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  • Status Report on Missionary Work: A Conversation with Elder Thomas S. Monson, Chairman of the Missionary Committee of the Council of the Twelve

Status Report on Missionary Work: A Conversation with Elder Thomas S. Monson, Chairman of the Missionary Committee of the Council of the Twelve

Thomas S. Monson


Status Report on Missionary Work: A Conversation with Elder
Thomas S. Monson
, Chairman of the Missionary Committee of the Council of the Twelve

Ensign: It has been 3 1/2 years since President Spencer W. Kimball gave his memorable address to the Church signaling a greatly renewed missionary effort on the part of the entire Church. What has happened to the Church since then—have we made any progress?

Elder Monson: We certainly have! And it is a great testimony of the Lord’s hand in guiding the Church and in preparing his prophets. I think the Church has never had a person more oriented toward spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ than President Spencer W. Kimball. This has been true throughout his entire life, including his service while a member of the Twelve, where he served for many years as chairman of the missionary executive committee. He truly has the missionary spirit. The impact of his dynamics as a missionary-oriented person, his long experience, and the call through him as the Lord’s Prophet, Seer, and Revelator have set in motion factors which have resulted in one of the greatest upsurges in missionary work that we have ever seen. His address to the Brethren and the Regional Representatives of the Twelve in April 1974 had profound and deep influence on all who heard it—and on the Saints when they read it in the October Ensign of that year.

To help emphasize that message, we took to the quarterly conferences of that year, for the benefit of all Melchizedek Priesthood leaders, a specially prepared film, Go Ye into All the World. In that film, President Kimball places great emphasis on youngsters having missionary bank accounts, and on our responsibility to give the gospel not only to those who live near us but to every nation, with full faith that after we have done all we can do, the Lord will open the way in other areas. That film was shown in every stake in the Church, giving its unique testimony and the urging of the President of the Church. You remember that President Kimball said, “The time is now.” He placed that emphasis very strongly. Without question, these two events or steps, undergirded as they are with the desires of the Lord, have been successful in further intensifying our missionary efforts.

Incidentally, the Brethren feel that it is time for a renewed discussion on these same themes. Thus, members of the Church will be interested to know that beginning in 1977, Go Ye into All the World is again to be shown in every stake in the Church as part of our efforts to restress this urgent call from the Lord for our time. Every adult member of the Church is invited to this showing in order to learn three important objectives of the Church today: first, more and still better prepared missionaries; second, improved participation by members in the referral program; third, a united and cooperative effort between full-time and stake missions.

Ensign: Besides your being able to feel the pulse of the Church—which is now definitely much more missionary-minded—have our efforts manifested themselves in any measurable way?

Elder Monson: Yes. For example, let me review some related figures. At the end of 1974 there were 17,109 full-time missionaries serving; in 1975, that figure jumped dramatically to 20,620; and by the end of 1976, it was at 23,581. As of today, over 25,000 full-time missionaries are serving. Let’s look at missions. In 1974, there were 114; in 1975, 132; early this year, 147; and now, 156, with others yet to be announced. Look at convert baptisms. In 1974, there were 75,109; in 1975, 95,237; in 1976, 140,296; and thus far in 1977 we are well ahead of where we were at this time in 1976, which was the all-time banner year for convert baptisms. Statistics also show an increased effectiveness average per missionary: convert baptisms annually per full-time missionary were 4.40 in 1974; 4.62 in 1975; 5.95 in 1976. Of course, even though we’re pleased with this, you cannot always judge a missionary’s effectiveness by how many people he actually brings into the Church. I think that would be very unfair. Productivity in different areas varies markedly; and furthermore, convert baptisms have been favorably influenced by the actions and efforts of members in the stakes and districts of the Church.

There is another area where President Kimball has placed great stress, and that is in awakening the Saints themselves, wherever they live—in Canada, or Japan, or Scotland—to their responsibility to supply more, far more, of their own full-time missionaries. Thus, I’m happy to report that in 1974 there were 1,191 of what we might call local or national full-time missionaries; 1,784 in 1975; 2,369 in 1976. Members of the Church will be pleased to know, for example, that the Saints in Tonga and Samoa supply the great majority of the missionary force in their lands. In It’s a Young Church in … Mexico, well over 50 percent of the missionaries are native to their country, and the Saints in Chile provide a considerable number of the missionaries serving there. In Japan, Britain, and throughout Europe we are also seeing local missionaries come forward in great numbers. This movement is worldwide in significance.

