Un-learning missionary work
In part 1 of this series on member missionary work, I talked about why member missionary initiatives always seem to fail– because we keep creating new programs instead of addressing the problem of perspective. In part 2, I talked about starting to change the perspective by getting ourselves “into the zone” through a greater understanding of, conversion to, and immersion in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our role to share it. Continuing in the vein of changing our perspective, I want to share four core aspects of member missionary work where we often have serious misunderstandings that impede our success and enjoyment.
In the words of the wise master Yoda, these are areas where “we must un-learn what we have learned” if we are to find the success we want.
1. Un-learn your purpose
Before you start changing how you engage as a member missionary, take a moment and ask yourself, “Do I even know what missionary work is? Do I know my purpose as a member missionary?” If you think your purpose is to “find people to join the Church” or “to invite people to hear the missionaries,” you need to step back and un-learn what missionary work is.
What is our purpose as member missionaries? Let’s take a page from the full-time missionaries’ handbook. The first six words on page 1 of Preach My Gospel tells our elders and sisters that their purpose is to “invite others to come unto Christ.” Did you get that? Their purpose is not to teach, not to baptize, not to bring people into the Church– their purpose is to “invite others to come unto Christ.” Our purpose as member missionaries is the same. Our purpose is to “invite others to come unto Christ.” Teaching and baptism and joining the Church is part of that path, but those steps are details– they are not the purpose in and of themselves.
Can you get the sense for how inclusive that purpose is? It is so much more than formal missionary lessons, baptism, and Church membership. It includes every act of service, every righteous example, every kind word, every sincere prayer for another, and every expression of faith. If we focus so exclusively on the steps of lessons and baptism instead of the overarching purpose (to “invite others to come unto Christ”), we lose sight of the myriad of opportunities all around us that are less direct and less formal.
Contrary to what the full-time missionaries may think, our lives are not saturated with golden investigators, eagerly waiting for their member friends to just say the word and they’ll don the white jumper. Let’s face it– the overwhelming majority of people around you are not at a point in their lives where they will accept formal invitation to take the lessons and get baptized. That kind of direct invitation may not be appropriate for many at this point in their lives, so don’t focus so much on that– focus on your true purpose and you’ll see many other ways to express that purpose through more effective, less direct, less formal means.
By this definition, you are fulfilling your missionary purpose anytime you give someone the opportunity to gain greater knowledge or appreciation for a Gospel truth. You fulfill your missionary purpose when you answer a coworker’s question about the oil vial on your keychain. You fulfill your missionary purpose when you tell an acquaintance about the hilarity of the Primary program last week. You fulfill your missionary purpose when you mention a Bible verse in your conversation.
In a future post of this series, I’ll share more thoughts on simple, natural opportunities to fulfill your missionary purpose in everyday life. But I hope you’re beginning to see that our missionary purpose– to “invite others to come unto Christ”– is so much more expansive in what it entails that we usually consider.
2. Un-learn your stewardship
Just as our purpose is more expansive in what it entails, it is also more expansive in who it entails.
If there is one lesson I wish I could get through the heads of full-time missionaries, it is this: the font is not the goal. You want to know why there is a lack of fire from ward leaders where you serve? It’s because the ward directory is full of people who were taught without member involvement, baptized too quickly, then immediately dropped off the radar. Anecdotally, maybe 10% of missionary-found converts actually progress in the Church and enter the Temple; the vast majority are less-active a few months after their missionaries are transferred because too often, the font was the goal.
That myopic focus on the font has got to change. As Pres. Packer taught:
The ultimate purpose of every teaching, every activity in the Church is that parents and their children are happy at home, sealed in an eternal marriage, and linked to their generations.
When hands are layed upon heads and a priesthood holder says “receive the Holy Ghost,” are we done? No. When members receive their first calling, are we done? When they serve missions themselves, are we done? No. When they are sealed with their families in the Temple are we done? No. The font is not the goal. Even the Temple is not the goal. Until they are exalted in the Celestial Kingdom, our work is not done. To bring in Yoda again:
We invite non-members to come unto Christ and call it missionary work. We invite less-active members to come unto Christ and call it ministering or retention. We invite active members to come unto Christ and call it Sunday School. We invite our family to come unto Christ and call it Family Home Evening. We open the door for our ancestors to come unto Christ and call it Temple work. We use different names but the boundaries are artificial; anytime we help anyone draw closer to the Savior, we are doing the same great work!
Think I’m going overboard blurring the lines here? Take that up with Pres. Nelson and the Quorum of the Twelve and their insistence on us seeing the “same great work” on “both sides of the veil.” Or take it up with Pres. Harold B Less who taught:
Missionary work is but home teaching [aka ministering] to those who are not now members of the Church, and home teaching is nothing more or less than missionary work to Church members.
3. Un-learn the definition of success
As anyone who has served a full-time mission will readily attest, the lofty promises made by overbearing zone leaders are just not true: lessons and baptisms are not a reliable indicator of effort. Abinadi saw little to no results; was that because he was lazy? The city of Ammonihah rejected Alma and Amulek; were they not trying hard enough? Ammon converted the king 3 days into his mission while his brothers starved in prison; were they less zealous than their brother? No, Mormon specifically debunks that notion, telling us that Ammon’s brothers saw less results because “as it happened, it was their lot to have fallen into the hands of a more hardened and a more stiffnecked people.”
