I’ve done a few blog posts at By Common Consent about my mission here, here, and here. One discussion point is that my mission was following the Alvin Dyer Challenging & Testifying Missionary approach, a controversial approach that created high baptism rates followed by low retention rates. It’s an approach that was unique at that time (1989-90) in Europe in our newly formed mission in the Canary Islands and Azores. It had gone out of fashion, but our president liked it, and we used it.
By contrast, missionary friends in other places in Europe had a lot of hurdles to take investigators over before they could be baptized. Sometimes when I would share a story of a person we taught who was baptized, my friends serving elsewhere would sputter “But how did you get them ready? How did they have time to go to church twice first? How did you get through all the discussions?” That wasn’t a requirement in my mission, and it didn’t occur to me (based on how we were taught to work) that it would be necessary or important.
For those unfamiliar with the Challenging & Testifying Missionary approach, here’s a link to the talk it is based on. We were given a copy of the talk upon arriving in the mission, and we were told to refer to it often as a way to motivate ourselves and re-center if we were struggling. I was excited that Dyer’s own mission experience took place in my native Lancaster, PA.
Here are some of the quotes I found that most resonated for me when I was a missionary, with some explanation of what they meant in practice, and a few that were perhaps on somewhat shaky ground:
The more I see of people coming into the Church, and I have seen many thousands I see the reality of this one thing that the Lord knows who He wants in the Church. This has been determined beforehand and there isn’t much that you and I can do to destroy that.
This was a huge contrast to some other missions where success was considered a byproduct of missionary obedience. That was not a misconception under which our mission was laboring. I jest–a little. Yes, we had some missionaries who were a little bit lax, but for the most part, people were trying to obey the rules that mattered. We didn’t consider the rules to be a path to success, just a way to keep missionaries safe and worthy. Frankly, we had a lot of autonomy working on islands with little oversight, and how individuals interpreted the rules was often fairly loose.
You could interpret Dyer’s statement to be determinism, and maybe some did, but I think most of us viewed it as people having their own agency to choose to join or not, and that we should invite everyone and if they were interested, we’d keep going with them. We starting talking about baptism as early as we could, and if they didn’t progress, we’d move on.
One of the most difficult things to remember is that this matter of teaching by the spirit is the special talent that a missionary has been given, and unless he uses it in testifying of the truth, he may lose it. And when he once loses it he may never get it back again. There is no other talent the missionary has to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ other than to testify of it by the spirit. . . . I know in my heart that we have not sold this idea of testifying by the spirit fully to the missionary. I don’t believe our missionaries as a whole are teaching this way. We have learned the catchword of “teaching by the spirit” but we do not do it. We teach by our knowledge and this is often confusing to the people.
We were very focused on the idea of teaching with the spirit rather than teaching the discussions exactly as written. We would hit on the majority of the points, but we were constantly distilling the discussions into a set of objectives, the 2-3 main things we had to get across, and the purpose was to keep the person progressing to the next step or to determine they weren’t interested in going on. Sometimes, we would teach them in a different order if it just felt right in the moment. We had a lot of ambiguity and freedom. It’s probably one reason I’ve never been a fan of following a correlated lesson methodologically.
You actually do not know when you go to a door whom the Lord has prepared for the gospel. You must approach each door with the idea that here is where people who are prepared for the gospel live. You must do it without fail at every home because you do not know if these people have been chosen by the Lord.
Again, this idea that every door is a potential
sale baptism was something very powerful at getting us through our fear. The longer you delay asking someone if they want to be baptized, the less likely you will ever get the chance. We often brought it up at the door, not just in the second discussion. For us, the idea that some people were ready and others were not was also very freeing. You didn’t have to really create or prepare new church members, just find them. And if they didn’t progress, they weren’t the ones God had prepared.
