“I remember the first time I tried to be a missionary,” says Gordon C. Whiting, director of Brigham Young University’s Communication Research Center. “I was excited about the idea of degrees of glory, so I proceeded to tell some of my high school friends about it. The response was simply a lot of strange looks.
“That was the beginning of my realization that as members we often do two things wrong when we approach nonmembers. We tell them about the things we’re interested in (perhaps one of the powerful doctrines of the Church) or we tell them how our church is different (the Word of Wisdom, work for the dead, etc.). Well, much of the time those simply aren’t the things nonmembers are really interested in.”
What are they interested in? Brother Whiting and Brother M. Richard Maxfield, executive secretary of the Administrative Council, Utah State Board of Education, are in a position to answer that question with some precision because of their experience in conducting surveys and research for the Church Missionary Department. One of their projects was a study of 226 converts baptized in the United States in July 1975—a study that produced some very interesting facts about the whole process of conversion. Primarily it pointed out what appear to be three distinct stages in accepting the gospel: a preparation stage, an introduction stage, and a conversion stage. And even more interestingly, it seems to offer us some conclusions about a number of important things the member-missionary needs to be aware of and the kind of role he ought to play while his nonmember friends move through each of these stages.
The preparation stage is a time of gradual change, during which the nonmember experiences the myriad of small influences and personal moments of decision that prepare him to hear the gospel message. It is also a time of first impressions when, as a disinterested observer, he receives his first glimpses of the Church and its members.
Four important elements surface in the preparation stage:
1. A positive image of Church members. The survey showed that, prior to becoming investigators, 79 percent of the converts studied had a Latter-day Saint friend, neighbor, or colleague whom they respected; 48 percent knew someone who had joined the Church; and 42 percent had Latter-day Saint relatives. (These add up to more than 100 percent because many had more than one kind of personal contact with Church members.) What this means is that personal contact with members is a very important way for nonmembers to learn about the Church before their actual introduction to it. In fact, as a first source of information for nonmembers, “personal contact” far outranked all other media, including printed media, electronic media, and visitors centers and other public media.
Furthermore, of those who reported “personal contact” as a source of information about the Church, 82 percent said that those contacts had been positive in nature—that is, they tended to give the nonmember a positive image of the Church and its members. This percentage of “positiveness” also exceeded that of every other source of information about the Church.
In other words, personal contact reaches more eventual converts and has a more positive effect than any other effort!
Does this include the kind of personal contact made by the missionaries? No. Brothers Whiting and Maxfield inquired separately into what started investigators on the conversion process: a full 50 percent of the converts in the study were led into active investigation by the example and invitation of a member; missionaries contacted 9 percent; and the eventual convert’s own motivation to find the truth led him to make his first contact with the Church in 36 percent of the cases. (This doesn’t mean that 36 percent of our converts are seeking out the missionaries; some who belonged to this 36 percent said they took the initiative by starting to read a book or pamphlet a member had already given them, or by accepting a member’s invitation to attend church. Therefore, part of that percentage might well be added to the 50 percent who were directly influenced by Church members.)
“Overwhelmingly,” said the two researchers, “in terms of the best return on our missionary effort, look to the members to get people prepared and started.”
2. A kind of restlessness. Ninety-five percent of the people in the United States have never joined a church different from the one their parents belonged to. However, it is interesting to note that 34 percent of the LDS converts in this survey had previously joined another church, and a surprising 63 percent had studied at least one other religion—22 percent had studied three or more other religions. Relatively few of these converts had been “very active” in their previous church, while over half called themselves “inactive.” Many said they had felt dissatisfied.
The U.S. population at large, by another survey, divided itself this way: 48 percent said they were “not restless,” 42 percent said they were “a little restless,” and 10 percent said they were “very restless.” Comparing these percentages with the responses given by the eventual converts in the Whiting/Maxfield survey, we find the figures reversed dramatically: a full 50 percent said they were “very restless” before becoming investigators. The researchers therefore conclude: “If investigators define ‘restlessness’ the same way before baptism as they do afterward, we may be getting 50 percent of our converts from 10 percent of the population.”
