…pigs will fly. But until then, I can imagine.
The article which Kaimi referred us to in the previous post has sparked a very nice, rambling discussion about church growth rates in Latin America and elsewhere. More importantly, it has reminded of the excellent, wide-ranging work of Dave Stewart, a church member who has spent over a decade gathering and synthesizing information on how our mission program actually works (or doesn’t), and compares the rather undeveloped state of “Mormon missiology” to that of other congregations, who have thought long and hard about what constitutes real growth, what makes for real and lasting conversions, and how missionaries and the rank-and-file membership can work together. I first ran across Stewart’s stuff a couple of years ago, and was deeply impressed then; I’m still impressed now. His collected research is thorough, somewhat repetitive, and no doubt could be criticized by professional statisticians, sociologists, and numerous others. But that doesn’t stop it from being a tremendous and thoughtful accomplishment.
Stewart is neither a crank nor a critic. He plainly loves the gospel, and especially loves missionary work–far, far more than I ever did or probably ever will. He wants to understand why our missions and mission programs routinely suffer from some very basic problems in conversion, retention, and member involvement, and he proposes what seem to me to be extremely persuasive answers. I can only hope that Stewart’s work has been downloaded and studied by church employees, who are in a better position than he to test his suppositions.
As one with sufficiently conflicted feelings about my mission to make me sincerely (and publicly) hope that no one will ever expect or ask me to serve another one, the odds that I’ll ever appear to be mission president material to a visiting general authority is quite low. Still, if the church is ever so hard up as to call on me, I’ll go ahead and serve–but not without mandating a few changes, some inspired by Stewart’s suggestions, some drawn from my own experience.
1) I’d never transfer missionaries.
Why should you? Obviously, if you have companionships or districts that have turned into mini-war zones, or if an elder is flirting with the local compassionate service teacher, you’ve got to make some changes. But otherwise, I don’t understand the point of moving elders and sisters around. At the very least, you should serve for a year in one place. You should have to get to know a particular community and congregation, and they should have to get to know you. The randomness and transience of most missionary service simply encourages a further sense of detachment on the part of both missionaries and members; it makes it easier to think of church work as just a box to check off before one moves on.
2) I wouldn’t let anyone baptize anybody who hadn’t attended church for three months straight.
The reasons for this are obvious. A) It means that the prospective convert will have more time to learn about the gospel and the church, and ease into the great transition he or she will be making. B) It gives the members more time to get to know and thus be more supportive of and familiar with the future convert. C) It forces missionaries to slow down, take a breather, and focus more on the person than the person’s commitments (or lack thereof).
3) I’d institute some sort of missionary school, with the explicit aim of rooting out bizarre gospel rumors unintentionally perpetuated by missionaries (as well continuing with their language and/or cultural education if it was an foreign mission) throughout the duration of their mission.
It might be a good idea to get locally called missionaries and members involved in teaching these.
4) I’d encourage specialization and experimentation: radio broadcasts, hospital work, teaching classes at a local college, writing religious columns for the local newspaper, a missionary band playing upbeat hymns and Christian music in the park–whatever.
5) I’d allow elders to wear khaki pants.
I think that last one alone will guarantee my file permanent residence at the bottom of the potential mission president pile.