The Envelope and the Message

October 23, 2008
By

Are you ever nervous about turning your friends over to the missionaries?  Do you fear you may be subjecting them to a high-pressure time-share sales presentation? 

Let’s assume this reluctance has nothing to do with how you feel about “the message” itself.  You love the gospel.  You have a testimony.  Attending church makes you happy and helps you be a better person.  And you feel some compulsion to share that with others.  It’s still possible to not want to turn your friends or family members over to the missionaries.  It’s possible to love the message but to feel insecure about the messenger.

If the gospel is the message, then the missionaries are often the envelope in which that message is delivered.  When I sort through the mail, this is the stuff that goes straight in the trash:

  • anything addressed to “resident” or our house’s previous owners; anything addressed to someone who doesn’t really exist or never lived there
  • stuff stamped with “urgent” or “open immediately” but is clearly from a business with whom I have no existing relationship; stuff with loud colors or big “zowie” outlines around words like “new”–clearly junk mail
  • those pretend-familiar letters that look handwritten to you but you don’t know the handwriting or it’s really a font designed to look like handwriting
  • anything that looks like it has been mangled by an automated sorted system

Who has not received a letter like this and thrown it directly in the trash?  That’s why we call it junk mail:  it’s impersonal (or worse, fakes being personal), it treats you like a number and not a person, it is all about its own aims (e.g. marketing numbers) and not about your actual needs, it approaches you as a commodity to be manipulated and coerced toward its aims.  Those are the same qualities that describe ineffective missionaries. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many effective missionaries who are humble and love the people they serve, who treat each person as an individual, and who truly prize the message they are sharing.  So why are some missionaries not like this?

  • Pride.  Just like any group of people, some missionaries have an ego.  They want to be viewed as successful, and if success means numbers, some of them will do what it takes to get those numbers, even if it’s not what they should do.
  • Pressure.  That’s really just pride again, but stated as if the person(s) or system applying the pressure is the responsible party.  Missionaries need to reduce their susceptibility to pressure to do things that are wrong (or to do them the wrong way) in order to be successful.    And mission presidents are as susceptible to pride as the missionaries they serve and lead.  Often, MPs are successful businessmen who are used to measurable results.  They want a scorecard.  They want to know they are successful and to make goals for success.  When they apply these business skills to the mission, though, they run the risk of cutthroat tactics to achieve “success.”
  • They had a bad day.  OK, cutting missionaries some slack here, everyone has good days and bad days.  Sometimes they are going to be less effective.  That’s just being human.  Zebedee Coltrin left his mission due to a splitting headache, and Parley P. Pratt opened his preaching to the Quakers by decrying their beloved celibacy.  Even Paul got run out of Ephesus on a rail.  We’ve all made mistakes.

So, what can we as lay members do to ensure that the envelope doesn’t get in the way of the valuable message?

  • Befriend, don’t proselyte.  Don’t be talked into doing something you are uncomfortable with.  Personally, I think missionary work (for members especially) should be about recognizing that this is a cool person you would like to hang out with at church, someone you want to join your church family.
  • Explain the process.  If you think a missionary is going to give the full-court press or that the missionary is someone they may not like, let your friend know up front what to expect.
  • Keep “Zeniff” missionaries in check.  Talk to the missionary to know what kind of person you are dealing with.  Tell them what your friend needs and express any concerns you have.
  • Deliver our own messages.  If you are worried about the missionary, be there in person to make sure the message gets through correctly, or just do your own missionary work until a missionary you trust is in place.

What do you think of these guidelines for us as members?  Would this improve the effectiveness of missionary work?  What else would you suggest?  Discuss.

15 Responses to The Envelope and the Message

  1. Nobody Special
    October 23, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I almost think that it is better to do all you can to get your friends converted to the truth before turning them over to the missionaries so (1) its a slam dunk for the missionaries, and (2) the missionaries don’t have to sell anything anyway, because the product, if you can call it that, is already sold.

