Columns DIY Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Today’s Mormon missionaries: Clingy, soft, and immature?

Two sister missionaries talk with a man on a train.  Photo courtesy of Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The reaction to last week’s announcement that Mormon missionaries will now be able to call home once a week—instead of twice a year, as was the former policy—has been mostly positive.

Most Latter-day Saint families seem to be welcoming the change, which Church leaders say will be a “motivating force, not a distraction” in the lives of more than 65,000 missionaries serving around the world.

The applause is not universal, however. Some of the negative comments can be summed up in three words, delivered in your crankiest and most stereotyped elderly male voice: “In MY day. . . .”

These kids today, in other words.

Reading through the comments on some of the news stories about the change, certain critical words emerge as themes: today’s missionaries are soft. Immature. Clinging to their helicopter parents. Not ready to give everything to the cause. As one commenter put it:

“I do not like this one bit . . . It will lead to more problems and missionaries wanting to come home early. We are too soft on our up and coming generation.”

Is there any truth to these generational stereotypes?

Maybe some. There are certain benchmarks of adulthood that today’s young adults, in general, have been slower to meet than previous generations.

For example, Millennials as a whole are the first generation since the nineteenth century to be more likely to still be living at home with their parents than in their own households or with peers, giving rise to the nickname the “Boomerang” generation. According to Pew, 32% of Americans ages 18 to 34 were living in their parents’ homes in 2016; in 1960, it just 20% among that age group still lived with Mom and/or Dad.

Millennials will rightly point out that it’s a very different economy today. In 1960 it was possible to support a family on one person’s salary, even if that person only had a high school education. That’s not the case anymore. This leads to another major social shift: more young people than ever are going to college, and Millennials are on track to be the best-educated generation in U.S. history. In 2016, 40% had a college degree, compared to 26% of Baby Boomers and just 16% of the Silent Generation when they were the same age.

So today’s young adults are slower to enter the labor market, slower to move away from home, and slower to get married (though that’s a very questionable benchmark of adulthood). But they are better educated than in the past, and more prepared for an economy that requires a college degree.

In Mormonism, these trends are less evident than they are in the general population. The Next Mormons Survey found that:

  • Millennials Mormons are less likely to still be living at home as other Americans in their age group;
  • The ones who get married still do so at a median age in their early 20s (though fewer are getting married, on the whole); and
  • Most are either gainfully employed or in school full-time.

Moreover, they accomplished all this despite the fact that a higher percentage of them served a mission than any previous generation in LDS history.

Put another way, even though many delayed these benchmarks of adulthood for 18 months to two years, putting off college educations and the work force in order to serve their church full-time, they’re still coming out ahead of other Millennials.

So maybe the older generations could lay off the criticism. Yes, it is true that more missionaries are returning home early from their missions (see here for preliminary data, keeping in mind that the margin of error is high when we are looking at a small subset of the sample). As the Deseret News reported recently, anxiety is at an all-time high among Generation Z, the oldest of whom are now of missionary age. I suspect that this new policy permitting missionaries greater contact with their families is an attempt to stem that tide, providing missionaries increased access to the support system they’ve depended on all their lives.

This is the support system the one the Church itself has taught them is paramount: the family. How strange for some older Church members to turn around and denigrate missionaries for needing the one thing the Church has always taught them should take priority over other things.

A mission is hard. It’s an up-at-dawn, every-hour-accounted-for lifestyle that demands everything of very young people (who are even younger now, I would point out, than when their older critics served their own missions).

I love the fact that we do this, that we ask idealistic young adults to pour themselves out in service to others for this intense, defined period of their lives. But we should never forget how difficult, and how countercultural, this expectation is. What young missionaries need is love and understanding, not impossible standards.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

43 Comments

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  • My comment on this issue that got me banned from the Reddit community r/latterdaysaints:

    So now unpaid adult volunteers are finally allowed to call their parents. I’m embarrassed that I ever thought this was ok, and even more that I obeyed the policy.

