A Little More Conversation

I was having dinner at Cynthia L’s house tonight, and she pointed out something that I’ve noticed as well: our Mormonism makes us more interesting to other people. People like inviting us to social events and chatting with us because we have that one weird thing that makes us distinct—a built-in conversation starter. “This is my friend Kyle…he’s a mormon!”

Of course, the chatting is easier lately, what with the “Mormon Moment” we’re enjoying. The stranger who just found out I’m mormon has a million ways to break the ice—BYU’s newly improved football visibility, the Broadway musical, the presidential candidate(s), the crazy polygamists, The Jimmer. The conversations can start in any number of ways, but they always seem to follow the same well-worn path:

  1. “Why aren’t you drinking?”
  2. “My best friend in high school was a mormon.”
  3. “What’s it like?”
  4. “I went to church as a kid but…”

I love these conversations, and I have them all the time. One of the many benefits of being a mormon is the heightened potential to form very strong personal bonds very quickly. Have you noticed this? Frequently, within a short time of meeting someone, I’ll be wrapped up in a personal discussion of our faiths. That level of unguarded intimacy can take weeks or months to attain in normal friendships.

Elder L. Tom Perry addressed this phenomenon during the Saturday afternoon session of General Conference last weekend, and gave us some good pointers on how to handle such situations. To quote from him at length:

“In the course of our everyday lives, we are blessed with many opportunities to share what we believe with others. When our personal and professional associates inquire about our religious beliefs, they are inviting us to share who we are and what we believe. They may or may not be interested in the Church, but they are interested in getting to know us at a deeper level.

“My recommendation to you is to accept their invitations. Your associates are not inviting you to teach preach, expound, and exhort. Engage them in a two-way conversation—share something about your religious beliefs, but also ask them about their beliefs. Gauge their level of interest by the questions they ask. If they are asking a lot of questions, focus the conversation on answering their questions. Always remember that it is better for them to ask than you to tell.”

I love this quote. Don’t preach, talk; and even better, listen. These are the basic standards of good conversation, but they’re too easily cast aside when we detect an opening—any opening—to barf our testimony all over an otherwise potentially enlightening and friendly discussion. Elder Perry says we should be conversing instead, and paying attention to social cues (which involves being aware of legitimate opportunities to testify according to the Spirit).

The next passage is my favorite from Elder Perry’s talk.

“We should approach such conversations with Christ-like love. Our tone, whether speaking or writing, should be respectful and civil, regardless of the responses from others. We should be honest and open and try to be clear in what we say. We want to avoid becoming defensive or argue in any way.

“In speaking about the Church, we do not try to make it sound better than it is. We do not need to spin our message. We need to communicate the message honestly and directly. If we will open communication channels, the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will prove itself to those who are prepared to receive it.”

I have nothing to add to that, except to say “Amen.”

Comments

  1. I have also noticed this, and I’d take it even a touch further: we seem to be interesting to people even before they know exactly why, before they know we are mormon. Apparently testimony is borne pretty well by the Spirit even through body language or something. It’s like that quote by can’t-remember-who but I’m sure you’ve all heard it before: “Preach the gospel everywhere. If necessary, use words.”

  2. Kyle, I have just found the topic for my next lesson at Church. Thank you.

    ‘Testimony vomit’ is an excellent way of describing this phenomenon. It has been the curse of many a missionary as well; if there is a concern vomit your testimony all over it. Great to hear Elder Perry counsel us to avoid that practice.

  3. I loved Elder Perry’s talk and I love this phenomenon, too.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Kyle. I am actually planning on using Elder Perry’s talk in my SS lesson this Sunday. It’s supposed to be on Romans, but I can’t figure out how to even begin to approach Paul’s magnum opus in a single GD class, so I’m going to do a Prolegomena to our study of Romans instead. And one of the things I want to bring out is that we tend not to understand well how others conceive of salvation, nor they how we do, because we don’t have actual two-way conversation on this subject, but rather always one-way preaching. If we really want to understand, we have to be willing to ask, and then listen.

  5. I love that he mentioned listening. Listening while “testimony vomitting” is extremely difficult. Asking them questions and trying to find out more about them is important, too. There was another talk that mentioned that we teach people, not lessons. I think sometimes we see these not as people, but as “missionary opportunities.”

  6. I’d like to barf my testimony…

    This is great Kyle. Thanks!

  7. Excellent commentary. This was one of my favorites from conference. It also helped me understand that if I truly follow Elder Perry’s counsel, I will often be unable to follow the counsel to use the full name of the church.

  8. Inari, I always thought it was because we’re so darned good-looking…

  9. Elder Perry is in essence saying that we should be friends with people for the sake of the friendship itself. This is something that common sense has told many Latter-day Saints for a long time already but unfortunately there is a not insignificant number who apparently only seek out friendship with those not of our faith out of a calculated desire to convert them. So Elder Perry’s talk is indeed very valuable. Thank you for highlighting it.

