There’s been quite an uproar the past day or so over announced changes to the missionary program. First up was the Deseret News story, “LDS Church plans to decrease missions; utilize tech savviness to locate religious-minded people.” Added in were more restrictions via interview questions regarding going on a mission. This includes asking more about not only what we’d call mental illness but things like ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. We’ve noted here before some of the issues related to the age change of missionaries. These changes definitely show that the Church is rethinking how to do missionary work. That’s a good thing. Whether these particular changes will work out isn’t entirely clear.
I think one way to look at the changes is that the church realizes that increasing the number of missionaries reaches a point of diminishing returns. Doubling the number of missionaries won’t double the number of converts. This in theory will get missionaries back to a better productivity in terms of converts per missionary. It also addresses other issues which may make individual missionaries less effective. Let’s be honest. Not everyone has the social skills, especially at 18, that lead to being a productive missionary.
On the other hand there’s lots of people who might lightly be on the autism spectrum or at least not have great innate social IQ who still have a lot of success on their missions. While I think it would be very useful to put people where their skills may fit better, such as with computers, I truly worry about a one size fits all decision. Honestly this gets back to my question about age.
At 18 I had near zero social IQ. I was extremely shy and insecure. The first year of my mission wasn’t exactly successful despite working ridiculously hard. At my year point my MTC companion was the top baptizer in mission history whereas I’d not yet baptized my first convert. On the other hand, the last 8 months of my mission were extremely successful. While I don’t want to say I had good social IQ, I’d at least developed enough that I was frequently among the top baptizers each month. More significantly the changes in me personally were huge. Not that I didn’t have a long ways to progress, but it at least pointed me in the direction I had to go over the following years.
I suspect I wasn’t alone in that. Maybe other missionaries have different weaknesses, but I worry about undue focus on ADHD (notoriously overdiagnosed) and Autistic like symptoms (which often are just development delays or low innate social IQ that needs developed rather that treated as Asperger’s syndrome). While this may in the short term lead to better missionaries, often people with great social IQ got converts who weren’t as converted to the gospel as they were a certain socialization. I knew many missionaries who baptized many whose investigators quickly went inactive. While I may have baptized far fewer, I am overjoyed how many of those I played a part in their conversion are still active members.
The other worry I have is perhaps optimism of how much can be done by social media. Don’t get me wrong. I think social media has a place. Yet I can also remember near the beginning of my mission being on splits and praying over cards in the old tracting records to find someone to visit. We went to the address listed to find someone who truly wanted our message. I’ve no idea if they ended up being converted, but it strengthened my testimony of the power of prayer and traditional disparaged methods of finding people.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m overjoyed that the Church isn’t assuming old methods will work the same way. Clearly things have changed. But whether these particular changes will lead to more conversions at best seems unclear. I certainly hope they will.
Of course the devil is in the details. The Deseret News story is quite vague. I have faith those in charge will look carefully at what works and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. I particularly still worry about Asia where I think we need a rethink of how we present our message for the local culture. I’m just a bit skeptical that we can find as many people via social media as some hope.