How Should Evangelicals Approach Mormon Missionaries?
A triad of posts appeared this week: “How to Witness to Mormon Missionaries. Or, what to do when you have Mormon missionaries at your door” by Bridget Jack Meyers of ClobberBlog, “Witnessing to Mormon Missionaries” by Tim of LDS & Evangelical Conversations, and “Three Evangelical Perspectives on Witnessing to Mormon Missionaries” by Aaron Shafovaloff at Mormon Coffee. While these three authors do not represent a unified school of thought as to how to approach Mormon Missionaries as Evangelicals, each is a self-identified Evangelical Christian and offer his or her perspective in the matter.
Perhaps you are wondering what I think about these distinct posts from my perspective of interfaith dialogue and interreligious communication. If you are, you’ve come to the right place. What follows are my observations, critiques and commentary.
Why Approaches With Missionaries?
First of all, I would like to point out that these posts deal not with how Evangelicals should relate with their Latter-day Saint neighbors, friends or family in the general sense, but rather the posts particularly target the unique population of Latter-day Saint missionaries.
One might ask, “Isn’t it more important that Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals develop relationships with neighbors who are living in their community, rather than missionaries?” It is very important. Having said that, however, I believe there is merit to addressing this particular issue. Mormon missionaries may be the only Latter-day Saints some Evangelicals will ever meet (or are more likely to meet) and individual Latter-day Saint feelings and attitudes about Evangelicals (mostly negative) are most often formed by Latter-day Saints while serving full-time missions.
This point was illustrated well by Dr. Craig Blomberg on Feb 27, 2008, to the Denver Seminary’s Women’s Forum in a talk titled “How Wide the Divide? Eleven Years Later, Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation.”  When asked by the audience what to do when missionaries come to the door, Blomberg stressed:
What do you do when Mormon missionaries come to the door? Single most important thing, even if you are too busy to talk. Be Polite! Imagine what it is like for a year and a half to two years for several hours every day, five days a week, to go door to door. I’ve done it half a day for my church and I am utterly drained at the end of it. Imagine what it is like to have the majority of totally unchurched people in our country over and over again simply show no interest at best, and slam the door literally at worst.
But I have asked Latter-day Saint leaders repeatedly, “Who when you did your mission was the most hostile to you?” and the answer is always somebody who is either a self-identified Evangelical or an ex-Mormon. That is horrible! You don’t have to agree with the theology. Be polite! If we can’t show Christian love we have no right to talk to them about anything.” (time marker 1:17:40 to 1:19:15).
I’ve also heard this point in my own conversations with Latter-day Saints and from other speakers including Pastor Greg Johnson of Standing Together. During a public conversation in Tempe, Arizona on April 25, 2008, Greg Johnson explained a time when he and Robert Millet were ready to give their event at an LDS Chapel when the bishop unexpectedly canceled the event. Greg went to speak with the bishop to ask why he canceled the event. The bishop began to explain that he served a mission almost 30 years ago and, as Greg explained, he wasn’t treated very well by the Evangelical Christians he had met. The experience had such an effect that he simply didn’t want to expose his congregation, comprised of the youth, to this same experience. Greg told the bishop that this would not be the same experience. The bishop then agreed. Greg noted that after the event, the bishop came up to him and thanked him. Greg remarked that there was healing that was taking place at that moment. 
Therefore, since most attitudes are formed by Latter-day Saints while serving missions, many who continue on to hold leadership positions in the Church, it behooves Evangelicals to seek to eliminate this source of many negative attitudes towards Evangelical Christians. I was therefore quite pleased that all three authors stressed this point in their articles. Tim writes:
One thing I’ve learned is that Mormons generally walk away from their missions with a really bad taste in their mouth from Evangelicals. Any hope we might have of bringing them into one of our churches after their mission is pretty slim, particularly if they were sent to the Bible Belt.
DO be polite. Especially focus on gentleness and self-control as these are the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Besides, Mormon missionaries have typically seen plenty of rude behavior from evangelicals. What they need is our respect.
