April 13, 2017
Tokyo South (2017 edition)
The trade paperback is now available, as are the ePub and Kindle ebooks. You can also read the novel online.
Along with a new cover, I've revised the Introduction to better reflect several significant policy changes to the program since I was a missionary in Japan. It wasn't a topic I wanted to delve into too deeply in the book so I will here.
Going back half a century or so, here's how how I interpret the evolution of the program (feel free to revise and extend).
Stage I. Mine was one of last cohorts of the legacy system. This was the "Every Young Man Should Serve a Mission" era. (As for the young women, well, if you still hadn't gotten hitched by twenty-one, then sure. But why haven't you gotten hitched?)
In the late 1970s, the church's PR efforts hit Madison Avenue and sociologists started paying serious attention to the church's growth numbers. These studies famously culminated in Rodney Stark's 1984 calculation of a 64 million to 267 million growth in membership over the next century.
Ah, here was "independent" confirmation of the inevitable Mormon hegemony, cementing Mormonism's "fastest growing religion" status (an error that continues to this day). Buoyed by these dubious statistical projections, church leaders convinced themselves they were going to convert the world.
Except the numbers Stark and others were using in their models came from the church itself. The public membership numbers the church publishes each year don't count butts in pews. They're derived from open-ended accounting methods based the accumulation of unexpired membership records.
|The truth is way out there.|
In fact, the church does count how many butts are in the pews every Sunday. Otherwise it'd end up building chapels that sat empty and unused. But like Fox Mulder, they want to believe. And like the Cigarette Smoking Man, they keep the numbers that matter close to the vest.
In any case, wishful thinking eventually ran into the brick wall of reality. To start with, consider the workforce. The more they stressed the hard sell, the more missionaries figured out how to game the system.
Stage II. As these get-big-quick schemes began imploding in missions like Tokyo South, the church decided that not enough young men were serving missions. And it cost too much. The answer was to match mission lengths for men and women at eighteen months.
Mission financing was taken over by the church and quasi-socialized (and then tweaked to preserve the tax incentives) so everybody faced the same up-front costs.
Sounds good in theory. Except a whole lot of twenty-year-olds were more than happy to take a six-month discount on "the two best years." The church was suddenly faced with the challenge of keeping the spiritual sales force intact during its most productive period (the last six months).
That idea was deep-sixed. The cost-sharing measures were preserved.
Stage III. Instead of greasing the skids, maybe it was time to borrow from those Marines Corps ads: "The few, the proud." Raise standards. Toughen requirements. Quality over quantity. Missionaries were an elite group, not the hoi polloi.
But once again, too many kids decided that this was good excuse to give the whole ordeal a pass. Especially when dealing with theological cannon fodder, there's strength in numbers. Quantity matters more than quality (because you're never going to have that much quality).
Stage IV. In the meantime, the cruel world was intruding all over the place. Years of cultural diplomacy with China never paid off, delivering a blow to the multi-level marketing strategy I was taught in the MTC. (Seriously, with a few script changes, it could have been turned into any sales pitch.)
The convert-the-world true believers no longer believed quite so much, accepting the stark reality that, in real terms, church membership growth tracks closely to the natural rate. By "natural" I mean the birds and the bees. Mormon boy meets Mormon girl and a bunch of Mormon kids result.
Behind the scenes, the number crunchers at church headquarters were doing (more accurate) butts-in-pews analyses that pointed to a strong correlation between "served a mission" and "shows up in church on Sunday."
That meant maximizing the number of Mormon kids going on missions, which had the best odds of turning them into Mormon adults. It didn't matter if they converted anybody on their mission as long as they converted themselves (think of it as an institutionalized sunk cost fallacy in action).
It was time to grease the skids again, but with a different set of variables. Knock one year off the start date for men, two years for women. The guys wouldn't have to red-shirt their freshman year and women wouldn't be taking themselves out of the college (BYU) dating market.
Plus, an eighteen-year-old is that much more susceptible to peer group pressure. What are you gonna do straight out of high school? Answer: go on a mission. What joining the military used to be.
This time it looks like they got it right. So far, the new program has been hugely successful. Pay no attention to the slumping conversion rates. Missionaries now spend less time proselytizing and more time trying to be useful. It's turned into the Mormon Peace Corps.
Frankly, that's what the missionary program should have been all along.