Come Join the Ranks

May 9, 2004 | 24 comments
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When I was a missionary one investigator asked me why I (and presumably the other missionaries) was going around trying to teach people. In hard-learned Japanese I said something to the effect of, “Going to heaven alone would be kind of lonely, wouldn’t it?” She later told me if I’d said anything else she would have lost interest right there. I think we in the Church do have something of the greatest value to share with non-members, but I think they have a lot to offer us, too — indeed, they themselves are most precious. How can we best reflect this in the way we approach them?

On the occasion I just mentioned, I managed to present the gospel message in a way that really seemed friendly, and not condescending. As it happens, the investigator already thought of herself as Christian, but was put off by the smug, holier-than-thou attitude of many in the congregation whose meetings she had been attending. So what I said that day was (unbeknownst to me) the perfect thing to say to her right then. As a missionary in Japan, where most people are not Christian, I found enough people were simply curious about us that we could begin talking to them, and because we were missionaries it was the most natural thing to talk to them about our beliefs: the initial broaching of the subject didn’t seem condescending because the premise was mere curiosity as often as not, and then as the conversation progressed we would often awaken a deeper interest. I have had a tough time, though, since then, approaching friends and acquaintances about the gospel. I’ve done it a few times, but it’s been very difficult for me. I have some really great friends, and I often feel the Church needs them more than they need the Church! So first, is that a heretical thought, to think that the Church might need them more than they need the Church? If so, I’d like some help getting straightened out. And second, now that my relationships are based on other things (i.e. I’m not wearing a missionary name tag), and most of my friends think they already know all they need to know about Jesus Christ, how do I get rid of my worry that if I invite someone to learn about the Church I’ll seem condescending?

24 Responses to Come Join the Ranks

  1. Ben Huff on May 9, 2004 at 8:50 pm

    Although it may be related, the question of whether and how much the Church needs people to join it is a different question from whether God needs people to join his Church.

  2. Daniel Peterson on May 9, 2004 at 10:32 pm

    I see nothing heretical in the idea that the Church needs people, though I find the notion that it might need them more than they need it somewhat problematic. (From my point of view, all people need the fullness of the Gospel. And, in a certain sense, under the aspect of eternity, it’s just about ALL they need.)

    I’m reminded of the special mission that Joseph Smith sent out — succesfully, as it happened — to convert a fellow in Toronto who was needed to build the Kirtland Temple.

    In order to build Zion and spread the gospel by every means possible to every people, the Church needs individuals with special skills, leadership abilities, talents for service, facility in communication, artistic and musical capacities, and, yes (though I tremble to mention it here, given recent conversations) intellectual abilities. There are many, many people I’ve known who, had they been members of the Church, would have made enormous contributions to the building of the Kingdom.

    But that doesn’t touch your fundamental question, which is an excellent one, and worthy of reflection.

  3. chris goble on May 10, 2004 at 12:51 am

    I tend to view heaven as a place where we a lot of progression will occur from each other. For instance if I had to figure out how to build a computer from scratch, well, it might take an eternity! Similarly with so many things to learn after this life, I am sure we will need all the help we can get. I like to think that those with whom we will associate will provide this help. Perhaps that is the best reason for sharing the gospel – getting others to help us figure out how things work. To be convincing, I think missionary work should be about more than having some company. It should be about putting talents to use in someting other than “make work” type projects.

  4. Ben Huff on May 10, 2004 at 1:13 am

    Chris, yeah, the sense in which we need people is much more than just a matter of needing, or wanting, their company. Partly that was my weak Japanese speaking, though I think fellowship is in many ways the beginning and ending point for me in this train of thought. I mean, the plan of salvation is about sealing the entire human family together, right? Just being united in love with each other and with God.

    But Dan’s point about talents is crucial to much of the middle of my train of thought. I look at the Church and see a lot of wonderful work going on, and yet I see a lot of needs that just don’t get met. Sometimes we may not realize what we need until someone offers it . . . I remember being surprised at what I took away, most of all, from my Book of Mormon class with Hugh Nibley. It wasn’t any particular set of facts. Rather, he busted open a whole new mode of reading for me, reading the scriptures. Since then I’ve often thought, who can teach this? How do we do it? We need more people who can teach us to really read the scriptures, in a way that lets them speak. I was thrilled when I heard about Julie’s book about how to read the scriptures; I look forward to reading it. Even having this book, though, is not the same as having a bunch of talented teachers who teach us to be better readers. Often what we lack is as much a matter of talents or time as it is people, when it comes to accomplishing the work of the Church, but when I see someone with some of those talents, I think, “Ooh, if I could just get that person involved!”

  5. Diogenes on May 10, 2004 at 1:36 am

    I worry about some version this problem all the time.

