With minimal contact with their parents and friends, these teenagers live in a location hundreds if not thousands of miles away from home to learn about the world and focus on serving others in the name of Christ.
While the mission is perhaps the most well-known staple of the Mormon tradition, it is only one part of a bigger church structure designed to instill principles of leadership in its young members and encourage them to pursue the mission of their faith actively.
As children, young Mormons are encouraged to tithe and participate in the church, and outside the church to pursue their endeavors to the full extent of their abilities. This way, its members can be the moving hands and feet of Christ.
“We believe in not being idle and seeking after godly things,” said Gina Thorderson, Director of Public Affairs for Mormon congregations in Northeast Mississippi and parts of northern Alabama.
Amory resident Vern Christensen completed his own mission as a young man, and his son returned from his own mission earlier this year.
“On their mission, they see that their reward comes directly from serving others and truly understand how much work there is to be done,” he said.
Start ’em young
The Mormon church is a “lay-church,” which means its leaders do not receive pay for their contributions. Consequently, the church passes on a sense of ownership to its youngsters very early.
Starting as “deacons,” preteen members may be given the duties of passing the sacrament and maintaining the church building. As they mature to the ranks of “teacher” and “priest,” they advance in their grasp of the scripture and work more closely with the sacrament and prayers.
At 18, they may become an “elder,” where they take part in the elder’s quorum with other men of the church.
“In the quorum, you have 18-year-olds rubbing shoulders with members 40 years and up,” Christensen said, “The older members take the new elders under their wing and strengthen their confidence.”
Christensen said this ladder is not rigid, that members advance as they become capable of handling more responsibility. The structure is not a scramble to the top, but a process of growth.
“We will never prosper by dominating or overpowering, but only in the way of the Lord, which is through love and kindness,” Christensen said.
One of the distinguishing features of Mormonism is the belief in modern prophets. For Mormons, leaders make decisions and give instructions by the will of God through sincere thought and prayer. When a member is asked to assist in some duty, it is more than just a request.
“To us, when a bishop asks us to do something, God led him to ask that specific person,” Christensen said.
“Everyone has a choice and no one is looked down on, but the Lord calls us as we’re ready. If something is uncomfortable, it may be a tap on the shoulder to get out of your comfort zone or examine your priorities.”
This chain of command is very effective within the church. Grumbling and undermining are extremely minimal because decisions are made out of much meditation and prayer, such as the one made in October to lower the mission age for men from 19 to 18, and from 21 to 19 for women.
“You can’t go on a mission if you’ve been living a wild life. At 19, boys have that awkward first year of college before putting it on hold for two years, and in that situation many of our youth get off track,” Christensen said. “For some of our Mormons in other countries, the 19 age limit conflicted with their nation’s mandatory military enlistment.”
A position to do God’s work
Much of the Mormon lifestyle, from finances to family to fitness, centers around being in a position to be most effective for God’s plan. For this reason, the church encourages a healthy diet and exercise, and discourages the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.
“Mormonism teaches us to have a ‘house of order.’ We discourage loans and credit and we are very serious about paying off debt,” Thorderson said. “Interest never sleeps.”
The church does allow loans for necessities such as an education, reliable vehicle or home, as long as these things are pursued in the interest of function rather than luxury.
“We try to teach self-reliance and self-control,” Thorderson said.
Being financially secure affords Mormons the ability to provide for their families and others in times of need, and in the meantime enables them to be a positive contribution in society.
The Mormons do not look down on those who are unfortunate, by any means, but carry out their own welfare system to help people get back on their feet. They even finance low-interest loans so those in need may have access to an education.
“Our system provides assistance, but the people on it must give back to the church or community,” Christensen said.
Thorderson said this method teaches the principles needed for people to govern themselves.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” she said. “Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Christensen said it is good to always be learning and pushing yourself in whatever you do, and it is the mission of the Mormon church to help others achieve this attitude within themselves. When a person wholly invests himself or herself in education, relationships, or any other endeavor, they are truly showing the glory of God.
“The responsibilities of our church can be stressful, but one hour a week is not what the Lord wants,” Christensen said. “He wants us to constantly push ourselves to learn and grow.”