The Missionary Field of Dreams

March 31, 2004 | 8 comments
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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.

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8 Responses to The Missionary Field of Dreams

  1. Erik on March 31, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    It’s rare to meet a pushy Mormon, in my experience. It’s relatively common to run into a an authority from another faith and have them publicly belittle you and your faith out of some sense of responsibility for your eternal welfare.

    On a ski lift in Utah several years ago I struck up a conversation with a gay man who lived in SLC for part of the year. He told me that his impression of Mormons was that they were generally very open minded and accepting. Although there are certainly examples to the contrary, I believe him.

    My point is I don’t believe offering to teach the gospel, even in the context of tracting, constitutes being “pushy”. I think their conclusions are wrong. We should continue to open our mouths as we speak in a matter-of-fact fashion about our faith. I think it is our own discomfort and akwardness in broaching the subject that causes others to react uncomfortably. Most people are genuinely interested in us, our experiences, and our unique beliefs.

  2. MDS on March 31, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    I think there is much to be said for the “If you build it, they will come” approach, as long as we understand what it is we are to build. Too often, we shrug off our responsibility to do any real missionary work by feeling that the eccentric example we set by following the Word of Wisdom and not attending sporting events on the Sabbath is sufficient to raise interest in our neighbors. I think we need to be much more active in inviting our neighbors to participate with us in service-oriented activities that show our love for our fellow man. As an example, in my ward, we recently held a community blood drive, to which we invited friends and neighbors not of our faith. We even arranged for the missionaries to go door to door with members of the ward, with the sole purpose being to invite people to donate blood. Some of the missionaries were resistant/skeptical of the idea that this fell under their responsibilities to teach the gospel. In my 118-home neighborhood, where the missionaries had, just one week before, had no success asking people if they would like to hear a message about Christ, we were able to schedule four individuals for donation appointments. Since the blood drive was held at the chapel, these individuals got to come and participate with us in some small way, and for all of them, it was the first time that they had set foot in an LDS chapel. I am confident that things like this will have very positive results down the road. I think that we should be actively looking for opportunities like this.

  3. Charles on March 31, 2004 at 6:41 pm

    I believe that having a focus on neighborliness and freindship is a tremendous need. People are pack animals. Not that we cary things around but that we like to seperate ourselves into groups. Religion is such a personal belief that to find others who share those beliefs its sometimes hard to break out of that small circle of friends.
    Befriending our neighbors is a great way to be missionaries, and as members its the most important.
    But there are so many parts of the world that have so few members they need full time missionaries. I believe the biggest detraction from the missionary field is when individual people begin looking at it as a numbers game. Thats when so many people seem to really take offense at it.
    Religion is such a deep and personal aspect of who you are. No one should be afraid to share who they are with friends and nieghbors for fear of offending them. People are not offended by who you are but what you do.

  4. Gary Cooper on March 31, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    Adam,

    Thanks so much for making this its own post! I think this is a great subject that needs to be discussed more and more, especially with the admonitions that the Lord has been giving us through Pres. Hinckley.

    Now, let me start out by saying that I don’t believe (and I may be presumptious here in speaking for Clark) that we are really disagreeing with what you are saying, but rather we are emphasizing different aspects of the same subject. Here’s how I would lay out the issue:

    1. You are right that many members shrink from actually “opening their mouths” to invite others to the Gospel table. What I am saying, though, is that if the Spirit has not moved them to open their mouths, then it is probably a good thing that many of them stay quiet. The reason?

    2. No missionary work can be effective if the Holy Ghost is not intimately involved. This is the problem I was alluding to. I’m not saying that we should abandon the idea of initiating Gospel discussions, I’m just saying we need to broaden our horizons and realize that this is not the ONLY way to go about sharing the Gospel, and that rather than blindly shoot out the Gospel to all and sundry without any thought is NOT what the Lord is wanting.

    3. What I propose is simply what the G.A.’s have told us: We need to live the Gospel, obtain the Spirit, and prayerfully ask the Lord to open doors, lead people to us, show us who is ready, and lead us as to what to do.

    I don’t think this is really all that revolutionary. I think it is fine to initiate a Gospel discussion with others, even complete strangers, IF THE SPIRIT SO DIRECTS. I have done this. I have also found myself in situations where the Spirit said “hush,” and then months later that same person started a converaation on your own, with positive results. I’ve been in situations where I never felt prompted to share the Gospel with someone the entire time I knew them, although that never has happened in any long term acquaintance. In all my long term acquaintances I’ve either been prompted to bring it up (once)or in every other situation I wasn’t prompted, but THEY brought it up.