    My response to the moderator who banned me:

    Not a problem. There’s little of value here anyway. I mostly lurk in morbid fascination that I ever thought any of this was profound. Your enforcement of dogma by banning me is reminiscent of other authoritarian regimes in history doubling down on executions to stave off their inevitable demise. The fact you found my relatively mild comment objectionable amply reflects just how fragile you and your subscribers’ faith is.

  • How dare somebody invent the telephone and expect us to use it once a week. Shaka and the walls fell!

  • It’s not just Mormons. American young people in general are clingier, softer and more immature than they used to be. That isn’t their fault. It’s partly western consumerism, partly the “every gets a participation trophy” culture, and partly a flawed mindset that measures progress by how much easier life is for each new generation.

    At the same time, the world we’re releasing our young people into is more dangerous than it’s ever been. We’ve sold our kids a bill of goods.

  • I am personally grateful for the distinct separation in my missionary life from my family back home. It kept me focused on my purpose rather than upon myself. I wrote home weekly as I was supposed to do, despite the fact that letters from home were not reciprocated on a weekly basis. I departed for my mission knowing that my mother would probably pass away of cancer during my service. She had already battled it for many years. My father, somewhat paralyzed by my mother’s terminal condition couldn’t bring himself to put onto paper just how bad thing were. So he wrote nothing. After an extended period of not receiving word from home, I received permission to call. It was then that I learned just how far the cancer had progressed. I can only imagine how a weekly Skype with my family back home would have not just wrecked my dad, but would have placed an enormous emotional burden on me to witness it. My prayers turned from the kind where one petitions the Lord for miraculous healing to petitioning the Lord that His will be done, but whatever He had in mind to do, do it quickly. Within 2 weeks she was gone. In subsequent months there was one occasion where it would have been truly interesting for Skype technology to have existed. My father received permission to call me for a special reason: he was going to re-marry. He asked me to guess whom he was going to marry – that she was someone I knew. After a few failed attempts he finally broke the news. And it was exciting. She was a woman I had already loved from childhood, who had been divorced for a quarter century. That was a moment that would have been fun to witness face to face rather than over a phone line. Nevertheless, I am perfectly content that thing were the way that they were. The added advantage is that my journal writing all but ceased following the death of my mother, but the weekly letters home constitute a written history of my mission anyway. I hope the missionaries who now may have the opportunity to call home every week will pause to record their experiences in writing as well, lest those life-changing moments become lost over time.

  • Simple Question,………Do you Support the BAN of BLACK men in he Quorum of 12 because they are Black like Jana Does ????? Mormons Bigotry is alive and Well in the High Ranks !!!

  • Glad you like the policy. Of course both the policies we like and the policies we don’t like come from the same leaders—and the same heaven. We all hope that policy changes are inspired, or even revealed from God; and if not inspired, at least well considered. There just seems to be a theme that if a policy is popular or meets modern sensitivities then it must be from heaven, and if it is old or differs with modern cultural ideals, it must not be God’s will, and leaders must have got it wrong in the past. I always have doubts about new policies that I like or find too close to modern priorities. In any event, core doctrines should not change, but policies have some elastic for the age and culture. This is one of those. I don’t know if this policy will be objectively better or worse. Who can reallly know but heaven? But it seems reasonable and consistent with the current emphasis on the centrality of the family and strengthening the bonds of youth and parents. I hope that it will not distract from the mission of the mission.

  • It is an ABSOLUTE Fact,,,,,,,,,,,,,,This CULT does Not allow a BLACK MAN in the Quorum of 12 Simply because they are BLACK !!!!!,,,,,,,,If I am Lyin may God Strike me Dead !!!,,,,,,,,,,,,,,ENOUGH with the RACISM Jana !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Each generation has its trials. I know a young lady from California, now a mother and married, who would have served a mission but found the 2008 vote for traditional marriage too conflictive for her liking. This broke her will for church activity. Different times than the 1980s or other generations.
    Cost of communication has become less too, which I think is a factor in the new policy.

