Q: We often hear about the challenges of missionary work in Church history. We hear about great missionaries and how they overcame hardships to bring spectacular numbers of new converts into the Church. Are the challenges facing a missionary today any different from those in the past?
Elder Hinckley: Missionary work always has and always will involve challenges. Circumstances and attitudes have changed, but basically the work has been much the same through all the years we have been doing missionary work. And I should add that missionary work even preceded the organization of the Church. When the Book of Mormon was first published, some of those who believed in it taught it to others and testified of it.
Many people today are prone to look back upon the early days of the Church as days of harvest and upon the present as days of gleaning. Actually when you look closer at Church history, you find that many of the early missionaries who had tremendous successes also experienced tremendous disappointments.
It is a human tendency to glorify the past, but we should also take note that there were many who did not listen to those able and great exponents of the gospel then just as there are many who do not listen to those who teach the gospel today.
Q: How do today’s results compare with the results of the past?
Elder Hinckley: Generally speaking, I think we can say that missionary work is more productive today than it has been during most periods in the past. Of course, the results vary with the areas. Some areas that in the past produced many converts today produce relatively few. And areas that many years ago were not open or were not very fruitful have become marvelously fruitful today.
Q: What then are some constants that missionaries have always experienced and will continue to experience in the future?
Elder Hinckley: The message has always been the same. The adversary has always worked upon those who were taught the gospel and those who teach it. Missionary work has never been easy, and yet the joyful rewards cannot be equaled by any other experience. Anything as precious as the gospel of Jesus Christ is worthy of all the effort and sacrifice of time and means employed to teach it.
Q: Do you think that the average missionary is as knowledgeable and spiritually prepared for a mission as those in the past?
Elder Hinckley: Of course, my personal experience does not go back far enough for me to comment firsthand on the early missionaries in the Church. I went on a mission forty years ago, and beyond that I know only what has been written. It has been my observation in working with young men and women in most of the missions of the world that, generally speaking, those who are going on missions today are just as devoted and perhaps better prepared than they were when I went forty years ago.
Q: Are the opportunities as great today as they were forty years ago?
Elder Hinckley: I think the opportunities are greater today. In most of the missions we have a much better atmosphere in which to work. It is different than it was as recently as forty years ago. There seems to be less bigotry in the world. There is more tolerance. And some of the larger churches have experienced difficulties filling the spiritual needs of their members. There is dissatisfaction among a great many Christian people. They are not happy with what they have and, therefore, respond readily to the message of the restored gospel.
Q: How about people’s preconceived notion of the Church today?
Elder Hinckley: Generally speaking, the Church now enjoys an excellent reputation, particularly in North America. The old bitterness that came largely from ignorance is being dissipated. Of course, there are specific geographical exceptions. Most people, however, know us as a people of integrity, faith, and devotion to Christian principles. Many also look upon the importance of the family in today’s society, and these people are favorably impressed with our emphasis on the family.
Q: What has been the key to this new understanding?
Elder Hinckley: There is greater exposure today than ever before. People travel more; they read more and that leads to better understanding. The Church has grown, and the more it grows the more people become acquainted with us. Because there are more of us there is greater exposure. The building program in the world has helped in a wonderful way. When I was on a mission, we had very few buildings. I believe we owned only one chapel in all of the British Isles. Our lovely chapels have done much to improve the world’s opinion of us. Now most members and missionaries have a place to take friends and investigators, and this is a great advantage. Furthermore, the press, radio, and television have taken note of our work and have reported it more factually and, therefore, more favorably.
Q: Has there been much of a change in the actual procedures of doing missionary work?
Elder Hinckley: They have not greatly changed, but new emphasis has been given to the responsibility of members to become involved in taking the gospel to others. Priesthood correlation affords the impetus and the means to coordinate the interest and the obligation of the members to find investigators, with the responsibility and the capacity of the missionaries to teach those investigators.
We have long realized that the most potent missionary tool is a good member of the Church.
Today we are represented by people in all walks of life—men and women of prominence, men and women of accomplishment, men and women who are widely recognized for their abilities, and who also are men and women of faith with pride in the Church. And, of course, this all helps tremendously in creating the good image the Church deserves. This is a great touchstone in spreading the gospel to others.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing missionaries today?
Elder Hinckley: The biggest challenge facing a missionary today is to forget himself and lose himself in the work. We are all prone to be a little selfish, a little lazy. We all like comfort; yet industry is at the heart of missionary work. This has not changed since the time of the Savior. He said, “… whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” (Mark 8:35.) That is particularly true with missionary work. The greatest challenge has always been to go before the Lord in prayer and ask for strength and capacity and direction, and then go out and go to work. The Lord has declared: “If therefore thine eye be single [to my glory], thy whole body shall be full of light.” (Matt. 6:22.) If a missionary works with an eye single to the glory of God, then the darkness goes out, the darkness of laziness, the darkness of sin, the darkness of procrastination, the darkness of fear, and these are all factors that influence missionary work.
Q: Is a mission for everyone?
