The Agenda

I sat on the other side of a very interesting table Valentine’s night.  I got proselytized to at a dinner party by a member of a local protestant church.  I realized that it’s been a long time since someone tried to put the sell on me, because most of my non-Mormon friends are either not religious, or just openly and non-controversially a happy member of some other religion.  I know about it, but it’s not a thing.  Anyways, back to the somewhat surprising dinner party.  I think the episode was a bit jarring to me, because the motivations were so so transparent, and so clunkily executed.  I came away annoyed.  Mission not accomplished. 

It was a progressively more aggressive three pronged approach.  She started with the relatively innocuous “shiny happy people” prelude.  During the pre-dinner mingling, she introduced herself and another woman as fellow congregants of our mutual friend.  She dropped a couple stories about super fun church activities.  References to nice people from church.  I think it was an attempt to sweeten up the deal for the future sale.  Kind of a scene-setter, but all in all pretty innocuous.

Once we sat down to dinner, it got serious with the “I’m super committed, I promise!” offense.  There were six of us sitting at the table, and the inevitable “what are you giving up for lent” conversation began.  A few funny stories, and then her friend from church said she was giving up shopping for lent.  “What?  Why are you doing lent?  We’re Presbyterian!”  The unashamed lent-practicer said “well, everytime I’m tempted to go shopping, I’ll just think of Jesus instead.”  The proselytizer kind of looked at her and said “I think of God all the time without lent.”  Silence.  Awkward silence.  Then she attempted to walk it back a bit.  “Ha, just kidding.”

Someone next to me tried to change the subject to travel but during a pause in the conversation, my persistent neighbor brought out the big guns–establishing a denominational hierarchy.  “You know, my sister actually joined the Episcopal church.  She called me yesterday and said that it was ash Wednesday, and she didn’t know if she was supposed to go get ashes.  Can you believe that?   She joined a church, and they didn’t explain to her what their practices were.  So I just told her it is a non-biblical practice.  It’s not important.  It’s just a nice symbol, and so it doesn’t even matter if she does it because it’s not biblical.  I explained that the most important thing was to be born again and that salvation…”  At this point the table revolted and someone just out and out cut into what she was saying.  She tried to talk over them a bit, but we moved on to discussing our favorite airports.  At that point, I would have happily discussed the history of library science or the anatomy of a hedgehog.  Please, for the love, someone change the subject and don’t stop talking.  Don’t give her enough of a pause to start up again….

Other than enjoying the unexpected little Valentine of awkward fun, I’ve actually thought quite a bit about the dinner.  I think the thing that bugs me the most is that I felt like a prop.  Having been on the receiving end of exhortations that “every member” be a missionary, I can understand why someone would feel obligated to try and actually drum up some interest in God.  However, what was so easy to see when I was on the other end of the equation, is that I had no interest in what she was selling because she clearly had no interest in me.  It was a self-gratifying exercise for her.  “I witnessed today.”  Check the box.  “Maybe someday those people will question their non-biblical practices because of my explanation.”  Check the box.  “Missionary moment accomplished.”  Check the box.  I’m not really in the market for a new church, but if I were, this would not be the thing to draw me in.

With the new influx of sister missionaries, I’m sure most of you will get pressured to give up referrals, or even spend more time with the missionaries.  How do you all handle this?  I won’t lie.  I didn’t like proselyting when I was on my mission.  I don’t know if you could pay me money to do it now.  But if you do engage in member missionary work, how do you keep it real?  (Hint:  don’t try to out-righteous the Episcopalians.)


  1. I liked what you said about not caring what she said because she clearly didn’t care about you. I’m awful at missionary work, but I can let people know I’m LDS and answer questions when they ask. Most important, I can care about them, so when the time is right to talk about the Gospel, I can not out-righteous them.

  2. Thanks for this post, Karen. It’s so easy to justify doing things to others that we wouldn’t accept if done to us.

    I wrote the following on my blog last week:

    “Some Advice on How to Share the Gospel with Others”

  3. Its selection bias. You weren’t what they were looking for, in a sense. Just like plenty of people start down the path to join the church because they are seeking something at the exact instant missionaries arrive.

    But its too bad you didnt make a conversation out of it. I imagine Joseph Smith in a situation like that. How would he respond. Of course I’m not fault finding as what you describe is just awkward. But it would be cool to turn the tables and have a good discussion on life Gods plan, how tragedy fits into it ,etc with someone that is at least trying to make more out of their life than typical – even though they’re being completely superficial like we Mormons sometimes can.

    But lets put our money where our mouths are. If a missionary moment is trite and superficial when you transparently try to force it, why not be prepared to have an important conversation about the meaning of life and what Gods purpose in all this can be. Or we can talk politics :-)

  4. Clayton Christensen has a new book (and website) out on this very topic. The idea behind the book was simply to get people talking about these things — what works, what doesn’t. (Hence the website.) You might want to check it out. And give input. They want it.

  5. Mormons don’t do member-missionary work, Karen!

  6. Don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.

    Having it done it the wrong way and the right way, i can say that you’re almost never effective if you’re consciously thinking, “I am being a member missionary right now. I’m spreading the Gospel.’ And you’ll occasionally have a missionary moment with a stranger, and sometimes with a friend, but almost never with a casual acquaintance.

    The stranger doesn’t know you well enough to necessarily question your motives. The friend knows you well enough to NOT question your motives. You’ll generally only have a gospel-related discussion with a casual acquaintance if they bring it up, not you. In all cases, pray for the experiences, but never try to set them up. That’s not your job.

