Becoming a Missionary

My former mission president, Russell Osguthorpe, is presently the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at BYU. Recently, he published a book called Choose to Learn. I stopped by his office a few months ago, and he gave me a copy of the book. I’ve been re-reading it, and the book is basically a transcript of our mission zone conferences. He ran the mission like he would a classroom, and I believe that he was a master at teaching. Anyways, the book reminded me of a diagram that President Osguthorpe showed us while we were missionaries:

Pure Motives Impure Motives
Doing the Right Things Missionary Impostor
Doing the Wrong Things Natural Man Rebel

Most missionaries, he said, fall under the “natural man” category. Most of them want to do the right thing for the right reasons, but don’t, for two reasons: (1) they succumb to temptation and/or lack focus, or (2) simply do not know how to share the gospel. For example, a missionary might want to serve others and teach the Gospel because he loves the Savior and because he loves people. However, he might struggle getting up on time in the mornings. He might alienate people in the way he teaches. He might be too shy to approach people on the street. He might have trouble focusing during scripture study. He might not know how to invite members to participate. Every missionary has something they could do better, and to that extent, they reside in the natural man category.

This is not the worst place to be, because all of these missionaries, President Osguthorpe taught, can be shepherded into the “missionary” category of the above chart. He explained that they can all move into the “missionary” category if they yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and put off the natural man, and become a Saint through the Atonement of Christ. In other words, those in the “natural man” category usually just need an invitation to rise higher and do better, and they will usually respond to that invitation. Such an invitation, President Osguthorpe explained, can take the form of training and instruction. All they need is to see good missionary work modeled, and they need to have practice, direction, supervision, and experience. He tirelessly sought to do just that, and for the most part, I believe he succeeded.

Those in the “impostor” category are those missionaries who are skilled teachers, who bring people into the church, and who are successful by every external means of measuring missionary success. They “do the right things,” in that they know what to say, how to motivate members, how to invite others to come unto Christ. They have all of the “skills,” and obediently follow the instructions of mission leaders. However, they care more about themselves than the work of God. They want to succeed because they know that success will bring them attention and others will admire them. These are the kind that desire leadership positions because those positions will put them in the spotlight. President Osguthorpe made the point that these missionaries aren’t really servants of Christ, but rather servants of themselves, feigning to be servants of Christ. Their hearts are not single to the glory of God. He didn’t spend a lot of time discussing this, except to warn us against distracting our hearts with the honors of men. The challenge with this category is that unlike the “natural man” category, missionaries in this group can’t be brought into the “missionary” category by training or education. It requires a change of heart that only the Spirit can provide.

President Osguthorpe stressed that there were no “rebels” in our mission. “They don’t exist,” he said, “Nobody wants to have impure motives and be unsuccessful at sharing the Gospel.” I’m convinced that he was simply trying to draw attention away from those who sought attention by being disobedient and detracting from the work. It was a brilliant tactic. By giving disobedience no press time, and by pretending “rebels” didn’t exist in zone conference and district meetings, they eventually went away. He didn’t ignore rebels—he responded to them swiftly, personally, and lovingly. He just made sure they were no longer the focus of gossip and training.

After presenting this, President Osguthorpe invited us all to become missionaries. He said that only when we are serving Christ for the right reasons, and only after we have put off the natural man, can we really be called missionaries. In a sense, he redefined the word missionary to mean not just someone set apart and on a mission, but rather someone who is doing what missionaries are supposed to do. This includes doing missionary work in an effective way. A missionary who wants to serve God, but consistently ignores what he is taught in zone conference, Preach My Gospel, and the scriptures, who consistently neglects to learn, isn’t fully fulfilling their calling as a missionary. Now, this may sound harsh, but remember: President Osguthorpe had a “no excuses” attitude (which I love and admire). He stressed, though, that becoming a missionary is a process, and not just a two-year process, but a life-long process. While this should never excuse us from striving to do better and be better, we should remember that the journey is never finished and we shouldn’t be disheartened by that.

I would like to explore for a moment how this chart applies to each of us as members of the church (specifically in regards to missionary work). I suspect few of us engage in missionary work to impress others, and few us have no desire to share the Gospel. I suspect most of us are in the “natural man” category. We want to share the Gospel with friends and neighbors. We would love to see them baptized into Christ’s church because we love them. But, we don’t. We don’t know how to bring it up in our conversations with them. We are too shy or scared to approach the subject. We miss opportunities to invite them to activities because we are focused on other things. We talk with them about spirituality and the Gospel, but we never extend an invitation to church, or invite them to read the Book of Mormon. The list can go on.