  • You have your very real god, as do the christians, muslims, jews, etc. Hundreds of gods and the only one that is real is yours. Hilarious.

  • unlike Spoiled Brats like you who live under Mommys Roof I have to go work for a Living, Round 2 Tuesday Night !!

  • Sure.

    Not sure how much you know about Reddit. It is a gathering place for people to discuss topics pertaining to a common subject area. Those discussion groups are referred to as “communities”. Examples of communities include /r/futurology (about advances in science, technology, etc.); /r/jokes for, well, jokes; or /r/instantkarma (often videos of people getting their just desserts quickly). You get the idea. A person can subscribe to a community, or just lurk.

    Each community has its own set of rules enforcers, called “moderators”, who usually are enthusiasts on whatever subject the community is devoted to. They don’t work for Reddit per se. There are usually more than on moderator on a larger site. It was one such moderator who banned me. So, it wasn’t really “Reddit” that banned me; it was an individual who probably just volunteered to be a moderator. As you can imagine, there tends to be variance between moderators in what they will allow.

    /R/latterdaysaints has approximately 22,000 subscribers. /R/lds is even more intolerant of anything other than the official church line and has fewer than 7500 subscribers. By contrast, /r/exmormon has over 111,000 subscribers.

    /R/latterdaysaints, in its own words says: “/r/latterdaysaints is the largest faithful-only community for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) on the internet! If you’re a Latter-day Saint (lds), or have questions about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, this is the place!”

    To close the loop, I believe my comment did not fall within the “faithful-only” requirement to participate, and so I was banned for life from this community.

    I hope this explanation is useful.

  • I think the brethren are scrambling to address a number of unforeseen challenges of the day. It seems to me that the pendulum swings dramatically with policy under President Nelson. I cannot criticize, and don’t want to, but perhaps a monthly call home would be a more moderate way to parsing the family/support/anxiety management versus staying focused/learning to survive on your own, divide. I expect that this policy, like many recent others, will be walked-back a little once the consequences are better known.

  • For those of us “un-hip” readers, please describe “Generation Z”, “Millennials”, “Silent Generation”, and “Baby Boomers”.

  • The Restored Church of Jesus Christ has the same God as other Christians: TinyURL.com/EarlyChristianityVideo

  • I have looked at a number of your comments and am appreciating them. I have no Mormon background, but share a similar experience of being in other Protestant churches for 40 years—-and then happier being out for 25. Our escape was occasioned mostly by our one son’s marriage and then some moves to places where we did not go seeking new churches. You are correct about happier life and better marriage in this setting. But, we didn’t give up Jesus, we just gave up all things church, churchy, churchian, churchified, and church-mongering. Being a political leftie for all the progressive reasons, I cannot IMAGINE hanging around the perpetual inconsistencies or deceptions now required to be in “fellowship” with people who consider themselves Conservative Christians. That stuff gets nuttier by the decade—-all the way to Trump Worship now.

  • Unfortunately, hardly anyone can. The exact definition of the spans of birth years are sort of “flexible”. That’s why we got these dumb names. We should have adopted standardized group names for people born in each five-year stretch and named those. Instead, somebody decided the Baby Boomers were people born from 1946-1964, as though there was some reason to think that people born from ’46-’50 were not raised in far different culture than those born ’60-’64.

  • Larry, the reality of whether or not there is a God, or gods, or the nature of the divine, or which religion, if any, contains all the necessary eternal laws and truths for a journey into the heavens, was not the “real” topic at hand–it was a new policy for missionary communication. But on the topic of what is real: God either exists, or not. Good and evil either exist, or not. There are either eternal truths, or we are left to proclaim the truth that there is no truth–which, of course, creates a contradiction that cannot be true. I believe in truth. The truth about God and the nature of the divine is knowable and found in different degrees of light throughout many religions, cultures, and even sciences.

