Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trouble In Zion's Harvest Fields: The Curious Cases Of LDS Missionary Failure

Since the beginning of the so-called "dispensation" of time that has occurred since the death of its founder Joseph Smith, the total number of missionaries deployed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints went over the million mark in 2007.  With their scrubbed, youthful visages seeking to engage converts globally in whatever halting command of their prospects' local languages they have, the LDS mission force has been on the go since 1830. No one can deny how completely focused upon Mormon missions work their church is or how from the earliest days of their life within their church, they are continually conditioned to seek their future participation in a mission anywhere in the world. Today, the typical LDS mission lasts 2 years, 18 months for young women, and is expected to be completely funded by the LDS missionary and his family - not the church itself.

The gospel according to the Mormon church is hardly the Biblical Good News Christ commanded, however. It is a crushing legalism of graceless perfectionism meant to compel illegitimate submission to the dictates of church authority mediated through a hierarchy headed by the Mormon prophet.  Beginning with a subjective experience of enlightenment about the church's claim to be the only true church, the mystical manipulation of LDS spirituality is drawn from its aberrant theology positing that all people are gods in embryo who are to strive to become gods in the ages to come. The practical and usually unspoken implications this belief brings offer tough enough challenges for LDS members to strive for, resulting in an unspoken Mormon perfectionism and equally unspoken spiritual burden laid upon every Latter Day Saint,  beginning in patriarchal family circles through service projects, personal piety, as well as marriage and religious "temple work". But for children raised under the influence of belief in godhood as the highest eternal reality and the need to strive accordingly to be counted worthy enough of such an accomplishment, the pressure to be perfect in temperament, morality and personal development is relentless and neverending. The sheer amount of behavioral problems many Mormon youth struggle with in the years before approaching missionary candidacy years is a well documented reality showing that, for all of their parental and church influence, they are not much better off then non-LDS youth.

M. Russell Ballard, one of the "Twelve Apostles" of the LDS Church leadership quorum, has in a "private audience" of "various news organizations" gone on record in June 2005 stating that there was only one way for anyone to explain this apparent fervor of LDS youth for LDS missions callings: 

"The only reason missionaries would make such sacrifice is because they know their message is true ..They wouldn't do it for any other reason."

We beg to differ.

For LDS culture to remain under the control of the dictates of the Mormon prophet as articulated by its First Presidency leadership, the conditioning of LDS youth to unquestioningly and unhesitatingly obey their leaders continues from their cradlehood onward. The paramount coaching LDS youngsters are given is to implant and nurture a desire to be called to a Mormon mission later in life. Generations of LDS youth are reared under the expectation that they are to pursue a missions call, beginning with - for example - grandparents setting up funds to start creating their missions support as an act of patriarchal love as much as obedience to church mandate. The impact this has had on LDS children and youth is profound and pervasive and it certainly plays to the Mormon Peoria very well indeed: this has been a good way for LDS leaders to piously cloak their well-honed practice of church indoctrination as youthful conviction of the truth of their creed.

A child born into LDS circles is fated to feel this compulsion weighing upon their minds all of the rest of their life and is a viewed by the church as paramount to their spiritual and personal development, as Ballard bluntly observed earlier that same year in 2005:
.. we must increase our efforts to see that every 12-year-old young man is worthily ordained a deacon; every 14-year-old, a teacher; every 16-year-old, a priest; and that every 18 to 19-year-old worthily receives the Melchizedek Priesthood. We can do this by filling the hearts of our young men with love for the Lord, understanding and appreciation of His Atonement, and a clear vision of the marvel of the Restoration.
When our youth understand the significance of the Restoration of the gospel and know for themselves that God is our Heavenly Father and He loves all of His children, that Jesus is the Christ, and that together They personally visited Joseph Smith to open this, the final dispensation of time, they will want to help carry this message to the world. When our youth see the Book of Mormon as tangible evidence that the message of the Restoration is true, they will be filled with a desire to do their part in teaching these truths to our Heavenly Father’s children.
With this demand for a completely mobilized populace of LDS youngsters inexorably drawn into embracing such lofty church ideals as "the marvel of the Restoration", the compulsion blurs into a coercion: every child "will want to help" once they "understand" the need regardless whether they like it or not. The road to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) is one paved with good intentions, sparkling idealism and a firm conviction that the world must come to hear of the  "Restored Gospel." 

