Why I Served
I grew up knowing that I would serve a mission. My parents knew, and I knew, by the still, small voice of the Holy Ghost, that each president of the Church is a prophet of God. The prophet who served during my teenage years was Spencer W. Kimball. President Kimball, like other prophets before and since, taught that every young man in the Church should serve a mission; he wrote on one occasion:
A mission is not only a privilege and opportunity, but a solemn duty and obligation. . . . Your faith and knowledge of truth are the result of missionary work of days gone by which you can repay only by giving to others the same opportunities. Hence it is well for every worthy and prepared young man, as he grows up, to desire mightily to fill a mission. Of course, there is no compulsion. Each person makes up his mind on this matter as he does in receiving the priesthood, paying his tithes, marrying in the temple, serving in the Church. He ought to do all these things, but has his free agency.
Because of my desire to follow the prophet and my love for the Lord, I always knew that I would serve a mission. The Spirit caused me to love the thought of serving.
Around my nineteenth birthday, I sent the application form to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, then waited for my mission call. The decision as to where each missionary serves is made at Church headquarters, with final approval by the President of the Church, who signs the letter calling each missionary. Opening that letter is, understandably, an emotional experience for the missionary and his family. I suspected (and hoped) that I would be called to a Spanish-speaking mission, since I had studied Spanish for six years in school. I was called to the Spain Barcelona Mission, and I served for two years.
The Missionary Training Center
The mission experience begins at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. At the MTC, missionaries study the gospel principles that they will be teaching as missionaries, learn how best to teach those principles, and study the language of the country to which they are called. Learning the principles and how to teach them involves some memorization, so that missionaries can convey the Church's teachings in an orderly way. Missionaries who are learning a foreign language stay at the MTC for eight weeks, and those who will serve in English-speaking areas stay for about half that time. The MTC is a very busy, intense experience -- a bit like eight weeks of studying for final semester exams in college, but with a strong sense of the Lord's love and guidance.
Being at the MTC provides many opportunities to strengthen one's testimony -- that is, the personal, inner conviction that the Church's teachings are correct and that the Church's missionary work is the work of the Lord. Some of those opportunities come while studying the teachings of the Church. For example, one morning during my time at the MTC, I was pacing in the hallway outside our classroom while studying the principle that little children are "alive in Christ" and do not need to be baptized. As I studied and pondered that principle, I felt the Spirit bear powerful witness to my heart and mind as to its truth. These communications from the Spirit come as a warm, softening feeling in the heart, an overwhelming sense of the Lord's love and approval, and a calm but powerful sense of peace and gratitude that often brings tears.
Other opportunities for the growth of personal testimony at the MTC come during meetings at which leaders of the Church speak to all of the missionaries. There were approximately 2,000 missionaries in the MTC at any one time. As at every Church meeting, the missionaries sing at least two hymns during each of those meetings. Singing hymns tends to invite the Spirit, and singing with 2,000 other missionaries can be an especially powerful experience. I remember one particular occasion when the Spirit bore such powerful witness to me, during a hymn, as to the Lord's approval of, and involvement in, the Church's missionary work. I think we may have been singing the hymn "The Spirit of God":
The Spirit of God like a fire is burning!
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning,
And angels are coming to visit the earth.
We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies of heaven,
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given,
Henceforth and forever; Amen and amen!
The Church currently has approximately 330 missions, divided into geographical areas. Roughly 150+ missionaries are assigned to each mission. A mission is headed by a "president," who serves for three years. The mission presidents are generally about fifty years old or older, and each president is accompanied by his wife and usually by his minor children. Like the missionaries, the mission presidents pay their own way during their service.
Among other things, the mission president decides, with the guidance of the Holy Ghost, where each missionary serves within the mission, and which missionaries serve together as "companions." During my mission, I served in Logroņo, Algorta (near Bilbao), Barcelona (several times), Gerona, and Valencia. I served for about four months in each location, usually having a different companion in each place. Also, toward the end of my mission, I served as one of the two "assistants" to the mission president, which involved traveling with the president to meet with the missionaries in many other cities throughout the mission. Missionaries always serve in pairs, and a missionary stays with his companion twenty-four hours every day.
The Missionary Work
The missionary's primary objectives are to find people who are interested in learning about the Church's teachings, and then to teach them. Finding people involved knocking on doors, stopping people as we walked in parks and on the sidewalks of the cities, and visiting with the friends of Church members who had indicated an interest in the Church. Making "street contacts" -- stopping people in parks and on sidewalks -- was an especially good way to talk to people in Spain, both because most of those who worked in the city also lived within the city, and because taking walks for relaxation is a strong tradition in Spain.
Missionary work is hard work. Knocking on door after door was sometimes tiring and could become somewhat discouraging, as only a small percentage of the people who came to their doors were interested in listening to us. At first, it was very difficult to overcome my natural shyness and approach strangers to invite them to learn about the Church and its teachings. After a few months' experience, however, approaching people became second nature. I especially enjoyed making street contacts. I learned to find great joy in coming to know new people, communicating with them heart-to-heart, and explaining concepts in an understandable way.