    Either light exists, or it does not. Either all light is the same, or not. My experience is that all light is not the same. For example, the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars differ in brightness and glory–not because it is my reality but because it IS reality. Since light and truth exist, then it follows that differing religions contain differing amounts of light and truth. The willingness and ability to see and seek light also varies between individuals. Some of us are blind, others color blind, others live in dark swamps because of culture and tradition, and others hide in their basements or draw the blinds because they hate light or they don’t want the truth about themselves to be seen in the light.

    Those who see light in religion are not delusional any more than a man standing on Pikes Peak is delusional because he sees land and light that a coal miner in the cloudy valley below cannot see; or an astronomer can detect light and worlds that the man standing on Pikes Peak cannot see.

  • You’ll come to notice that I have a hobby of being a chatterbox here. I like this site’s set of subject matter.

  • Not really true. They may claim to, as the Utah-based LDS Church as so does, but they still profess Joseph Smith was a prophet who recieved the BoM, was given priesthood by angelic visitors and subscribe to Joseph Smith’s 1st vision of the Father & Son as their Utah siblings.

    That Father & Son aren’t the ones claimed by the majority of Christians.

  • If Joseph Smith restored the ordinances and practices of Early Christianity in 1840, which Nag Hammadi and Cyril of Jerusalem verified in 1950-60, in the words of Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University – he must have been been given heavenly guidance. TinyURL.com/EarlyChristianityVideo
    Isn’t that the definition of a prophet?

  • I don’t have half an hour to waste on your video.

    The Nag Hammadi documents are mostly Nostic, not traditional early Christianity. Cyril has been dead 1700 years, so I’m not sure what he did in 1950-60.

  • Of course they should be allowed to call home when needed. They are sending out BABIES these days! They are only 18, some of them just graduating high school. When I left for college at 18 years and 4 months old, (1984 and out of my home state) I called home every week for about 1 month, then about once a month after that and between January and heading home early May I think I called maybe twice. They need to have time to mature and grow and develop. They will wean themselves off of family support like every other maturing late teen does when they leave the households they grew up in.

  • I just got an email from my granddaughter who is serving in Rome, Italy, asking if it’s okay with us if she calls us on Monday. I’m all for this change!

  • Nothing like a news item about the LDS Church to bring the haters and the bashers out of the woodwork. What else is new?

  • From the Newsroom: “Regular communication with their families is an important part of a missionary’s service,” said the First Presidency in a statement. Really? Since when? I was taught very clearly that NOT communicating with them was an important part of my missionary service because it kept me focused on the work. What bothers some of us about these changes is that they almost never address the old policy and that policy’s divine purpose. Many of us were out at a time when regular calls home would have been prohibitively expensive. But it sure would have been nice to call my grandmother or even my parents before she passed. Or when my very close friend died in an accident and the MP wouldn’t allow me to call my pals – even to offer my own comfort to them. WHy? Because communication was BAD back then. I wish they could just be honest and admit that no communication was always a bad idea.

  • Prop 8 was tough. Watching the apostles lie about the church’s involvement from Day 1 was much more difficult. I was there, I was in the first meetings where the apostles gave us marching orders. I also witnessed the many denials that the church was running the show, but it was LDS from top to bottom. When church leaders lying is a “trial” you may want to think about what constitutes a trial.

  • I lived in California back then too. I did not interpret the apostles and seventies as lying, but standing up to a practice that is artificial. Marriage is for men and women. Other unions could be civilan unions and have the same rights. But marriage is a big deal. No lie.

  • So when they told us it was our “priesthood duty” to join and lead the campaign and then told the general public that the church was NOT involved in the campaign, that was honest? We can disagree on the right or wrong of gay marriage, but they were not honest with the public. Call centers at BYU and BYUI, NV citizens coming over to knock doors, direct solicitation of $ by leaders based on tithes, authorized use of directories and most of all – direct calls from church leaders to members at every level of the campaign. I was in the middle of it and saw it all. I’m not arguing the merits of the law with you, just how the church leaders were dishonest about it. It was blatant.

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