Missionaries called to serve for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always been required to sacrifice personal matters in order to fully dedicate themselves to the Lord's work.
In the early days of the church, missionaries left their wives and children, often under difficult circumstances, to answer the call.
Missionaries still leave family and friends, but also education, sports and other significant circumstances in their lives.
They must also box up their favorite electronic devices, turn off the cell phone, log off their Facebook account and put away the computer and video games.
This is harder for some than one might think, says former LDS mission president Brad Wilcox.
"I started sensing that it was an issue early on (as a mission president) and it has gotten worse and worse. We definitely saw it as a concern in the mission and it concerns me as I see young men getting ready for missions," said Wilcox, who presided over the Chile Santiago East Mission from 2003 to 2006.
Wilcox is aware of missionaries in the MTC and field who he says are literally suffering withdrawals from cell phones, social networking and video games as if they were drugs. While serving in a stake presidency at BYU, Wilcox observed freshman boys who would stay up all night playing World of Warcraft or other video games, then sleep through class or skip church.
"I thought it was kind of funny," Wilcox said. "They are taking mission prep to supposedly get ready for a mission, yet what they are choosing to do all day and night long is about the furthest thing in the world from getting them ready for a mission."
While there may be nothing wrong or unrighteous regarding the use of various technologies and other electronic media, excessive use numbs the mind and spirit, and robs young people of the development of communication and social skills, which are vital to becoming an effective proselytizer. The LDS Church and Wilcox recommend various methods for controlling technology tendencies and helping young people develop essential communication skills.
In Elder David A. Bednar's May 2009 CES Fireside talk titled "Things As They Really Are," he addressed the topic:
"Sadly, some young men and women in the church today ignore 'things as they really are' (Jacob 4:13) and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value. … A young man or woman may waste countless hours, postpone or forfeit vocational or academic achievement, and ultimately sacrifice cherished human relationships because of mind- and spirit-numbing video and online games."
Relying on faith and devotion to the gospel, at least most missionaries have zero problem leaving technology behind, the LDS Church's Missionary Department told Mormon Times. The department acknowledged face-to-face communication better prepares young men and women for missionary service, but said the use of social networks has also helped.
"Their use of social networks has made them more open to talking about a variety of issues, including their own personal feelings regarding things that impact them most such as their testimonies," the department said in an e-mail. "They are also much more open to discussing these things with individuals with whom they do not have a close personal relationship, thus making them more able to speak with people they have not met personally."
In the field
Once in the mission field, mission presidents are ultimately responsible for technology use in their respective missions. In most areas, missionaries use e-mail each week to communicate with their families. Some use mission-sanctioned cell phones. Paperwork included with mission calls says, "There are no restrictions on playback devices but in every case, speakers are required for listening." Headphones are not allowed because they segregate companions from each other and are not consistent with missionary appearance.
"Successful and prepared missionaries don't waste their time playing video games and surfing the Internet," the department said.
Technology such as the Internet, texting and social networking are merely communication tools that give access to all kinds of information, news, entertainment and people with a variety of interests, the department said. When using these items, the church encourages potential missionaries and all church members to follow advice provided in "For the Strength of Youth," which states: "Choose only entertainment and media that uplift you. Good entertainment will help you to have good thoughts and make righteous choices. It will allow you to enjoy yourself without losing the Spirit of the Lord. We also encourage prospective missionaries and all members to use their network contacts to share their beliefs and testimonies of the gospel with others."
Wilcox, also an author, popular speaker and former seminary teacher, offered six suggestions for helping youths manage their electronic fix while still preparing for missions.
"Instead of saying 'Don't do that,' we are smarter to give them something else to do," Wilcox said. "Obviously technology and media are not bad, it's just a matter of not letting them take over your life."
1. Start when children are young to control the time they spend playing video games or social networking.
"All these Nintendo-playing boys are quick to tell me 'It's good for my hand-eye coordination,'" Wilcox said. "I always tell them it's not the kind of hand-eye coordination skills you need as a missionary. You need to be able to shake a hand and look someone in the eye. Those are not skills that are developed as you look at a screen or monitor."
2. Encourage youths to say "hi" to people they encounter whether they know the person or not. It may draw a strange look or two, but missionaries must act and not be acted upon, Wilcox said.
3. After mastering "hi," practice starting a conversation. This is easy when pumping gas or standing in a grocery store line.
"You are both just standing there. 'Hey, where are you from? Isn't this nice weather? I like your truck.' It doesn't have to be about the church," Wilcox said. "Young men have to realize that missionaries are the ones who need to be assertive to start conversations. They can't sit back and wait for someone to ask them about the gospel."
4. Eating meals together as a family provides a healthy feast of opportunities for communication development.
"If we don't gather at the same time, if we leave the television on while eating, then we are killing those conversations," Wilcox said.
5. Encourage kids to date (not steady) in order to develop communication skills.
Wilcox said dating is a wonderful activity because it forces young men, who sometimes speak in grunts or one-word syllables, to engage in communication with girls who are usually much better socially and verbally than boys. Why not be tutored and taught by an expert? Look at dating as mission preparation and learn how to carry on a conversation, Wilcox said.
"Some boys say to me, 'I don't want to spend money on someone else's future wife.' I say to them that unless you spend some money developing communication and social skills, you may not be lucky enough to get a wife, because what wife is going to want a man who sits around playing video games all day?"
6. Learn to listen. Many missionaries do a great job of learning how to teach the gospel, even in foreign languages, but some don't realize that half the battle is learning to listen and discover the needs and concerns of investigators that must be addressed, Wilcox said. He cited examples from his experience in the mission field when missionaries were so worried about what they would say next in Spanish they missed the mark with investigators.
"Part of teaching by the Spirit is the Lord will help you know what to say," Wilcox said. "Another part is the Spirit will tell you what that person needs. … We don't talk about that side of mission prep as much."
Tyson Rasmussen, a recently returned missionary from the Florida Tallahassee Mission, agreed with Wilcox on all points.
"Technology is taking away from the people skills required to be an effective missionary," said Rasmussen, now attending Snow College. "It's just easier to be acted upon than to use your agency to act."
In deciding how to use various technologies and media, Elder Bednar recommends asking two questions:
"Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?"
"Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?"
"A prepared missionary kind of has social confidence," said George Durrant, former mission president and longtime BYU missionary preparation instructor. "He knows how to meet people, ... present himself and has a bit of personality. I believe first impressions are so important. And if a missionary can present himself well ... I think the people will be attracted to him or her and they can slowly attract the people to the Savior."
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