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 conclusion 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?
This is my dream. I cannot express how much the idea of service missions makes my heart sing. I t just feels right to my heart, it is what Jesus would create.
The methodists and the mormons need to be better friends.
Distributing wealth to those who have very little to nothing – what a novel idea.
People might look upon the missionaries in their community with fondness instead of dread. They might even want to know more…
That would truly be amazing. Here’s hoping.
this would be an answer to prayers, for me and for many others as well i suspect.
JustServe has expanded to my stake in the Denver area. Super exciting. I agree that it would make everything about missionary service better.
Thanks for sharing this Gregory. This is something my husband and I have talked about for years. It is Christianity at its purest!!! What better way to teach love than to serve? What better way to use up all of those 18 year old male hormones than hard work. This idea would be revolutionary in every way. Keeping my fingers crossed! (What else can I do?) Please let us know if you hear more!
Greg, can you share any sources for your statement regarding the low activity rate of returned missionaries? I am curious. Thanks for the thoughtful article. I hope the change continues.
I agree with Matt. A source for the claim about rm activity rate would be useful.
I also question the 90,000 figure. Simply adding the number s that the Church gives won’t work — missionaries are also returning at some rate, so the number will actually be smaller than that in the near term.
My analysis shows that the total will reach its peak early next year at 110,000:
I must add that I really like the JustServe program as you’ve described it. It is a nice balance between service and proselyting, and uses daytime hours that are too often spent knocking on doors when no one is at home (or, at least it was that way when I served my mission).
A few weeks ago we had stake conference and 2 from the quorum of 70 came to reorganize our stake. In our meetings, we talked about missionary work. One of the presiding brethren defined missionary work as bringing people to Christ. I really liked that definition because there are so many ways to bring someone to Christ. I am currently serving a part-time mission at the Bishop’s storehouse in our area. It is an awesome opportunity to help those who have done all that they can to help themselves and now need a little extra “boost”. I am learning about charity and judging and service and so many other things that have been imbedded in my head but have yet to make it to my heart. I am grateful for this opportunity to serve.
Love the service mission idea. This is something I can get behind!
This took my breath away. . . I had not considered this before. It feels right. And very hopeful. Thank you for taking time to articulate this for RationalFaiths.
Could the alarming numbers of attrition and inactivity be a sign of a problem with the gospel being presented? If 35-50% of those dedicated to proclaiming the message come home and choose not to live the message…perhaps it’s the message.
Might this long-term response jibe with a world where the vast majority of the Christian world discredits the Mormon gospel?
If missionaries do more humanitarian work, I have little doubt that they will be more popular in the places they serve. But it won’t answer the issue of the credibility of the message. It may just mask it further.
You’ve gotten my hopes up now! This would be wonderful.