Being a Successful Member Missionary: A Conversation with Elderof the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy03088_000_010
Elder Richards: I’m sure it is clear to all of us—and this special issue of the Ensign further emphasizes it—that the Lord requires his children who have found the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to give others the opportunity to hear it. “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32.) In other words, the Lord has said each of us has a lifelong work to perform. And it’s a wonderful labor, because in the process of sharing the gospel with others, we bring joy into our own lives and set our priorities in order. Missionary work is really a very wonderful prescription for bringing happiness into your life.
But you know, in all our talking about missionary work, we need to consider its ultimate objective. As I go around the Church, I often ask the Saints what our objective is. Some say it is to carry the gospel to all nations; some, to place copies of the Book of Mormon everywhere; others say it is to warn the world, etc. It generally takes about a dozen responses before anyone says something like “convert baptisms,” yet that’s really our purpose—to bring about convert baptisms. Everything else is meaningful only if it points in that direction.
Ensign: What, to you, is the best way for members to participate in obtaining convert baptisms?
Elder Richards: I think there are three easy ways to be a member missionary. The first is, to paraphrase the scripture, to let your light so shine that others may see your good works and be led to join the Church. (See Matt. 5:16.) Every year tens of thousands of persons join the Church because they see the good lives of members who live and enjoy gospel principles—and maybe tens of thousands don’t join or aren’t interested because they see things in the lives of some members that “turn them off.”
The second way is to ask what we call the golden questions—“What do you know about the Mormon Church?” And, regardless of the answer, “Would you like to know more?”
The third way is to ask your friends and neighbors to attend Church meetings and activities with you. One of the problems we face is that the Saints seem to fear—or lack the necessary faith—to apply the second and third ideas: namely, asking people if they would be interested in knowing more about the gospel and asking them to attend Church meetings and functions with us.
Ensign: It is probable that 50 percent or more of the Church membership have not tried to interest anyone in the Church in the past year. Why do you think some of our people are reluctant to invite someone else to learn more about the gospel?
Elder Richards: They’re afraid of offending, or they lack faith—or both! And you know, that’s sad, because the Lord said that the “elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts.” (D&C 29:7.) The Lord tells us there are many who will not harden their hearts when we invite them to enjoy the great blessings each of us enjoys. Our job, presumably, is not to bring every nonmember into the Church—just the elect! And how do you know who the elect are? The Lord says the elect will hear his voice—they’ll listen and do something about it. But we must remember that even though a person may not be “elect” today, a year from now, due to something that has happened in his life, his whole attitude may have changed and he may have become one of the elect. That’s why we should continually, throughout their lives, politely give people many opportunities to hear the Lord’s voice.
Can we do anything less? Hasn’t the Lord given all of us many opportunities in our own lives? If we’ve grown to the stature where we’re becoming more like him, then we’ll want the same for others. It’s as simple as that.
And you know, the Lord gets involved in this! What you must do is commit yourself to do the Lord’s assignment; take him at his word, then he opens up the way. I’ve seen it so many times. He opens up the way by putting people in our paths so we can become the connecting link between them and the missionaries. It’s that simple, that basic, and that successful!
I was flying to Chicago a few months ago and sat down by a young college student who had been going to Utah State University. I asked him how he liked it, and he said, “I just loved it.” I asked him why, and he answered, “Because I enjoyed the people there.”
I said, “A good many of them are Mormons, aren’t they?”
And he said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Did you meet any?”
He said yes, he had many friends who were Mormons. One had given him a Book of Mormon to read. I asked him if he had read it, and he answered no. I asked him if he had heard of our missionary program. He said yes.
Then I asked, “How would you like to know more about the Mormon Church?”
He liked the idea. He gave me his name and address, and I told him I would arrange to have two young missionaries come by and see him. A few months later I got a letter from the missionaries saying that they had baptized him and were teaching his brothers and sisters and parents.
Just a few months later I was in San Francisco. I got on the plane to return home and sat next to a man who was going to Minneapolis. He was disturbed that the flight had been delayed and he would be arriving late. We visited awhile and I asked him what he did. He replied that he was a research scientist. He then asked me what I did, and I replied, “I guess you could best describe me as a Mormon missionary.” I asked, “What do you know about the Mormon Church?” He replied that he had a Book of Mormon but had not read it. He asked me some very interesting questions about our genealogical program. I then asked him if he would like to know more about Mormonism. He said he would, and so I got his name and address and sent the referral to the missionaries in San Francisco. In about three weeks I received a letter from the missionaries telling me they were giving him and his family the discussions.
