal, shared experience. It is especially important for young men, who are provided by modern society with little in the way of canonized “coming of age” ceremonies.
(Which is why I find it difficult to disparage missionary farewells and homecomings, their silly and self-aggrandizing tendencies notwithstanding.)
A similar problem has developed as the Mormon population has grown beyond the carrying capacity of the Church Education System. The point has already been reached where BYU has become the long-trumpeted “Harvard of the West”—not in terms of academic reputation, but in terms of meritocratic exclusivity (and referring to piety, not intellectual ability).
If not “every young man” is cut out to be a minister of the faith—and not all are—the church might instead transition its agricultural and international programs (the Benson Institute and the Kennedy Center) into the mainstream of ecclesiastical life, building a pragmatic equivalent of the Peace Corps that would welcome all hardworking comers.
But I cannot wring my hands too tightly or bemoan fates that have yet to fall. We are dealing here with institutions that move at the speed of continental drift. The rise and fall of the Tokyo South Mission (itself a Buddhist metaphor for the fleeting nature of things) set in motion a reactionary response that, decades after the fact, still outlaws anything resembling “catch sales” street proselyting techniques.
Though it would probably be impossible to discern exactly when the sea change occurred. Perhaps this was the end of a great era, when a naive teenager from upstate New York could mingle with saints and sinners equally (and I mean the saints and sinners found among his fellow missionaries), without anybody asking what in the world he was doing there or what he hoped to accomplish.
So I remain grateful for those two years when The Powers That Be shrugged at my real reasons—because I was supposed to, because it was what all my friends at church were doing, because I’d never honestly considered the alternatives, or, for that matter, deeply questioned any aspect of my religious life—and said, “Fine, if that’s what you want to do. Maybe it’ll do you some good.”