Saturday, December 5, 2009

Raising the bar

"We cannot send you on a mission to be reactivated, reformed, or to receive a testimony. We just don't have time for that". -Elder M. Russell Ballard

Some claim that the LDS Church is hemorrhaging members. In large part, I think that the notion of devoted adult members leaving in droves is the wishful thinking of those with ill feelings toward the church. For most of us, periods of inactivity come and go, disturbing facts are discovered and trouble us until we can find a reason to dismiss them, but once committed intellectually to the Mormon world view, people generally stay. Nevertheless, this commitment (also known as conversion) is not automatic. We do have a problem, at least in one sense.

I was surprised by the recent study which put the LDS retention rate at 70%. My own observation is that half of the people I have known who were raised in Mormon households no longer consider themselves Mormons as adults.

The church really does need to make time for them.

When it comes to their Missionary Program, I honestly don't think that the Mormon hierarchy knows what they have.

The vast majority of people who come in contact with LDS Missionaries have no idea who Joseph Smith was before, and have no idea who Joseph Smith was afterward. Contacting strangers door-to-door, and in public places, are simply not an effective way of spreading a message. On the contrary, what these practices are effective in doing is creating a public impression that your church is pushy and confrontational, closing a lot of minds that could have been reached through television and other less intrusive and intimidating means.

This said, I'm not arguing that Mormon Missionaries should stop proselytizing and go build houses for the poor. The Missionary Program takes young people and focuses them exclusively on religion, every waking minute, for a year-and-a-half to two years. I'm not knocking the good work done my Habitat for Humanity, the Missionary Program just has a different purpose. It exists to foster conversion, and while the ratio of man hours spent vs. baptisms achieved is not what would be considered productive by anyone in the business world, it is very effective at converting one group of people: the missionaries themselves.

I have no doubt that many I have known, who are wholeheartedly dedicated to the church, would either be lukewarm members, or would have dropped out of the church, were it not for their missionary experience. My life would have turned out much different had I spent that portion of it in the Army, or some other place, and not for the better.

No doubt the General Authorities realize that there is a lot of immature behavior going on in the mission field. Had one of them paid an unexpected visit to the Missionary Training Center dorms during the evening, especially the night we had a big war, throwing M&M's at each other like they were buckshot, we would have all been in a lot of trouble. By "raising the bar", they must have felt that they were doing something to curb the horseplay and rule violations, and to eliminate the slackers who would drag their companions down. But can you really expect anything different from young adults not long out of high school, especially at the beginning of their term of service?

I'm a big fan of Richard Dutcher's movies (if you've never seen "States of Grace", you've GOTTA go buy it, I don't recommend "Falling", though). His first, "God's Army", is the story of a young man called to serve in Los Angeles, who arrives uncertain as to why he decided to go and whether he would stay. The movie details his initial struggles, which lead him to gain strength through adversity, and catch the vision, laying the foundation for a successful mission and a successful life. It is a masterful depiction of what a mission can do for a youth from a troubled family, going through difficulties as he enters adulthood.

I was a mess when I was handed my high school diploma, completely unprepared by the California public education system to productively function as an adult in society. I registered for classes at the local community college, but accomplished very little. At 19, I joined the LDS Church. Two psychologists were assigned as my home teachers, (they were no doubt given all the "problem members" of the ward). As the first anniversary of my baptism approached, they suggested I consider submitting papers to serve. It is said within the church that a mission will be the best two years of your life. While this was hardly the easiest and most enjoyable time of my life, it was certainly the most productive in terms of personal growth. Of all those I served with, I was probably the one that needed this life changing experience the most. But that was before they "raised the bar".

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