To quote my mission call letter, missionaries are "to devote all [their] time and attention to serving the Lord, leaving behind all other personal affairs." Missionaries work six and a half days every week, taking off a half-day each week for writing letters home, doing laundry, buying groceries, cleaning the apartment, and occasionally sightseeing with other missionaries. Except with the permission of the mission president, they may call their families only twice a year: on Christmas day and on mother's day. In general, missionaries are to avoid watching movies or television. A missionary's day begins at around 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. (depending on the mission). Before leaving in the morning, we studied the scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, etc.) both individually and as companions, primarily to seek the guidance of the Spirit and the feeling of closeness to the Lord that comes with regular scripture study.
Missionary work presents countless opportunities for the growth of the missionary's personal testimony -- that is, to feel the witness of the Holy Ghost as to the truth of the Church's teachings. The Spirit often testifies to the missionary while the missionary is testifying to others. For example, one of the first principles that we taught to each person was that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ visited the young Joseph Smith, through whom they later organized the Church. The Spirit often witnessed to my heart that that event really happened, and I remember one occasion in particular when the Spirit bore especially powerful witness to me that Joseph Smith was Heavenly Father's prophet.
Missionary work fosters a great feeling of love for the people among whom the missionary serves. Serving and teaching and praying for a group of people inevitably, I think, leads to loving them. I still feel a great fondness for Spain and its people.
I once heard someone say, referring to a mission, "Two years to do it, and a lifetime to think about it." Truly, no more than a few days ever go by without my thinking about my mission -- and I returned in 1981. The joy of serving the Lord so purely and so constantly make them very precious and happy memories.
How It Changed Me
Most importantly, my mission strengthened my relationship with our Heavenly Father, and gave me greater confidence in his unconditional love. Missionaries pray a lot, and I had many wonderful experiences with prayer during my mission that reinforced my desire to pray and my knowledge that our Father in Heaven listens. My mission also strengthened my familiarity with, and my love for, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other scriptures, and my desire to study them. I learned over and over the value of daily, heartfelt prayer and daily study of the scriptures.
Being a missionary taught me a great deal about working with people -- how to explain concepts clearly, how to convey unspoken love and acceptance, how to help other people feel comfortable in conversation, and how to avoid offending. Those lessons have been invaluable in every area of my life.
My mission made me a more knowledgeable and sensitive member of the worldwide community. Perhaps most significantly, it taught me another language, which continues to be a great blessing in my life. It also showed me the culture and conditions of another country, and, to some extent, of an entire continent. As a result, I am much more tolerant and understanding of cultural differences. Finally, my mission gave me a glimpse of the sometimes powerful anti-American sentiment that can exist in the world. For example, although Spain later became a member of NATO, posters urging citizens to vote against joining that organization were very visible during 1979-1981.
Serving a mission gave me a greater awareness of the comparative affluence of the United States, and a greater appreciation for our material blessings. (Spain, of course, is much closer to the United States in that respect than are many other countries.) For example, my first, unexpected impression upon returning to the United States was the size of the cars compared to those in Europe. Similarly, before my mission, I probably thought that most Europeans lived in detached, single-family homes, as in America; whereas most Spaniards live in what we in the U.S. would call apartment buildings. These examples, perhaps somewhat trivial in themselves, represent the whole range of differences in material conditions that I saw on my mission. Living in slightly less affluent conditions during my mission has made me more flexible, I think, about the nature of my own surroundings.
One of my mission presidents used to teach that one day, years after our missions, we would recognize some particular blessing in our lives -- some way in which we had grown mentally or spiritually, or something we had learned somewhere about living. He said that we would, figuratively, turn that blessing over in our hands, wondering where it had come from. And then, he said, we would notice the label attached to the blessing, and it would say, "Spain Barcelona Mission, 1981." That kind of thing has happened again and again in the years since my mission.
As my mission call letter said, "Greater blessings and more happiness
than you have yet experienced await you as you humbly and prayerfully serve the Lord in
this labor of love among His children."
1. President Spencer W. Kimball, "Advice to a Young Man: Now Is the Time to Prepare," New Era magazine (June 1973), page 8; reprinted in The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, page 544. (The Church's magazines are available on the Web here.) (Click here to return to the text.)
2. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ use the terms "Spirit" and "Holy Ghost" interchangeably. Our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost compose the "Godhead." One of the roles of the Holy Ghost is to serve as a communicator between Heavenly Father and his children (John 14:26; Encyclopedia of Mormonism: "Godhead," "Holy Ghost.") (The Encyclopedia of Mormonism should be available in any sizeable university library.) (Click here to return to the text.)
6. I should add that missionaries tend to live perhaps slightly below the median economic level of the country in which they serve, at least in Europe and North America. Highly affluent conditions do exist in Spain, of course, but I seldom saw them. (Click here to return to the text.)
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This page was last updated on April 8, 2005.
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