Mormon Missionary Methods
This post was inspired by a post on Action Skeptics about an encounter with some missionaries. See, having been raised Mormon, I served some time as a missionary myself, and I thought some readers might find it interesting to hear about missionary training and techniques from someone who's gone through them. When I raised that idea in a comment on the aforementioned post on Action Skeptics, I got some positive response, so I decided to go ahead and write this post.
Now, keep in mind my experiences aren't necessarily representative of all missionaries. Missionaries of other denominations no doubt have some very different practices from Mormon missionaries. And even Mormon missionary practice may have changed somewhat from when I served a mission; I've heard, for example, that the set "discussions" that used to be used (I'll get to those later) have been phased out in favor of encouraging more freeform discourse. Still, I'm sure there are some common elements.
Okay...this post ended up quite long, so now that I've got that "Read More" feature implemented I may as well use it...
In the LDS church, it's expected for every worthy young man (and of course every young man should be worthy) to go on a two-year mission. Generally, they go when they're nineteen, though going a year or two later isn't unheard of. (Young women may also go on missions, but it's not considered so obligatory; also, their missions only last a year and half, and they can't go until they're twenty-one. There are also older married-couple missionaries, but much fewer of them.) In my case, I really didn't want to go. I had never really liked the idea of going on a mission. Even when I was a very young child in Primary (the Sunday School class for young children), and we sang the Primary song "I hope they call me on a mission" (yes, of course, indoctrination starts early), I'd always insert a surreptitious "don't". As for why I finally did end up going...well, it's probably not worth going into here; it's kind of beside the point for the subject of this post. Suffice to say, for now, that the pressure for young men in the LDS church to go on missions is very, very high.
As it happens, I went to Spain on my mission. It should be noted that Mormon missionaries do not get to choose where they're going; they are "called" to certain missions directly by the first presidency of the church--at least, that's the theory. In practice, I rather doubt that the first presidency of the church personally prayerfully considers each of the twenty-five thousand prospective missionaries a year and individually decides where each one is going. Regardless, the missionary-to-be receives a letter telling where he's going, and when he's expected in the MTC.
Ah, yes. The MTC--the Missionary Training Center. Actually, there's more than one Missionary Training Center; there are seventeen Missionary Training Centers scattered all over the world for missionaries from those areas; but when someone refers to the Missionary Training Center, they usually mean the one in Provo, Utah--the one that's the largest, and the one I went to. In the Missionary Training Center, missionaries are taught the basics of the techniques they're supposed to use with "investigators", as they call the people they're trying to convert. If they're going to be serving a foreign-language mission, they also learn that language in the MTC. And, of course, they get plenty of devotionals and spiritually uplifting talks--that is to say, perhaps, not to put too fine a point on it, brainwashing.
How long a missionary stays in the MTC depends on whether or not he's serving a foreign-language mission. Those who are stay two months; those who aren't only three weeks. Problems with getting visas could make their stays longer, although if it takes too long the would-be foreign missionaries are sent temporarily to stateside missions until their visa problems clear up. (My brother, who went to France on his mission, spent some time in West Virginia while his visa was being processed.)
Training doesn't end with the MTC. Each missionary is given a "missionary manual", which they're expected to study for at least an hour each day (it could have been only a half-hour; I don't remember precisely). (The missionary manual also comes with accompanying tapes the missionary can listen to but in practice usually ends up recording over.) This is in addition to an hour of scripture-reading. Then, of course, there's some time set aside for eating and sleeping, but beyond that missionaries are expected to spend pretty much all their time doing missionary work. The exception is one half-day a week called preparation day--or P-Day for short--which is relatively free; this is the time missionaries use to do laundry or take care of other chores they haven't had time for elsewhere in the week, but it's also the time when missionaries can take some time off and go sightseeing or participate in other minor recreational activities. (Though there are still restrictions, of course. For one thing, missionaries aren't allowed to go near large bodies of water. I'm not entirely sure why. I've heard weird explanations about the devil having power over the oceans, but I'm sure that's not the "official" explanation (missionary culture has legends all its own). Part of it might be, I suppose, that the church doesn't want the missionaries seen wearing bathing suits? I don't know.)
Mormon missionaries are addressed with the title "Elder" or "Sister" (or the equivalent in the local language), as in "Elder Smith" or "Sister Jones" (for, of course, male and female missionaries respectively). The reason for the "elder" is because that's a specific priesthood level that male missionaries hold; every male prospective missionary is "ordained to the office of an elder" before he leaves. Women in the LDS church, of course, do not hold the priesthood. While missionaries aren't necessarily forbidden to give out their first names, the custom is for them to be evasive about the matter; sometimes members delight in discovering a missionary's first name by, for instance, spotting the engraved name on the missionary's personalized scriptures. Missionaries are even supposed to refer to each other as Elder or Sister, rather than by given name.