These are just two of many experiences I have had recently, and I’m telling them because if they can happen to me, they can happen to anyone—but only if we make them happen by taking the initiative. I believe the Lord places many of his elect in our paths—puts them near us—but it is up to us to take the opportunity to be the link between them and the truth.
Not long ago, a father and his two sons from California came to southern Utah on a fishing trip and pitched their tent in a campground between the campers of two Mormon families. It began to rain, and the tourists’ tent began to leak. The Mormon families shared the warmth and hospitality of their campers with these nonmembers for several days. Even before a referral had been forwarded by the members, their guests had returned home and asked to meet with the missionaries; shortly thereafter the family was baptized.
Recently I received the following letter from a missionary who had the courage to ask the golden questions:
“When we arrived in the place of our first assignment, we went to the grocery store. As the young woman was checking our groceries I could see her straining to read my name tag. I told her what it said and felt impressed to ask her the golden questions. When I said, ‘What do you know about the Mormons?’ she replied, ‘Not much, really.’ In reply to the second question, ‘Would you like to know more about them?’ she said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I would.’
“To make a long story short, she, her husband, and her husband’s brother and his wife were baptized four months later, the delay being due to her husband being away for two months. Six weeks later another dear sister was baptized as a result of this. Two weeks after that, the couple across the street was baptized. After another two weeks, the Guild brothers baptized their mother, stepfather, and little sister in Toronto. Wendy’s mother (Wendy is the girl I met in the grocery store) is attending all meetings and wants to be taught the discussions. There were also three small children who will now be brought up in the Church, making a total of thirteen now in the Church and one soon to be baptized—all a result of asking one person the golden questions.”
Of course, there are appropriate times and inappropriate times to pursue this kind of conversation. For instance, don’t ask someone if he’d like to know more about the gospel when he’s busy with other people. But when the person can give you his attention, visit with him and ask him the golden questions. And when you do it with a smile and faith in your heart, a great many will respond in the affirmative. I would say a good third of them will say, “Well, it might be interesting to know more about the Mormon Church.” Everyone can, if he really tries, get at least one person every two or three months for the missionaries to teach.
Ensign: Some members seem filled with the spirit of sharing the gospel and others seem to have a hard time getting it. Any advice on this?
Elder Richards: Yes! Many members are socially minded and would not hesitate to invite nonmembers to their homes to hear the missionaries. The work of the missionaries in teaching the doctrine is much easier when members are involved in the teaching process. Many members will set up cottage meetings when they might not be interested in other types of proselyting.
One of the greatest missionary meetings recorded in scriptures is described in the second chapter of the book of Acts. Peter taught a “multitude” consisting of “Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.” (See Acts 2:5–6.) Preaching by the power of the Spirit, Peter taught them the simple truths of the first principles. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41.) It is clear that the Spirit can influence groups of people as well as individuals.
In the present dispensation, such great missionaries as Parley P. Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and Heber C. Kimball taught groups of people, and as a result converted whole families and communities. Parley P. Pratt reports that when he went as a missionary to Toronto he took a letter of introduction to John Taylor, who asked a Mrs. Walton to provide lodging for Elder Pratt. Mrs. Walton responded: “Tell him I will send my son John over to pilot him to my house, while I go and gather my relatives and friends to come in this very evening and hear him talk; for I feel by the Spirit that he is a man sent by the Lord with a message which will do us good.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Deseret Book Co., 1964, p. 136.)
That evening a number of people gathered at Mrs. Walton’s and listened with interest to Elder Pratt. As a result of this and subsequent group meetings in Toronto, Elder Pratt baptized a number of people, including John Taylor, who later became President of the Church.
Members can increase the power and effectiveness of the missionaries by making it possible for them to teach groups. One of the most difficult aspects of conversion is the investigator’s feeling that he is alone as he leaves his old friends and way of life for something new. By teaching his friends and neighbors and relatives at the same time, we make it possible for him to bring them with him. A group of sincere investigators will bear testimony to each other as they are moved by the Spirit. As I recall, Elder Mark E. Petersen once said, “Conversion without fellowshipping is as ineffective as baptism without confirmation.”
To arrange a group or cottage meeting in your home, screen your friends by asking the golden questions. Those with a sincere desire to know the truth will attend and strengthen each other’s growing testimonies. And this doesn’t fail very often!
Get a Joseph Smith tract. Read the Joseph Smith testimony (found in the Pearl of Great Price) every week, or frequently. As you do this, you will be filled with the spirit of the Restoration. The reason I say this is because the Joseph Smith testimony is the hub of our message: that the heavens have been opened; that God the Father and the Son appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith; and that through him as the instrument in the hands of the Lord, the gospel in its fulness and the power to act in the name of God have been restored and the church of Jesus Christ reestablished. As a result, we have a prophet standing at the head of the Church today, our beloved President Spencer W. Kimball.