  2. Rigel Hawthorne
    October 23, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    It’s funny that when I read this, memories flooded about being on the other end–as the missionary receiving the member referrals. As a new missionary, I assumed that people would do what #1 recommended, but you quickly learn that a member referral can be a variety of things. I remember one that glanced at us out the window and tried to hide/making it appear nobody was home. Another was rather shocked that a casual work acquaintance had given her name to us. A third welcomed us into the home, but didn’t really understand what we were there for, and was only marginally warm to the idea when it was explained.

    If I ever had a dear friend that I felt really wanted to learn the gospel, I would probably have the missionaries over to my house (without the friend) for dinner and get to know them first, decide if they were the ones for my friend, and discuss the friend in detail with them before setting up a visit where we could meet together.

  3. October 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    This crystallizes very well my thoughts as I’ve observed the elders here locally. I’ve just noticed (having moved away from BYU recently and seen missionary work again) how pigheaded missionaries seem to go about missionary work. I remember how every lesson was a variation on a theme, not a tailored, inspired package designed to punch through to the heart of an investigator’s needs. I’ve also been thinking about how ineffective and alienating our entire system can be to people, just like I don’t really want the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking down my door asking questions. “Befriend, don’t proselyte” is, I think, your best advice from the entire post. Thanks for your musings.

  4. Shadow
    October 23, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    I’m going to do a little ranting… so if you are easily offended, you may want to skip this one… My mission experience was almost the opposite of what you hear about at Church…

    I have difficulty referring friends to the missionaries primarily because of what I saw and was asked to do as a missionary in the name of the Church. My current ward is a secondary cause.

    1. I was asked to lie to people to inflate my teaching pool. We were told to go to a house and ask for directions to a fictitious family’s home. We then introduced ourselves and began the finding process. Our relationship with the tracted family was then based on a lie.

    2. Some of the questions were manipulative and the way the commitment pattern was used was beyond belief. “Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized into the one true church?” was a common one. The spirit just flew out of the room when that stuff started. Prayer about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon was rarely a prerequisite before going on to the second discussion either.

    3. Missionaries were considered successful based on numbers only. A missionary who had twenty plus baptisms was considered a fantastic missionary. It was absolutely irrelevant that almost all of them were single females between the ages of fourteen and twenty two. I know because I personally dug through the records prior to an audit. Oh, how the girls would talk about him and his dreamy blue eyes…

    4. We were strictly mandated to recite the discussions word for word. Adapting the message to the situation or individual was strongly looked down upon. We were given certificates for memorization. If you didn’t have your certificates, you were not a candidate for leadership positions.

    I disagreed with these tactics and focused on helping people out of the spiritual hole they were in and truthfulness of the everlasting gospel. I remember a scripture that said something about the healthy not needing a doctor and tried to follow it. I also disagreed with the mission president and zone leaders on the usage and pushing of these tactics. I was sent to the bowels of the mission to learn to be “humble enough to follow my leaders without question.” I can’t tell you how many times our mission president told us he was set apart under the hand of an apostle.

    Hawkgrrl is correct. Pride and pressure are come common problems among missionaries, as they are young people. If we are to refer our friends to the missionaries, we do need to thoroughly prep them. Let them know what to expect and, better yet, and do the job yourself the right way. Missionaries aren’t assigned to do the missionary work. They are assigned to help us, the members, do it.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  5. Ray
    October 23, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    I look forward to the day when all of the full-time missionaries are pulled from North America and sent to India and China and Russia and other places that lack a solid infrastructure. Then we will be responsible for finding and teaching through the Ward Missions. I really look forward to that.

  6. Heather B
    October 24, 2008 at 8:42 am

    I can’t believe that I’m the one to bring this up but….

    I think we often forget that missionaries are really just kids. 19 is really, really young.

    Most of them haven’t had any real life experiences. Maybe they have worked a year or spent a year at college, but the vast majority of them are thrown out there with not much more than a bunch of adults telling them how special and inspired their message is and how the whole world knows it, and how their mission is the best in the world and people are just dying to hear what they have to say. Is it any wonder that they behave like bulls in china shops sometimes?