These young men and young women are making the same kinds of sacrifices missionaries have always had to make; in some instances, the depth of sacrifice is very touching. Some of them are assisted financially, but no missionary is called who does not either by himself or with his family make a significant sacrifice toward his financial support. This great upsurge of local or national missionaries is of vital importance since visas for missionaries from the United States are not easily obtained from many nations. Were it not for this local missionary movement, our work might have been brought to a relative standstill in some areas.

I think there is another area that is illustrative of our progress. We are now taking the gospel to people in languages that heretofore have not been a part of the proselyting program. We’re presently translating standard works and missionary materials into twenty-three languages in which we have not had these materials before. In some of these tongues we are also proselyting, including among such peoples as the Aymara in Bolivia, Guarani in Paraguay, Quechua in Ecuador and Peru, Quiche and Cakchiquel in Guatemala, Maya in Yucatan, Hindi in Fiji, and Icelandic.

This chart illustrates the increase in both missionaries and convert baptisms during the period 1974–1977.

Year

Number of Missionaries

Convert Baptisms

1974

17,109

75,109

1975

20,620

95,237

1976

23,581

140,296

1977

25,445

178,000 (projected)

Ensign: Do we of the “every member a missionary” assignment play a part in all this picture of success?

Elder Monson: Definitely! There are a great number of areas throughout the Church where the contributions of members combine to make a fruitful field for missionary endeavors. Where we have Latter-day Saints prominent in community, civic, or governmental affairs, and where we have a sizable body of Latter-day Saints who have made their way of life and principles known to others, the work is greatly benefited. For example, think of what a great benefit we would have in southern California with perhaps a quarter of a million members responding to the call of “every member a missionary”! All along the West Coast of America we have had some of our finest success from members involving themselves in the missionary call from the Lord. And it is not insignificant that the Utah Salt Lake City Mission leads all English-speaking missions in effectiveness and in total convert baptisms—an indication that when Salt Lake City became a mission headquarters with full-time missionaries, then more members in Utah began to become excited about sharing the gospel. And what a treasure chest awaited and still awaits members in Utah—and everywhere—when they begin to do what the Lord has asked them to do! In this light, I must say that some of our finest examples of member missionaries are found in new members. They’re excited about what has come into their lives and so they share it with others and actively provide prepared referrals to the missionaries.

I think I can best demonstrate the significance of member involvement in preparing nonmembers for the missionaries by simply giving some facts. On the average, a pair of missionaries knocks on 1,000 doors in straight tracting to find one convert. If a member prepares a person or family and then, with the nonmember’s approval, refers him to the missionaries, we baptize one out of twelve. But if the member prepares a person or family and invites him to Church or to an open house where perhaps the film Man’s Search for Happiness is shown, and then invites the person or family to hear the gospel taught in his home where the member can bear his testimony to the friend, we baptize one out of three. When you compare three-to-one with a thousand-to-one, you can see why we pray for energetic member involvement in this kind of member missionary activity.

And all of us can do it! I remember a fine young couple who were contacted by the missionaries when I was presiding over a mission in eastern Canada. Prior to their baptism the young woman wrote her nonmember parents in western Canada to tell them what was taking place in her life and that of her husband and to ask them to consider welcoming the missionaries. A day after she wrote and before her letter arrived, her parents wrote her a letter telling her that they had been visited by the missionaries and were contemplating baptism and asked that she and her husband consider welcoming the missionaries. You can imagine the joy when each received the letter and subsequent telephone calls! But the point here is that both were preparing, hoping, and asking someone else to receive the missionaries.

Ensign: Why does the Church care so much that all of its members are involved in sharing the gospel?

Elder Monson: We care because the Lord, who knows the source of all happiness, has asked us to do it and has assured us blessings and happiness and joy if we will do it. We care because when we share the gospel with others, we unavoidably get outside of ourselves: we think and pray and work for the blessing of others, and this only further enriches and quickens us by the Holy Spirit. The list of by-products to ourselves is endless—growth in our testimonies, growth in our knowledge of the gospel, growth in our faith, more answered prayers. The eternal truth is: that which we willingly share, we keep; and that which we selfishly keep to ourselves, we lose. We care because we want all of our members everywhere to be happy. Is there any better reason?

Ensign: President Kimball has placed great emphasis on young men serving missions. What advice do you have about raising children to be missionaries?

