What Can Christians Learn From the Surge in Mormon Youth Missionaries?
Greg Stier is founder and president of Dare 2 Share Ministries and author of Firing Jesus.
If we're honest, when most of us see those young, clean-cut Mormon missionaries knocking on doors, we quickly assume that the hip, relevant, "just show up" youth ministry strategies in our Protestant circles are vastly superior.
But are they? Mormons expect a lot from their teenagers: They ordain their young men into the ministry at age 12, expect their young people to attend seminary every day of high school, and ask them to serve in the field upwards of two years. Needless to say, we don't.
Mormonism pushes its kids harder and takes them farther than even the most ardent Protestant youth ministry. Can you imagine a youth group that challenged each of its teenagers to meet at 6 a.m. every day of the school year to learn about Christianity? That's exactly what Mormons do with their high-school students. We get excited if our teens gather around a pole at 7:15 a.m. to pray once a year.
When typical Christians graduate from high school, they grab their books and go off to a college dorm. When typical Mormons graduate from high school, they grab a bike pump and go on mission.
Those high expectations pay off. Young Mormons know what they believe and why they believe it. They've hammered out their theology on evangelical doorsteps. Their hearts and minds have been steeled and sealed into Mormon orthodoxy through their intense commitment.
Maybe that's why Mormons give more and work harder than their Christian peers. Maybe that's why the religion is expanding while a majority of former Christian youth-group attendees are fleeing the church.
Don't get me wrong. I don't want our teenagers to believe Mormon theology. Trying to earn God's favor through human effort is not going to help any teenager, whether Mormon or Protestant.
But what if we had higher spiritual expectations for our teenagers? What if we presented the Great Commission to them as the ultimate cause? What if we mobilized them through intentional, relational evangelism to spread the gospel at their schools every day? What if we inspired them to be fueled by grace and love, not religious duty or pressure?
I'm not saying we ought to copy Mormons' specific strategy. I can't foresee our teenagers racing Mormons to the door in a battle of the bicycles. We do, however, need to adopt their perspective. We need to challenge our young people. We need to cast a vision for Christ's message and mission and turn them into kingdom advancers. We need to build consistent opportunities for service, outreach, and training.
Let's learn from Mormons and instill in our young people a passion for Christ and his cause—making disciples who make disciples.
Put Christ First
John Divito is a former Mormon, a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and administrator for the Midwest Center for Theological Studies in Owensboro, Kentucky.
The impressive Mormon missionary response is not what it first appears. The recent surge is the fruit of young men and women being raised in Mormon culture. To understand the rise in those applying to become Latter-day Saint (LDS) missionaries, we first need to identify the root that produced the fruit.
Mormon culture is founded on a worldview requiring works in order to gain eternal life. The Book of Mormon teaches, "It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23, emphasis mine). Contrast this with Ephesians 2:8–10, which reminds us we are saved by grace through faith apart from our works. Imagine being raised in an atmosphere where you're told, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" in your daily living (Matt. 5:48, KJV). Achieving eternal life is the outcome of obeying your church and its living prophet, and your progress is tracked by church leaders.
We must understand the call for Mormon missionaries in this context. Since missions is considered a priesthood duty for lds men, church leaders and family encourage all young men to respond to the call of service. While young women are not under the same mandate, they are also encouraged to serve. In either situation, Mormon missionary work is critical to one's eternal future.
In light of this, we should not be surprised at the flood of applications that followed the lds First Presidency's announcement that it was lowering the minimum age requirement for missionaries. These young people are eager to serve so they can earn God's favor through their faithfulness.
The Mormon missionary surge should remind us of the empty promise of legalistic religious service. In fact, we can take a cautionary lesson from it, since a performance-based approach to Christianity easily finds its way into our evangelical churches.
We call our children to be obedient, but don't point them to Christ, who was obedient for us. We call them to godly living, but don't direct them to Christ as the substitute for our ungodliness. So when we urge our young men and women to serve sacrificially at home and abroad, the call is too often separated from the gospel. We've functionally taught them that the Christian life depends on what they do rather than who they are in Christ. This leads either to pride ("I can do it!") or to despair ("I can't do it!").
Instead of encouraging missions by appealing to our young people's need to serve or to the benefits they'll gain, youth leaders should motivate them to gospel-centered service by guiding them to Christ. He has taken our unrighteousness and exchanged it for his righteousness through the Cross.
In Christ, we have the security and the strength to faithfully serve him in love. May our youth go into the world and make disciples of all nations, having been reconciled to God and entrusted with the message of reconciliation.
Motivate via Grace
Kara Powell is executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and teaches youth and family ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Adolescence opens the curtain on a new season of questions for teenagers and emerging adults. Often standing at center stage among the questions that captivate young people is, "What can I do to make a difference?"
The Mormon Church's missions program gives young people a vibrant stage on which to wrestle with that question and pin down answers. There is a God-given spark embedded in humankind that burns especially bright in adolescents' developmental hunger to impact others. By lowering the age of eligibility for service, Mormon leaders have fanned the flame for teenagers eager to change the world around them.
Sharing the stage with this question of significance is the question of community: "To whom do I belong?" In an era when parents are more given to chauffeuring than discipling their children, and screen time is more common than face-to-face conversations, young people are looking for rites of passage that help them feel like part of a tribe. The 18 to 24 months spent in pairs, small groups, and local communities give Mormon teenagers and emerging adults a tangible milestone of belonging to a larger movement.
The surge of Mormon missionaries shows that young people are willing to make great sacrifices in order to answer these two questions. Yet the question that will follow the others into the spotlight and eventually upstage them is "Why do I serve?"
Unfortunately, young people are often motivated to serve by a convoluted mixture of divine calling and the desire to feel better about themselves and their position in the world—often a privileged one. That sort of guilt-based motivation brings short-term results, failing to plant the deep roots that produce fruit that lasts.
Christians have a unique core that motivates our service, a core that separates our religion from others, including Mormonism. That core is grace—amazing grace. Among all potential motivations for serving, grace takes top billing.
As the Fuller Youth Institute has learned in our Sticky Faith research, teenagers aren't best motivated to serve by the desire to feel better. The ideal motivation for service is responding to God's transforming grace. Service motivated by grace develops deeper faith and a lasting commitment to God's kingdom work. As we love telling children and teenagers, we serve and obey so that our lives become great big "thank you notes" back to God for all he has done for us.
The Mormon Church has found a powerful outlet for a young person's desire to experience purpose and connection. If we as Christians can combine that desire with a sense of God's extravagant grace, we may experience a similar surge of missions involvement among Christ followers of all ages.