Mormon youth are to fixate all of the energies their hearts and souls generate upon obediently bearing that torch. Ever compliant and desirous of pleasing their parents and church culture, they seek to please their God Elohim by preparing for that 2 year journey the rest of their young lives .. and it is their obedience and indoctrination into LDS religion that the MTC essentially fixates them with, as seen in this video clip from a PBS documentary from several years ago. The only questioning and reflection advisable is connected only to their usage of it to empty themselves of critical thinking and any actual considerations as to whether the Restoration is true or not suddenly become matters in which doubt is quashed:

Inevitably, muted voices of dissent arise within absolutist groups and are recognized off key notes in the symphonies of conformity to authoritarianism such organizations publicly broadcast and promote as the cutting edge Truth. This jarring of their idealism with harsh reality has been coming home for years to the Mormon Church in hurriedly packed bags and hushed private international phone calls. It's now becoming more and more apparent that recognition of an urgent problem within the LDS missions enterprise is starting to finally surface.

And what is the problem? The realization among Mormons is that their cookie-cutter stamping plant of LDS culture created to mold their youth into trail blazing missionaries has serious quality issues. More and more LDS youth have been coming home early from their missions much to the dismay and even bewilderment of their church and are failing to keep the commitments their youthful zeal and religious culture thrust them into making. Moral failure and illness alone cannot account for these aborted mission assignments and to attempt to cover it with such a fig leaf of unreality is no longer possible.

In the June 2005 article linked above, the belief that the need to demand more personal accountability and preparation of LDS missions candidates was cited as one of the reasons that the number of their mobilized missions force dramatically dropped from the years 2001-2007.

So the input provided from a more recent Deseret News article from earlier this month now attempted to explain why this is happening. It mentioned - as drawn from a study done with 348 returned LDS missionaries - a lack of personal preparation, stressful mission field environments and even mental health issues as part of the reasons that this is occurring. These young people's failures are said to arise from their own personal failings. While this is entirely possible and even probable given the nature of religious crosscultural mission as engaged by young adults with little to no life experience outside their own immediate life circles, the fact that so many of them fell prey to these kind of problems indicates a failure by their peers, mentors and leaders to prepare them for what they encountered which pulled them down. And I think that a supernaturally driven True Church should have more to show for than this - since they assume for themselves a pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment and social development far superior to the "Gentile" non-LDS world around them, the Latter Day Saint church should - it would follow - be able to field young people not as prone to failure.

The reality seems to be rather that LDS youth and young adults are more driven by their cultural expectation to take upon themselves a proselytizing burden complete with regimens, presentation scripts and the pressure to make converts than their noble yet misguided conviction that the Restoration is the ultimate truth. Apostle Ballard, seeking to provide lemonade out of missions lemons, speaks about an issue he seems completely disconnected from. The video I included in this blog gives a glimpse into the kind of high demands for submission to authority and control of their message delivery that the MTC requires of LDS missions trainees and is a brief glimpse into the kind of institutionalized mechanisms the church has erected to provide the formative leverage it sees the trainees as needing. The role of divine "truth" actually is supplanted by the greater and much more compelling influence of authoritarian culture within the lives of  LDS youth. 

Youth called to be a missionary are to engage in one of the noblest roles to play in the Mormon Church and the social elevation and status they will enjoy engenders great respect and honor, as well as a proof that they are truly a defender of the LDS faith. The beckoning of social aspiration as well as their ambitious desire to please God, parents and their church is a form of compulsion impossible to underestimate. To aspire to this and fail to withstand the load, with so many family and friends (and prospective fiances) watching you, let alone your religious leaders, is a tragic reality that many of them face with fear and trembling - knowing what their community could say about it.

To see LDS youth fail and be so stigmatized and feel so completely alone within the wombs of the One True Church says more to me about how human the organization is than for its presumption to exclusive divine truth. What it says to me is that the LDS missions calling is part of a Mormon Sacred Science that can and does demand the personal sacrifice of the LDS missionary no matter the cost. The sacrifice includes a painful stimulation of personal spiritual and mental aberration that can scar and maim the inner being of an idealistic young man or woman, often at the hands of their own church community. Such insenstive and abusive treatment cannot be dignified as Christian fellowship. The fact that supposedly orthodox Christian movements and churches also fail their own when they too struggle and fail is beside the point. For the Restoration should know and do better, much better. But too many LDS youth are given that kind of cruelly "tender mercy" when they fail. It only shows just how "filled with the Spirit" that the "Restoration" actually is .. and how vastly different that this gospel and spirit actually is (
2 Corinthians 11:4)!

And a truly tragic case of how the fear of failure in one young and struggling LDS missionary became manifest is another study of how cultic coercion is driven by they underlying dynamics of fear itself to enslave a struggling member. It is a classic case of doctrine over person, of the individual embracing self-destruction with the noble belief this is for their good and that of the community they belong to. In short, it is a demonstration of how powerful the dynamics of thought reform and mind control truly are within Mormonism.

And will the LDS Church's leaders wake up and smell the pizza?  

 As long as they think it smells like potato casserole, I highly doubt it.