The missionary often says, “We have met the most wonderful family today and we are going to challenge them Wednesday.” How do you know you are going to Wednesday? Why didn’t You challenge them last night? Know more about what? Do you think you can teach a testimony? Can you analyze your own testimony of the gospel? Try and do it. Try and explain why you think Jesus is the Son of God. You will never explain it by physical reasoning. Where do you get the knowledge to say “I know Jesus is the Son of God?” John said, “Of this no man needs teaching.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is not knowledge. When people say they are glad to have a knowledge of Jesus they speak in what we call a manner of speech. The gospel is a feeling. It is controlled and governed by the power of the Holy Ghost, and this great personage has been assigned to administer the gifts and the spiritual powers of this life and you cannot and never will be able to take the place of this power as it ministers unto and influences people.
As I look through my mission journal, we focused a lot on whether we felt like we had brought the spirit into the discussion. Sometimes we just didn’t feel it; we could generally agree when it wasn’t there and when it was, regardless of what investigators decided to do. I don’t think we felt bad about it when we weren’t successful at bringing it into the discussion; we just tried again. I read one particular passage in my journal that was about this experience where there were 2 elders and my comp & me. We tried, we taught the same things, but we just weren’t feeling it. We didn’t know why, but because of our focus on the Challenging & Testifying Missionary, my assumption was that these just weren’t people who were ready. We didn’t assume it was our fault or because we were bad missionaries. We’d get frustrated when it felt like a waste of time, but that wasn’t the same thing as internalizing it or feeling guilty.
I don’t believe that all who come into the Church are going to stay in and there will be many spin off because they were not able to sustain their conversion, which more than likely has been a doctrinal and not a spiritual conversion. Here is the right slant of missionary work. Dogmatic instructions tend only to confuse.
In practice, this aspect of the approach meant we as missionaries were off the hook for what happened with the people we baptized afterward. For some, that meant baptizing people they knew would never stick with it, such as sailors in the port who were leaving that week and didn’t live there, but sort of assuming/justifying that the baptism was still a positive step in the overall journey of the person’s life.
There were plenty of us, though, who really did want people to stay in the church, but in this case the nature of our specific mission rules & culture made it difficult for us to facilitate retention. We had a rule that missionaries could only attend church if they had investigators with them. Otherwise, you were kicked out by the Zone Leaders. In my case, there was one area where my trainee & I had not been to church for six weeks, and then we came one Sunday with two families to be baptized. As soon as they were baptized, we were once more not allowed to attend church. One family stayed active and the other did not (although they probably wouldn’t have anyway). The members were frustrated with us for not attending, although we would visit them during the week. They felt the pressure of having new converts they hadn’t met just dumped on their doorstep.
I was just talking with a fellow missionary at a reunion about how crazy that rule was. The running joke in our mission was: “The only time I was inactive in the church was on my mission.” I mentioned that I kept writing to president about how this rule was terrible, and eventually it did get changed, but much later than my letters. This other missionary said that I probably had two mistaken assumptions: 1) that our President was the one who created the rule (rather than the APs or ZLs), and 2) that President actually read my letters. Oy! Good points.
I am convinced that we keep people out of the church. I can tell by the look on some of your faces that this goes against the grain. You still like it nice and easy, where you go in and teach the lessons. Teach by the spirit when you go into the home, and have the spirit so strong it comes out of your fingers and they feel it so strong they say, “I know what you say is true.” You can teach all six lessons in 10 minutes when they say that.
I’m not sure anyone actually taught all six discussions (at the time) in 10 minutes, but we also didn’t do them over a period of 6 weeks. When my parents went through the discussions there were 52 weekly discussions before baptism. We were teaching all 6 discussions in 1-2 weeks usually, and sometimes we taught 3-6 after baptism.
There was probably a bit of a “coffee’s for closers” mentality in the mission, too, as a result. If you were baptizing, you could relax in other areas, and those who weren’t baptizing were just not willing to do what you were doing. I wouldn’t say everyone felt that way, but there were some who got very caught up in what we called “the yellow sheet” which was the monthly newsletter showing who had baptized for how many months. If you ever went a month without baptizing, you would fall off the sheet and had to start from scratch again, just like an OSHA violation in a manufacturing plant: “0 days incident free!”