  10. Excellent.

  11. I am delighted to be associated in however small a way with this great post. I too enjoyed Perry’s talk, and this gives me another way to think about what he said.

  12. Glass Ceiling says:

    From a tot I was raised up to share my testimony. Was Perry’s point a call to reverse that tactic? If so, I am for it. I have rarely, if ever, felt good about doing that, and when I have ventured to do so I have felt blissfully self-righteous for an hour or so until I came in for a landing feeling like I blew it.

  13. S.P. Bailey says:

    Good talk and post. Perry’s view (relax, listen, give and take) is a wise counter-balance to the pressure one might feel in light of other GC statements (e.g., that we will someday be called to account for all of the people we could have saved if we had only opened our mouths …)

  14. .

    Being more obviously Mormon has been just a lot easier, as well. Not having to decide whether or not to mention I won’t be drinking. A lot of things just slough to the side when that big fact is more upfront.

    Also: interesting how this is rather the opposite of Elna Baker‘s claim.

  15. I was very happy with this talk because it acknowledged in so many words that there are times and places where it is straight-up inappropriate to bear your testimony, and that doing so in such circumstances may have the opposite perlocutionary meaning than the one you intended. (I’m sorry, I just got out of my sociology of language class, and I’m really excited to show off my new words.)

    I was very happy with this post because, as has been noted by several commenters above, the phrase “barf our testimony all over” makes me giggle like a schoolgirl.

  16. I appreciated the counsel as well. I’ve found that inquiring others (gently and genuinely) about their own religious beliefs (even if they’re not comfortable sharing them) often makes them feel that my own are fair game. Two way conversations seem far more effective than one-way preaching.

  17. Big word, had to google that one. Speaking of word usage, did you notice Kyle M’s use of the “em” dash frequently in his post?

    As for the post, what stuck out the most to me too was that we “don’t need to spin our message.” I like that.

  18. That was my favorite line, as well, Josh B. Close second was “We do not try to make it sound better than it is.”

    We don’t try to make the true church of Jesus Christ sound better than it is. That’s a fascinating statement for a Q12 to make.

    And thanks for noticing my punctuation. I try to keep my semi-colon-to-em-dash ratio respectable. 1 to 4 on this post, which I’m ok with.

  19. “we have that one weird thing that makes us distinct”

    Perhaps it is the near absence of cynicism or pessimism? A reflection of innocence others once had and yearn to relive, if only briefly and vicariously? If testimonial vomit put your interlocutors off, maybe it is not the illocution that is spoiling your perlocution, but rather that your true self is interfering with their childlike projections onto your Mormon identity: they don’t want you to “deliver the message”, because for them you are the message.

    I think just being myself is witness enough to what I believe. After all, God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts: they also serve who only stand and wait.

    [And Josh, you're right about the "em" dash: the colon is far more effective!]

  20. OCD editor-in-training says:

    How oh how do you type an em-dash online? This would SERIOUSLY change how I write for the internet.

    And yeah, I’m all for no testimony vomiting. I had a district leader who compared it to using your testimony as an AK-47. “What? You don’t except what I just explained? [cue bolt action sound] But I KNOW IT’S TRUE.” Love these insights into how ineffective that can be.

  21. Researcher says:

    How do you type an em-dash? In the rare cases when I use one, I type space-hyphen-hyphen-space. If the platform is able to handle it, it will change it to an em-dash. If the platform is not able to handle it, it still kind of looks like an em-dash. I don’t know if the spaces are necessary. First example (from the OP) with spaces; second without:

    makes us distinct — a built-in
    makes us distinct–a built-in

    And so this isn’t threadjack and nothing else, I will note that I’ve been making a conscious effort to discuss the history of the Relief Society with the sisters in my ward. I’ve been trying to follow the guidelines mentioned above: “Gauge their level of interest by the questions they ask. If they are asking a lot of questions, focus the conversation on answering their questions. Always remember that it is better for them to ask than you to tell.” I find that if they are at all interested, they’re usually just interested for about one question’s worth of information. I would assume that most people’s interest in the church is about as deep and should be treated appropriately and with consideration as Elder Perry mentioned.

  22. To answer the thread-jack:

    I do my writing in Word and then cut and paste, and Word auto-converts a double hyphen into an em-dash. Researcher, no spaces needed before/after an em-dash, but if all you have is an en-dash, than yeah I’d keep the spaces.

    Dan, I’m not sure what you mean by effective, but em-dashes (and ellipses) are perfect for blogging, where I want my words to be read in a particular voice. I do see distinctions between colon/semi-colon/em-dash/ellipsis, and love them all!

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