Understanding Anger against Mormon Missionaries

May 6, 2014 | 64 comments
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Eugène Dodeigne_Three Figures_Middelheim Museum_We sometimes hear stories about Mormon missionaries who are confronted with angry people. We praise the missionaries for suffering for Christ like the apostles of old. We condemn the iniquity of those who loathe the messengers of the Lord.

I am going to take up some perspectives of those angry people—because of my mother and others I’ve known over the years. And thousands I do not know.

In other churches, missiology experts have been studying at length this topic of tensions, conflicts, and social damage resulting from Western missionizing, including the ethical issue of intra-Christian proselytism. We Mormons seem to ignore it or do not want to be confronted with it. But with the surge in our missionary numbers and the insistence to “hasten the work”, the topic is acute.

But first, my mother.

A former cloister novice who ultimately chose marriage and motherhood, she raised me, her only son, with a deep love for education, languages, and Catholic-faith commitment. Our region, Flanders, has been intrinsically Catholic for more than a thousand years. My mother guided the ritual and communal steps, inherited from her parents and forebears, in a family sphere imbued with the tokens of tradition—the sign of the cross before meals, Pater Nosters and Ave Marias, a crucifix in nearly each room, the telling of Bible stories with images from Flanders’ rich Christian art patrimony, the missals taken to Sunday mass with readings from the Gospels and the Epistles, retreats to prepare for First and for Holy Communion, processions, fasts at Lent, candles at the appropriate occasions, and more. Her brother was a lifelong priest-missionary in Africa and one of her aged great-aunts a Poor Clare behind cloister walls. The side branches of our ancestry lines were dotted with nuns and clergymen. Each year’s cycle was punctuated by the numerous “holy days” on the calendar, which had become the civil holidays, celebrating one by one all major events in Christ’s life. I am not going to say that our little family was passionately Catholic, but Catholicism was simply part of the time-honored texture of life.

Then, at age 17, in the freeing fever of adolescence, I happened to meet two Mormon missionaries. They joked, they taught, they prayed, and my instant testimony of the Restored Gospel washed away my ancestral legacy. I wanted to be baptized a Mormon.

My mother’s reaction was visceral. This was a child’s abduction. This was the utter ruin of her son’s future and her own lifework. In the depth of her despair she fought with guilt. What had she done wrong? Why did she deserve this punishment? She felt shamed before family, friends, and fellow parishioners. And there was anger, deep anger toward those juvenile strangers with their naive arrogance who had forced their way into our peaceful realm and had broken our sacred family binding.

She did not yet know she would not be allowed to attend my wedding in years to come. Nor hold her baby granddaughter above the baptistery. Though by the end of her life she seemed to accept the course my life had taken, the grief never came to rest.

Perhaps a Mormon mother from pioneer stock can understand. Envision when years of patient and true-to-the-faith steps toward a son’s eternal future—home evenings, family prayers, blessings, church meetings, Primary, baptism, priesthood ordinations, passing the sacrament, blessing it, attending seminary, mission, temple marriage, and the delightful recurrence of the cycle in grandchildren—are brutally halted mid-way. Because at age 17 this Mormon boy decides to join, for example, some obscure Indian sect after meeting some of its young emissaries.

The irony is that a Mormon mother sends out her missionary son as a way to strengthen his commitment to the faith, even if it means breaking the hearts of other mothers in distant places.

For the rather flippant missionaries who taught me at the time, my mother was just a frustrating obstacle.

This tragedy has unfolded thousands of times across the world. It is unfolding today in numerous settings, multiplied by the increase of our missionaries. I think we need to give it proper attention.

Some thoughts:

1 – First of all, converting to Mormonism does not necessarily lead to familial or social conflicts. Much depends on local and personal circumstances. In some countries religious diversity and mobility make a church-change fairly acceptable. Also, secularization and the loss of religious traditions facilitate, paradoxically, the switchover to new churches, in particular in those nations where ecclesiastical monopolies have crumbled. Some families may even be pleased that one of their members adopts Mormonism for its protective spirituality, its moral norms, and its communal dedication, if not for the attractive American connection. There are also the cases where initial opposition makes way for acceptance and may lead to more conversions, finally creating a strong and happy Mormon family.

2 – However, in many countries, communities, or families, the conversion to Mormonism can be highly unsettling, as it fractures familial, religious, and cultural homogeneity. We lack precise data as to the frequency and intensity of such conflicts, but we can safely say they are numerous, as converts, local leaders, and missionaries can testify. Converting to Mormonism has a tremendous impact on time commitment, lifestyle, and family traditions. Quite a few converts are the only members of their families to become Mormons, thus accentuating the rift with relatives. Even if a nuclear family gets baptized together, they usually still have their older parents and others in the extended family to consider, the traditions of which may weigh heavily on interpersonal relations. In addition, tensions are often exacerbated by the fact that Mormonism is tarnished in the media and by anti-cult organizations.

3 - Should we accept familial conflicts as normal in missionary work? Scriptural support for accepting—even expecting—such resistance appear in the New Testament: “I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” (Matt. 10:34-35). Or “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). But what if each side in the controversy is a disciple of Christ in his or her own way? And even if the opponent is not a disciple, how do we reconcile these verses with Christ’s core message of charity, as well as with the Church’s emphasis on family love and harmony?

4 – A convert may expect to suffer. As Joseph Smith taught, “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation” (Lecture 6, verse 7). But does it justify making innocent others suffer because of one’s choice for Mormonism? Moreover, the inflicted pain can last for years, even decades. Take the case of a young couple I got to know fifty years ago. The wife had allowed the missionaries to come in. They taught the couple, but only the husband committed to conversion. He served for the rest of his life in numerous church capacities while paying tithing. For decades, their married life was one of constant quarrels over his frequent absences, Sundays in separation, and their lack of money. Now a widow, living on a meager pension, the embittered woman continues to bemoan the day she let the missionaries in. Part-member families as a result of missionary work often carry such continuous pain.

5 – Article 18.3 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The same wording is in other international Declarations. The origin of this restriction is found in history: too many nations have been torn apart by religious strife, and many still are. Proselytism by a foreign entity can be perceived as assaulting the core identity of a nation or of an ethnoreligious group. Such religious intruders are seen as nuisances that try to drive a wedge in one’s prime authenticity. In some countries where several religions co-exist in a delicate balance, conversions are considered betrayals of the worst kind, often severely punishable. Other countries view proselytism as threatening political stability. Those various perceptions underlie the restrictions on proselytizing that currently prevail in countries such as Israel, Greece, Eritrea, China, and many Muslim nations. The Church, obedient to the law, respects those restrictions scrupulously. However, in situations where proselytism and conversions can cause familial and social harm but where no legal restrictions exist, the Church still proceeds assertively.

This is not the place to argue the rights of one group to preach and to expand its membership as part of “religious liberty” versus the right of another to protect its unity and stability. The purpose here is only to explain the source of sometimes severe private and public animosity toward Mormon missionaries.

6 – In his analysis of proselytism versus rights, Tad Stahnke mentions the rights of the targets of proselytism “to be protected from injury to their religious feelings and to maintain their religious identity.”[1] Missionary work can indeed injure the feelings of others, especially if these others are devoted to their own religion and genuinely engaged in doing good. The account of the First Vision contains the declaration, attributed to Christ, that other churches “were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination”. No matter how we try to soften the harshness of this condemnation or interpret the words somewhat differently, the missionaries are instructed to teach that other churches do “not have the fullness of truth or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances” (Preach My Gospel, p. 37). Such a message can be highly offensive, if not blasphemous, to people of other faiths. In some countries it explains laws against “blasphemy” or “religious insult” , comparable to the unacceptability of racist utterances.

7 – Mormon missionaries are totally unprepared to deal with these conflicts. Preach My Gospel mentions the topic only three times and very briefly.

(a) An example is given of a Brother Snider who is “deeply concerned about how his family would react to his joining another church.” It suffices that the elders have him read 3 Nephi 11 and the man decides that “I had better do what He wants me to do” (p. 113). Problem solved.

(b) The manual suggests that missionaries “share ideas” about the following situation: Investigator Steve is ready for baptism, but “his family members are devout Catholics and do not approve of his meetings with the missionaries” (p. 153). The “ideas” to solve the problem are left to the imagination of inexperienced 19-year-olds who are driven by one goal: to baptize.

(c) The manual mentions that “investigators might fear opposition from family members if they join the Church.” The advice is: “Determine whether the concern has come up because the person does not have a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Restoration or whether the person does not want to commit to living a true principle . . . Focus on testimony or commitment” (p. 187). The issue is thus not only not addressed, but the cause of the concern is imputed solely to a lack of faith or to a refusal to commit to one of the commandments.

As a result, Preach My Gospel seems indifferent to the heartbreak of others. It does not help the missionaries to understand and handle the turmoil they can trigger in families and in the surrounding society. Though most missionaries do remarkably well for their age and background, there is also something very troubling in allowing immature and keyed up young people to upset lives in faraway families—in sometimes hurtful ways that may take years, even decades, to heal, if the wounds ever heal.

8 – Another form of anger, usually more inner but also sadder, often moves within those who accepted baptism but then discover the promised joy to be elusive. “Accepting the gospel” in the thrill of missionary lessons and spiritual experiences is followed by the exigencies of church life and perhaps by continuing challenges with family and environment. Roughly half of the converts turn “inactive” within a year, many of them within weeks. The reasons for defection are varied, but are mostly tied to disappointment and to feelings of having been misled or rushed to baptism. President Gordon B. Hinckley noted:

Nobody gains when there is baptism without retention. The missionary loses, and while the Church gains statistically, the membership suffers, really, and the enthusiasm of the convert turns to ashes. (…) Actual harm may be done to those who leave old friendships and old ways of doing things only to be allowed to slip into inactivity. (…) What does it profit the missionary to baptize someone who leaves the Church within six months? Nothing is accomplished; in fact, damage is done.[2]

Even more painful are those who leave after many years of toiling for the Church—sometimes with angry feelings of having been bled dry in unrelenting service, or of having been betrayed by lack of information pertaining to church history or doctrine, or of having paid tithing to a Utah church which, as they discover in their view, is loaded with American right-wing dominance or LGBT intolerance. Defection from a church they served so intensely can be a harrowing process. Converts will always remember that their involvement started with two missionaries, but ultimately led to feelings either of grief and regret, or of enduring gratitude for the meaning the gospel and the church gave to their life. This latter group should not be forgotten—but Church magazines and Public Affairs ensure the visibility of that bright side abundantly.