    Think about how hard it is for you to share the church’s message with your friends or family, when you already know them, have life experiences with them, have a deeper understanding of the church than someone half your age…

    I don’t think these reasons make up for basic good manners and courtesy, but honestly, I feel bad for the missionaries. They get thrown to the wolves quiet often.

  7. October 24, 2008 at 9:36 am

    “Then we will be responsible for finding and teaching through the Ward Missions. I really look forward to that.”

    Boy, I sure don’t. I’d much rather create predominantly service missions (here and abroad, full-time and member) than do any proselyting. Personally, I feel uncomfortable for ideological reasons about proselyting, but there are plenty of more faithful LDS who are uncomfortable for other reasons, but I think a lot of those folks would love to feel like they are doing their missionary duty by serving the poor and needy in their community.

  8. hawkgrrrl
    October 24, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Clay – I think service missions are a good thing, and also leadership missions in emerging areas (primarily by couples, probably, although they tend to bring their US-ness with them). What we really need are more non-US missionary couples come of age and reduce the need for “teaching” missionaries. I think the problem with missionary work stems from emphasis on numbers. Once you start to measure success, everyone wants some, and it doesn’t necessarily matter how they get it (Wall Street, anyone?). Plus, they only have to punch it through for 2 yrs and not live with their results. I knew members who would cringe when specific missionaries brought new converts knowing that it was going to be sketchy.

  9. Jeff Spector
    October 24, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Hawk and others,

    When you have a GA organization that are primarily businessmen, the need to measure performance is almost ingrained in them. ROI and metrics are the lifeblood of progress in business so it is not surprise that it is part of missionary work. It is unfortuniate as I mentioned in my very first post here and has been reiterated countless times by others. if you live by the numbers, you die by them as well. and encourage bad behavior to make the numbers.

    Now, as to the issue discussed here, there have been Missionaries I would trust and many I would not with my friends and family. We’ve had some excellent missionaries over the years, much more than the “clinkers” who I wouldn’t trust with even talking to a member with a strong testimony!

    But, I have to say, that we’ve always, to a one, had excellent Sister Missionaries. So we prefer them. And we have them now in our ward.

  10. John Nilsson
    October 24, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Service should be done by young strong backs, and teaching should be done under the supervision of senior missionaries.

    I look forward to the same thing Ray does, but for the reason that it will add a few extra dollars to American family budgets to not have to feed nineteen year olds every month. And the figure of the suit-clad missionary astride a bike will be consigned to bad Halestorm movies.

  11. Rigel Hawthorne
    October 24, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Senior missionaries run the spectrum just as younger missionaries do, and I’ve met some that are excellent and some that (the male half) still haven’t learned not to behave like a “bull in a cabinet,” even after all the years of seasoning. I be most comfortable introducing my friend to a mature young missionary OR a youthful senior missionary. It would also be great IMO to see more church members of all ages astride a bike! :)

  12. Bookslinger
    October 24, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I think of filters, tests, and training.

    I think the Lord intentionally has awkward 19 to 21-year olds teach the gospel as a filter that keeps out those who are proud or uncharitable. If you’re too proud to let awkward 19 year olds deliver to you the most important message on earth, you’re might be too proud for baptism.

    Those who judge the message by the envelope or box may not be worthy of the message. Isn’t there something in one of Shakespeare’s plays about 3 boxes, of gold, of silver, and of lead?

    Does anyone think that the Lord, his prophet, his apostles, and his GA’s don’t realize that the 19 year olds being sent out are gangly, gawky, awkward teenagers?

    Shadow: you were tested and trained. I believe the Lord intentionally puts inefficiencies in the system in order to test the humility and pateience of those going through the system. Also, many inefficiencies are in the system merely in order that it be a system, so that it can be applied to the least common denominator of missionaries. Also, many inefficiencies are in the system because, well, look at the pool of imperfect people that the Lord has to work with. The work has to go forward, even though there are no perfect 19 year olds available.

