Every member a... salesman?

What is the number one complaint among full-time missionaries? Zealous missionaries everywhere are disappointed that members are not inviting their non-member friends to hear the message of the Gospel.

They are frustrated with good reason– members generally are not doing our part to live our covenant to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places.” Investigators, less-actives, and even the random people missionaries talk to at doorsteps are far more likely to refer them to a neighbor or friend than the active members of the Church are. Those who know the most about the Gospel and have experienced its blessings firsthand in their lives are usually the most reluctant to suggest that it be shared with others they know and love.

So… what should we do about this lack of member participation? For starters, when it comes to member missionary work, we don’t need a new program– we need a new perspective.

The “better way”

Two friends talking

Let me start by saying the missionaries are 100% right to be disappointed in us. Far too many members seem to believe that missionary work is the missionaries’ job– not ours. As Pres. Hinckley taught:

So many of us look upon missionary work as simply tracting. Everyone who is familiar with this work knows there is a better way. That way is through the members of the Church.

Finding investigators is not the sole responsibility of the full-time missionaries. In fact, finding investigators isn’t their job at all. Elder Bednar put that idea to rest, saying:

A common element in many of our prayers is a request that the missionaries will be led to individuals and families who are prepared to receive the message of the Restoration. But ultimately it is my responsibility and your responsibility to find people for the missionaries to teach. Missionaries are full-time teachers; you and I are full-time finders. And you and I as lifelong missionaries should not be praying for the full-time missionaries to do our work!

If members actually applied Elder Bednar’s words to be “full-time finders,” the results would be astounding. On my mission, we spent 8 to 11 hours per day hitting pavement and knocking doors and almost none of our day actually teaching. Missionaries in this age report a similar imbalance of time (though tracting has largely moved online). Imagine if just a handful of members started inviting their friends to hear the message. It wouldn’t be long before missionaries would run out of time on their planners. 11 hours of finding would be replaced with 11 hours of teaching. The work would move forward like never before.

Why the “better way” isn’t happening

Nervousness

Member-based finding is a great plan… so where are we on that? Missionaries serving today tell me members are referring their friends at about the same rate today as they were when I served my mission. Even the “best” missionaries who follow their instructions and ask for member referrals at every possible opportunity will be lucky to get maybe 3-5 referrals from ward member before they go home.

Why are members who sincerely love the Gospel so reluctant to invite their friends to hear about it? The list of reasons is long. Here are just a few I have heard others say (or have used myself):

  1. I don’t actually have many friends outside the Church.
  2. I know people outside the Church, but our friendships aren’t deep enough to share the Gospel yet.
  3. I hate when salesmen are pushy to me, I don’t want to by pushy others.
  4. It feels awkward and inauthentic to force the Gospel into a conversation. That’s not who I am.
  5. I don’t want to encourage the perception that members of the Church are pushy and out to convert everyone.
  6. I’m not a good missionary or teacher. I’m worried I’ll say the wrong thing and offend them. Maybe even ruin their chance of accepting it in the future.
  7. I like my friends. I don’t want them to think I’m out to convert them and ruin my friendships.
  8. I can’t share the Gospel at work/school/clubs– that’s illegal!
  9. I already know my friends won’t get baptized.
  10. Even if they do join the Church, my friendship won’t be the same.
  11. If my friends reject my invitation it will strain our friendship and make it awkward.
  12. My friends will think I’m an irrational zealot if they know I believe in something so weird as the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, etc.
  13. My friends are devoted Christians of another faith. I’ll look bad during lessons because I or other Church members won’t know the Bible as well as my friends do.
  14. I’m no Gospel scholar; I can’t answer the tricky question like polygamy or race and the priesthood for myself, let alone for someone else!
  15. I love my faith and I don’t want to see my friends demean it or reject it.
  16. My friend lives outside the ward boundaries so I wouldn’t be able to fellowship them well after baptism, anyway.
  17. The Gospel is a HUGE commitment. I don’t want to rush them into it.
  18. If my friends are interested, they should ask me– I shouldn’t need to bring it up.