This post focuses on the darker side. Our young missionaries seldom realize the depth of that hidden dimension. The puerile content of missionary blogs is revealing in that respect. Moreover, missionaries do not face the long-term consequences of their actions. They soon return home. Their homecoming talk may even include a story of how a valiant convert prevailed over family opposition and how the “iniquity” of those who raged against missionaries did not deter the work of the Lord.

Can we shrug off all this anger and sadness as unavoidable “collateral damage” in a rhetoric of militant missionizing? Some members do shrug it off or coldly calculate that with a final remnant of 20 to 30% active members among converts, the church is still growing. But, as President Hinckley reminds us, the statistical gain does not justify the suffering and the damage done.

What could be changed? I have no easy, ready-made answers. Many aspects and variables play a role when one reads missiology studies pertaining to other churches. For Mormon proselytizing, these aspects could include:

- Missionary selection and preparation (maturity? social aptitude? context insight? awareness of conversion consequences?)

- The determination of appropriate targets of proselytism (Must we convert other believers? Enter countries or situations where we are not welcome? Or rather let people themselves initiate contact?)

- The suitability of a market model in missionary programming (Is religion commerce? What kind of mentality drives some mission presidents?)

- Strategies and content (Is Preach My Gospel always adequate? Should missionaries first immerse themselves for months in the country and culture before even thinking of preaching?)

- The time needed to adequately prepare converts (Who assesses readiness and how?)

- The handling of opposing family members (How to understand the issues? How to show empathy? How to monitor? How to preserve or restore harmony? How to apply the “Proclamation” of the family as it extols its love and unity, while warning against its disintegration? )

- The difference between gospel and church in the “Mormonization” of converts (How does conversion to the gospel—bringing people to Christ—transition into conversion to the Church and its programs and demands? Are the costs of membership bearable in some countries or situations? How radical must rejection of familial or cultural traditions be?)

- And any other related aspect.

Thoughtful comments are welcome.

 

[1] Tad Stahnke, “Proselytism and the Freedom to Change Religion in International Human Rights Law,” Brigham Young University Law Review, vol. 1999, n° 1 (1999), 254.

[2] Cited in David G. Stewart, Jr., The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work, 2007, §3.13.

64 Responses to Understanding Anger against Mormon Missionaries

  1. Craig H. on May 6, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Very thorough and interesting, Wilfried. Conversions to other religions will probably always happen, even when there’s no aggressive proselytizing going on, but at least acknowledging the pain that might follow conversion, and trying to find ways to maintain ties, might go a long way toward easing the pain, just as acknowledging any sort of pain often does. Reading about your mother’s own reminded me of the pain that I saw in families when I was a missionary in your country–and pain not because people were necessarily joining but because they were even thinking about it. And causing me to write this:

    “There was no way in heaven I could’ve understood what people in a mostly-Catholic place like Belgium were really saying when they said their particular variation of ‘We are Catholic’ to me. It wasn’t that they necessarily loved being Catholic, or that they were thoroughly-believing Catholic, or even that they really truly felt Catholic, but instead something like ‘Catholicism isn’t just another religion here, like a religion in America usually is, but is part of the whole social structure, and even though most of us are indifferent Catholics and cultural Catholics and lapsed Catholics and even anti-clerical Socialists, we at least have a place in that structure, and Mormons don’t, so if we join the rival and feeble structure of Mormonism, then we’re not just leaving Catholicism, but we might as well be saying goodbye to our whole society too, including probably a lot of family and friends, which’ll make us feel like total oddballs, which is a heavy thing to bear, and why would you want us to leave our family anyway, about which you Mormons say nothing is more important than?’”

    It’s not that people never joined–you’re the walking proof of that. It’s that it can be harder in some places than others, as you point out so well.

  2. thor on May 6, 2014 at 10:47 am

    So the missionaries are young and inexperienced girls and boys who cannot appreciate what they are asking as they invite others to convert, AND they are disruptive agents causing governmental strive and social disharmony while pressuring these targets of proselyting to convert.

    I feel like your post raises the concern, but IS the answer. If any form of proselyting is dangerous to social and governmental harmony, why not have relatively uneducated simpletons do the inviting? (I cannot imagine any satisfactory answer to familial disharmony caused by a child selecting a different religion (or no religion at all) than her parents. Its a universal challenge, irrespective of sect).

  3. Chris on May 6, 2014 at 11:04 am

    The “solution,” to the extent there is one, has been hammered for years now: more rank and file member involvement in the entire process. The more that we are the source of the sharing, the more present we are for the teaching, the more we’re there with our experience and world view, the more we’ll be able to help families through this process. The leaders have quietly been reminding us that these kids are wholly inadequate to what they are traditionally asked to do. The only reason they don’t scream it is probably not to demoralize the FTMs.

  4. Steve Smith on May 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Wilfried. I fully agree that missionaries and the LDS church should be more mindful of the harmful consequences that conversion is sometimes forcing others to bear. However, at the same time I am a strong advocate of legal protection of individuals’ religious freedoms. If citizens of a given country desire to convert to a religion that is different from the faith and traditions of their family and social environment, their right to do so should be protected. Also, people should be educated to tolerate a greater degree of religious diversity and accept religious and philosophical transitions/migrations within their own families and communities.

    Another matter worth pointing out is that too many Mormons can deal it but they can’t take it; meaning, they can strongly encourage a person of another faith/philosophical tradition to convert to Mormonism, but many of them seem to take it very personally and have an extremely hard time if a family member, friend, or other member of their community converts to different faith or simply stops believing in Mormonism altogether. I’ve heard far too many instances of believing Mormons threatening their spouse with divorce because they’ve stopped believing, or because they’ve adopted a different belief system. There are too many cases of Mormons ostracizing and even shunning family members and friends over a philosophical migration. The LDS leaders bear the responsibility to educate members and lower-ranking leaders to stop engaging in mildly coercive tactics to hold in people who do not want to be LDS; to live and let live. They’ve been fairly good at encouraging persuasion and invitation as the only acceptable methods of enticing people either into church for the first time or back to church if they have been away. But too many members just can’t control their emotions and hold back from taking offense upon the announcement by someone that they no longer want to be Mormon.

  5. Jared vdH on May 6, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Missionary selection and preparation (maturity? social aptitude? context insight? awareness of conversion consequences?)

    How does one even measure the above? Would we just rely on local leaders, who may themselves be lacking in the above skills, to make the call? If not, how do we build a church-wide infrastructure just to call missionaries?

    - The determination of appropriate targets of proselytism (Must we convert other believers? Enter countries or situations where we are not welcome? Or rather let people themselves initiate contact?)

    Depends on your definition of “appropriate”. For example, you felt yourself to be an appropriate target of proselytism, but apparently your mother did not. How can we know who the appropriate targets are unless we ask them individually?

    - The suitability of a market model in missionary programming (Is religion commerce? What kind of mentality drives some mission presidents?)

    Not sure what you’re referring to here. Is this a reference to some mission presidents’ focus on baptism numbers?

    - Strategies and content (Is Preach My Gospel always adequate? Should missionaries first immerse themselves for months in the country and culture before even thinking of preaching?)

    No manual will ever be adequate. With the thousands of different cultures on this planet no manual could ever hope to encompass every possible situation. Same for cultural immersion. Months would almost always be inadequate. It really depends on how different the new culture is to the missionary, and the cultural malleability of the missionary in question. I grew up in California and I feel like it took months to understand the broad cultural strokes of New York City. If I moved to Japan or India, I’m sure I’d gain an appreciation and affinity for those cultures quickly, but would I necessarily be “casually fluent” in those cultures any time soon? Of course not!

    - The time needed to adequately prepare converts (Who assesses readiness and how?)

    Same issue as I mentioned with missionary selection and preparation? Who ultimately decides when someone is “ready”? What are the criteria and are they really measurable? Do we only allow other recent converts make the call, since they’re the most familiar with local circumstances? I honestly only see how the only feasible change would be allowing local leaders to make the call, but I personally don’t see how that’s much better than the status quo.

    - The handling of opposing family members (How to understand the issues? How to show empathy? How to monitor? How to preserve or restore harmony? How to apply the “Proclamation” of the family as it extols its love and unity, while warning against its disintegration? )

    How do you separate “opposing” family members from “abusive” family members? I’m not saying that any family member who opposes is abusive, but I’ve seen a lot of chatter in the bloggernacle that Mormons who get upset about family members leaving the Church are borderline abusive. Don’t see how that doesn’t work in reverse.

    - The difference between gospel and church in the “Mormonization” of converts (How does conversion to the gospel—bringing people to Christ—transition into conversion to the Church and its programs and demands? Are the costs of membership bearable in some countries or situations? How radical must rejection of familial or cultural traditions be?)

    I honestly think that this is shaped by existing cultural expectations and norms. Based on the current conversion rate in Africa, I have a hard time believing that we’re telling people that they have to reject all their familial and cultural traditions. Word on the street is that the retention rate is sky high too. Perhaps this friction is more evident in Western Europe which missionaries and Church HQ expect to become just like Utah a little too much, since they feel like they’re culturally close.

    This is all I think should be required: obedience to the commandments and willingness to help with and engage in the local congregation. Any demands more than that are just silly.

  6. Frank Pellett on May 6, 2014 at 11:54 am

    I’m reminded of the story about someone getting to Heaven and meeting those he knew in mortality. His friend asks, “I’ve learned so much since getting here, and you knew it when we knew each other in mortality. Why didn’t you tell me?”
    He replies, “I knew it would hurt your family if you converted, and I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
    The response – “Why couldn’t you have let me choose, rather than assume what you could not actually know?”

    Missionary work isn’t taking the choice away from anyone. Those who convert tend to be very aware of what pains they may be causing to their families and friends. Missionaries do not tend to be glib about this either. The experience can show the missionaries an experience they may have never seen; how hard it can be to leave your foundation of generational faith. This can help missionaries have more empathy and care as they continue their work.

    What if your story had a non-religious view? Say you come from a family of dedicated doctors and nurses, who have brought you up showing the joy they get from practicing medicine. You meet someone who is a passionate acrobat, who wants to share their joy and help you become an acrobat as well. Doing so will certainly hurt your family, maybe even have them cut off all contact completely from you, but you feel you would be happier as an acrobat. Was that person wrong for sharing their passion?