    And you were trained by being sent to the bowels of the mission. Those are the best places to be. What an opportunity for learning. It’s like being surrounded in a battle, it’s a “target rich situation”, no matter in which direction you shoot, you’re going to hit a target.

  13. Ray
    October 24, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    #7 – Clay, I never said I want to have to “proselyte” through the Ward Missions. That’s important to understanding what I envision – that we WON’T be going door to door and doing other traditional activities that are necessary in areas where the Church is being established through branches and twigs. Let the young, full-time missionaries do the exhaustive “missionary work”; let us “share the Gospel” more naturally.

  14. James
    October 25, 2008 at 2:19 am

    7 Clay

    I think a lot of those folks would love to feel like they are doing their missionary duty by serving the poor and needy in their community.

    I ditto these thoughts. In my ideal world would be we go to Sunday for 1/2 an hour in our Levis for sacrament meeting and then out in the community the last 2 and 1/2 hours. We would do this with out taking time away from our families during the week and we would look back and feel much much better about our selves we would be walking the walk not talking the talk.

  15. ThomasB
    October 25, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    Love this topic Hawk. There is so much to comment about I hardley know where to start so I guess the beginning is as good as any place to start.

    I always knew I would go on a mission. I think my dad was the main reason. He went to New Zealand after WWII and I was amazed at the incredible stories he told. His mission seemed like an adventure. He loved his mission president, he loved his companions, he loved the people of New Zealand and spoke of their faith and dedication. He spoke of the miracles he witnessed including some performed at the hand of Matthew Cowley who would later seal my parents. Imagine how shccked I was when I returned from my mission and he asked me how many people I baptized and after my answer he shared that he never baptized a soul. I was shocked and then I realized an even greater respect and love for my father. He is quite old today and I would say that WWII and his mission stories make up about 80% of his dialogue. I indulge him. The WWII stories do not mean much to me but I still get a kick out of his missionary experiences.

    Shadow. I cannot say I had your experiences on my mission but I certainly walked away with the perspective that you had. I loved my mission but I refused to buy in the the numbers crap. My first MP was a super salesman and extremely goal oriented. He was a great example to me and taught me so much but at the end of the day I decided I would “be about my Fathers business”. I went to a very cold place on my mission and one week the town where I was living was about 40 below all week. The following Monday one of the Zone Leaders called infuriated with our lack of productivity. He made the statement that he could have been more successful selling dogfood and get in more doors than us trying to share the gospel. I told him that this was at the root of all his problems. I told him that I came to serve the Lord while he came to sell dogfood and then I hung up. Needless to say I had some explaining to do to my MP when District Conference came around. He told me that he was dissappointed in me and my inability to follow. I apologized to him and promised that I would follow but I would never respect my ZL. The next transfer he made me a DL. I guess I look back and believe I served on my terms and at the pleasure of the Lord.

    Today I would say my view of the missionaries is varied. This is what I do know. Those that come and whine that they do not get enough referrals and complain about the members leave the area frustrated because of the lack of success that they have had. Those that are humble and love the members and non members that they work with are exremely successful. It is not a big mystery.

    As a Bishop I had my run ins with the missionaries and mission presidents. I would tell them that they were welcome to baptize anyone that they wanted but they would only be confirmed and given the Aaronic priesthood when they had proven that they were committed to the gospel and that they had a firm grasp on what holding the priesthood really means. I have to hand it to my Stake President because I know he took flack for supporting me but he believed it was my decision and not an automatic.

    Hawk you touch on many things that we in the church just kind of shrug our shoulders and go along with. I do think that goals should always be set and we should rejoice when we exceed them and seek understanding through intropsection when we do not. I think that it is foolish to baptize people that have been to sacrament meetings twice. I believe that if we are going to “raise the bar” for missionaries then we really should do it and quit providing lip service. I think that in order to do this we should focus on assisting our young men (and women) in cultivating spiritual gifts instead of making the main focus of their teen life becoming an eagle scout (but that is just me). At any rate great posts and thoughts from all.