Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

The Ammon Approach: Redefining Missionary Work

Posted by Andrew on February 20, 2008

MissionariesWhen it comes to Church growth, the Church sets high expectations for itself. Likening the Church to that scriptural stone that rolls forth to fill the whole earth, Church members may expect to see exponential Church growth, with significant year-over-year gains in the number of convert baptisms. However, over the past several years, the number of annual convert baptisms has actually dipped and plateaued somewhat, corresponding in part with a decrease in the number of full-time missionaries. Moreover, retention of new converts remains a challenge, as we are often reminded by Church leaders. In this situation, it is natural for Mormons to consider possible ways to improve the Church’s missionary program to increase the number of genuine converts to the Church.

The mission in which my stake is located is currently testing a pilot program that hearkens back to a familiar Book of Mormon story about a man named Ammon who wanted to build a bridge between two long estranged peoples, one of which was completely unfamiliar with the Gospel. Setting aside the direct proselytizing approach to missionary work, Ammon embarked on a mission of simple Christian service that inspired thousands who were previously considered the most unlikely potential converts to join the Church. If every stake and ward in the Church were to adopt Ammon’s approach to missionary work by conducting a wide-spread campaign of consistent, meaningful, no-strings-attached community service, could the Church experience the same miraculous growth that occurred in Ammon’s day?

Let me begin by saying that I strongly dislike the term “missionary work” because of the limitations and connotations it implies. To me, the term “missionary work” misleadingly suggests it is an activity relegated to full-time missionaries, and calling it “work” makes it sound like a chore that one must set aside time to perform out of a sense of duty, separate and apart from one’s natural daily routine. And I think each of us has probably seen what missionary work looks like when motivated by a sense of compulsion to fulfill a duty. It feels forced, unnatural, calculated, and tainted with unspoken ulterior motives. Worst of all, duty-based missionary work lacks the power and influence of genuine love, which ought to be the motivation behind all our actions. Accordingly, I generally try to avoid the term “missionary work” and prefer using other terms like “sharing the Gospel.”

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter what we call missionary work. What really matters is how we do missionary work. And unless and until we do it the right way, our message will ring hollow to others. So, what is the right way to do missionary work?

Paradoxically, the right way to do missionary work may be to forget about our doing missionary work altogether, much like we are told we need to lose our life to find it. As Elder Ballard has pointed out, the best way for Church members to do missionary work is to simply live the Gospel more completely and genuinely. If we truly live the Gospel, we won’t need to go hunting for converts because they will be drawn to us naturally:

Our homes can be gospel-sharing homes as people we know and love come into our homes and experience the gospel firsthand in both word and action. We can share the gospel without holding a formal discussion. Our families can be our lesson, and the spirit that emanates from our homes can be our message. . . .

Creating a gospel-sharing home does not mean that we are going to have to dedicate large amounts of time to meeting and cultivating friends with whom to share the gospel. These friends will come naturally into our lives . . . . (M. Russell Ballard, “Creating a Gospel-Sharing Home,” Ensign, May 2006, 84–87.)

Moreover, Elder Ballard points out that creating more open, Gospel-centered homes is something we should do simply because it is a good thing to do, and regardless of whether it draws others into the Church:

A gospel-sharing home is not defined by whether or not people join the Church as a result of our contact with them. . . . At the very least, we have a rewarding relationship with someone from another faith, and we can continue to enjoy their friendship. (Id.)

As members of the Church, there are countless ways we can improve our efforts to reach out and serve the communities in which we live, and I am excited to be participating in a new program that provides Church members an additional opportunity to do just that. The mission in which my stake is located is currently testing a pilot program of providing English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that are open to the public, free of charge, and without any religious conditions. Full-time missionaries and local members teach a practical language curriculum that focuses on helping immigrants navigate their way through common experiences: buying food and clothing, renting housing, going to the doctor, etc.

