Bungling the Basics?

Several weeks ago during lunch at a professional conference a colleague told me that the LDS missionaries had knocked on his door recently. I took a deep breath and immediately commenced mental preparations for whatever he was going to ask me. This particular colleague is a philosopher of religion so I was fairly sure he was going to ask me about some bit of LDS history or theology. But, I was wrong.

Upon inviting the missionaries into his home and having a positive conversation with them, the missionaries asked if he and his wife would come to church. They were curious and agreed. In turn they invited the missionaries to attend their church with them sometime. The missionaries declined this invitation and promptly left. This exchange left my friend bewildered so he asked me to explain. I thought I had been ready for anything he would ask me. As most members are, I am regularly asked about same-sex marriage, the prophet, women and the priesthood, plural marriage, and the word of wisdom so I have brief luncheon-suitable answers for these questions. I was also prepared to discuss the Mormon doctrine of God, LDS soteriology, Book of Mormon historicity and even LDS apocalypticism with this colleague should these issues arise. I was unprepared, however, to have to explain the missionaries’ behavior.

As a missionary in Tokyo I went to more Shinto shrines than I can count. Part of loving the people was learning about what mattered to them and why. In fact, in my third area I am relatively sure that we were on the prospective investigator list of a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses for several weeks until it became clear to me that our discussions were no longer productive. I realize that to be fair we have to recognize that something else may have happened in the case of the missionaries with my colleague. Perhaps one of the missionaries was inspired to get up and go for some reason. But, I wonder whether there’s a new policy banning attendance at other churches for missionaries. Does anyone know? If not, perhaps these two missionaries were just bungling the basics of building on common beliefs and developing relationships of trust.

20 comments for “Bungling the Basics?

  1. A lot of ministers and pastors get upset when missioanries appear unannounced. I suspect there may have been a policy in that particular mission because of it. We went to several other churches. Sometimes it was great, other times it caused a lot of friction and I wished we hadn’t gone. It really depends. I can see it both ways. But most likely if something bad has happened they establish a policy.

    One problem is that I think a lot of missionaries hear about Wilford Woodruff converting whole congregations and get grandious ideas in their head. There is also that problem of being bold but not overbearing. Sometimes missionaries have problems with that.

    When you add in certain Evangelical groups who truly *hate* Mormons it can really cause problems.

    Still, I think the missionaries could have used more tact. On the other hand I’d hate to be held responsible for some of the dumb or tactless things I did as a young naive ignorant 19 year old.

  2. The simplest explanation is that their Mission President made a rule against attending other congregations or gave a talk on the “you are here to teach, not to be taught” theme last month. Or possibly one of the missionaries had a bad experience as a youth–maybe Uncle George attended a Lutheran service then left the Church soon after.

    The deeper issue is why attending someone else’s church is a big deal to most Mormons, who don’t typically just visit the services of other denominations. To do so, even out of friendship or fellowship, is to break one of those unwritten cultural conformity rules of being a good Mormon. Sure, there’s no *written* rule, it’s just not typically done. If you pretend there is no unwritten rule and do it anyway, fellow Mormons get nervous. (Of course, they attribute their anxiety not to their own attitudes but to the clueless, curious, or malevolent Mormon who steps out to another congregation once in a while.)

    Partly that reaction stems from Mormonism’s particularly unecumenical history; other Christians are much more open to visiting each other’s congregations, even trading ministers from time to time. Partly it stems perhaps from unfamiliarity and discomfort Mormons feel with the details of services in other denominations, especially high-church denominations. The whole stand-kneel-sit routine and the congregational replies to the priest’s prompts, for example, are quite foreign to an LDS visitor.

  3. “If you pretend there is no unwritten rule and do it anyway, fellow Mormons get nervous.”

    That has not been my experience. When I attended several non-LDS services (Baptist, Catholic, RLDS, Hindu, etc.) for a paper I was writing, my ward members were more curious than otherwise. My experiences led to several very good discussions in Sunday School & Priesthood. The fact is that most people aren’t intellectually curious about religion per se, & so the idea of skipping their own mtgs. & sacraments in order to view someone else’s just doesn’t appeal to them.