    Most of my friends and colleagues are extremely smart, very accomplished, and highly successful by most measures of success. They also appear, King Benjamin’s aphorism notwithstanding, to be for the most part fairly happy despite living in various degrees of what we would consider wickedness.

    While I agree with Daniel Peterson that my friends would, in the long run, be better off if they accepted the Gospel and joined the Church, I am at a complete loss — as I sit through some of our truly insufferable sacrament meetings and watch the many profoundly unhappy Latter-Day Saints all around me — as to how I could possibly convince my friends that this would be a really good move for them to make.

    I did convince one of my colleagues, who has done a great deal of work on international hunger through the United Nations, to come visit our sacrament meeting a few weeks ago. As she arrived, I noticed that one of our local black-helicopter conspiracy nutcases had parked his car in the church lot, draped with large banners that said “FIGHT SOCIALISM. GET THE U.S. OUT OF THE U.N.” I said nothing about it and tried to pretend it wasn’t there.

    The meeting was by most anybody’s standards pretty awful. She sat politely through it, and afterwards politely bade me farewell, to go attend services at her own church, where they presumably fire the preacher if the meeting is awful. It just didn’t really seem the moment to say, “Look, I know that many of the people you met in the chapel just now may seem to you to be pathetically narrow-minded, parochial, ignorant pinheads. And in fact you’re probably right — some of them really ARE pathetically narrow-minded, parochial, ignorant pinheads. But God loves pinheads, too, and they really need you here. In fact, you’d be much better off in the eternities if you came and joined this congregation. How would you like to meet with the missionaries?”

    So I just bide my time and keep watching for an opportunity — presumably far away from sacrament meeting, and from the church parking lot — where that Golden Question might sound a little more credible.

  6. Daniel Peterson on May 10, 2004 at 1:50 am

    So we need better preachers, right? Another illustration of the point.

    Maybe a focused campaign needs to be launched (even if unofficially) to recruit people who can improve our meetings. The baptism of Gladys Knight might someday help to make our music more lively. That’s a start.

  7. Ben Huff on May 10, 2004 at 1:57 am

    Yeah, Diogenes, that’s how I feel! I’ve only managed to get one friend here at Notre Dame to come to a church meeting, but it was a similar experience. Yet last week’s Stake Conference was fabulous; the Stake President and the area authority Seventy both gave superlative talks, and I wished I had invited someone! But I never know which are going to be the really wonderful weeks like that. And I know that much of what I find wonderful in our worship is a bit of an acquired taste.

  8. Daniel Peterson on May 10, 2004 at 2:10 am

    Incidentally, I was joking. Sort of. I think.

  9. Kingsley on May 10, 2004 at 2:12 am

    Spoke to my missionary brother in Chile today–he said that the Church recently cut an hour from Sunday meetings, and that if it *works* (i.e. if retention goes up) it’s going to be applied worldwide.

  10. Russell Arben Fox on May 10, 2004 at 9:03 am

    I don’t know if believing that “the Church might need [one’s friends] more than they need the Church” is heretical; I guess it would depend upon who those friends are, and what they believe. I must confess that I have a hard time–have always had a hard time–articulating to many non-member Christian friends and aquaintences why it is that becoming a Mormon would satisfy a needful thing in their lives. I think I am, generally speaking, a pretty good proselytizer on behalf of Christianity; I think I’m fairly comfortable with, and not too bad at, communicating the need to believe in and worship Christ to those who don’t do either, whether out of laziness or disbelief. (One of my happiest moments in recent years was when I learned that a good friend of mine, a secular Jew, was converting to Catholicism.) But telling good, from all appearances mostly happy and spiritual, church-going Christians that they need to make a change? Not only do I really not know how to make that sound non-condescending, but I guess I’m not entirely convinced that “need” even makes sense in that context. (That it would be “good” thing I can clearly see and express; the truths made available through the restoration and the Book of Mormon are excellent things to have. But whether they are the sine qua non of receiving Christ’s salvation–which is the whole point after all–is, for me at least, a harder and less certain question.)

  11. Rob on May 10, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Amen to all these comments.

    It always makes me sad when I see my bright, educated, member freinds walk away from the Church because of the pinheads. Paradoxically, this seems like a very selfish thing to do–the Church isn’t giving me what I want, so I’m going to leave…whereas, if they would just give what they have to give, the Church would be a much better place, and might even help the pinheads (we’re all pinheads sometimes).

    As for Sunday services, this is a big problem. We all know how unproductive it is to channel surf for 3 hours, hoping to find something good to watch on TV. If we plan our TV viewing, maybe we’ll actually get to watch something good. Meanwhile, Church is more like a TV channel surfing crap shoot. You get some great talks, and some really poor ones. I’d like to see more thought put into the production of sacrament meeting…though recognize the difficulty in finding speakers each and every week. But really, if you were to look at it from a marketing perspective, there’s no realy mystery into why people don’t bring their friends to church. It’s too often embarassing.