I am currently teaching one of these ESL classes at my church building every Friday night to a wonderful group of immigrants, most of whom are Iranians. They are kind and intelligent people with impressive backgrounds; one is a former doctor, another an engineer, another an accountant. They are a segment of my local community that, were it not for this ESL program, I probably would not have had an opportunity to ever meet or interact with. And were it not for this ESL program, many of these immigrants probably would never have heard of Mormons, much less had any reason to enter a Mormon church building. In a few short weeks, we have begun building bridges of understanding, both literally and figuratively, between immigrants and native members of our community, and between those of other faiths and our own.

Although we haven’t attempted to impose our beliefs on any of these ESL class members, some of them have naturally become curious about who we are and what motivates us to help them. For example, five of our ESL class members (four Iranians and one Russian), showed up at our Sunday Church meetings just a few weeks into the ESL program. One such member of the class, an Iranian who is now taking the missionary discussions, showed up at our ESL class the other night and, without prompting, expressed his newfound faith. “I love Jesus,” he said, as he proudly displayed a crucifix necklace and ring he had recently purchased.

To me, this new ESL program is a welcome outward extension of the generous donations of time, talents, and energy that Mormons are so good at giving each other. We Mormons have a wonderful volunteer spirit, and an admirable organizational system. However, all too often, our volunteerism and organizational efforts at the local level are directed inward. Although we see admirable exceptions to this general rule when natural disasters strike, after the rubble has been cleared, too often we return to focusing our regular service efforts on our fellow Mormons.

I have long been feeling the need to serve those outside my faith by doing something more than paying taxes and marking the “Humanitarian Aid” check box when making a monetary contribution to the Church. It is always good to give money to a good cause, but there is something about providing community service personally that truly nourishes the soul. So it is my hope that this new ESL program is just one of many forthcoming efforts by the Church and its membership to reach out and serve our local communities in significant and sustained ways.

In closing, I look forward to a day when the word “Mormons” readily comes to mind whenever anyone in the world is asked: “Who feeds the hungry? Who shelters the homeless? Who clothes the naked? Who helps cure the sick? Who visits the imprisoned?” Hopefully, one day people in every community where Mormons are found will answer those questions in a way similar to a gentleman I once heard giving thanks after his community had been devastated by a hurricane:

I’d like to thank two churches in particular for all their efforts in helping clean up and rebuild our community.

One of those churches is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And the other is the Mormons.

So, what are your thoughts about this topic? I’d love to get your views on any or all of the following questions:

1. If every able stake and ward in the Church were to implement a Church-led “Ammon approach” of continual, meaningful community service, do you think the number of genuine converts to the Church would naturally increase, or would it just draw limited resources away from other efforts that bring converts into the Church and reduce convert baptisms?

2. Considering that nothing is currently preventing individual Church members from volunteering to serve in their communities, is there really a need for the Church to help organize and staff such community service efforts, or is community service something that Church members can do (and are already doing) on their own in sufficient numbers?

3. Considering that there are already numerous government agencies and private charitable organizations that address humanitarian problems, is it more appropriate for the Church to focus on those activities that only the Church is qualified and capable of doing, i.e., serving its members spiritually and spreading its Gospel message?

4. Considering how much time Mormons already dedicate to Church service, do Church members even have the time or resources to add regular community service to their already busy schedules? In other words, is a Church-led community service program something that would overburden Church members, or would it give them the spiritual nourishment they are seeking?

5. Is a Church-led program of continual, meaningful community service the elusive answer to the persistent question of how to turn every Church member into a “member missionary”?

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16 Responses to “The Ammon Approach: Redefining Missionary Work”

  1. Shawn L said

    Do we get to cut off the arms of those who refuse our service efforts? If so, I’m definitely in! 🙂

  2. Dr. B. said

    The Church has moved away from the term missionary work. Preach My Gospel: Guide to Missionary Service shows the preferred term is now missionary service. I like your thoughtful post on community service. It shows some promise for application throughout the Church in serving our neighbors. Thanks for sharing a very meaningful subject.

  3. ifokus said

    Well said……….service is what it should be all about.

  4. Mike L. said

    1. Yes

    2. Yes. Didn’t having the church resources at your disposal help you organize the ESL class? Who would have showed up to an ESL class if you had advertised in on your own taught in your basement?