    One reason it’s good for everyone to learn about other ways of life, be it religion, wealth and poverty, or politics, is that it give us more choices on what we can believe. We have the power to weigh any change with its pains against those for not changing. Your answer seems to be that no one should ever share even things we are passionate about, since we could be causing harm.

  7. Wilfried on May 6, 2014 at 11:57 am

    I’ll respond in the order of comments. To start with:

    Craig (1), thanks for your understanding. You’re indeed in an exceptional position to understand Conversions!

    Thor (2), interesting take. Yes, our missionaries have something remarkably innocent. But at the same time it has consequences on many people, including themselves.

    Chris (3), you’re absolutely right. Members are key to step in when potential converts face incomprehension and anger within their family or community. Members, certainly if they are converts themselves, can relate to what families face. Members can also be a prime example toward the surrounding society that Mormons are normal and law-abiding people.

    But, also here we cannot be blind for reality: in the many countries where the church is still small, local units lack enough members to provide for this help. Missionaries, especially as their number increases, exhaust the few members always willing to help (and this may be true in even more vested branches and wards). Moreover, struggling and marginal members are not always the best ressource for fellowshipping. So, it takes time to build a community where the number of missionaries is in balance with the number of adequate members. I think that in some cases we must avoid pounding too much on members and send them on guilt trips.

  8. Sarah Familia on May 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    You raise a lot of interesting points, Wilfried. One change that definitely seems like it would be positive is increasing the time to prepare new converts. In my mission, at least (I served in Chile), the ideal was for someone to get baptized in eight days (meet the missionaries on a Saturday, go to Church two Sundays in a row, and then get baptized).

    In practice, it usually took a little longer, but people weren’t generally investigating for more than a month or two before they got baptized. The vast majority had only been to Church a few times before they were baptized. Which wasn’t really long enough for them to really try out what it was like to live the Mormon lifestyle or experience its full implications.

    If we could make it the norm for people to be able to attend for several months before being expected (and often pressured) to get baptized, it would allow more time for sensitively working through family objections, as well as helping the investigator to feel more integrated into the Church community before baptism.

  9. kamschron on May 6, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    I was a high school student in Ann Arbor during the time of the 1970 Black Action Movement. Representatives of BAM spoke at an assembly at my school, and they also were invited to address the ward that I attended. Along with their fairly successful demands for change at the University of Michigan, they wanted churches to acknowledge their role as cultural heirs of the slaveholders of the past and pay reparations to make up for the injustices that African Americans had suffered. At least one of the the BAM representatives had some very negative things to say about Christianity in general. In the meeting at our ward building, an LDS missionary said something like, “You’re asking me to turn my back on the sacrifices that my ancestors made and the heritage that they have given me.” It seemed to me that what had disturbed the missionary so much when he saw it in others was essentially the same thing that he was expected to do in his day-to-day role as a missionary. Perhaps he was able to recognize the irony after he had some time to think about it.

    Although proselytizing can have a negative side as well as a positive side, and in spite of the mistakes that I made along the way, I still have a positive view of my own participation in missionary service a few years later.

  10. Ardis on May 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    This is a variation on a question that plagues me whenever there’s a news story or debate on the ethics of making contact with some indigenous tribe newly located in some jungle or on a remote island: Once they are contacted, a unique way of life is damaged or even destroyed. Denying contact, on the other hand, denies the benefits of education, medical care, scientific understanding, and joining the world community. Of course contact should be cautious and protected. Who decides when and how fast? Without contact, the indigenous group has no choice in the matter. Obviously, once a group is contacted, there is no going back — even if the group decides it wants no further contact and the outside world agrees, that indigenous way of life has been altered. I can’t help but be suspicious that those in the wider world who would deny contact do it not out of beneficence toward the indigenous group, but out of an arrogant desire to control another people, to preserve them as objects of study and management and profit.

    So who decides whether someone’s “indigenous religious life” is contacted? If you deny Mormon missionaries the right to approach someone, then YOU are deciding; you’re not giving the person who is most concerned any option to choose in his own life. Contact, if it extends to conversion, means that something (an older way of life) is damaged or destroyed. Is what replaces it bigger and better than what was lost? In the case of salvation and exaltation, the question answers itself, as far as I’m concerned. There might be help to ease the transition, yes, but I can’t accept that you or anyone else has the right to decide that someone may not be contacted.

    Barring religious contact sounds oh-so-defensible to certain modern mindsets … the very minds that see nothing inappropriate with political contact, or marketing contact, or any other contact that results in a gain to the one who is making the rules and would no doubt go to the mat to preserve and extend the right to profit and power.

  11. Wilfried on May 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Steve Smith (4), as always excellent remarks. You raise two issues.

    Religious freedom is indeed a core issue. The 1953 European Convention on Human Rights states as article 9 that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private …,.” So “changing religion” is an obvious right. But does that include the right to try to change someone else’s religion? That is what some countries find problematic in view of the troubling consequences, such as in Israeli or in Muslim culture. Hence restrictive rules on proselytizing (not necessarily on conversion as such).

    The Mormon Church is very much involved in this struggle for religious freedom which is, first of all, presented in the framework of the right to live one’s religion without restriction. But the Church’s efforts also include that additional dimension, less visible, sometimes even hidden, i.e., the right to preach and try to convert people to another religion, namely Mormonism. Cole Durham, arguing from an explicit Mormon perspective, defends the thesis that “normal efforts to engage in religious persuasion” should always be protected [1]. But he does not define “normal,” which differs from country to country, nor does he consider the potentially harrowing consequences of even “normal” proselytism on individuals and families in some societies and countries. So, “religious freedom” is a concept with various facets. The right to live one’s religion freely does not, in some countries and cultures, include the right to actively try to “steal a soul” in your neighbor’s home.

    The second issue you raise throws a helpful light on the whole matter. Indeed, we find it normal that people convert to Mormonism, but feel pain when someone close to us leaves Mormonism. That should teach us how members of other churches feel when they “lose” one of theirs to Mormonism.

    [1] Durham, W. C. (2008). The Impact of Secularization on Proselytism in Europe: A Minority Religion Perspective. In R. L. Neilson (Ed.), Global Mormonism in the 21st Century (pp. 114–133). Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.

  12. Roger on May 6, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    This post took a while for me to read as I would pause every few sentences and reflect back on my experience in Spain 40+ years ago. Those were not altogether pleasant pauses. Some of the good experiences were sublime, many were tragicomic, others still bring great sadness in their wake. Frankly, I think a fair amount of the antagonism experienced by missionaries was brought on by their own (our own) arrogance and boldness — Cultural understanding and appreciation were not a priority, I distinctly recall each of my first six companions declaring, generally in moments of frustration, their hatred for the Spanish people.

    I recall Paul Dunn telling us in a visit to Sevilla that the Church recognized that the efficiency of sending 19-year olds was not at all apparent when compared to what might be achieved by sending more mature mature members who knew much more about life, let alone the actual doctrine.

    Apparently Gordon Hinckley had some insights into the retention issues. Has anyone considered anything about the proselytism process beyond throwing mass waves of adolescents at it?

  13. thor on May 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    @Roger – The word “tragicomic” has now become my go-to word for describing my mission. Thank you!

  14. Wilfried on May 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Jared vdH (5), thanks for expanding on the questions I raised and illustrating how complex some of these issues are. It illustrates also how much we need more research to find answers which could improve various facets. I have no idea to what extent the Church’s research division is involved in some of these questions, but there is a broad field open for sociologists of religion.

    Your remark about cultural background is certainly valid. Converting in Orthodox Greece is quite different than converting in Nigeria. But I’m not sure if you’re right about the high conversion rate in Africa (one must compare with other proselytizing churches and I understand their success ratio is much higher). I’m also not sure about the “sky high” retention rate. This is something one can only measure after years. Nate Oman touched upon this issue in a recent post:

    We lose members in Africa or Latin America because they joined Mormonism based on the promise of angels, prophets, and spiritual gifts but find the correlated messages of modern Mormonism rather too tame and secular. Rather than migrating out of Mormonism into agnostic secularism, they migrate into the more vivid and dramatic spiritual world of Pentecostalism or syncretic forms of Christianity that offer visions and gifts of the spirit in a less antiseptic and more visceral form than that offered up by the Church.

  15. Jonathan Green on May 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Wilfried, Flanders has only been intrinsically Catholic for a thousand years if you overlook centuries of early modern religious warfare and foreign occupation. Catholicism may be intrinsic now, but something imposed by an occupying army is by definition not intrinsic at the time. There’s no need to overstate the historical case. I’m skeptical about arguments for avoiding shocks to religious uniformity in modern Europe, as those arguments usually serve to preserve a status quo that is itself a relatively recent phenomenon that often resulted from oppression, ethnic cleansing, or worse, and decades of immigration have recently been putting pressure on the status quo in any case.

    I think you’re too quick to dismiss missionaries as naive and unaware of the concerns you mention. More awareness would certainly be good, but missionaries actually spend a good amount of time talking to inactive and disaffected members. They see what happens when things don’t go well.

    I also think you’re mistaken about some members accepting some “collateral damage,” as you call it, in return for growth. I don’t think that mere growth in numbers is a factor at all. The calculation instead is based on the idea that divinely-sanctioned authority is only available in the church and that baptism represents an essential step towards salvation. “If you should labor all your days and bring but one soul,” etc. Without that understanding, all the effort may indeed be hard to understand.

  16. Naismith on May 6, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Hmmn, this reminds me of an experience a few years ago, when we made the long trip to attend General Conference in person. In the throng of pedestrian traffic on the SLC sidewalk heading back to our car, people behind us were making fun of the stupidity of the demonstrators. I finally whipped around and asked, “Is this how you want your children treated when they go out to serve missions?”

    I feel badly about the stunned silence that followed us for several more blocks to the car.

  17. Wilfried on May 6, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Frank Pellett (6), the story about someone getting to Heaven and expressing regret for not having been told the message while on earth is a convincing argument for believers, but can be heard in any proselytizing church. One may wonder about the kind of discussions up there.

    I agree that “missionary work isn’t taking the choice away from anyone” and “it’s good for everyone to learn about other ways of life”. I did not argue differently. But you’re wrong to assume: “Your answer seems to be that no one should ever share even things we are passionate about, since we could be causing harm.” I never implied that and my 50 years of involvement in missionary work certainly contradict it. But over those years I’ve seen enough pain that I feel we need to talk about it.

