I was an 18 year-old missionary. For three weeks. Due to the scheduling of my call, I had my 19th birthday in the MTC. No big deal. I was also aware of some young men and women who were able to serve well before the age deadlines because of situations regarding their parents' Church service.
In the press conference that followed the age change announcement, it was mentioned that 48 countries already allow missionary service for young men at the age of 18. FOML2 served with many 18 year-old Elders in his mission.
So, it isn't really new. What is new is that many, many, US missionaries now have this option available to them, and it will impact the work. The flood of sister missionaries will impact the work even greater. Last week I wrote a little about my views regarding the change. (here.) In a nutshell, I think it is great, and I am always happy to support the prophets.
I did mention that I felt there was a bit of "peril" in the change. This was not meant to be critical, nor intended to imply a lack of faith in the new standards. I am fully supportive, and have tremendous faith that the entire world will be blessed because of the flood of missionaries.
What do I mean by "Peril?" I mean there are some things that we need to worry about, as prospective missionaries, leaders and parents. Some of these will seem pretty obvious, some might have absolutely no application to you. Some will cause you to slap your forehead, and others will cause some introspection - I can say this because that has been my reaction as I have thought about this whole this. If there is interest, I will follow up the "perils" with some thoughts on how to minimize them from my point of view.
(If I seem to be referring mostly to the young men, it is because I feel that these things apply mostly to the young men. I just have a little more faith in the young women... Sorry guys!)
I was 18 once. I remember it well. I was a doofus. I spent most of my 18th year at BYU. I will neither confirm nor deny that I spent part of that time running around at 3:00am, climbing in the elevator shafts at DT, and running around in the tunnels beneath campus, and doing a host of other really immature, stupid and downright dangerous things. In making this confession, no one need suppose me of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to do such was never in my nature. (JSH v.28)
Simply put: There are a lot of really immature 18 year olds out there. I was one of them. There are also a lot of immature 19 and 20 year olds as well, but it decreases with life experience. I'll bet the Mission Presidents are thrilled about the change, and terrified at the same time. The last thing they have time for is to babysit immature and risky missionaries. Our young men will need to grow up: Faster.
Think about how difficult it would be for a bishop to tell a young man/woman and his parent's that the missionary is not quite ready yet. I guarantee there will be some angry, insulted parents. We need to be careful to not let our pride get in the way of what's best for our missionary, and in sustaining our leaders.
Some young men are just not emotionally mature enough to handle the tremendous stress and work of a full-time mission. Many get into the field and find that it is too much, and come home. It can result in a long-term negative impact. To help minimize this sad outcome, the young men/women need to work with their parents and their bishop to make sure they are up to the task. If they aren't ready when the gate opens, be wise enough to delay. Set goals and work towards getting more prepared. It will be much better in the long run.
- Patience and preparation -
Peril: Age Pressure
If 18 is the new 19, will we push boys to leave at 18 that aren't ready? Will we just move the unfortunate slacker stigma down a year? Or will we be wise and wait until our children/charges are READY, rather than of age. In the same press conference, Elder Nelson said, "Young men and women should not begin their service before they are ready spiritually and temporally."
As a bishop, I was pretty adamant that the young men should always have their 19th birthday as their target for service, with the possibility to move the date back if needed - due to emotional, physical, spiritual, or financial issues, or lack of preparation. But 19 was the target. I don't feel as strongly that 18 should be that same type of target - there is much more in play, and I hope that we all are very careful not to send out unprepared missionaries because a number is circled on the calendar.
That said, I still feel the need to encourage my sons to use 18 as a realistic goal for preparation. What happens if God wants a young man to serve at 18, but the prospective missionary had divined his own target date of 20? Also, a nebulous target of 18-24 would be just vague enough to be risky. So, in my home, we are aiming for 18, but we will try and be wise.
- Patience and preparation -
It was only 5 years ago that both Elder Ballard and Elder Perry stood up in General Conference and mentioned the importance of having a job and earning money for a mission. (Links to the talks below) With a young man eligible to serve a mission at 18, he theoretically can finish High School and enter the MTC without ever having a real job, or providing any of his own financial support for his mission. Yikes! The FOML2 worked part-time during part of High School, and FOML3 worked the year post-High School. I knew that both of them could get up, get out the door, spend a day at work and earn some money. And even better, they both knew it. (Note: If you are still waking your seventeen year old up for church, school, or work - you have a problem!)
Self-funding a mission just got that much harder, and it is sad because contributing to your own mission cost has a great ROI. (return-on-investment) Elder Perry: "If promise great blessings - social, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual blessings - to every young man who pays for a significant part of his mission." Do we want to cheat our sons out of these blessings to meet a non-existent deadline?
Extended families, friends, and ward families will need to chip in more often to pick up the slack. But that's OK, because there are lots of blessings for that, too.
When I say "Ignorance," I mean the "lack of understanding of key gospel principles." I also mean ignorance as in "he is such an ignoramus." Yes, you know exactly who I'm talking about. Him.
Seminary, Priesthood quorums, FHE, family scriptures study and Sunday School just got even more important. Beyond that, the future missionary's personal scripture study, prayer, service and devouring Preach My Gospel got even more important.
What got less important? Skateboarding, video games, sports, girls, TV, hobbies, and time-wasting. There just isn't time anymore.
Warning! This could melt your brain:
Theoretically, a young man could...
a) Submit his mission papers
b) Receive the Melchizedek Priesthood
c) Receive his mission call
d) Receive his temple endowment
ALL BEFORE HE GRADUATES FROM HIGH SCHOOL!
That is an incredible amount of doctrine, experience and understanding of covenants to absorb in a very short amount of time. I know, or have known, precious few young men who could take this on, and be ready to go on their 18th birthday. It would need to be his primary focus of his life - at a time where many other things are vying for attention.
- Patience and preparation -
Peril: We Adults Don't Get It.
Want to know a great way to sabotage a young man preparing for a mission? Surround him with adults who don't get it. Who are these adults?
• Parents who don't hold FHE, or daily family scripture study and prayer.
• Young Men leaders who play basketball or frisbee on a Mutual night. (Or other such time-wasters)
• Young Women leaders who have "make-over nights" or other vanity-related activities. (Or other such time-wasters)
• Bishops who are sloppy with annual interviews, or don't dig deeply when they have the opportunity.
• Mothers who run around the day before the 18th birthday getting signatures for her son's Eagle papers.
• Parents who rationalize that sports are important, to the exclusion of church functions.
• Teachers who do not take lesson prep seriously. (Seminary, quorum, class and sunday school)
• Parents who fight all their kid's battles.
• Parents and leaders who turn a blind eye to the standards as set forth in "For the Strength of Youth."
...there's more, but you get the point.
Peril: A Shaky Testimony
This one deserves its very own post.
There are more perils, but this will do for now. What exciting times we live in! But I hope out enthusiastic embrace of the new age requirements don't reap unintended consequences that can make missionary service more difficult, and less productive.
It was ten years ago this month that Elder Ballard spoke in General Conference and the concept of 'Raising the Bar" for missionary service was introduced. "The Greatest Generation of Missionaries," changed everything. Five years ago, Elder Perry gave a fabulous talk on missionary preparation called "Raising the Bar." I highly recommend reading both of them.
May God be with you as you and your youth prepare! I still have two young men in the pipeline - and the pipeline just got shorter.