Feel for – Don’t Fear – the Missionaries
The more people learn about the LDS missionary program and the more they talk with missionaries, the more they realize the majority of missionaries are not well-versed in the Bible or even in Mormonism. Not only this, but as they hear about the rules these young people live under, they become much more sympathetic to them.
Young men can serve when they turn 18. Young women, who comprise about 30% of the missionary force, can serve at age 19. Young men serve for two years while young women serve for 18 months.
Many of the young men begin serving straight out of high school. For most, this will be the first time they live away from home.
Occasionally you will meet older missionaries who waited to go on their missions or who had recently converted to Mormonism.
Missionaries do not refer to themselves by their first names while on their mission. Males are always referred to as “elders” and females as “sisters”. Christians sometimes find this irritating, even offensive. “Why should I call such a young person an elder!” So much so, that they make a big point of trying to get on a first-name basis with them.
Such attempts often do no good. Some missionaries will be comfortable with you using their first names, especially after they have gotten comfortable with you. Many, however, won’t. Don’t make it an issue especially in the beginning.
Although serving a mission is considered a high privilege, individual missionaries will have different motives for serving. As a result, it will not be unusual to meet missionaries who are not as committed to Mormonism or their mission as you might expect. Few will admit it, but often this becomes apparent after talking with them for a while. Quite a few are on a mission mainly because they felt pressured by family and peers.
Another reason why many serve is because of the status given to a returned missionary (RM). If a young man wants to serve in a church leadership role, it is very helpful to have served a mission. And many young LDS women feel that RMs have stronger character traits, making them more attractive prospects for marriage.
On the contrary, most sister missionaries are highly committed to Mormonism. Most are on a mission, not because of any pressure, but because of their love of Mormonism.
Working in teams
A more experienced missionary, and thus a slightly older one, usually will be paired with one with little experience. The more experienced missionary (called the “senior companion”) often takes the lead in the discussion. In some areas of the country, it is becoming more common for missionaries to work in teams of three.
Sometimes the missionaries will bring along an older man or woman. These older adults will usually be more confident. Although this affords you another person to witness to, they often dominate the discussion. Not only does this make it more difficult to stick to the basics, it also often causes the missionaries to become spectators. We don’t want that to happen. We suggest that, already during the first visit, you address it and tell them that bringing a third person will make you uncomfortable. Most will honor your request without hesitation. In fact, many missionaries prefer this themselves.
As you set up your first meeting, be aware that missionaries will not enter a home where only members of the opposite sex are present. If, for example, two women plan to team up to meet with the missionaries, mention this upfront and they will likely send two sister missionaries. Or else you will have to meet in a public location.
Call and Training
One of the most important days in young Mormons’ lives is when they receive their call to serve as a missionary. They had been previously interviewed by their leaders to determine their worthiness to serve on a mission. They believe that Heavenly Father inspired the President of the Church, the living prophet, in issuing their specific call. They can be called to any place in the world. You can well imagine their excitement as they receive their call.
Shortly after receiving it, they go to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah. Those called to an English-speaking mission only receive two weeks of training! (Those receiving foreign language calls receive two months of training to learn the language.) Much of the training focuses, not on Mormon doctrine, but on mission rules and procedures.
There are three important things to remember as we talk with these young people.
- Most feel very honored and special for being called to be a missionary (even if they are not totally committed to their mission).
- Many, because of their lack of training, don’t know either the Bible or Mormonism very well. It is not uncommon for missionaries to deny or be unclear on even the basic teachings of Mormonism. The one thing, however, they all hold fast to is the central tenet of Mormonism; namely, that their living with Heavenly Father for all eternity depends on what they do.
- Many don’t know much about Christianity. Most think Christianity is very similar to Mormonism and will often state as much. This can become a source of great frustration to Christians. It often takes repeated discussions before they begin to see the great difference between biblical Christianity and Mormonism. It’s well worth the effort, however, because this is often the first step in their leaving Mormonism.
Bearing Their Testimony
The most important thing a missionary has is a “testimony”. All testimonies are basically the same: they say they know that 1) Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, 2) the Book of Mormon is true, and 3) the Church of Jesus Christ is the only true church. They will often state this with great emotion and end it with “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” This is called “bearing their testimony”.
