The Industrial Organization of the Gospel

Over at another blog, I recently commented on the evolution of the American military. Spouting off uninformed thoughts about institutional evolution having proved fun, I wanted to offer some thoughts about the evolution of the Church, particularly the missionary program. Of late, there have been two big shifts that are, I think, a symptom of a sea change in how the Church thinks about itself as an organization. The first is the call to “raise the bar” for missionaries, and the second is abolishing scripted missionary discussions. Here is how I see these changes.

Twentieth-century Americans, I would submit, were the most bureaucracy besotted people to every walk the earth. They had an enormous amount of faith in the ability of large, centralized institutions to centrally plan and mass produce success. The reasons for this faith lie, I think, in the Great Depression and World War II. These were the great mid-century American crises that were solved by bureaucracies. The New Deal – whatever the economic reality – has become fixed in the American imagination as a triumph of government bureaucracy. The TVA, the WPA, the Department of Labor, and the National Recovery Administration, while frequently based on parochial politics and stunningly obtuse economics, have been canonized as the bureaucracies that saved us from want. More powerfully, World War II represented a triumph of one of the largest centrally planned bureaucracies in the history of mankind: The United States military. After the war, huge centrally planned firms like Ford, Chrysler, IBM and Boeing emerged as the great engines of economic growth.

It is not coincidental, I think, that this is the period of time when the missionary program became standardized. Missionaries, missionary discussions, and converts were to be mass produced. I don’t want to be crass or cynical about this. I have a real testimony of missionary work, and I think that the General Authorities who created this system were inspired men of great faith and vision. My only point is that they were adopting a peculiarly mid-20th century approach to institutional organization.

In the 1970s, the faith in bureaucracy stumbled. The alphabet soup of the New Deal and the Great Society was not delivering a better world and was not delivering it at enormous cost. The corporate empires of the past were becoming bloated, inefficient dinosaurs. Even the military had to rethink its model of a mass produced conscript army after the debacle of Vietnam. Then came the 1980s and the 1990s. The alphabet soup found its budget reduced and government bureaucracies found that their main occupation was deregulation. The bloated firms of the 1970s were ruthlessly dismembered and sold for scrap by Wall Street raiders. The Army adopted a more decentralized, flexible set of tactical doctrines based on highly trained volunteers were specialized technical knowledge. In the 1990s, the successful organizations were those that were lean, flexible, innovative, decentralized, highly trained, and highly educated. Think silicon valley, Desert Storm, and The End of Welfare as We Know It. In other words, the mass produced, bureaucratic, centralized organizational model of mid-century seems to have been decisively rejected.

The Church seems to be adapting as well. Growth by increasing the number of mass produced missionaries seems to have been rejected. Instead, we are opting for higher quality, better trained, more flexible proselytizers. It is the difference between Chrysler and Dell or between the Army of Eisenhower and the Army of Tommy Franks. As someone who heartily dislikes bureaucracy, centralized planning, and mass production, I have to say that these things are heartening. However, they are not without their down side. The new organizational model seems geared toward the high-skilled and the high-functioning. It often lacks a place for the middling. Missionary experience has been idealized as a universal male rite of passage in the Church. This universal character is a result of the mass production model. However, if we opt for a leaner, more flexible missionary force might this change? The volunteer army in Iraq has clear advantages over the conscript army in Vietnam, however, there is an insularity in the current military that we didn’t see in the 1940s or even the 1950s. Of course, all of these sorts of concerns are no doubt premature and probably baseless. After all, at times the Church seems to move in only two ways: slowly and not at all.

21 comments for “The Industrial Organization of the Gospel

  1. I’ve not seen recent numbers Nate, but has the leveling off of growth the last 3 – 4 years been reversed by the changes in the Missonary program? It seems to me that there need to be some fundamental changes in the missionary program. I think the very model that was so successful from the 1940’s to the mid 90’s has stopped working. Clearly the church recognizes this, but I think more significant changes are ahead. That may even be the primary calling of whomever succeeds Pres. Hinkley.

  2. Not sure that the benefits of a universal male rite of passage would outweigh those of a leaner, more flexible missionary force–if leaner & more flexible = better success in the Field. Of course, part of that success is rigorous, rite of passage-type training for future Church Priesthood & Relief Society leaders (on every level), but I’m not convinced on the cruciality of the mission experience for such leadership. This is pretty standard anecdotal stuff, but I know plenty of non-returned missionaries who are excellent Saints (& who are frequently hurt by the implication, which comes at them frequently, that they’re lacking somehow), & plenty of returned missionaries who are barnacles on the ship of Church. Perhaps the leaner, meaner force will simply mean less barnacles & more & stronger converts.