    Sarah Familia (8), thanks for drawing attention to the issue of convert preparation. Well, I’ve seen people ready for baptism within days and after just a few missionary lessons (I was one), so it is possible and I would hesitate to call for a “preparation time rule”. But a major problem remains the rushing of people to baptism while they are obviously not prepared to enter into such a covenant (the examples of such rushing are numerous and often shocking). More control is needed at the gate.

    kamschron (9), excellent comparison. We need to learn to see through the eyes of others to realize how we sometimes act. Also good to remind us that missionary service has both negative and positive sides and that the positive requires equal if not more attention.

    Ardis (10), you raise the broader sociological issue of worlds in contact with each other and the advantages and disadvantages of that contact. I fully agree that from our religious conviction people must be offered the chance to hear about our message. As you said: “I can’t accept that you or anyone else has the right to decide that someone may not be contacted.” Absolutely. But at issue is the familial and social context when only one individual converts and then how to provide “help to ease the transition” as you pointed out. That’s where we need more reflexion and practical tools, I think, if we take the Proclamation message of family unity seriously.

  18. Patricia on May 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    I am the Mormon mother that is experiencing the “Envision when years of patient and true-to-the-faith steps toward a son’s eternal future—home evenings, family prayers, blessings, church meetings, Primary, baptism, priesthood ordinations, passing the sacrament, blessing it, attending seminary, mission, temple marriage, and the delightful recurrence of the cycle in grandchildren—are brutally halted mid-way” you speak of. Our youngest of 5 children came home his first semester of college, telling us, in a most respectful manner, that not only would he not be serving a mission, but he did not believe in God. Imagine the deep, dark hole that enveloped me for 2 weeks. He has since discovered he does believe in God, just not as we do. He is now seriously dating a good Catholic girl and I am sure they will eventually marry. He graduated from college in December 2013 and just accepted a job in UTAH of all places! I am hoping it is God’s way of placing him in a place where he can see good Mormon people live and that his spirit will be touched by someone he comes in contact there.

  19. Wilfried on May 6, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Roger (12), thank you for reflecting on your missionary experiences, which range from “sublime” to “tragicomic” and others bringing “great sadness”. I concur with Paul Dunn that sending more mature members would make a difference. There was a time, a few decades ago, when we had more missionaries aged 23 to 27 and the difference in approach and success was evident.

    Jonathan Green (15), I’m not going to argue about the history of Catholicism in Flanders. I only mentioned in hyperbole Flanders’ deep Catholic roots to give an idea of the depth of my mother’s feelings.

    I fully agree with you when you say

    “I’m skeptical about arguments for avoiding shocks to religious uniformity in modern Europe, as those arguments usually serve to preserve a status quo…”

    Indeed, we see such arguments in particular in former communist countries where the old national churches try to regain their power by playing on patriotism and national religious identity. Right wing parties in these and other European countries sometimes play the same card in their opposition to Islam. Religious diversity is a blessing and Mormonism can only profit from it in spreading its message—though, paradoxically, the church’s avowed and ultimate goal is non-diversity. Islam has the same ambition, so what are we heading to?

    You make a good point by reminding us that missionaries spend much time talking to inactive and disaffected members, which should be eye-opening as to missionary work in the past.

    Your last point is for some the most compelling but is also the most challenging:

    “… the idea that divinely-sanctioned authority is only available in the church and that baptism represents an essential step towards salvation. “If you should labor all your days and bring but one soul,” etc. Without that understanding, all the effort may indeed be hard to understand”

    One must be sure to act from that pure conviction, otherwise it’s hard to justify the “collateral damage”. Even so, the question remains if baptism and the bringing of one soul to Christ implies, by necessity, all the church requirements that will follow, in particular when those requirements and activities tend to disturb the relation with the non-Mormon family and are a common cause for disaffection. That’s a core issue of this post: how to reconcile the principles of the “Proclamation” with the family breaches Mormonism can cause.

  20. Jim Cobabe on May 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    I suppose missionaries will always be confronted with situations they are poorly prepared for.

    I recall tracting one day, somewhere in the Midwest, I can’t remember what city.

    At one house we rang the doorbell and waited for quite a long time on the doorstep, joking and punching each other. Finally the door opened, and we stood there, two teenage boys, facing a totally naked twenty-something girl in all her glory. Though I had no experience at the time, I judged that she was very attractive physically. Fortunately a screen door intervened.

    She obviously understood our intent and wanted to test our reaction. We had nothing. We stood there open-mouthed, nonplussed and staring for what seemed an interminable moment.

    Finally, I offered her a Joseph Smith pamphlet and stammered something incoherent.

    We ran away laughing and wondering what we should have done if she had invited us in.

  21. Roger on May 6, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    My VERY active TBM siblings forward to me the emails of my nieces and nephews serving full-time missions. They are invariably upbeat and imbued with conviction and positive notions about contacts being generated and responding almost instantaneously to baptismal challenges. Yet these same parents would doubtless respond with shock and dismay if these same near-adult offspring announced that they had met, courted, proposed to, and married someone in a fortnight. Both joining the Church and marriage (present company excepted) are considered long-term commitments and yet the missionary approach differs widely from what I suppose would be the longer, more careful evaluation process… Naturally, I assume that one looks beyond the possible evidence of body ink or multiple earrings….

  22. Jared vdH on May 6, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I suppose I have to ask, what’s the “collateral damage” you’re talking about here? The main ones I see are temple marriages, where I believe it’s only in the US and maybe Canada where this is really an issue since most countries require a separate civil marriage before the religious one, and general Church activity, which isn’t really a Mormon thing. What “family breaches” are you talking about? What can we really do to fix a family breach caused by the family of a convert ostracizing that convert? We can support the convert, but short of telling someone not to get baptized, how can we control how a convert’s family responds?

  23. JeffC on May 6, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Interesting post Wilfried. A few thoughts come to mind:

    1. I served my mission in Chile, but to be honest most of the “anger” I experienced (and there was plenty) was because people assumed I was from the US – as soon as I told them I was Australian they thought I was their best friend because they all knew someone who moved to Australia when Pinochet took power. So the anger I experienced had nothing to do with the risk of change of religion, and was primarily politically focussed.

    2. That’s not to say the cultural issues can’t be as severe as you describe of course. I now live in Europe, and I have a nephew who served his mission in Greece, and unless you really understand the culture, you’re just not going to “get it”. Here in England the cultural issues aren’t as strong as in many European countries, but they’re still high. There is an interesting article in the International Journal of Mormon Studies from a few years ago about the costs of membership in Europe (http://ijmsonline.org/wp-content/uploads/IJMS/2008-1/IJMS%20Volume%201%20%202008.pdf).

    3. I agree with the point Jared made that there appears to be an assumption that because the US and Europe are culturally similar in some ways, that means we should become US clones, and that is off-putting to many people (I’ve had friends who have refused to investigate the Church because they say it “feels too American”).

    4. Where the Church is established I agree with Chris that members are the key to this issue. The missionaries are called to teach not find; and if members do the “finding” then the cultural issues and costs are more likely to be understood and at last partly off-set.

    With all of the above in mind, I still think the current model of sending out 18-19 year old kids has loads of advantages that outweigh the disadvantages.

  24. Jared vdH on May 6, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    I should add that what I meant above is that general church activity isn’t exclusively a Mormon thing. Just realized that was a poorly worded sentence up above.

  25. Chris on May 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Wilfried, I appreciate very much your taking time to respond to my comment and to the others. Your concerns are very well thought-out and articulate. There’s no easy answer, but I suspect the “right” answer will be when we as average members step up our efforts, exhausted or not.

  26. Wilfried on May 6, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Patricia (18), thank you for your personal story. Indeed, it’s when one experiences “the other side” that real empathy is possible, even if it’s painful. It seems that quite a few Mormons just can’t imagine what the related tragedies mean, unless confronted with a similar fate. I also think the conversion of a child to another church hurts less because of the conversion as such (in particular if he or she moves to another respectable religion), but because of the feeling of failure after all those years of guiding a child within the church. This is all the more the case in religions such as Catholicism, Mormonism, or Judaism where parents follow a well-vested pattern and rhythm in guiding their children to an ultimate goal. I wish your son well.

    Jared vdH (22), I thought the concept of “collateral damage” in families was clear from the beginning on. Heartbreak, endless quarrels, breaking up family unity, Sundays in separation, conflicts over children’s upbringing, even divorce.

    As to your question “What can we really do to fix a family breach caused by the family of a convert ostracizing that convert?” I think that it is the convert (and missionaries) who caused the breach in the first place. In the true spirit of the gospel, the initiative to reduce the breach should be the convert’s responsibility, with members and missionaries helping as appropriate. The problem is that Preach My Gospel nor any other manual or instructions provide suggestions or recommendations. It’s as if the non-Mormon side is by definition the troublemaker.

  27. Vern W. on May 6, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    It will be difficult to take the gospel to all the world without actually doing it or going there. There are issues. I am troubled by the “baptize one” philosophy . On most people you can see inactivity coming because they were rushed. The young missionaries aren’t perfect, but I imagine older missionaries would end up injecting their rationalization so into the process. I shudder sometimes when I know that some of my Seminary students will be called on missions in 3 months.they seem too young, but I am sure a lot of people felt the same when I went. As far as upsetting things, we aren’t just another religion. We have been called to do the work and we must. I agree that better cultural training is needed and maybe a little patience when teaching people. By the way I was a missionary in Flanders long ago.

  28. Jared vdH on May 6, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    Ok, I haven’t seen missionaries encouraging prospective converts to abandon their families, so I guess this is a problem I haven’t observed. Of course this doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Most of the experiences I can recollect have been with trying to get their family on board or at least reconciled with the conversion before baptism. There certainly needs to be effort on the part of the convert and those involved in their conversion to help the family manage the transition, but there are times when the only way to heal the breach is to not convert at all. Is that what you’re advocating? Looking back on your life do you now regret your own conversion and it’s affects on your mother to the point that you wish you hadn’t made the decision in the first place? Or is it that you wish that you had managed the conversion better for her?