What is the solution? Well, I agree with President Osguthorpe: I think education and training is part of the answer. We could read Preach My Gospel, ask others for ideas, and watch and observe how others do it. We could practice with other members. We could role play. We could build up a repertoire of missionary experiences to draw encouragement from. But I think the biggest part is inviting the Spirit into our hearts, and asking the Lord to make us into missionaries. The transformation is certainly possible, but it isn’t possible alone. But I believe that if we ask God to help us, He will help us move out of the “natural man” territory and into the “missionary” territory. And that is a very rewarding process, since it involves introducing our practice to our ideals, and helping them build a friendship (whereas, for many of us, they rarely, if ever, meet). It involves finally doing what we’ve always wanted to do already.

25 thoughts on “Becoming a Missionary

  1. Thanks for this insight, and for sharing a bit more about Brother Osguthorpe. I’ve really enjoyed hearing from him on teaching in the church in his role as Gen’l SS president. Nice to have a bit more background; now I have to add his book to my reading list.

  2. I am continually inspired by just how deep and meaningful the lessons of mission presidents have been in the lives of the missionaries they led. Even after 15 years, I still refer continuously to things mine taught me, and I constantly hear “my mission president said this…” at church. Surely, this is one of the most significant aspects of the missionary experience.

    I thought Pres. Osguthorpe’s diagram was very thought provoking. On the mission, I was the impostor, now I’ve definitely settled into the natural man.

  3. Excellent. The only thing I would recommend is, that instead of four groups, where a person is in one or another, is to have it more like a scatter-shot grouping. Where a person finds him/herself determines just how much of a missionary/natural man/impostor/rebel she is.

    For example, in the following (if it displays okay), E and D are both in the Missionary area, but one is more into purer motives and doing right things. A & B are Natural Man, but B is closer to impure motives, while A struggles more with doing wrong things.

    Pure Motives | Impure Motives
    |
    E |
    D |
    Doing Right Things |
    ————————————————
    B |
    A | C
    Doing Wrong Things: |

  4. Here’s the grouping again, hopefully better:

    …………..Pure Motives |….Impure Motives
    ………………………|
    ……………..E………|
    …………………….D.|
    Doing Right Things………|
    ————————————————————————————————————————————————
    ………………….B….|
    ………………A……..|…………….C
    Doing Wrong Things:……..|

  5. Ammon was undoubtedly in the “missionary” category, but he didn’t take the first opportunity to preach the gospel. I think this shows that being a missionary is not a mode of behavior so much as it is a state of mind. There are millions of ways to be a missionary, with the Spirit as the common denominator.

    A book that changed my mission was “Teaching by the Spirit” by Gene R. Cook.

  6. It is true that there is no single formula or pattern for sharing the Gospel. However, I suspect you’ll agree that the challenge Latter-day Saints are facing is not taking too many opportunities to share the Gospel, but too few. I agree that it is a state of mind: missionaries are always praying, thinking, observing, seeking ways to invite others to come unto Christ. I suspect most of our minds, however, are cluttered with other concerns and cares.

  7. True, we do clutter our minds with a great deal. But not all of that clutter is nonsense. Much of it is necessary. And I noticed while serving that members and full-time missionaries each have their roles.

    Perhaps the key is to develop charity as well as a relationship with the Spirit. Perfect love casts out fear. If we focus on not being afraid, we often push too hard. But if we focus on love, we invite the Spirit automatically. I don’t know if that always translates to standard missionary activities. In fact, for members, it can often be the exact same external behavior as one who is afraid.

  8. I’ve noticed, though, that the Quorum of the Twelve are working hard to de-compartmentalize the roles of “member” vs. “missionary.” David A. Bednar, for example, has taught that members are to be finders, while missionaries are primarily teachers. This is often the opposite of the traditional approach, where missionaries tract and contact, and bring people to church to be taught. A careful listener will recognize that church leaders are trying to persuade us that the traditional distinction between a member and a missionary is largely a false one. This, however, is actually the topic of my next blog post on missionary work, so I don’t want to spoil it too much. Let me just say that I’m nervous about the claim that members becoming missionaries means maintaining the status quo. I think that many members who truly recognize their duty in bringing people to Christ will begin to do things quite differently than they currently do.

  9. More than the finding/teaching dichtomy, I was referring to the visible and easily identifiable face of the church as opposed to those who live among people the way Ammon did. I don’t know that it would be appropriate for members to be 24/7 missionaries.

  10. And I’m somewhat confused. Are you really saying we have too much member missionary work? We have a huge epidemic of a cavalier attitude towards member missionary work, but when I write a post addressing the topic, it seems that you feel the need to remind people that we really shouldn’t worry too much about it, because it’s the missionary’s jobs. That doesn’t seem like a healthy approach to the issue, and precisely the attitude that church leaders are trying to rectify.

