I can’t even count the number of times I’ve wondered if my missionary service was worthwhile. Firstly, because I can’t count very high (math is my nemesis now and forever) and secondly, because I question all the time whether I made even the slightest difference in anyone’s life.
It’s easy to become discouraged and to feel like all that time I spent as a missionary was a huge waste. After all, almost all of the people I taught that were baptized are no longer active despite my efforts to stay in touch and encourage their gospel activity. Then, on top of that, I look back and see all of the mistakes I made as a missionary. I was inadequate in so many ways.
So I wonder, did I even do any good? Was there any point to my service? Did I make a difference at all?
Not to toot my own horn — like I said, I made A LOT of mistakes as a missionary — but the answer is yes. And you did, too. So… Toot, toot!
You Never Know the Seeds You Planted
When I wonder if anyone was blessed or changed as a result of the hours I spent preaching about God and His love, there’s one other, awe-inspiring missionary I remember: Abinadi.
Abinadi was the most incredible, devoted missionary ever. (So devoted, in fact, that he probably didn’t just stretch in bed for his 30-minute morning workouts, like someone I know… ME. 😭) At the risk of his own reputation, he preached repentance to a people that didn’t want to hear it. I’m sure he didn’t love being hated (although he probably didn’t almost cry every time someone yelled at him… ALSO ME), but he was willing to be subjected to rejection over and over again because he loved the gospel and he knew his Savior.
Even after all of his efforts, no one seemed converted by his words. He was doing everything right, but it didn’t seem to make any difference — not to the king, not to his priests, and not to his people.
And eventually, he died because of his beliefs — likely thinking all the while that he didn’t make any difference at all.
But he did. He made an incomprehensible difference, both anciently and now. Because of Abinadi’s efforts, Alma was converted; then, from Alma, thousands were soon after converted. After that, Alma’s son endured a life-changing experience with the sons of Mosiah, and because of that experience, the sons of Mosiah went on missions and converted thousands AND Alma, through his own missionary efforts (and the Holy Ghost, obviously), converted so many people.
I mean, whoa. But Abinadi didn’t get to see any of that — at least not in this life.
Like Abinadi, we may never really understand or see the effects of our outreach during our lifetimes. While we may not recognize the additional lives we touched, we do become heartbroken as we watch people we taught leave the Church or become less active — but we never know what the future holds.
Keeping an Eternal Perspective
Take, for example, my own family history: my dad’s entire extended family is from Mississippi, a “Bible belt” state that is predominantly Baptist, and was even more so in the early 50’s. It was there that my family found the gospel — only to become less active a few years later.
My father wrote me this letter at Christmastime when I was on my mission, and it impacted me deeply. I want to share it because I think it so perfectly illustrates how we never know the lasting impact our service has:
“In the early 1950s, Mississippi was (and still is) overwhelmingly Baptist. However, Henry* and Abigail* (names changed) had neighbors who were Mormons. They were good people and very good neighbors. Somehow, Henry and Abigail became acquainted with the missionaries and eventually started taking the lessons. They were probably one of the few families who would even talk to the missionaries, let alone take the discussions.
In time, they and their daughters were baptized. However, a few short years later, Abigail died and the rest of the family (who by this time had moved to Chicago to obtain employment) became less active in the Church. Grandma and your Aunt *Jane both married outside the Church and the whole family was quite inactive for many years thereafter.
As for the missionaries who helped convert them, I don’t know their whole stories, but given the place and the times, I’ve often said that the Smith family may have been the only family — and if not, certainly one of the only families — they brought into the Church.
Had those missionaries returned 10 years after their missions — say in 1962 — they would have found Abigail had died and the rest of the family had stopped going to church many years earlier. I’m sure it would have been a huge disappointment to them and they might have thought, “Well, so much for that… Did we really do any good at all?”
Yet, fast forward a year or two to 1963-64 and my grandpa started attending church again due to the efforts and encouragement of a faithful home teacher. He received a call to serve a stake mission, and then in the ward Sunday School presidency. After he passed away in 1965, Grandma and Jane started going back to church. Eventually, I grew up and served a mission. I later got married and had 5 kids, 3 of whom served or are serving missions. [My sister] married in the temple and had 3 kids, 2 of whom served missions. Some of the people we have taught were baptized and have shared the gospel with others.
Those little missionaries (as Grandma still calls them) probably thought they’d gone and done their duty, but hadn’t really had much success at all. However, if we could somehow count the number of people who have had the light of the gospel come into their lives that can be traced back to them, it would be [astounding].
. . . [W]hat they accomplished is truly amazing. You and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. Because of their efforts so many years ago, we and many, many others have had the opportunity to follow the Savior. As you reflect this Christmas on the blessings the gospel has brought in your own life and as you go forward and share it with others, think of those little missionaries and thank the Lord for them.”
My Mission Changed Me
That story always amazes me. It’s impossible to know how many people have been touched by the Savior’s light through us!
But here’s something I’ve come to realize: even if no one that I taught ever becomes active again or stays active or whatever the situation may be, the point is that I tried — and as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “. . . and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”
Plus, even if my mission didn’t change anyone else, it changed me. Maybe not in seemingly huge ways — truthfully, I was devoted to and lived the gospel before my mission. But it increased my understanding of the Atonement; it opened my heart and mind to the power of God and the importance of the Restoration and the priesthood; it deepened my love for the Savior. I think I was living a good life before my mission, but it taught me how to live a better, more Christlike one — and that’s the best, most life-changing and awe-inspiring gift I could have asked for.
Missions teach us the reality of repentance. They ingrain in us, if we let them, a stronger love for the Savior and for His teachings. Perhaps most important of all, our missions have the power to transform us — and if you feel like yours didn’t change you, let it change you now. Remember the experiences you had. Learn from the mistakes you made. Know that it’s never too late to open the door to the Savior and allow His healing touch to influence your life. He can help you correct your past wrongs and relinquish guilt for mistakes you made.
Your mission DID matter. It affected you and brought you to repentance (either then, now, or both). Even if you can’t see the fruits of your labors right now, trust me — they exist. One day, we’ll see that what looks like one tiny, insignificant tree now is actually a vast, beautiful orchard.
And it’s all thanks to a God that worked miracles through you.