Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Missionaries, Flies, and Honey

The LDS Church has recently stepped up its missionary efforts. The lowering of the minimum age for young people to serve missions has led to a significant increase in the number of missionaries from about 52,000 to more than 70,000. Some estimates suggest that the number could peak at around 100,000.

The church has long emphasized that the responsibility for finding new investigators for the full-time missionaries to teach rests on the rank-and-file members. But this has not changed the fact that full-time missionaries spend most of their time finding new investigators rather than teaching. Without a change in the practices of the membership, adding more missionaries would mean missionaries spending yet more time finding people to teach.

The church recently invited stake and ward leaders to a two-hour broadcast called The Work of Salvation. The broadcast clearly conveyed the message that stake and ward councils have the primary responsibility of helping rank-and-file members fill the calendars of full-time missionaries with teaching appointments. They are to develop and carry out plans. The full-time missionaries are there to help the members fulfill their responsibilities.

Our son writes from overseas that this message has been received with marginal enthusiasm in the small branch where he is serving. Some of the branch leaders don't see themselves being much able to develop teaching prospects for the missionaries.

Last Sunday the full-time sister missionaries serving in our stake spoke in our ward sacrament meeting. They came to our area just recently and found little in the way of prospects. So they have been spending most of their time going door-to-door contacting people with little success.

The message these lovely sisters gave consisted mainly of 1) whining about long days of door-to-door contacting in the hot summer weather with poor results and 2) being critical of local church members for failing to adequately fill the sisters' appointment book. Unfortunately, it was kind of an "it's all about us" approach.

I have been a young missionary in a tough area. All of my areas in Norway were tough areas. We expended endless hours contacting people in an attempt to develop teaching appointments. These efforts were occasionally interspersed with actual teaching appointments. On extremely rare occasions, those appointments involved members inviting us to teach their friends, neighbors, or acquaintances. My companions and I saw a lot of work without much success. I understand what missionaries like my son and these sisters are experiencing.

But I have also been a rank-and-file church member for a long time. My neighbor that moved here from out of state said that he was surprised to discover that in Utah there is an unwritten social contract that says that LDS Church members generally refrain from overtly evangelizing about the church to others. While this takes the rough edges off social interactions, it tends to create an us-vs-them mentality for those in and out of the church. Active church members tend to socialize with active church members, so they don't have a lot of non-member or less active friends for the missionaries to teach.

The average Utah Mormon, when asked to think of friends and family members that could benefit from meeting with the missionaries, draws a blank. They all know people that should hear the Gospel message, but they also know that most of these people have already been approached plenty of times and have more or less indicated that they don't want to be bothered about it.

Our local sister missionaries said that church members often ask what they can do for the missionaries. The implication is that these members are willing to drive them places, feed them, supply clothing and other needs, etc. When the sisters respond, "Please give us some names of people we can teach," the members stammer, hem and haw.

Living in a predominantly LDS area, I can glance through all of the addresses in my ward and tell you who is active in the church, who is kind of active in the church, who is a member but is not currently active in the church, and who is not a member of the church. The missionaries could visit all of those in the latter two categories in our ward in one or two evenings without getting a teaching appointment. Multiply that by all of the wards in our stake and the missionaries could fill two to four weeks of evenings, likely without much success.

Another challenge where ward, stake, and missionary area boundaries are small is that the prospects members have often live outside of the missionary area where they live. Sometimes outside of the mission boundaries. This makes it hard to fill the local missionaries' calendars unless the prospects come to the member's home to be taught.

Yet another challenge is the fact that my entire stake is part of a bedroom community. People vacate the area to go to work, school and activities during the day, making it hard to provide daytime appointments for the missionaries. Evenings are busy as families grapple with church, community, school, and social commitments.

I'm not saying that missionary work is not possible where I live. I'm saying that an area like ours presents certain challenges to the kind of robust missionary work these sister missionaries would like to be doing. Members are not unwilling; they just don't know how to improve on what they are currently doing.

Given this situation, I feel that the good sister missionaries had a great message, but went about delivering it in a way that likely generated less cooperation rather than more. Instead of whining about tedious work and berating members for their inadequacies, it would probably have been better to focus on the joy and exhilaration that comes from sharing the gospel with friends and family, explaining ways to do that within the regular course of a busy life, and describing where the missionaries can help.

The old adage about honey attracting more flies than vinegar is applicable here. Helping members focus on the great blessings in store for them and encouraging them to feel that they can actually do the work is certain to bring a better response than complaining about the failure of people to achieve the ideal.

That's a lot to ask of young missionaries that are doing tedious and mundane work day after day without generating much interest in their message. After all, even the great missionary Paul was not immune to grousing and remonstrating on occasion. But he also gloried in his trials for Jesus' sake and frequently sent encouraging messages. I hope that our local sister missionaries, my son abroad, and other missionaries learn to use more honey and less vinegar when working with members.

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