Our ward mission leader once approached one of my co-workers, a sweet and spiritual woman.  He handed her a printed invitation to an upcoming Missionary Open House at our ward and then added his personal invitation for her to come to the event.  The next day she politely told him she had thought and prayed about the invitation, but was happy attending her own church and was not interested in any further conversations about the Mormon Church. 

A few weeks later, this same woman was in my office.  She was telling me about an issue taking place in her life that she was struggling with.  I listened with genuine concern.  When she had finished, I told her that the Sunday School lesson we had in church that week related to her situation. I said that some meaningful points had been made by class members and asked her if she would be interested in me sharing some of those points.  She readily agreed—knowing what church I attend.  I suggested that in order to set a foundation for the discussion I read to her the scriptures our Sunday School discussion was based on. I told her those scriptures are found in the Book of Mormon.  Would she be comfortable with that?  She invited me to share the scriptures with her. The two of us read passages from the Book of Mormon together and then talked about how they applied to her issue.

Why would this good woman turn down an invitation to learn about the Church and then invite a discussion of gospel principles only a few weeks later? 

The Challenge of Missionary Work

We all understand the importance of proclaiming the gospel.  We want to share the Light we have received and see others blessed by it.  We have heard and read talks requesting that we participate in this critical activity.  We have been regularly pestered to do so by missionaries and leaders. Yet, most of us don’t—at least not on a regular basis.  And many of us feel guilty about that. 

There are many reasons to fret. We worry that our attempts to discuss the gospel will not be well-received.  We are nervous that it might create awkwardness in our relationships.  We don’t know who might be receptive and who to approach. And we don’t know what to say.

Two Traditional Models

As I have sat through many talks and lessons on this subject in many different wards, it seems that most focus on two models of missionary work.  One is to present Truth in some way—to tell someone about the gospel or bear your testimony.  The other is to invite—to give out a pass-along card with an invitation to come to church or a Book of Mormon with an invitation to read. We then hope the recipient will become interested in learning more.  Both of these models can be successful in the right situation.  We have all heard about times when such activities have resulted in people embracing the gospel.

But these two methods are not effective with everyone.  The vast majority of non-members do not wake up in the morning wishing to discover gospel Truth.  They either consider themselves satisfied with the church they already attend or they have little interest in any formal religion.  Many do not recognize or understand the concept of restored truth as we define it so they aren’t seeking it.  They have no reason to pursue a discussion of what the LDS Church has to offer them.

Think about times when you have had to make major life decisions.  Did you want someone to show up with no understanding of you or your situation and begin prescribing what he or she thinks you should do?  Most adults do not respond well to that type of influence on their behavior.  Yet, that is sometimes the image of missionary work that we have in our head—of just sitting down and telling someone all the great reasons why they should embrace the Church with the expectation they will find something of value in what we have said.  

A Different Model   

I’d like to suggest we add a third model of missionary work.  This is based both on my experience as an investigator and my professional background as someone who taught a sales process within a Fortune 50 company.  I obviously do not suggest that proclaiming the gospel is the same as selling products.  But if you think of sales as our business defined it—understanding the needs of our clients to see how our offering might meet their needs—then there are useful skills we can take from the one process and apply to missionary encounters.  Hopefully we can explore an option that will be both more effective with those we would like to share the gospel with and more comfortable for us. 

Once two full-time missionaries asked for my advice regarding a woman they were teaching. She had married a member of the Church and he had arranged for her to meet with them. The first discussion had not gone well. She had been very defensive. And she told them she had agreed to the meeting to make her husband happy, but had no real interest in learning about the LDS gospel.

I asked the missionaries what they knew about her. It turned out that after some initial small talk they had immediately begun the teaching process without asking her any questions.

I suggested they invest more time in getting to know her. Did she attend a church growing up or currently? If so, how did she feel about that church? What are her beliefs? How would she describe her relationship with the Lord? Did she have any interest in strengthening her relationship with the Lord? Did she have any important questions about the Lord’s plan for her life? If she and her husband could find a church they both accepted, did she see any benefit to their family in attending church together?

After pursuing those questions and others with the woman, the missionaries talked with me again. They reported that as she was drawn into conversation about her views, she became more comfortable and willing to talk with them. They were able to find topics she cared about so they could tailor the discussion towards what she was interested in exploring. And as they listened to her, they discovered she was fearful that the missionaries would challenge her to action-steps in front of her husband. She was worried about disappointing her husband if she didn’t feel ready to accept those challenges. With that discovery, we were able to talk about how to respond to her concern and lower her fears and defensiveness.

If we first spend time gaining an understanding of people, we will have a better idea of how to best approach them with gospel messages.

Listening to Uncover Individual Needs

People will change their behavior when they believe that change will make their life better. The key is that THEY believe the change will improve their lives. Each of us has individual concerns, needs and desires for our lives. Examples might include achieving a closer relationship with God, having the family life we hope for, weathering difficult life trials, finding purpose and joy, surviving the loss of loved ones, etc. We have important questions about life that are most pressing to us.

