Monday, February 18, 2013

My Take on the Concept of Mormon Missions

I'm not "officially" Mormon,  never have been, and never will be, but through having a large potion of my vary large extended  family as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I'm relatively well-versed in its origins, traditions, and beliefs. I will offer my take on the LDS missionary program and on what might be done to  make it a viable institution.  No practicing Mormon, my relatives included, will agree with me, but then, I'm not here to write things just so people will agree with me.

The "Golden Age" of Mormonism was from the Post World  War II period of the late  nineteen-forties until the early nineteen-seventies, when the fallout from the Civil Rights movement came to the forrefront. Prior to WWII, the LDS associations with Joseph Smith, seer stones. Brigham Young and his merry band of wives, not to mention his merry band of  Danites, the mass exodus to Utah, and the general weirdness associated with all things LDS,  was too close to general consciousness for Mormons to be taken seriously.. Mormons were beginning to branch outside the Mormon Corridor (or Morridor in common RFM lexicon), but, by and large, the word  Mormon conjured up all sorts of weird images.  Then came the reign of LDS President David O. McKay, who was born, lived, and died,  long before I made it onto the planet, but must have had enviable  public relations skills. Under his leadership it became not quite normal or mainstream to be a Mormon, but it was somehow considered less sinister in the eyes public perception to have  association with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   The Church already had a missionary program in place by this time, but  it was greatly increased during McKay's era.

It was at that point that the missionary efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began to flourish. People - normal people, even -- began to investigate and join the Church. This happened in many parts of the industrialized world, in the U.S,  in Australia and New Zealand, and in many parts of western Europe. I'm not suggesting that Mormons were poised to take over the world, religiously speaking, but joining up with the Mormons had ceased to become something that would cause everyone one knew prior to his or her conversion to shun the person. It was at the end of this era that my grandparents became LDS.

When the Civil Rights movement reached momentum, it eventually extended itself into the arena of college athletics. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fell under a microscope in the civil rights matter because of its racist teachings, some of which were official doctrine, while others fell more under the category of Mormon folklore. Regardless, at that point, male individuals who were determined to have African-American lineage were denied the right to the LDS priesthood, for which even  otherwise "worthy"  non-African American  twelve-year-old boys would be considered eligible. Likewise couples, at least one of whom possessed African American lineage, were denied the privilege of sealing their marriages in  LDS temples.   Reasons for this doctrine -  some probably real and others which more likely came about as the result of LDS prophets speaking as men and not as prophets -- ranged from blacks being of the seed of Cain to the blacks' fence-sitting status in the Great War in Heaven.

When the LDS church's discriminatory policy toward blacks became common knowledge, African-American athletes took offense at being required to compete against Brigham Young University's teams. Talks of  banning the school's athletic teams from the NCAA took place but never progressed very far.  The primary result of the Civil Rights movement's impact on Mormonism was that people who might otherwise have possessed the slightest chance of ever becoming Mormons  essentially slammed their doors in the faces of Mormon missionaries.   It took some time for the trickle-down effect to reach the trenches of the missionary program, so a few more good years of missionary work would take place before the full impact of The Church's racist practices would drastically interfere with the success of the missionary program. (In truth, because of the racist beliefs of some of our nation's and world's unwashed masses, anti-African American policies may have made the Church seem more appealing to some of the dull and ignorant among us.)

In addition to anti-African- American  bias, other non-mainstream practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were  again  undergoing scrutiny.  Bizarre information concerning the LDS church's origin and practices initially  drove them from place to place, led to the death of their original prophet and president, and sent them packing all the way across the Great Plains to the Rockies, in some cases in the dead of winter.  Somehow the LDS Church overcame much of this and achieved almost (but not quite) mainstream status. Then, beginning  with the allegations of racism  as a result of  BYU athletics and the Civil Rights Movement, furthering itself with charges of  bias against women through its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment,and perhaps culminating in its vocal support of and underground financial support of California's Proposition Eight Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex  marriage in California  (the proposition was passed but was later overturned by California's Supreme Court) much of the positive public relations work that had been painstakingly accomplished was being systematically eroded.

While the LDS Church's actions in all of these political matters, which they deem as moral and not political, shone light in previously dark areas, the single greatest hindrance  to the success of the LDS missionary program is the medium of which I'm making use at this precise moment. The Internet  slowed the LDS Church's missionary program to a crawl, just as the Internet may one day end the LDS Church as it currently functions.

Church members were told before not to discuss outside the temple what goes on in the temple. It's not "secret," but it's "sacred."  Changes took place in the temple ceremony on numerous occasions. Because such things were not discussed outside of the temple, many LDS temple-goers who attended for the first time after the early nineties knew nothing of the oaths and penalties that were made as a standard part of each ceremony.  The alleged "naked touching"  that was, according to many, once a part of the initiatory rites of the temple, is a matter about which  more recent  temple attendees would have known nothing prior to the Internet's ease of dispersal of such information. The truth, as it now comes out through  records available on the Internet, is that the "naked touching" under open-sided "shields"  is mild compared to the forms of washings and anointings that took place in the LDS temple ceremonies of the distant  past. With the wealth of information dispersed through popular media in the current Information Age,  the LDS Church will be doing well to hold on to  its current membership and to a portion of those current  members' posterity.  massive growth of church membership, or at least growth in the form of converts who will remain in The Church, is not probable.

Secrets concerning church history, official but seldom discussed doctrines, and  "sacred" practices cannot be maintained for any length of time in this Information Age. If allowed inside the respective countries' borders on a large scale, The Church might do well under the controlled-Internet regimes of China or North Korea, but in the freer parts of the world, the truth shall set most people free.  Traveling door-to-door will no longer be a viable option  in terms of building church membership numbers. A few unfortunate souls in need of a good meal may turn up from time to time to take advantage of the Church's welfare program, and a few bona fide conversions may even take place, but, for the most part, the days of LDS missionaries being invited inside homes, asking  prospective converts The Golden Question,  getting the right answer, and baptizing  the families, who will from that point forward remain faithful members  of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a fairy tale.

If a missionary program is to be maintained, how best might it be salvaged?  Change the focus from one of salvation and conversion to one of service.  Call and send young people who are willing to feed the poor and hungry, or to teach the uneducated who desire to be taught,  Use The Church's massive financial resources to  uncover ways of developing safe water systems, and use the young missionaries as the manual labor needed to put such systems into effect. Missionaries could help individuals living in unlivable conditions to bring their abodes up to some sort of code, even if it's only helping them to put non-leaking roofs atop the ramshackle buildings. Train disaster response teams who will travel to hurricane, tornado, tsunami, flood, or earthquake-stricken locations, to name just a few, to provide much-needed relief. I acknowledge that local missionaries assigned to serve in areas that are then hit with calamities are being utilized in clean-up efforts, but a much more organized approach could be taken.

My suggestions are a mere drop in the ocean in terms of what could be done  to make The Church's  missionary effort viable if  it is to continue. I have ideas concerning mission homes located in prime real estate areas that I have not yet begun to share.

In summation, wouldn't it be better for the image of The Church if,  people were  to see its missionaries and to think, "There are those nice young people who come at their own expense to help people in need," as opposed to, "Here come those  $^@*$  Mormon missionaries again! Turn of the TV and pretend we're not home."

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