    The other side of the “don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing” piece is to never find yourself thinking, “I am talking to a non-member. I must filter what I say accordingly.” Don’t FILTER. If you would say it to a member of your ward, don’t say it any differently to anyone else. If someone asks “How was your weekend?” you say, “Awesome. Stayed in my pajamas the whole weekend watching General Conference. How was yours?” It’s their option whether to ask what you meant by “General Conference,” or to just tell you how their weekend was. And like with anyone else, you’re not thinking, “I’m dropping that as a line to start up a gospel conversation.” You’re just answering a friend’s question. If he follows up with a question, you answer that one, too.

    Just pray for gospel sharing experiences, keep in tune with the spirit, and then go about your day. Don’t do anything to start a gospel conversation. And don’t do anything to NOT start a gospel conversation. That’s about it.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    The key words are transparent and clunkily executed. I wish every gung ho Mormon member missionary could be on the receiving end of such an effort, so that she could understand how her own efforts are generally going to be perceived. I agree with Lorin, that this isn’t something you can force by your own initiation. You have to be a genuine friend, meaning your friendship is not conditioned on their positive response to your missionary patter. If they raise it or ask you a question, by all means respond or have a discussion, but make it a genuine discussion, not a scene from Preach My Gospel.

  8. Elouise Bell says:

    A surprisingly effective missionary moment almost went unnoticed on my mission. We were visiting a member couple who had been baptised some years earlier and had PERHAPS been to church twice since. The husband was a very intelligent, very sardonic fellow who liked to talk with the missionaries, mostly to get them upset and befuddled.

    One day I had a new companion. Frere Dupont
    started in on a lively conversation with her, exhaling clouds of cigarette smoke as he did. Sister Newby
    jumped into the conversation, which was rather general and gave me no leads into the discussion that was scheduled.

    The talk went faster and faster. It was not an argument, just two people exchanging their points of view. The ash on Frere’s cigarette grew longer and longer. Still focusing on what he was saying, Sister Newby casually reached across the table to get an ash-tray that was on the far side, and placed it beneath his cigarette. The dialogue went on until it was time to go. Nothing from the lesson plan had made any air time at all.

    But as we left, Frere took me off in a corner and said (almost cordially) that we were to visit any time we liked. He said that Sister Newby had responded to him as a person, not as someone to be sold something. He said that the act of supplying him with the ashtray, without any comment or facial grimace, made a simple, human connection that he appreciated.

    “Perhaps it would be wiser for your purposes to come as people first and missionaries second.”

  9. Sharee Hughes says:

    I think we need to be missionaries by example. Especially here in Salt Lake City, Any non-member friends I have know (or think they know) what we believe and don’t want me to tell them. Some are former members who have gone to another religion. I have Jehovah’s Witnesses friends who are always giving me their Watchtower and Awake magazines to read, which I do, as they sometimes have interesting articles. However, if I were to give them an Ensign, they would not read it. So I can just be an example. I cannot proselyte.

  10. Elouise, that is a simply fantastic story.

  11. Having just been called as the ward mission leader (to be sustained today), this is pretty terrific. I loved Eloise Bell’s story, and grimaced at your account of the clumsily executed missionary approach. The bishop and I have talked over the last two weeks, and though I have always been a terrible, really bad member missionary, and didn’t serve a mission while I was younger, we both agreed on one thing. The way we have been doing missionary work in our ward and stake for the last two decades has not worked. And to keep doing the same things, will only confirm to many of my fellow ward members that I really am insane.

    I think the two things I am going to focus on, are getting ward members more fully involved with others outside our circles of LDS friends. Some do this well, others not at all. And the second grows out of the first: more community related service projects. We currently are involved with a multi-denominational coalition to feed the homeless, and have also sponsored a combination fund raiser and service project with the local VFW post, getting packages together to send to the troops in Afghanistan. I truly believe the more that we interact with non-members as people rather than check-boxes or potential targets, the more successful we will be at missionary work.

    At least that is my hope. What I won’t be doing is organizing a bunch of ward members to dress up in suits and ties and go on a door knocking blitz, which my predecessor was trying to plan. Sorry, I can’t thing of anything that might be more of a hindrance, emphasizing our insularity and the “us vs them” mentality that has so often characterized our member missionary efforts in the past.

  12. “We love Him, because He first loved us.”

    We tend to look at “missionary work” too much as preaching and too little as loving – as an agenda instead of a natural part of our lives. If we really loved each other (inside and outside the Church), unconditionally, people would flock to us – whether or not they joined the Church. Sharing the Gospel is more about us than about others.

  13. Elouise and kevinf, thank you for your comments. I’m teaching a youth Sunday lesson today about sharing the Gospel, and I’m printing this post and highlighting your comments for my students.

  14. I just like the worthwhile data you offer you in the articles.I’ll bookmark your site and check all over again the following usually.I’m quite convinced I’ll be taught an awful lot of latest things right the following! Really good luck for the following

  15. I put up signs near intersections stating “Earn $1500 a week working from home” and a phone number. It works pretty well.

  16. Thought provoking post, as always, Karen. Maybe I’m the only one, but I always find it disappointing when members have “No soliciting” signs on their doors. Is that really fair? I always let the JWs in, in hopes it gives my kids good karma the next time around.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Elouise, that was a fantastic story.

  18. kevinf, I knew a bishop who called individuals who otherwise didn’t have a calling to volunteer at the local homeless shelters and food banks. A relatively young bishop with a tremendous amount of wisdom…. I like the ideas that you talked about for your ward.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Karen H. no. 18, what an amazing idea!

  20. Karen H, your #18 sounds like something we should consider in our ward. Thanks for sharing that.

  21. We just finished a stake conference with a John 13 theme. I kept hearing this phrase from Jesus, “By this shall men know, ye are my disciples . . . if ye have love, one for another”. They’ll know not because we say it, but because we love one another. Less Talk, More Rock.