What is the expectation regarding full-time missionary service for young men who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? What is a leader’s, or parent’s, or friend’s role in encouraging missionary service?
These questions get a lot of play. Some BYU athlete decides to pass on missionary service to play more sports ball. Someone questions the focus missionary service gets among youth. Your close friend is honorably released, early, from missionary service. Suddenly, mortars are flying back and forth over the dereliction of duty in one way or another.
“Don’t be so mean!”
“That’s pretty judgy!”
“You’re an enabler!”
Surprisingly, the issue behind this recurring catfight has little to do with any ambiguity around questions related to missionary service. That much is fairly clear. Rather, these disagreements are actually rooted in our personal discomfort with what I’ll call “inverses.”
Witness and Judgment
How might you summarize the council regarding missionary service? I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to approach it this way:
“God, through his prophet, has instructed every worthy and able young man to serve a mission.”
As Latter-day Saints, it’s our responsibility to be a witness and represent this part of the restored gospel like we would any other gospel standard. This might include:
- encouraging young men to go on missions,
- discussing in priesthood quorums why we serve missions,
- talking with individual young men about what their missionary service might look like,
- helping young men to go on splits with full-time missionaries, and
- being an example of missionary service.
These tangible examples of witnessing are much different than passing some kind of personal, formal, ecclesiastic judgment on those who don’t serve:
“John Smith didn’t go on a mission, so he is bad and unworthy of a temple recommend.”
I see almost universal opposition to making these kinds of judgments. Matters of personal shortcomings, including young men who don’t or may not serve missions, should involve the individual, the Lord, and maybe the priesthood leader.
We witness. This is fine.
We refrain from judgment. This is fine, too.
And yet difficulty exists in the area between witnessing (“God says you should serve a mission”) and judgment (“You are bad for not serving a mission”).
Each gospel standard naturally includes some kind of inverse. Though the inverse might make us uneasy, we can’t pick up one end of the stick without picking up the other.
For example, you might say, “It’s good to keep the law of chastity.” That, of course, implies the inverse, “It’s bad not to keep the law of chastity.”
Or you might say, “We belong to the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” That, of course, implies the inverse, “All other churches are apostate to a meaningful degree, and cannot provide lasting happiness or salvation.”
Or you might say, “God, through His prophet, has instructed every worthy and able young man to serve a mission.” That, of course, implies the inverse, “If you’re worthy and able and still chose not to serve a mission, you disregard a prophetic mandate.”
And goodness does that inverse make Latter-day Saints uneasy.
There are many reasons for that, of course. One reason is these gospel standard inverses offend our modern sensibilities. It is as if we thought we could stand for something without being against anything else! And the minute you stand against something, you’ll find someone who takes it as a personal affront:
“If you’re worthy and able and still chose not to serve a mission, you disregard a prophetic mandate.”
“So you mean to say that I’m bad and am going to hell?”
“Well, no. What I mean is that if you’re worthy and able and still chose not to serve a mission, you disregard a prophetic mandate.”
Franky, most people are disinterested in passing ecclesiastical judgment for violations of gospel standards (perhaps because we’ve all been there!) What you do is between you and God, and there may be a legitimate exception given your personal circumstances.
And yet there will be consequences associated with your choices. Inverses can be powerful teaching tools to help individuals avoid unnecessary heartache, particularly when you mold them to specific situations:
“It’s bad not to keep the law of chastity, even if the actions involve two consenting adults.”
“All other churches are apostate to a meaningful degree, even those filled with good, honest, sincere believers.”
“If you’re worthy and able and don’t serve a mission, you disregard a prophetic mandate, even if you are reluctant to serve.”
Perhaps someone I care about will show some reluctance towards full-time missionary service. If they’re torn between missionary service and, say, athletic opportunities, will I use an inverse tailored to his situation? You bet I will.
Are many prospective missionaries honorably excused from service? Absolutely. This happens for a number of legitimate reasons. Athletic talent is not one of those reasons. Ill preparation is not one of those reasons. Fear and anxiety are not one of those reasons.
The Latter-day Saint who is unwilling to call error for what it is, even in the face of maybe hurting someone’s feelings, is a poor witness. Of course, there are issues of tact and diplomacy and timing and inspiration to take into consideration. But protecting feelings is not an end in itself.
Don’t shy away from inverses; you may be the catalyst behind someone’s decision to repent. If that repentance pushes them towards missionary service, the decision will bless them (and their posterity) for the rest of their lives.
- “Words of the Prophet: Forget Yourself and Go” -President Gordon B. Hinckley, New Era October 2002
- “Called to the Work” -Elder David A. Bednar, April 2017
- “Making the Right Choices” -Elder Richard G. Scott, October 1994