For Mormon Eyes Only: On Missionary Work

Well, it’s not as if this is top secret stuff I’m going to be writing about here, but I’m not sure how interesting it’ll be for non-Mormons, so if you’re a coffee drinker, this one might not be for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was having a conversation with my brother over the weekend. He was recently called to be the Ward Mission Leader in his congregation. (An assignment I had for over a year here in Maine. I wrote a talk on my thoughts on the calling back when I received it.) In our chat, he expressed his frustration with some of the expectations placed on Mormons when it comes to missionary work. And let’s be honest: they are legion. It’s easy to feel at times (if you’re a Mormon) that unless you go to work each day with an “I’m a Mormon” button on your shirt and have a minimum of three gospel-related discussions with non-Mormons, then you aren’t fulfilling your God-given duty to spread the Gospel.

Which is complete hogwash, if you ask me.

But why it’s complete hogwash didn’t  snap into place until I was in the middle of that talk with my brother. And once it did snap, I knew I had to blog about it.

One of the things I love about Mormonism is how inclusive it can be. I know that sounds strange–especially if you’re not a Mormon. (Why are you still reading this, by the way? Did you not read the bit at the top about how it was going to be boring for you?) From an outsider’s perspective, we can be pretty darn insular. We have strict rules about what we can eat or drink, how we should dress, what sort of language we ought to use, and that’s omitting that huge bit about gay marriage that we’re just not going to get into in the middle of this post. But believe me, once you know a fair number of Mormons, you start seeing that we’ve got a lot of variation between us. Let’s put it like this: we’re a church that can have Glenn Beck and Harry Reid both be active, passionate members of our religion.

I’d say that’s pretty inclusive, wouldn’t you?

But even putting politics aside for a moment, there’s a lot of inclusion in the way people can live their religion. You’ve got commandments that give a great deal of latitude for personal interpretation. “Keep the Sabbath day holy” might mean nothing but scriptures and hymns to one family. It might mean walks on the beach or heading out sledding for another. What I mean is that there are “things we’re supposed to do,” but we’re given a lot of leeway in how we choose to do those things, generally speaking. In fact, Joseph Smith even has a quote that’s often referenced that directly applies to this: When asked how he managed to govern so many people so well, he said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

And that’s how it is for many things in Mormonism–at least in my experience. Yes, there can be overzealous Mormons who get mad if another Mormon is doing something they don’t think is appropriate, but life is too short to worry about what other people are thinking about what you’re doing. This is a religion where you do your best in the way you see best (within a certain definition of “best.”)


When it comes to missionary work, I think this degree of personal choice isn’t as readily embraced, and it should be. The way it’s usually portrayed in the church, we’re all supposed to be always actively looking for ways to inject discussions about Mormonism into our day to day lives. For opportunities to shove a Book of Mormon into someone’s hand whenever possible. It’s like if we don’t invite ten people to church each week, we’re not doing our job.

Don’t get me wrong. If any of the above describes what you do, and you’re comfortable doing it, good on you. I’m not writing this post to say you shouldn’t do that. I’m writing to ask why is it that those who share the Gospel in another way should be made to feel like they’re doing it wrong? (I’m also not here trying to defend myself. I’m comfortable with how I share the Gospel. But I know of many people who aren’t.)

Really, there are tons of ways to share the Gospel. I personally find the most rewarding being the approach to simply be an active Mormon and not be afraid to let people know that. If you’re an active Mormon–really living the Gospel to the best of your ability–then you will be doing some things that normal people don’t do. You will also not be doing some things that normal people do do.When people ask why you are or aren’t doing something, tell them. If they have questions, answer them.

It’s that easy.

But instead of that personalized approach, I feel like [an] approach [sometimes] preached in the church* comes down to a certain scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, a monologue by Alec Baldwin. (I’d link it here, but it’s got some harsh language, and the irony of having an f-bomb laced tired in the middle of a post about sharing the gospel would not be lost on me. But it’s very famous, and it’s a fantastic piece of acting and film.) Baldwin plays a high-powered salesman come to encourage some minions to be better at selling. The top two salesmen for the month will be given prizes. Everyone else will be fired. They’re all encouraged to ABC–“Always Be Closing”. Here’s a snippet that’s clean:

This is not how sharing the gospel is supposed to be. The Gospel isn’t something you shill on QVC. It isn’t something you have to ram down people’s throats. It’s something that’s supposed to be making you genuinely happier on a day to day basis. Something that improves your life and brings you comfort and peace. That’s what it does for me. I’m happy to share that with others if they want to hear about it. Why wouldn’t I be?

Anyway. My main point is that I feel like Mormons should be encouraged to share the Gospel, but the how should be up to them, just like with many things in the church. (I wrote an extensive piece on this idea about four years ago–it’s really good stuff, if I do say so myself. Check it out.)

What are your thoughts, Mormons? Do you see this same sort of thing happen? It’s not really like that in my current ward, but it’s been like that in a lot of other wards I’ve lived in in the past. How do you share the Gospel, and what are your feelings about it? (And if for some reason you’re not a Mormon and have still read all the way to the bottom of this post, congratulations. Also, do you have experience with Mormons who wanted to talk about religion with you? Would you care to share an outsider’s perspective? I’d love to read it–just keep things civil.)

*NOTE–I realized after I posted this that I’d used some wording that made it sound like this post was directed at all church missionary work. Not my intent, and I’ve tweaked a few words to reflect that.