    And back to the original tenor of this thread…I think we fail to enjoin enough people to come join our ranks because we may not all be enlisted in the same cause. If the purpose of church is to maintain the programs of the church (75% of our Church work?), well, that may or may not really float everyone’s boat. However, the cause of Zion is incredibly powerful. Unfortunately, we’ve ceded much of our Zion-building agenda to those outside the church who spend all their time trying to create a sustainable, equitable society without input from the LDS.

    By all means, come join the ranks…as long as its “The Kingdom of God or Nothing” instead of just nothing.

  12. Sheri Lynn on May 10, 2004 at 1:46 pm

    We associate with many Lutherans and I have had to attend a few funerals and services at their church. They are wonderful people–the only thing that could make them better is the fullness of the Gospel.

    However, their services remind me of a combination of band camp and playing Zork. Unpleasantly loud, all scripted, interactive, noisy, regimented. I have a hard time keeping a straight face sometimes because the pastor-congregation-pastor-congregation interchanges remind me of text adventures. “KNOCK ON DOOR.” “Sorry, I can’t do that right now.” “Hit door.” “You knock at the door, and a giant ogre…”

    Even at the funeral, the music was painfully loud and they marched everybody out line by line at the end. Our meetings break up like grade schools. The bell rings, and we’re off! No order to our egress…all our pent-up energy has to be used up before the next meeting!

    So we’ve also had occasion to invite Lutherans to baptisms and other family events. I can tell they are completely underwhelmed by the quiet reverence. They have never learned to be still and listen to a small voice within them–their services are like a Disney attraction, moving them through the experience with all this sound and ritual. They even play loud music all during their communion! Our services must seem like sensory deprivation when you’re used to someone else pulling all of the spiritual weight for you.

    My black friend is LDS but occasionally she goes to a “black” church (I have no idea what denomination) when she just can’t stand the quiet of our meetings any more. :-) I don’t think that the early church was quite so restrained as ours is today.

    Then again, thinking back to a near-riot I observed in a Relief Society once when the subject of chocolate came up, and the gospel-hobbiests took over, maybe we’re not always so restrained!

  13. Ben Huff on May 10, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    I have major cognitive dissonance over this because I believe the CJCLDS is uniquely positioned to administer saving ordinances, and teach plain and precious truths not found among what I’m tempted ot call the Christian diaspora of fragmented sects. But when I compare ordinances and doctrines with Christlike attributes, I tend to feel that the latter are more important to salvation, and so when I think about approaching someone who is very Christlike already, maybe more Christlike than I am, I’m not sure how to do it.

    And I think the way we have everyone help out running the church is one of the best things about it! I certainly don’t think that should change! I think that’s a big part of how we grow, by serving that way. But for someone who’s accustomed to shopping for a congregation that suits them, it’s bound to be disappointing at first.

  14. Mark Butler on May 10, 2004 at 8:47 pm

    All, and I mean all, of the programs of the Church are there to establish the cause of Zion. If here and there they are not functioning effectively in that regard, it is only because members have not caught the proper vision.

    Home teaching, for example, is the most fundamental program in the Church, and the idea of a Zion society without it, or something very much like it, say on the patriarchal mode, is virtually inconceivable.

    The same goes for nearly every other program of the Church I can think of. They may be recast – but none of them are going away. A Zion society is rather the fulfilment of these “programs” – the extension of the leading principles thereof to every aspect of life.

    We never really eliminate programs anyway – we just transfer responsibility between Church, State, and Family. The ones the Church currently implements are those that are deemed, by revelation, to be the ones the Church cannot do without. Everything else tends to get the axe, so that members can better fulfil their civic and filial responsibilities, responsibilities as sacred and as serious as any Church program.

  15. Ben Huff on May 10, 2004 at 11:51 pm

    Kingsley, you’re kidding, right?

  16. Adam Greenwood on May 10, 2004 at 11:58 pm

    So maybe, Ben,
    what your friends need is to be needed?

    I love your approach, by the way.

  17. Kingsley on May 11, 2004 at 1:35 am

    Ben: No, I’m not kidding. It’s already being instituted in Chile. I don’t know where my brother got his info. as far as it maybe going worldwide goes, but he’s a pretty sober kid and not the type to exaggerate or speculate about stuff like this. So: it’s two hours for the Chileans, lucky Saints, and if it brings the numbers up *apparently* it’s going to be two hours for all of us.