    3. I’ve heard church leaders talk about that. Yes, our primary focus should be teaching the gospel to our members and anyone else who wants to hear. But as far as community outreach, I think service is a great thing for the church to be involved in. I have often wondered, and I have some posts on my blog on the topic, why the church doesn’t ask us to be more involved in service without our community and in the whole world, instead of just serving in the church and providing fast offerings.

    4. Some would be overburdened, but it would be voluntary. I think if members knew that the church was making a coordinated effort to organize service opportunities, those with specific skills to offer (such as teaching ESL) would take advantage of the opportunity to serve knowing that the ward resources are there for support.

    5. Yes.

    I’ve felt strongly since my first area on my mission that service is under-appreciated in regards to “missionary work”. I really think by serving and making friends and gaining respect of those around us, we’ve taken a huge step to generating interest in our message. And even if we don’t, nothing bad can come from increasing understanding, friendship, and mutual respect between people of various faiths.

    I hope the pilot program is a success in your area so we can see it here.

    If you’re want, please see my blog post on my experience in the first area of my mission that I feel burned this lesson into me.

  5. Shawn L said

    Great post, Andrew. While not articulated quite this way, I have had similar thoughts.

    1. Absolutely. Rather than “drawing away” from precious resources, I think focusing on service is a smart way to reallocate those resources to where they could be better used. Too often poor beleagured ward missionaries are left trying to force themselves into the homes of the same inactive & part-members families month after month. It can be a demoralizing process for all involved. Serving, however, provides psychic satisfaction and allows us to actually extend ourselves in a more meaningful fashion.

    2. Since its not currently happening with any discernable frequency (at least as far as I can tell), I say the answer is yes, the Church should prompt ward members come up with their own ideas for community service. That nudge would likely be enough to get the ball rolling. Despite the best of intentions, we often get so caught up in our Church jobs that we lose sight of other, equally valuable service opportunities.

    3. No. While feeding our own sheep should definitely remain a priority, that doesn’t mean it should be done to the exclusion of helping others outside our faith. We are already involved in this effort to some degree — RS members prepare humanitarian kits for delivery in foriegn lands, etc. We need to see more of this focused on our own local friends and neighbors. My PBS station just rebroadcast “The Mormons.” Once again, I was nearly brought to tears by the words of a Hurrican Katrina survivor who spoke of the willingness of Mormons, all of whom were strangers to him, to get their hands dirty to help him out. He said, “they got into my heart. No Mormon will ever come to my door without being invited in.” Missionaries had been to his house plenty of times, and been rejected out of hand. It was not until they quit worrying about doing “Missionary Work,” and focused on performing Christlike service that he stopped to listen to their message.

    4. It certainly could. I remember being an EQP — the idea of leading or participating in an additional service effort would not have been a welcome idea. It’s all about a smart reallocation of resources. Find and qualified people outside the big leadership positions to organize and spearhead the effort. I truly believe that, even if there murmuring in some quarters at the outset, members would jump at the chance to get involved in such work. That’s where the richest blessings can be found. When’s the last time you heard someone get up and bear their testimony about the spirit they felt in a monthly PEC meeting?

    5. Your guess is as good as mine, but I think it’s worth a shot. Whether it makes us all “missionaries,” it will make us all better Christians.

  6. John Norton said

    Great post Andrew. One of my best experiences as a missionary was teaching English classes in Japan. This “service oriented” approach is a great way to help people and expand our social circle both as members of the church and the community.

  7. Anita Davis said

    Your post was a match with what has been going on in my heart. We are serving a mission in the eastern United States right now and I think that there is a great need for service for service’s sake out here. There is a huge refugee population in the area and while several have joined the Church, they tend to go inactive immediately while continuing to struggle along with several problems, one of the big ones being literacy!

    We are finishing out our mission trying to help a 10 year old Liberian catch up to her classmates in reading. Her mother doesn’t read any language. Her mother barely can be understood in her spoken English. This young girl prays to be able to read, but hasn’t got the tutoring that she needs. I look at her beautiful face and wonder what the future holds for her if she doesn’t become a proficient reader, get a good education and have a new concept of what girls/women can do with their lives. I want her to tell the men who will soon be coming around, to leave her alone and mean it and have them respect that, so that she can have an opportunity to continue her education, provide for herself financially, and one day have a family that actually consists of a husband, married to her and faithful to that commitment, children, a reliable income, etc. I want the gospel to be part of that, too, but illiteracy really blocks the path for her.