  29. whizzbang on May 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    I dealt with this once in the mission field. We taught a guy who told us the day before that he would get kicked out of his house by his family if he joined the Church. We didn’t know what to do and funnily enough but when his baptismal service was over the ward mission leader drove him home (i can’t recall if we told the WML about this but he was a real estate agent and we figured if he did get kicked out he’d know what to do about it better then us) so in the end he didn’t get the boot, the family allowed us to teach him inside and it all worked out. They didn’t call us on our bluff, thank goodness!

  30. Travis on May 6, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    In response to the question posed in point 3), I think it’s simple*: We reconcile those commandments by recognizing that the first and greatest commandment is to love God (and if you love him, to keep his commandments), which supersedes all other commandments, including the second (to love our neighbors). Christ’s teachings of charity and family love do not mean that we should only obey the first commandment when it does not cause pain.

    The core question seems to be, “Is the Gospel really worth it?” If its core claims are true, then yes. It is worth pain and hurt and even broken families. That said, conversion is only worth it if it is successful, and to that end I wholeheartedly agree that we need to focus more on retention and fellowship. I also agree that more sensitivity could often ease the hurt, prevent family breakup, and increase the chances that the new convert will not abandon the faith. But we cannot lose sight of our first and overriding loyalty.

    *I mean simple in concept. I do not mean to imply that it’s easy in practice.

  31. Geoff - Aus on May 6, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Jared 22 Temple marriage is legal in Australia and NZ too.

    Travis 30. I agree that if that were the core teaching (Love God , and Love your neighbour) but the church emphasis on keep my commandments (other than to love as this statement refers) can be a problem. Some of the other things that are Utah culture that obedience is applied to are a problem for non conservative members.

    In countries where gay marriage is legal for example, the opposition from the church (which I see as purely conservative culture) and is often seen as “keep my commandments”, by conservative members, means there is a very small portion of the population that can swallow that which seems to be in opposition to “love your neighbour”. The church looks more like hate who I hate, obediently.

    Opposition to gay marriage is in the single figures in those countries , so the missionaries teach the Gospel, but after some months it will become apparent to a new member that he has joined a group he is not comfortable with, because of their obedience to Utah, also because it is only allowed to present the pro Utah view in church. You can’t get up in testimony meeting and say the Gospel is true but we should ignore Utah on some of these cultural issues.

    We had a new ish mission president get up in conference and refer to the world (which I take to be everyone outside the church) as toxic. This is my country he refers to, and the source of his investigators. We do not use terms like that in our country about the other 99.5% of the population. Utah culture again.

    Missionaries are trained not to emphasise, but to circumvent opposition/arguments. This is a problem. I had them over for dinner on Sunday. They promised, if I prayed that I would be told who to refer them to. When I explained that I had been praying for many years for the Lord to answer me on much more important questions and hadn’t received an answer, one from NZ offered sympathy, the one from Utah repeated that if I prayed I would be answered. Not listening.

    Reading the biography of leaders like Pres Mckay they had trouble getting answers to questions like is the church true, yet we expect investigators to get immediate answers. What happens to the David Mackays who are investigators?

  32. Wilfried on May 7, 2014 at 12:11 am

    JeffC (23), good to hear from various points of the world, which explains the various forms of culturally determined anti-Mormon “anger” we can encounter. Thanks for referring to Armand Mauss’ article on the costs of membership.

    Vern W. (27), die van Vlaanderen zijn extra welkom! Thanks for drawing attention to the topic of missionary maturity. This is far from resolved. Leaders and members now extol the missionaries’ juvenile enthusiasm, their innocence, and their lack of sophistication, but I wonder if we do this primarily to justify the present situation. Some of the greatest missionaries were mature and sophisticated (in the doctrinal sense), like Alma, the apostle Paul, the Twelve on their mission to Britain, or the Pratt brothers. Examples can be multiplied. Successful missionary tools were strong intellectual pamphlets, like A Voice of Warning or the John A. Widtsoe pamphlets used from the 1920s up to the 1960s. More patient reasoning and less quick emotion could be a factor in guiding a family to grow together toward accepting the gospel. Anger is triggered when things go too fast and emotions sweep one person against the others.

  33. Old Man on May 7, 2014 at 12:20 am

    Wilfred,

    “Heartbreak, endless quarrels, breaking up family unity, Sundays in separation, conflicts over children’s upbringing, even divorce” sounds exactly like the split in my family because some individuals broke covenants and LEFT the church.

  34. Wilfried on May 7, 2014 at 12:29 am

    Jared vdH (28), you sense the dramas we’ve been talking about correctly. Yes, missionaries sometimes encourage potential converts to ignore the feelings of their family and even break with them, and they do so in subtle and less subtle ways. Preach My Gospel helps them do that (see item 7 in my post).

    On the other hand, Preach My Gospel does mention some restrictive rules: to teach and baptize a minor, parental permission is needed; a married person needs the consent of his or her spouse; if the father is not ready for baptism but other family members are,

    “you may tell the father you prefer not to baptize the family without him because the Church respects the head of the home and because family members will progress in the gospel best as a family unit. If the father continues to decline, you may baptize and confirm other family members with his consent” (p. 207).

    The issue is thus reduced to a question of formal permissions. But with or without consent, tensions arise in the case of part-family conversions and no advice is given on how to channel these. Moreover, for these permissions, Preach My Gospel only takes into account the nuclear family. But in nearly all cultures, religious affiliation affects the very bonds of the extended family as well, as precisely events such as christening, baptism, children’s passage rites, marriage, and funeral bring the larger family together.

    You also ask a personal question: “Looking back on your life do you now regret your own conversion and it’s affects on your mother to the point that you wish you hadn’t made the decision in the first place? Or is it that you wish that you had managed the conversion better for her?” Answer to the first question, no. To the second question, yes. But as I look at some other members as it pertains to the first question, I must repeat what I said in the post:

    Even more painful are those who leave after many years of toiling for the Church—sometimes with angry feelings of having been bled dry in unrelenting service, or of having been betrayed by lack of information pertaining to church history or doctrine, or of having paid tithing to a Utah church which, as they discover in their view, is loaded with American right-wing dominance or LGBT intolerance. Defection from a church they served so intensely can be a harrowing process.

    Though they are a minority, it is still extremely sad that these sisters and brothers look back with regret at their conversion. Considering the reasons of their breakdown, much of this could have been avoided.

  35. Hedgehog on May 7, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Really thoughtful post. These are issues I worry about when it comes to missionary work. So for myself, I’m nothing more than an example of the believers, as it were.

    I also agree with Jeff, Jared & Geoff that we really need to see more cultural sensitivity and respect. As a British member whose parent’s were converts, I am nevertheless disturbed by the imposition of Utah culture, paraded as a ‘good’ thing when it comes to programmes in which my children are expected to participate, such as FSY (EFY). That and the ‘us’ against the ‘evil world’ rhetoric. And if I’m uncomfortable with it, how much more disturbed will be the parents and families of young converts.

  36. Wilfried on May 7, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Travis (30), you focused on the important question of commandments and loyalty. You mentioned:

    “The core question seems to be, ‘Is the Gospel really worth it?’ If its core claims are true, then yes. It is worth pain and hurt and even broken families.”

    Indeed, Mormon history is filled with such examples because conversion usually meant leaving the (extended) family and move to Zion. The breach was often also physical and structural. The pain it caused is well documented and has become part of the Mormon legacy of sacrifice. It is easy to continue that same rhetoric for the present, especially if it concerns people faraway. However, as converts now stay in their homelands and as the church wants good relations with governments and with other churches, and emphasizes family unity and love as a core value, I think the dynamics of conversion and family relations require reevaluation.

    Geoff (31), I heartily agree with the aspects you mention. I pointed at the often cited difference between gospel (as “coming to Christ”) and church (with its requirements and activities). Sure, one can argue convincingly that one shows dedication to the gospel by involvement in the church. The church helps us put the gospel into practice and its core programs structure that practice efficiently. But the church also carries, as you said, “other things that are Utah culture”, even if they come under the guise of commandments or expected behavior. These can be a source of conflict and unease, causing unnecessary pain. I studied the search of international Mormon identity in our “American” church in this article.

  37. DQ on May 7, 2014 at 11:06 am

    The points you raise helped me to reflect upon the philosophical foundation upon which our missionary efforts our grounded. Our missionary efforts are very much based on a certain type of “American” (traditional Anglo-Saxon) “market place of ideas” philosophy. Even if this is the correct and ideal way to view things, individual freedoms, market place of ideas, plethora of religious choices for individuals to consider and choose from, etc; and I submit to you it truly is the “best” way, it doesn’t mean others share those perspectives.

    Telling someone in India they’re “thinking about it all wrong” and they ought to respect freedom of choice doesn’t help when they have a pretty strongly entrenched caste system that doesn’t respect individual rights and choice to the degree we do.

    At the end of the day though, I fear this kind of relativism when carried through to its conclusion, which almost certainly would happen, would pretty much outlaw or at least be very antagonistic toward missionary efforts entirely. All of course, while completely permitting secularism and what Elder Maxwell warned of in irrelgion to march forward.

  38. DQ on May 7, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Wilfried,
    “or of having paid tithing to a Utah church which, as they discover in their view, is loaded with American right-wing dominance or LGBT intolerance.”
    I’m really trying to wrap my mind around this. I understand some individuals hold this view and perhaps quite a few more are sympathetic to it, as evidenced by the handful of comments about “Utah culture”, etc.

    I suppose it’s insensitive of me, but I can’t help but chuckle at whose view these self-proclaimed open minded, tolerant people are espousing. Is it the view of their culture? I would guess when it comes to marriage and LGBT, the LDS church is much much much more faithful to their traditional culture’s views.

    Utah then becomes a proxy for traditional. And what we’re seeing is the cult of modernity (for lack of a better word) being substituted for traditional beliefs. But who has been the biggest espouser of LGBT and gay marriage other than Hollywood and academia, which in recent decades has been adopted as a political platform to acquire and maintain power by various parties*?

    The point is, it’s outrageous to get upset at the church for pushing “Utah” culture on to any particular nation with regard to LGBT type issues when LGBT is its own culture that is being pushed on every single nation and political body in the western hemisphere. Talk about hegemony.

    *really, I’m not sure how you could spin President Obama, the Clintons, etc. otherwise, but that’s besides the point.

  39. SusanS on May 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

    I also think increasing the number of foreigners in Apostolic positions and prominent seventies positions would benefit the church immensely.

