Monumental success in missionary work

Eighth in a series about the top stories of the 20th century.

One word describes the Church's missionary work during the past century — success.

The monumental success of missionary work sustains the Church's annual 5 percent growth rate, resulting in about a third of a million new members annually. Synergistic, missionary work strengthens all those it touches — the converts, the missionaries, their families, members and leaders; it starts branches and districts and creates wards and stakes. Missionaries return home to strengthen the entire Church with their presence.

Missionary work provides a rallying cry and is deeply embedded not only in the doctrine of the Restoration, but also in the hearts of the members.

Elder Earl C. Tingey of the Presidency of the Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department observed that "because most families have missionaries in their families or have come into the Church as a result of a missionary, it is the one theme in the Church most people feel tenderest about."

He noted that in his family, missionary spirit was strengthened by his father serving during the Great Depression. Since then, 30 of Elder Tingey's father's descendants and 15 of their spouses have served full-time missions for a combined total of nearly 100 years.

The missionary spirit is actually the Spirit of the Lord, and that is what makes the missionary work special, Elder Tingey said. "We are only successful if we have the Spirit. We can go through the motions, but nothing really happens in terms of conversion unless the Spirit is present. Now, if a missionary can learn that by keeping himself worthy and attuned to the Spirit, and doing all that is required of a missionary, he can effectively convert and bring people in.

"If missionaries can learn to do that, then when they leave the mission field, and go into schooling, employment, marriage and fatherhood or motherhood, they can rely on the same approach to make decisions on the basis of spiritual impressions.

"The formula [for making decisions by the Spirit] is really very simple — it is having the Spirit with you all the time in all the decisions you make. That is the basis for the whole Church."

Most of the Church's missionary work is done by full-time missionaries, a complement of mostly young men but substantially supplemented by young women, couples and older single women. This body of missionaries has increased by nearly a third since 1989, from 40,000 to nearly 60,000 by the end of 1999. The number of missions has also increased by a third, from 227 10 years ago to 333 this year. Missionaries are serving at their own expense in some 136 countries of the earth to fulfil the Savior's mandate, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

"Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." (Matt. 28:19-20.)

Two by two, the missionaries become a familiar sight from the boulevards of Paris to the village paths of Kenya, from the barrios of Mexico City to the boroughs of New York and from the prefectures of Japan to the Pampas of Argentina.

In so doing, they fulfil a prophecy by Jeremiah.

"Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks." (Jer. 16:16.)

Elder Tingey described the recent impact by one young man in a ward he was visiting. "I was in a sacrament meeting that started off with a young man, a very humble young man, saying farewell before going on a mission. The Spirit settled in on that congregation and all they talked about afterward was the spirit of missionary work."

This humble young man and his more than 59,000 counterparts serving as the century ends will have a vastly different experience than did the approximately 2,100 missionaries serving at the century's start. For starters, today's missionary will average about five converts per year, compared with missionaries of a hundred years ago who averaged fewer than two converts per year.

Today's missionaries begin their service with intensive training in one of 15 missionary training centers around the world. They will undergo a carefully balanced, four-week regimen of study, exercise, instruction, and practice that is uniform in all of the centers. Those who are to learn a language will attend for eight or nine weeks at the Provo, Utah, center, being trained in one of the most successful language training programs anywhere. Missionaries to Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Spain will have their language learning enhanced by spending the second half of their training at a center in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Lima, Peru; or Madrid, Spain.

Also, all missionaries called to England will have their entire training at the Preston, England, facility. This will enhance their learning as well as reducing the population at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, which has peaked at 4,300 missionaries, but which operates more smoothly with about 3,600 missionaries.

All missionaries today teach the gospel through a uniform set of six discussions. Another six lessons are taught to converts after their baptism by stake or district missionaries. To find people who are interested, missionaries typically go door-to-door tracting, hold street meetings and receive referrals from members. Those in North America also add to their list of people investigating the Church from media referrals — promotions through the media called "Direct Gospel Messages" — about the Church that allow people to call a toll-free number for more information. Media referrals in North America have provided a significant number of people for missionaries to teach since being instigated in March of 1986.

Media referrals also provide perhaps the greatest contrast between missionary work at the beginning and end of the century. Where missionaries today are often approached on the street or receive media referrals from people wanting to learn more of the gospel, their counterparts of a century earlier found few that were even willing to listen.

These hardy souls of the early 1900s served without purse or scrip and entered the field untrained. They often traveled alone and suffered indignities at the hands of local toughs. In 1900, the Church had approximately 2,179 missionaries, who had fewer than an estimated 4,000 convert baptisms.

About 1900, the Wilford Orson Scott family of the Oklahoma Conference who lived near the oil fields in Cleveland, Okla., recalled one cold, snowy day when they saw someone coming down the road. "It was a lone missionary who had walked through the snow for miles hoping to find a place to spend the night, only to find the Scott home quarantined with smallpox. The elder asked those who were well enough to join him at the gate — he on one side, they on the other. They sang, 'O, My Father,' had a prayer; then he trudged on through the night another six miles before finding shelter for the night." (Unpublished Tulsa Stake history, prepared for the 1980 Church sesquicentennial.)