    I’ve been thinking that when we go back to the Wasatch Front, that I will get involved in literacy projects in Salt Lake and continue to work with people who are outside the natural “boundries”of my little Mormon neighborhood. It would be fabulous if the Church would sponsor such classes, tutoring, etc. because that would provide a gospel based protocol for the project and give more opportunitiy for contact with the Church to these people without pushing it on them. There are so many capable people along the Wasatch Front who, with a little training, could teach ESL and bless many many lives.

    Do you know of any contacts within the Church leadership who are working on this, other than just the RS general headquarters?

  8. Morgan said

    Here are my thoughts just on your question 1:

    The crucial word here is “genuine.” The Church has suffered for a long time from convert inflation precisely because our motives and methods in doing missionary work have tended more in the direction of marketing and sales rather than service and unconditional love. Things have been improving under the Preach My Gospel regime, but there is still a significant element of pressure from missionaries who want to report “success.”

    Our convert numbers might actually decrease further if we move to this approach. So be it. We will be doing the right things for the right reasons, and the “right” people will respond. The Church will grow at a sustainable, steady pace and be solid wherever it does take hold and no one will be able to deny that, whatever their doctrinal beliefs, Mormons are Christians in the most important, behavoral sense of that word.

  9. Kerry said

    Thanks Andrew, really insightful. I think there is also an application here for home teaching. I honestly feel like many of my home teachers were insincere in their visits…like they were really there to hit the numbers. Heck, I am sure I have been guilty of that many times.

    Something I have tried to focus on lately is to really try and be a friend to my home teaching families. To sincerely pray for them. To serve them and home teach them in untraditional ways. Maybe this is true of any service… if they don’t feel like we really care about them or that we are friends “with no strings attached”, then we are wasting our and their time.

  10. Andrew said

    Kerry,

    I’ve wrestled with the home teaching thing as well. I just felt like one of my families really did not want or need another lesson on Sundays after the 3 hour block. So I now give both my families a choice: each month, you get either a visit or some act of meaningful service. One of my families opts for the visit. For the other, I babysit while they go to the temple or Christmas shopping, or drive them to the airport, or whatever. I’d rather donate 2.5 hours to babysitting while someone is at the temple than spend 1 hour at their house doing a visit that they don’t want or need so that I can put the check in that box. And my family loves the opportunity to go to the temple more often. It’s a win-win.

  11. Kerry said

    Andrew, I owe part of my newfound home teaching philosophy to you. Remember when you assigned me as one of the “top secret” home teachers? I was assigned to several [may I repeat: several 🙂 ] completely inactive families with the stated goal of “getting to know them and be their friend”. I LOVED that. We took a treat every month, knocked on the door, stood outside and chatted. No pressure to “deliver a message”, “let us in”, “come to church”, etc. Just find a way to be a friend.

  12. Andrew said

    And just remember Kerry, J.H. and his son now come to church every week because of that collective effort you guys made. You actually made a difference for someone who came back to church and has been coming back for several years now. Maybe not everyone came back, but one person and his son did.

  13. Shawn L said

    Kerry & Andrew: I really like the idea of applying this model to home teaching. I teach a couple of very active families and have really been trying to find a way to reach them. They know all the lessons — the father is teaching them that same month, so they are all old news by the time I get there. I plan on trying your service option. Thanks for the thoughts.

    Kerry — when I was EQP, we used to refer to those visits as kamikaze runs. Sounds like we’re much more positive than mine, many of which ended in slammed doors and loosed dogs. Good times!

  14. […] however, we’ve begun hearing about something called “The Ammon Approach.” The General Authorities are quite aware that what Fleming calls the apostolic style of […]

  15. annegb said

    I think this is approach is the essence of Christianity. I prefer it over the “they’re ignorant, we will teach them and if we convert them, we will be big cheeses.”

  16. […] however, we’ve begun hearing about something called “The Ammon Approach.” The General Authorities are quite aware that what Fleming calls the apostolic style of […]

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