  40. Steve Smith on May 7, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Wilfried (11), thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment. You are right that many countries do place restrictions on proselytizing, and perhaps should (at least temporarily), as a means of keeping the peace in religiously tense environments. It should be noted that the LDS church does respect these laws and does forbid its missionaries to proselytize people of some religions, such as Muslims and Hindus, in places such as India, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which have or have had missionaries who are instructed to proselytize only Christians. I think that ideally the right to proselytize should be protected, as long as the proselytizing is not coercive and manipulative (of course, it is often difficult to which tactics are coercive or manipulative and which are not). But I don’t see anything inherently wrong with actively seeking out people to share information with and inviting them to participate in collective activities. I think that religious communities who react very strongly and harshly to proselytizing and conversion need to change. They need to learn that intimidation, threats, shunning, and all signs of open hostility are plain wrong and that the only just way to counteract proselytizing and conversion is with counterinformation.

  41. Steve Smith on May 7, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    DQ (37), the “marketplace of ideas” model isn’t necessarily a form of relativism. It is the idea that the ideal society should protect individuals’ freedoms to believe what they may, to assemble with others of a similar belief system, and to practice their beliefs to the extent that they are not impinging upon others’ freedoms. According to this model, Hindu society in present-day India would be frowned upon for restricting the free practice of religion. A relativist model would hold that Hindu culture is correct in imposing the caste system and restricting individuals’ freedoms of belief and religious practice (including the freedom to not be a Hindu and not be beholden to the religious traditions of his or her family) because that is simply the cultural norm, and who are we to say that certain cultural practices are wrong? So I agree that cultural relativism is a most pernicious philosophy, but it seems that when the “marketplace of ideas” model is taken to the extreme, it would be the exact opposite of relativism.

    You are also right that in suggesting that certain forms of secularism do restrict religious freedom. Models of secular governance in Turkey, China, the Soviet Union, and the former communist block countries are good cases in point. However, the US constitution is arguably a secular document since it stipulates that the state should make no law regarding the establishment of a religion. Yet it is a more enlightened document than the models of the above-mentioned states since it contains a free exercise clause thus allowing freedom of conscience, belief, and religious practice. The LDS church in fact owes its existence largely to secularism. Furthermore, the LDS church implicitly values secularism since secular states are more likely to allow the church to perform missionary work within its borders as opposed to religious states. Regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran have to be the least tolerant of missionary work.

  42. Angela C on May 7, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Wilfried: Excellent article. Families are torn apart to varying degrees through the conversion process. When my parents converted, my mother’s parents blamed my father and my father’s parents blamed my mother. Neither set of my grandparents were terribly religious although they belonged to a church, but they saw my parents becoming very involved in a church and to some extent that level of commitment and participation itself was the reason for suspicion and distance in the relationship. My grandparents felt they were taking religion too seriously. I have a brother-in-law who joined the church in his 20s and his mother was bitter and the relationship was strained until her death, decades later.

    Living in Singapore, missionary work was much more passive than in Spain where I served, perhaps because multi-culturalism is valued without trying to homogenize groups of people. The American way is the “melting pot” model, creating a new cultural identity and letting go of immigrant identities. That’s the opposite of how it was in Singapore where both racist assumptions about groups of people and respect for diversity seemingly flourished side by side without much conflict. The church definitely follows the American “melting pot” model which makes the conversion process even more painful outside the US where not only religious beliefs but even cultural practices (which are often more closely tied together) may be subsumed in the conversion process. It can be a total rejection of one’s family: religious, cultural, and social. For many, that cost is worth it.

    But there are probably two things that would help: 1) making sure we help newly minted converts navigate their relationships with sensitivity, and 2) letting go of some of our cultural colonialism that further erode ties between converts and their unconverted families. These are the growing pains of a globalizing church, and why Catholicism varies more by country than Mormonism does.

  43. JeffC on May 7, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    “But the church also carries, as you said, “other things that are Utah culture”, even if they come under the guise of commandments or expected behaviour.”

    I see more “American” culture than “Utah” culture, but then I’m not American – and my experience of living in the US was in Utah, so I guess the subtleties of American sub-culture aren’t so obvious to me.

    That said, I think there is a danger of claiming that any commandment we personally disagree with is simply a cultural hangover. One of the blessings of the gospel is that we have prophets and apostles who are called to reveal commandments that are applicable for us in the here and now, and while they will of course be influenced by the culture they have been a life-long part of, that is none-the-less their divinely commissioned calling, and I *do* think we should accept those as coming from the Lord.

    I think that is quite different from the many issues around many of our practices – dress codes, socialising, meeting structures, building layouts, etc, etc, which are really custom and practice designed almost entirely around American (and in some cases, yes Utah) cultural norms, and in fact have nothing to do with commandments. I think we are getting better as a Church at accepting cultural practices that differ from those of the US, but I also think we’ve some distance to go yet.

  44. rk on May 7, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Interesting article. You articulated very well the attitudes and feelings among people I sensed as a missionary in Europe some time ago. Sensitivity and awareness of culture are always helpful, but there just is no panacea to alleviate pain and disappointment conversion can cause.
    In my opinion many converts are simply baptized too quickly. I am glad that it worked out for you Wilfried, but I think we would all agree that cases like yours are the exception. Ideally a convert would be living the commandments and socialized in the ward before baptism. In my opinion I would want a potential convert to be completely forthcoming to his/her family about his plans before baptism, if nothing else just to see if he/she can weather the storm that may come if the baptism is carried out. Of course there will be fewer baptisms, but I saw to many conversions gone wrong as I visited the inactive. The Church does not need any more ‘paper members” on the rolls.

  45. Wilfried on May 7, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Old Man (33), yes, true. So it seems you understand well what can happen in the other direction. Both cases are sad and need more understanding and helping measures.

    Hedgehog (35), indeed, the “us against the evil world” is one of the important factors that fosters problems in our relations with others. Geoff (31) also insisted on that aspect from the perspective of Australia, mentioning among other items:

    We had a newish mission president get up in conference and refer to the world (which I take to be everyone outside the church) as toxic. This is my country he refers to, and the source of his investigators. We do not use terms like that in our country about the other 99.5% of the population. Utah culture again.

    Indeed, in missionary work that kind of condemning rhetoric may quickly set up the potential convert against his family and environment, creating an antagonistic sphere. When family members, still willing to come along with the person interested in the gospel, come to church and are confronted with talks and lessons based on “us against the world”, is adds to the tension. I convinced my mother only once to come to church in the hope she would feel the spirit, but what she heard from a Utah visitor was enough to further justify her anger.

    This atmosphere of Mormonism against “the culture of the world” is a phenomenon that has been growing during these past two decades. Since the early days of the church, Mormon leaders have adopted various attitudes toward the rest of the world, from wide-open positive acceptance to negative isolationism. I studied these various modes and a present movement toward fundamentalization in the article I mentioned earlier. The tendency to polarization is also evident in some of the comments in this thread.

  46. Wilfried on May 7, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    DQ (37 & 38), I appreciate your detailed contribution. I agree with the importance of “individual freedoms, market place of ideas, plethora of religious choices for individuals to consider and choose from, etc.”

    I am not at ease with your conclusion that growing antagonism toward missionary efforts would lead to a situation “completely permitting secularism and what Elder Maxwell warned of in irreligion to march forward.” We ought to be careful with generalizations and with terms that tend to foster misunderstandings.

    First, secularism, in its meaning of separation of state and church for the protection of diversity, is in most cases Mormonism’s greatest ally in permitting missionary work and the establishment of the church. We see that in numerous countries around the world. Some may define secularism as anti-religious, which can be a valid interpretation when secular legislation compels religion or a particular church to remain within its boundaries in order not to trample on the rights of others. But also there Mormonism profits from such legislation when other churches try to hamper the church’s expansion.

    Second, though “irreligion” can be seen as a threat in undermining belief, it does not mean that “irreligious” people are by definition anti-religious or immoral. We tend to see non-church goers (the so-called “nones”) as “irreligious” while most retain and develop forms of individual spirituality, while fully respecting others attending a church. Conversely, it is rather religion that can be threatening to the irreligious or those who believe differently. Militant religions want to convert the whole world and establish their law as universal. Their rhetoric is sometimes frightening if taken at face value.

    In comment 38, you touch upon the sensitive issue of LGBT rights. Let’s make clear we talk about such rights outside of the church. As mentioned, quite a few Mormons in countries where same-sex marriage is legal have a problem with what they perceive as church-fostered LGBT intolerance toward non-members. Consider it in the perspective of missionary work: there is a fundamental contradiction in attitude when Mormons demand freedom in order to be able to preach, convert others, and live according to their own church-defined criteria, but at the same time try to impose restrictive laws on people who want to live according to their moral criteria without harming anyone else. The question of LGBT rights is an example of that contradiction. Outsiders take notice of such contradiction, hence a reason for them to consider Mormon missionary work with suspicion, if not rejection. Again, it cannot be repeated enough, the issue concerns LGBT rights outside of the church.

  47. Steve Smith on May 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    “The point is, it’s outrageous to get upset at the church for pushing “Utah” culture on to any particular nation with regard to LGBT type issues when LGBT is its own culture that is being pushed on every single nation and political body in the western hemisphere. Talk about hegemony.”

    DQ, this seemed a bit tangential to the OP, but since Wilfried brought it up, I’ll comment. You really have to delineate what you mean by “pushing” culture on other people. To me that means forcing others through the legislature and judiciary to bear the burden of particular cultural norms and beliefs. I simply cannot see that that is the case in much of North America and Western Europe. Many existing laws protect the freedoms of LDS people to hold the beliefs that they do and share them with other people. The LGBT community is not trying to force people to bear the burdens of their sexual orientations. They aren’t trying to force people to be gay. They are simply trying to pass legislation that makes it illegal for the government, the courts, employers, and businesses to discriminate against them and that makes it mandatory for public schools to promote tolerance and acceptance of them. The majority of gay rights proponents aren’t seeking legislation that forces any private individual to accept them. So you’re free as an individual to not talk to or associate with gay people.

    You should also note a double standard among many LDS people with regard to tolerance. Many of them demand tolerance for their beliefs and practices, but find it difficult to tolerate others’ beliefs and practices, particularly atheists, secular humanists, etc.

  48. David on May 7, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    It seems easy to understand why people are angry at the Mormon missionaries. Its because the missionaries are saying that they have the truth and that the “angry” people are wrong. If Mormons look honestly at the following statement – “the book of Mormon is not historical but was a 19th century invention” – and their reaction to it – it shouldn’t be hard to see the reasons why people get angry when someone says they are wrong.

