Pardon my complicating what's proved an entertaining, laughable, lucrative stereotype, but a Mormon mission fundamentally consists of a whopping dose of reality, humility, and soul searching. —Betsy VanDenBerghe
In light of the missionary age change for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and growing popularity of “The Book of Mormon” musical, Salt Lake City-based writer Betsy VanDenBerghe wrote an article for Real Clear Religion addressing common LDS mission myths.
“Pardon my complicating what's proved an entertaining, laughable, lucrative stereotype, but a Mormon mission fundamentally consists of a whopping dose of reality, humility, and soul searching,” VanDenBerghe said in her article, “Time For Some Mormon Myth Busting.”
The first myth VanDenBerghe addressed is, “it’s all about converting.”
“Actually, a huge chunk of mission mental energy consists of learning to live with a mission companion at your side 24/7 — a companion you didn't choose, and who, though only with you for a few months at a time, will at best become Samwise to your Frodo, only getting on your nerves occasionally, and at worst drive you to the brink of quasi-insanity only lifted when you find yourself alone in the bathroom,” VanDenBerghe said.
She continued by saying that LDS missions teach missionaries about the necessity for God.
“That, to me, seems the crux of an LDS mission, and of religious transformation: realization of the need for God, of sin we can't root out ourselves, and of our mysterious exigency for forgiveness,” VanDenBerghe said. “The Book of Mormon calls it a ‘broken heart and contrite spirit.’ Jesus called it being born again.”
Another myth VanDenBerghe discussed was that a mission is “an insular bubble protected from the world.”
“Sure, on a mission, you aren't supposed to go to movies, call your friends, or surf the net, but — take my word for it — not perusing the ‘New York Times’ in no way buffers missionaries from being exposed to urban warfare, natural disasters, or some of the most repulsive personal and home situations imaginable,” VanDenBerghe said. “You're walking into people's homes and lives continuously, and those who let you in, ‘investigators,’ aren't usually flourishing. Even investigators whose lives include stability, education, and prosperity provide missionaries with an endless supply of doubt, scriptural challenges, and existential questions. If complete insulation from worldviews questioning God, religion, Mormonism, or the meaning of life is a goal, I'd suggest avoiding an LDS mission.”
Another LDS mission myth VanDenBerghe wrote about was that “missions foster intolerance.” She talked about how missionaries pass through culture shock, to acceptance to appreciation. VanDenBerghe noted how missionaries learn to love the people they serve by seeing life from their perspective.
“Maybe the best example of learning from others consists of a New York Times photo-essay featuring Sister Naisi Zhao, a Chinese college student serving as an LDS mission in Chinatown,” VanDenBerghe wrote. “Before coming on her mission, Sister Zhao explains, she thought she'd only teach others, but found God needed to educate her through the people of New York. One of those people was a mother who couldn't afford a private burial for her baby. After she grabbed Sister Zhao's hands and wept, the missionary reflected on the last twenty-one years of her life and wished she had been more selfless, spending less time and energy worried about grades, weight, make-up, and her future, and more time worrying about others.”
Some reader comments on VanDenBerghe’s article say that the myths she wrote about are themes in "The Book of Mormon Musical.”
“The play really reflects what you write about Mormon missions. The main characters are naive white boys who think they're going to change the world, but they have a crisis when they discover that they are woefully unprepared to convert Ugandans. At its heart, the play is about the spiritual journey of two Mormon missionaries as they grapple with their faith and their ability to convert others. I think you'd like the play,” said Robert Ross, a commenter on VanDenBerghe’s piece.
Others found VanDenBerghe’s article useful for better understanding LDS missions.
“I am a non-believer, and expect that I always will be, and I'm comfortable with that. But I've frequently been guilty of dismissing Mormons (and others) with the easy, lazy joke, instead of taking a little time to examine their deeds,” said reader dad21jedi. “Having read your article, I feel very awestruck and humbled. I congratulate you for conveying the trials of a missionary's life without sounding holier-than-thou or martyr-y. While I know we'll never share the same religious beliefs, I have newfound and tremendous respect for you and your fellow missionaries, who sacrifice your safety and comfort to do some real good in parts of the world that need it, and I am moved by how much these experiences move you.”