Humanitarian Missions

Is There Better Missionary Service?

A week ago our family watched a movie called “The Letters.” It is a fascinating story of the work and life of Mother Teresa. It describes the challenges she faced in her desire to serve the poorest of the poor while simultaneously struggling with a personal spiritual insensitivity. For nearly 50 years, up until her death, she felt abandoned by God. Yet, she persevered in doing what she knew was right, continuing the work that she felt God had called her to do.

A local Presbyterian pastor spoke at a recent Theology on Tap meeting. He had served as a missionary in Zimbabwe. While his duties were pastoral, he indicated that most Presbyterian missionaries serve in the church’s extensive medical, humanitarian, and educational work (link).

The very practical apostle, James, tells us that pure religion “undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (NRSV James 1:27). This is a critical aspect of any mature church and the LDS church has a quite extensive humanitarian division and a network of social services.

But, what about individual missionary service?

Young males in the church are taught that it is their duty to preach the gospel by serving a two year mission. While I agree that preaching the good news is a scriptural mandate, is that the only option for young missionaries? I believe the answer is ‘no.’ But, I also know that the option for a humanitarian service mission is not one that is typically presented to prospective missionaries.

I wonder if there is an opportunity missed. How many young people would join the LDS missionary corps if they were given an option to select either a proselyting mission or a humanitarian mission, both tracks of equal validity?

Mission Model

What if there were missions structured solely for humanitarian or service needs? What would they look like?

A mission in an undeveloped area might be structured with functional “districts” or skill groups. A mission president might oversee a water development group, a housing and construction group, and a human needs group that provides bikes, wheel chairs, and other individual services. In other areas (or overlapping), there might be an education and medical mission.

In developed areas a humanitarian mission might be more focused on organizing constructive youth activities, education tutoring, urban service projects, support of local church leaders, or interfaith outreach.

Missionaries in such roles might still arise early, study the scriptures, and brush up on teaching points and techniques, but then they would move into daily tasks in their respective skill assignments.

Districts might be composed of both young and old missionaries. A retired civil engineer might lead a water improvement team with several young missionaries, a retired builder, and retired welder. An education team might consist of former teachers and an assortment of young missionaries.

Mission mottos such as “Preaching by Doing” or “Love The Work” would emphasize a practical focus rather than proselytizing.

If it isn’t obvious from my blog name, I am not a “people person.” Given the option of serving a preaching mission (again) or nothing, I’ll pick the nothing. However, given the choice between a service mission, a standard churchy mission, or nothing, I’d much rather dig wells, build homes, fix bikes, or consult with small business owners and start-ups, making lives of others better through my skills, experience, and talents.

I envision a time when a significant percentage, even half, of the LDS missionary force is dedicated to humanitarian service, relieving suffering, and education. My vision may be wrong, but it is something that I hope to participate in.


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