Friday, August 16, 2013

Not Serving a Mission

My decision not to go on a mission for the church was probably the first big decision I ever made for myself.  I felt predestined to go to BYU--that's where every other member of my immediate family had gone and I'd grown up expecting to attend.  I chose computer science as a major because my friends in high school were all into computers and that's why I'd become interested.  (Notably, the first tech-savvy friend I ever had was Mormon.)  But when I decided not to go on a mission, it was a huge, life-altering decision--and I made it myself.

It sucked.  At the time I felt like I was simply taking the easy way out, just like always.  In retrospect, though, I have come to feel a level of pride from the courage it took.  It wasn't easy and it went against the grain in a way that broke new ground for me.

I'd always expected to serve a mission, but I never really wanted to.  As I understood it, missionary service was an expectation and a requirement for young men.  When I was growing up, I just figured it would happen.  I'd probably go somewhere foreign and Spanish-speaking, just like my dad and my sisters.  That's just how it was.  That was the reality.  I'd never thought to fight it, but it was easy to accept the eventuality when I was fourteen and five years in the future seemed like a lifetime away.

When I was the first assistant to the bishop in the priests quorum, the bishop introduced an initiative created by the stake president (who was my father) intended to remind the young men of their duty to become missionaries. Each of the young man was asked to sign a sheet that stated that the undersigned understood their responsibilities to share the gospel with the world and would commit to serve an honorable, full-time mission when the appropriate time came.  I remember not really wanting to sign it.  It felt weird to sign my name to say that I promised to do something that I had so little interest in.  However, I also knew that I was in a leadership position in the highest quorum of the Aaronic Priesthood and that I needed to set an example for the younger boys.  So I signed it.

It didn't seem dishonest to sign it.  Somehow, I'd always assumed that I'd have the desire to serve a mission by the time I turned nineteen.  I figured that no kid wants to go far away from home, living an austere, monastic lifestyle and keeping limited contact with friends and family for two whole years.  But, maybe as part of growing up, eventually my eyes would be opened to the importance of my duty and I would be filled with a desire to share the truth with the world.

Shockingly, this never happened.  At BYU, as an eighteen-and-a-half-year-old, I suddenly realized how screwed I was.  Here I was in the eleventh hour and when I thought about serving a mission the only things I could think about were still the rigidity, the possibly horrible living conditions, the strange food, the huge foreign insects, the separation from people I knew and the inability to use a computer.  I had no desire to put my papers in other than to avoid disappointing my parents and bringing a very public shame upon myself.

And that's when I started thinking--if I'm going to spend two years of my life doing this thing that I so desperately dread, maybe I should make sure the church I'm doing it for is true.  So I prayed about the Book of Mormon just as Moroni instructed me to and received no answer, even through countless iterations.  That initiated the process of first seeing the church in a different light, beginning to disagree with various doctrines, and then uncovering real truth with the help of the internet and a little logic-based introspection.  Three years later, I was inactive with no intent to return.

I wonder what would have happened if I'd caved to societal and familial pressures and gone on a mission.  I think there could have been two likely outcomes.  First, the brainwashing of my youth may have been solidified.  I could have emerged from my mission more indoctrinated than before, just like my sisters.  I could have returned to BYU, married a Mormon, and started a family to become an upstanding example of LDS success while not-so-secretly criticizing every aspect of Mormon culture and never connecting the dots to discover the truth--much like my sisters.

Or I could have been so utterly destroyed by an extended experience that I'm about 96% sure I would have loathed every minute of that I might have found my way out of the church anyway.  After two years of living in a place I wouldn't like, working with companions I wouldn't like, teaching people who probably wouldn't like me about doctrines I was ambivalent about, being denied the stress relief of my hobbies and being cut off from my family, I might have been just precisely miserable enough to decide that nothing this church offered me was worth what it had done to me.  At least, I hope that's the conclusion I would have drawn.

Although I too frequently blame some of my shortcomings and many of the flaws in my development on the church and its programming, I think opting out of a mission may have saved me from the worst of it.  I feel like missionary service is the kill shot of the church's brainwashing system.  They get them while they're young, pump them full of propaganda in primary, nurture that foundation through adolescence, and then get them to go spend two years living, eating and breathing all that crap so that by the time they're done, those poor suckers can either continue the cycle with their own families or admit the colossal amount of time they've wasted.  I'm glad I escaped that.  The cement of my indoctrination wasn't permitted to set, and that made it easier to tear up the tiles of deception and expose the floor of truth...okay, so that analogy is kind of getting away from me, but I think I've made my point.