What are they restless about? A third said they were restless and dissatisfied about inadequacies in their belief systems and what they understood about the meaning of life, while a smaller percentage said that they felt emotionally unsatisfied. Was it a crisis—such as a death, divorce, or other personal disaster that precipitated the dissatisfaction? Usually not. Only 7 percent said that they felt they had been prepared for conversion by some kind of crisis. The majority who indicated that something specific had prepared them for baptism put their finger squarely on the member-missionary: “I knew a Mormon.”
3. The importance of prayer in their lives: Seventy-three percent of the respondents in this study considered themselves praying people before becoming investigators. Brother Maxfield feels that this inclination toward prayer is evidence of an already existing and developing relationship with God, and this seems to be consistent with the element of “restlessness” and a desire to find a more satisfying system of beliefs. “The kind of relationship they already have with the Savior or want to have is extremely important,” he said. Later, during the period of actual conversion, prayer typically becomes the single most important factor.
In addition to being prayerful, some were also students of the scriptures but not as many as might be expected. Only 10 percent read the scriptures “regularly,” and an additional 35 percent read them “infrequently.”
4. Personal needs and feelings. The researchers gave all those involved in this survey a list of eight things that might be regarded as important to a new convert and asked each person to choose up to four of the most important ones. Overwhelmingly they named (1) a closer relationship with the Lord, (2) being a happier person, (3) being a better person, and (4) being more at peace with themselves. These appear to be much more important than informational kinds of things, such as a knowledge of why we build temples, etc.
In other words, in terms of appeal to nonmembers, specific doctrines became subordinate to their perception of how the Church could make them happier and satisfy their desire to improve. Or, as the researchers put it, “What they appreciated most was what benefited them directly.”
This may provide us with an important clue as to what kinds of needs the potential investigator usually has. If the results of this study are correct, perhaps in our “every member a missionary” effort we should concentrate more on pointing out the fruits of gospel living—the power of the Latter-day Saint way of life to make people happy—rather than trying to explain specific doctrines right at first.
These four elements—a positive image of Church members, restlessness, the practice of prayer, and the desire to improve—are a great key to understanding how well prepared a person is to hear the gospel. If you recognize one or more of these elements in a friend, perhaps you’re looking at a prospective investigator—one you may not have recognized as a prospect before. And if all four of these elements are present, chances are the nonmember is going to be very well prepared.
Once the prospective convert is identified, what would be the next step? Give him a Book of Mormon and introduce him to the missionaries?
Obviously that wouldn’t be best in most instances. The next step is to introduce him to the gospel in such a way that the Book of Mormon and the missionaries will be part of a context, not an abrupt encounter. The introduction stage is when the nonmember, through contact with members, draws nearer to the Church for a closer look and becomes an investigator.
The researchers identified four elements of an ideal introduction—not necessarily sequential steps, but characteristics of a growing relationship:
1. Develop a degree of closeness with the potential investigator so that he will be able to trust the information you give him.
2. Share with him the things you have in common that are important to both of you. This is the place to stop being an example on a hill and come down into the valley to walk with him. Brother Maxfield suggests that five of the most important things to share with an interested friend are (1) your feelings of happiness, (2) your confidence that you’re moving toward success in this life, (3) your relationship with the Savior and your desire for an increased closeness to Him, (4) your ability to tell right from wrong, and (5) how Church teachings and programs help you and your family.
“These are very personal feelings,” he says. “When the circumstances are such that you can share with someone how you feel about him and accept his own confidences in a discussion, it really brings you close together.”
3. Invite your friend to learn more about the gospel. “This invitation needs to grow straight out of your good feelings about that person,” the researchers warn, “not out of your feelings that missionary work is a duty. Remember, what he wants most is to know what the gospel will do for him; he’s not going to investigate as a favor to you or because you want him as a convert.” (Don’t worry about your friend joining the Church for your sake. He won’t. And will teenage girls join simply because they like the missionaries? Decidedly, no.)
4. See that he is taught the gospel, usually by the stake or full-time missionaries, in your home or at least with you involved.
The conversion process is an entire subject in itself, but leaving aside the actual mental processes involved, we might draw from this study some important things for member missionaries to keep in mind as they encourage and support their friends through the conversion stage.