Purpose and Role of Latter-day Saint Missions
Having agreed that this is a topic that could be fruitful, let’s now turn to specifics of the articles. I appreciated Jack’s suggestions in delineating the role and purpose of missionaries:
[A missionary's] purpose is not to seek out mutual interfaith dialogue. It is not to be apologists for the church and it is not to spend long amounts of time debating and answering questions from people who have no interest in joining the LDS church. They may find themselves engaging in such activities from time to time in their search for converts, but ultimately, the duty of LDS missionaries is “to find people, teach them the principles of the gospel, help them repent, and then baptize them members of the Mormon Church.” If you are not interested in leaving your religion for Mormonism, you are arguably wasting the missionaries’ time.
I probably couldn’t have said this better myself. I find time and time again that many people simply do not understand or appreciate the role and purpose of missionaries. For example, Aaron describes the missionary lifestyle almost in terms of prison life (i.e. forbidden to call home but twice a year, and only letters and email once a week), he also describes missionary apartments as a “budget-conscious bachelor pad” and the missionaries who inhabit them as “a bunch of 19 and 20 year olds” on an adventure of self-discovery. He continues:
Mormons tell us all the time to take our tough and deep questions to the young missionaries, because surely these guys know the answers. But that is hardly the case. These are a bunch of young 19 and 20-year-olds who are playing the part of a Mormon tradition that is designed to help them plant deep roots of Mormon commitment and belief. Many of them are on their mission to participate in an adventure and figure things out for themselves, not yet having the deep belief in Mormonism that they wish they had. The two-year-mission largely functions in Mormonism to solidify that belief.
The reality is that Latter-day Saints members are encouraged to refer interested individuals to the missionaries because the missionaries’ purpose is to teach those interested in learning about the Church. As Jack appropriately stated, the purpose of a missionary “is not to be apologists for the church and it is not to spend long amounts of time debating and answering questions from people who have no interest in joining the LDS church.”
Are there young Latter-day Saints who perhaps enter the mission field for the wrong reasons or who may not be as prepared as they could be? Of course. How many of us have always been prepared for all our undertakings? Are there also young Latter-day Saints who have studied and learned for themselves and gained a witness for themselves prior to entering the mission field? Absolutely!  On this point, I plead with Evangelicals to take a charitable view of Latter-day Saint missions and missionaries. Let’s remember Krister Stendahl’s admonition: “Don’t compare your bests with their worsts, but compare bests with bests.”
I would also remind future Latter-day Saint missionaries that their behavior largely influences how Evangelicals think of Mormons. It is clear to me that many Evangelical’s negative attitudes of Mormons comes largely from their experiences with Mormon missionaries .
Tim’s writings reveal that he simply does not respect the purpose of Latter-day Saint missions. For example, he suggests that Evangelicals try to find out the first name of missionaries as a bonus.
If possible, pry their first names out of them. Don’t be too pushy, they’re “technically” not supposed to use them. But gently chide them about both of them not really being born with the first name “Elder.”
A charitable reading may suggest that Tim hopes that knowing the first names of missionaries will create a sense of intimacy or familiarity. However, Tim’s view is that missionaries are “stripped of their first name.” . This is a serious misunderstanding of the purpose of the title Elder regarding missionaries. I’ve known some people who would call missionaries by their first name and never address them as Elder. I think this is very bad form and demonstrates either misunderstanding or a lack of respect for the faith community of others.
The term Elder is used when referring to missionaries as well as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It is not a first name that is being denied but rather it is a title signifying that one is called to serve. For Evangelicals who are used to a more informal worshiping style with lack of hierarchical church organization where a leader may be referred to as “Pastor Bob” the term Elder Smith may seem awkward or contrived. However, part of being polite is to respect the usages of titles, as it is used in a particular faith community.
In addition, part of being polite to the missionaries is to not intentionally masquerade as a potential investigator to squander the time of the missionaries. Of course perhaps it could be the goal of some individuals to deliberately keep missionaries away from achieving their purpose of teaching those genuinely interested in Mormonism by deceptively keeping the missionaries busy and perhaps getting them to doubt their faith in the process. Jack’s suggestion (listed as option 1) that if you are not interested in the Mormon Church, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling the missionaries just that: “I’m not interested.”
