Why “Member Missionary Work” Fails
(Reposted from my old blog…)
As members of the LDS Church, we are frequently encouraged to be more actively engaged in “member missionary work.” Interestingly, although “member referrals” are the largest source of converts for the church (yes, the church does track this – rather carefully, actually), and we have one of the largest missionary populations of any religion, we, as members, are still not very good at being missionaries in our daily lives.
The problem IMHO, it that there is a perceived conflict of interests between being a friend to someone and trying to proselytize to them. It is very difficult to, say, ask a friend if they want to listen to missionaries from the church without it coming off a little weird or forced. Depending on the relationship, some people might even take offense. Obviously, we want to avoid offending or even sounding weird to our friends. However, without such an invitation, a friend is not likely to ask if you wouldn’t mind sending missionaries over to their house.
The church leaders have recognized this issue, and for many years have focused on encouraging members to ‘prepare’ your friends to hear the gospel. This is exactly what needs to happen. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to determine what you need to do to ‘prepare’ your friends for this type of thing. So, naturally, the church (as it has done with many other things) has prepared a curriculum of sorts: a list of things you can do to prepare someone to hear the gospel, one of these tools is known as the ‘set a date’ program.
The merits of ‘set a date’ program and other lists of suggestions aside, I have never known this type of planned approach to be successful except anecdotally. The reason is because it does not address the issue BEHIND the perceived conflict of interest.
What is that issue, you ask? It is that it is extremely difficult to integrate a perceived ‘normal’ external appearance with our beliefs as members of the Church. Our beliefs just don’t ‘fit in’ to the regular hubbub of modern society – especially when you are speaking to people who are not members of the Church.
I’m not talking about devotion or balance or anything about how we live as active members of the church. Most of us are very good at being religious in that sense. It’s more about how we integrate the gospel into the fabric of our inter-personal relationships, about making our beliefs known to others, not because of any agenda we have to ‘be an example’ or ‘share the gospel’, but because it is an important part of who we are.
I started to recognize when I was in college, that I didn’t really have any really close friends. Most of my friends were of other religions or no religion at all, and I did not have any daily contact with any other members. I realized that part of the reason I did not have any close friends was that because the gospel was such an important part of my life and my identity, and I treated it as something ‘special’ to be shared only in certain circumstances, that nobody really understood me well enough to be a truly close friend.
As I realized this, I made steps to correct it. It’s not like I had been hiding my religious beliefs before. On the contrary, I would gladly talk to people about the Church, and even made a lot of effort to give away a number of Books of Mormon. However, I started to approach my sharing of my beliefs not as a duty or as a missionary tool, but as a way to help people get to know me, and as a way to try to relate to the world and the beliefs of others.
By the end of my college years I had gained two very close friends. Both are not Mormon to this day. However, I was able to talk openly about the church with both of them and invited them to do a number of things that they would not have been likely to do otherwise, and which did not affect our relationship negatively in any way. On the contrary, it is because I was “spiritually intimate” (for lack of a better phrase) with them that we became so close. Inviting them to church or to read the Book of Mormon was just another part of our relationship.
Now, I’m not saying that we need to become best friends with people before we can invite them to listen to the missionaries or to church. What I’m saying is that if you create your relationships from the beginning on a foundation of openness about your own beliefs, it is much easier to open your mouth, when you suddenly feel prompted to say, “you know, I think you might enjoy coming to [such-and-such activity] with me,” or “this reminds me of a scripture from the Book of Mormon where…” or “why don’t you come to church with me Sunday?”
I often think of gospel parallels and insights when speaking to others that I often ignore. Even when speaking with other members, there is a tendency to filter out anything that might not be in-line with standard doctrine. It is important for all of us to learn to communicate openly about all of our beliefs. Often we have similar questions to those around us, and someone may be able to help us work out answers to those questions, or we can help someone through our insights. However, if we do not open our mouths and say what we think, feel and believe, we isolate ourselves a little more from those around us.
It’s really more about being comfortable being a ‘peculiar people.’ We need to embrace our beliefs and have the courage to be a lone voice for anything we believe to be true.