This is made clear in the parable of the sower. We are all sowers, sowing the seeds that represent of the word of God all around us. We cast and we cast, we are limited by the unyielding soil, the burning sun, the hungry ravens, and the choking weeds in the hearts of those we minister to. With so many obstacles, our efforts rarely bring the results we hope for. Most people we give the Book of Mormon to don’t open it. Of the few who open it, most don’t accept an invitation to hear the missionaries. Of the few who have the missionaries over, most won’t accept the invitation to visit Church. Of the few who visit Church, most won’t be baptized. And of few thew who are baptized, most will be less-active within a year.
Too often when we speak of missionary work, we don’t frankly acknowledge the monumental hurdles we face. We share missionary “success stories” and gloss over the sad fact that for every “success story,” there dozens or hundreds of failed missionary attempts. It can leave those we teach feeling discouraged when they don’t see the same results regularly from their own efforts. They feel like they must be doing something wrong, and soon they give up entirely.
It took me many months on my mission before I learned this principle: never make your personal success contingent on how others use their agency. You might as well consider yourself a failure when a storm ruins your carefully planned day at the beach. No, in the economy of the heavens, “success” is measured not by results but by effort.
Our prayers are successful when they are offered in sincerity and humility, even when the answer is “no.” Missionaries are successful when they give their whole hearts to the work, even if they never see a baptism. Church leaders are successful when they counsel and instruct their members, even if those members ignore them or even speak evil of them. Parents are successful when they teach their children to walk in light and truth, even if all their children ultimately turn away from it. Our perfect Heavenly Father and His perfect Plan are successful even though one third of His children reject Him before this life and He’ll lose many more before this mortality is finished.
If we define success be how others choose to use their agency, we are very quickly going to get very discouraged with our lack of success. We need to un-learn the definition of success and adopt a definition that is more helpful to the cause. Our efforts themselves are the success. Ultimately, regardless whether someone accepts our efforts or not, God accepts our efforts:
If they [do not accept your teachings] it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean
For more some mediocre insights on this definition of success, check out a previous post I wrote on the subject. For some great insights on this principle, check out chapter 1 of the late Elder Clayton Christensen’s book, The Power of Everyday Missionaries.
4. Un-learn your impact
Though un-learning our purpose, we now understand that our purpose is not to teach and baptize but to “invite others come unto Christ.” We now understand that this purpose entails far more than teaching and baptizing– it includes every act of service, every righteous example, every kind word, every sincere prayer for another, and every expression of faith.
Through un-learning our stewardship, we now understand that missionary work is a forever process and not limited in focus to non-members– we fulfill our missionary purpose anytime we help anyone draw closer to the Savior. We now understand that missionary work, Temple work, retention, or family instruction are all the same great work!
Through un-learning the definition of success, we now understand that we should not make our personal success contingent on how others use their agency. We now understand that success in missionary work is not the number of lessons taught or souls baptized– it’s in the effort itself.
Perhaps like Abinadi, we have felt discouraged seeing so little reception to our invitations, like no one noticed or cared. But with this un-learning in place, we can hopefully look back now on our previous missionary efforts with new eyes. We may see times when our focus was misplaced on achieving a certain outcome when it should have been on accomplishing the greater purpose of helping others come unto Christ– not matter what form that takes. But now we may see times when we missed opportunities because we didn’t consider the opportunity to be a missionary opportunity because there was no lesson to a non-member. We may see times when we became discouraged because we let others’ use of agency define our standard of personal success.
But hopefully, we also can take heart as we see that we have already been engaged in missionary work far more often than we had realized. Hopefully we can look back on recent moments with friends, members, and our children with a new perspective and realize we were doing missionary work all along. Like the Lamanites at the time of their conversion, we can hopefully look back and find we were doing missionary work “and [we] knew it not.”
I know it sounds trite, but it’s true that our impact on those around is us far more than we realize. Not long ago, I visited the area where I lived during my teen years. While at a restaurant, I recognized the guy standing next to me as a highschool classmate. I remembered very little about him, but I said hi and apologized that I had forgotten his name. He laughed and replied, “That’s fine, I forgot your name too. When I saw you, I couldn’t remember your name or anything– all I remembered was that you are a Mormon.” Before I had time to think, I blurted out “Well then you remembered the most important part.”
I didn’t intend to say that. The words just kind of fell out. As we parted ways, I cringed. But thinking more about it later, I decided maybe that wasn’t the worst response after all. Although I wouldn’t usually want to be so brash, if there was only one thing to define me– more than my looks or my interests or even my name– I hope it would be my faith. And I hope that my words and actions make that association a positive one.
The second thought I had was surprise. I was a real loner in high school. As far as introverts go, I think I did okay– I could carry a conversation just fine when the occasion arose– but with no friends at school that occasion rarely arose. So while I never hid my religion, I also didn’t exactly advertise it. Yet somehow, here I was, 14 years later, and all this classmate remembered was that I was a Mormon.
So in the vein of un-learning your previous missionary impact, remember to factor in that phenomenon. If you are living the Gospel, you won’t need to advertise to get your point across. People will connect you with the Gospel without conscious effort on your part. Remember the story Elder Faust shared. When the Church built the BYU Jerusalem Center, it agreed not to proselyte in Israel. After signing the agreement, one of the Israeli leaders said, “We know that you[r students] are not going to proselyte, but what are you going to do about the light that is in their eyes?” Elder Faust teaches:
What was that light in their eyes which was so obvious to our friend? The Lord Himself gives the answer: “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings.” Where did that light come from? Again the Lord gives the answer: “I am the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” The Lord is the true light, “and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit.” This light shows in our countenances as well as in our eyes.
So give yourself a little credit. With a new understanding of your purpose, your stewardship, your success, and your impact, I hope you find you’re already a great member missionary.