Missionary Work and the Fear of the Spirit

April 28, 2004 | 15 comments

Aaron Brown has summed up my missionary experience:

As missionaries, we realize that investigators are unlikely to receive spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of the Church right after the elders sit down on the couch for the first time. Getting spiritual confirmation is a real chore for many, and often doesn’t come for a long time. Thus, we pitch certain “attractive” doctrines to our investigators, betting they’ll find one or more of them to their liking. Eternal families, Baptism for the Dead, you name it. And one of the best selling points for Mormonism, we believe (and I think it’s often true) is “Modern Prophets.”

Too right. I feel like I spent most of my mission flailing around trying to find some initial hook that would make worthwhile the enormous emotional and time commitment of trying to get a spiritual confirmation.

My experience differs in only one regard: some people had no difficulty at all getting a spiritual witness. Our first contact with them was Pentecostal. And we invariably never saw those people again. It was as if our message was the more frightening the more it promised peace, happiness, and the power of the Spirit. Timeo danaos et dona ferentis. As with Aaron B., our successfull investigators were those who found an attractive hook and then worked hard for a spiritual confirmation.

Is my experience typical or not? To steal a line from Lyle, what say ye?

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15 Responses to Missionary Work and the Fear of the Spirit

  1. Kingsley on April 28, 2004 at 10:38 pm

    I don’t know that I would describe modern prophets, proxy baptisms, and eternal families as “attractive hooks” that prelude spiritual confirmation; they’re more like restored truths that engender spiritual confirmation.

  2. Kingsley on April 28, 2004 at 10:44 pm

    I don’t mean to be glib. I sometimes fear that the more accessible and “popular” doctrines and practices of the Church are denegrated because of their popularity, like C.S. Lewis at Oxford as soon as Screwtape started to sell well.

  3. Aaron Brown on April 28, 2004 at 11:00 pm


    There are any number of Mormon doctrines that could be described as “restored truths that engender spiritual confirmation.” But there is a subset of our teachings that we believe (rightly, in many cases) will be initially attractive to those who might hear about the Church. There’s a reason the Church doesn’t produce pamphlets or videos entitled “You Get to Pay 10% of Your Income to the Church! Hooray!” Most people aren’t going through life, looking for organizations to give money away to (at least not ones that make it a “requirement”). But many are looking for moral or spiritual guidance, or have questions about the meaning of life or the afterlife. We pitch these “hooks” initially in the hope that people will pay attention long enough to maybe stick around, absorb some of the more “difficult” or “dry” subjects, and even take the discussions seriously enough to decide to pray and seek spiritual confirmation.

    One of the points I was trying to highlight is this: Much of the rhetoric in the Church about how “only the Spirit matters,” even if true in other contexts, simply doesn’t fly with respect to potential investigators’ initial contact with the Church (Adam’s pentecostal friends excepted). Everybody knows this. But for whatever reason, we sometimes don’t like to say it out loud.

    Aaron B

  4. Adam Greenwood on April 28, 2004 at 11:00 pm

    I don’t think Aaron or I are using ‘attractive’ with some sort of postmodern distance. By attractive doctrines we mean doctrines that attract people to investigate the Church.

  5. MDS on April 28, 2004 at 11:27 pm

    My experience, for what it is worth:

    I spent a good six months of my mission (in Germany) convinced that the message of eternal families was the selling point that would lead to success as a missionary. I focused on nothing else, regardless of when or where I was proselytizing. While the approach yielded a few potential families that investigated, it resulted in zero converts. Most people responded that they did not believe the “’til death do us part” spiel anyway, and were certain that God would allow them to be together with their families; after all, He is a loving God, right?

    In retrospect, the three conversions that I was allowed to participate in were all a result of people being sold on the Book of Mormon, reading it fairly thoroughly, praying about it, etc.

