Saturday, February 6, 2010

I'm a missionary, too?

Let's be clear from the start. I love the missionaries, and I'm grateful for what they do. My parents and siblings and I joined the church so many years ago after missionaries taught us. We had them in our home regularly, and my older brother and sister and I all served missions.

And I loved my mission, too. I served in Germany in the late 1970's, and yes, Germany was a tough place to serve, but like so many missionaries, I found it (because it was my mission) the best mission in the church (for me).

And I really like the concept of member missionary work. After all, those missionaries who taught us when I was a kid came after my friend invited me to Primary, and his family invited our family to FHE, and then his parents invited my parents to have the missionaries over. Our family's conversion was pretty directly the result of pretty amazing member missionary work.

So you'd think that I'd be out there spreading the gospel like a sprinkler spreads water, right?

Aye, there's the rub.

I've thought a lot about my own personal reluctance to open my mouth. Sorting this out is important to me because I do want to share the Good News I have found with others: I would like to help others find the happiness I have found in the church. So here's a list of why I'm often reluctant:

1. Many of my friends are deeply religious and active in their church already. I know that some might think this would be cause for believing the friends would make great church members. But I know how I feel about my church, and I know I'm not interested in moving elsewhere. So I'm reluctant to rock the boat with these friends.

2. My closest friends are already in the church. This is not as true as it once was, as I have consciously trying to build a network of friends outside the church. It's not that hard where I live, since I live in the Midwest where the concentration of church members isn't so great. But still it required my taking time away from other church social events in order to develop some relationships with my neighbors and parents of my kids' friends.

3. I am not a perfect example. I know this seems like a cop-out, since, after all, who is perfect anyway? But there was a time when we definitely would not have been comfortable having people taught in our home. Some of our kids at the time were making choices that seemed to drive the spirit away. Those things have calmed down a bit, so maybe this is one to be revisited.

4. I don't want to cast my pearls before swine. Now I'm not calling my friends swine, but I don't want to put my testimony, which is very precious to me, out on a table only to have someone whack it with a hammer. So I'm protective about how much I say and to whom (and even the circumstances of our conversation).

Of course, I'm also nervous, I fear rejection, and sometimes I just don't know what to say. But I overcame those feelings on my mission; I assume I could find a way to overcome them now.

So why talk about this? Because despite all of those things, I really do want to share the gospel. So here's what I do:

1. I do try to live the gospel. I'm not perfect, but I'm aspiring to be better than I am. (I have a friend who suggests that if we can avoid embarrassing the church by our behavior, that's a step in the right direction.)

2. I look for ways to invite people to things. I can invite someone to a special event (a talk, a baptism, a church activity) without a deep doctrinal discussion or a commitment to baptism. Interestingly while on a long business trip last month, I invited two different colleagues to church. And they both went, but not to mine – they each found their own denomination's meetings. At least they went somewhere, right?

3. Talk more freely about my church participation. This is actually a huge step for me. In the past I never mentioned church attendance or activities when I talked about my weekend, even though at the time I probably spent 10-12 hours at church on Sunday. Somewhere along the way I figured it was ok to talk about what I did. That wasn't a doctrinal discussion, but it sent a message that I was a church going guy.

It's interesting to me the opportunities these simple steps have given me to share, or at least acknowledge, the gospel. For instance, a former boss noticed that I don't swear at work, making me kind of unusual in my office. And there's the whole not drinking alcohol or coffee that leads to questions. Even then, however, I rarely dump the whole cart over; usually I give just enough information to answer the specific query, and if the person wants to ask more, he can.

As I invite and talk about my church participation, at least more people become aware of the church and my membership in it. I suppose theoretically, once that door is open, someone might come back and ask some questions. (Elder Clayton Christensen, an area seventy, wrote about this practice in an Ensign article a number of years ago.)

In fact that happened to me a few years ago. I was working with a person at my alma mater (not BYU) regarding recruiting for my company. We were setting up a room for a presentation and chatting about a range of shared interests that we had previously discovered. During the course of the conversation, I happened to mention my calling in the church at that time, and we chatted politely about what it was like to serve that way, and moved on. Later my friend came to me with specific questions about the church, and particularly the Book of Mormon. Over the course of several months, during which time we saw one another only sporadically, I shared with her a Book of Mormon and ultimately invited her to hear the missionary lessons. She said no, but was very gracious about it; she seemed to feel as if she were declining a precious gift I had offered her, but for her the timing was not right.

