Productive Missionary Work

How do we measure our missionary work? Is it in number of invites given? Books of Mormon given? Baptisms? Changed hearts and minds? I recently had the opportunity to follow up on an experience I had sharing the Book of Mormon over a decade ago. It was embarrassing, and it reminded me of several other embarrassing efforts at sharing the Book of Mormon. Though I might have garnered praise by some measures for these “successes,” I can’t help but feel that they were ultimately counterproductive by other measures. Not only did these episodes fail to yield a baptism, I am quite sure that in the end they turned off the recipients of my sincere zeal forever.

I have had two close friends join the church and later marry in the temple. In neither case did I give them a Book of Mormon within days of knowing them. I never bore my testimony in the canned, traditional sense. I don’t think I ever even invited them to church (though I have done my fair share of all of these things with many others). The difference, I think, was that I was an honest conversation partner, openly addressing the challenges of Mormonism, and sincerely a true friend in ways that were recognized by my non-Mormon friends.

My experience taught me what I have long suspected, that many of our missionary attempts are counter productive. I no longer admire those who constantly give out Books of Mormon, or who bear their testimony to relative strangers on airplanes. Rather I admire those who are able to make real friendships and establish conversation partners with non-Mormon friends. Such relationships have real and open dialogue about religion, not just friendships with those who happen to not share my religion, and in which it never comes up. They may or may not lead to a “conversion,” but they have substantially changed the perception of Mormons as shallow, insincere, and incapable of actually talking to those who are not of their faith.

Success in missionary work for me is no longer measured by tangible numbers such as those reported on a weekly progress sheet. Rather, it is measured in more eternally and temporally significant things like a softened heart, a changed attitude, and a favorable impression. These are the conditions that help Mormonism and Mormons flourish.

15 Replies to “Productive Missionary Work”

  1. of possible relevance:

    on the first day of class in a religion department outside utah i was asked to say something about my background. when i mentioned that i had attended an lds school, the instructor related her experience with the missionaries. they knocked on her door and she invited them in. during the course of the discussion, they held up a picture of the fifteen apostles. “why are they all men?” she asked. to which the missionaries were said to have replied, “god doesn’t talk to women.” (needless to say, i’m sure this is what was understood not what they actually said, but it makes little difference.)

    there was an awkward pause (awkward for me at least), and we moved on to the introduction of the next student.

    whatever my motivations, i decided to email the instructor later in the day to explain in brief that although it is true that there are not likely to be any female mormon apostles anytime soon, the issue of women and authority in the church is complex and there is a variety of opinions on the issue among members. she responded positively and we got along just fine.

  2. I couldn’t agree more strongly with these thoughts, TT.

    One example I was thinking of recently: Church research shows that people absolutely hate our door knocking. We lose tremendous goodwill from that practice, which is mostly a big waste of time anyway. And yet the Church won’t pull the plug on it, apparently because they can’t think of anything better for the missionaries to do. To me that’s a failure of strategic thinking and leadership.

    And we continue to worship the almighty baptism statistic, even though it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a mere baptism, without more, is not something that strengthens the church, and can actually have the opposite effect of weakening the church (by putting an added strain on limited local resources–adding more names to home and visiting teaching rolls without accompanying commitment). And then we wonder why our retention sucks.

  3. Of course your core message (be friends first; share the gospel organically; and be friends no matter what happens) is consistent with any number of recent talks in conference.

    Different things work for different people. My experience sharing a Book of Mormon with a friend was quite positive, although she did not accept the invitation to receive the missionary lessons. But she still expressed gratitude more than once for the book.

    Elder Eyring spoke a number of years ago that there are lots of ways to share the gospel.

  4. A friend of mine overheard a conversation—which I swear I am not making up—between two unknown non-Mormon students in a hallway at Yale Divinity School. It went something like this:

    Student 1: Mormons sure get a bad rap. How can we call ourselves ecumenical if we malign them so much?
    Student 2: Maybe, but how can you be friends with them or even have a normal conversation with them if you know they’re always trying to convert you?
    Student 1: Oh, that’s not true. That is so not true…

  5. As a convert, I am grateful for the people that invited me to church after knowing me a month or two and giving me a book of mormon with a note in it inviting me to read it after 3 months. I was not ready for it, but these people offered themselves up wholly and unconditionally as examples of their faith. They were different from others. I was impressed. I think there is nothing wrong with people who are upfront about their faith, especially if their friendship is not dependent on that faith.

  6. “…but they have substantially changed the perception of Mormons as shallow, insincere, and incapable of actually talking to those who are not of their faith.”

    I think this part is key.

  7. TT, thanks for the great post. Sincerely asked, what does a journeyman VCR repairman tell his friends about his church?

  8. g. wesley,
    I think you raise an excellent issue about one of the problems of having a young missionary force. They (we) say the darndest things! I remember attending Julia Sweeney’s live performance about her turn to atheism and it started off with all the supposedly ridiculous things the Mormon missionaries said to her.

    I didn’t know that about the studies on door-to-door. It doesn’t surprise me at all though. It seems to me that this practice has its roots in the door-to-door salesmen movement in the earlier part of the century. This practice has mostly fallen out of favor. Apparently we didn’t get the memo. In my own musings on the overall missionary program, I’m afraid that I too run into the same lack of creativity for how else to harness the power of the program that we have, while also eliminating the wasteful and annoying aspects of it.

    I think you’re right that there are some recognitions that the “standard” approach isn’t always the best. I think we have a lot of work to do to change the culture in reality, however.

    Jon H.,
    That is a great story. I have a similar experience of the expectation that I would proselytize. One friend early on tried to get to know me just so that he could have me proselytize him. I refused his advances, and as a result we became very good friends. Of course, religion has been an important part of our friendship, but I can help think that it was in NOT living up to the LDS stereotype that allowed for us to have those conversations later. Had I given him a Book of Mormon when he initially feigned interest, I’m not sure we’d have ever gotten to the later stage.

