Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Ethics of Missionary Work

First of all, before I find myself pelted with tomatoes (or perhaps Books of Mormon) by an army of RMs, let me clarify that I don't think that sharing something which you've found life-changing, something which you think could have tremendous potential benefits for others, is a bad thing to do; in fact, quite the contrary. Nonetheless, I am troubled by much of our discourse about missionary work. I keep coming back to the question of whether it's morally acceptable to enter into a relationship with another human being with a view towards using that relationship to accomplish some other end (even a laudable one), rather than seeing the relationship as an end in and of itself.

I'm actually less bothered by the work performed by full-time, clearly identifiable missionaries. There's a certain straightforwardness to it; they're not hiding the fact that they're out to convert you. But when it comes to that more nebulous realm of "member missionary work," things get murky and at least potentially duplicitous. When I act friendly or loving to people, when I engage in service, it is because I'm hoping to thereby implicitly advertise my faith? And if so, can I truly be said to be practicing charity?

Likewise, viewing people as "potential converts" raises a host of problems. If that's the lens through which I'm relating to someone, am I going to be open to the possibility that I could genuinely learn something from her experience and beliefs, or am I going to be preoccupied with the ways in which I think my answers can fix his problems? Am I going to share the variety of my life experiences, including the struggles and the dark times, or am I going to censor out bits which I fear might not be sufficiently faith-promoting?

I find that when I discuss LDS teachings with non-members (which happens fairly often, given that many of my friends and acquaintances are fellow theology students and quite interested in religion), I sometimes feel like I have to bend over backward to ensure that they know that I'm not only talking about the subject as part of an agenda to convert them, that I'm genuinely interested in their beliefs as well. Because of our reputation for proselytizing, it at times seems that the very fact that I'm a Mormon means that my motives are already suspect in any religious conversation. It's an awkward position to be in.

I wonder whether there's a certain paradoxical element to missionary work, in that you can't directly pursue the goal without damaging the integrity of the process. In other words, it doesn't work to befriend someone in hopes of converting them, because such a friendship is already of dubious authenticity. In a nutshell, I'd prefer to see missionary work as something which enriches relationships, rather than view relationships as a useful tool for furthering missionary work.

10 Comments:

Blogger AmyB said...

Very interesting thoughts.

Regarding the ethics of missionary work, what really troubles me is the pre-baptism requirements. People are only required to have had six discussions and have attended for a couple weeks before baptism. There is no way at that point that they can have any idea what they are getting into.

I personally think that a person should know a lot more about the church, its history, and its doctrines before they are baptized. I wish that the church was more focused on helping converts make a well-thought out and informed decision than on the numbers.

5/12/2006 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Seraphine said...

I think there's been a subtle shift in how missionary work (and generally our relationships with those who are different than we are) is discussed by general authorities (at least some of them) in the past few years. For instance, during General Conference, there's been a heavy emphasis on not judging others, being genuine friends, being good examples, living a Christlike life and letting our lives speak for themselves, etc, rather than on numbers, proselytizing, etc. Since I want to think of missionary work as something that happens within already existing authentic relationships (like you emphasized at the end of your post), I've found it refreshing.

I think you also raise a bunch of interesting questions in viewing others as "potential converts." Talking in an authentic way about the church can be tricky, especially if you're someone who has a somewhat heterodox take on the church (as I'm sure you are well aware). I am definitely in favor of authenticity, which means telling people about my struggles with the church, but it's hard to know exactly how far to go in my honesty about what I find difficult. (Though of course, striving for authenticity also means being honest about how much I value the church.)

5/12/2006 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger Kiskilili said...

This issue is one I've wondered about for a long time. When I first started Divinity School, I was fairly taken aback to be informed during orientation that proselytizing is a form of harrassment (and thus prohibited on campus), so if we felt we'd been proselytized to, we should be sure to report it. (!)

On the one hand, I can understand how vital a healthy respect for other religious traditions is to the smooth functioning of an ecumenical, nondenominational divinity school. And it can be difficult even to sustain a relationship with someone who won't stop trying to convert you. (I'm sure Lynnette remembers our Bulgarian friend with whom we studied in Germany explaining at great length how the Eastern Orthodox Church was the only true church, the only church with the Holy Spirit. It was fascinating to be on the other side of this rhetoric.)

On the other hand, I found myself defending proselytism (in a qualified way) to my students this semester, many of whom believe that Christianity's focus on the "other" (in contrast to Judaism's more tolerant focus on the self) has been entirely negative. Christianity undeniably has a very black history, and there are things as Christians we should all be ashamed of. At the same time, I truly believe some fantastic things have occurred in Christianity's name.

I see genuine value in other religious traditions, and I also want to respect other people's ability to make their own decisions, even when I would not make the decisions they make.

But while I tend to be quite pluralistic, I'm not a relativist. As a divinity student I had many conversations with a Unitarian friend who believed that all paths lead equally to God. I tend to think there are a variety of valid ways of approaching God, but I don't believe every path is equally valid.

Of course, I myself am completely lost religiously. ;) But I absolutely agree that relationships should be valued for their own sakes, and not as tools to another end.

5/15/2006 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger Bookslinger said...

When I received a testimony of the truthfullness of Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith's first vision, I didn't care what the church taught or believed or did. I was committed to doing whatever it took, and believing whatever God's official church officially taught. I didn't care what the doctines or history was.

I requested baptism before the first lesson.

I realize that's not the path that most people take. But once a person has a testimony of: 1) God and Jesus Christ, 2) The Book of Mormon, 3) Joseph Smith; and if they are committed to keeping the commandments, then they are ready for baptism.