Those are some of the concerns members have about themselves and their friends. Missionaries sometimes get frustrated that we let these concerns impede us from reaching out to our friends. Well, Elders and Sisters, we love you and look up to you, but frustration is a two-way street. Some of our concerns revolve not just around how we do our job, but how you do yours. Here are a few concerns myself and others have voiced:

  1. I just don’t trust 18-20 year old kids to teach my friend.
  2. I trust sister missionaries but I don’t trust the elders.
  3. The missionaries don’t bring the Spirit when they come to dinner; they won’t bring the Spirit when they teach my friends.
  4. Missionaries won’t be careful with my friends– I love my friends but to the missionaries, they’re just another prospect.
  5. If my friend politely stops investigating, missionaries will keep my friends’ contact info in their area book and keep pestering them which will reflect poorly on the Church (and on me).
  6. The missionaries currently assigned are too robotic, too disobedient, too overbearing, too unreliable, too lazy, too unrelatable, too goody-two-shoes, too boring, too disorganized, or too intense.
  7. The missionaries don’t work; they’re just on Facebook all day. If they aren’t invested in their work, they can’t ask me to be invested.
  8. I’ve sat in lessons with the missionaries, and I’ve seen firsthand that they don’t know how to teach or speak the language.
  9. The missionaries will rush through the lessons to check off the boxes instead of taking time to teach what my friends need to hear and go at their pace.
  10. Missionaries are just looking for another notch in their belts. They’ll pressure my friends and baptize them before they’re ready because transfers are coming up.
  11. Sure, I trust the missionaries that are currently assigned here, but I know they’ll be transferred any moment and be replaced by missionaries I don’t trust.
  12. My friend lives outside my ward boundaries. I don’t know the missionaries there. I can’t supervise their teaching or do damage-control as well.

In short, members don’t want to come across to their friends as salesmen” for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And they don’t trust missionaries who often _do come across that way.

How not to address these concerns

Vader motivation

As a mission, stake, or ward leader, you may feel these concerns are overblown and shouldn’t get in the way of sharing the Gospel. There’s definitely some truth to that. But it’s not helpful to answer members’ concerns by invalidating them. It’s not helpful to paper them over with some success story. And it’s not helpful to imply that “someone who’s really faithful doesn’t care about those things– you just need more faith.” When we take these approaches, we get the result Pres. Uchtdorf described:

When missionary work is discussed in Church meetings, heads are slowly lowered until submerged behind the pew, eyes focused on the scriptures or closed in deep meditation to avoid eye contact with other members.

As leaders, as teachers, as brothers and sister in Christ, we need to do better at directly acknowledging and addressing these concerns. They are real enough and compelling enough that they are keeping member missionary work to a sliver of what it should be. And unless we adjust the way that we teach this “greatest and most important duty,” we members will forever feel reticent to sacrifice their friendships on the consuming altar of missionary work.

So, we’ve established that we can’t just have a preach our way out of this– we need something more. However, “something more” shouldn’t mean “something more burdensome.”

When they are faced with a long-running problem (like a lack of member missionary zeal), many leaders (especially those with a sales or corporate management background) tend to reach down into the “Big ‘Ol Bucket of Programs” and cobble together some sort of member missionary initiative. Often, this new program is started by a pep rally of sorts in stake or ward conference (or perhaps a fifth Sunday discussion). This is commonly joined with 40-day ward fast for missionary work. Then they hand out copies of the Book of Mormon in Elders Quorum to give out and report back next week. The full-time missionaries often lead the charge right into members homes, asking them to write down names of their friends and set a date.

The most dangerous of these programs is the infamous “12-step” member missionary program. Elder Christensen related his experience with that program in The Power of Everyday Missionaries:

The missionaries in our ward asked us to make a list of people with whom we could share the gospel. We were to start with those at the top of our list and begin “preparing” them through a twelve-step process. First, we were to invite them to our home for dinner and follow that by going to a cultural event together. The sixth, seventh, and eighth steps were to invite them to church, give them a copy of the Book of Mormon, and ask them to take the missionary discussions. The program culminated in the twelfth step– baptism.

