Sharing the Gospel with Friends: A Group Approach


In November 1961, in a stake leadership meeting, I, along with many others, accepted a challenge to take part in the every-member-a-missionary program which had recently been announced by President David O. McKay. At the invitation of Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, I committed myself to set the example for members in my area by inviting nonmember friends into my home for the missionary lessons.

About two months later, Elder Delbert L. Stapley of the Quorum of the Twelve, at the request of Elder Kimball, asked in another stake leadership meeting how many had actually done anything about Elder Kimball’s invitation. Only three of the fifty or so present had even approached nonmember friends, and only one had succeeded in setting up the lessons. Deeply ashamed to be among those who had not even tried, I concluded that the Lord really wanted those in that meeting to be member missionaries. After all, he had sent two of his Twelve Apostles to teach us and to commit us.

That evening, after recounting these events to my wife, we began a list of nonmembers whom we knew well enough to approach. To our surprise, the number grew to about forty.

We came to realize that what had kept us from approaching nonmembers about taking the missionary lessons was fear. We had been afraid that our friendship would be ruined and, as the word got around, the position of respect we had achieved in the non-Mormon community would be lessened. Such an outcome, we thought, would hurt the Church as well as ourselves. We were to be most pleasantly surprised in all these aspects.

While discussing how to approach our friends, my wife and I decided that our friends would more likely agree to the lessons if other non-Mormon couples were in attendance. They would be more at ease in a group, less the center of attention. Furthermore, we had been impressed with Wilford Woodruff’s success in teaching people in large groups. Apparently, during those occasions, the Spirit was very intense, so much so that listeners sometimes received a testimony strong enough to motivate them to request baptism on the spot.

Having gone this far, we contacted one of the district leaders in our mission, Elder Bruce Chadwick, whom we knew, and told him our plans. He was enthusiastic and even offered to do the teaching, with the help of one of the zone leaders, Elder Dennis Stoddard.

A day or so later, Elder Chadwick and Elder Stoddard called at our home to discuss the matter further. We decided to serve dessert each time, to break the ice while everyone visited for fifteen or twenty minutes before the lessons started. In this way we would not interfere with the spiritual influence the elders wanted the investigators to carry home.

The teaching elder would periodically ask for our comments, a signal to us, if we felt inspired, to bear our testimony on the point just discussed. We would also help answer questions. The elders decided to postpone the baptismal and Word of Wisdom challenges until the end when we could meet with each investigator individually. This avoided any hint of pressure during the group meetings without hindering the conversion process: the baptismal and long-term activity rates turned out to be higher than usual.

Before each lesson, the elders were to come early, to kneel with us as we asked for the help of the Spirit. Also, I was to ask a member to open and another to close the lessons with prayer.

Finally we were ready to set up the meetings with our friends. We hoped we could get two groups of four or five investigators each if we invited all forty on our list. One group would meet on Friday evenings and the other on Saturday evenings.

In calling on our nonmember friends we tried never to follow an exact script. However, the following is typical of what we said and did.

Asking permission. Before inviting a part-member couple we first asked the member’s permission, usually at church. We simply explained our plans and asked if it would be all right for us to call at their home and invite the two of them to attend. Occasionally we met some resistance. In such instances we suggested that the member should let the spouse exercise his or her free agency, that the member might be pleasantly surprised. These members generally agreed.

Calling at the home. We felt it was best to call unannounced at a nonmember or part-member home at a time we were reasonably sure the husband and wife were both in. Ordinarily, we started by visiting with them for a few minutes.

Extending the Invitation. When we felt the right moment had arrived, we said something like this: “We are inviting several couples for a series of seminars on the LDS church. The discussions will cover the basic tenets of the Church. Most people find them informative and interesting. Also, you will have the opportunity to ask and discuss any questions you might have about the Church, its programs, and its beliefs.” Then, without waiting for an answer, we would add: “We would like to invite both of you to attend. You may not be interested in the Church, but this will be a good opportunity for you to find out what your wife (or husband or Mormon friends) believes. It will help you to appreciate how she (he, they) feels.”

To minimize possible fears about pressure and about commitment, one of us would say: “If you should decide to attend, at some point we will probably invite you to become a member. However, we do not believe that people should join the Church unless they really want to.”

Meeting Objections. Learning more about their spouse’s or their friends’ religion sometimes was not enough to motivate them. Often, these potential investigators gave us reasons why they hesitated to attend the lessons. When that happened, we usually tried, in a thoughtful, considerate way, to answer their objections. As a result, they often changed their minds and agreed to participate.

To our less religious friends we sometimes said: “We find great meaning and personal and family fulfillment through our membership in the Church. These seminars will give you firsthand information about what it is that is so valuable to us.”

Some of our nonmember friends were religious and knew something about Church doctrines but had specific disagreements. To their objections, we usually replied, “The Lord said to the prophet Isaiah, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.’ (Isa. 55:8.) These seminars will give you the opportunity to find out for yourself if the Church is based on God’s thoughts and God’s ways.”

To nonmember couples who had or planned to have young children, we often said, “The Mormon Church has excellent programs for all age groups, especially children, adolescents, and young adults. We have found that if parents work in the Church and keep the commandments, their children usually stay out of trouble and grow up to lead good, happy lives.”

If we were certain the husband and wife loved each other and their children very much, we sometimes said: “One attraction of the Mormon Church is eternal marriage, which means that, if worthy, a husband and wife, and their children, can continue as a family unit in the hereafter. You might want to investigate that.”

When the time came to make final arrangements, we informed our couples of the meeting times and of our agenda. One of us then asked, “Will you accept our invitation?”