It turns out that experience was very positive and encouraging to me, even if it's end was different than I had hoped. Not so encouraging that I still don't have those concerns listed above, but encouraging enough for me to continue to open the door in conversations to see if my acquaintances will step in or not.

Happy to hear your thoughts.

- Paul


  1. Hey Paul-- I was a German missionary too! It was still tough when I served, but it seemed that the generations of missionaries ahead of my time had prepared people and made things a little easier for us. Thank you!

    I also like your candid approach to this subject. The things you are doing seem to be very practical suggestions for anyone wanting to do missionary work. From my viewpoint, the more we make the gospel a part of who we are (and let the world see that person that we really are), the more people are interested.

    We used to say in the MTC that people are converted first by who you are, then by what you say. That still rings true to me today and helps me try to be both a better person and more open with my friends.

  2. Dallin, where did you serve? (I had a nephew serve in Germany a few years ago in cities we never imagined would be open to the work in our lifetime...)

    I was in the Frankfurt mission; served in Worms, Mannheim and Bad Kreuznach.

  3. I'd like to address concern #3. I think it can actually be extremely helpful for people--non-members as well as questioning, or lapsed members--to see that not all observant Mormons are "perfect". I think that, all too often, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to fit into a certain mold--and when we fail to, we feel horrendous about ourselves. I've met people who've felt like, because they didn't meet certain cultural expectations, they couldn't be Mormons--and I've also been asked, by non-members, whether converting meant changing all your habits, interests, etc. Showing how there are as many ways to be Mormon as there are Mormons (within certain parameters, of course) can be really helpful--it shows just how universal the teaching of the Gospel are.

    I know that, personally, the people I've been the most inspired by--in the church and out--have been far from perfect. But their openness and willingness to talk about their struggles, and issues, has really inspired me and made my own membership experience far more enriched and enriching.

  4. CJ, you raise an excellent point. None of us is perfect, after all. And yet the Lord still manages to use us in His work in one way or another.

    When some of our less conforming kids were teenagers, we really did feel like we couldn't invite the missionaries to teach in our home, just because of everything else that was going on there. But interestingly it was during that period that we formed deep friendships with other families in the church that faced similar struggles.

    I agree that sometimes a new friend to the church might get shell shocked to see the uniformity of our culture, and would welcome a little diversity.

    Your comment also brought to mind another regular thought of mine, that our participation in church should make us feel good not somehow like we aren't good enough.


  5. It might be that some missionaries come from less conforming households, themselves. That was the case for a friend of mine, who was, actually, the first person in his family to join the church. There was (and is) a lot of drug abuse, and other issues, in his family; his decision to join the church was, in part, motivated by a desire to learn how to escape that. He's come to our home, to teach people, and while he's extremely zealous, he's also extremely tolerant.

    As far as conformity goes, I think, sometimes, looks can be deceiving. Jim asked me one time, "how come people meet me, say hello, and immediately start talking about [insert Mormon issue here]?" I said, "because you look like a Mormon". One of my best friends backed this assertion up, later, saying, "if I saw you on a train anywhere in the world, I would immediately peg you as a Mormon". This interchange led me to ponder what is, I think, an interesting issue: how many of our assumptions are, unwittingly, based on appearances? I mean, sure, one would be correct in assuming that we're a Mormon household--but we're also free spirits, and have our own ideas about things, I think much more so than people realize. I've observed that, sometimes, people are hesitant to bring up concerns, or issues, with us, because they assume that we're Ultra Mormons who have no concerns, issues, or questions--and that's obviously not the case. So, based on that realization, I've tried to be more open with people who I think might judge me, or be disappointed in me, and I've been pleasantly surprised by how accepting they've been.

  6. I need to think a bit on the conformity question. I have always attributed conformity where I've seen it to economic and educational issues more than anything. I live in a very suburban ward now, and I've assumed there's so much sameness because we are alike in many ways, not just our faith.

    We've lived in some very diverse wards, both here and overseas. (In Taiwan we joked that we were very far from Salt Lake our Canadian bishop sometimes took less orthodox approaches when he felt that was the right thing to do.)