“How Member-Missionary Efforts Look to Our Friends,” Ensign, Aug. 1990, 76–77
If you’ve ever wondered how your friends feel when you attempt to share the gospel with them, you’ll be interested in a recent study conducted in the U.S. and Canada by the Church. Researchers have discovered some news that should be encouraging to Church members.
In the first phase of a four-part study done for the Church’s Missionary Executive Council by the Correlation Department’s Research Division, interviews were conducted with friends of Church members. Those interviewed had all been invited by a member to meet with the missionaries. The study attempted to discover the reactions these people had when invited.
The research sheds important light on a variety of misconceptions held by members about member-missionary work and makes several encouraging recommendations.
Results of Members’ Invitations to Friends
According to the study, member-missionary efforts with friends usually result in positive outcomes. For example, approximately half of the time that members invite their friends to meet with the missionaries, the friends accept the invitation. And even among the 50 percent who decline, about four out of five report they might respond favorably if invited to other activities, like social events, informal discussions, or even Church services. Furthermore, members can take courage from the knowledge that whether or not their friends, relatives, or acquaintances agree to meet with missionaries, they are likely to have either the same or even more positive attitudes toward the member after such an invitation. Negative outcomes occur rarely—usually only when a member is insensitive, manipulative, or preachy.
Sharing the gospel has always been an important part of being a member of the Church. Because the gospel is central to Church members’ lives and because it has helped members in meaningful ways, members want their friends to enjoy its blessings. Yet because members don’t want to offend by being pushy or aggressive, they often see themselves in a dilemma.
The good news is that the chances of offending friends are slight, as long as invitations are extended sincerely, out of a genuine interest in the friend.
How Members’ Efforts Are Perceived by Others
According to the report, a common problem with member-missionary invitations is that they are often not explicit enough. Too often, the invitations sound like an offhand suggestion, not an actual invitation deserving a considered response. For example, according to the study, 25 percent of those invited to meet with the missionaries did not understand that they had actually even been invited. And of those who did recognize that they were being invited to meet with the missionaries, most did not understand what the meeting would be like. Without having seen or met the missionaries, they sometimes had false impressions, such as thinking that the missionaries would be argumentative or ask for donations or that the experience would be unpleasant in some other way. Others thought the meeting was merely a social invitation, or an opportunity to have a particular question answered.
An important implication of the study, then, is that more friends would probably agree to meet with the missionaries if they had a chance to meet them informally first—for example, at a Church social. And if members could explain more clearly how meeting with the missionaries is a pleasant, informative experience, their missionary efforts might be more effective.
Some Reasons Friends Decline
Researchers found that when invitations are declined, it does not mean that the friend is necessarily opposed to continued member-missionary efforts. “However,” their report says, “members often failed to follow up with continued friendshipping efforts.”
In fact, the study showed that when invitations to meet with missionaries were turned down, “members did not try to understand why their friends had declined nor did they seem to know how to respond when the friend declined.” Instead, members sometimes became embarrassed or seemed quick to assume that when an invitation was declined, the person had rejected being approached about the Church and would have no further interest in it. This sometimes-false assumption, the report advises, can be recognized easily if members will consider the most common reasons for declining invitations, specifically:
The person invited had unrealistic expectations about the meeting, perhaps thinking he or she might be asked difficult theological questions or be put on the spot in some way.
The person invited felt opposition from family members or close friends.
The person was actively involved in another church.
The circumstances—such as major illness, time pressures, or other temporary concerns—prevented their accepting.
The report suggests that if members knew that these are among the most likely reasons for their invitation being declined, they could be more understanding and at the same time be less timid about inviting friends to meet with missionaries. It is important for members to realize how circumstantial a declined invitation can be. These findings may even give members more confidence in discerning just what kind of activity to invite their friends to—be it a special event, a missionary discussion, a conference, or a sacrament meeting. One declined invitation should not make members reluctant to extend an invitation on another occasion.
What Appeals to Others Most about the Church
Perhaps the most common misconception the study clears up is the idea that most people are looking for “the true church.” According to the study, “the desire to find a church or ‘find the truth’ is not the main motivation for many people who agree to meet with the missionaries when invited.” On the contrary, doctrines often have little to do with a person’s initial interest in learning more about the Church. Rather, the greatest single motivation is the quality of the relationship with the member and the example set by the member’s life.
Since meaningful relationships seem to appeal to people more than the idea of finding the true church, the research findings should encourage members to share how the gospel has influenced them personally and helped them with the challenges of life. According to the study, friends of members feel more comfortable sharing personal feelings, values, and experiences than talking about points of doctrine.
What Could Help Member-Missionaries Most
Church members who understand their friends’ real concerns feel less timid in the member-missionary effort and, at the same time, are more sensitive to their friends’ needs. Here, the study offers some of its most important insights.
Implications of the research suggest that, as member missionaries, we would do well to—
Be more willing to listen for understanding and not so eager to talk, explain, and inform.
Be in less of a hurry to bring conversations to a conclusion, less inclined to force interpretations of ideas, and be more warm and relaxed, enjoying the exchange and being willing to learn and share discoveries as well as to teach.
Be more concerned with what we have in common with others than with our differences.
Be primarily concerned with the sincerity of our relationships with our friends, not the outcome of any one specific invitation.
Be aware that friends often have only a passive interest in theology and doctrine.
Be more active in following up with a variety of member-missionary efforts, whether or not the friend seems interested in meeting with the missionaries.
The research shows that members who enjoy sharing the gospel have a common strength—their awareness of the interests, concerns, and needs of friends and acquaintances. This strength enables them to deal lovingly and understandingly with their friends’ feelings about the gospel, and it seems to be part of the reason they enjoy their missionary efforts.
As mistaken notions are discarded, Church members will surely become both more effective as missionaries and more capable of being caring friends to others.
How Friends Respond to Invitations to Meet with the Missionaries
But of Those Who Said “No” …
Four out of five [80%] still seemed willing to participate in Church activities, talk about the gospel, or even meet with the missionaries at a later time.
Whether or Not Friends Accept the Invitations, Relationships with Members Tend to Get Better or Remain the Same.