When we first used this approach, we were very surprised. About two thirds of our friends accepted. After merely asking just sixteen couples on the original list, we had two groups of six investigators each. So together with three or four spouses who were members, the missionaries, and ourselves, each group consisted of about thirteen or fourteen people.

To some who declined when we first asked them, we later extended a second invitation. We usually just told them we were starting another series of seminars on the Church and wondered if they might be interested in attending a group this time. We felt inspired to issue these second invitations and were gratified when some accepted.

As we hoped, the Spirit of those meetings was very strong. Overwhelmed by the experience, most of the nonmembers were visibly moved.

Usually, one of the elders led the first half of a discussion and the other the second half, encouraging questions throughout. Sometimes the investigators were asked if it might be possible to wait until later next week for an answer to a question. They always agreed, and we always returned to the question as promised. Answers to most questions, however, were generally immediate, competent, and inspired. The investigators almost always were satisfied.

We exercised great care and patience in answering questions, usually from the Bible, but sometimes from latter-day scriptures. The Spirit converts, but people also need to be convinced intellectually that the Church is true. This they can do by hearing the lessons, by reading the Book of Mormon and other Church literature, and by having their questions answered. As they do this with sincere intent, they usually are much more able to distinguish between purely emotional reaction and the influence of the Spirit. Consequently, we never tired of answering their questions and always tried to do so competently, clearly, and under the influence of the Spirit. Each question was answered, but not always immediately. Some questions raised issues the investigators were not ready to approach yet, and others would have led the discussion away from the main point being stressed. In such instances, we gave the reason why we were postponing the answer and tried to give the investigator an idea when it would be answered.

As the lessons continued to develop, we saw their testimonies of the gospel grow as they studied and prayed with a desire to know whether the Church was true. As a rule we waited until our investigators indicated they had no more questions and had a witness from the Spirit before inviting them to join the Church. In one instance, one of our friends had us to his home five times after he and his wife had completed the lessons. Each time we answered his questions for an hour or so, and he considered our answers. Finally he had no more questions, and he and his wife, both of whom by that time had gained a testimony and had a desire to become members of the Church, readily accepted our invitation to be baptized.

When all of the lessons were completed, we thanked everyone for participating and told them we would be calling at their homes. Within two or three days, with the elders, we visited each couple, answered any remaining questions, and then simply invited them to join the Church. To our surprise, in the first group about two thirds of the investigators accepted the invitation.

Within the next week or so several of our Church friends and acquaintances who had heard about our success asked us if we planned to have other groups for the lessons. We said yes, and invited them and their nonmember friends to attend. Several accepted.

This time we approached all of the remaining nonmember and part-member couples on our list. Again, about two-thirds accepted. We also called at the homes of the couples who had attended those first groups but had chosen not to be baptized. We simply told them we were having two other groups over for the discussions and invited them to attend again. To our great surprise, they all agreed to come. This time the groups consisted of about twenty-five people each, and the Spirit was even stronger.

Elder Chadwick and Elder Stoddard were better at leading the discussions, and our answers to questions were generally clearer. We were also more sensitive to the Spirit in our prayers. Several members who attended later told us they had not really known what a testimony was until they experienced the teachings and the Spirit in those meetings. To our continued surprise, about two-thirds of those who attended gained testimonies and were baptized, along with some of their children who were taught separately by the elders.

By that time, we were ready to go on proselyting indefinitely, but we had run out of nonmember friends whom we knew well enough to invite. Sometime later, after we had cultivated about thirty more nonmember friends, we repeated the same successful experience. Then we moved to Tucson, Arizona. After again making about thirty nonmember friends, we invited them to our home for the discussions. These two experiences with groups here were as successful as before. Again, about two-thirds accepted our invitation to participate in the lessons and of those about three-fourths accepted our invitation to be baptized. June and I did the teaching in these groups, since by this time we had been called on stake missions. Had we not been missionaries for the Church, however, we would have again sought the help of full-time missionaries.

None of our friends gave any indication they were offended either by our invitations or by the lessons. Only about ten percent who accepted told us they did not want to continue after completing two or three lessons. Only about a fourth who finished the lessons chose not to join. None who indicated disinterest later complained because we had asked them or otherwise rebuffed our continued friendship.

Some of our investigators who finished the lessons and initially declined to join were eventually baptized, five years, even nineteen years later. They simply needed that amount of time to be converted. Of course, ceasing our friendshipping after the lessons would have hindered rather than helped their eventual decisions. Some of these nonmembers had accepted invitations to take the lessons again in other groups in our home, in one case in five other groups. Those who have not as yet joined have nevertheless become good friends of the Church. Some still attend occasionally, and all have contributed to building funds and otherwise participated in some Church programs. We feel that most probably have a testimony but have not yet managed to join.

About ninety percent of those who joined as a result of attending our group meetings are still active. The unique aspects of the group lessons must also have had an influence: the investigators watched each other having their questions answered, being influenced by the Spirit, being prayerful, gaining testimonies, and making the decision to join. We credit the group process with developing a bond of friendship among us, which over the years has helped maintain testimonies and fellowship in the Church. We’ve found it true that sometimes the best approach is the direct approach.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Sharing the Gospel with Friends” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss some of the following questions with your family during a gospel study period.

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the group approach to teaching the gospel to nonmember friends?

2. Which suggestions in this article can help you meet objections from nonmember friends when asking them to take the missionary lessons?

3. If you have not yet approached any of your nonmember friends about participating in the missionary lessons, or if you have met with little success, what plan can you formulate to overcome the barriers?

4. Which of your nonmember friends could you invite to participate in the missionary lessons, either in groups or as individual families?

[photo] Photography by Michael McConkie

Robert L. Hamblin, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, serves on the high council in the BYU Eleventh Stake.