In a post on the growing alliance between Mormons and other conservative religious, two commenters presented an appealing, sincere, and I think mistaken view of missionary work.
Gary Cooper suggests that LDS people have a bad reputation with many Christians and others as being guilty of ‘pushy’ proselytizers. Instead, Gary suggests that we realize the harvest is the Lord’s. Our duty is to exert ourselves setting examples of righteousness and in being good friends. We then stand ready to ask questions and make invitations when our friends have been sufficiently prepared by the Spirit and broach the subject of our faith with us, or in the rare circumstance in which the Spirit moves us to breach the topic ourselves. Hence my title: if we build righteousness and friendship, they will come.
Clark Goble agrees, more or less, and suggests that the traditional, pushy method may be exhausted. Hence the recent decline in baptisms and the Prophet’s recent emphasis on neighborliness and on not causing confrontation and discomfort. Perhaps a less “in your face” approach would be better. (And, to be fair, I think Pres. Hinkley has been doing this) At the same time though a less intense approach will almost certainly also lead to fewer baptisms. (Although I suspect better ones)
There you have the argument, at least as I understand it (gentlemen?). We live in an age that dislikes proselyting. Therefore, proselyting efforts on our part will usually fail, maybe even be counterproductive to the friendships that give us natural proselyting opportunites. These natural proselyting opportunites come when we live good lives full of love, let people know we’re Mormon, and let the Spirit inspire the prepared to open their mouths to us.
I would be very happy if Mssrs. Clark and Cooper were correct.
Oh, I’d still be a bad missionary. I’d have to be kinder, pray for more charity, live a better life. Christ has yet to walk a mile in my shoes. That’s a pity, and I’d need to change that, and I do need to change that regardless.
It would still be easier, though. The other way is a lot ickier. Inviting people to accept the gospel is offensive–it sets up a sort of separation between oneself and the person invited (I have something that you don’t) and it exposes the fiction of mutual acceptance and tolerance (some of your fundamental suppositions are mistaken and need to be changed; you are incomplete and need to made whole). In consequence, invitations can ruin relationships. Our leaders tell us that they don’t always, and give us examples, but we know the possibility exists. Finally, invitations lead to rejection and failure. You feel heartsick when your friend says no.
So why prefer it? First, I don’t think the field of dreams will actually attract many people. Church growth has slowed recently but I doubt that it’s because members are getting less results with their invitations. I think members are inviting less. I don’t think the Prophet’s urging us to be more friendly is a campaign to pump up baptisms. I think its to get us to be more friendly. We still have a duty to proselyte our friends and acquaintances, else why does the Church keep sending us videos and pass-along cards? Why do the serious proselyting sects like the JW’s continue to grow?
But that’s not the main point. The main point is that the gospel is irreducibly an offense and stumbling block. I’m not just talking about converts. Everyone, at every stage, gets opportunities for real spiritual growth that threaten and unsettle. We get angry, but if we choose we grow. As for the rest of us, so with converts. The good news can’t come without some pain. Oh, no doubt that some will be prepared by other things and will be ready for the message when they receive it (but even then, how can we be sure that it is them, not us, who is to open the mouth). No doubt also that our example and kindness will themselves function as a stumbling block for others. Yet for others the invitation is itself the preparation, and for others still it is the catalyst that converts our example and kindness and Spirit into a stumbling block. And look, let’s face it, making the invitations is a stumbling block to us.
Open your mouth, says the Lord. Go ye therefore and teach all nations, says the Lord. The end is nigh, it is always nigh, and every man should lift a warning voice unto the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord. I don’t think we can ignore all this.
Look, brothers. I don’t mean to offend. I’m probably ahead of you, out in the vanguard in the charge to the rear. I just don’t think that we can find any easy or comfortable reconciliation of our desire to make friends and our desire to convert them.