    The same is true of the content of what has gone on in such conversations. Sometimes something I THOUGHT would be good to talk to someone about (eternal families, word of wisdom, etc.) has not been where the Spirit led the conversation. One interesting thing I have noticed is some of the conversations I’ve had where the Spirit was strongest have been situations where all that happened was the other person(s) just wanted to talk to someone about some subject where they felt soemthing was wrong with society, and they felt like no one else felt that way, and they were visibly relieved when someone else (me) could reassure them they were right, and maybe go on to explain WHY they were right. (This has been especially true on moral issues, where many people out there agree with our standards, but feel alone, surrounded, and outnumbered by the world.)

    Another point I would add, is not only do many members turn others off from the Gospel by hamhandedly pushing it to people who are not ready (or who are ready, but we’re not listening to the Spirit to know HOW to share with them), but we also are missing many great opportunities for missionary work because we are locked into the “please come to my house and meet the missionaries” mode. Examples:

    Stepping forward and being active (and unselfishly helpful!!) in public forums. How often do we attend city council meetings and speak? How about school board meetings? PTA meetings? How about writing letters to the newspaper (some of the comments here at T&S have been truly articulate and moving–can we share this stuff with the world?)How about attending the county and state conventions of whatever political party we belong to?

    Just one more point, then I’ll wrap up. I spent 8 years in the military, and when I first attended basic training at Fort Benning, GA, I knew that I would find myself in a very worldly environment. I asked the Lord to help me to stay true to Him, and be an example and share the Gospel in any way I could. In the nearly four months I was there for Basic and Advanced training, I didn’t start a single Gospel conversation. All I did was live the Gospel, avoid profanity, stay away from porn, and read my Scriptures. The result? I gave away 30 copies of the BoM, had over 40 men come to church with me, 4 of whom took the missionary lessons. They asked to come to church, they asked for the BoM, they asked for the discussions, they asked to know about the Gospel. It was wonderful–many of the conversations started with, “Hey, how come you don’t cuss?” Now, granted, the intense stress of military basic training, especially the infantry, has driven many a man to religion (usually temporarily), but while there were also Protestant and Catholic church services available, the attendance of LDS services from my company was all out of proportion to what you would expect. Incidentally, I also had four inactive members step forward to me (after it became known I was a member, not before) and tell me they wanted to go back to church.

    Now what’s the point of this story? One of the men there who took the discussions related to me that he had grown up in Mesa, AZ, and known Mormons his entire life. He said to me, “Coop, you’re the only Mormon I’ve ever known that I liked and trusted. All the others I’ve ever known were hypocrites, racists, and liars.” Ouch!! It turns out that he had had many members try to share the Gospel with him, including members he smoked pot and drank beer with, member girls he regularly had sex with, and others who otherwise smoked, cursed, stole, etc., except when they were at church!

    Here’s my wrapup. WE CAN’T EFFECTIVELY SHARE THE GOSPEL IF WE DON’T LIVE IT! Period. If we don’t have the Spirit with us on a regulat basis, if our example in front of non-members isn’t what it should be, and if we don’t care enough about God and His children to get out of the house and be involved in politics, our schools, our communities, the arts, etc., we won’t be effective sharing what we have. We’re not disagreeing Adam; I’m simply saying that we need to have a broader vision of missionary work, and realize that EVERYTHING we do in society is preaching the Gospel (for good or bad), and that we have got to make sacrifices and work harder to be in tune to the Spirit and truly be a partner with God. That may mean risking a friendship by initiating a Gospel discussion, IF THE SPIRIT SO MOVES. It might also mean running for a local school board seat or writing to newspaper to defend the Lord’s standards, etc. In short, we need to live in such a way that the Spirit RADIATES from us–so others FEEL there is something different about us. This is LOT harder to do than I think we have realized. But I think it would revitalize missionary efforts. Think about it–what would have a greater effect, my asking every person I meet if they have heard of the BoM, or 90% of the active membership of a ward deciding to abstain from Sunday purchases and non-Sabbath activities?