  3. President Hinckley has spent a fair bit of energy emphasizing the “every member a missionary” idea and the importance of retention. This would seem to be the key to continued growth in many (but not all) parts of the world. He has not put any member missionary-work questions on the temple recommend interview yet, so I guess there is still room for more emphasis…

  4. I think it is worth noting that both organizational types Nate describes are tied to particular epistemologies. Centrally planned hierarchies manage on the basis of top-down scientific-type rationality: “if you have a problem, see what the manual says.”

    The more flexible, decentralized firms allow for bottom-up, local problem-solving and experimentation on a more pragmatic basis. They implicitly accept that tacit, non-scientific knowledge is often superior for problem-solving.

    The church’s shift to the latter mode (if that’s what is happening, and I’m not too sanguine on that) might have interesting implications for issues of local control and voice in the church.

  5. I don’t know my history well enough to say, but as the Church moved to young unmarried men for the missionary force, some sort of standardization is no surprise. LeGrande Richards’ book being an early example. So my reading of the history is that as the seminary program and other education tools became standard, and as more youth were raised in homes with strong doctrinal foundations (FHE), the missionaries as a group could be given freer reign because they could handle it.

    In this context, the call to have every young man be a missionary set a social norm. Once that norm was set, which took a generation or more, the bar for qualifying is raised, which causes youth to scramble upwards (and some to fall) in order to meet the norm of serving a mission— because they want to serve just like their dad and older brothers and uncles and two aunts and maybe their mom and most of the young men older than them in the ward did.

    During the period of establishing a mission norm, keeping standards lower (and doing more hand-holding for discussions) helps to establish the norm because more people can serve missions. Some of them were not very good at it. But it all helped establish a norm. Now that the norm is established the higher bar increases effectiveness and pulls up some people who would otherwise not have lived up to the higher bar. Either way, the Church starts the new century with more and better missionaries than if they hadn’t gone through this process. These missionaries are sufficiently qualified to handle a more “teach by the spirit” approach, because they are, as a group, more righteous and better trained through seminary and their homes.

    In this reading of the changes, there is no reason to posit sharp reversals of policy. There is only a steady continuation of changes with an eventual goal. The whole point of prophecy is that one can act slowly because one’s foresight gives one more time to prepare. I’m perfectly willing to believe that mistakes were made along the way, and that many people at Church headquarters did not have this vission of what was to happen. But I believe that God knew and guided the program such that what happened over the course of the century was according to his will.

  6. I am overjoyed at the changes in the missionary program. I agree that this demonstrates the Lord’s patient, guiding hand over the decades. I have seen the need for these changes for a long time, and welcome them. Thanks to Clark for posting the link to the updated article on church growth! I had seen the original report, and wondered if it had been updated.

    Clearly, with the changes not only in American society as well as others throghout the world, there is a need to do things differently. Certainly our non-LDS Christian friends have seen the need to break out of the traditional, proselytization mode. The need to adapt missionary conversations to the individuals being taught (based on the Spirit), rather than rote, memorized discussions; adaptation of the work to the individual cultural conditions of each mission; a change of emphasis from numbers of baptisms to fewer baptisms but better retention; greater emphasis on preparing the convert for membership *before* their baptism, etc. I’m thrilled–and I think the results of these changes (and we’ve not seen all the changes that are coming, I believe) will be better rentention of converts, fewer “missionary disasters”, and more stabilized and productive level of Church growth.

    However, let me add this observation to the mix: Is it possible that one reason for the move away from canned discussions is because of the increasing number of areas where the Church exists but cannot proselytize? In addition, there are many areas of the world where the Church cannot enter, but may be able to soon, possibly very suddenly (hence the need to send missionaries at a moment’s notice, with very little preparation). So, the need has never been greater for missionaries who are in tune enough to the Spirit, and morally straight and above reproach, who can be sent to areas of great danger and with little prep, where the Church must be built from scratch, where communication with Salt Lake may be sporadic, and where the preaching style of ancient times (think of Nephi in the book of Heleman being carried by the Spirit from place to place) may be more appropriate. Interesting….

