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
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
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
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
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
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