Jack offers another alternative (option 2) and that is to engage in interfaith dialogue. She writes, “Explain that while you are not interested in joining the church, you would not mind learning more about what they believe if they are willing to learn more about what you believe.” (emphasis added). I greatly appreciate Jack’s suggestion about being forthright about one’s interest in the church and her overall suggestions would be applicable to interfaith dialogue with anyone.
One of the concerns I have with approaches advanced by Tim and Aaron is the slight tendency to mask one’s interest in the Church, to be somewhat vague about it, in order to entice missionaries to accept invitations and keep coming back for more. Tim suggests:
Answer the door, smile politely and say “I would LOVE to talk with you more about faith, but I’ve found that it’s really difficult to find meaningful conversation with strangers. Would you like to come back on a different night and have dinner? We could just get to know each other a little bit first and then on another night we could meet up again to talk about each other’s faith.”
This sounds as if the person is genuinely interested in learning about Mormonism. I prefer Jack’s approach or some combination such as “I want to be upfront with you that I’m not interested in joining your Church, however, I would love to invite you over for dinner and I am genuinely interesting in hearing about your beliefs.” Missionaries can then make up their own mind on what is the most effective utilization of their time.
Getting Missionaries to Break Mission Rules?
This is another area where Tim reveals a complete lack of respect for the Latter-day Saint missionary tradition. Tim writes:
See if [the missionaries] want to play a board game (If they take you up on video games they’re breaking the rules. They’ll have fun, but feel guilty later).
Let them know at some point in the evening that your phone and internet access are available to them if they’d like to contact somebody back home. They will decline, but make sure they know that they can return any time in the future to use either one.
Tim has knowledge concerning appropriate conduct for missionaries during their time of service, and yet suggests that Evangelicals intentionally invite missionaries to ignore such rules. I find this very distasteful. In a more recent post, Tim describes a mission experience in even more grave terms than Aaron does. According to Tim, a Mormon mission is “a breeding ground for emotional and spiritual abuse,” and as a result Evangelicals should offer their homes to missionaries as “some place safe” and a “sanctuary” from abuse and harm. Especially so, Tim adds, “if just one Mission President is inclined to be abusive” and “on the off-chance that he’s not kind and decent.” In other words, Evangelicals should open their home to missionaries as a kind of “safe haven” for the spiritual abuse and emotional turmoil that might befall them. So, Evangelicals should be willing to “giv[e] them a lifeline out of an abusive situation” by allowing missionaries to use their home phone. This is an extremely unflattering view of missions and missionaries and mission presidents. I think I don’t need to say anymore on this point.
Preach the Good News
Other than these distasteful points, I do appreciate Tim’s suggestions. He offers three steps: Step 1. The introduction (making two appointments) . Step 2. The dinner (to build a relationship of trust and not discuss theology). Step 3: The testimony meeting (let the missionaries share their testimony and then you share yours). One thing I do appreciate about Tim’s suggestion is to share the positive things that God has done for you in your life. This is quite different from other approaches where the goal isn’t to tell the “good news” of the Gospel, but the “bad news” of Mormonism. Tim suggests:
When they’re finished, ask if you could share your own testimony. This is your own story of what Jesus has done for you, so I’m not going to tell you how to script it. Your story is more powerful than anything I could tell you to say. . . If this is all you do, you’ve just given those young men (or women) an oasis experience amidst a very difficult two years. They WILL remember your kindness and hospitality and they will remember that it was someone desperately in love with Jesus who gave it to them.
I agree. I think more Evangelicals should take the time to share the good news of the Gospel with Latter-day Saints, rather than the bad news of Mormonism, and I give kudos to Tim for making the suggestion. I think this would help to decrease the negativity towards Evangelicals that young Latter-day Saints sometimes learn in the mission field. In fact, I would urge Evangelicals to use this approach not just with the missionaries but the Latter-day Saints in their neighborhood.
What is your motivation behind asking Mormons to share their testimony?
One thing, however, I would like to point out is to be sincere. In other words, don’t just go through all of this if you really aren’t interested in really listening to these missionaries.