  7. I guess I am missing something here. For all the talk about raising the bar, I am not sure that there has been a material change in the height of the bar or in the qualifications of missionaries being sent. I believe that some with physical and mental or emotional difficulties are now less likely to be approved, but the number so affected is relatively small. I can see no sign that departing missionaries are any better prepared than they were in the past.

    With respect to changes in the teaching methods, I am also puzzled. I was a missionary about 25 years ago and teaching by the Spirit was not exactly an unfamiliar concept. I had the discussions memorized perfectly, but almost never taught them that way. I always thought we were supposed to tailor the discussions to our audience, so I am not sure what has changed. Most missionaries are not terribly articulate. I hope that “teaching by the Spirit” does not become a euphemism for “completely unprepared to teach”.

  8. In the most recent Ensign, Elders Scott and Didier discuss the changes to the missionary program. Click here for the interview. The following remark, by Elder Scott, indicates that the changes may have been made to help convert missionaries as much as non-members: “When missionaries do this consistently over a period of time, not only are they going to be more effective missionaries, but they will eventually be better husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, because the reality of the magnificent message becomes a part of their very being.”

  9. Too much labor, not enough capital: that’s a factor-analysis take on the missionary program. To make labor productive requires supplying the right tools and equipment (capital), which for missionaries would be cars, computers, telephones, books and supplies, a house or apartment, and so forth. No different than how a business needs to provide its workers the right tools and equipment to make them productive.

    Why is there too much labor? Because underpriced factors get overused in production. Missionary labor is way underpriced (unpaid, volunteer labor, no wages to pay and families even pay room and board!) so it gets way overused. The Church has too many missionaries, but can’t bring itself, seemingly, to make significant cuts in recruitment.

    It’s odd, really, that every calling in the Church is initiated from above except being a missionary, where one volunteers and the Church doesn’t say no. What would happen if people could volunteer to be Sunday School teachers and the Church couldn’t bring itself to say no? Probably too many teachers.

    So maybe the solution is to make a mission calling no different from standard church callings (including leadership callings). This would also take some of the present social stigma out of not going on a mission. It seems like the most direct and straightforward way of achieving a smaller, more productive missionary corps.

  10. That’s an interesting solution, Dave. My fear is that while it may take away the stigma of going on a mission, it also gives special status to those called. Granted, it is a special status. But considering that we alreay have issues with RMs being consider ‘higher’ or ‘better’ members [for example, more desirable spouses], I think it’s likely the stigma would simply reverse.

  11. Anybody remember Pres. Packer’s talk, “Box B”? Remember the agony in his voice when he cried out “We’re losing it, brethren, we’re losing it!”–referring to the almost mystic, soul-stirring power of being called into the mission field? (Mail)Box B (I think I’ve got the name right!) was designated strictly for mission calls, so that when you went to the post office & saw a letter in there you immediately knew that a call had come from the First Pres. for you to leave your family, friends & home to go out into the world & preach the gospel. Pres. Packer lamented (with real pathos) the fact that extending the call had become routine, etc., & encouraged stake presidents to try to approximate the spirit at least of Box B when working with prospective elders. I heard a tape-recording of it on my mission, don’t know how to find it now: it was delivered at a leadership conference of some sort. Anyhow, he exactly addresses some of the issues raised here in a very moving way.

  12. Dave,

    Missionaries either have or probably don’t need most of the things you mention. In the U.S., many missionaries have cars, so there might be something more that could be done there. But having a car discourages member involvement because the missionaries don’t need rides. Out of the U.S. it can be a problem to start converting people who live so far from the chapel that it is really hard for them to get to church. Thus a car encourages too much mobility.

    I suppose we could have the Church-Wagon to go pick people up….

    Extensive telephone work is often discouraged because missionary work is best done face to face. Computers might be useful, but a lot of missionaries would just get themselves in trouble with email and internet access. I don’t know what books and supplies missionaries need that they don’t have. Loading them up with high-tech equipment is not going to help them relate to the poor, and it will get them mugged more.

    So although capital gives missionaries more options, those options are often ones missionaries may not use very well. So the return on capital could be low or negative.

    Missionary work is labor intensive. That is its nature. Further, since the Church has as an explicit goal helping the missionary become better, even if a missionary has a zero marginal productivity on conversion of others, the benefits to the missionary himself could easily be net positive. Obviously, some missionaries are a net negative because they drag others down and don’t get anything out of it. I think those are the missionaries the Church is willing to lose by raising the bar.