  6. Kingsley on April 29, 2004 at 2:56 am

    Like I said, no glibness intended. I served in Virginia/West Virginia and found that tithing was generally accepted and even expected right away, while the Word of Wisdom (what, no iced tea!) and the idea of a universal apostasy were consistently balked at. Call it naiveté, idealism, etc., but I never thought of myself as flailing around for hooks or betting that certain selling points would “make worthwhile the enormous emotional and time commitment of trying to get a spiritual confirmation.” It was more the line upon line principle: you get a spiritual confirmation of x, which leads to a spiritual confirmation of y, and so on.

    Of course, it wasn’t always nice and orderly like that: different things rang true to different people. Perhaps you’d get to the third or fourth discussion without one Eureka! moment—but when that moment came, this process would start. Arthur Henry King, for example, after getting a spiritual confirmation of one aspect of Joseph Smith—History, reasoned that “I ought to believe other things he tells me, even though I haven’t got the same evidence of those. The story of the finding and disappearance of [the gold plates] seemed absurd to me. … It took me a long time to appreciate the Book of Mormon.” (Arm the Children, 43.) In other words, what was initially attractive to him wasn’t somehow separate from “trying to get a spiritual confirmation.” It was a spiritual confirmation, the first in a long line of them. As far as I remember, the selling points you specifically mentioned were spread pretty evenly throughout the lessons.

    Anyhow, that’s my two cents—a response to your question about the typicality of your experience. I apologize if I came across facilely before.

  7. Adam Greenwood on April 29, 2004 at 11:53 am

    I see what you mean, Kingsley. Would it be accurate to say that you’re describing a series of *quiet* spiritual confirmations? Did you ever experience anything like I did, where a dramatic initial spiritual experience with the missionaries turned people off?

  8. Kingsley on April 29, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    Yes, almost stunningly so. In my first area we taught a family who had a little girl suffering from a severe eye infection. One night, just after completing the third discussion with its claims of a restored priesthood, the father asked that we heal the little girl (believing that we were true agents of Jesus Christ). We were both very new, and very frightened, but we administered to her and she was healed—presto. It was one of those things, those rare experiences. Her eyes turned all milky white and she slept peacefully for the first time in months. The next day her doctor said he’d never seen anything like it, etc. We thought (being new) that this experience would put the nail in the coffin, so to speak—they’d have to join the Church now; which they did; but then they just sort of petered out. The miracle, I think, was too much for them. It pushed them into joining hurriedly out of a sense of obligation and perhaps fear. Ironic. The people who really “stuck” generally did so after a long series of sessions with the still small voice, rather than anything thunderous.

  9. John H on April 29, 2004 at 12:26 pm

    My mission experience was similar in that I would pitch ideas I thought would be attractive to investigators. My experience with teaching about eternal families is almost identitcal to MDS (sorry I don’t know your real name). I think we in the Church see that as the most appealing doctrine and we convince ourselves that most everyone outside the Church is terrified of “til death do us part” when I’ve found the reality to be that most people believe that a loving God wouldn’t separate them from friends and family.

    In regards to spiritual confirmation, I think there’s a reality that needs to be faced: many, many people have never had it. They’ve never felt it, or at least they think they never have. Perhaps that’s why it’s always the same five or six people getting up on Fast Sunday to bear their testimony. I’m surprised at how many people I’ve spoken to who are willing to confide that they’ve never had an experience that confirms the Church is the true church. They have faith that it is, and they hope that it is, and their heritage and the attractiveness of the doctrines often bids them to stay involved, but I frankly think we’re fooling ourselves if we think we have congregations loaded with people who have had the spirit confirm the truth of the Gospel to them.

  10. Kingsley on April 29, 2004 at 12:58 pm

    Perhaps. But probably the situation “on the ground” is a little more complicated than Yes or No as far as a spiritual witness of the Gospel is concerned. A lot of testimony bearing goes on in priesthood, Sunday School, etc.—it’s not limited to fast Sundays. Probably our congregations aren’t crowded with folks who’ve had every doubt washed away by some sort of end-all revelation; but the sort of quiet spiritual confirmation that Adam describes seem quite common.

