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Posted 28 Mar 2001   For week ended March 16, 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 28Mar01

By Paul Carter

To Serve or Not To Serve: A Question of Mission

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- Young men of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have been charged with the responsibility to serve a full-time mission. The years spent as a missionary are life-changing and usually positive. But when an LDS young man chooses not to serve, the social pressures to change his mind can often be intense.

The missionary effort in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is one of the church's hallmarks. The image of two young men who are walking, biking, or teaching together while dressed in white shirts with black name tags has become a cultural icon that represents all of the missionaries sent throughout the world; an evangelical force which also comprises young women over the age of 21, single sisters of retirement age, and retired couples.

Since 1974, the young men of the church have been told in no uncertain terms that it is their duty to serve. The then leader of the Church, President Spencer W. Kimball stated, "The question is frequently asked: Should every young man fill a mission? And the answer has been given by the Lord. It is 'Yes.' Every young man should fill a mission."

Since then, the Church has seen tremendous growth in the number of young men who serve full-time missions. The numbers of young women serving has also increased markedly, but the expectation for girls to serve is not the same as that which has been established for Latter-Day Saint young men. But not all young LDS men go on missions and frequently those who do not serve experience some unusual treatment.

They are "often treated with suspicion and disdain. The social penalty is so great, in many cases, that one cannot ignore the importance of this in the decision-making process," suggests Brian Birch, who is the Associate Director for Religious Studies at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah. Birch, who did serve an LDS mission, speaks from experiences of working with students at a school with almost 90% LDS enrollment.

David, a 20-something LDS man who asked that his last name not be printed, says, "If you go on a mission, you get noticed for a week (during your farewell activities.) If you don't go, you get noticed for a year -- or more."

David's nurturing in the LDS church seemed complete. He was active in church attendance, praying and reading scriptures daily, adding regularly to his savings for his "missionary fund", and abiding by the teachings to not smoke or drink. As David says, "The Church was the foundation of my life."

As the typical time for a mission drew near and passed, as his friends received and accepted calls as missionaries, David chose not to. He now reveals that he had had doubts about the Church throughout his teen years. Referring to a mission, "I believed if I went, I wouldn't be true to myself or to God," he explains.

So, what happens to an LDS young man of missionary age who continues to go to his Church meetings with his family? Members of his congregation ask him when he's going to "turn in his papers." Questions or concerns are raised about worthiness. The young man and his decision to serve a mission might become a personal quest of other well-meaning individuals. This social pressure takes a toll. It becomes easier to not attend church services than face the well-intentioned questions.

Family members who have been thinking for 19 years that they were raising a future missionary have lifelong expectations altered dramatically. When a son told one LDS mother that he wouldn't be going on a mission, she says she "nearly died." "I have cried for two years. He's a good boy. He wasn't doing drugs or anything weird at the time. But I was left wondering, 'What? What is it?' He hasn't left the church, but I think he'll slide away eventually." According to this mother, the heartbreaking part of her situation is "seeing a wonderful feast out there and your child won't eat."

Leaving the church is not necessarily the outcome of not serving a mission. The outcomes are as varied as the reasons for not serving a mission. A few of the reasons: having a girlfriend who may not still be available after two years, rebelling against parents or their beliefs, educational commitments, sports careers, in addition to just having doubts about serving.

For whatever the reason, a young LDS man's decision to not serve a mission, or perhaps for some it is a situation of never deciding TO serve a mission, is always brought face-to-face with the responsibility placed on him by the leaders of the Church to serve.

President Kimball, again in 1974 said, "When I ask for more missionaries, ... I am asking that we start earlier and train our missionaries better in every branch and every ward in the world...that the young people will understand that it is a great privilege to go on a mission...

"I am asking for missionaries who have been... trained through the family and the organizations of the Church, and who come to the mission with a great desire. I am asking...that we train prospective missionaries much better, much earlier, much longer, so that each anticipates his mission with great joy."

The emotions surrounding missionary service are powerful, both for the prospective missionary and for those close to him. Enthusiasm for someone who enters missionary service is high. Questions surround someone who doesn't.

For the one who serves, "it is such a miraculous time of growth for them," says Charlotte Jacobsen, the mother of four sons, three of whom served missions. Referring to the experience of seeing those three sons serve, she adds, "It makes you feel good about yourself that you've raised a son worthy to go." In addition, Mrs. Jacobsen relates that she also felt "real camaraderie with those who have sons out at the same time."

Her fourth son chose to not serve a mission. Other families, with sons the same age who were serving missions, seemed to feel awkward sharing missionary experiences with a mother whose son was apparently not going to serve, even after the first three had served faithfully.

A young man's decision to not serve a mission thus affects many others, many of whom may have an image of themselves that is based on this young man serving a mission. These "important others" sometimes come up with creative incentives for the young man to go on and complete a mission. Consider a wavering future missionary with a girl friend who has always planned to marry a returned missionary. She says that she will not marry someone who is not a returned missionary. Or a father (who has always expected that he will be the father of a missionary) who gives hints or outright promises of a new sportscar, or a paid education, that will be waiting when the missionary returns.


Say No to the Mission Call and the Pressure Builds
Salt Lake Tribune 10Mar01 N1
By Peggy Fletcher Stack: Salt Lake Tribune

When Will the World Be Converted?
Ensign Magazine, Oct74
By Spencer W. Kimball


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