Mormon missionaries always go in pairs. Sometimes in threes, if the numbers don't match up, but never singly. If you ever see a Mormon missionary by himself, that missionary is in serious violation of the rules and is going to get in big trouble if his mission president finds out. (Ah, yes, the mission president. That's the guy in charge of the mission, usually a married man with children who moves his whole family to the area he's serving in for the three-year duration of his calling.) Each missionary is assigned a companion, although missionaries can and do switch up occasionally for various reasons (such as if a district or zone leader--a missionary in a supervisory position--wants to go out with the missionaries of his district or zone to see them in action). Companionships generally stay together for two to four months, senior couple missionaries naturally being an exception--their companions are their spouses. (Aside from senior couples, missionaries are only paired with companions of the same gender.) Also, incidentally, missionaries usually stay in a given area for two to six months before they're transferred to somewhere else within the mission. (I was never in an area for less than five months in my mission, but that's very unusual.) All decisions about transfers and companionships are made by the mission president.
Anyway, that's the general missionary lifestyle. But I said I was going to write about their training and teaching techniques, and I haven't really gotten into that yet. So here goes.
The stereotypical image of the Mormon missionary is of clean-cut young men knocking on doors and asking people if they want to hear about Christ's visit to America, or something like that. While missionaries do do that, it's only if they can't avoid it; such cold calling is considered about the least effective way to try to get converts. More effective is convincing existing members to introduce the missionaries to their friends, or following up on "media referrals"--people who have called to request videos that the church offers through television commercials, for instance. (Frequently there are lessons in church about helping out the missionaries, stressing that something like 1% of the people the missionaries find knocking on doors end up being baptized, but 50% of those who are introduced to the missionaries through member friends. Or something like that; I don't remember the exact percentages.) Missionaries may also do street presentations, but that takes more preparation and isn't all that much more effective than just knocking on doors. When I was in Spain, there weren't many members of the church, and there weren't any media referrals (those commercials didn't run there), so I had to do a lot of knocking on doors, but where the church is more established there's much less of that--though even where that's the case, the mission president may, and I think usually does, encourage the missionaries to spend some time going door-to-door just on principle.
One of the main tactics missionaries are taught to use is called "Building Relationships of Trust". This involves trying to get into conversation with a person based on common interests or other topics the person might want to talk about, and building a rapport with him before broaching the subject of religion. A missionary might begin by complimenting a woman on her garden, say, or by asking someone what kind of music he likes, and try to draw the person into a conversation before asking if he can discuss the church with them. Even when discussing religion, Building Relationships of Trust continues on; the missionary is encouraged to try to build on common beliefs rather than initially emphasizing their differences. The very first of the missionary discussions (again, I'll get to those a little later) starts out by affirming the LDS church's commonality of belief with other churches: "Like most people, we believe in God." (I'm not sure if that's the exact wording in English; I taught the discussions in Spanish, of course, and I remember the words in that language: "Como la mayoría de las personas, nosotros creemos en Dios...")
(Incidentally, as a sign that this building on common beliefs isn't something unique to the LDS approach: Once on my mission another missionary somehow got his hands on a pamphlet given to Jehovah's Witnesses to supply them with different approaches to open a discussion. (I don't know if this was something issued by the worldwide leadership of the Watchtower Society or just a local thing.) Unlike the LDS missionary manual, the Jehovah's Witness pamphlet listed specific responses the would-be proselytizer could use for various objections his interlocutor could raise. Among the responses were the following: If the person the Jehovah's Witness was talking to objected that he was already a Christian, the Jehovah's Witness was told to reply, "That's all right. We're Christians too." If the person the Jehovah's Witness was talking to objected on the grounds that he didn't believe in Christ, the Jehovah's Witness was told to reply, "That's all right. We're not Christians either." My fellow missionaries and I found this blatant incitement to deceit (after all, the two responses are contradictory; one of them has to be a lie) rather amusing. Still, it goes to show that the Jehovah's Witnesses--and presumably other missionaries as well--also try to build on common ground.)
When the missionary does get in to talk to someone--either because of a media referral or a referral from a member or just because he meets an unusually receptive person in his door-to-door travails--that's when the discussions begin. A missionary will generally ask (after the requisite Building Relationships of Trust, of course) whether his interlocutor is willing to have some brief discussions about religion. Of course, the person the missionary is speaking to has no idea that the "discussions" in question are in fact specific prepared presentations--or at least were when I was a missionary; as I mentioned before, I've heard the prepared discussions have since been phased out. Still, I'll keep referring to the discussions as they were at the time, since that's what I know and since I assume that, even if they're not using the specific discussion format, the missionaries today are still encouraged to talk about the same topics, just in a less formalized procedure.
The first discussion starts out, as I've mentioned, with the assurance that Mormons believe in God. It then segues into the fact that Mormons believe in continuing revelation--in the existence of prophets today that receive word directly from God. The story of Joseph Smith's "First Vision" is then related, and when I was a missionary we were encouraged to learn his first-person account of his vision, if nothing else, by heart, the idea being that if we could say it while maintaining eye contact with the investigator, rather than having to refer down to the discussion booklet, it would be that much more compelling and effective. Let's see how well I still remember those words:
Vi una columna de luz, directamenta arriba de mi cabeza. Y esta columna gradualmente descendió sobre mí. Y al descender sobre mí esta luz, vi en el aire arriba de mí a dos personajes, cuyo fulgor y gloria fueron más brillante que el sol. Y uno de los personajes me habló, llamándome por mi nombre, y me dijo, indicando al otro, "Éste es mi hijo amado. Escúchalo."