That’s our message, and when we’re thoroughly saturated with it we’re willing and anxious to talk to people about it. I like to carry the Joseph Smith testimony tracts around with me. I read them and give them to people. It often opens up a conversation. I recently had such an experience as I was reading the Joseph Smith testimony. A man asked me what I was reading. I told him and asked if I could send our missionaries to answer his questions. He agreed, and I am hopeful that this will result in another baptism right here in Salt Lake City.
Ensign: Are there other ways where members could be successfully involved in our lifelong missionary calling?
Elder Richards: There certainly are! Helping the elect make contact with someone who will teach them the gospel is only a part of the process of obtaining a convert baptism. Another very significant part is working with the contact. Now I like to emphasize the word working. I’m convinced that if we’d spend more time fellowshipping those who express interest, we’d have more convert baptisms. There are two parts to every conversion—the doctrinal part (which is generally taught by the missionaries) and the fellowshipping part, or you might say, loving people into the Church.
When I was a stake mission president, we had a milkman and his wife who were stake missionaries. He was busy from about two A.M. in the morning until two in the afternoon. It was difficult for him to do his missionary work at night. But his wife knew how to make a wonderful chocolate cake. I think that during the two years she was a stake missionary, she must have easily made one chocolate cake a week and given it to a contact. That couple were very successful. Of course, they did other things besides give chocolate cakes away. They took their nonmember friends on steak fries, to Welfare Square, Temple Square, etc. They just loved them into the Church. I said to her one day, “Sister, you bring people into the Church by the chocolate cake method.”
A social transition must come into the life of almost every person who joins the Church. If only we’d underline this and underline it again. People need friends. We all do. And when they give up one way of living, and some of their friends, too, they need social and emotional support through genuine friendship. They must know that this new way of life will bring wonderful friends and happy associations. This is the responsibility of every member. The ward mission leader needs to recognize this and coordinate the work of the missionaries and the members.
For example, as the missionaries teach the nonmember Jones family, they should be able to take Relief Society members to the Jones’s home to meet Mrs. Jones, and they can invite her to Relief Society and even make an appointment to pick her up and take her. This procedure can likewise be applied to the father and children through the auxiliary groups and priesthood quorums.
While nonmembers are receiving the discussions from the missionaries, members of the branch and ward can be assigned to work with the full-time and stake missionaries to help the social transition and fellowshipping of potential members. From long experience, I can tell you that this has proven very effective. It is particularly effective with many of the part-member families who live among us.
I remember some years ago when I was touring the Southern States Mission, I held a zone meeting with the missionaries in Savannah, Georgia. That morning the Relief Society was holding a work meeting in the same building. They invited the mission president and his wife and Sister Richards and myself to have lunch with them. I said, “My, you have a big Relief Society. How many members do you have in the Savannah Branch?”
She said, “Well, about forty sisters.”
I said, “There are many more than forty here this morning.”
“Yes,” she said, “there are eighty-four here this morning.”
There were more nonmembers than members at Relief Society that morning. Many were investigators, all being worked with and fellowshipped into the Church. This approach also is very effective with many of our part-member families.
Ensign: How is that so?
Elder Richards: If only our ward and stake leaders and members and part-member families would discover this—they’d get excited. I mean really excited! Look, the average stake has several hundred prospective elders. In checking with a number of stakes, I find that about 60 percent are married to nonmember wives. We also have many member women who have married nonmember husbands. In most stakes, there are several hundred part-member families and they have many children who are nonmembers. As these nonmembers are taught, many of their inactive husbands and wives can be taught with their nonmember spouses, uniting the families and helping them go to the temple.
I’m a great believer in the power of group teaching. I would suggest grouping the younger couples together, the middle-aged together, and the older ones together. I would also consider the educational background and interests of these nonmembers. A Ph.D. of twenty-five may not have much in common with another twenty-five-year-old who did not complete secondary schooling, etc. Prayerful grouping and teaching of these families in compatible groups results in many more convert baptisms.
This group approach with part-member families has been successful in instances where a member of the stake presidency or a high councilor or bishop has called and said something like, “John, I know you haven’t been active in the Church, but I’m calling a group of men and their wives like you to come over and see me individually. I’d just like to talk to you. Would you mind coming over at such and such a time?” And you know, many come. Relatively few are bitter, indifferent, or apathetic as far as outward signs indicate. I’ve heard of many that respond and say, “This is the first time in years anyone in the Church has asked me to talk to him about Church involvement.”
