I talk to strangers. I’ll chitchat about the weather with other people waiting for the train. I exchange stories about grocery shopping with toddlers with young mothers in the checkout line. So when I was looking at the art display at the library and another woman approached me and commented on it, I easily fell into conversation with her. We chatted about art until suddenly she pivoted the conversation to her faith in God.

“Oh,” I thought to myself, “I’m a missionary contact.”

I wasn’t in a hurry. Why not have a conversation? We had a conversation. Very politely, we found out that we’d both been raised LDS. She brought up the Bible and talked about how hard the KJV is to read. I agreed and said I had two other modern-language translations of the Bible (which I do). I think that derailed the first part of her script.

We agreed that the most important thing is being a good person and being kind to others. I said that I think the most important part of kindness is treating the poor and marginalized well. She thought that was valid.

She brought up the Bible as the word of God. I said that once I’d set aside the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, I’d also set aside the Biblical prophets and focused mainly on the four Gospels. She countered with “No Man Knows My History,” to make the point that Joseph Smith wasn’t a real prophet like the Biblical prophets. I counter-pointed that we didn’t have contemporaries of Paul or Moses who could have written exposés about them. I said that I don’t believe I need to tie my life to the experiences of a man who lived thousands of years ago. Biblical prophets are just men who wrote down their experiences with God. I’ve written down my experiences with God in my journal; I have therefore created my own scriptures. 

Her shelf-breaker was racism – she was an adult before President Kimball ended the priesthood ban. Good for her. We talked about the importance of racial equality. Then I brought up sexual equality. (I doubt she would have struck up a conversation with me if she’d seen the rainbow pin on my purse before she started talking to me.) I said something like, “God doesn’t care what kind of sex we like. I don’t like sex with men. I had the sex. I’ve got kids. I’m a good mother and it doesn’t matter about sex.” She hedged a bit and said the Bible had some verses about homosexuality. So I called back to my earlier statements about how my journal has become my personal scriptures and I don’t care what Paul and Moses had to say about sex.

I assure you that, as two former Relief Society sisters in the library, this whole discussion was very quiet and polite. I could tell when her comments were scripted (“God loves us so much that he prepared a book for us”), and saw her attempts to keep this missionary experience on track. She let me finish my sentences and I extended the same courtesy to her.

We talked for about fifteen minutes before I said I had to leave. We mutually agreed that being a good and kind person is the most important thing and wished each other well. She gave me a passalong card to the Jehovah’s Witness website, which I thanked her for and threw away later.

In hindsight, what I’m most proud of is that I repeated, “I’m a good person and I’m a good mom and God doesn’t care if I like sex with men” twice. I’m not some deviant ashamed of my existence and hoping God fixes me in the afterlife. I don’t think Paul’s or Moses’s ideas about sex need to have any influence in my life whatsoever (or DHO’s for that matter).

The whole experience was annoying enough that I thought about it off and on for the rest of the day and then wrote this post. The stealth nature of it bothered me – I thought we were both art lovers and it turned out she was just looking for an opening to do her missionary duty. The script bothered me – this was a sales pitch for her. The assumption that I didn’t understand the Bible and needed help bothered me – I don’t trust people who have to convince you that you need their product so they can sell you their product.

I served a full-time mission for the Church and, at the time, I had a rock-solid testimony and the sure knowledge that everyone needed to hear what I had to say. What I thought of as faith and love now seems like arrogance. To be fair to my past missionary self, I didn’t do the bait-and-switch conversational tactic. I wore a nametag, carried a Book of Mormon, and my first question to total strangers during a street contact was, “Are you interested in God?” Anyone who talked to missionary-me knew what they were getting into.

Since returning from my mission, I’ve never sales-pitched the Church to a cold contact. I’ve talked to a couple of friends about Church things and gotten turned down. I never tried very hard. Missionary experiences are awkward, not rewarding.

The Salt Lake Tribune carried a report from independent researcher David Thomas who studies Church growth. He predicts the Church’s growth will remain essentially flat at less than 1% through 2040. He offers some suggestions for improving growth rates, such as getting the members more involved in missionary work (no thanks; “every member a missionary” was an awkward guilt trip and it should go away permanently) and abandoning the high pressure ‘corporate sales tactics’ that focus on getting the individual into the baptismal font as soon as possible (great idea, but that means slower growth). Notably, Thomas also recommends reducing the number of U.S. missions and spending more effort on adapting missionary work and worship services to local culture. In other words, Thomas believes that the Church’s real opportunity for growth is outside of the U.S. but it will have to mesh with the local culture rather than trying to import LDS Utah culture. I can’t picture the Church adapting to local culture in any meaningful way.

Annoying all your friends to come join you is not confined to religious organizations. I spent a few years in Toastmasters, a club that builds public speaking and leadership skills. I really enjoyed it, except for the constant missionary push. Nearly every meeting and every email contained suggestions and reminders for getting your friends to join Toastmasters and how to talk to strangers about it too. It was the first time I encountered the ‘missionary mindset’ in a secular setting. I found that too reminiscent of missionary work and I actively disliked the push to spread the word about Toastmasters. 

Basically, I want to enjoy stuff without being pressured into becoming a salesman for whatever I’m enjoying.


  • Have you been approached by missionaries of other faiths? What did you think of their approach?
  • I’m sure you’ve noticed the similarity between missionary work and MLM businesses and pretty much every “grow your business” service out there. Did you ever appreciate a pitch like that? Do you work in an industry where you have to market in this way?
  • Have you ever worked in a sales job? How were your experiences similar or different from missionary experiences?