    So what is the marginal return on more capital? I am not sure it is all that high.

    On the other hand, explicitly calling people to missionary service has some good aspects to it. I wonder why the Church moved away from that. Presumably there is some problem with it so they decided to the current approach.

  13. Actually I think a “church wagon” to pick up members without vehicles would significantly improve retention. In my mission we had many poor black converts – often though with strong testimonies. The #2 reason they went inactive was transportation. If you can’t get to church you lose that constant contact with the Saints and the testifying of the spirit. After a few months it becomes natural to drift away and forget ones testimony.

    I also think that cell phones would significantly improve productivity among missionaries in the first world. I recognize that the danger is of missionaries calling home, calling girls from other areas, and so forth. But that’s part of the problem. A lot of policy is based on the assumption that missionaries are not trustworthy in the least. While that’s definitely true of many (I could tell stories) I think the proper policy is to move away from everyone going on missions to those who want to go going and then treating them with greater responsibility. Right now part of the problem the church is grappling with is the stigma of not going on a mission.

    I certainly think everyone ought to go on a mission and that it is a great building experience. But I think we err when we treat missions as a way of converting Utah and Idaho Mormons who’ve been in the church their whole life but never had to gain a testimony. Yet I think that has become the bigger point to missions. I recognize that missions do this, along with preparing men for later church callings. But perhaps, if our focus is on conversion, we ought to separate out these two functions?

  14. I knew plenty of young men outside of Utah and Idaho who lacked strong testimonies.

    I think you are right that we may see cell-phones in the future for missionaries. That is an area where capital might be a boon.

    Here is the dilemma, missionary work makes people uncomfortable. Thus it is easier to beg off over the phone and escape the discomfort. So although there would be some real gains with cell phones, closing that route off forces face to face conversations that are going to have more spiritual kick. So, though they can be a real boon, I’m mildly anti-phone for missionary work.

    I’m not sure I understand this “stigma of not going on a mission” problem. Part of the point is to have a stigma so that people work harder to go on missions. Obviously, those that don’t feel bad about it and so this may encourage inactivity. But do you think that is one of the great problems facing missionary work? It seems second order to me.

  15. Just wanted to comment on cell phones and missionaries. My brother returned from his mission in England in December 2003. He had a cell phone for I believe the last quarter of his mission where they were just starting to use them. There they call them a “mobile” with a long i. Here in Arkansas, the missionaries in the Little Rock area are also carrying cell phones. I can see the advantages in that the missionaries can be reached more easily for appointments or contact information. I suspect there may be some temptation to call home, but those who are going to call home are probably going to do it anyway. Wouldn’t the mission office be getting the cell phone bill anyway?

  16. That’s quite good that they are giving cell phones. I think all of the recent changes speak to the church seeing and identifying the problems. The big question remains as to how conversion and retention change. I’m not aware of significant structural changes at the ward level. Of course I’ve been stuck in nursery so perhaps I missed them. (grin)

  17. pro-cell phones & email.

    When will we start calling missionaries who will “work” chat rooms, send out spam & troll religion web pages & blogs? If I was one of the “new” style missionaries, I would surely try to convince my comp that such “new” methods were inspired…

  18. Kingsley,

    I found perhaps unintended irony in your statement that you heard Elder Packer’s pathos-laden address about losing the personal significance of interaction with the Church not in an interview or even a live meeting, but on a tape recording.

  19. Greenfrog: I dug it up in a ward library in Virginia. It would’ve been strange to have heard it in a live meeting or interview, as it was given long before my time. I think my Stake Pres. did a good job, though, in making the occasion of my call a grand & serious one.

  20. Reports from a friendly acquaintance of mine serving in the MTC during and after the “raising the bar” announcement suggest a major improvement in arriving missionary quality within weeks of the wonderful event.

    I believe Nate’s analysis is on target. As for the timing, all I can say is:

    The Lord works in mysterious ways
    His wonders to perform
    He plants his footsteps on the sea
    And rides upon the storm

    Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up his bright designs
    And works his sovereign will

    Ye fearful saints fresh courage take
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head

    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
    But trust him for his grace
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face

    His purposes will ripen fast
    Unfolding every hour
    The bud may have a bitter taste
    But sweet will be the flower

    Blind unbelief is sure to err
    And scan his work in vain
    God is his own interpreter
    And he will make it plain

    William Cowper of Berkhamstead, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, 1774 [as edited]

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