Mission preparation: teach testimony first

Cultivation of personal testimony through prayer, scripture study, obedience and service will lead to effective, powerful missionary efforts, according to Elder L. Aldin Porter of the Presidency of the Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department.

In an interview with the Church News, Elder Porter said that potential missionaries will be better prepared by learning and living basic Church doctrines than by extensive efforts to memorize missionary discussions or to practice teaching techniques."Families, priesthood quorums and auxiliaries can best prepare missionaries by teaching young men and women basic Church doctrines such as faith and repentance, increasing their knowledge of the holy scriptures and how to use them, and helping them gain testimonies and become familiar with the process of spiritual conversion," he noted. "The specific tools of missionary service - the finding process, the discussions, the teaching techniques and the commitment pattern - can all be acquired at the time they are needed and will be much more effective after a young person has developed his own spiritual reservoir and established his own testimony on a solid foundation.

"I hope those teaching prospective missionaries will teach them the doctrine, teach them the scriptures, teach them to know Jesus Christ and to appreciate and understand His mission and His sacrifice. With this basic foundation, they will be better prepared for the Missionary Training Center.

"It's a little like the man who wants to build a house. If he really wants to do it, he will find the tools and learn to use them. We would prefer that parents, quorums, institutes, religion classes, seminaries and auxiliaries motivate them to build houses, figuratively speaking, teaching them of the necessity and eternal value of houses. And when they get to the Missionary Training Center, we'll give them the tools to improve their ability to teach and baptize."

Elder Porter emphasized that all worthwhile efforts to help prepare missionaries are beneficial, and that the majority of missionaries enter the mission field well-prepared.

"The incredible thing is that with more than 48,000 missionaries, so many are so well-prepared and serve so effectively. But we do have a few who somehow miss the mental picture of what their role is, that they are there to serve others and not themselves; that they are there to teach the principles of the gospel and not the principles they think people ought to hear. The vast majority of our missionaries go out mentally, morally and spiritually prepared, committed to serve."

Elder Porter explained that missionary service is not a right, it's a privilege. He said: "There is a mind-set among some of our young people that going on a mission is a rite of passage, and it isn't. Missionaries are called and assigned by inspiration. It seems to me that those missionaries who understand that the Lord calls them respond more readily to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If one goes into the mission field thinking he has called himself and can go regardless of his preparation or worthiness, he may be able to go, but he won't have that same mantle that falls on the missionary who is prepared and who understands that as a servant of the Lord he must serve in the Lord's way."

Elder Porter detailed several things that will help effectively prepare missionaries, emphasizing that these steps are basic and are encompassed by following the Brethren and living faithfully. A person preparing for a mission needs:

"To learn to pray, really pray and communicate and not just check in occasionally."

"To partake of the sacrament worthily, pondering the cost of the Atonement to make it more personally significant. Missionaries need to know that and feel it deeply."

"To get into the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, not just to read through them, but to understand them and feel touched spiritually."

"To learn to serve others."

Elder Porter told of a young prospective missionary who, as part of his preparation, was asked by a priesthood leader to go to the local hospital two hours a day and serve others. He read books to children and had some wonderful experiences. When it came time for him to make final preparations to leave for his mission, he told his bishop he needed a couple of extra weeks. "There is a young boy at the hospital who has no one but me," the young man said. "His family lives hundreds of miles away, and he needs me until he is released from the hospital."

"Imagine what kind of a missionary that young man has turned out to be," Elder Porter said. "As badly as he wanted to leave for his mission, he asked for a couple of extra weeks because someone really needed him at the hospital."

"To learn how to work."

Elder Porter referred to a thought from President Ezra Taft Benson which hangs on the wall at the Missionary Training Center: "One of the greatest secrets of missionary work is work. If a missionary works, he will get the Spirit; if he gets the Spirit, he will teach by the Spirit; and if he teaches by the Spirit, he will touch the hearts of the people; and he will be happy. There will be no homesickness, no worrying about families, for all time, talents and interests are centered on the work of the ministry. That's the secret - work, work, work. There is no satisfactory substitute, especially in missionary work."

Elder Porter added, "As a part of all of this, they need to develop spirituality and have personal spiritual experiences that change their hearts."

Summarizing the principles of success in missionary preparation, he said that young people growing up in the Church are typically heavily involved in programs, but sometimes they don't have "spiritual experiences" that lead to true conversion until they are in the mission field. The sooner young men and women learn to feel and listen to the Spirit, the more effective they will be as missionaries, he said.

In explaining effective preparation principles, Elder Porter didn't discourage programmatic efforts to build missionaries through such activities as stake or ward missionary preparation classes.

"I'm deeply grateful to those priesthood leaders who develop a stake missionary preparation course," he said. "They are a tremendous help to the prospective missionary and to the missionary program of the Church. I would hope they would emphasize the converting doctrines of the kingdom and show future missionaries how to find for themselves that the gospel is true, as well as helping others do the same.

"I wouldn't be too concerned about having them learn or memorize all of the discussions. We want missionaries to be more concerned about using the discussions as a guide than learning them word for word. Sometimes missionaries are more concerned about teaching a discussion verbatim than they are about what the investigator is feeling during the discussion."

Elder Porter recalled one stake missionary preparation class that brought in respected adult members to teach different gospel principles. "I frankly think they got more out of hearing those people bear their testimonies and teach the gospel while feeling the Spirit, than of following a strict course of memorization. They had a parade of people who were role models."

He also emphasized that missionary preparation courses are encouraged and are conducted under the direction of the stake presidency, ward bishopric or branch presidency.

Toward the conclusion of the Church News interview, Elder Porter told of being in Brazil recently, where a missionary he had met prior to his mission handed him a note, saying he would be returning home in July with his mission completed. "This young elder made the point that this had been the greatest two years of his life and he wouldn't trade them for anything. That could have been said by any one of thousands and thousands of elders or sisters preparing to return home - those same words with the same feelings. That's the miracle of this work."

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