Elder Monson: We all learn by example and repetition. So young men will learn that missionary work is important when they see parents sharing the gospel with others repeatedly throughout their growing years. Also, when parents have their sons keep missionary savings accounts, it helps keep a son’s mind missionary-centered. When we sing in our homes the Primary song “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission,” when older boys who are in the mission field write letters back home that are read around the table, the younger brother’s heart and soul are touched and his desire to be a missionary is strengthened. I think the most effective pattern is one of example and repetition.

Ensign: If you were raising a boy, what would you tell him?

Elder Monson: Well, I have a seventeen-year-old son now, and our hopes and prayers are that he will be a missionary as his older brother was. I would tell him of the Lord’s call, His knowledge of how we grow, and of the Lord’s need for his labors. But I would also want him to see his missionary service as part of a repayment and thanksgiving to the missionaries who brought his forebears—and thus himself—into the Church. That is a debt that must be repaid—and of course, each of us can do it throughout our lives in member-missionary activity.

Ensign: What about young ladies—does the Church want or need them to go on missions?

Elder Monson: First, full-time missionary work is primarily a priesthood calling, and that is why young men are asked to prepare. President Kimball has said that every worthy, normal young man should respond to a mission call. In the case of a sister, however, such service is optional. We do not wish to create a program that would prevent them from finding—or place hardship in their way toward finding—a proper companion in marriage, because that is their foremost responsibility, if such is able to happen. But there are many sisters who have decided that a mission call will further bless and enrich them, and I should say that we have need for them, for their great service and their added maturity. Thus we do not seek to place the same mandate upon the sisters as the Lord has upon the young men, but we are very happy to have them if a mission is their desire.

Ensign: What about couple missionaries—does the Church want or need more?

Elder Monson: We have a great need for missionary couples—and by that we mean retired couples. Today’s society permits a man to retire sooner than our parents, some retiring from civil service and the military in their forties and fifties, and many firms retiring men in their early sixties. We find that couples add a dimension of experience and maturity that is invaluable. Our greatest need is often in areas where the Church is just emerging, where languages other than English are used. (Incidentally, we have many married couples called as full-time missionaries who are learning a language or brushing up on a language at our language training facility in Provo.) These areas need and yearn for someone who has been in the Church, has served in positions, and can help new Saints see how everything really functions.

The work these couples perform may be different from that of the younger missionaries. Many couples serve as what we call agricultural missionaries, teaching people how to farm, or as welfare services missionaries, teaching sanitary skills, child care, health practices, and so forth. This is a work that is not widely known among all the members—but we would like it to be. We need more help. The requirements for couples are that their children be reared so that we do not split families, that they be in reasonably good health, and that they be in a position to finance their mission.

There is no way I can adequately relay how effective and significant their work is. I remember seeing in Tasmania a number of years ago Brother and Sister Otis Record of Salt Lake City. He used to be chief of police in Salt Lake. He came up to me and asked, “After the meeting, would you have time to greet our contacts?” Silently I wondered how this elderly, soft-spoken couple was doing. After the meeting, I went into a room where they introduced me to fourteen wonderful contacts. That dedicated couple had more contacts to that meeting than the entire district of younger missionaries! This experience is representative of dozens more I have seen or heard about. I want our retired or nearly retirement-age couples who may have questioned their own missionary-related skills, modestly minimizing their strengths of character and experience, to know that our Heavenly Father takes the willing soul and shapes his back to bear the Lord’s burden. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30) the Lord has said—and he qualifies all of us to do his bidding and fulfill his assignment. We need more missionary couples. We pray many will read this and be moved to discuss it with their bishop.

Ensign: What about elderly single brethren and sisters?

Elder Monson: We have hundreds of older sisters, for example, serving as full-time missionaries. And there is a need for the labors of everyone. But the rigors of missionary work are real, and I think it fair to say that an elderly adult contemplating a full-time mission would need to be able to find an intense lifestyle a pleasant experience.

Now, when an older couple goes out, these two are companions and have had long experience in pacing themselves. But that same mutual experience is not available when we mix youth and age as companions. Lest I paint a bleak picture, however, I must say that we have had a number of fine older sisters serve successfully in the missions of the Church.

But I would think a much more preferable alternative for most older single adults would be a stake mission. The joys, opportunities, and flexibilities of stake missionary service are very little known throughout the Church. This type of missionary service would represent a much more ideal match-up to many of our people who wish to be involved in full-time or part-time missionary work. We often do not appreciate the fact that missionary work in New York or Texas or Toronto or London or New Zealand is just like calling on nonmember neighbors in your own stake.

