SEA OF CHANGE?

by Greg Prince

Four years ago the president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC was invited to meet with the First Presidency in Salt Lake City. At the Aug2610-News-MotherTheresa4conclusion of his meeting he called me and said that the thing that had impressed him most about his visit was the Church’s newly announced “fourth mission”: to care for the poor and needy throughout the world, regardless of their religious affiliation. He went on to say to me that if we took that mission seriously, given the size of our missionary force, we would have a global impact.

I spoke again with this same gentleman in the aftermath of this month’s General Conference. In the opening session of the conference President Monson put numbers on the expansion of the missionary force following the lowering of the age of eligibility: 65,000 full-time missionaries currently serving, 20,000 with calls and awaiting their service, and 6,000 in the application process. The response of the Wesley president was both flattering and sobering:

The prospect of having as many as 90,000 fulltime missionaries deployed worldwide is exemplary to all other churches. The fact that this represents over a 50% increase within a few months likely presents some formidable logistical challenges, and yet I am wondering if it also opens the door to an increase in the humanitarian work of the LDS Church. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit is working to create the way for these young men and women to be engaged in public service? The possibilities for healing the sick, feeding the hungry and welcoming the alien are endless, and yet a corps of missionaries of this magnitude has the potential to make a difference worldwide.

Perhaps the possibility of this opportunity has been percolating through the minds of the Brethren as they have contemplated the effects of lowering the age of missionary eligibility. Indeed, for over a year a pilot program known as “Just Serve” has been in effect on a small scale, initially in northern California. Daytime hours are devoted entirely to humanitarian service, coordinated through the mission office; evening hours are devoted to proselytizing. Although encouraging anecdotes have emerged from this pilot program, no broad publicity has yet been given.

Might this be the time to retool the entire missionary effort? There are compelling reasons for moving away from a business-as-usual approach, not the least being the extraordinarily high attrition rate of converts (a case can be made for the percentage of attrition within the first year being in excess of 80%) and the alarming rate of inactivity among returned missionaries (numerous reports from well-informed sources regularly put the number at one-third to one-half the missionary force). The possibility of a cause-and-effect relationship between the two sets of numbers is inescapable. One can imagine how those numbers might change if missionaries spent most of their waking hours engaged in Christian, humanitarian service, truly making these “the best two years of my life”; and if converts were attracted, instead of pushed to the waters of baptism after having seen and experienced the humanitarian service of the missionaries.

Is there a sea change in the making?

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Gregory A. Prince is an American pathology researcher, businessman, author, and historian of the Latter Day Saint movement. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. After graduating as valedictorian from Dixie College (St. George, Utah), he served a two-year mission in Brazil. Upon returning to the United States, Prince attended graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1975 he and his wife, JaLynn Rasmussen, moved to Washington D.C., for a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. Prince was one of several leading figures in Mormon studies interviewed for the PBS documentary The Mormons.

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