Yes, there are lots of people who are not ready for baptism after 6 lessons and 2 Sundays. However, if they have a testimony borne of the Holy Ghost, and they realize it, and are committed, then 6 lessons and 2 Sundays are sufficient.

5/15/2006 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger RoAnn said...

Lynette, I was intrigued by the idea that merely having a relationship with someone could be isolated as an end in itself. I guess I have tended to think that most relationships are initiated on the basis of a common interest. It seems they develop most easily between individuals who are either: 1) engaged in a common endeavor (including the workplace), 2) in the same place (including cyberspace) by chance and then find a common interest, or 3) actively seeking others with whom they may have something in common.

Because of time constraints, most of us can only manage to maintain active friendships with a very limited amount of people. Should we therefore refrain from speaking about the church to people we meet casually, because we really aren’t interested in becoming good friends with them? Should we not speak to many people we meet, on the chance that they might be some of those "who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it" (D&C 123:12)?

I was the only LDS in my high school on the East coast my senior year. None of my friends were interested in the Church. But two acquaintances asked me questions about it, took the lessons in my home, and were eventually baptized. I had little in common with either of those young women. I came to love them as sisters in the gospel, but the differences in our personalities and interests meant that we didn’t have much interaction at all outside of church meetings, and we didn’t keep in contact all that much as the years went by.

Learning about their beliefs interested me very little, except tangentially. I mainly wanted them to join the Church so they could find the peace and happiness I had found after going through my Existentialist phase. Perhaps you view my pursuing a relationship with those two women as “morally unacceptable” because my primary motivation was to use the relationship to share the Gospel with them, rather than the relationship itself. I guess I saw it as being an instrument in the Lord’s hands to help others find the truth. This is pretty much the way I viewed my role as a full-time missionary.

Bookslinger, I agree with you that if a person knows he/she has a strong testimony of those core elements (which I take to include faith in Christ as our Savior and Redeemer), and is truly repentant, he/she is ready to be baptized. :)

5/15/2006 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger Rusty said...

It seems the problem is in the foundation of the friendship, not in the possibility of sharing the gospel with them. If you build a relationship in order to introduce them to the gospel then yes, I think you might have a case. But if you have built a relationship with someone and genuinely care about them then it would only be natural to want to share with them what makes you happy. It's the same reason I proselyte the goodness of "Lost" (the tv show), it's because I want others to enjoy the same joy that I gain from it.

But I'm a simpleton who never went to a divinity school, never took a philosophy class and whose masters thesis was a project, not a paper. It just doesn't bother me when someone who I'm close to shares with me what makes them happy.

5/16/2006 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

Roann, you raise some very good points. I think I might not have been entirely clear (a problem which frequently aries in my writing! ;) I was using "relationship" in a rather broad sense, encompassing relationships of varying levels of closeness; I certainly don't think you can't share the gospel with someone unless you've first become her best friend. As I said, I see a lot of value in sharing something with others that's been meaningful to you.

In my view, the purpose of the gospel is to enable us to heal and enrich our relationships-- with God, with ourselves, and with each other; that's what I meant in stating that relationships should be ends in themselves. But perhaps a better way of articulating what I'm trying to get at is to say that I think charity should be an end in itself. I wasn't thinking so much of the situation you describe, in which acquaintances were interested and you shared the gospel with them, as much as the idea I've occasionally encountered that we should perform service or befriend people because of the possibility that doing so will lead to someone's conversion. Growing up in Utah, one of the complaints I frequently heard from non-members was that the local Mormons were welcoming until they admitted that they weren't interested in joining the Church, at which point their neighbors dropped them. I've also been on the other end of this dynamic, with evangelicals cultivating a relationship with me in hopes that they could rescue me from the evil clutches of Mormonism.

So maybe what I'm trying to say is not that I think you shouldn't share the gospel even with perfect strangers if the situation warrants it, but that I don't think you should enter a relationship under false pretenses.

I don't know. Like Kiskilili, I have a lot of mixed feelings about proseltyzing. A couple of years ago I took a Jewish-Christian relations class that raised a lot of hard issues for me; I hadn't really appreciated just how offensive proseltyzing can be. On the other hand, I'm not ready to completely discard it as worthless, because I know people whose lives were changed because of it. I'm still trying to sort out my thoughts on this one.

5/16/2006 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

If you build a relationship in order to introduce them to the gospel then yes, I think you might have a case. But if you have built a relationship with someone and genuinely care about them then it would only be natural to want to share with them what makes you happy.

Yes, that's what I was trying to say.

5/16/2006 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger AmyB said...

"I didn't care what the doctines or history was."

That is interesting to me. I guess that's what the church encourages- to go on feelings rather than studying out the facts. I don't personally agree with that, but if it works for others, that's just fine.

"Yes, there are lots of people who are not ready for baptism after 6 lessons and 2 Sundays. However, if they have a testimony borne of the Holy Ghost, and they realize it, and are committed, then 6 lessons and 2 Sundays are sufficient."

In the last two units I've been in, the retention rates have been around 25% (that is a very generous estimate). That suggests to me that something is not working out too well. If someone is really committed, they will still be there if more is required pre-baptism.

5/16/2006 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

From what I know of it, I like the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initation for Adults) program in the Catholic church, which usually takes about a year. It gives people a lot of time to learn about Catholicism as well as build connections with the community. I also like that they have "sponsors," which gives them a definite person in the congregation to answer questions and help them through the process; I wonder if something similar would be helpful in an LDS context.

I know the issue of how long to wait before baptism was recently hashed out at T&S, and I can see different points of view on the subject, but my overall impression is that rushing to baptize a lot of people who aren't sticking around is doing more harm than good, and, as Amy said, slowing things down could have real benefits in terms of retention.

5/21/2006 03:44:00 PM  

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