He started working one of his friends, Ken Gray and his wife, through the 12-step program as he was instructed. After many weeks of small steps, he invited the Grays to read the Book of Mormon:

Ken awkwardly accepted the book and responded, “Thanks, but no thanks. We were both raised in the Episcopalian Church, and we’ve really enjoyed attending the Church of England while we have been here.” We then changed the topic of conversation, but it clearly felt strained, and the Grays left shortly thereafter.

So how did young Bro. Christensen respond? By following the program:

If the Grays weren’t interested, our instructions said that we need to develop a friendship with the Baileys (the next people on our list) to prepare them by transforming them into friends (they were simply acquaintances) before we could invite them to learn more. So I found a pencil and crossed the Grays off the list. I felt bad doing this, but we wanted to be good missionaries– and we couldn’t work to become friends with everyone.

So he started the 12-step program with the next name on his list– investing weeks of time to create a friendship so he could invite them to learn the Gospel. Only to be faced with more polite rejection. After “many months” of building friendships and facing rejection, he had exhausted his list of missionary prospects with nothing to show for his efforts. To make matters worse, Bro. Christensen had developed a reputation amongst his new “friends.” They felt betrayed, believing (correctly) that he “just want[ed] to convert them, under the false guise of friendship.” Looking back with regret on that time in his life, Elder Christensen warns us:

More often than you’d like, people say to a coworker, “Watch out. He’s a Mormon.” When you hear that, almost always it was caused by a member of the Church who feigned friendship in the mistaken belief that we had to “prepare” them before we could invite them. This belief creates among many a distrust of members of our Church, as if Mormons always have an ulterior motive.

Following the 12-step program had ruined friendships and polluted the public perception of the Church. What’s more, it also left Bro. Christensen feeling completely burned out. Missionary work became a large chore looming on top of his already busy life. That’s the natural outcome of such programs.

We don’t need a new program– we need a new perspective.

Jesus with children

The Jews of the Old Testament followed the 613 commandments in the Torah. But that law was superseded by the new law taught when He came to earth. At first blush, His words seem more easygoing and relaxed. But every Christian, ancient and modern, who has actually tried to live Christ’s teachings knows that is not the case. The Torah demanded limited outward obedience; the Savior demands unlimited inner consecration. Gone are all the rules describing various types of sexual transgression and their consequences; now we’re told not to even think impure thoughts. Gone are all the rules for how to compensate a wronged neighbor; now we’re told we’re supposed to love and serve our neighbor, and that everyone is our neighbor. The “Higher Law” is easier to write, but it is much harder to live. Christ shows us that He is less interested in what we are doing so much as who we becoming.

The Church has gone through a “Higher Law” reformation during the past few decades. The programs and and organizations of the Church have been simplified and reduced down to the essence of the Gospel. We are steadily moving away from an obsession with checking of boxes on a spiritual to-do list and instead focusing ever more on substantive personal, spiritual growth:

  1. The memorized missionary discussions were jettisoned. Instead, missionaries are to receive revelation for what and how to teach each day.
  2. Pres. Nelson pushed for a new emphasis on keeping the Sabbath Day holy– not with a list of appropriate and inappropriate activities, but by the single standard of whether or not an activity shows love for the Savior.
  3. Sunday School changed as it shifted to personal growth in the home, and with teachers asked to prayerfully identify a principle or two from the past 2 weeks that fit their ward’s needs best.
  4. Young Men and Young Women’s programs have followed a similar trajectory, with greater emphasis focused on setting goals through inspired reflection and prayerful discussion with parents and leaders instead of burning through carefully worded checklists.
  5. Home teaching was replaced. Now instead of parroting the First Presidency message on the last day of the month, we are given the latitude to adapt our efforts with the charge to do so prayerfully and guided by the Spirit.
  6. Elders Quorum and Relief Society Presidencies no longer ask who did and didn’t get their visits in by the end of the month, but rather ask the important questions of “How are you doing? How is your relationship with this family? How are they doing? What can we do to help?”

The example of the Brethren is clear: Simplify (or better yet, eliminate) existing programs. Wherever possible, don’t proscribe what members should do; instead, encourage individuals to receive revelation. “Teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Change the focus from what we want members to do to who we want members on what to become.