For those in leadership roles, not baptizing might mean being bumped back down in rank. Since I was a sister, leadership roles were not relevant. We were trainers or senior companions, but not eligible for leadership positions. Even so, a few of my companions were very focused on their placement in those rankings. Others were pretty rebelliously cavalier about them. I was kind of agnostic about them. It was great to feel like you were making a difference, but the rankings were just about how other missionaries saw you.
I know missionaries who cling to the idea that they can’t be baptized until they know what they are being baptized for. You teach about the Godhead and the apostasy. Often they don’t know what you are talking about. . . . Now these lessons are important. I’m not saying they are not. When people are baptized they have an eagerness to learn everything about the Church. . . . I was telling the president about a fine attorney we baptized recently. He got his testimony the first night. Here is a man who stands before the judgement bar and argues cases, but he got a different feeling that night. The attorney said he knew that Joseph Smith was prophet by the way the missionary said it. The missionary said, “We’ll get him after the third lesson,” and they did. This man had the stamina to withstand the three lessons. He said, “I didn’t know that they were talking about. The only desire I had was to get into the Church.
In practice this meant that the focus was not on content in the teaching, just on creating a feeling and then asking them to be baptized and join the church. On the one hand, it was a humbling message to the missionaries to point out that there was precious little they were going to “teach” these people who were much older and often wiser than they were. The focus was on seeing everyone as having great potential, and then inviting them.
We are preparing people to be leaders in the worlds that will follow this one. Do you suppose He will have to change the man or woman that He wants to prepare to be a future king and queen in some other world? That is ridiculous. This is God’s work. Our work is to help Him get people into the Church.
Now, of course, there are a few issues with this approach that are probably obvious to most of us.
- Lack of coordination with the local members / wards which led to lower retention.
- A bit of “used car salesman” Glengarry Glen Ross style Zone meetings. And these were definitely the norm (minus most of the language, although I do recall one ZL suggesting that we “reach down to see if we had some balls” given poor results). Mostly I laughed this stuff off because they were being idiots.
- So-called “baseball baptism” approaches in some cases (“port” baptisms were more common in our islands mission), but these issues were probably mostly driven by having a numbers focus that was solely measured by baptisms and not retention or growth. The lack of responsibility among missionaries for retention was reinforced by the statement that some people just won’t stay active. It wasn’t something people felt was in their control, which it’s not, but we could have done a better job at hand-offs.
That was my experience as a missionary anyway, and the funny thing is that as a result, I have found that I’m actually pretty good at sales, although I avoid the slimy tactics that I saw from time to time. In a mission skit at a conference, some elders did a funny but telling sketch in which they were teaching an investigator as if it really was a used car sale.
ELDER: We’ve got a great Celestial Kingdom plan for you that comes with baptism. What do you think?
INVESTIGATOR: Well, I’m not ready to give up smoking.
ELDER: That’s totally fine. We’ve got another package called our Terrestrial Kingdom package. And guess what–that also comes with baptism!
INVESTIGATOR: Well, that sounds good, but I’m not so sure about giving up sex with my girlfriend.
ELDER: No problem! There’s a package that’s just right for you. It’s our Telestial Kingdom package. That also comes with baptism. So what’s it going to take to put you in a font today?
It was an effective skit at getting the point across, taking a swipe at some of the tactics that were used. For those of you who served missions, let’s hear about your experience:
- Did you use the Challenging & Testifying Missionary or some other approach? What were the pros & cons of the approach?
- What do you think would be the ideal approach for missionaries to avoid some of the pitfalls? If you were a mission president, how would you avoid the issues you saw as a missionary? What numbers would you measure?
- Do programs like this work or simply create a scorched earth effect for future missionaries?
- Did you see yourself as primarily a teacher, a salesperson, a therapist or something else?
- Did leaders in your mission push the numbers too much or get caught up because of the need to have successful results or did they avoid that? Did the sisters stay out of the fray because they weren’t considered eligible for leadership?