June 30, 2011
The weirdest two years
I previously mentioned leaving the really egregious stuff out of my missionary memoir. Here is a glancing summary.
Aside from nineteen-year-olds being their normal idiot selves, and the mission president taking the New York City teacher's union approach (short of felonies being committed, nobody was getting "fired"), the weirdest stuff was ecclesiastical in nature.
Specially, I'm referring to what I describe here as the "small district" concept.
Essentially, we created mission-run "districts" within already established wards where we could dump converts (at month-to-month activity rates in the teens), without them showing up on the ward membership roles and incurring the expected pushback.
This practice was far more widespread than I indicate, and was sanctioned up to the GA level. We created a baptism banking bubble and the equivalent of the SEC and the Federal Reserve enthusiastically signed off on it.
To avoid the tackiness of baptizing people in bathtubs, the mission distributed "portable baptismal fonts" (made out of blue plastic tarps and plywood), despite an actual chapel rarely being more than twenty minutes away by mass-transit.
Again, the point was to rack up the numbers without the locals--who would eventually be shouldering the "fellowshipping" responsibilities--getting in the way.
I met very few idealistic missionaries "bending the rules" with naive but good intentions in mind (what Parker and Stone posit). The ones justifying twisted means were doing so in order to accomplish the perverse ends they were called on to achieve.
Or got so burned out and disillusioned they didn't care, and neither did the mission president (as long as they weren't committing felonies). I was too confused to get disillusioned. What killed me was being an introvert trapped in an extrovert's world.
There is a certain bliss that comes from being completely out of your depth. I had a zone leader who got physically ill from the stress. I went with him to Tokyo Adventist Hospital, where he was diagnosed with ulcers, like an overworked Japanese salaryman.
But all bubbles pop and this one barely lasted half a decade.
When I went back to Japan at the end of the 1980s, baptisms had fallen 90 percent. The proselyting techniques we "pioneered" weren't just "discouraged," they were banned. Several missions and hundreds of units were eventually combined or shut down.
Even as the same scams were popping up elsewhere. It's a worldwide game of Whac-A-Mole. (And some missionaries can't stop when they get home, which is why Utah is home to so many multi-level marketing empires.)
When Japan's real estate bubble burst in the early 90s, all that "Japan as #1" exuberance fell down the memory hole. In an oddly parallel fashion, the church returned as well to the status quo before the craziness began, as if the 1980s were a bad dream.