6 thoughts on “For Mormon Eyes Only: On Missionary Work”

  1. Bryce, I guess I don’t see what you are saying. In fact, what I see more of is what you describe as your approach to missionary service. Of course, there is great emphasis by leaders to share the gospel with others, but I don’t feel any wrath or judgment in their message. In my message to the stake last week at stake conference I shared a scripture and message about seeing all of God’s children as potential disciples regardless of their circumstances rather than judging who might be a “near-Mormon” and only sharing with them.

    This does sound like an attempt to defend your view of missionary service, and I would wonder why you feel you need to. This is a missionary focused church. Over 80,000 full time missionaries all over the world. We love to hear how people came to know of the church and how it has blessed their lives. That won’t change, but if when someone is sharing an experience such as this and you start feeling something in your belly stir, ask yourself why.

    I have never heard a church leader teach anything like this movie clip. I think it disgraces what my sincere efforts are when sharing my faith with my friends. This isn’t my motive and it shouldn’t be anyone else’s. David

  2. David. First off, I want to be sure you know this post certainly isn’t aimed at anyone in particular. It draws more on experiences I had in Utah than any of my time on the East Coast, both growing up and now. It was mainly a line of thought I wanted to pin down after talking to my brother at length about some of the pressures he’s been put under as a Ward Mission Leader.

    It wasn’t my intent to portray this as being the only approach the church uses to sharing the Gospel. Looking back at some of the wording I used, I realize that it could come across this way, and I feel bad about that. There should have been a few more “sometimes” and “cans” peppered throughout the post. In particular, my statement “I feel like the approach preached in the church comes down to a certain scene from Glengarry Glen Ross” should have read “I feel like AN approach SOMETIMES preached in the church comes down to a certain scene from Glengarry Glen Ross.” Writing a blog post every day, sometimes I don’t have the time to edit them over as carefully as I ought to.

    Still, it is *an* approach that I’ve seen used, and I really dislike it and speak out against it in person when I see it pop up. I haven’t seen anyone in our local ward or stake use it from a leadership position. Check out some of the comments the post has been getting on my Facebook wall to see other people’s experiences with it.

    I see this happen most often when numbers become the driving motivator in missionary work. I saw it on my mission, I’ve seen it in other missionaries, I’ve heard stories about it from other Mormons, and I’d be surprised if you hadn’t seen it as well. I think the General Authorities do a great job of discussing how and why missionary work should be done. It’s on the more local level where it can go astray, as individual leaders or members put their own spin on what the General Authorities have said.

    Still, I can’t go into further detail without starting to call out specific instances and stories I’ve experienced, and that’s something I really don’t want to do. I’m not interested in publicly shaming anyone–and I didn’t mean to sound like I was criticizing “the Church”.

  3. Bryce,
    If you have seen it in the past, in another state, among another ward, with other people–in other words–not here, not you, not now, not among us in Maine…why are you bringing it up? It may gain favor, or seem like you are empathizing, with those who have experienced ” the shove”. But you may come across as being critical (of members and missionaries of your own church) to those who are non members and have never encountered a Mormon. You take the risk of convincing someone that they need to stay miles away from a missionary or a member if they don’t want to ” have a Book of Mormon shoved in their hand” or be one of the ten invitees that we are required to recruit every week. That’s not at all what our leaders are implying. Shoving is detrimental to hastening the work. There’s something in between shoving and being completely apathetic. The balance between bold and overbearing can only be found through the spirit. We all know that.
    If anyone who is a member of this church is feeling “pressured” to share the gospel, it is totally self-imposed. We are not pressured, we are encouraged to invite others to come and see how the gospel can bless their lives. Don’t you think that if we’re *not* sharing we are being stingy? That doesn’t mean our personal choice of how we share it is diminished, it means: “Be ready when the Lord needs you!” That is our charge, whether or not its convenient or comfortable. But being uncomfortable is not the same as being pressured. Getting outside our comfort zone is how we grow. Pressure makes it sound like we are doing something wrong against our will, or that someone (our leaders) is making us do it for some ulterior motive. Does that make sense? Many people don’t know what they are looking for until they find it. We must hold up our light.

  4. Why blog about it? Because it’s something I was thinking about, and this is a venue for my thoughts. Because it’s something I *do* see happening–even here in Maine (not with local leadership, thankfully. But on an individual level at times.) Because it’s something that other people have talked to me about, both Mormons and non-Mormons. Because it’s something I wanted to hear what other people had to say about it, and it’s something I thought would start an interesting conversation. Mission successful across the board.

    And in my post, I *am* being critical of some members and some missionaries. I’ve had to do a fair bit of damage control with non-Mormon friends of mine over the years, and I wish that weren’t the case–and it’s the mentality I’m speaking out against in this post that often is the root cause of that need.

    In my experience, no one does himself any favors when he tries to ignore a problem. Like it or not, I know for a fact that some non-Mormons view Mormons this way, and that’s something I wanted to investigate–to think through on virtual paper.

    “If [someone] is feeling “pressured” to share the gospel, it is totally self-imposed?” I strongly disagree, and I think arguments like that only serve to heighten the pressure. If you haven’t had this happen to you, that’s wonderful, and I’m glad for you. But it’s something that does happen to others. If this post makes anyone pause before employing the same techniques in the future, I’d be overjoyed.

  5. You know how when you go to a new doctor, and you tell them what your old doctor said about your health? That new doctor will rarely come right out and say: “Your old doctor is wrong, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I disagree with what he has told you.”
    No–they will do their best to build on what the other doctor said. He will most often explain things from his (new/different) perspective and let you process the old and new information put together. They don’t criticize their colleagues opinion or approach to your health. They make it sound like both doctors are right. They watch out for each other as if they have an interest in other doctors’ success, or the success of the entire medical profession. They know that as a collective whole, they are more affective.

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