Elder Hinckley: I would not say that a full-time mission is for everyone. Missionary work is rigorous. It is demanding. It is difficult. It has never been easy, and it never will be. It requires strength of body, strength of mind; strength of spirit. We must face the fact that there are a few who should not try to perform a full-time mission. Those who cannot should not feel discouraged because some incapacity will not permit them to go. We should remember that there are many ways to serve the Lord acceptably.
I feel strongly, however, that every member of the Church should live to be worthy to go on a mission and teach the gospel to others. Then, of course, we need to accept the judgment of our church officers concerning our qualifications. If the bishop feels that it would be better that we not go on a mission, then we should accept that judgment and go forth and do those things that we can do. There are many ways to help build the kingdom. If every young person tries to equip himself for missionary work, he will be better qualified to teach the gospel as the opportunity presents itself in his normal walks of life.
Q: Do you think girls should plan on filling missions?
Elder Hinckley: Those young ladies who go perform a tremendous service. They are effective missionaries. But I heard President David O. McKay say on several occasions, “Missionary work is primarily a priesthood responsibility, and as such it devolves primarily upon holders of the priesthood.” “The finest mission a young woman can perform is to marry a good young man in the Lord’s house and stand as the mother of a good family.” But I repeat, we need some lady missionaries. They do a tremendous work.
Q: There seems to be more to say about a mission than “it was the best two years of my life.” Isn’t it true that something that profound does not just happen easily or by itself?
Elder Hinckley: I think I can safely say that for many young men a mission represents the greatest challenge they will ever face. They have been given the assignment of going into a world that for the most part is indifferent to their message. They are out working in all kinds of weather. They have to adjust to new living conditions, they are a long distance from home, and they have been taken out of normal social life. All of these things are difficult. The whole situation calls for tremendous adjustment and self-discipline in addition to faith and humility. They feel the need to get on their knees and plead with the Lord for his help. Out of all this comes a quality that is invaluable not only to them during their missions, but throughout their lives. All of us need to cultivate self-discipline and integrity, and there is no place on earth quite like a mission to build these qualities.
Q: How about those back home? How can a brother or sister or girl friend best help a missionary?
Elder Hinckley: In the first place there should be mail from home. Some families have difficulty writing letters, and my heart goes out to a missionary who does not receive regular mail from home. Generally a letter once a week is a good rule. But on the other hand, too much mail can be damaging to a missionary’s morale. To be effective a missionary has to move away from home; so the kind of mail he receives will make a vast difference in what he does and how he feels. Letters that set forth the problems at home, that dwell on the difficulties, hurt the morale of the missionary. Wise letter writers will be sure to state their positive feelings—how proud they are to have a missionary in the field, how the Lord is blessing them because of his work in the ministry. Such letters bless the life of a missionary.
Q: How can girl friends help?
Elder Hinckley: It is only natural that missionaries should have girl friends. It is that time of life. Those girls who write letters of encouragement help missionaries immensely. Those who write letters about the date last Saturday night or letters that are overly sentimental are bound to upset a missionary.
Q: You have been a missionary and also a father of missionaries. What was it like to have a son in the mission field?
Elder Hinckley: There is nothing like having a son in the mission field. You look forward to the weekly letter. You thrill as you share the experiences he is having in the field. Having a son on a mission does wonders for a family back home.
Q: We often hear about a mission being a good influence on a person’s later life. Are there times when you remember something you learned on your mission?
Elder Hinckley: Any missionary who gets the spirit of the work learns many things and develops many qualities that, if cultivated, will be of inestimable value throughout his life.
He develops self-discipline. Is there any quality in the life of a young man more desirable than this? He learns the importance of work, of getting up in the morning and getting started. He learns to put first things first. He develops poise and the capacity to meet and talk with people. He overcomes many fears that afflict most people. He develops initiative and resourcefulness.
He comes to know in a very real way that prayers are heard and answered. He develops a finer affection for his father and mother. A sense of gratitude grows in his heart. A spirit of dedication and unselfishness becomes a part of his nature.
Most important, he learns to know and love his Father in heaven and the Lord Jesus Christ and with conviction bears witness of their living reality. These disciplines, these attitudes, and this knowledge will bless his entire life and the lives of those about him if he will continue to cultivate them.
Q: With all your experience working with missionaries, do you think that we will develop new, more technologically efficient ways of converting people?
Elder Hinckley: We have always had a modern technology. The world has not recognized it but it is there, and this is the Spirit of the Holy Ghost. Of course, we have need for and are constantly developing aids to better assist missionaries in their work, but in the last analysis missionary work is a matter of looking a man in the eye and bearing testimony out of the heart. That testimony can be conveyed by the Spirit on a heart-to-heart basis. That is the real conversion process. There will be new ways to teach, there will be new ways to find people, but the conversion will come through the power of the Spirit on the part of him who testifies and in the heart of him who listens. A person knows by the witness of the Spirit that the gospel is true. It is the only way he knows. That has always been the case. It always will be the case. That is the sum and substance of the whole missionary process. “The things of God are understood by the Spirit of God.”