Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Correcting a Mis(sionary)conception

On my mission, I developed an irksome habit of becoming quite clichéd in my mannerisms. Perhaps nothing is quite so emblematic of that as me repeating the oft-quoted plight of many a missionary--”I don't believe it! We come as bearers of light into a pitch-black world, but so many people whose doors we knock on open up, see our light, then shut us out and stay in darkness!”

Look at the elder on the left's face. This conversation is not going well.
I remember hearing that. I remember saying that. And I remember the day I thought about it and realized why it didn't add up.
Now, I didn't come to this conclusion until after my mission, but I think that this realization helped me to not only realize a missionary's role better, but to better empathize with those people who so often slammed the door in my face.
The current model as stated above implies that missionaries are a lot like search and rescue crews going through a dangerous area at midnight. The people they hope to save are in hazardous rubble and, because they can't see the dangers around them, are not able to safely guide themselves out of harm's way; they require the light provided by the missionaries. If a sister or elder who sees missionary work thus is then rejected by one of the people “in the rubble,” so to speak, it seems counter-intuitive and foolish.
But this leaves out a lot of factors—namely, faith and testimony. If this model were an accurate description of missionary work, it would still find a way to evoke these principles.
I propose instead the following adaptation.
For the purposes of this, we'll still assume that the world is plunged into darkness. It isn't, however, a pure darkness, but rather a sort of dark twilight. People go about their daily lives, some either growing accustomed to the dimness or just never noticing it, some feeling almost subconsciously stressed out or anxious because of it, and others feeling downright driven mad by of it. One day, along come some nice men or women talking about light. Depending on your personal feelings about the twilight, you may be immediately inclined to throw them out, listen to them, or something in between. In any case, your response makes perfect sense to you because of one crucial piece of this parable...
The men or women are not carrying light.
They do everything regarding light but carry it; they talk about light, preach about it, testify of it, read about it. They tell you that they know a way to get light, and that they represent a group of people who meet weekly to further discuss this eventual method of receiving light. As you meet with first these young visitors and eventually the weekly group, you may well become more and more open to believing that, yes, doing the things they suggest will in fact let you one day enjoy light.
It will probably come as no surprise that I prefer my revised model to the more common one. This model relies not on proof, but on faith (and I'm a fan of faith). It shows the importance of testimony—whether bearing or of receiving one. It underscores the (potential) value of having a congregation. And, perhaps most importantly, it gives insight as to why a person may reject the missionaries.
Now, this isn't a perfect model either; there are any number of potential problems whenever one tries to simplify something as complicated as proselytizing and altering people's core beliefs. As such, I welcome any comments you may have regarding this. I feel, though, that this is a more correct and more complete vision of missionary work than the previous paradigm, and I wish I'd thought this way while I was a missionary.


  1. My first reaction on reading this post was this:

    My second reaction is, I hate you so much for doing this to me.

    1. I only showed you the door, Casey. You had to open it yourself.

  2. Oddly enough, Casey, that's exactly what my response was going to be. And I had the same reaction to my own memory of that song. Surprise.

    Brett (and anybody else) what do we make of the thought about how interacting with the gospel bears physical manifestations. For example, back in 2005 or 2006 James E. Faust told the story about the building of BYU's center in Jerusalem where governmental representatives were concerned about student proselytization. The anecdote recounts someone not doubting the institution or the students' commitment to the prohibition on evangelizing, yet wondering "what [they were] going to do about the light in their [the students'] eyes." The Book of Mormon makes reference to the followers of Christ becoming a fair and delightsome people. Also the Doctrine and Covenants (like Section 89) as well as selections from the Journal of Discourses hit on ideas about the quickening power of the Holy Ghost impacting or reinvigorating our bodies not only at the moment of the resurrection but in our daily, mortal walk. These are a few moments of this idea that there is living notion that faith, obedience, and gospel living manifests itself in our physical demeanor as well as our spiritual maturity and interactions.

    I really like what you're saying here Brett, but I wonder what it means for this other tradition that is alive in Mormonism. A tradition that I don't think is by any means unique, but it is certainly characteristic because of how our theology positions physical bodies. What is lost or gained by thinking about missionaries carrying light or suspending the thought that missionaries carry light? I think what you hit on that thinking it about it in that way makes for a nice narrative and metaphor that is as comforting as it perplexing--that is it comforts the missionary to let him or her tell him or herself that he or she is carrying light yet he or she is then left with this gaping question about why no one seems to be accepting that light. Anyway so that narrative itself is helpful for some people to tell. You point out that by telling it, it might preclude an alternate understanding of or interaction with faith.

    Are there other ways of knowing which might only be possible or are made possible with thinking that light is something that we carry? Are there other insights--beside that mentioned in this article--which abandoning or questioning that mis(sionary) conception can offer us?

    1. Good points. I've actually wondered about the "light in the eyes" thing myself--in general, though, not just in the context of this post. It's certainly easy to tell just from looking at some people what their mood is, or even some aspects of their personality. I don't think it's necessarily something supernatural that happens with their eyes so much as its an expression of inner faith, hope, peace, and/or happiness. Nor do I think latter-day saints have exclusive rights to this, though we may exhibit it with more frequency than a lot of other people. As to its missionary capability, it reminds me of other common anecdotes where members of the Church are approached by people who ask why they are so happy all the time.

