Mormon church's Provo MTC: Exclusive look at the largest missionary training facility in the world

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-day series offering a closer look at how the LDS Church trains missionaries before they are sent into the field.

PROVO, Utah — From MLI to LTM to MTC and from TE to TRC to TALL, this is not your father's missionary training experience anymore.

And certainly not your grandfather's.

With a current missionary force of 53,660 volunteering 18 months to two years of their lives to spread the good word worldwide, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in its ninth decade of formal missionary training and celebrating its golden anniversary of centralized language instruction.

And it is taking its missionary training across the globe and into the future, coupling a 10-year expansion project and technological advances at its flagship Provo Missionary Training Center with 14 satellite facilities in as many countries.

These missionaries "fill the Lord's mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel," said Elder Richard G. Hinckley of the church's First Quorum of the Seventy and executive director of the church's Missionary Department.

"And they do so willingly. They don't know what they're getting into, for the most part, unless they've had siblings or close friends who have served — they do a wonderful job. They're young, they're inexperienced, and by the time they come home, they are mature and wonderful young people."

And the start of that service begins at a training center.

In 1925, the LDS Church established its Church Missionary Home and Preparatory Training School — or the Salt Lake Mission Home — where outgoing missionaries spent up to a week in training and preparation.

Fifty years ago this fall, the church created a Missionary Language Institute (MLI) on the BYU campus for Spanish-speaking missionaries. The name evolved into the Language Training Mission, with additional languages added and similar language-specific programs spread to at church colleges in Idaho and Hawaii.

In 1976, a separate LTM complex was designed and constructed near the BYU campus, while a year later, the first international missionary training center arose, in Brazil. And in 1978, the LTM became Provo's flagship Missionary Training Center, to prepare and refine all missionaries, not just those learning a language.

But don't think the "language" aspect is lessened with the change of names and focus. The Provo MTC still trains in 52 different languages, serving as the starting point for all missionaries called to serve in the church's North America missions and for many North Americans serving in foreign countries.

English-speakers train for three weeks before departing for their assigned areas. Those learning a language remain for eight weeks — 12 weeks for more difficult languages such as Russian, Finnish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese.

Provo MTC director Richard I. Heaton says the real story of the MTC is found in the missionaries themselves and in their sacrifices and struggles in what he calls "a place of growth."

"They become strong and powerful people to go on to the next level — the mission field — where they go through the same struggles again," he said.

Heaton adds that perhaps the MTC is best described for what it is not. "It's not a boot camp where you drive them, nor is it an intensive program where you break them down to build them back up. … we're not baby-sitting missionaries or trying to get them to comply or control them, to have them become robots."

Rather, the missionaries are expected to benefit from the regimen and self-discipline. "It doesn't force you as much as it allows you to develop these habits," said Elder Bryan Lozano of Long Beach, Calif., preparing to speak Spanish in the Texas San Antonio Mission.

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