Member missionary work must follow suit. The types of member missionary programs I’ve seen in the past may work great on the sales floor or in corporate management. And when applied to ward members, a pep rally and a burst of top-down focus might even result in a few more referrals and baptisms. But when the focus of such programs is to “push members out of their comfort zones” and get them to “just do it,” the resulting surge in enthusiasm is only temporary. Programs fail because they lack the sticking power to yield long-term meaningful change. They fail because because members are not salesmen or employees. They fail because they pressure members to do missionary work instead of inspiring members to become normal, natural, everyday missionaries.

We don’t need a new program– we need a new perspective.

“Natural and instinctive” member missionary work

Two women laughing

The Bible Dictionary entry on prayer gives us the key to that new perspective:

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part.

This is true for all elements of the Gospel, including the commandment to share it. Once we have a clear understanding, sharing the Gospel “becomes natural and instinctive on our part.”

This truth is clearly demonstrated in scripture. When Lehi partook of the Gospel fruit, he immediately “began to be desirous that [his] family should partake of it also; for [he] knew that it was desirable above all.” When Enos was forgiven of his sins, he immediately felt “a desire for the welfare of [his] brethren.” When the sons of Mosiah were converted to God, they immediately “were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.” These member missionaries did not need to be challenged to set a date, to make a list of their friends, or endure a sales pitch on the importance of member referrals. Once they understood, sharing the Gospel was “natural and instinctive on their part.”

That must be our goal. The Church broadcast a special training on member missionary work a few weeks ago entitled “Love, Share, Invite.” Its stated purpose was to encourage a more “simple, natural approach to sharing the Gospel.” For over an hour, Elders Cook, Bednar, and Uchtdorf extolled the efforts of member missionaries to share in simply, sincerely, and naturally:

  • Elder Bednar: “[Member missionaries] don’t look like people who were fulfilling an obligation or just complying with some burdensome duty. They are simply living life. But it’s the joyful, purposeful life of a follower of Jesus Christ.”
  • Elder Uchtdorf: “To invite simply means to include other people in your experiences… A normal and natural pattern that fits right in with simply being a follower of the Savior. You don’t have to stop living your normal life… For God’s covenant people, [missionary work] is our life.”
  • Elder Uchtdorf: “[Invitations] were effective because they were natural… these did not sound like grand or elaborate activities.”
  • Elder Uchtdorf: “[Children] share it without guile. Children are so genuine. They have no hidden motives or agendas.”
  • Elder Cook: “Children personify the phrase ‘normal and natural.’”
  • Elder Bednar: “[The Gospel]’s an everyday way of life. And it creates a natural desire to reach out to others.”
  • Elder Uchtdorf: “How can we help in normal and in natural ways to invite people?”
Elder Bednar

Elder Bednar summarized the whole broadcast when he said:

[Love, Share, Invite] should not be seen as the Church’s new program for sharing the Gospel. Rather, these are fundamental Gospel principles that we are re-emphasizing in order to bring greater focus to all aspects of the Lord’s work. When sharing and inviting become a natural expression of genuine love, then we will not talk about missionary work as a discrete and separate activity that some of us do some of the time.

Instead we will talk about helping others come unto Christ by making and keeping covenants and it will be an integral, permanent part of our daily lives and Church leaders will no longer have to ask members to add sharing the Gospel to their already lengthy list of things to do. We will share the Gospel naturally– sometimes without even realizing we’re doing it– because it is simply part of who we are.

Making it “automatic”

Have you ever sold a time share or pest control “without even realizing you were doing it?” Yeah, didn’t think so. If we are to become the kind of people that naturally and automatically share the Gospel like that, we need to stop looking for ways to motivate specific missionary actions and start inspiring members to become missionaries in their hearts.

Instead of challenging people to pick a name or set a date– find out why sharing the Gospel is not already natural and instinctive in the first place and work there. Get with members on their level. Listen to their fears and their concerns. Don’t invalidate those concerns– address them lovingly and carefully. Build members’ trust and train full-time missionaries to better earn that trust. Help members and missionaries alike develop a new perspective on missionary work. The Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need salesmen.

In my next post, I’ll share ideas on what to do to improve member missionary efforts that isn’t some new program.

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