There’s a mantra in sales, which is that in order to be effective, you have to buy what you are selling. In essence, you shouldn’t try to sell something you don’t think is a good enough product for you to buy. The buyers will pick up on your lack of sincerity, your lack of confidence. It is also helpful that you are familiar with the product or service through use, enough to understand the customer mindset. It’s one reason that a lot of “celebrity” endorsements (or podcasters touting products) rely on giving the spokesperson free access to the product or service so they can honestly say they use it when they are explaining the benefits to their followers. Influencers rely on these kinds of endorsement relationships as well. In advertising and sales, it’s a tale as old as time.

How does this apply to missionary work? We are often told that the most important convert is the missionary him/herself, not the new church members. This often reminds me of the idea that “a testimony is found in the bearing thereof.” I guess the act of crafting a pitch is supposedly at least sufficient to sell the salesperson.

Of course, if your target market is also the salesforce, that’s an MLM. The reason MLMs are often decried is that they rely on the labor and financial investment of those who garner the least benefit: those at the entry level or lowest rung. Everyone who enters an MLM is pitched on the idea that they can earn more by rising in the ranks, gaining prestige and wealth in the process, but the financial system relies on the majority being at the bottom, financially supporting those above them.

This is one reason I’m not a big fan of BNI groups (Business Networking International), although I see it as a necessary evil for new businesses with a limited time frame for returns. If you aren’t familiar with BNI, it’s an international organization that small business owners can join and attend local chapter meetings with other business owners. As a group, these business owners agree to promote each others’ businesses to their customers. There are quotas for referring new business to other owners. What often happens, though, especially when a specific monthly goal might be missed, is that many business owners end up buying from each others’ businesses. Can’t find a customer who needs a handyman or mechanic? Well, you can refer yourself to get that cabinet built or that car tuneup instead.

But what that means is that you’ve paid a membership fee to also pay someone to build a cabinet or tune up your car. If you’re lucky, you also got a bagel out of it. But, face facts, you also paid for that. You might even be satisfied with the outcome. I got a couple of chairs expertly refurbished this way. I developed a mutual relationship with a really good carpet cleaner who still does my house for free sometimes when my business refers a big job his way. I gained a friendship with a high end contractor who still brings me business and whom I still refer, even though we haven’t been in the group together for years.

Unfortunately, I also got a really bad financial advisor this way, someone I had to fire after losing thousands of dollars. I also got a very expensive, definitely not worth it, business lawyer who cost probably six times the amount he benefited us. These are the downsides of buying what you were supposed to be selling when you weren’t really that convinced. I got a temp from an agency who literally could not remember our company name when she answered the phone. I finally let her go home after about the twentieth time of reminding her how to answer the phone. I also got a commercial real estate agent who was such a pain to work with that our relationship with our new landlord got off to a rocky start, with her nearly backing out because our agent was so antagonistic.

Ultimately, the point is that you can refer others to something you believe in, particularly if you’ve got firsthand experience, but if you don’t really have that or you aren’t sure about what you are selling, your pitch isn’t going to be effective to others. If you served a mission, you doubtless experienced the difficulty of a companion who didn’t really want to work or didn’t believe in what you were there to do. They might have been passive in talking to people, relying on you to do all the work, or they might have been actively sneaking out and breaking rules. You might have even been this person! In my mission, I couldn’t find an elder willing to perform our baptism once, resulting in the investigator panicking and leaving while I tried in vain to get someone to perform the ordinance.

Aside from these more egregious examples of missionaries who lack commitment but are sent out to solidify their commitment (or to further sink their cost?), there’s also the risk that a missionary may “de-convert” themselves. We tend to think of returned missionaries as stronger in the faith, more committed to a lifetime of gospel observance and church participation, but the opposite can be the result. After all, showing someone how the sausage is made is precisely the sort of thing that turns people off sausage. And missions can really expose the old sausage factory.[1]

A mission can expose missionaries to the church at its worst: bullying and hazing by immature leaders, mission presidents who lack inspiration, sexist attitudes among entitled elders, being paired with people not of one’s choosing, pointless rules, social isolation, feeling like an embarrassment and a pariah, deep diving into very limited study materials, criticism from outsiders who often have more knowledge, experience and expertise, and worst of all, hours and hours of boredom. Sometimes these factors result in more commitment; after all, so does being in the trenches which is also unpleasant. But sometimes, a mission erodes whatever interest a young person may have had in the Church, and given the stigma associated with not serving or leaving early, it can be a big exit ramp.

Historically, the Church has determined that missions are worth these risks, and that on the whole, they pay off in terms of longer-term commitment and conversion. But it also feels like some factors are making this risk bigger and the payoff less. With increased internet information, the rise of a generation who rely on social apps for personal connection, accompanying levels of anxiety and depression, the expectation that one must defend the Church’s stance even if disagreeing, and economic factors that make taking a two year break from earning and advancing one’s career less desirable, a mission is becoming a bigger, more difficult sacrifice than it was for me back in the late 80s. Maybe it’s time for a more flexible program or for other changes.

The addition of service missions as an alternative might have provided this type of flexibility, but instead, it is reserved as a second choice for those declined for regular service (e.g. due to local leader discretion about mental health or other concerns), not seen as on par with proselytizing. It is also not up to the individual to “choose” a service mission simply because they don’t want to knock on doors. Missions are as encouraged as ever, will the current leadership still instructing the youth that all men should serve, and women can serve if they want. For men, it’s a rite of passage, and if you don’t do it, there’s a stigma. You may not be seen as having the necessary maturity or commitment to fully participate or be eligible for all callings. You didn’t buy what you were supposed to sell. You used Windex when you were supposed to be using Melaleuca.

Maybe having less life experience is desirable in a sales force. As adults, most of us realize that things aren’t so black & white, that the church has positives and negatives, that there are tragedies in the human condition that require complex solutions, and that we aren’t really in an actual daily war with Satan so much as our own human impulses and errors.

  • Would you recommend mission service to a young person today? Why or why not?
  • How do you perceive the differences between serving a few decades ago vs. serving now?
  • Have you ever tried to sell what you didn’t buy? How did that work out?


[1] That metaphor sounds dirtier than I intended, but I’ll allow it.