  11. Not at all. I’m trying to say that the type of missionary work that members can excel at is best done through Christian love, even more than focusing on tactics and strategies. I’m trying to say that the best way to overcome fear and engage hearts is to develop the love of God. Then, missionary loses the work and becomes an avocation.

  12. That makes sense. Sorry for my overreaction. As you’ll see in my next post, this is an important subject to me, as I’ve had a number of personal and spiritual experiences regarding the importance of ordinary members ceaselessly inviting others to come unto Christ and investigate the church.

  13. I understand. Sorry for coming across as if I was arguing, when I was trying to push the concept a little deeper.

    I have a particular couple in mind when I speak to this topic. They have offended a great number of partially active families with their aggressive missionary tactics. Yet, they go on feeling quite comfortable and proud of their efforts. That is why I speak so fervently about developing love and a connection with the Spirit.

    I also spent a good portion of my mission advocating for genuine love and service. If we don’t feel the love of Christ, how can we teach it? People can smell an agenda from a mile away. Interestingly, the Church has begun focusing this way in Germany, and baptisms and retention have skyrocketed.

  14. I really enjoyed reading this post and look forward to what you’ll write on missionary work in the future. I’ve always had a great love for missionary work, and found that I too benefited profoundly from great role models (my mission president, and later Clayton Christensen who mentored me when I was a ward mission leader) that helped me move past my “natural man” motives and begin sharing with people for the pure love of sharing and bringing people to Christ.

    One way I knew that I had changed for the better was when, after inviting a few co-workers (with whom I had regular gospel conversations) to come to church when I was teaching a particular lesson I thought they’d find interesting, my co-worker on the following Monday thanked me for inviting her and for the lesson I taught, and said “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said and I’ve realized I need to take my faith more seriously. I really need to work to become a better Catholic”. I think there are times when that statement would have made me sad and feel like I’d failed in my duties to get them to understand the beauty of the church and the gospel I was trying to share with them. But, in that moment I felt pure joy…I was delighted that my efforts to share my testimony and faith had caused someone to seek out Christ in greater earnest in their lives, even if they weren’t yet ready to join our church.

    When our goal is to invite others to come unto Christ, in whatever form they are ready to do so, they will sense our genuine love and concern, our invitations themselves will be more free from judgment and therefore less offensive, and more people will benefit from a closer relationship with God. And if they end up joining the church too…even better.

    Thanks again for the great post!

  15. ldsphil, your #12 makes it sound like Bednar is expounding a startling new paradigm for missionary work. I’m 57, almost 40 years ago I was routinely taught and I routinely taught that members are the finders, missionaries are the teachers, tracting is inefficient, etc, etc. And this was not a new paradigm even then.

    There are no new paradigms in missionary work and the attitude that if we can just find the right system, the right insight, the right program then missionary work will flourish is an albatross around our necks. I think SilverRain is much closer to the real paradigm, missionary work is about trust, love and relationships. None of these are new, none are brash, none are particularly amenable to snappy charts and gung ho inspirational talks.

  16. KLC, Elder Bednar may not be trying to introduce anything new, but I think he is trying to change a cultural paradigm that has plagued Latter-day Saints for quite some time. It’s the idea that missionary work is for the missionaries, except for those rare, rare moments when we stumble upon some marvelous opportunity. That paradigm, as Elder Bednar says, can be found in the way we pray, in the way we talk about missionary work, and is evident in the way that most missionaries (at least in the US) spend more time finding than teaching. Changing that paradigm is not implementing a new system or a new program. It is simply taking personal responsibility for finding people for the Elders to teach. And until we see that as our role, rather than someone else’s, missionary work will chug along just as slowly as it always has.

  17. Silver Rain, Elder Cook was our area president on my mission (Bolivia). All new missionaries received three packets of discourses given by Elder Cook when he was the president of the Uruguay/Paraguay mission on Faith in Christ. When he visited us, he also taught the same wonderful stuff. And when his book came out, I bought it instantly. Truly a wonderful man that I had the opportunity to also work with some when he was the Southeast USA area president.

  18. I love missionary work, I like looking for people who have the light of Christ emanating from their countenance, how easy it is to love these people and share the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with them.
    I like Mitt Romney he is a grate missionary, by the way lives his standards.

  19. I love missionary work, I like looking for people who have the light of Christ emanating from their countenance how easy it is to love these people and share the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with them.
    I like Mitt Romney he is a grate missionary, by the way he lives his standards.

  20. I support Yeah Samake , I study his life, his desire to better his life , and his subjects, what a life he has in front of himself.may our father continue to bless him.

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