    I thought I was finished, but here’s one final point. Door-to-door proselytizing and initiating religious discussions with strangers was appropriate in earlier years when it was common in the U.S. for all churches to do this. In today’s world, is that as effective now? The numbers show it is not. Also, when men had to leave their familes for years, and endure terrible hardships, they may have had a greater degree of the Spirit than we tend to, when we now can say “I served my mission already.” It appears many of us go from one extreme to the other. Either we don’t share the Gospel at all (the latter example), or we “share” in a way that others perceive as hypocritical or not really caring about them as a person and friend.

    I hope this clarifies my position. I think it really is no different than what President Hinckley has been saying. The original post where this got started a few days ago was on the issue of how our political alliances might inhibit us from sharing the Gospel with these new friends, because of our fear of damaging the relationship. Again, if we are in tune to the Spirit, and follow the Holy Ghost’s direction, there should be no fear in this regard.

  5. cooper on March 31, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    For years I struggled with the idea of inviting someone to hear the Gospel. I felt guilty when asked if I had taken time to talk to my neighbor about the church. I felt I couldn’t just build a relationship with the “Gospel” end in mind. It was too phony for me. So what to do? Guilt is a bummer.

    Then I was in correlation meeting one Sunday. We were all bemoaning the quality of new converts the missionaries had been bringing in. Everyone seemed to have a problem with welfare needs and not a real foundation in testimony. It was horrible. So the Bishop asked us all to pray about an answer. My answer came and it was that if we didn’t like the quality of the convert maybe we should try doing some missionary work. UGH! There was that push to go find someone again. I was very frustrated. So I began to ask specifically in my prayers for the opportunity to share the gospel with someone. I wanted the Lord to show me who was searching for the truth. And boy did I get an answer!
    The Lord put people in my path that would make random comments about their beliefs and then give me the oportunity to talk about mine. I couldn’t believe it was working. It even sounds too simple to be true. But it has happened. I have a couple of convert baptisms because of my efforts and prayers. This month I will be attending the temple with the first person I commented to while listening to the promptings of the spirit.

    I know for a certainty that the Lord placed these people in my path. It was my responsibility to open up and share what I knew. It was an incredible experience. I will keep praying in hope of sharing again.

    I think the hardest problem with missionary work though is that we are so results oriented. We want to see it to the end. Sometimes we have to be content knowing that we were a small part of the process.

  6. Gary Cooper on March 31, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    Cooper,

    That’s wonderful! Thanks for sharing that. It illustrates what the Lord had told us, that if we make Him a partner with us, and actively work on His behalf, he will open doors.

  7. Adam Greenwood on April 1, 2004 at 11:38 am

    The blood bank is an excellent suggestion. It shows a much more ‘aggressive’ way of building righteousness and letting the goodhearted come to it. Gary Cooper’s experience in the military is similar. When I was active duty I discovered how very public my faith was (Drill Sergeant, on inspection, in front of the whole company: ‘What the hell is this, private?’ Me: Religious material, Drill Sergeant. Drill Sergeant: What, an effing Bible? This don’t look like no effing Bible. Me: It’s the Book of Mormon, Drill Sergeant. Drill Sergeant: What in the hell, private, is the effing Book of Mormon? Me: Well, we Mormons believe that . . . .) and, yeah, that led to lots of interest, some conversions, and some activations.

    I guess I’d just say that a great many Mormons are afraid of opening the mouth. That fear blocks the Spirit. We need to encourage people to make enough attempts to get over their fear, so they can be open to the Spirit, and get some practical experience with what a prompting to open one’s mouth feels like. In addition, there are different ways and methods of opening one’s mouth, and until we have some experience doing it, the Spirit can’t direct us to do one thing or the other.

  8. Clark Goble on April 1, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    To clarify my point, I think different people are reached in different ways. I think that we’ve been doing the more “intense” approach since the 70′s with initially very positive results but of late far more limited results. That suggests to me that those we can reach in that way are becoming a smaller pool. It’s not so much an attack on the method as it is a recognition that different pools require different methods.

    The problem is that I think we’ve somewhat used a one size fits all approach. Now that’s not entirely fair as the church has long emphasized the member missionary program. And when members do that it is by *far* the most effective method. But that takes time. It also requires overcoming ones fear, as Adam says. But when that is done in a “pushy” way then it rarely works. (Unlike say GQ or tracting by Elders)

    As Gary says, the method of missionary work that once was effective clearly isn’t any more. Trying to continue in that method is akin to doing the “without purse or script” method of the 19th century. We have to find what is effective in the culture we find ourselves in.

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