    It also seems incredibly hypocritical to even wonder about the above question when Mormons are some of the most aggressive when it comes to spreading the “word” and they seemingly cannot take even a little criticism regarding DNA and the Book of Mormon, or polygamy, or the race issue.

  49. Wilfried on May 7, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    SusanS (39), increasing the number of “foreigners” in GA ranks will certainly enhance the international leadership dimension of the church. The “Uchtdorf” effect is proof of it. Pres. Hinckley certainly had that broadening vision. To what extent new “non-US” callings of GA’s would improve sensitivity to intercultural issues remains to be seen, however. I am not sure the most broad-minded would be called first, but we must trust inspiration.

    Steve Smith (40), I agree that “the right to proselytize should be protected, as long as the proselytizing is not coercive and manipulative”. And, indeed, it is a part of democratic education that people learn to accept proselytizing religions and ideologies. My post did not argue otherwise in that respect, as it wanted “only to explain the source of sometimes severe private and public animosity toward Mormon missionaries.”

    In (41) I think you gave an excellent response to DQ (37). As I also mentioned previously, we need to be careful with the various connotations of words such as “secularism”. It’s in polarizing talk without proper definitions that we trigger misunderstandings.

    Angela C (42) thanks for contributing from your personal family and international experience. Very insightful. Your conclusion deserves repetition:

    But there are probably two things that would help: 1) making sure we help newly minted converts navigate their relationships with sensitivity, and 2) letting go of some of our cultural colonialism that further erode ties between converts and their unconverted families. These are the growing pains of a globalizing church, and why Catholicism varies more by country than Mormonism does.

  50. Wilfried on May 8, 2014 at 8:44 am

    JeffC (43), you’re right to remark that “Utah culture” in the church is partial “American culture”, though many Americans outside Utah will be eager to point out how idiosyncratic some aspects of Utah culture are. As to “there is a danger of claiming that any commandment we personally disagree with is simply a cultural hangover”, yes, indeed. At the same time it is surprising to see that some seemingly fixed rules can be adapted, not only because we believe in continuing revelation, but also because church leaders are known to be sensitive to the needs and circumstances of people. In that sense Mormonism differs from Catholicism.

    rk (44), I concur with your your insights as to timing for baptism. “Ideally a convert would be living the commandments and socialized in the ward before baptism.” Just as important, as you point out, is the acceptance by his/her non-Mormon family. Socialization must go in various directions.

    Steve Smith (47), your answer to DQ is what I would have written. Thanks for doing it in such lucid and serene terms.

    David (48), it’s clear you harbor some bitter feelings toward Mormons. I apologize for any Mormons that reacted angrily to you or others in defending their faith. This is not how Mormons should react. Their history shows that the expected way is to bear opposition with patience and courage. They are taught to take criticism and mockery with calm and dignity. Just think about the reaction of the church to the Book of Mormon musical.

  51. stephenchardy on May 8, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Wilfried:
    I have read your post (and it’s comments) along with some of your more recent posts with great interest and admiration. I wish to thank you for the time, energy, and care which you must invest in your communications. I especially notice that you don’t “post and run”, but that you continue to engage afterwards which helps us understand you even better. Let me record a few personal experiences I have had in regards to hostility towards missionaries, especially when they word across significant cultural boundaries.

    First, a personal reflection from my missionary experience almost 30 years ago. I served in Thailand. Thais are very proud of their history: they point out regularly that their country was never colonized by a European power, although countries near-by: India, Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia were all heavily influenced if not colonized by European powers. They told me that the Thais were able to maintain their independence because of two unifying forces: The Thai Monarchy (which they continue to revere and respect) and their almost total unity around the Buddhist faith. Although there are areas in the south of Thailand with large Muslim influence, the country is Buddhist on every level, making it almost impossible to tease apart what it is to be Thai and what it is to be Buddhist. Thus (getting to your question about why there is anger against Mormon missionaries) Thais see Christian missionaries as a threat to their unity and strength as a country. Some, indeed most, Thais tolerate missionary efforts out of sense of fairness, curiosity, and inevitability. However, some see converts as traitors to the Thai people/culture, and feel enormous anger at us for trying to change the very nature of their society.

    A second personal anecdote:
    I worked as a Young Men’s President in a branch where the majority of YM were from Laos and Cambodia. In virtually every case these YM were baptized as pre-teens or teens and were the only members of their families who were baptized. In every case specific (usually written) parental permission was provided. Family members never, however, attended the baptisms and I suspected in many cases and knew in other cases that these first-generation Buddhist parents did not really understand what they had consented to.
    I worked closely with this group of YM, and knew them well. One of them fell ill and died an untimely death at the age of 17. I attended his Buddhist funeral, and was made to feel unwelcome there. I was the only Caucasian there. (Part of the problem with having no parents in the ward meant that these YM were less likely to be fully integrated into the ward and stake. We have no idea how important informal advocacy is for our members. With no dads/moms in church, this large block of kids had no representation in Primary, Youth programs, Stake Committees, etc. Thus even though this boy had gone to church every week for years, there was little awareness of his illness and untimely death. Because the inactivity rate among these youth was high, I think that it was assumed by most members that he had gone inactive and not that he had fallen ill. Thus I was almost the only Mormon at the funeral.) Back to the story: I watched the fully Buddhist funeral ceremony for this boy who had attended and participated in Sacrament meetings at least 200 times (four years or more of regular activity). He had been president of his quorums and had participated in countless activities. I reflected during the funeral that I had spent at least 300 (probably many more) hours in his company. (Weekly Sunday meetings for about 2 years and weekly Mutual, and many many weekend activities and other activities. I picked him up and dropped him off for every activity as well.) Surely, I thought, I had spent more time with him and anyone in that room save for his parents and siblings. Yet, for all of that, there was no apparent awareness that he was a Christian or a Mormon. The severe stares I received from many at the service made it clear that I wasn’t welcome there. Again, it wasn’t clear to me that they were aware that he was a Mormon. It was a Buddhist funeral for a Buddhist boy. His Mormon-ness was not celebrated or even acknowledged.

  52. Jared vdH on May 8, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Perhaps I am just a pessimist, but in general I view life as an experience of pain while trying to find happiness, peace, and joy, all of which can be tough to find amidst the pain of life. This is what draws me to the gospel and the Church. The moments of transcendent happiness, peace, and joy I have experienced in my life have generally all come as a part of experiences connected to the Church. There have also been experiences of pain connected to the Church, but on balance, my experiences with the Church have been positive. In fact many of the moments of transcendent happiness, peace, and joy have been born through extended experiences of pain.

    Thinking on it, that last sentence is probably a decent summary of my mission.

    Now I say this as a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, priesthood-holding male. As a result, my balance of happiness/pain may be a result of my privilege, but it’s a hard thing to completely parse out. I have also been raised in the Church and this may also be skewing my perspective.

    Wilfried, you said:

    Though they are a minority, it is still extremely sad that these sisters and brothers look back with regret at their conversion. Considering the reasons of their breakdown, much of this could have been avoided.

    I wonder if they actually could, or even should, have avoided it in the first place. How much would missionaries or members would have had to bring up, most likely out of context, to have the person confront the issue that caused them to leave? Were the harrowing experiences you mention possibly worth it? I say this not to diminish their pain, but to say that perhaps the pain was not meaningless.

    I may be a believing Mormon, but that doesn’t mean that these people’s experiences of leaving the Church may not have been a necessary part of their path to truth.

  53. Wilfried on May 8, 2014 at 11:56 am

    stephenchardy (51), thank you for your kind words. Your personal experiences are revealing as to aspects we need to pay more attention to. The case of the “singles” in our wards, without any family to support them in their church membership, is particularly enlightening, because it draws us back to the moment of their conversion and the breach with their family. I don’t think our home and visiting programs are sufficiently aware of the need to try to befriend the non-Mormon family, in a non-religious, non-threatening way, in order to build bridges and make them understand Mormonism is not an isolating force.

    Jared vdH (52), you raise the question of the place and function of pain in our lives, with the understanding that pain is part of our probation and can also occur through our experiences in church. True, our intense church community, with its callings, responsibilities, and interactions, is a dynamic place not void of challenges. High expectations entail the risk of discouragement and depression. The church is also a place where we learn “to put up with a lot” as we learn to endure patiently, and in some wards frequently, wild talks and rambling testimonies, bland lessons, political statements, fanaticized rules, or an intransigent bishop. And none of us is immune to the vicissitudes of life that also affect our Mormon ideals, such as a divorce or the disaffection of a family member.

    But the avowed aim of the church organization is to provide happiness to the members. The specific cases we were referring to are these:

    Even more painful are those who leave after many years of toiling for the Church—sometimes with angry feelings of having been bled dry in unrelenting service, or of having been betrayed by lack of information pertaining to church history or doctrine, or of having paid tithing to a Utah church which, as they discover in their view, is loaded with American right-wing dominance or LGBT intolerance.

    These are aspects we can do something about and the church is responding to some of these challenges. Handbook 2, Administering the Church, now contains several passages warning against overburdening members with tasks and responsibilities. The church has started major efforts to document and clarify problematic topics in history and doctrine. The website http://www.mormonsandgays.org tries to help people reconcile their gender identities with their religion. Still, I believe more could be done, in particular in view of different cultures in the world—something you also hint at.

  54. Fred_LN on May 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    I felt the need to speak up. I don’t feel like getting into the details but joining the church created issues with family and friends. I understood their perspectives so that took a lot of the sting out of the equation… at least on my end. I’ve been a member of the church for several decades now, enough time to patch up family issues and find new friends.

    Unfortunately I haven’t gotten to the point where I’ve read all the comments. A few comments stopped me in my tracks and I just had to post. Namely the comments that shift the burden to the local membership. That an exhausted, overburdened local membership should just dig a little deeper to fix all the issues that the current program creates. That the local membership should be guilted even further into supporting a program over which they have no say as to the direction it takes. I feel like that approach is only treating the symptoms. I do apologize about the tone, I don’t mean to be hostile, this issue evokes my emotions more than most others.

