Church Talk

I had the chance to speak in church again yesterday. Since I’m still the Ward Mission leader and all, it was on missionary work again. For those of you interested, I’m providing the full text of my talk (entitled “Accountability” behind the cut. For those of you not interested . . . you’ll get nothing today. And like it!

Good morning, Brothers and Sisters. It’s me—your friendly Ward Mission Leader, and that must mean you’re in for another talk on missionary work. Before you start rolling your eyes or turning back to your Cheerios, getting ready to ignore yet another talk on missionary work, let me tell you what I’m not going to talk about. I’m not going to tell you to give the missionaries more referrals. I’m not going to berate you for not creating ward mission goals. In fact, I’m not going to tell you what you should be doing when it comes to missionary work at all—not exactly, at least.

Instead, I’m going to start with a question: what is the purpose of missionary work? What is its goal? Is it to convert the world? Is it to ensure the greatest number of people are exposed to the gospel’s message? I would argue that the goal of missionary work is the same as the goal of the gospel: to bring souls closer to Christ. Sometimes it seems that we start to get splintered by auxiliaries in a ward. Elders Quorum worries about Elders Quorum, Relief Society worries about Relief Society. Young Mens worries about Young Mens. We start thinking from an us vs. them position, when in reality, it’s always just us.

I’m going to bring in a rather unusual source for my next section, so bear with me for a moment while I give it some context. When DKC and I were expecting TRC, we were fairly intimidated. It’s not like children come with instruction manuals after all (or 100% satisfaction guarantees, for that matter), but ready or not, we were going to be parents. Soon. As any self-respecting English major would do, I turned to books. After reading a small library’s worth of books, we settled on an approach: Babywise. It worked wonders for us, and we stuck with the series as TRC got older. The third book in the series discusses the concepts of “how” and “why” as they relate to parenting and life in general.

They illustrate the concept with a story. Imagine for a moment you’re working at an office. Your supervisor gives you a stack of papers and asks you to make five copies for a board meeting later that afternoon. Why are you making copies? For a board meeting. You take that stack of papers and head to the nearest copy machine. How are you going to make copies? With a copy machine. You stick them in and press Start. Things go smoothly for the first few copies, but then the copy machine jams. You sigh in frustration, open it up, and start trying to fix the jam. Minutes go by, and your frustration grows as you fail to fix it. In not too long, you’ve lost your temper and are perfectly willing to do serious damage to that copy machine. You’re completely focused on getting that copier fixed—it’s become a matter of pride. If you’d just take a minute to cool down, however, you’d realize that the copier has nothing to do with what you needed to get done. It was simply the “how” you were going to use to get the “why” done. There are other “hows” available. Use a different copy machine. Get an electronic version and print it from your printer. Take it to a copy center.

The point is that often we could avoid some of our most troubling problems just by remembering to keep our eyes focused on the whys, not the hows. When students cheat on tests, they do so because they have mistakenly placed the importance on the how—exams—instead of the why—evidence of solid learning. When we say a prayer basically by rote before each meal, we have also put the how—the words of a prayer—in front of the why—regular communication with God.

In the church, we should never forget that the various auxiliaries are simply “hows.” Let me say that again: In the church, we should never forget that the various auxiliaries are simply “hows.” What is the why? Heavenly Father has stated that repeatedly. “Behold this is my work and my glory: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” “Men are that they might have joy.” Note that these scriptures don’t read “Behold this is my work and my glory, to have the best ward barbeque ever.” Or “Men are that they might stack wood.” When there is a wood stacking service project, it could be so that we can learn how to serve and how to receive service, because those are traits necessary to become like God. When we have a ward barbeque, it could be so that we can better know one another and come closer as a ward family, because that closeness is a trait of God.

Missionary work is no different. It is a how designed to accomplish the why. When we work on developing a ward mission plan, or when the missionaries go out tracting, the ward mission plan or the tracting isn’t what’s important. Spreading the gospel is what’s important, and that’s something that happens on an individual level. Programming and planning are no replacement for personal efforts. In fact, the only reason programming and planning exist is to direct personal efforts.

One of the main reasons I wanted to talk today was to stress the individual nature of missionary work. We could have whatever ward mission goals we liked, but in the end, it’s up to you to implement them. It’s up to you to decide how you are going to spread the Gospel. I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The bad news—if that’s how you choose to see it—is that missionary work is unavoidable. We are all personally responsible to do it, and we will be accountable one day for our efforts. The good news is that we can do that missionary work in an individualized manner.

But how?

The answer is relievingly yet maddeningly simple: try. In the past year or so, we have had ten people join the church in this ward. All ten of those have come from member contacts. Ten people who have been baptized because a member of the ward thought to invite them to an activity, have them over to their house for family home evening, give their name to the missionaries. Have any of these efforts come because the ward had effective mission goals? I don’t know. But Ward mission goals should simply focus the missionary work that’s already being done in the ward—not goad the members into doing the work in the first place.

Elder James E. Faust said that some of us “stand back in the “eat, drink, and be merry” mode when opportunities for growth and development abound. We miss opportunities to build up the kingdom of God because we have the passive notion that someone else will take care of it. The Lord tells us that He will give more to those who are willing. While we are not all equal in experience, aptitude, and strength, we have different opportunities to employ these spiritual gifts, and we will all be accountable for the use of the gifts and opportunities given to us.”

