How do we measure our missionary work? Is it in number of invites given? Books of Mormon given? Baptisms? Changed hearts and minds? I recently had the opportunity to follow up on an experience I had sharing the Book of Mormon over a decade ago. It was embarrassing, and it reminded me of several other embarrassing efforts at sharing the Book of Mormon. Though I might have garnered praise by some measures for these “successes,” I can’t help but feel that they were ultimately counterproductive by other measures. Not only did these episodes fail to yield a baptism, I am quite sure that in the end they turned off the recipients of my sincere zeal forever.
I have had two close friends join the church and later marry in the temple. In neither case did I give them a Book of Mormon within days of knowing them. I never bore my testimony in the canned, traditional sense. I don’t think I ever even invited them to church (though I have done my fair share of all of these things with many others). The difference, I think, was that I was an honest conversation partner, openly addressing the challenges of Mormonism, and sincerely a true friend in ways that were recognized by my non-Mormon friends.
My experience taught me what I have long suspected, that many of our missionary attempts are counter productive. I no longer admire those who constantly give out Books of Mormon, or who bear their testimony to relative strangers on airplanes. Rather I admire those who are able to make real friendships and establish conversation partners with non-Mormon friends. Such relationships have real and open dialogue about religion, not just friendships with those who happen to not share my religion, and in which it never comes up. They may or may not lead to a “conversion,” but they have substantially changed the perception of Mormons as shallow, insincere, and incapable of actually talking to those who are not of their faith.
Success in missionary work for me is no longer measured by tangible numbers such as those reported on a weekly progress sheet. Rather, it is measured in more eternally and temporally significant things like a softened heart, a changed attitude, and a favorable impression. These are the conditions that help Mormonism and Mormons flourish.