Missionaries during the first decade of the century taught the gospel as they felt inclined and continued for months or years before inviting an investigator to be baptized. Slow progress was realized in various parts of the United States. Northern and Southern conferences were established in California, and some progress in Europe was made. Greece and Japan were opened.

In the second decade, World War I slowed missionary work for a time. In the 1920s, additional progress was made as missionaries re-established branches in Europe and added to and strengthened branches in the United States. In 1925, South America was dedicated for missionary work, beginning in Argentina. Missionaries entered Brazil in 1928.

The Great Depression of the 1930s again slowed missionary work. But it was during this decade that a mission president in the Southern States, LeGrand Richards, who would later serve as Presiding Bishop and in the Quorum of the Twelve, developed the concept of a uniform teaching. His plan, later published as the book, A Marvelous Work and A Wonder, outlined key scriptures, tracts, and basic concepts in 24 lessons. (Worldwide Church Growth, by Richard O. Cowan.)

About 10 years later, following World War II, missionary work began to flourish around the world. A missionary in the Northwestern States Mission, Richard L. Anderson, developed a uniform way of teaching known as the "Anderson Plan" that was successful and widely circulated between missions. Brother Anderson, now a BYU professor emeritus and author associated with the Joseph Fielding Smith Insititute for Church History, also found that a baptismal challenge "brought dramatic results" as the numbers of converts doubled in many locations. By early 1951, 11,000 copies of the plan had been published. The overall impact of this plan increased the converts per missionary from less than 2 to 2.7. (Cowan, p. 6.) In the 1950s, missionary work opened in Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador in Central America, in Uruguay and Paraguay in South America, and in the Philippines in Asia.

At this time, the executive secretary of the Church Missionary Committee was Gordon B. Hinckley, who called the authors of various plans into Church headquarters and interviewed them. He subsequently wrote a plan that reduced the number of lessons to seven and shifted emphasis from proving points with scriptures to the personal testimony of the missionary. In 1952, the Church published his first general plan, "A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel." The plan was optional but it was widely used.

Unfortunately at that time, the Korean War depleted the missionary force and threatened the ministerial status of missionaries until the situation was settled in 1955 by a Congressional resolution. From 1955 on, missionary work progressed, the number of conversions increased, and more countries were opened. Among countries opened in the 1950s were Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Chile, Korea, Fiji and Taiwan.

At general conference on Monday, April 6, 1959, President David O. McKay introduced the slogan, "Every member a missionary" and the work gained an additional momentum that has never faltered since. When the first mission presidents' training was held in 1961, the systematic lessons were made mandatory. In the 1960s work opened in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Singapore and the number of missionaries serving increased to 11,600.

The next watershed year came in 1974 when the new leader of the Church, President Spencer W. Kimball, declared to regional representatives: "The question is frequently asked: Should every young man fill a mission, and the answer has been given by the Lord. It is 'yes.' " President Kimball also encouraged couples to accept calls and promoted the preparation and calling of young men and women from other countries to join in the Church's great international effort. When the revelation on the priesthood was received in 1978, that quickly led to the opening of such nations as Ghana, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica. Other countries opened in the 1970s included Indonesia, Portugal, Malaysia and Micronesia.

During this era, the number of missionaries increased from 18,100 in 1974 to nearly 30,000 by the end of the decade. Conversions also increased from 69,000 to 211,000.

Another impetus occurred in June 1985 when new and serving mission presidents were called to Salt Lake City for a training session. They were instructed to allow missionaries to use their own words in teaching the lessons, to re-emphasize the importance of being guided by the Spirit, and to re-introduce the song "Called to Serve," that had been sung by Primary children for many years but which soon became a missionary anthem.

Later in the 1980s came one of the most significant advances of the century when the Soviet bloc dissolved and missionary work advanced into many eastern European countries, to additional African countries and more nations of Asia.

Today, the Church has a high and well-respected profile and is poised to enter the 21st century with a well-trained force of nearly 60,000 missionaries to help fulfill the Savior's missionary mandate, said Elder Tingey.

"But we need many, many more missionaries," he said.

"What has happened [recently] is that the incredible enthusiasm of President Gordon B. Hinckley has brought significant attention to the Church from the whole world," he said. President Hinckley's exposure by the media has "people seeking after us. You add the Family History Internet site, and the Church is getting a lot of attention."

But missionary work will still be a person-to-person operation because "each person has to be individually taught, individually converted and individually baptized."

He noted that the impact of missionary work has helped establish "solidly placed stakes throughout the world."

There are almost as many missionaries at the Missionary Training Center now as there were in the entire Church when he was a missionary in 1954, Elder Tingey said.

"Envision if that could be the case 50 years from now — that we would have as many missionaries being trained as there are in the whole Church," he said. "How do we run a Church that has 200,000 missionaries? I don't know if we can always train them at a training center.

"I think growth is our challenge — and getting the water to the end of the row — which means having every home produce qualified missionaries, every home fellowshipping new converts, every home a place where the gospel is lived. There is no reason why we can't have Zion communities everywhere.

"It is exciting to visualize what can happen and what will happen."

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