Perhaps most significant is the indication that it is more important for us to begin by helping strengthen our friends in what Brothers Whiting and Maxfield call the “active influences” than it is to try right from the beginning to see that they confront and reconcile some or all of the doctrines of the Church.
By “active influences” they mean the kinds of things that change the investigator’s own behavior. The research shows that the missionaries are probably the most important factor in the beginning stages of conversion—but other things become more important for baptism. What rises to crucial importance in the middle stages of investigating the gospel, when one is concluding that the Church is true, is the investigator’s own prayers and his study of the Book of Mormon. By the time the final stages of conversion are reached, when conviction is needed to go through with baptism, his attendance at church, his efforts to live the principles of the gospel, and his desire to be like members of the Church are the investigator’s important influences. Applying the truths learned is the most decisive factor of all when he comes to the point of baptism.
Note the abundance of “active” words in the foregoing: “prayer,” “study,” “attendance,” “applying,” etc. The evidence is that the doing of the word becomes more important to a person’s decision to be baptized than hearing a profusion of words at this point. The statistics indicate that very seldom does any one feature of our beliefs or a single doctrinal point do the job of conversion by itself.
Take, for example, the Book of Mormon. Fifty-seven percent of the investigators had been introduced to the Book of Mormon before the first missionary discussion, but only a small fraction (4 percent) identified it as the most important factor leading to formal investigation of the gospel for them.
To emphasize particular doctrines of the Church at the very beginning, when the nonmember may not have a primary interest in them, may be to defeat our intentions. For example, some features of our beliefs were classified by the eventual converts in this study as “very difficult” to believe at first. These include the Joseph Smith story (difficult for 22 percent); work for the dead, progression to godliness, and the spirit world (combined for 21 percent); the Church’s teachings on blacks, women, and the priesthood (13 percent); the Book of Mormon (10 percent).
“It’s obvious,” the researchers observed, “that investigators need to understand and accept all of these teachings—especially the role of Joseph Smith. But the way we present it can sometimes cause ‘message shock.’”
Brother Maxfield feels that perhaps we can soften “message shock” by showing, for example, how the Joseph Smith story fits into the plan of salvation. Linking this story to the concept of the plan of salvation can be especially effective, for in this study the plan of salvation turned out to be not only the most impressive teaching, but also the easiest one to believe and the one that played the most important part in the converts’ conversions.
Perhaps it will be argued that people gain the deepest testimonies of principles they have the most difficulty accepting. Not so, according to this study. For 94 percent of the converts there was no overlap at all between teachings they identified as the hardest to accept and the teachings they felt were the most important. “They’re taking the hard parts on faith, just the way members do, and building their foundation on what is giving them the strongest immediate confirmation,” the researchers said.
The implications for member missionaries: concentrate on helping the investigator in every reasonable way to become active in developing his own spiritual resources and in living the gospel, rather than taking him over difficult doctrinal terrain before his faith has been built through other meaningful teachings.
An observation about prayer during the conversion stage may be important. Converts said that they felt the Spirit most on two occasions: during private prayer, and during missionary visits. It dropped to a mere 5 percent during times when they were praying aloud with others present, as at the end of missionary discussions. “Naturally,” said Brother Maxfield, “they’re under observation, they’re pressured to perform the way you want them to, and they’re paying more attention to using the right words than to what the Spirit is trying to tell them. Stress instead that they pray themselves about the items of discussion. They may need some instruction about how to pray—but remember that most of them are already praying people.”
The same survey also gave another reason for helping nonmember friends come to church—many said that they felt the Spirit most strongly during Sunday services. (It was ranked third, behind prayer and the missionary visits, as a time when the influence of the Spirit was felt.)
Anything else we can learn as member missionaries? “Yes,” said the researchers a little ruefully. “According to a survey of the general Church population, only 55 percent of the adults in the Church attempt to share the gospel with someone in any given year. Compare that with new converts: 85 percent of them attempt to share the gospel, and their average time in the Church was less than three months.
“People who are closest to the conversion experience themselves are doing most of the missionary work in the Church. It makes you think of what the Lord said to Peter about strengthening his brethren when he was converted (see Luke 22:32)—and he was already a member of the Church, just as we are.”