At the time of the visit, the man and his wife may be invited to associate with one of the study groups where they will feel comfortable. This is where the help of the members is needed—in the social transition, in the friendshipping. While the discussions are being given by the missionaries, the following member activities have been very effective: (a) do something for the part-member family daily; (b) take them to Church meetings and socials now—this week! (c) coordinate through the home teachers the visits of auxiliary officers and teachers; (d) arrange appropriate activities with ward members; (e) take the family to a baptismal service; (f) arrange a family home evening; (g) leave Church magazines and tracts, but not all of them at once; (h) help with substitutes for Word of Wisdom problems; (i) fast and pray with them and for them; (j) arrange visits with the bishops—bishops have converting power.
Ensign: What advice do you give to spouses of nonmembers, many of whom have shed many tears and hoped and prayed for their spouses to join the Church?
Elder Richards: My advice to such persons is to show their husbands or wives by the way they live the wonderful influence of the gospel in their lives. They should be better parents and more thoughtful, considerate, and happy companions.
As much as possible, they should practice the teachings of the gospel in their homes and bring its influence into the lives of their children.
Whenever possible, their friends should be from among those who will have a good influence, who will build up respect and admiration for the Church and its teachings through their association.
Without pushing, opportunities should be made for the husband or wife to be taught the gospel. Often, this is most effective when the couple can be part of a group that is being taught. If there are others in the group who are in the same circumstances, this often helps.
Never let the husband or wife feel that he or she is an outsider. The member spouse and the family should help the nonmember to feel that family unity, “oneness,” is important, and hold tight to the belief that the family should be “one” in every way.
Above all, and after all you can do, remember that the greatest help will come from your Heavenly Father. Pray always and be patient.
But this spouse needs help. Fellowshipping plays a vital part here. It concerns me that some of our stake and ward leaders have not caught the vision of the work to be done in this respect. I tell you this is an area where every member can make a real contribution.
But you just can’t sit around waiting for someone to come up and ask you to fellowship him, can you? Life is not like that. You’ve got to get involved wherever you can, volunteer to help, and just be alert. That’s one of the reasons the Lord gave us the Holy Ghost—to keep us alert to our opportunities for blessing others, as well as ourselves. We all know of many stories in this regard—both in reactivating inactive members and bringing into the Church part-member and nonmember families.
Once when I was in Vernal, Utah, near the Colorado border, I met a sister who had just helped a family of five join the Church. She said she was down at the grocery store and saw this woman having trouble finding groceries. She introduced herself and asked the woman if she was a stranger in town. The woman answered that she was, that she and her husband and family were traveling to Colorado to find work.
Our sister said, “Well, why don’t you look around here?”
“Oh, we wouldn’t know where to look,” said the woman.
“Well,” our good sister said, “let me help you out. Let’s get your groceries and come on over to my home. Perhaps I can help your husband meet some people who can help him get a job.” They went to the sister’s home, and she got on the phone, and within thirty minutes the Mormon telephone network was humming, and shortly thereafter the man was on the way to be interviewed for work. He accepted a job helping to manage a ranch.
Do you think this Good Samaritan sister stopped there? I should say not. The family of five had nowhere to stay that evening so they were invited to stay at her home, where they saw happy family life, blessing of the food, family prayers night and morning, and all the rest. The man and his wife and three children were most appreciative and were interested. A few days later, she took the missionaries out to meet this family. It was not long before the family was baptized. And through it all, our good sister and others provided a transition into the community.
Ensign: What keeps you personally excited about doing missionary work?
Elder Richards: The joy of successfully doing it and the joy it brings to others. Once you taste the experience of sharing the gospel with others, you learn why the Lord feels the way he feels. He’s told us how he feels, you know: “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” (D&C 18:10.) I have some idea of how important people are to the Lord when I see how he helps them find the truth. I’d have to say that it is a great joy to see how lives are enriched and made better, and that in turn makes my life richer and better.
I’ve always liked this work. When I was released from my first mission as a young man, I got on the train at Boston, and I broke down and cried. I think I cried all the way to Albany, about three hours away. I prayed and prayed that the Lord would someday give me another opportunity to do missionary work. I am grateful the Lord has let the prophets know that we’re to be involved in it all our lives. I have seen how our lives can be enriched by the joy and satisfaction of becoming the link between nonmembers and the missionaries and helping others mold themselves into a new life-style and circle of friends.
There is no greater work, no greater joy than bringing souls into the kingdom of God. To go out and warn them, so to speak, doesn’t do them much good, does it? People must be baptized and live the gospel to receive the blessings of membership in the true Church. We can all help to bring this about.
By the way, tell me about your investigators and your part-member families. Who are you helping?