On this day twenty years ago, I started my two years of service as a full time volunteer missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The missionary experience is a powerful force in Latter-day Saint culture, hugely impacting the lives of millions of people around the world, and the lives of the tens of thousands who serve each year.
Why do we serve missions? What is it like to be a missionary? How does this service affect the rest of your life? In this post I will approach these questions from my own experience.
Why Did I Serve?
As a young teenager I was fairly agnostic. I grew up as a member of the Church, but during my first fifteen years its teachings didn’t sink very deeply into my heart. That started to change a few months before my 16th birthday, when I was studying the Book of Mormon and read Alma chapter 32. The prophet Alma described the process of building religious testimony and faith as an experiment. He used the analogy of planting a seed and nurturing it as it grows into a mature plant to describe the diligence and patience which we need to have as we are trying to build our faith. This description of a spiritual change as a rational experiment really appealed to my scientific mind, and I was particularly struck by Alma’s description of the starting materials required for the experiment: “a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you.“
I did not feel like I had any faith at that time in my life, but I was starting to suspect that I was missing something important, and the desire to have faith was slowly building in my heart. Figuring that I had everything to gain and nothing to lose, and realizing that my desire to believe was qualification enough, I decided to take Alma up on his challenge and try the experiment for myself. Within a few weeks I was feeling those metaphorical “swelling motions” in my soul, and I knew that “this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
A few months later my older brother left to serve a mission, and his letters home to the family changed my life forever. He described what it was like to live 100% of his time focused on learning, living, and teaching the gospel, and it made me want to do the same thing. The gospel experiment I had started a few months before had given me enough of a taste for the fruits of the gospel that I was ready to sign up for a feast. Or, to use a different metaphor, I had enjoyed getting my feet wet in the living waters, and I wanted an immersion experience. So I stood up in front of my congregation during a Sunday meeting and said over the pulpit that I wanted to serve a mission, and I committed myself to be ready when the time came.
How Do You Prepare to Serve?
About the time I turned 18 I started to get serious about my preparation. My missionary older brother wrote home with an ambitious scripture reading challenge for me, which I accepted. For many months I spent over an hour pondering the word of God each day, and this produced a whole slew of positive downstream effects: I recognized my own pride for the first time, repented of my sins, improved my music choices, and started to think of ways that I could help and serve the people around me. I started to visit the Salt Lake Temple baptistry as a patron once a week, and continued almost weekly temple visits for many months. My time in the scriptures and in the temple forged within my soul a strong commitment to the covenants of the gospel, which became my prime directive. By the time I submitted my mission papers I had voluntarily and solemnly obligated myself to serve the Lord, to keep his commandments, and to consecrate everything I had to build his kingdom on the earth.
Many people have asked me how I chose to serve where I did, and the answer is simple: I didn’t. It was an assignment which I accepted. Some years ago in General Conference Elder Ronald A. Rasband gave a fascinating description of his experience while observing President Henry B. Eyring ponder and pray over missionary assignments. Hearing his description was a very emotional experience for me, because I am confident that my assignment to England was inspired by God.
My mission call arrived by mail on Christmas Eve 1997, signed by President Gordon B. Hinckley. I was assigned to serve in the England London Mission.
On March 24, 1998 I was set apart as a missionary by my stake president, and the next day I reported for duty at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah. After six weeks of introductory training I flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Gatwick Airport with a group of about 10 new missionaries bound for the London mission. I remember my first glimpse of the beautiful English countryside from the air, with its narrow, winding country roads weaving between irregularly-shaped farmer’s fields, and hardly a single acre of free or wild space. Everything looked lush and green, and so different from the western desert expanse back home.
While going through customs at the airport I realized that everything around me was foreign, but I was the foreigner. This feeling intensified as I traveled with my first companion to our proselyting area in the north part of London. He was from Slovenia, and while we served together I only occasionally spoke with anyone from my home country.
Probably the thing which surprised me the most about England was how little I understood the language. I remember talking to a native Londoner in Muswell Hill during my first few days and realizing that I was only catching about every other word he said. Even though I was a native speaker of American English, I had to develop ears to hear this very different dialect of the language, with its cadence and unique idioms. By the end of my mission I knew British English well enough that I could make a pretty good guess of which county a person was from after hearing them speak for a minute, but it took time to develop that skill (and of course I have mostly lost it by now).
It also took some time to get used to British food, and especially the desserts. I remember eating my first trifle, which looked like it was going to be a really sweet treat, but it turned out to be so bland that I could barely finish it. The whipped cream, jelly, and sponge cake all seemed to be unsweetened, and the custard was like nothing my tongue had ever tasted before. Growing up as an American I had no idea that our desserts are obscenely sweet, and only when I left my country for a couple of years did I begin to realize this. After several months of eating British food I grew to prefer it, and I missed it terribly when I returned home to America.
There are probably a hundred stories I could tell from the 24 months I spent in England. I grew to love the English people and their culture, which is typical for missionaries wherever they serve. But as exciting and interesting as the cultural experience was, it was only incidental to the real purpose of my mission.
My Life as “Elder Sanderson”
As a missionary I typically worked 70-80 hours per week, and the majority of this time was spent trying to find and teach interested people. Those who make a serious study of the gospel as taught by the Latter-day Saints quickly realize that our message, if true, constitutes a religious movement as profound and consequential as the origin of any of the world’s major religions. Our story begins with an appearance of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ to a new prophet in the year 1820. We testify that our church is a restoration (not a reformation or protestation) of the original Church of Jesus Christ, and that Christ leads the church today through revelation to a living prophet, just as he led the ancient Church through revelation to Peter the apostle. The Book of Mormon was written by Christian prophets who lived in ancient America, and was translated from the ancient records in modern times by the power of God. These are enormous claims, and they sound fantastical in the ears of today’s secular culture. Joseph Smith himself said, “I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith). Nevertheless, we declare that our message is true.
