It was a warm and muggy summer afternoon. My trainer and I had a single appointment that day with a family we had met the week before while tracting. Their interest was lukewarm at best, but in this corner of the Lord’s vineyard you take what you can get.
We spent the morning knocking on doors with the usual results: “Hello, we are missionaries from the Church of…ok, well, have a nice day.” The break for lunch came none too soon, and I was looking forward to the change of pace that afternoon.
Like most of the people who did talk to us, this family was from somewhere else. They lived with other foreign tenants in an old building on a busy road running along the banks of the Danube in Austria’s industrial heartland. We had asked if they would be interested in a Book of Mormon in their native language, and they had said yes.
At the appointed hour we took the tram to the city’s main square and walked the remaining half of a mile or so to the address. We rang the bell and…nothing. We rang again, and still no one answered.
With our one appointment for the day gone the way of all flesh, it was time to come to terms with the rest of the afternoon. Since we had already knocked on all the doors in the area the week before, we returned to the main square for street contacting. Just before arriving, we encountered a group of skateboarders sessioning a ledge on the riverfront.
With nothing to lose except tracting time, I asked one of the skaters if I could borrow his skateboard for a minute. He joined my companion in giving me a skeptical look but gave me his board. Having been in the field for just a few months, I still had my sea legs under me and landed several tricks, much to the amusement of those present: “Der Mann mit der Krawatte (The man with the tie)!”
A small group gathered—what was I doing there? I explained that I was a missionary. Someone joked about skateboarding for Jesus. For an instant I was taken aback—put that way it seemed, well, evangelical. But I collected my wits and rolled with it, and friendly banter ensued until the group gradually dissipated. (As an aside, at least one action sport has become a General Conference-approved source of gospel metaphors, so I expect it’s just a matter of time before skateboarding receives its due as, for example, an object lesson in enduring to the end.)
During the two years I spent in Austria, the baptism rate remained below one per companionship per year. There are probably a hundred reasons why we were unable to gain traction, but I suspect a leading one was the (basically correct) impression that we were Americans pushing an American religion in a small country where wagons were being circled in response to unwanted immigration, European integration and foreign influence and where the luster of organized religion had been tarnished by scandals and enforcement of mandatory membership contributions.
Thus, walking the streets two-by-two in dark suits and approaching strangers about religion with a thick accent (“You talk like your mouth is full of socks,” one lady told me) was about as effective as you would imagine, and the outcome of our interactions were typically determined before they ever really began: “Hello, we are missionaries from the Church of…ok, well, have a nice day.”
And so on that summer day when a group of kids actually talked to us—even if only because of the novelty of someone riding a skateboard in a suit—it seemed like a step in the right direction, and like an even bigger one when they continued to acknowledge us in the days and weeks that followed.
You see, each week the companionships assigned to the city would meet and spend a day on the city’s busiest street at a street display, a humble affair and not well received—the couple staring in bemusement was about as good as it got. The typical passerby was immune to our contacting efforts, and a typical day would pass with little to show but bruised egos. After the skateboarding episode broke the ice, however, at least some of the skaters would stop and talk with us. When you’re on the bottom, the only way is up.
Among those who would stop were the two co-owners of the local skate shop. They were a little older, and one was interested in spirituality; the other could respect the commitment required to come on a mission. Since we all spent a good portion of our days out on the street, and the city wasn’t that big, we would meet from time. Sometimes we would talk religion; other times we wouldn’t. Once they flowed me a deck that had been gently used for filming video parts. I used it for the rest of my mission and actually still have it in storage. We stayed in contact for years after my mission, and I still regard that summer day as a highlight of my mission experience.
Of course, the overall effect on the work was negligible. The thaw in relations was limited to a tiny demographic, and none of these contacts or conversations ever led to conversion. But they offered a sliver of hope that it might be possible to relate to those we were supposed to serve despite being outsiders in a tight-knit community.
In two years I taught two people who joined the church. Both were introduced to the church through friends and family rather than our finding efforts, whether carefully orchestrated or ad hoc. But two people in as many years left a lot of space in the weekly planner. And so we knocked on doors, even the unlikely ones, manned street displays, taught English classes, enjoyed the members’ hospitality, followed up on temple square referrals, rode our bikes to remote villages, planned epic P-Days, dragged our feet, wished it were over and even gave impromptu skate demos, in no particular order of effectiveness.
About ten years ago I moved back to my former mission. Despite the work of generations of missionaries, the harvest has been so modest that mission after German-speaking mission has been collapsed to cover ever larger territories. It’s clearly going to take more than skateboarding for Jesus to reverse that trend. But also more than anything else we ever did.
John F. has some excellent thoughts for changing our perspective about missionary work that could have the potential to turn the tide. In the meantime, I wonder: what has been your experience with ad hoc approaches to missionary work when the recommended methods fail to yield results? Have these departures from business as usual resulted in surprising successes, fantastic failures or just more of the same? Are there any lessons to be learned or solutions to be scaled from such experiences?