But when you see these young men and women, what are you looking at? Non-Mormons see young people on bikes or on foot knocking on doors or stopping people on the street to tell them about Mormonism. Most imagine aggressive sales-type tactics designed to get these pairs of missionaries through the door where they will proceed to try to argue the occupants into submission. They generally see people to be avoided.
I'm sympathetic to what they see. I see the same thing when I see evangelists of other religions at work. But having been one of those missionaries, and having had two children serve as missionaries, I don't see in Mormon missionaries what others see. Instead I see young people who are not so different than most other people their age, with similar interests and aspirations.
I see people who really do want to preach the gospel, but who aren't likely to be very aggressive when they do so. There are exceptions. There are perhaps some missionary leaders who can persuade their charges to be aggressive. But most young people don't have a taste for that kind of approach to things, and few church leaders encourage it. Most missionaries see their job to be giving people a chance to hear what they have to say, offering an opportunity, looking for those who are interested rather than forcing themselves on people who aren't interested.
Were you to talk with them, you would find them serious and committed. You would find them anxious to preach their message. If you have training in theology or the history of religion, you would find them reasonably well-informed and earnest about LDS beliefs and practices, but naïve about other religions. You would rarely find them overbearing.
The most important thing that missions do for the LDS Church is provide converts to the Church. Mormonism expands as rapidly as it does because of its birth rate and because of its missionary force.
But the mission experience also gives young people an opportunity to do something they would rarely do without it. Perhaps most important, it requires them to think about their relationship to God and to take that relationship seriously. And it requires them to be disciplined and thoughtful for from eighteen months to two years. It is difficult work to be a missionary, but most missionaries learn to do that work.
And the benefits to them go further. I recently heard a young man tell about his missionary experience. It was different than many, but it also parallels in a variety of ways what happens on every LDS mission.
As someone who started school a year later, the young man went as a missionary at nineteen without having been to college. After graduating from high school, he worked for a while to earn money for his mission and then left to serve.
Many missionaries are called to U.S. missions or to missions in developed countries, but this missionary was called to serve for two years in Chuuk, one of the Federated States of Micronesia. (During WWII, the islands were called "Truk.") Since there is no training available in the U.S. for Chuukeese, he arrived unable to communicate, learned the language through experience, and left able to talk with people and work effectively as a missionary. That is a considerable accomplishment for a nineteen-year-old with no college education.
Having never previously been outside the United States, the young man not only saw a very different culture, he lived in that culture, with people who have a subsistence life-style. He saw poverty (and saw that poverty and subsistence living aren't necessarily the same). He worked with people suffering from addiction as well as with ordinary families living ordinary lives, though lives very different than the lives of his family and neighbors in Utah.
The effect on this young man will almost certainly be substantial. If he's like my sons, he will no longer be able to think about what it takes to live well in the same way. He is likely to have much more sympathy for people who have less than he. Having lived with those of another race for two years, he is likely afterward to be more thoughtful in his relations with those of other races. Learning to eat strange food may have made him more curious about the foods of others. Perhaps he was no longer a picky eater when he returned home.
His experience of sacrifice, discipline, and hard work will probably have taught him more about them than he would have learned in the next ten or fifteen years of his life. Missionary work not only heavily augments the growth of the LDS Church, for which Mormons are grateful, it also marks the missionary's soul in many ways, some of them dramatic, some of them almost imperceptible. We're grateful for that too.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.