When it comes to Church growth, the Church sets high expectations for itself. Likening the Church to that scriptural stone that rolls forth to fill the whole earth, Church members may expect to see exponential Church growth, with significant year-over-year gains in the number of convert baptisms. However, over the past several years, the number of annual convert baptisms has actually dipped and plateaued somewhat, corresponding in part with a decrease in the number of full-time missionaries. Moreover, retention of new converts remains a challenge, as we are often reminded by Church leaders. In this situation, it is natural for Mormons to consider possible ways to improve the Church’s missionary program to increase the number of genuine converts to the Church.
The mission in which my stake is located is currently testing a pilot program that hearkens back to a familiar Book of Mormon story about a man named Ammon who wanted to build a bridge between two long estranged peoples, one of which was completely unfamiliar with the Gospel. Setting aside the direct proselytizing approach to missionary work, Ammon embarked on a mission of simple Christian service that inspired thousands who were previously considered the most unlikely potential converts to join the Church. If every stake and ward in the Church were to adopt Ammon’s approach to missionary work by conducting a wide-spread campaign of consistent, meaningful, no-strings-attached community service, could the Church experience the same miraculous growth that occurred in Ammon’s day?
Let me begin by saying that I strongly dislike the term “missionary work” because of the limitations and connotations it implies. To me, the term “missionary work” misleadingly suggests it is an activity relegated to full-time missionaries, and calling it “work” makes it sound like a chore that one must set aside time to perform out of a sense of duty, separate and apart from one’s natural daily routine. And I think each of us has probably seen what missionary work looks like when motivated by a sense of compulsion to fulfill a duty. It feels forced, unnatural, calculated, and tainted with unspoken ulterior motives. Worst of all, duty-based missionary work lacks the power and influence of genuine love, which ought to be the motivation behind all our actions. Accordingly, I generally try to avoid the term “missionary work” and prefer using other terms like “sharing the Gospel.”
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter what we call missionary work. What really matters is how we do missionary work. And unless and until we do it the right way, our message will ring hollow to others. So, what is the right way to do missionary work?
Paradoxically, the right way to do missionary work may be to forget about our doing missionary work altogether, much like we are told we need to lose our life to find it. As Elder Ballard has pointed out, the best way for Church members to do missionary work is to simply live the Gospel more completely and genuinely. If we truly live the Gospel, we won’t need to go hunting for converts because they will be drawn to us naturally:
Our homes can be gospel-sharing homes as people we know and love come into our homes and experience the gospel firsthand in both word and action. We can share the gospel without holding a formal discussion. Our families can be our lesson, and the spirit that emanates from our homes can be our message. . . .
Creating a gospel-sharing home does not mean that we are going to have to dedicate large amounts of time to meeting and cultivating friends with whom to share the gospel. These friends will come naturally into our lives . . . . (M. Russell Ballard, “Creating a Gospel-Sharing Home,” Ensign, May 2006, 84–87.)
Moreover, Elder Ballard points out that creating more open, Gospel-centered homes is something we should do simply because it is a good thing to do, and regardless of whether it draws others into the Church:
A gospel-sharing home is not defined by whether or not people join the Church as a result of our contact with them. . . . At the very least, we have a rewarding relationship with someone from another faith, and we can continue to enjoy their friendship. (Id.)
As members of the Church, there are countless ways we can improve our efforts to reach out and serve the communities in which we live, and I am excited to be participating in a new program that provides Church members an additional opportunity to do just that. The mission in which my stake is located is currently testing a pilot program of providing English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that are open to the public, free of charge, and without any religious conditions. Full-time missionaries and local members teach a practical language curriculum that focuses on helping immigrants navigate their way through common experiences: buying food and clothing, renting housing, going to the doctor, etc.
I am currently teaching one of these ESL classes at my church building every Friday night to a wonderful group of immigrants, most of whom are Iranians. They are kind and intelligent people with impressive backgrounds; one is a former doctor, another an engineer, another an accountant. They are a segment of my local community that, were it not for this ESL program, I probably would not have had an opportunity to ever meet or interact with. And were it not for this ESL program, many of these immigrants probably would never have heard of Mormons, much less had any reason to enter a Mormon church building. In a few short weeks, we have begun building bridges of understanding, both literally and figuratively, between immigrants and native members of our community, and between those of other faiths and our own.
Although we haven’t attempted to impose our beliefs on any of these ESL class members, some of them have naturally become curious about who we are and what motivates us to help them. For example, five of our ESL class members (four Iranians and one Russian), showed up at our Sunday Church meetings just a few weeks into the ESL program. One such member of the class, an Iranian who is now taking the missionary discussions, showed up at our ESL class the other night and, without prompting, expressed his newfound faith. “I love Jesus,” he said, as he proudly displayed a crucifix necklace and ring he had recently purchased.
To me, this new ESL program is a welcome outward extension of the generous donations of time, talents, and energy that Mormons are so good at giving each other. We Mormons have a wonderful volunteer spirit, and an admirable organizational system. However, all too often, our volunteerism and organizational efforts at the local level are directed inward. Although we see admirable exceptions to this general rule when natural disasters strike, after the rubble has been cleared, too often we return to focusing our regular service efforts on our fellow Mormons.
I have long been feeling the need to serve those outside my faith by doing something more than paying taxes and marking the “Humanitarian Aid” check box when making a monetary contribution to the Church. It is always good to give money to a good cause, but there is something about providing community service personally that truly nourishes the soul. So it is my hope that this new ESL program is just one of many forthcoming efforts by the Church and its membership to reach out and serve our local communities in significant and sustained ways.
In closing, I look forward to a day when the word “Mormons” readily comes to mind whenever anyone in the world is asked: “Who feeds the hungry? Who shelters the homeless? Who clothes the naked? Who helps cure the sick? Who visits the imprisoned?” Hopefully, one day people in every community where Mormons are found will answer those questions in a way similar to a gentleman I once heard giving thanks after his community had been devastated by a hurricane:
I’d like to thank two churches in particular for all their efforts in helping clean up and rebuild our community.
One of those churches is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And the other is the Mormons.
So, what are your thoughts about this topic? I’d love to get your views on any or all of the following questions:
1. If every able stake and ward in the Church were to implement a Church-led “Ammon approach” of continual, meaningful community service, do you think the number of genuine converts to the Church would naturally increase, or would it just draw limited resources away from other efforts that bring converts into the Church and reduce convert baptisms?
2. Considering that nothing is currently preventing individual Church members from volunteering to serve in their communities, is there really a need for the Church to help organize and staff such community service efforts, or is community service something that Church members can do (and are already doing) on their own in sufficient numbers?
3. Considering that there are already numerous government agencies and private charitable organizations that address humanitarian problems, is it more appropriate for the Church to focus on those activities that only the Church is qualified and capable of doing, i.e., serving its members spiritually and spreading its Gospel message?
4. Considering how much time Mormons already dedicate to Church service, do Church members even have the time or resources to add regular community service to their already busy schedules? In other words, is a Church-led community service program something that would overburden Church members, or would it give them the spiritual nourishment they are seeking?
5. Is a Church-led program of continual, meaningful community service the elusive answer to the persistent question of how to turn every Church member into a “member missionary”?