    2. And how much beaming happiness can one convey at a doorstep? I certainly had a lot of people comment on my smile over those two years, but I have a really big goofy smile. Facial expressions might denote a state of being, but their capacity to convey that same state is less effective. The idea about people noticing a consistency of happiness seems to be based on repeated observation rather than a brief interaction. So if we think of that happiness as a possible way of thinking about light, one could say that missionaries are carrying light (happiness) with them, but knocking on a door, smiling, and giving your best is not necessarily going to impart that light (happiness).

      I guess I'm just wondering what light is in this instance. Like when people say they're carrying light, does that mean something other than Truth or is that pretty much what we're talking about?

      Yeah, I'm wondering to what extent I ever repeated that cliche to myself or others while I was on a mission (I'm having trouble remembering). And if I did, I wonder if I meant Truth (in a universal sense) or Happiness or Peace. My guess would probably be Truth or the Right Way. Hmmm...I'm enjoying this post.

    3. I'm afraid I'm not sure what you're arguing for or against. Are you saying that missionaries have a discernible spiritual aura beyond their physical manifestations of emotion? That may well be, I know I've had experiences where people have said as much, and I don't mean to downplay or ignore that, but it's never anything as drastic or undeniable as a flashlight compared to a dark night.

      As for light, I described this just now in a reply to a comment down below, but I used "light" above as a means of conveying the sense that missionaries don't teach by offering strict and irrefutable proof, but rather by describing, promising, and testifying. A person who is completely capable of sight and is shown a beam of light from a flashlight in an otherwise dark space would, from an empirical standpoint, be forced to admit that that flashlight was emitting light--he can see it, it's hitting his retinas. Conversely, when another person merely describes light to someone else without showing it, that person has offered no empirical proof, but rather has offered the opportunity to suspend disbelief and use faith. That's why so many otherwise rational and sane people are able to reject missionaries, and that's what I'm driving at.

    4. Apologies for the confusion. I was not necessarily arguing that there is a spiritual aura accompanying physical manifestations. I was trying to suss out were the possible dynamics and truth(s) that are created for people in the telling of the cliche. It's the pomo in me: I can believe in a Truth while simultaneously believing in contingent truth which is created through experience AND through the subsequent interpretation/narration of that event. So I agree with you that missionaries do not carry light that is comparable to a flashlight. However, I also believe that an experiential truth is created for any missionary who perpetuates the cliche. In the moment of the telling, it becomes truth to them. I was contemplating the opportunities that might be available in a system of faith that is kinda cliche.

      Because I was searching for opportunities in the cliche, I was wondering what people mean by light when they use it. I was wondering what about the dynamics of that moment (repeating the cliche) not only creates the truth of the idea but also brings solace. So I was playing with ideas of what "light" might mean for other people when they repeat the cliche. I thought that one permutation of that might be happiness. And so when I was apt to tell myself, "I don't understand how people can close the door on this light," for me that included "Can't they see how damn happy I am" because I was smiling with a wonderful big, goofy smile.

      Then I thought, most probably just mean light = TRUTH, irrefutable, inerrant-ly accurate, universal, sent straight from God absolute Truth. And how could people turn that away. Or how could they turn away two people beaming the spirit of that truth across your home's threshold.

      Again, apologies for being confusing.

    5. He said as if the clarification actually worked to make things less obtuse. :)

  3. First off, this is an excellent and well thought out post. Great analogy, Brett. I figure this is the same as at the Telefund, you can only convey so much at a certain allotted time, that being the persons attention span and/or pre conceived notions of you as a messenger. Just to clarify, are you meaning by "not having light" the missionaries don't have the conviction needed to find people to teach?

    1. Thank you! To answer your question, no; I left the whole "light" thing up in the air because that's how it's usually described in the original analogy. But, for me at least, I think of light in this sense as a sort of empirical, undeniable evidence. For example, in the original analogy, if I'm in a dark room and I'm trying to convince people that I have light, I can turn on my flashlight and empirically prove to everyone capable of seeing that I have light. In reality, missionaries don't really have that opportunity--much as we would have liked it. Missionaries don't teach by offering proof, they teach by testifying and by helping people gain faith. It's like what Elder Ballard wrote in Our Search for Happiness about why the Lord doesn't just show everyone the Gold Plates and be done; that's just not His way. It's not that missionaries don't have conviction--on the contrary, their conviction needs to be quite strong to do what they do.

    2. Right on, I like that.

      P.S. I also enjoyed how you identified how easy it is to fall into missionary clichés. It almost spreads and is perpetually kept in the mission field. For instance, the "missionary voice" has always been annoying to me. I've never understood how fluctuating your voice to and ending each sentence with an upward emphasis somehow transforms you to be more spiritual/convincing.

      I guess what I'm trying to say in accordance with everything said here thus far is: Genuineness is the only way to go in missionary work. :)

  4. My Mission Prez definitely took the "light-bearing" analogy very, very, seriously. Only not so much an analogy, because we were told quite explicitly that it was literal. I'm talking a zone conference training on the near-visible light spectrum aura people give off, and the ability certain people have to see that. Me being an empiricist with pomo leanings, I guess I doubt it but also have no business telling others what they perceive. So either way it's interesting that there are some elements within Mormonism that take the Light metaphors on face value (pun intended).