One of the outstanding stakes in stake missionary work in Salt Lake Valley has been Millcreek Stake. Recently while there I talked to two lady missionaries who had filled full-time missions elsewhere and were now serving stake missions. Each enthusiastically said that she had been instrumental in bringing twice as many people into the Church as a stake missionary as she had as a full-time missionary. One of the most successful stake missionaries I have ever known was Sister Veda Mortimer, wife of George Mortimer, who served as stake president in New Jersey. She asked that the stake and mission presidencies assign her three companions because she wanted to do missionary work most weekdays and weekends. Her success and results were phenomenal.

I think it is significant that President Kimball has placed great emphasis on stake missionary work—and I think many of our people are just now beginning to see and understand the great joy and potential that exist in stake missionary service. I would hope that many, many of our older and middle-aged couples and single adults would wish to discuss such a possibility with their leadership.

Ensign: Throughout the world, there are many members of the Church who are the only members in their family. This is particularly true for many young adults. What counsel do you have for persons in this circumstance?

Elder Monson: We are aware that one of the prime groups susceptible to the teachings of the gospel are what we might call the peer group of the missionary. Since this is so, you can see why it is important that we all be missionaries—when that happens, the missionary peer group includes everyone!

Even so, most of our 25,000 full-time missionaries are young adults—and with whom do you think a pair of 20-year-old missionaries would be most comfortable? Obviously, others more near their own age. For this reason, and partly because they are not as set in their ways, many young adults are embracing the gospel. Thus, many young adults are in the situation of being the only members of the Church in their families.

My counsel to persons in such circumstances, whether the member is a child or spouse, is to avoid the tendency to become impatient. Rather, continually show an added measure of love, an added measure of patience. Demonstrate by your own lives how the gospel has improved your lives, and family members in time will generally become aware that the gospel has had a salutary effect on you. Love, patience, continued prayer, and a life filled with joy, happiness, and trust in the Lord—trust that he is mindful of you and that your day will come—is the direction I uniformly give.

Now, as to the young adult in this circumstance who becomes a full-time missionary candidate—we want such candidates to enter the missionary field with the blessings of their nonmember parents. Then that young missionary has the choice opportunity to write his family weekly and tell them of his or her experiences. I don’t know if there is any way to count how many nonmember parents have come into the Church as a result of wonderful, love-filled, inspiring, interesting weekly letters to the home. There is something special about a missionary’s letter. I’ve often said that it seems to have an invisible postmark placed there by the Spirit. And when the letter arrives, it seems to have special significance and a glow about it that was not always there when the missionary wrote it. The letters are read and tears of joy course down the cheeks of parents, members or not. The end result is that there is a spirituality in such correspondence that is difficult to define.

I’ve told before the story of Craig Sudbury of Salt Lake City, who came to my office to be set apart as a missionary to Australia. He wanted to know how he could bring his father into the Church. Of course his mother had been unable to do that for nineteen years. I felt the inspiration to counsel him that if he’d write the right kind of letter to his father each week, it would have an effect. I counseled him to share the testimonies that he experienced as he brought people into the Church—the joy that it brought them—and to let his father know his true feelings about how much he appreciated having him as a dad. The young man did that. In a dramatic way, a year later, his father, Fred Sudbury, told his wife, Pearl, that his son’s letters had had such a profound effect upon him that he had been reading the Book of Mormon and he was now ready to be baptized. He invited his wife to go to Australia with him later so that he could be his son’s final baptism at the conclusion of his mission. That’s only representative of what happens countless times every year.

Ensign: As a result of your years of experience, what would you say are the factors of conversion?

Elder Monson: I have found that certain elements of our message have greater impact in the lives of people than others. For example, the plan of salvation—where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going—is one of the most powerful aspects of the gospel in terms of bringing others to a desire to study more. The next might be that we are led by a prophet—that God communicates to prophets today just as he always has. The next would be the Book of Mormon, and perhaps the next would be the true nature of the Godhead. I think that the majority of new converts found their serious interest tapped in one of these four elements of our message. Now, the deportment, attitude, knowledge, and spirit of the communicator of that message—member missionary or full-time missionary—has an equally important effect, and that’s why we all try to continually improve ourselves as reflectors of gospel truths.