Eh...okay, that wasn't completely correct (here's the actual account, starting in the last line of verse 16 and eliding the first sentence of verse 17), but considering how long it's been, not too far off. That was really drilled into my head. (The English version, if you're curious, is here--again, starting at the last line of verse 16 (beginning with "I saw a pillar of light") and continuing through verse 17, skipping the first sentence ("It no sooner appeared..."). Since I was serving a Spanish-speaking mission, it's in Spanish that I memorized it.)
Anyway, the missionaries then bring up the Book of Mormon, though without fully explaining its premise and backstory; that's for a later discussion--I think maybe number four (we seldom got past the first one or two in my mission, so I'm foggier on the later ones). In particular, they read with the investigator three specific verses: Moroni 10:3-5, known in the church as "Moroni's promise":
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
God here promises, the missionaries explain, that anyone who reads the Book of Mormon and sincerely prays to ask Him if it is true will receive the witness of the Holy Ghost testifying of its truth. They then give the investigator a copy of the Book of Mormon (if they haven't already) and ask him if he'll read it and pray about it. Of course, those who've come this far and who say yes generally already want to believe, so if they do read and pray about it they'll probably be able to convince themselves they've received such a witness (or a "testimony", as it's generally called within the church).
Incidentally, this touches on another technique that missionaries are taught to use. Whenever the missionary asks an investigator to do something, he's encouraged to always ask a direct "will-you" question. Not, "So, would you like to ask God if the Book of Mormon is true?" Not, "What do you think about asking God if the Book of Mormon is true?" But "Will you ask God if the Book of Mormon is true?" The idea is that here the investigator has unambiguously committed to doing what the missionary has asked, whereas if he'd asked the question in a weaker way the investigator wouldn't necessarily have really promised to do anything. The missionary is told to always ask "Will you" questions. "Will you come to church this Sunday?" (not "Do you think you can come to church this Sunday?"). "Will you get baptized?"
Ah yes...that question. In the six discussions, care to guess where it comes up? No, not the sixth. The second. By then, the hope is that the investigator has already prayed about the Book of Mormon and received a testimony of its truth--and hey, if he knows the Book of Mormon is true, then the church must be true too, and what's to prevent him from being baptized? Naturally, the investigator doesn't always commit to being baptized on the second discussion, and he isn't expected to--but the question is brought up that early to get him thinking about it.
During the discussions, the missionary also works to get the investigator introduced to the local congregation, and feeling comfortable there. Getting the investigator to come to church is a big part of this, of course; missionaries are also encouraged to teach the discussion with a regular member of the congregation present, if possible, to help build ties between that member and the investigator. (And, of course, the members are encouraged to help out, with teaching with the missionaries, with being welcoming toward investigators attending the church, and with referring the missionaries to their friends: former church president David O. McKay originated the phrase "Every Member A Missionary", and it's a phrase that's been frequently repeated in the church since--and the principle behind which was around well before President McKay.)
Well. I hope some of you have found this account of missionary training and techniques interesting. As I said, this was specific to Mormon missionaries, because that's what I was and what I know from first-hand experience, but I'm sure some of the same principles, if not the details, are had in common by missionaries of other denominations too.
So what should you do if the Mormon missionaries show up at your door?
Well, as tempting as it might be, I'd discourage you from being too rude or nasty to them. Yes, they may be trying to push their religion on you, but (for the most part) they're brainwashed kids who don't know any better; they're not necessarily bad people, and they're not the ones who deserve your full scorn. (Though of course, having served my time as a missionary myself, I may be a little biased here.) Generally, if you firmly tell them you're not interested, they'll leave you alone, though you may have to repeat yourself a few times. (Of course, if they start getting too pushy--they're not supposed to, according to their training, but that doesn't mean some of them may not try it--, well, then it may be justifiable to be rude to them, if that's what it takes to get them to go away.)
If you've got the free time, though, now that you have some idea what's coming, it might not be an altogether bad idea to invite them in and talk to them--and see if you can get them to reexamine their beliefs. Of course, they've been thoroughly trained on how to address most common concerns, but they're generally not expecting someone to dig too deep at the roots of their own convictions. Ask them, maybe, for instance, how they know the witness is really coming from the Holy Ghost, and that they're not just imagining it themselves--they'll have an answer to that, but not a very convincing one. Sure, most of them are probably thoroughly enough indoctrinated that they won't be willing to seriously entertain any challenge to their beliefs...but maybe it's possible to sow in some of them some seeds of honest doubt that can take root later.
But of course, I'm not saying that everyone should necessarily invite missionaries into their homes and try to deconvert them; I know not everyone has that kind of time, or enjoys that kind of confrontation. At best, though, however you want to deal with them, maybe now you have a better idea of where missionaries are coming from, and how they work. Do with that information what you will.