You might expect such an important message to get a lot of attention, but one of the frustrations of missionary work is how inclined people are to ignore it. I faced indifference far more than I faced opposition or persecution, and it is hard to maintain faith and diligence when your work is almost universally dismissed and rejected so superficially. For me this was the biggest trial of my mission, and if it weren’t for the overwhelming optimism and hope in the message itself, I think I would have given in to despair and thrown in the towel.
A typical mission day starts with morning study, which is 60 minutes of personal scripture study and 60 minutes of group study with your companion. After another hour for breakfast and hygiene, we left the flat to work all day until 9:30 pm. Our work days were filled with many activities, like teaching appointments, street contacting, door-to-door contacting (which we called “tracting”), various missionary and other church meetings, and working with the members of the church in our area. We also did a few hours of community service each week. One day of the week was known as our Preparation Day, or P-Day, when we would do our shopping, laundry, play sports, and visit tourist sites.
I lived in 5 different towns in East Anglia, including two different areas of London, and I served with a total of 14 different companions, three of which were brand new missionaries fresh from the MTC. All of this makes for a constantly changing experience, which is part of the stress and the fun of serving. The relationships I built with my fellow missionaries and with the members in each area were rich and rewarding, and some of my fondest memories involve these interactions.
We worked in all weather conditions and seasons. I remember walking from my flat to the town centre in King’s Lynn in a freezing January rain, getting a headache from the cold water on my forehead. On another day near Ponder’s End we were pummeled by a sudden torrent of rain on a hot summer day while street contacting on the Hertford Rd. After a few months I didn’t bother to carry an umbrella because it was just extra weight in my bag. As the locals often said, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.”
God Gave the Increase
The history of the Church includes amazing stories of missionaries baptizing hundreds or even thousands of people. This happened in England in the early decades of the Church, but by the time I served there things had slowed down to a trickle. Throughout my mission I struggled against feelings that I was a failure, and that I was not achieving the success I wanted. My terrible shyness stopped me from being as bold as I wanted to be and gave me all the more reason to blame myself for my supposed failure.
Over time I came to realize that I was not called to perform a great harvest of souls, and that the Lord had some other design for me. He gave me hope and assurance on several occasions that he would help me to be the missionary that he wanted me to be, and so I pressed forward and never gave up. I found ways to help people around me, including companions and other missionaries, and members of the church who struggled. Right near the end of my mission I finally had the great opportunity to perform a baptism, and a few weeks later I was stunned when the young man I baptized stood up in our church meeting and declared before the whole congregation that he was planning to serve a mission. A couple of years later he did serve a mission, and he sent me a picture of himself wearing my old favorite tie which I had given to him the last time I saw him.
Paul the apostle was one of the most successful missionaries in the history of Christianity, and was a major player in the spread of the gospel from its roots in Judea into Asia Minor, Greece, and southern Europe. I remember being struck by a passage from one of his epistles to the Corinthians: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.” (1 Cor 3:6-10). When I received letters from the young man I baptized while he was serving his mission, I felt so honored to be a “laborer together” with him in this work.
What is it Like to Return Home?
Returning home from a mission is a bit like stepping off of the moving walkway at an airport. I was used to moving and working at a certain pace, and then quite suddenly I had nothing to do with my time. On top of that I was jet-lagged and somewhat culture-shocked to be back in my home country living with my parents again. The language, the food, and the traffic laws were all familiar to me but they felt oddly foreign. Passive entertainment was a rare experience as a missionary, so when I got home it felt like a hedonistic indulgence to watch television or listen to secular music.
I quickly learned to place limits on what I watched, and I combed through my music collection to weed out CDs I no longer enjoyed. After a week or two it felt natural again to drive on the right side of the road, and to eat ridiculously sweet desserts. My time was soon filled by full time work, and then full time studies, and I found that I was a better worker and a better student than I had been before because I was capable of working with more focused effort. About a year later I met and married my lovely wife. Over the next few years my vocabulary gradually drifted back to a western American dialect and most of the British idioms dropped out. One day while I was walking on the university campus with my sweetheart I saw some dog poop on the sidewalk ahead of her. I grabbed her elbow, pointed to the ground, and said, “Mind the poo.” She had no idea that this was a British phrase, having never ridden the London Underground where travelers are exhorted to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform.
While applying to medical school a few years later, an interviewer asked me to describe a difficult experience in my life and how I overcame it. I told him about my mission, and how hard it was to keep my spirits up when I felt so little of success, but how I persisted in pulling myself up by the bootstraps, as it were. My interviewer seemed interested and impressed with my experience, and I have always thought that the missionary experience is probably a big part of why young Latter-day Saints are so well represented in professional education.
Some people consider it a burden to leave behind home, school, and other pursuits to serve a mission for two years, but I didn’t consider it to be a sacrifice at all. What better thing could I have possibly done with my time and energy during this critical transition from adolescence to adulthood? The old cliché was true for me: I left home as a boy and returned home as a man.
And so the mission experience was over. But in a way it never really left me, or maybe I never left it. In retrospect my time in England seems as short as a British summer, but its positive consequences are still reverberating and even amplifying in my life. Those two years of service have pointed me towards everything good I have done in my adult life since that time.
So the next time you see a pair of Latter-day Saint missionaries hopefully now you will understand more of what they are experiencing and why they are doing it. Take the time to meet them; I promise that it is worth your time!
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