  4. I’m with Kingsley here. I suspect most LDS just don’t care enough about other congregations to visit them. This is unfortunate. As much as I tell myself I’d like to familiarize myself with different religious services, the truth is I spend lots of time thinking about it, but I almost never do it. Too much to do at my own ward, quite frankly.

    As to “bungling the basics,” I can’t think of any “basic” I haven’t seen “bungled” by one missionary or another. Ah, the joys of having 19-year olds on the Front Lines.

    Aaron B

  5. J. Golden Kimball supposedly said, “The Church most be true; otherwise the missionaries would have destroyed it a long time ago.”

  6. Have just minutes ago returned from a missionary tag-along in which I cringed for a full hour through one elder’s droopy, unprepared, meandering uptalking (“So, like, ‘member when we talked bout the ‘postasy? Because the apostles? They all died? And, like, Judas? He committed suicide?” etc. etc.), I have to say that missionaries with no social skills is a pet peeve of mine. And I’ll never forget the guy on my mission who would stand up and do football practice stretches (arm swings, torso twists, neck swivels) when the other guy was teaching a principle. Some guys have just never learned how to act around people.

  7. Aaron,

    Yep, the missionaries do “bungle the basics” a great deal (what was that famous statement of J. Golden Kimball? “This church must be true, or the missionaries would have destroyed it a long time ago”, or something like that). The key, of course, is whether they actually *learn* from those bungles, so that they don’t “bungle” in similar ways when they are husbands, father, hometeachers, bishops, etc.

    One thing I would add here is that since many members are converts (like myself), there may be a strong aversion on their part to return in any way to their old ways, hence a repugnance to going to other church’s services. I had been a convert for just a couple of years, and was about to serve my mission, when a friend invited me to her Presbyterian service. Throughout the entire meeting, I kept “judging” in a very negative way everything I saw (“yech…a paid clergy, an offering plate, written prayers, a pastor preaching without a clue…”), which thankfully I kept to myself and didn’t enunciate. I was so negative towards my Protestant experiences as a child that I just couldn’t see any good in other churches. Fast forward a few years (and a lot more maturity) to when I was an campaign official (at just the county level) for Pat Robertson’s presidential run in 1988, and I actually prayed numerous times with other Christians in their prayer circles, and have since attended worship services when invited elsewhere, and loved the experience.

    I think spritual experience and maturity has a way of overcoming our shortsightedness and prejudices, and I beileve we’re getting better with this in the Church today, though we still have a ways to go. I think the Savior’s behavior with the Samaritan woman at the well (beautifully extrapolated on years ago in a talk by Truman Madsen), is the ideal we all strive for.

  8. I confess that I have seen the missionaries bungle so badly so many times (both during my mission, and after — and most especially as ward mission leader) that when some time back a friend of mine expressed an interest in learning about the Church, my wife and I taught her all of the discussions in advance, before we would let the full-time missionaries anywhere near her.

    (When they did finally re-teach her the discussions, they were greatly amazed at what a golden contact she was, since she seemed already to have accepted everything they presented . . .)

    This was also partly for their own protection, because my friend is running a *much* faster chip than any LDS missionary I have ever met, and would have verbally chopped into tiny quivering bits anyone who taught the kind of discussion Jeremy describes.

    We also insisted that she be taught by the sister missionaries, who are a little older, a little more mature, and a lot less inclined to play macho. This apparently caused much friction in the local mission district, as the Elders wanted the baptism on THIER companionship statistical report. Too bad. My friend’s salvation is not something I was willing to risk for the benefit of their egos.

  9. Growing up in Missouri and Kansas, I went to other churches with friends every few months. But I never would have considered going to another church meeting as a missionary. In my opinion, that’s not what missionaries are out in the field to do. But I am not at all surprised that there are lots of missionaries (like Melissa) who did things I would not have done. I don’t know why Melissa is surprised to find that some missionaries have done things she would not have done. People choose. Often they choose differently than you would have chosen. That’s life.