I guess I'm lucky that the Mormon home I was raised in was a middle-class home in a first world country, because it was my attachment to the comforts and conveniences of modern life that made me hesitant to serve a mission.  And being hesitant to serve a mission is what led me to leave the church.

Maybe if I'd grown up poor I'd have been more likely to serve.

I shudder to think.


  1. If you could look into my MAC’s video camera right now, you would be looking at a man giving you a standing ovation!

    Most members of the church would probably think of you as a coward, because you chose not to follow the prophet and serve a mission. They would be WRONG. The church uses all kinds of pressure tactics to get young people to comply.

    They try to get you to bear testimony when you know you don’t believe in the teachings of the church. On more than one occasion, I was the only one to not bear his testimony at youth conferences (even though I served on the seminary council for 4 years), but I still served a mission.

    They try to force you to go on a mission when you don’t believe. The pressure worked in my case. I did have some good experiences on my mission, but it was definitely the hardest two years of my life. It’s something a young many should choose to do by themselves without all of the outside pressure. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t gone, and I hope my sons choose not to go.

    They even convince people to marry for the wrong reasons like two gay friends of mine who followed the advice of their bishops and married women anyway to do the “right thing.” Now they’re both divorced with children.

    The church’s latest tactic is to have young men leave right out of high school, so they won’t have a year after high school to go to college or work and change their minds. What do you think you would have done if you had had the option to leave right out of high school? I’m guessing they would have been more likely to get you out.

    No, you showed real courage in choosing not to go, knowing the abuse, pressure, and guilt tripping you would face. Kudos to you! I think the best thing a person can do is show their family how they don’t need the church to make a difference in the world and really make something of themselves, because they don’t. For example, they can: graduate from college in the field of their choice; get a high paying job; write a successful novel, marry the person they love; buy a beautiful home in a great neighborhood; and raise children who are confident, successful, and honorable. The thing is, you can do none, some, or all of those things, not because the church expects you to but because you want to. You are in control of your life.

    The church tries to make you believe that people outside the church don’t love their children, can’t be successful, and have no way of truly being happy. They are dead wrong!

  2. BYU was my first taste of any kind of independence, so I was probably better prepared for mission life than I would have been right out of high school. I think I'd have been even more terrified to go when I was 18 than I was when I was 19.

    I almost never bore my testimony as a youth either...although once my dad, acting on some stake president inspiration, spontaneously invited me to bear my testimony during a youth session of stake conference. That was...awkward, but I came up with a pretty good testimony, if I may say so.

    I am kind of a cowardly person by nature, but I like to think that, when it really counts I can stand up for myself.

    I take it your children don't really know the status of you and your wife's beliefs? If the two of you were to publicly admit to your friends and family that you are interested in leaving the church, how do you think your children take it?

    And thanks for the standing ovation, haha!

  3. Of course, after a year at BYU you were better prepared to serve a mission. However, the church knows that you're also better prepared to make the choice not to go. I really believe that the church is tired of young men deciding, after a year of independence, not to go. Thus the change to have them leave right after high school graduation. They are still under their parent's/bishop's/family's wing where it's harder to break away. The pressure here in Utah is intense. Now, even though they said girls still are not "required" to go, they are pressuring each other to go.

    I got called up once during Stake Conference to bear my testimony when I was a young man. It pissed me off, but I did well also.

    I don't think you're a coward. You've made some really tough choices that most of us aren't willing to make. I admire people that can do that.

    Our children don't know, but I really don't think they would have much of a problem with not going to church. For the most part, they don't really like going. Our parents, families, friends, and neighbors would not take it well. I think it would cause some serious problems for us, so we just have to "fake it" a little bit until we can figure out what to do. My wife probably goes to about 20% of the meetings and I usually make it to 3 out of 4 sacrament meetings a month. I haven't been to Sunday School or Priesthood all year. I went to one 5th sunday meeting, though, and regretted it. It was rather boring.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own exit that I forget that other people trying to accomplish the same things are facing different or worse obstacles.

      It's astonishing how many things can complicate something so simple as ending your involvement with a church. It should be like flicking a switch but it's more like getting out of a lobster trap...although I'm sure a lot of that is by design.