  18. Kingsley on May 11, 2004 at 1:46 am

    He *might* have heard the worldwide thing from Elder Holland, who’s been a frequent speaker at his Zone Conferences. In fact, Elder Holland suddenly whirled on him the other day and asked him his name, and my brother, blushing like mad, had to reference his name tag to be sure. What *is* known is that the two-hour deal is part of a sort of reactivation package that includes sprucing up youth facilities/activities in a big way.

  19. Ben Huff on May 11, 2004 at 1:55 am

    Uh, wow. Okay, three hours can get tiring, but what can we really cut out? I’ll admit priesthood lessons in my experience tend to be the least effective part of the block, and I wouldn’t mind if we only had one once a month, on some of the topics more directly related to the priesthood. But Sunday School is just long enough to have a real lesson; if we cut that shorter I don’t see how we could plan on accomplishing anything!

    What exactly is the new meeting schedule in Chile?

  20. Kingsley on May 11, 2004 at 2:10 am

    Ben: I’m not sure, but I can find out. I’ll email you when I do.

  21. Mark Butler on May 11, 2004 at 2:17 am

    I would imagine that Sunday School would be eliminated in favor of personal and family scripture study. Ten minutes a day beats Sunday School hands down. CES can take up the slack.

  22. Ben Huff on May 11, 2004 at 2:36 am

    Okay, Mark, I agree wholeheartedly that daily personal scripture study is worth more than a lot of what really happens in Sunday School. But I think we as a people need to talk about the scriptures *together*. Otherwise we ain’t a church. And I don’t see CES as a serious option to take up the slack left by eliminating Sunday School. That actually is a terrifying thought for me. First, CES is paid, Sunday School teachers are not, and in my mind that means CES can never take on the sacred character of Sunday School. Second, how often is CES stuff better than Sunday School? Maybe CES folk are more knowledgeable on certain matters of fact, but that ain’t spiritual knowledge.

  23. Rob on May 11, 2004 at 11:07 am

    When I think of joining the ranks, I think about brotherhood (I’m a man, can’t say much about sisterhood) and fellowship. I’ve heard a lot lately about the nature of the priesthood quorums that makes me see them differently. Elder Perry came through here a year ago for Regional Conference and really emphasized the fraternal nature of quorums–they are service organizations like the Elks or something. Admittedly, when I am sitting in priesthood, I usually feel more like I’m sitting in sunday school than in a fraternity meeting. I think this is another case, like Mark commented, where we have the program, but aren’t really catching the vision of it. I remember being taught once that the priesthood lessons were only optional–for when you didn’t have enough quorum business to fill the hour. Now, with the prophet lessons, the lessons seem to be more central. In our stake, we never break into our quorum committees to plan actual service or work. I think that’s only a stake directive, since I’ve visited wards where they still split into committees at least occasionally.

    I think it would be easier to get some people involved if we were actually doing more as quorums (and Relief Societies). What if the bishop charged the quorum with eliminating poverty in the ward boundaries? Could we muster more interest in that than we do in our home teaching? What if home teaching were used more to enlist people (especially inactives) in service planned and carried out by the quorums. Instead of going to visit Sister Hasn’t-been-to-church-in-the-thirty-years-since-high-school to give her a message from Pres. Faust, maybe we could go ask her to donate to a food drive and come to a benefit concert? I think we get so trapped in our traditional understandings of the programs, that we don’t see them as the powerful opportunities they are to really stretch ourselves and fill the world with Zion.

  24. Russell Arben Fox on May 11, 2004 at 11:44 am

    “[W]hen I am sitting in priesthood, I usually feel more like I’m sitting in sunday school than in a fraternity meeting….I remember being taught once that the priesthood lessons were only optional–for when you didn’t have enough quorum business to fill the hour. Now, with the prophet lessons, the lessons seem to be more central.”

    Amen and amen. Sunday school at least, when things work the way they are supposed to, is supposed to be a lesson, an opportunity to teach and be taught about the scriptures. By contrast, what are priesthood lessons (and Relief Society lessons) actually for? To teach us about the prophets? Good enough–but in which case, it’s really just an additional hour of Sunday School. Or, are the lessons there to help us learn how to be friends with one another, to be better members of the ward, to be better servants? Seems to me that is more likely to come through doing, rather than telling.

    Incidentally, regarding the one-hour reduction in meetings: I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve heard speculations about the elimination of Sunday School, or moving it to an (optional?) evening meeting time, or otherwise altering the three-hour block, on and off for as long as I can remember. Not that I don’t think a change wouldn’t be a good thing: it would. (Living as I do in a community where probably 1 out of every 5 residents attends Wednesday evening Bible study at their churches, the argument for keeping our meetings “consolidated” seems pretty weak to me.) Given a choice, I’d rather see, in line with Rob’s comments above, priesthood and Relief Society made more autonomous from Sunday worship services than Sunday School itself, but either would be worth trying.