  10. What a sweet, innocent, logical way to think about what they were doing, Melissa : ) If only it were so simple.

    Being a philosopher, I’m not content to just laugh, but rather I have to laboriously state what to normal people (like missionaries) is obvious.

    I’m not the least bit surprised they didn’t agree to go. Visiting a Buddhist or Shinto temple is completely different from participating in a service. It’s like visiting the Lincoln Memorial or something; you just walk around and look. I think it is pretty standard for missionaries to think, “I’m here to teach, not to learn from my investigators”. I don’t think we need to hypothesize the mission president’s having said anything on that to explain this. To think about other religious traditions as things we Mormons can learn from, or even refrain from passing judgment on, is very foreign to missionary culture. Plus, being seen participating in a non-Mormon service, as a representative of the Church (nametag, etc.) seems like the sort of thing that could be interpreted as an endorsement. Building on common beliefs is very different from accepting an equal, symmetric relationship as far as teaching and learning goes. When I suggested we should actually talk to the JWs when they came to our door, my trainer said, “You’re going to go apostate! We’re going to the mission home tomorrow to have a talk with the president!” and that’s what we did.

    Of course, I completely agree that if the missionaries were sophisticated enough to be able to go without cognitive dissonance, that would be a much better way to shape the relationship than declining, but let’s be realistic.

    Maybe, though, they declined just because they already had other commitments, such as to accompany their investigators to their own meetings?

  11. This reminds me of a similar experience I had once. I was in high school, and in an English class we had to pair off and interview each other. In the course of our reciprocal interviews, my Mormonism came up, and, being the good little priesthood-bearing Mormon boy that I was, I tried to play missionary and invite her to our Church. She agreed, on the condition that I would visit her Church (Congregationalist). Like the missionaries, I declined.

    I’ve often wished I could have that decision back and would have gone, but it probably wasn’t realistic at the time. I had never been to any church service other than LDS; I would have been scared that I wouldn’t know what to do, etc. Also, it somehow seemed wrong to me (the whole teach, not be taught thing, I guess).

    It wasn’t until my mission that I gained substantial experience visiting other church services and gained a comfort factor in doing that. I wouldn’t think twice about it today, but as a young, sheltered Mormon, I can relate to how daunting the proposal may have seemed.

    (BTW, Melissa, are you the one who wrote that Dialogue article about learning about Buddhism on your mission to Japan? Some of the banter here reminded me of that.)

  12. like clark, I was invited to a lot of churches on my mission (around 25) and attended most of them. Usually things went well, but about half a dozen times it really upset the preacher (one of whom went into an anti-mormon tirade and claimed our attendence was part of the devil’s plan to attempt to destroy his family).

    But overall it was kind of fun, and it allowed us to shock some people that we tracted into when they said “Oh, I go to (so and such) church” by replying “your pastor gave a great sermon on forgiveness two sundays ago. Can we come in and talk to you some more about the place of forgiveness in the gospel of Jesus Christ?” or some such thing.

    We actually got into more than a few doors that way.

  13. Probably they were 2 young missionaries who did not know how to handle the prospect of visiting another Church – I have noticed during my stint as a Ward missionary- that sometimes we had Elders who had grown up in some all-Mormon communities, and had less experience with diversity,, and they did have a hard time dealing with all the different kinds of people they would meet in a town as diverse as Ann Arbor. maybe that is waht happened with the Elders you mention

  14. Our mission policy was to not attend other churches. “I have sent you not to be taught, but to teach . . .” line of reasoning.
    The line of reasoning, though, may have been different. Scotland’s churches aren’t that exotic compared to Shinto shrines.

  15. All that needs to be done is to explain! If only missionaries had explained what I was experiencing while getting a blessing, and why they brought an older man I had NOT invited along with them when they (male missionaries) visited me (a woman living alone) I’d have joined the church 12 years sooner.