I’m reminded by a segment in the introductory video “Grounded: Relating to Your Mormon Friends in Truth and Love,” a training program for youth ministries developed by produced by David Pascoe and the Salt Lake Theological Seminary and is promoted by John W. Morehead, who served as a consultant, and the Neighboring Faiths Project. In one segment, one Evangelical youth leader explained an experience of one of youths with LDS missionaries:
And we were just going all to hang out to eat some ice cream and so we’re are sitting [and] just got our ice cream, and two LDS missionaries walk in. One of the teens with me [said] “Well I’m gonna go and share my faith with them.” So he goes up and starts dialoging with these missionaries. And he just kept on giving them question after question after question talking and asking them about what they believe. And in the process I noticed the LDS missionary kind of pausing and just kind of looking at the guy more and more intent. And finally toward the end of the conversation the LDS missionary turned to the Christian teen and said “You know, I don’t think you care about me a bit. Every time I answered one of your questions, you were in the process thinking of the next question to ask me. You are not even listening to my answer.” And that teen has never forgot that. Watch video here.
The point is that people can tell if you are not sincere, if you know you aren’t interested in hearing what the missionaries have to say, but still want to share a message with them, just be forthright about it.
Aaron’s approach is kind of like Tim’s approach on steroids. Rather than 3 steps there are a series of invitations, always keep inviting the missionaries back and back and back and entice them with dinner and dessert and more dessert. (Images of Hansel and Gretel come to mind). Furthermore, Aaron doesn’t just wait for missionaries to show up at his door (which they do), he actively makes sure they do by filling out referral cards at Visitor Center’s or other events and asking for new videos put out by the Church. His suggestion is to invite missionaries in and have a short chat and then “quickly get to the heart of the matter.” He explains:
I am forthright about my knowledge of the Mormon faith. “I have studied it for years, I find it fascinating, but I have some grave concerns.” But what I know about the history and larger movement of Mormonism is inconsequential for the moment, because “I would love to hear what you two individually believe.”
This isn’t a lie. Of course, he leaves out the part that he would never join the LDS church in a million years but it is true he does find it “fascinating” and does want to hear what the missionaries “individually believe.” Aaron then unleashes his dynamite question that he has been asking Mormons every chance he gets. The question is whether it is possible that God the Father could have been a sinner on another planet like us and progressed to be a God like us, and probably he will follow up with how does that make you feel? For those not familiar with this question, you can watch Aaron asking dozens of Mormons this question at Aaron’s website “God Never Sinned.” 
After letting the missionaries “have their say” and share their “series of affirmations” (i.e. I know the Church is true, etc.), Aaron then proceeds to share the Word of God from the Old and New Testaments. On this point, as with Tim, I’m pleased that the suggestion is to share the Word of God and discuss the scriptures rather than the “bad news” of Mormonism. Lastly, Aaron offers the following suggestion:
Keep a mental note of three or so tough questions that went unanswered, and write them down for them. “Would you guys please research the answers to these questions, and come back another time to share what you found?” Insist on it with a free dinner.
Aaron’s method is to keep this up as long as possible. In addition, he suggests that when the missionaries ask for someone to pray “Use the opportunity to pray to our awesome and eternal God.” I heartily endorse Evangelicals to pray to God with the missionaries.
Both Tim and Aaron focus on proactively sharing the positive experiences they have with their faith. Jack also urges this method under option 2 “interfaith dialogue.” She explains “As to what to talk about, you’re probably going to want to talk about your faith in Christ and your Christian testimony, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” However, she feels that in order to explain why she is an Evangelical Christian and not a Mormon, this approach is probably insufficient. “So when I talk about my faith,” she adds, “I spend some time discussing the things I love about my religion that Mormonism can’t give me.”
Any other options?
Jack’s last and final option (option 3) is for those who
would like to do everything you can to convince the missionaries at your door that Mormonism is not true while helping them arrive at or maintain their faith in Christ.