There is another very significant element of the conversion process. The majority of people do not join the Church after their first exposure to it! Studies show that the average convert has been exposed to some aspect of the Church three or four times. For example, he may hear the Tabernacle Choir; he may know a Latter-day Saint; he may have read something about the Church; he may have attended an open house. This means something vital to all of us engaged in member missionary work—that we should not become disheartened if our first attempt with a person is not successful. Just keep making appropriate and timely exposures of the gospel message. What did Paul say?—“I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.” (1 Cor. 3:6.) This is an important factor.

It’s because of this understanding that we are anxious to use modern communication systems in exposing more people more frequently to the Church. Members of the Church have seen us begin to study how best to use the media. Our many stake public communication directors have been very successful in placing in local media a great number of locally originated stories about the Church. Last year in Canada we launched the Takin’ Care film and it has been successful in giving an exposure of the Church to many persons. The same can be said of the U.S. television program “The Family—and Other Living Things”—which aired throughout the U.S. last year. We are analyzing the results of these ventures into mass-media exposure. I do not know what our conclusions will be, but this I do know—we will continue to improve the presentation of our message, and members of the Church will continue to be fortified and assisted in their member-missionary labors by efforts such as the ones I have mentioned, as well as other plans on which we are working and studying. Complementing this thrust are the effects of area conferences. I don’t know if members in western America can adequately appreciate the great good and positive publicity that have resulted from these conferences. They have helped break barriers of misunderstanding. When you see President Kimball hosted by a head of state and see him persuasively bearing his testimony about our purposes and good desires for the citizens of a nation, good things result, and the media, public sentiment, and institutional leaders in those lands see the Church in a new light.

In harmony with this kind of broad communication, I think there has been the erasing of the mistaken notion that we are some strange sect or that we are not Christian. That has been a barrier that we have had to overcome, and I think we have largely overcome it. The majority of people do recognize us as followers of Jesus Christ.

But even with all this, the prime element of any conversion is personal prayer. When a person gets down on his or her knees and prays to Heavenly Father about the message that he or she has heard, that’s when conversion really starts to take place. There cannot be conversion without prayer, without recognition of a power higher than our own. Until a person comes to the point where he or she desires to really communicate with our eternal Heavenly Father, conversion will always be elusive. But it can be conclusive once powerful, personal prayer takes place. In a sense, our role through all of our exposures and introductions of the Church to others through member missionaries, books, magazines, films, lessons, meetings, etc., is simply to stimulate individuals to receive personal revelation from our Heavenly Father. Once that happens, all the rest falls into place.

Ensign: You’ve been actively involved in sharing the gospel for much of the past thirty years. How do you find joy in it month in and month out?

Elder Monson: The Lord gives the joy to anyone who wants it, to anyone who will do the things to obtain it. Concerning this work, I’m a confirmed optimist. It is not difficult for me to become enthused over something that has great interest for me—and the gospel and the Church have great interest for me. The gospel is true. Some time ago a man came into my office and said that his contact with the Church came many years earlier when some of us young Latter-day Saint men had introduced him to the Church at a naval training base in San Diego. It made me feel humbly grateful that as eighteen-year-olds, my Latter-day Saint companions and I followed the verse:

Dare to be a Mormon;
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm;
Dare to make it known.

Since those years, I have relearned many times that our missionary experiences have to be current. It is not enough to sit back and ponder former experiences. To be fulfilled, you have to continue to naturally and normally share the gospel. This holds true for General Authorities as well. I always enjoy hearing from the Brethren who on their weekend assignments give the gospel message to someone sitting next to them on the plane. I must also say that I love and rejoice in the opportunity to associate with my brethren in this work—to work under President Spencer W. Kimball in this critical period in history on this special call from the Lord is a great trust that humbles me; to receive guidance from President Ezra Taft Benson, that great and gifted and inspired leader of my priesthood quorum, to be associated with brethren of the Missionary Executive Committee and the Missionary Department like Elders Bruce R. McConkie, David B. Haight, Franklin D. Richards, Carlos E. Asay, Rex D. Pinegar—this is all a source of profound joy and a great blessing in my life. I love my associates—and I believe that all members everywhere have or can have this same kind of love and respect for those with whom they are associated when we’re united and when we earnestly seek the help of our Heavenly Father in accomplishing His work.

Let us be guided by the prophetic and inspiring declaration of Joseph Smith, who wrote in the historic March 1, 1842, Wentworth letter:

“The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church, 4:540.)

[photo] Photography by Eldon Linschoten, with fish-eye lens

[photo] Photography by Marilyn Erd