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?
Dan in Salt Lake
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?
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