Their testimony is based, not on a study of Scripture (including LDS scripture) but on their feelings. Some will even reference a specific time when they received a special feeling (a “burning in the bosom”). Mormonism teaches that the Holy Ghost gives revelation through feelings. Their testimonies are based so much on their feelings that some missionaries will readily admit they don’t know much Scripture.
Their testimony is a staple of their presentation and they bear it regularly. Sometimes they bear it as a last resort when they don’t’ know how to answer you. Other times, when they feel their faith is threatened, they bear it as a defense. In some cases, the bearing of their testimony may be a sign that your words have had an effect on them.
The best response to their bearing their testimony is to bear your testimony in a loving and confident way. We encourage you to spend time crafting a brief testimony which emphasizes your joy and confidence in Christ. As you do so, however, be alert to the danger of mocking their testimony. It is unloving, for example, to say: “I know there are false prophets. I know there are false churches.” etc.
In spite of Mormonism’s emphasis on family, missionaries are isolated from their families to a remarkable degree. They can’t go home during their mission even for family emergencies. Neither can family and friends visit them while they are on their mission. In 2019 the rules were changes so they can now call or email home each week. This is a double-edged sword because these weekly calls can make some even more homesick.
In addition to being isolated from family and friends, they are, to a large extent, isolated from the world. They are not to watch TV, use the Internet (except for church-approved sites), tweet, listen to the radio, play video games, read a secular book, etc. They are to be entirely focused on their work. “You will also be expected to devote all your time and attention to serving the Lord, leaving behind all personal affairs.” (Missionary Handbook, p. 4)
Finally, they are, in a sense, isolated from each other. Although they are to always be with their companion, they frequently change companions. They are also frequently moved to different areas within their mission district.
All of this, taken together, results in their being totally dependent on the church for all their needs: both physical and emotional. Some, but not all, missionaries experience varying degrees of loneliness, anxiety, and worse. This is evident in the increasing number of missionaries leaving their mission early.
Missionaries’ lives are greatly controlled. Their daily schedules are highly regimented from beginning (6:30 AM) to end (10:30 PM). They get one day off a week. On this “preparation day” they can write or call home. They also do chores like shopping and cleaning their apartment. They, however, don’t have the whole day off. In the evening, they are to make calls on investigators (prospects).
They are always to be in the same room as their companion. The Missionary Handbook says: “The only times you should be separated from your assigned companion are when you are in an interview with the mission president, on a companion exchange, or in the bathroom” (p. 31). They are to sleep in the same room and get up and go to bed at the same time. “Do not stay up late or get up early to be alone” (Missionary Handbook, p. 31). They are not even to use headphones when listening to church approved music because “they isolate you from your companion” (Handbook, p.25).
They are never to leave the boundaries of their assigned mission area unless they have the approval of the mission president.
Regardless of their family or personal income, they all receive the same monthly stipend for living expenses. (Most have contributed the funds needed to pay for their stipend.) “Any funds remaining after these expenses should be returned to the mission” (Handbook, p.44)
This again results in their being totally dependent on the church.
On top of everything else, LDS missionaries regularly encounter difficult experiences. Many people, including Christians, treat them rudely. Besides visiting investigators (prospects), they also visit inactive Mormons. These less than faithful members (“jack Mormons”) often treat them no better. Even faithful LDS members, especially those who have served on a mission, sometimes aren’t very sympathetic. They view the mission experience as a rite of passage to be endured by missionaries.
Hopefully this brief overview helps you see LDS missionaries for who they really are. Most are young people with little training, isolated and controlled, regularly being treated poorly by others. Almost all miss being home.
Their situation gives us wonderful opportunities to shower them with love. In various ways, we can give them a little taste of home away from home. For example, you can’t go wrong feeding the young men since they often prepare their own meals. Eating a meal around a table can feel like home. They especially appreciate a caring motherly presence. Sisters appreciate establishing emotional connections and doing activities (like baking) which remind them of home.
Most will respond very favorably to people who treat them kindly. Once they know we care, most will listen to what we have to say about Jesus. Our job is to witness to Christ. Then we leave it up to the Holy Spirit to do the converting. May God move you to see LDS missionaries as a fertile mission field.
The LDS Missionary Handbook was frequently quoted in this article. You can read this little booklet online at churchofjesuschrist.org. Type “missionary handbook” in the search window.
Click “next” to continue on to the next lesson.
Register Now to See the Whole Program!
There's much more to our Please Open the Door program. Register now to request a mentor, a witnessing handbook and gain access to the rest of our program materials!