Monday, May 4, 2009

I Believe in Missionary Work

Articles of Faith #11
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

This may seem like a strange title for this Article of Faith. It seems to be saying, "Eh, you do what you do, and I'll do what I do, and no worries!" which is seemingly in direct contradiction to the idea of missionary work, which is to preach one's beliefs to others. The more I've pondered it, however, the more my mind kept being drawn back to missionary work.

I see missionary work differently than many, I suspect. I have seen missionary work addressed in two main strains: either the gung-ho, sling-the-Books-of-Mormon style (which has its place) or the member-example style (which also has its place). My purpose is not to belittle either, as I believe both can be effective in the right circumstances, but to explore a somewhat different approach.

On my mission, I was a bit of a proselytizer for a rather odd style of missionary work, in a time when we were being taught lesson memorization, sales tactics and literal foot-in-the-door techniques in Zone Conference. I had to memorize the first discussion, word-for-word, in German in order to be considered a "real missionary". It was expected that the other discussions would also be memorized. The more I thought of it, the more I struggled with the idea of teaching through memorization. I was not an expert in the language, despite previous German experience, but I still felt that missionary work should come from the heart and not the tongue. I felt that the words would take care of themselves, so long as a missionary did his/her best to study and learn the language. I also felt that sales tactics such as preparing a door approach, focusing on the "free book", or handing out pamphlets, tended to diminish the work, not enhance it. However effective sales tactics might be in the right hands for getting baptisms, and despite being taught such tactics nearly every district and zone meeting, I felt that baptisms were not the purpose of missionary work. The purpose was to bring people closer to God, to give them a chance to feel the Spirit, and let the Spirit teach them what God wanted them to know. If that ended in baptism and eventual exaltation, excellent! If not, then at least we had done what we could to bring the Spirit into someone's life and give them the chance to choose for themselves.

A book that strongly influenced this take on missionary work was Teaching by the Spirit by Gene R. Cook. Ironically, this book was given to me in the first two months of my mission by my mission president. It confused me at the time that the meetings were always so sales-oriented, that my outlook was so dramatically different, and yet the mission president never corrected me, never spoke against my outspoken rebuttals of what was being taught and actually had me speak on more than one occasion. Now I think I understand a little better, and I think the reason is held in this Article of Faith.

Sales tactic missionary work can help people who would otherwise do nothing out of fear or laziness. However, this style must eventually be softened by an understanding of agency and choice. A person cannot be allowed to worship "according to the dictates of their own conscience" if they are never taught their choices, if their conscience is never given a chance to dictate. If a person labors under misconceptions or ignorance, they cannot choose for themselves.

Nor do I believe that we will be held accountable for someone not hearing the gospel. We should not be motivated to engage in missionary work out of fear of punishment. We should engage out of love. If we really believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to Joseph Smith, really believe and understand it, we will want to share it because it is so amazing and healing. Then, not only will we be able to respond with love and patience when our gift is rejected (allowing all men the privilege to worship how they choose), we will be focused on actually offering a real gift to a real person in a way they will most likely be able to accept it.

That "way" will differ as widely as people will differ, and cannot be taught in a classroom. It is entirely directed by the Spirit, by One who knows the other person, their concerns and their heart. Therefore, the "tactics" which should be focused on are dedicated discipleship, purifying oneself to receive the Spirit, and prayerfully gaining knowledge so the Spirit has plenty of tools to utilize. When we are in tune with the Spirit, we will be given what to say and do. And, when and if the person chooses to reject the Spirit, they will be rejecting God, not us. We as messengers will be free to sorrow for their choices, but not to feel afraid or angry. We will be free to allow them their choice.

If we fail to follow this Article when we share the Gospel, we do not understand missionary work. We do not understand the meaning of the Book we are handing over, nor the principles we claim to share.

So yes, share the message in true love and consideration and then let go. We allow all to worship as they will (barring harm to the innocent), and we allow it by sharing what is in our hearts, by demonstrating love and conviction, and most of all by following the guidance of the Spirit and allowing Him to tell us what to do. Sometimes that may be handing over a book. Sometimes it may be mowing a lawn, or being a good example. Sometimes it may be something never dreamed of before.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this! I was searching blogs for a different topic and am not sure why I was directed here, but enjoyed your post.

  2. Thank you for posting this. While I never heard any literal foot-in-the-door suggestions at zone conference, I always felt like a bit of an odd ball myself, looking for a different way to share that didn't make me feel so much like a salesperson. Never found it, though. Maybe I will have to go on another mission to find it.

  3. I wasn't happy as a missionary until i realized that the only thing I had control over was the bearing of my testimony. What the other person decided to do or not do with it was their decision. That is both the joy and frustration of free agency.

  4. Does anyone else remember President asking and never answering the question: why are there obedient missionaries that never see success? That question kept popping into my head the entire time I was reading this post. I think this post addresses at least part of the answer to that question.

    The opposite question was: how is it that disobedient missionaries can get baptisms? Different people feel the Spirit in different ways, and I'm glad for a Mission President that was willing to ask tough questions. I think I was the first Zone Leader in a long time to get called to that position without having memorized the first 4 discussions. President never asked me about it, either.

    I wish I could see how things are now. I know the winds have changed quite a bit since we were full-time missionaries. There are no more discussions to memorize. I am guessing that the emphasis to teaching by the Spirit is now pretty much the only option. How has this changed foreign-language missionaries and their learning and teaching in that language?

    Thanks for this post. I think I have a new blog to add to the list!


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