April 13, 2017

The evolution of the missionary program

Going back half a century or so, here's how how I interpret the convoluted and often incoherent evolution of the Mormon Church's missionary program.

Stage I. Mine was one of last cohorts of the legacy system. This was the "Every Young Man Should Serve a Mission" era. (As for the young women, well, if you still hadn't gotten hitched by twenty-one, then sure. But why haven't you gotten hitched?)

In the late 1970s, the church's PR efforts hit Madison Avenue and sociologists started paying serious attention to the church's growth numbers. These studies famously culminated in Rodney Stark's 1984 calculation of a 64 million to 267 million growth in membership over the next century.

Ah, here was "independent" confirmation of the inevitable Mormon hegemony, cementing Mormonism's "fastest growing religion" status (an error that continues to this day). Buoyed by these dubious statistical projections, church leaders convinced themselves they were going to convert the world.

Except the numbers Stark and others were using in their models came from the church itself. The public membership numbers the church publishes each year don't count butts in pews. They're derived from open-ended accounting methods based the accumulation of unexpired membership records.

The truth is way out there.
In other words, if you got baptized and never attend church again, you would still contribute to the membership totals until you reached a hypothetical life expectancy and were deemed statistically dead.

In fact, the church does count how many butts are in the pews every Sunday. Otherwise it'd end up building chapels that sat empty and unused. But like Fox Mulder, they want to believe. And like the Cigarette Smoking Man, they keep the numbers that matter close to the vest.

In any case, wishful thinking eventually ran into the brick wall of reality. To start with, consider the workforce. The more they stressed the hard sell, the more missionaries figured out how to game the system.

Stage II. As these get-big-quick schemes began imploding in missions like Tokyo South, the church decided that not enough young men were serving missions. And it cost too much. The answer was to match mission lengths for men and women at eighteen months.

Mission financing was taken over by the church and quasi-socialized (and then tweaked to preserve the tax incentives) so everybody faced the same up-front costs.

Sounds good in theory. Except a whole lot of twenty-year-olds were more than happy to take a six-month discount on "the two best years." The church was suddenly faced with the challenge of keeping the spiritual sales force intact during its most productive period (the last six months).

That idea was deep-sixed. The cost-sharing measures were preserved.

Stage III. Instead of greasing the skids, maybe it was time to borrow from those Marines Corps ads: "The few, the proud." Raise standards. Toughen requirements. Quality over quantity. Missionaries were an elite group, not the hoi polloi.

But once again, too many kids decided that this was good excuse to give the whole ordeal a pass. Especially when dealing with theological cannon fodder, there's strength in numbers. Quantity matters more than quality (because you're never going to have that much quality).

Stage IV. In the meantime, the cruel world was intruding all over the place. Years of cultural diplomacy with China never paid off, delivering a blow to the multi-level marketing strategy I was taught in the MTC. (Seriously, with a few script changes, it could have been turned into any sales pitch.)

The convert-the-world true believers no longer believed quite so much, accepting the stark reality that, in real terms, church membership growth tracks closely to the natural rate. By "natural" I mean the birds and the bees. Mormon boy meets Mormon girl and a bunch of Mormon kids result.

Behind the scenes, the number crunchers at church headquarters were doing (more accurate) butts-in-pews analyses that pointed to a strong correlation between "served a mission" and "shows up to church on Sunday."

That meant maximizing the number of Mormon kids going on missions, which had the best odds of turning them into Mormon adults. It didn't matter if they converted anybody on their mission as long as they converted themselves. Think of it as an institutionalized sunk cost fallacy in action.

It was time to grease the skids again, but with a different set of variables. Knock one year off the start date for men, two years for women. Guys wouldn't have to red-shirt their freshman year and women wouldn't be taking themselves out of the college (BYU) dating market.

Plus, an eighteen-year-old is that much more susceptible to peer group pressure. What are you gonna do straight out of high school? Answer: go on a mission. What joining the military used to be.

This time it looks like they got it right. So far, the new program has been hugely successful. Pay no attention to the slumping conversion rates. Missionaries now spend less time proselytizing and more time trying to be useful. It's turned into the Mormon Peace Corps.

Frankly, that's what the missionary program should have been all along.

Related posts

How it began
The truth is worse
Tokyo South is alive
The weirdest two years
The problem with projections

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# posted by Blogger Joe
4/18/2017 12:46 PM   
At about month 15 on my 18 month mission, my companion and I were walking through a middle-class (by Venezuelan standards at the time) neighborhood and were stopped by a random guy. He said he wasn't interested in Mormonism, but was genuinely curious at what our strategy was--we [collectively as missionaries] had talked to EVERYONE in that neighborhood at least three times in the previous year and a half, so why do a fourth?

We said we weren't; that we were just walking around visiting members and if anyone wanted to talk to us, we'd talk to them. (We were also trying to waste, I mean use up, time.)

However, that really stuck with me. We had saturated that market, so to speak, and everyone who wanted to be Mormon, was. The only exception for that neighborhood, though arguably in the next neighborhood to the east, was a part member family who had moved there from Argentina (eventually to be on their way to Canada--a common route out of South America.)

At this same time, an edict came down that door-to-door canvassing was now forbidden. Not just because of the danger, but because of the futility which had been so clearly identified by a passing stranger.

Now with literally four times as many missionaries as when I was 19 (five times when I was 21 due to the drop with 18-month missions) this issue of saturation is more relevant. You quadruple the number of missionaries in, say, Japan and the result has been a big fat nothing (with anecdotal evidence being that there has been an actual decline in self-identified Mormon membership in many countries, including Japan.)

This works only because the missionary, or usually his/her family, is footing the bill. And it's not cheap. So how long can that be sustained? Especially when today's missionaries have missionary aged kids. Will the futility of their mission in a conversion sense jade them? Or will the sentimentality of the right-of-passage overcome that?
# posted by Blogger Dan
4/25/2017 5:18 PM   
Joe, one thing you may have overlooked is that the cost of sending a child on a mission is still much less than sending a child to college, even if that college is BYU. As long as missions maintain a sense of order and provide for training of missionaries to serve in church leadership they will satisfy a basic church need and purpose and families will be supportive.

The key to making the mission program work is for missionaries to respect it - which mainly means making sure the knuckleheads don't take over. What I observe is missions continue to self-regulate in a good way. Those who truly don't care don't go at all and those who can't get their heart into it go home - one important mission program change being that there is now much less stigma attached to going home early. So many more missionaries start, many more go home early but the net result is many more LDS youth have what can be said to be a successful mission experience.
# posted by Blogger Joe
4/28/2017 11:42 AM   
Dan, I did consider that it was cheaper than college, but then considered that since it's not a substitute, it becomes an extra charge, (though may be cheaper for some kids than staying at home--though many perceived "stay at home" costs are sunk costs.)