Patheos answers the question:

Why do ‘Mormons’ Serve Missions?

family praying

It is often assumed that unpaid full-time proselyting missionary service is a requirement for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or “Mormons,” as they are often called). However, not only are missions not required of members, but fewer than 1 in 3 LDS youth actually serve missions. In addition, it is also a misnomer that missions are exclusively about proselyting. There are many kinds of “missions” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some members do serve proselyting missions. However, an increasing number serve humanitarian missions, temple missions, service missions, meetinghouse maintenance missions, and even technology missions.

So, why do members of the Church—young and old—commonly serve one or more missions during their lifetime? Well, people serve for a variety of reasons—and the Church actually has various reasons for their missionary efforts.

Proselyting Missions

In most Christian denominations, “missionary work” is usually grounded in what it typically referred to as Christ’s “Great Commission.” During His post-resurrection forty-day ministry, Jesus brought His eleven remaining apostles together and admonished them as follows:

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but…Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Thus, Jesus commanded His followers to preach the good word, bring people to Christ, baptize the unbaptized, and teach the world the importance of “obeying” God in “everything” He has “commanded.”

Following the pattern of the New Testament, missionaries in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seek to fulfill this commission. As in the Bible, they are typically sent out “two by two” (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1; Acts 13:2-3)—in part, to fulfill the ancient “law of witnesses,” wherein multiple testimonies of the truth were required (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Ether 5:4; D&C 6:28).

Service Missions

In addition to brining people to Christ, Jesus also commanded His disciples to serve others. For example, He said: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Jesus also said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). Regarding how we treat and serve others, Jesus explained, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) In the Book of Mormon, one of the canonized scriptural texts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it notes: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).

Thus, one of the additional purposes of the Church’s missionary program is to teach and promote Christlike service to others. As thousands of members of the Church, young and old alike, engage in service missions, they both bless those in need (as Jesus commanded us to), and also learn to be selfless and giving, as Christ was. Missions teach the missionaries to selflessly love others, and that helps the missionary to become a more Christian person.

Lifelong Influence on the Missionary

While it might not be the primary reason for full-time volunteer missionary service, studies have show that those who do participate in the Church’s missionary program are statistically more likely to remain active in the Church, graduate from college, serve in leadership roles, and have a life-long pattern of serving and blessing those in need around them. One source noted:

“Returning missionaries carry home a wealth of knowledge and experiences that set the course of their life: firm faith in God; an increased knowledge of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the restored gospel; an exposure to cultural diversity, even when serving in their homeland; a new language competence, possibly with a foreign language, but often with an improvement in their communication skills; an increase in confidence; and an overwhelming love for the people with whom they have served.

Missionaries also acquire abilities to set and reach goals, to gain a sense of responsibility for themselves and others, to concentrate on their educational studies and to build positive relationships with people of varied backgrounds.

The purpose of missionary service is to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will listen. But the experience of that service, for the individual missionary, becomes a strong foundation for the future… Many missionaries credit their full-time service with influencing the direction for the rest of their lives…

Those members who choose to go on missions for the Church serve on a volunteer basis at their own expense. Some 1.3 million missionaries have returned from service since the first missionaries were called in the 1830s. Of the more than 15 million members of the Church today, more than 976,000 have served a full-time mission. Many of the lay leadership and service roles in local congregations throughout the Church are filled by those returned missionaries, including approximately 70 percent of priesthood leadership roles. With the recent change in age requirements for service, more missionaries, particularly women, are serving, and will benefit their home congregations when they return…

From another perspective, a research study published in 2010…found that returned missionaries in the United States were likely to be well-educated, responsibly employed and involved in positive family and Church activities.

Some 40 percent of the survey’s respondents were college graduates, as compared to just 18 percent of the individuals in their respective peer groups. Ninety-five percent of the men and 63 percent of the women are gainfully employed, and their family incomes landed above the national average. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed attend Church worship services regularly and practice personal religious activities (information verified after 17 years following their full-time missionary service).”

Thus, though missions are first and foremost about blessing the lives of others, the Church is well aware that a person who serves will also have life-changing experiences themselves—experiences which will potentially change the trajectory of their lives and develop their personal spirituality in ways that few other experiences could.

Post-Employment Life

Most of us have some fantasy about how we will spend our retirement years. Dreams of the beach or golf course, world travel, or time with the grandkids might be on your “bucket list.” However, most of us don’t imagine ourselves donning a dress or suit and tie and heading out as a missionary for the Lord. And yet, in any given year, nearly 30 thousand retirees serve as either a full-time or church-service missionary in various parts of the world.

While there’s nothing wrong with a retirement filled with leisure, retired individuals and couples (in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) will often serve as “senior missionaries” for various reasons, including making their retirement years meaningful, experiencing new things and new cultures, as a means of keeping busy in their post-employment years, to set an example of faith and faithfulness for their posterity, and as an opportunity to enhance their own personal spirituality as they anticipate the day when they will pass from this life and meet their God.

While no one is obligated to serve as a missionary in The Church of Jesus Christ, many members choose to do so for various reasons—most often out of their love for the Lord and His gospel, and because they love and wish to serve God’s children spread across the globe. Most who serve find that, in the process of sacrificing for others, they are themselves strengthened spiritually, and their devotion to God is increased because of what they were willing to give.

1/25/2022 12:18:41 AM
About Alonzo L. Gaskill, PH.D.
Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology/comparative religion, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.