    Matt W,
    Thanks for your experience, and it serves as a reminder that there are no rules about this. That is the point I’m trying to make. I don’t doubt that the traditional methods have worked. They haven’t for me, but I’m glad they did for you! I don’t know what we’d do without you, frankly!

    That is an excellent comparison. I think that the relationship between our missionary approach and tacky sales is way too close sometimes…

    That is a great question. I’m not sure I have a simply answer to it. I’d say that in general when asked a question I try to give answers that emphasize diversity within the tradition, while still acknowledging the authority of certain views. When talking to people in other traditions, I try to find out sincerely how their tradition has dealt with the problem. We compare notes. I also try to paint a human picture of Mormonism, to help them to see Mormons as human beings, not as radically different from themselves and their families. I’m not super interested in doctrines, but tend to see Mormonism as a spiritual practice that helps me to be more divine. I acknowledge, however, that the bulk of these conversations are with a relatively informed group of people in the VCR repair business who have a lot of free time on their hands to think about religion seriously and critically, so I think that skews my experience.

  9. Thanks for this, TT. I agree with your sentiments whole-heartedly.

    Ironically, while you won’t find someone more opposed to the door-to-door method than myself, I actually had quite a bit of success with it on my mission in the DC area: through tracting we came in contact with two large, well-established families that ended up being baptized, sealed in the temple, etc. I know that is utterly rare to the point of it being two miniscule specs on the larger spectrum, but they were some eternally significant specs. So I have to admit that while I am always speaking out against tracking, in the back of my mind there is always a voice reminding me of those two miracles.

  10. TT,

    Thanks for the thoughtful answer. This has been going through my mind lately too. As a missionary, I believed and taught that the foundational story was air-tight, giving us a seamless transition from Bible times till today in regards to God’s manifesting Himself to his children. I have noticed more and more, though, that my conversations don’t emphasize JS’s theophany or TSM’s unique relationship with Deity. I rather prefer to talk about the pragmatic aspect of the faith as well as how it has provided a vehicle to help foster love and aid service to others. I’ve been trying to decide whether this reflects a decline/maturation of belief or perhaps is just a reflection of those with whom I discuss religion (healthcare). Maybe that’s just how friends talk to each other. Not sure.

    Ironically, I feel that my PG-13 sense of humor has lowered more guards and allowed for more friendships and more religious conversation than any personal righteousness ever has.

    Also, thanks for the occasional recommended reading on this site–it’s been a great help knowing where to go next.

  11. #9 TT:

    Not sure what your view of the “standard” approach is. Even Elder Ballard’s “set a date” program was built around lasting friendships rather than abusing friendships.

    As a ward mission leader now my observation is that most people are just plain too afraid of offending someone to do too much “direct” missionary work (and that’s ok). In our community there are many, many faithful Catholics and Protestants who go to church every Sunday and are not looking for a change (nor are they looking for a fight), and our ward members don’t seem to be, either.

    Clayton Christensen (formerly an Area Seventy) wrote about gentle ways to share the gospel in the Ensign in 2005. Here’s the link:

    For full-time elders it’s different of course. If members could provide them enough opportunities to teach, then there would be no need for door knocking. Our missionaries also are very serious about looking for meaningful service opportunities in the community.

  12. Perhaps it is not door-knocking per se that is poor but the way that we do it. I have seen elsehwere that some proselyting Church’s, like the JW’s do very well when it comes to converts and retention, better than we. Yet, they use the same general methods but approach it very differently.

    Strategic issues: Instead of tracting, allow missionaries to spend real time with members in social settings, like sports or whatever. Linked with this, since social events are a non-invasive way of bringing people into contact with Church and developing those types of honest friendships discussed in the OP, then get Missionaries involved in preparing ad organising social events.

  13. Rico: The Jehovah’s Witnesses actually have pretty intense issues with retention. I like your idea about letting missionaries actually get to know people, though–but, unfortunately, with the drive to a larger force of full-time missionaries, there are some marginal cases. The amount of flirting some of the recent missionaries in my ward did with the young women at church social events doesn’t lead me to think that the rules can be relaxed without some changes in the way missionaries get called.

  14. I just posted the below a couple of days ago on a missionary-related post at FMH. Thought it applied here, too.

    When I was a ward mission leader in Utah, we worked really hard as a missionary committee and ward council to address the association of “missionary efforts” with “guilt,” and the fact that the two are incompatible. We flat out told ward members that if they were sharing the gospel with friends because they would feel guilty if they didn’t, they should hold their tongue and wait for a better motive, because the Spirit doesn’t work with you via guilt.

    We also taught ward members that missionary experiences are not a result of finding ways to bring up the gospel with people, it’s a matter of having sincere, no-strings-attached friendships with a broad circle, and then turning off the filter in your head that says “I’m now speaking to a non-member.”

    In other words, if you’re talking about something in your life that includes Church-related and/or gospel related events or terminology, be the same person and tell the same story regardless of that person’s church affiliation. If you’re comfortable bringing up the gospel aspects of your life in casual conversation, your friends will be comfortable when you do. If they don’t understand and want to, they’ll tell you. If they aren’t comfortable, they’ll tell you or show you.

    And most important, if they see your church membership as something important to you and as a positive in your life — and they arrive at that conclusion through their own observation — they’ll be comfortable bringing up the subject in their time and on their terms.

    Just be the same person with your non-church friends as you are with your church friends and missionary opportunities seem to happen on their own. You don’t have to “approach” people about the gospel. You just have to not NOT talk about the gospel in your life.

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