    “I’m sorry, we have duties at our own church on Sundays, and it isn’t possible to attend another church, and I believe there have been incidents in the past in which pastors have been uncomfortable with our presence at their services.”

    How hard is that? What in the world do we have against explaining things in this church, when it isn’t something sacred?

  16. well, you can make the save. offer to go yourself & call the missionaries & tell them they bungled it.

    in the new ensign, it talks a lil re: the ‘new’ ‘by the spirit’ missionary program. this is one of those things, i.e. doing something unexpected/non-traditional, that missionaries should be able to decide to do if it helps the investigators.

    p.s. if that doesn’t work…i’ll volunteer to go to the Church & w/o any reciprocity…they can go if they choose! :)

  17. While it is possible these missionaries were simply obeying mission policy or were otherwise committed with their own meetings scheduled for the same time, some of your comments suggest that they might have been responding to the “I am here to teach not to learn” attitude instead. It is this possibility that most concerned me when my colleague told the story. Perhaps this kind of worldview (self-view?) can’t be helped and even should be fostered among missionaries for various reasons.

    However, what happens when missionaries with such an attitude come home? Do they continue to see themselves as teachers to the world at large? Does self-righteous pride develop? Do they feel specially chosen or more beloved by God than others are because they are members of the Church? Does it take a certain level of hubris to believe that you are privileged with special knowledge (and even power) from heaven that other people don’t have and won’t have unless you deliver it to them? Some of my friends feel that many members manifest these kinds of attitudes and are also generally ignorant or dismissive of other religions. Is it in the MTC and mission field that this attitude is developed or is it earlier than that? Is it really necessary to tell the Priests and Laurels that they are a chosen generation, for example? Such statements may send the message to them that they are special not only for being LDS but also just because they are young. I assume that the hope is that the youth will be less inclined to sample the pleasures and products of a Babylonian world if they have a sense of their set apart status. But, I wonder if this kind of discourse ever backfires.

    Kevin–I didn’t write the article on Buddhism in Dialogue.

  18. ” But, I wonder if this kind of discourse ever backfires.”

    No doubt it does. But, always, of course, with other Mormons. Surely you and I are never guilty of self-righteousness or pride :->…

  19. Several people have mentioned the “I am here to teach not to learn” attitude dictated by some missions. However, as a teacher, I’d be nuts if I tried to teach my students without learning about them. The best teaching is based on the relationships built and fostered in and out of the classroom. You can’t have a relationship of trust with someone if you don’t know anything about them, what they value, or what they do in the day-to-day scope of their lives. This principle seems similarly applicable to missionaries. My own experience in investigating the church reflects this. The missionaries who taught me made no attempt to understand my faith beyond ascertaining that I was a protestant, and therefore apostate. They also had the poor taste to make fun of protestants and protestant ministers (!!!). I can honestly say that the missionaries did a very good job impeding the conversion process by refusing to learn much about me beyond the basic facts, and by pressuring me to get baptized at the same time. Despite all the talk of my salvation, the message their methodology sent was clear: we don’t care about you, we care about you getting baptised. It didn’t take any reading on Marshall McLuhan for my 19-year old self to figure that out.

    As a now ex-Mormon (no hissing please), I have to say that the missionaries’ lack of understanding when it came to cultural (and religious) differences was reflective of my experience in the wider church. Despite encounters with bright, tolerant and open-minded individuals in the church, I found most of my fellow members to be very focussed on themselves, and generally ignorant of other religious groups…..and at worst, intolerant of others’ cultural and religious expressions. While I see a relatively well educated group of bloggers here who know how to listen to, learn about, and appreciate each others’ unique perspectives, this isn’t reflective of the church’s general population. Some specific training for missionaries in learning how to *learn* about others’ cultures would do well for the church in general. My own experience tells me it might help retain more converts as well…

    …….but…..I digress….and am preaching. I think this could lead to a wider discussion on perceptions of socio-religious orthodoxy and praxis in the Latter-day Saint church (a tangent of which Nate Oman has touched on in his blog today).

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