    So what are the issues:

    1) Missionaries view baptisms as a way of measuring success, baptisms validate whether a mission is successful, goals are centered around the number of baptisms, etc. Missionaries rush people to the waters of baptism because they know they’ll only be in an area for a small amount of time and they want to see that success before they move on to the next area. That creates a sense of urgency where things move along according to the missionary’s time table as opposed to the investigator.

    How about slowing things down and only baptizing people that have expressed an interest in being baptized as opposed to injecting the desire where little to none exists.

    2) HASTEN the work. There’s the lord’s timetable and then there’s the investigators time table. “Hasten” conjures an image of a tree that has branches that have grow to be too large for the trunk to support. The tree my die if the branches become too much to support.

    Personally I hear “hasten the work” more than I hear “Jesus” in church these days. It’s very off-putting and members will starve spiritually if that becomes the only message. If members are spiritually fed at church they will WANT to share the gospel with others. If they feel like church is 3 hours of motivating a sales force they’ll have to be browbeat into sharing the gospel with others. Make the church a place people want to come to and missionary work will take care of itself.

    3) If it’s not about the numbers don’t mention the numbers. When someone says “it’s not about the numbers” it’s usually prefaced or followed by a 5-10 minute discussion on the numbers. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we dropped all the metrics I think we’d see happier missionaries and happier members… which in turn would make missionary efforts take off organically.

    Also, returning to the notion of asking more from the membership, more local member involvement only helps create a better support group for the convert. Don’t get me wrong, we need that and that is a very good thing. Unfortunately it doesn’t address the needs of the family members “left behind” which was one of the original points of this blog post.

    One fix? Adopt a come as you are approach. Some people walk away because they don’t feel like they fit the mold. Some people have concerns for their loved ones because they are joining a “cult” which causes them to have drastic changes in culture and behavior. We aren’t a very accepting lot. We don’t try to pull in the good to be found in the diversity that people bring to the table so much as we ask people to change, to conform, to offer up their sense of individualism at the altar when they join.

    So much to say, but I have to cut it short. No one reads the wall of text.

  55. Wilfried on May 8, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    Fred_LN (54), you say it candidly and to the point. The problems of member-missionary relations will not be as acute everywhere, but they certainly are acute in many wards and branches around the world. In such units there is indeed a growing discrepancy between the influx of young and eager missionaries, expecting referrals and fellowshipping, fired up by their goals to baptize, and the small group of local, seasoned members, most of whom are already struggling to fulfill their church callings and family responsibilities, and since years totally out of names for referrals. One cannot expect these members to also visit families whenever rushed missionary work suddenly caused strained relations. Sure, examples can be given where such help worked well, but overall we clearly lack coordination and guidelines where the missionaries 1) are able to quickly recognize the quandary they’re putting a family in; 2) slow down the visits and adapt the lessons for tensions to subside and other family members to perhaps catch up; 3) pay much more attention to family unity than to “the numbers”; 4) coordinate with the ward mission leader before calling members for urgent help. Our young missionaries themselves will mature faster when they learn to focus on empathy for others rather then on their so-called “success”. The final result will also be better retention, as President Hinckley emphasized as the real goal of conversion.

    Your last sentence is worth to ponder:

    “We don’t try to pull in the good to be found in the diversity that people bring to the table so much as we ask people to change, to conform, to offer up their sense of individualism at the altar when they join.”

  56. Wilfried on May 8, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    I’ll add one comment in response to a mail I received about online missionary work.

    The online missionary approach, Chat with a Mormon, seems successful in terms of number of baptisms. But it does not lessen the potential for family conflicts, on the contrary. Chats are conducted with an individual, without any reliable information as to age or family situation. In physical proselytizing, missionaries can at least gauge the family condition and strive for family teaching, including not teaching minors without parental consent. Online chat is private, even secret, with an adult possibly chatting outside a spouse’s knowledge or a minor chatting without parental approval.

    It is revealing that the elaborate example of successful online missionary work pertains to a 15-year old, “undisturbed by disapproving parents.” The minor could thus as well be from an Orthodox Jewish family or from a strict Muslim family with the expected consequences should he or she want to become Mormon.

  57. rk on May 8, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    I know this is late in the discussion and perhaps nobody will read this comment, but this post reminds me of a wonderful faithful member sister from my mission. She was single in her sixties I assume. She invited us over often for food and to study with us. I couldn’t help by notice that in addition to her name plate on the door there was the name of a male. I never dared ask. One time a companion explained to me that when she joined the church years ago, her boyfriend left her. She never removed his nameplate from the door. This nameplate of her lost love was a haunting reminder of the high price she paid for her membership in the church. I consider her sacrifice no less than any sacrifice of the early Mormon pioneers made.

    Was it worth it for her? It must have been. Meeting remarkable members like her was one of the best part of my mission.

  58. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 9, 2014 at 1:52 am

    Those supposed primitive tribes who have never been in contact with other cultures? Pure hogwash. Mankind distributed itself around the world, including the Pacific islands acoss thousands of miles of ocean. Migrations have been going on constantly ever since. There is no such thing as a pristine culture that is so untouched by other cultures that we must preserve it in amber as a unique expression of human creativity. To the contrary, equilibrium in human societies is a short term phenomenon in limited areas. On the scale of centuries no culture stays the same. There is no reason to value the preservation of a culture over the freedom of individual people to explore truth.

    Does it disrupt existing families and social groups when new religious ideas are introduced to them? Sure, but it is also disruptive to introduce the internet and smartphones, modern medical science, new agricultural methods, new energy sources, electricity and autos and aircraft.

    One of the greatest disruptions in European society right now is the growth of Muslim populations. The people who call for keeping Muslims out are called xenophobes. Surely Mormons are far less disruptive to European society than Muslim communites, both on a community and family basis. Catholics can learn to live with Mormon neighbors and family members much more easily than Muslim ones. Going apoplectic over your son wanting to be a Mormon is unfair if you will tolerate him becoming Muslim. The Enlightenment tradition specifically requires European culture to be open to new ideas, and it loses its own integrity if it wants to suppress dissent.

  59. Old Man on May 9, 2014 at 5:15 am

    I am sorry, but real religion, by Joseph Smith’s definition… requiring the sacrifice of all things, is going to be culturally disruptive. And that is a good thing. It is going to break your heart. It is going to challenge or bring temporary pain to your family and friends. A baptism is essentially a statement that one wants to change, literally die to their old spiritual life, and that what went on before was not good enough. Conversion and repentance are always painful. I think of the Hindu representations of Shiva, a cobra that sheds it skin, therefore embodying destruction and change. In a sense, our missionaries carry a message of destruction and change.

    Cultures and families need conversion. We value what is good in a culture. But what is not good needs to go. We could do better at celebrating the good in various cultures. We value family, because families can be made eternal. Family without God’s law is not eternal. Eternal families are families that face the fire of conversion and repentance. Eternal families have to repent and make and keep covenants. (Luckily, this can be a generational process.) Is it more respectful to culture and family to soft pedal conversion? Not really. The painful process of the Gospel gaining a foothold in our cultures, families and souls is a necessary one. Stalling the conversion process…. I would be wary of suggesting that. Helping people understand the conversion process and the ultimate goals of the Gospel? That would be the direction I would take. Mitigating some pain may be productive, but making it a priority to avoid it at all costs may harm our cause more than we now realize.

  60. Roger on May 9, 2014 at 8:39 am

    rk–
    I read your comment and reflected upon it. Something about that good sister’s experience must have convinced her that it was worth it. I could be envious…

  61. Hedgehog on May 9, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Raymond #58, “Going apoplectic over your son wanting to be a Mormon is unfair if you will tolerate him becoming Muslim.”
    Writing in Britain, I really can’t imagine where you get the idea that a concerned parent would be happier if a child converted to Islam, rather than Mormonism. That’s not what I see. Converts to Islam face much the same, if not more severe problems. A report looking specifically at the experiences of British women converts to Islam was published in this country last year (http://www.cis.cam.ac.uk/assets/media/narratives_of_conversion_report.pdf). Family responses was one of the issues covered (section 8 p25-31 of the report).

    I’d be interested to know if there is a study looking at the experiences of LDS converts.

    Wilfried #45, thanks for the response. I always enjoy your posts. I’m sorry your mother had that experience at church. It makes me nervous about inviting people. That rhetoric is emphasized in the push for youth to attend FSY, including in the video clips on the enrollment website. A website I imagine non-member parents of youth (member & non-member youth) attending may wish to view, before allowing their children to attend.

  62. Wilfried on May 9, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Raymond Takashi Swenson (58), your vibrant comment focuses the discussion on the inevitability and value of change in society. My post did not argue that point, it only wanted to help readers understand anger against Mormon missionary work, precisely because, as you said, new religious ideas bring disruption. This topic of transformation and intercultural permeation is a fascinating one and was brought up several times in the thread.

    The comparison you make with the spread of Islam in Europe is also instructive because this spread confronts people with the acceptance of diversity and the question of tolerance—a topic high on the social and political agenda in European countries. It involves many people who want to contribute to a viable multicultural society. Such acceptance of diversity is, overall, also good for Mormonism.

    You make an interesting point when you say “Going apoplectic over your son wanting to be a Mormon is unfair if you will tolerate him becoming Muslim”. Some parents will probably not like either choice. But the comparison begs this remark: I assume some Mormon parents of pioneer stock would go “apoplectic” if their 17-year old son announces he is becoming Muslim. That was the whole point of the post: understand reactions on the family level.

    Old Man (59), all what you say is perfectly valid from a Mormon viewpoint. What the post tried to do is help us understand the other side. By understanding that side and the challenges of the conversion process, and adapting some of our strategies, it will also improve retention of converts. I refer to what President Hinckley said about it (see item 8 in the post): “Nobody gains when there is baptism without retention … Actual harm may be done.”

  63. Hedgehog on May 9, 2014 at 9:35 am

    #61, “I’d be interested to know if there is a study looking at the experiences of LDS converts.”
    To clarify my above remark. I’ve read the Mauss article, and also your excellent Mormon identity article, Wilfried. My comment was hoping a similar study to the Islam conversion study had been carried out. I’m not aware of one.

  64. Hedgehog on May 9, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Fred #54, interesting comment. On:
    “We aren’t a very accepting lot. We don’t try to pull in the good to be found in the diversity that people bring to the table so much as we ask people to change, to conform, to offer up their sense of individualism at the altar when they join.”
    I agree, and have blogged on this topic, earlier this year (http://www.wheatandtares.org/13395/bringing-the-good/)

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