Ask Mormon Girl: Proselytizing makes me uncomfortable. What should I do?

Dear Ask Mormon Girl:

I feel the sense, as a liberal Mormon, and get the sense from my other liberal Mormon friends that Mormonism doesn’t need to be a “one true church” nor does it to be constantly promoted through the narrow “missionary approach” lens.  However, at the same time proselytizing seems to be such a crucial part of the institution and the Mormon experience that I have a hard time seeing Mormonism without it.  How is a liberal Mormon like me to react to the constant pressure within the LDS church to proselytize and “spread the word,” especially when I don’t feel deep conviction in promoting its packaged message?  Would Mormonism be better off as a non-proselytizing religion that is maintained as family tradition, such as Zoroastrianism?  Would it be worthwhile for liberal Mormons to play an active role either in promoting a progressive representation of Mormonism to outsiders or in swinging other Mormons to their side, or should they be more passive?  What is the best approach to take?

Sincerely,

Dan in Salt Lake

Dear Dan:

If there’s something about proselytizing Mormonism as “the one true church” that makes you uncomfortable, you’re certainly not alone.  Almost 40% of Mormons polled by the Pew Research Center say they believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.  And thousands upon thousands of the almost 60% of Mormons who do feel that the LDS Church is “the one true church” feel a bit sheepish about saying so to their non-Mormon friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

No doubt there comes a point when experience leads some of us to reflect on Mormon culture’s missionary outlook.  Maybe it happens when someone processes their own mission experience, or has a close relationship with a person of another faith, or begins to wrap his or her head around the vastness and diversity of this big old world, or studies world history and sees that missionary proselytizing has sometimes resulted in cultural conquest or been an adjunct to imperial violence.

It sounds like you’ve been through a period of reflection, and now you’re asking what should we do:  should we try to soften the Church’s missionary culture, or to be missionaries in our own special way by promoting a different flavor of Mormonism?

I have served a ward mission.  I have taught missionary discussions.  I have gone on “splits” with the sister missionaries.  I have fed missionaries in my home.  I have been grateful for missionaries’ influence on my grandparents, three of whom were converts.  I know that there are people who experience great happiness and improved lives by virtue of joining the LDS Church.  I also believe that there is great meaning and value in all of the world’s faith traditions, that all faith traditions have an important role in the history of humankind, and that God loves and cares for all people equally.  I spend most of my days surrounded by non-Mormons whom I have no desire to convert but to whom I constantly find myself talking about Mormonism.  I am also happily married to a non-Mormon from a non-proselytizing faith tradition who has no plans of joining the Church.  And my experience has shown me that in this big world, people of non-proselytizing faith traditions often know how to gracefully and respectfully deflect missionary efforts.

I guess you could say that like you I also have a complicated relationship to the Church’s missionary program.  What do I do about it?  Well, I honk and wave when I see the missionaries on the streets.  I chat them up when I see them in public, and I feed them when I can.  Because the missionaries are 19 or 20 years old and far from home.  Because my father served a two-year mission, and my brother served a two-year mission, and I wish someone would have fed him when he was serving in God-forsaken regions of Missouri and Illinois.  Because I love hearing the classic Mormon intermountain west accents of the missionaries who serve in our ward.  And because their hard work and sacrifice remind us of some of the best of what our religion brings out in its members.

Be good to the missionaries.  Be respectful of non-Mormons.  Be honest. Be open. The rest will sort itself out.  That’s my personal take on missionary matters.  Readers, it’s your turn.  Are you a “one-true-church” proselytizer, or a pluralist?  And how do you relate to missionary work?

Send your queries to askmormongirl@gmail.com.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Ask Mormon Girl: Proselytizing makes me uncomfortable. What should I do?

  1. I just finished a year stint as the ward mission leader. When my bishop initially called me I said no. Twice. Finally we sat down and negotiated. I explained to him that I didn’t agree or feel comfortable with the church’s approach to missionary work. He said that was fine and basically told me to do it my style.

    I’m pretty sure I was the most laid back WML ever and I’m sure that drove some of the missionaries assigned to our ward nuts. I just focused on reaching out to members of the ward on the fringes. We also baptized a woman who I’m sure wouldn’t have gotten baptized if the more traditional approach had been taken. She needed space to learn on her own instead of constantly being asked when she was going to get baptized. When she did decide to be baptized, it was her coming to me and saying she was ready to take that step. Six months after her baptism we went to Sunstone in Seattle. :)

  2. Stew

    It is not accurate to imply that the 40% (39%) of Mormons who said many religions can lead to eternal life do not still consider Mormonism as the “one true church”. I consider it as such, and yet would still consider other faiths as helping lead people to eternal life. The survey question sets up a false dichotomy to the respondents. Consider teachings like: “all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who awould have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom” (D&C 137:8) and statements like: “great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals” (First Presidency, 1978), or the doctrine that the gospel will be taught to some even after this life.
    In my view…and that apparently endorsed by the statements above, other religions have truth that can eventually help lead them to eternal life. This reality does not stop Mormonism from having a little more truth all the others.

  3. Nathan

    “Be honest, be open” -great advice. Too often I’ve sat through the same 45 minute, member-missionary lesson/lecture where my (our) lack of courage and determination has been identified as the source of my (our) missionary failings, only to be rebuilt with a presumably (and probably) well intentioned expression of love and respect at the end of the lesson/lecture. It’s never an intellectually or spiritually rigorous conversation. And it isn’t productive because it assumes that the teacher is never the student. Missionary zeal is too often represented as someone “in the know” bursting upon the scene to fill the hearts and minds of the hungry and the poor. I love the idea of missionary work, but as a vehicle of exchange and understanding. There is a reason the word “practice” is associated with religion. Action and thought develop concurrently. A cultural philosopher might point out that sound principles, well understood are demonstrated by a healthy culture. Unhealthy culture might also demonstrate a foundation built upon poor principles but it could also be an indication of a latent understanding of sound principles. Alma exhorts us to experiment with the seed and see if it doesn’t bear fruit. We do this by being honest. It seems to me that prophets have taught us to pray about, consider and discuss our world. -The bountiful tree as well as the withered. And in the midst of it all, seeking understanding and giving understanding often become the same thing.

  4. Diana

    I served an 18-month mission, however I subscribe to the notion of being a missionary by trying to live a good and decent life and letting my life be an example to those around me. If they see something in me that they want to learn about and they ask me then I’m happy to share the gospel with them. If not, then I leave them alone. I almost never initiate religious discussions with my non-LDS friends, however I do not shy away from answering questions when I can. I’m careful to surround my answers with lots of “in my opinion” or “I believe” rather than making it as if everything is a sure thing.

    For years I have refused to attend my stake conference since every single one is based on missionary work and making church members feel guilty if they are not badgering their friends and co-workers to have the discussions.

  5. Brad aka Dan

    Hi Joanna,

    Thanks for answering my question about proselytizing. It’s actually Brad in Salt Lake and not Dan, but that’s OK cause I do actually like the name Dan. I do have to agree with you that there are so many people who do benefit and who can benefit greatly from the church as a result of proselytizing. I served my mission in Brazil and felt like I and other missionaries helped bring about a lot of positive change in people’s lives. But on the flip side when I got back and started dated a Catholic girl, whom I tried to convert, she didn’t receive it too kindly. Looking back I regret trying to do that. I figure that many Mormon’s would share my experiences. In that sense it is sort of nice to have 19-20 year old missionaries do the grunt work in places where they do not know the people, while the members can provide the constant anchor of friendship to newcomers. I’m just glad that the Mormon church isn’t like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who seem to be in a constant effort to convert those around them.

    Brad

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