Getting and Keeping the Missionary Spirit
January 1979

“Getting and Keeping the Missionary Spirit,” Ensign, Jan. 1979, 5

Getting and Keeping the Missionary Spirit

I remember once in Holland when we explained the “every member a missionary” concept in a district conference, a sister came to see me in tears. “How can I be a missionary?” she wept. “I don’t know how to teach investigators.” We had not explained clearly and she had not understood that all she had to do was to be a link between the investigators and the missionaries, bringing them together. No wonder she was frightened.

Many other members have, I think, felt the same fear. But the Lord does not want us to be frightened. He wants us to be happy and to share our happiness. The missionary spirit is the Spirit of the Lord; it is that simple.

I have talked to many sincere members who do not know how to do missionary work, but would like to. How can we gain the missionary spirit? I think that there are four steps:

1. Become converted to the gospel. We cannot “strengthen” our brethren unless we fulfill the Savior’s commandment to first be converted ourselves. (See Luke 22:32.) This involves the same process for us as for investigators: studying, praying, and coming to church to share the spirit there.

2. When we have a testimony, the next step is to be obedient to the laws of the Church; the Lord cannot give the missionary spirit to someone who is disobedient. This does not mean we must be perfect—but we should be worthy to hold a temple recommend. People have told me about going home from meetings where they had been encouraged to do missionary work and feeling within themselves: “I can’t be a missionary and bear testimony to others because I’m not being honest with myself. I smoke.” Or it might be not paying tithing, or being unkind to family members that causes the problem.

3. We must pray every day for the spirit of missionary work. I can’t emphasize this too much since I know that it is not likely for us to gain a testimony of missionary work if we do not ask for it. Also, it is impossible to do missionary work without the Spirit’s help.

4. Then we must listen for the discerning spirit as we go about our daily activities; and it will whisper to us whom we should speak to, what kind of person he is, and how we should approach him. I have had to travel a great deal while in business and now for the Church, so I have developed a philosophy of “on-the-spot teaching.” This approach is for standing in line at the post office to buy stamps, at the bus stop, or in the drugstore. The family fellowshipping program allows a different approach since we have a longer period of time to develop a deeper relationship with others—but “on-the-spot teaching” is a way of being a missionary with strangers.

We have found that there are “many men, many minds,” and that to reach each one effectively, we must know what kind of mind he has. Since the Holy Ghost already knows, I bear my witness that praying for help and listening carefully is the best way to find out how to approach each person. Here are some of the ways of talking about the gospel that work, as Sister de Jager and I have learned by experience:

1. The eager person. He has been praying for the truth, and we need merely to testify that we have it. He will usually be more than willing to receive the missionaries. Of course, this kind of person is more rare than those that follow.

2. The affable person. He is delighted to learn that you are a Mormon. He used to follow the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast for many years. “What a marvelous speaker Richard Evans, the narrator, was!” And in a few minutes, he smiles cordially and excuses himself and is gone. How to proceed? One of the things we try to do is to bear testimony to the unique circumstances that have brought us together, testifying that the Lord has an important message for him about the Church, and get his name and address for the missionaries. We then write him, reminding him of his desire to learn of our message, telling him of our associates who will call upon him. We are not responsible for teaching, just for making the link with the missionaries.

3. The animated, talkative person. He is so cheerfully willing to talk with you that he will discuss anything—family, hobbies, business, etc.—and it is very hard to keep on one subject very long. How to proceed? The Spirit of the Lord will point out to you the places where what this person says will lead to a gospel discussion, especially if it is something he feels strongly about. I remember one man talking about the importance of spending time with his children when they were little. I said, “Oh, this is striking! That is exactly what we teach in our Church,” and then I told him about the family home evening program.

4. The restless person. He interrupts time and again, he says he is interested and then says he is not. He asks questions on controversial subjects and wants to know where you, as a Mormon, stand. Many members panic because they are not prepared to answer these questions—but we don’t need to answer them, if we feel unprepared. We can counter his restlessness by asking him if our associates may call on him to answer his questions by explaining what we believe about the purpose of life.

5. A fifth type that we often see is the wavering person who vacillates between being delighted by your friendly approach and being afraid to make a commitment for further contact. We’ve found that if we give him several alternatives to choose between, he’ll panic. One approach that we have tried successfully is to witness very firmly that missionary work is part of our Heavenly Father’s plan for the salvation of all his children, assure him that he is not required to make an immediate decision about accepting the message, and invite him to learn more from the missionaries.

6. A sixth type that we’ve met very frequently is the thoughtful, deliberate person who wants more explanations before he will give us an opinion himself. Frequently he wants to know why we are telling him these things and what we are gaining from it. We have found that going straight to the scriptures, quoting our favorites to him, and inviting his serious thought on what they mean is something that engages his whole attention. The idea of meeting with the missionaries for a serious discussion appeals to his personality, too.

7. The silent, reticent person is a little different. He sits there with his arms folded, no expression on his face, just listening. We have found that he is frequently more interested than he appears to be and that combining respect for him and discipline with ourselves is the best combination. Sometimes we are so eager to talk about the gospel that we talk more than we should. Sister de Jager and I have learned to have a prayer in our hearts, ask a thoughtful question about the gospel principle we are discussing, and wait for an answer. If we wait for him to share something with us, then he is more likely to have confidence in us.

8. The friendly but inaccessible person. This is the kind of person I was. I remember telling the missionaries: “I’m very impressed with what you’re doing; I think it’s wonderful—but I have no desire to change. I have a good job, a car, a home, a lovely wife, and fine children. I’m perfectly happy.” What they asked me to do was to think about death, when I would lose everything. You know, that’s a shocking subject. I hadn’t given it much thought—and most people haven’t. I had to agree that there were other things to life.

I still didn’t want to part from my friends and give up what I thought were the good things of life, though. Fortunately, the Lord had blessed me with a companion to help me in the most important ways. She had a testimony from the beginning and would not be baptized without me. It made me really think about what was important to me and what was important to both of us together. Once I thought beyond salary and job security, I knew what I wanted.

9. A difficult type is the prejudiced person who says, “Oh, you’re a Mormon? I know all about you. Polygamy. They force you to pay 10 percent of your income to the Church. You send Americans here to preach to us rather than staying home where you have so many problems.” What has worked for us is to ask, in a friendly way, what the sources of his information are and to say something like this: “As a Mormon, I am concerned about some of these opinions; but I understand, based on your information, how you have formed them. Can the missionaries meet with you and explain the Church so that you can interpret its teachings in a more complete context?”

Of course, these approaches will not always work. We have experienced failure many, many times. And many times we are only seed-planters; we may never know, in this life, if the seeds sprouted and bore fruit. For instance, on my way back from a recent servicemen’s conference I was flying in the Philippines from Baguio to Manila and was delayed at the airport. Two French ladies who spoke no English were lost there, so I went to them and asked, “Qu’ est-ce que vous voulez? Quel est votre destination?” It was the same as mine—Manila—so we talked while we were waiting for the plane. They naturally wanted to know why I was traveling in the area so I explained to them about the Church—not about the celestial kingdom and the angel Moroni, but about how the gospel teaches patience in inconvenient circumstances and why the gospel made me happy. I left them my card and an invitation to contact the missionaries, but I have no way of knowing what will come of that seed-planting.

In a way, it does not matter. I do not need to know. My happiness comes from telling them about the gospel and feeling the Spirit of the Lord helping me. And that happiness is something we can all feel every day if we ask for it and prepare for it.