She explains she has less experience with this method but offers some thoughts on it nonetheless. She describes this option almost as a mission impossible, and throws down the challenge. Play the theme song here. “Your mission, should you chose to accept it…”
It is almost impossible to convert people who are satisfied with their current religion, and I have never known a Mormon who switched to evangelical Christianity without becoming intensely dissatisfied with the LDS church first. The Mormon missionaries, on the other hand, are probably not going to be dissatisfied with Mormonism. If you’re interested in witnessing to them, you have to convince them that Mormonism is in error while reaffirming the positive things about the biblical Gospel.
And that is a very difficult thing because for years Evangelicals have thrown the baby out with the bath water and when Mormons doubt God and the Church, the disaffiliation research has shown that they are more likely to leave religion all together . Among the ones that do stay in organized religion, the majority join the Catholic Church rather than any Protestant denomination . To-get-Mormons-to-be-dissatisfied-with-their-religion approach is not a winner in my book, and I think it rightly belongs at the bottom of the list.  It often ends up backfiring and strengthening the faith of Latter-day Saints. Generally speaking, it assumes a causality between disaffiliation and doctrinal dissatisfaction. Studies tend to suggest that people become dissatisfied with religion for a combination of reasons and even where some intellectual defection is involved it is usually in the context of other factors. 
In summary, I applaud the suggestions for Evangelicals to be polite to Mormon missionaries and I also think that if Evangelicals have the opportunity they should let missionaries, and everyone else, know what God has done for them in their lives and preach the Good News. I do think it is important to be forthright and let missionaries know if you really aren’t interested and not pretend to be an investigator, lest Latter-day Saints suspect that there is a hidden strategy of getting all Evangelicals to invite Mormon missionaries over repeatedly to squander their limited time and prevent them from reaching the unchurched population that is genuinely considering the Latter-day Saint faith. In one sense, however, even if this were true, I can think of worse things in life than being invited into someone’s home and being offered dinner and plates of dessert and listening to the miracles of God of the lives of others devoted to Christ. Finally, I think we can do without the unflattering description of Latter-day Saint missionary service akin to being stripped of freedoms and coerced into a manipulative environment. On this point I think it would be wise for Evangelicals to follow Dr. Craig Blomberg’s respectful and sympathetic example above.
 Dr. Craig Blomberg, “How Wide the Divide? Eleven Years Later, Mormons and Evangelicas in Conversation.” (audio) Denver Seminary’s Women’s Forum, Feb 27, 2008. I highly recommend this talk.
 See Summa Theologica blog. “Reading Scriptures with New Eyes: A Baptist and Mormon Converse.” Published June 8, 2008.
 For an example of prepared and articulate Latter-day Saint missionaries see Summa Theologica blog “Ergun Caner Interviewing the Missionaries” Published November 1, 2007. Ergun Caner, President of Liberty Theological Seminary in Virginia, interviews and dialogues with LDS missionaries in front of a live audience (in 2006) as part of his “Engaging The Cults” podcast (1:06:36 total time).
 See for example Tim’s “Me & Mormons” series at LDS & Evangelical Conversations blog.
 See “Helping Mormon Missionaries Call Home” LDS & Evangelical Conversations blog, Oct 1, 2009.
 If you are interested in an exchange between Aaron and myself on this issue see our series of comments at “What Separates Mormons and Evangelicals Most.” LDS & Evangelical Conversations blog, June 30, 2009.
 See generally Stan L. Albrecht and Howard M. Bahr, “Patterns of Religious Disaffiliation: A Study of Lifelong Mormons, Mormon Converts, and Former Mormons.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Dec., 1983): 366-379; Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, “Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 28, No. 2 (1989): 180-200. See also John W. Morehead, “LDS Religious Disaffiliation Narratives” Morehead’s Musings blog, October 03, 2008; John W. Morehead, “Religious Disaffiliation and Migration” Morehead’s Musings blog, Wednesday, November 19, 2008.
 Stan L. Albrecht and Howard M. Bahr, “Patterns of Religious Disaffiliation: A Study of Lifelong Mormons, Mormon Converts, and Former Mormons.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Dec., 1983): 366-379.
 I’ve categorized various approaches before. See Summa Theologica blog “How to Win Friends and Influence Mormons.” Published September 28, 2007.
 See Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, “Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 28, No. 2 (1989): 180-200.