  11. lyle on April 29, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Sounds like the scripture re: she that receiveth, getteth more…and he that says i have enuff…has it taken away.

    Basically, in the Dominican…we taught lots of great discussions, with a strong Spirit present, that was felt by all. However, they often were more afraid of the change that the SPirit entailed than in having more of it.

    One man had a complete testimony…of everything. Then, had his sister come dump some anti- stuff on him. So…he ran away because while he had felt the spirit…he was too afraid of the ramifications. IMO. [how about a post re: when it is/isn't appropriate to wash the dust of of one's feet at a town/investigator...]

  12. Rob on May 1, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    In Ecuador, I noted early on that the more powerfully I felt the spirit during the first discussion, the higher the likelihood that we’d never see that person again, or never have another good discussion. Those that got baptized usually did so fairly easily, with more peaceful and less dramatic spiritual experiences.

    I never thought of the spirit as frightening people away…my interpretation was that a) the spirit had to be strong, as it was the only chance the person would get or maybe b)the person was rejecting the spirit, so there was more for me to feel…it was kinda bouncing off the investigator and hitting me.

    I have no idea what the real nature of the phenomenon is, but I did see it over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.

  13. Sam Johnson on May 1, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    I don’t know if we particularly teach “attractive doctrines” so much as we teach according to ability to understand. Start with the simple and work to the more complex. This is a natural teaching process it works in secular teaching as well as spiritual teaching. Line upon Line. On a side note as a full time missionary the sucessful people who stuck with the gospel took the time to study out the Book of Momon and gain a personal testimony of the book. And of couse the book is another testimony of Christ so they were then rooted in Christ and converted. There is no silver bullet. Either they find faith in Christ or not.

  14. Aaron Brown on May 2, 2004 at 5:16 am


    The “line upon line” teaching process you describe may be an ideal one, but it doesn’t change the fact that many missionaries believe (rightly, for sure) that certain Mormon doctrines are likely to appeal to a wide range of potential investigators because of their uniqueness and/or “attractiveness.” There’s nothing wrong with this. My original point in making this observation was to point out that there is often a window of time (of varying length) between when an investigator first starts to “investigate” and when they feel the spirit (if they ever do). Whether they last long enough to even get a chance to feel the spirit will depend in part on whether the elders are able to make the discussions seem relevant to the investigator’s life and interests during this period of time. And how the missionaries choose to deal with investigators’ initial doubts and/or exposure to controversial aspects of Mormonism may impact whether they stick around.

    What is the point of making this observation — an observation that may seem too obvious to be interesting? Well, there is a lot of rhetoric in the Church that suggests that “only the Spirit matters.” In other words, if Church members just stay focused on Christ and remain mindful of the spiritual confirmations they’ve had (so the argument goes), then all the other gospel details, trivia, hobbies and controversies won’t amount to a hill of beans. Ergo, we can also discard any concerns about controversial doctrinal or historical issues and how they are (or are not) presented to the general membership, since none of this can really matter to those with “real testimonies.”

    I have a number of problems with this way of viewing “testimony,” but I brought up my missionary observations because I think they are perhaps the clearest example of a scenario where this rhetoric simply isn’t helpful in bringing people to Christ. Sometimes, knowing how to deal with and what to say concerning controversial aspects of Mormonism matters. I think it can matter a lot. If the missionaries aren’t handling things optimally, then there may well be loads of people who aren’t sticking around long enough to feel the spirit they would have felt had they stayed.

    Aaron B

  15. Grasshopper on May 6, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    Interesting discussion. I encountered a couple of investigators on my mission who had had powerful spiritual witnesses that frightened them (neither joined the Church). I think the Spirit can be frightening, especially when it *requires* something of us.

    I think Aaron also makes a good point. While it may be true that for those with “real testimonies”, only the Spirit matters, the Church is for the weak as well as the strong.


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