The gospel has valuable answers for those questions. But we cannot provide the most meaningful gospel resources to others if we don’t know their individual needs.

Instead of viewing missionary work as a talking or manipulating activity, we should view it initially as a listening activity. We should be willing to get to know people and discover their questions and concerns about life and God’s plan. If we invest that time with a genuine spirit, then we will know how to begin a conversation about the gospel. We can target our conversation towards what the other person cares about.

That is what happened in the story involving my co-worker. After saying she had no interest in learning anything about the LDS Church, she ended up inviting me to share passages in the Book of Mormon with her because I promised they would relate to a key life issue she had just revealed to me. There was an opening to talk about the Church based on what she cared about.

As another example of this model, one of the ways I have found to open up a conversation about gospel topics is to ask, “What church do you attend?” and then ask what they like about that church. I don’t recommend doing this as an insincere technique—you should be authentically interested in hearing their responses. People will share from their hearts. Then the other person usually has a natural tendency to ask me, “What church do you attend?” And we have a comfortable starting point for a conversation about our faith and beliefs.

In the traditional method, we could give someone a Book of Mormon and simply invite him or her to read it. But to increase our effectiveness we can get to know that person first and then customize our invitation. We could guide the individual towards specific segments of the Book of Mormon that might be of interest based on what we have learned about his or her life. Or we could hopefully increase the chances of him or her following up on our invitation by providing personalized reasons to read the book.

The Example of the Savior

When thinking about missionary work we should not be primarily focused on our own agenda or goals. We should become more focused on the needs of those we wish to serve with the Light of the gospel. If we look to the scriptures we can see that the Savior did that during His ministry. We don’t have many examples of Him giving generic lectures on gospel truths or issuing generic invitations. In story after story we meet individuals in specific life situations with their own concerns. The scriptures describe how the Savior tailored His message in response to those particular individuals and their experiences, needs, and dreams.

For people who worked with the land He told stories about farms, planting, and trees. For fishermen, He taught about catching fish. For two women, He crafted a lesson about balancing the needs of caring for the home with the needful things in their spiritual lives. When addressing those who represented religious law He told about the Good Samaritan, emphasizing goodness rather than law. For parents, He told stories about the care that parents show children.

He spoke in discussions that were customized to individuals and related to their daily experiences and concerns. That is one reason why we love Him so—because we experience Him relating to each of us as a unique and special child of God, responding to our individual questions and concerns as we journey through life.

I first discussed the model of looking for people’s needs during a missionary district meeting a few years ago. That very week I had the opportunity to use the model. I had an appointment with a doctor I was seeing for the first time. I noticed an item in his office that indicated he is a Christian. I asked him what church he attended and what he liked about it. He shared several positive things about his church, but then indicated he was concerned that they didn’t have a strong youth program since he has a teenage son. I told him I worked with the youth program at my church and had seen the positive impact a vibrant church youth program can have on teenagers.

He asked me what church I attend.

When I replied, his initial facial expression was negative. So I asked him what he had heard about the Church. As he expressed areas of concern, I asked him why those topics were important to him. With more questions I explored what he cared most about in terms of spirituality.

As I responded to his concerns towards the Church, I made certain my points tied back to what he had indicated was of importance to him including strengthening youth. We talked for half an hour. He indicated he and his wife would be interested in meeting with me to talk further. It didn’t start with him looking for me to tell him about “truth” or bear a testimony. It started with a question and a conversation about his interest which was a strong youth program for his son. And it initiated a good relationship that continues to this day.

Becoming Comfortable

Often we are uncomfortable with our responsibility to share the gospel. We sense that there is something inauthentic about jumping into a relationship with a hidden agenda. There is a solution. We can invite people to talk about their spiritual lives and concerns. As we come to know what is in their hearts, it becomes clearer how we can add to their spiritual state with the amazing resources of the Restoration. Missionary work is a friendship process rather than a manipulation.

We may also be uncomfortable because we fear a sense of failure if others do not accept our message. Our desire to see immediate results is lessened as we focus on the needs of others. We may open up a dialogue about the gospel that continues over time.

A woman in our stake investigated the Church for several years. She regularly attended meetings and was obedient to many gospel principles but had not agreed to baptism. One of her friends in the Church expressed frustration over the situation to our stake president who had also befriended and taught the woman. This frustrated member said, “I don’t know what more I can say or do to move her forward towards baptism. I’m not sure I can remain her friend given that she will not accept what is most important to me. Have you felt the same frustration?”

The wise stake president replied, “Every time she reacts differently than I had hoped, I get on my knees in prayer and ask Heavenly Father to guide me towards another way I can serve her. He always shows me something more I can do. I am never disappointed in her.”

If we view missionary work as a process of getting to know others and understanding their needs, we won’t struggle about what to say and how to push them forward. Instead, sharing the gospel becomes a more natural part of our relationships with others. We stop focusing on our agendas and start listening for ways to bless them with truth and love.