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 zeal to spare). In the end, he’s been there and done that with the rest of his peer group, been subject to the same institutional regimes and regimens, has dealt with the same 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 prepares a young mind for the challenges of the post-industrial world: long, dull hours of often purposely pointless effort interrupted by occasional 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 can shake 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. Alas, 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 tripled 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 continue to fall).
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” should serve a mission was, for a time, qualified 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.
But when it turned out that the slackers knew exactly who they were, and there were a lot of them, the church reversed course once again and declared that the admonition henceforth applied to every young man and woman. And shaved a year or two off the minimum qualifying age to encourage their parents to kick them out of the house and into the arms of their ecclesiastical leaders.
The mission was thus rechristened the church’s retention tool of choice. And why not? We are an imperfect species, and the modern church remains in short supply of what universal conscription supplies a nation in times of crisis (an organized religion, by definition, being constantly in a time of crisis): a common cause and a shared experience that bridges the social fault lines.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neil observed, and that is especially true of religious politics. 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 rank amateurs, the missionary program is not sustainable as a proselytizing organization. But compromises must be made, and without the draw of a universal, shared (and occasionally exotic) experience, there soon wouldn’t be anybody left to spend two years even pretending to proselytize.
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.)
The exponential expansion of the number of missionaries means there is a lot more pretending going on these days (about what all these missionaries are actually going to accomplish). And, by force of circumstance, also a lot less lying about what teenagers are actually capable of when it comes to recruiting converts.
The rise and fall of the Tokyo South Mission (itself a Buddhist metaphor for the fleeting nature of things) set in motion a reactionary but rational response that, decades after the fact, still outlaws anything resembling “catch sales” street proselyting techniques.
At some point in the final decades of the twentieth century, the church was finally forced to abandon (without ever admitting it) the long-held triumphalist fantasy of becoming something other than an oddball fringe offshoot of Christianity.
This was the dazed and confused end of an era, when a naive teenager from upstate New York could mingle with the saints and sinners (meaning 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.”
Well, it did. But not in the way I expected or the way they intended.