Story time, again. When I was in the MTC, I had some rather unusual experiences. There were the four mice I trapped in my room, the quart of eggnog I had shipped in to me and had to drink all at once before it spoiled, the debate with Sister Williamson about whether the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was better than the MTC Choir. And there was Unibrow.

I never got to know Unibrow personally. To my district, he was just an overzealous district leader who looked kind of like Bert from Sesame Street. He lived one floor down. One floor above us, there was an overzealous exerciser who liked to jump rope each evening at about 10:30—right at lights out. Unibrow thought we were the jump ropers, and he’d come up every now and then to try and catch us in the act. Anyone who knows me also knows I’d likely be the last person at the MTC to be caught jump roping at 10:30. No matter. He didn’t believe us, and we didn’t like that fact. One evening, we decided to do something about it. We performed a ritual we called “the summoning of Unibrow.” My entire room got together and did twenty jumping jacks at 10:30. Then, we waited. About thirty seconds later, there came a knock at the door. I answered it, out of breath and clearly having just been up to some physical exertion. Sure enough, it was Unibrow. I told him in no uncertain terms that we hadn’t been jump roping. But if he didn’t stop coming up each night and making accusations, we’d start doing jumping jacks. We never saw him again.

That evening, I had an attack of a guilty conscience. I was a missionary. Who was I to be wasting my time doing jumping jacks at 10:30? Wasn’t I supposed to be somber all the time? Shouldn’t I have been reading my scriptures or fasting or memorizing the discussions? I knelt down in my bed and started praying, basically having a conversation with God where I expressed my doubts about whether or not I was supposed to be a missionary. The answer I got in return was unmistakable. I felt an overwhelming sense of love—that Heavenly Father knew who I was and knew my predilection for having fun, and He loved me not in spite of it, but because of it. And I felt that I was called to be a missionary where and when I was because there were things that only I could do.

Brothers and Sisters, God doesn’t expect us all to follow a cookie cutter approach to missionary work, just as He doesn’t expect us to be mindless drones in the rest of our lives. Remember—that was Satan’s big idea. The ward can develop a mission plan—or not. The auxiliaries can formulate goals to get missionary work done—or not. The Elders or Sisters can come to our houses and challenge us to give them referrals—or not. None of these have any bearing on whether or not we need to do missionary work, and they should all have only a little bearing on how we do the missionary work we have been commanded by God to do. He said “It becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.” He didn’t add “as soon as every man’s ward gets its act together.”

Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander said, “Our accountability to God, as our Father and Creator, is one of the most basic lessons of the gospel. Likewise, the assumption of responsibility for our own actions is one of the strongest indicators that we are becoming more like Him. We cannot develop ourselves spiritually by blaming another for our condition.” He went on state, “How often do we hear that society is to blame for the wrongdoings of its members, as if this brings absolution and freedom from the consequences? There comes a time in our lives, temporally and spiritually, when we must assume responsibility for our choices.”

So what are some things we could be doing to help the missionary effort? Yes, we could give the missionaries referrals. But let’s try thinking outside the box a bit. Inviting friends to church or activities is certainly missionary work. I want to pause for a moment and stress that just as we have our agency and are responsible for our missionary efforts, others have their agency and are responsible for their decisions. If a friend declines an invitation, or a loved one becomes less active, we have to do our best not to take it personally. If there’s one thing I learned on my mission in East Germany, it’s that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Other ways we can accomplish missionary work include looking for opportunities to bring up the Gospel in daily conversation or making sure your coworkers know of your membership. Being a good example in the community—a visible active Latter-day Saint—can do wonders for the missionary efforts in that area. Helping your Home or Visiting Teaching families become more active, preparing a child to go on a mission, raising children who are strong in the gospel—all of these can be missionary work. Keeping yourself strong in the gospel—sometimes that’s the best missionary work you can be doing.

Or do something entirely different. But whatever it is, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that we each do something. Take some time this evening in personal or family prayer to ask God what it is He would have you do. Wait for a response. When you get it, do it—whatever it is. As you show God your willingness to do what He asks you to, he will bless you, and He will bless your efforts.

There are some families and members in this ward who are very missionary minded. We need to get that same spirit across the ward. If everyone in this meeting took a half hour each week to focus on missionary work in whatever way he or she thought best, that would be 90 hours of missionary work, every week. A half hour a week, looked at individually, may seem small, but 90 hours of Spirit-directed efforts each week could certainly work miracles. If we find time to do even more than a half hour a week, the possibilities only broaden.

I’m not trying to say that this is all easy. But the Gospel isn’t about easy. CS Lewis made an excellent analogy that I think illustrates this. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild the house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the rood and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing, and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.”

To those of you who perhaps are leaning back right now and patting yourself on the back for the good job you’re already doing with missionary work, CS Lewis has something else to say. “If you are a nice person—if virtue comes easily to you—beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.”

And as long as I’ve given two CS Lewis quotes, allow me to finish with a third. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Brothers and Sisters, this is the reason missionary work is so important. Everyone you see—everyone you speak with or pass on the street. Everyone at work, everyone online. Barack Obama. George W. Bush. Tom Cruise. Like it or not, even every single player on the Yankee’s Roster. They are all children of our Heavenly Father. They were all involved in the council in heaven. They all made the choice to come to earth in hopes that they would return one day to live with God again. They need to be reminded of this, and we are the ones who need to remind them. That’s the why. The how is up to you.

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