Add as friendLast month at stake conference, our stake president issued an interesting and rather marvelous challenge, one I’ve not heard at church before.

He wants us to make friends with people just for the sake of making friends.

He wants us to know our neighbors — and here in Ohio, where only about one percent of the population is LDS, it goes without saying that those neighbors are not likely to be Mormon already. In fact, it’s probable that they don’t know many (or any) Mormons.

So becoming friends with them is the perfect opportunity to then introduce them to the gospel and get them to convert, right? Cause that’s what Mormons do. We’re stealthy that way.

Wrong. The SP actually said he didn’t want us to even tell them we’re Mormon unless they bring it up and have questions.

He wants us to bless people’s lives, not to get them to change or eventually come around to our One True Point of View. Just to help them and be good neighbors, colleagues, and friends to them.

Well, I was cheering. After years of discomfort with the many artificial ways Mormons evangelize, this was good news. I don’t love people in order to get them to join my religion. Who does that?

The truth is I’m a pretty crappy missionary overall. In the more than 20 years that I’ve been LDS, I have given the Book of Mormon to precisely two people, and that was because both of them practically begged me for it. And even though a number of people have told me that I’ve helped them to stay in the Church when they had one foot out the door, I don’t think I’ve ever been responsible for a single conversion.

But I think I can say that I have been a good friend, a loving daughter, and a caring neighbor. For the most part, in my flawed and very human ways, I’ve tried to live the gospel by being honest, chaste, and benevolent, even if I swear every damn day and know that it’s not the best reflection of Jesus.

I screw up. But I do love people.

Some people are naturally gifted as evangelizing missionaries, God love ‘em. For example, a woman in one of my wards brought several people into the church because she was always actively praying she’d be open to those who were searching or hurt. She has one of those incredibly kind spirits where people just want to be around her and don’t quite know why. I’d bet money that tiny bluebirds braid her hair in the morning.

But I’m just not that person. As for me, I’ve taken the SP’s encouragement as a reason to redouble my efforts to love people for their own sake, not because I’m trying to change them.

As St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

39 Comments

  1. Outstanding! I love your SP’s recommendation too! I agree that the soft sell, everything-is-a-prelude-to-the-missionaries approach we Mormons so often have of relating to everyone is off-putting, and I hope, in decline.

  2. Because the message of the Restored Gospel is so vital, we have been repeatedly encouraged to share it with those we meet and befriend. However, I don’t think that we’ve only been encouraged to love others so that we can be ‘stealthy’ and share the Gospel with them. As small children at church are taught, we are all children of God, and that’s why we are to be a friend to all. Just a small sample of quotes from recent general conferences –

    “May we begin now, this very day, to express love to all of God’s children, whether they be our family members, our friends, mere acquaintances, or total strangers. As we arise each morning, let us determine to respond with love and kindness to whatever might come our way”. (Pres. Monson, “Love the Essence of the Gospel”, April 2014)

    “Brethren, we as priesthood bearers have committed to be a people who love God and our neighbor and who are willing to demonstrate that love through word and deed. That is the essence of who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ”. (Pres. Uchtdorf,”Are You Sleeping Through the Restoration”, April, 2014)

    “He expects you to treat every person you meet as a child of God. That is the reason He commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to forgive them. Your feelings of kindness and forgiveness toward others come as your divine inheritance from Him as His daughter. Each person you meet is His loved spiritual child”. (Pres. Eyring, “Daughters in the Covenant, April 2012)

    “And we feed His sheep throughout the world by being good Christian neighbors, practicing the pure religion of visiting and serving the widows, the fatherless, the poor, and all who are in need”.(Elder Hales, “Being a More Christian Christian”, Oct 2012)

    What is it to be a friend and neighbor? I think the above quotes are great places to start. I love the counsel of our leaders.

  3. “I don’t love people in order to get them to join my religion. Who does that?”

    I know you’re being semi-sarcastic, but you can’t really think this is a fair characterization of the church. I can’t count how many times I’ve been taught in church meetings and mission meetings that we shouldn’t just befriend people so that we can share the gospel with them. We should just share the gospel with everyone out of love. I don’t know anyone who disagrees.

    This article, like most of yours, seem to be set up in intentional rhetorical opposition to “orthodox” or “mainstream” Mormon culture and teachings, unless I’m misinterpreting. But in this case, your straw man really doesn’t exist at all.

    I continue to be bewildered by your misconceptions about the basics of church culture and teachings, Jana. It isn’t responsible to write the sort of things you do in the midst of that ignorance.

    • Apollo,

      My guess is the reason you’ve been taught that so many times (and I have as well) is that often people in the church do just that. Otherwise why would it be taught so often? I think in the past members have been encouraged to “target” certain members of their circle, and that led them to befriend people for that purpose. I’ve seen it often, and I’ve even done it myself (when I was ward mission leader and felt an even bigger responsibility to do my part).

      So I think the “straw man” actually does exist, to some degree–and I’d be careful about pointing a finger at Jana for her “misconceptions” and “ignorance.” Your perception of the church is not necessarily the only true and living perception on the earth.

      In my opinion, this stake president’s request of the members is inspired, and that there should be more of that in the church.

      • In my experience, it is usually the ward and stake leaders who are always pressuring us about ‘sharing the gospel’ and talking down to we members if everyone we know won’t sit down with the missionaries. Offering a Book of Mormon to someone who refuses it (and I’ve met more than one of those) doesn’t seem to count. You are still judged as being a lazy sloth unless your efforts put numbers on the statistical report. I agree with that SP. People do not want to be proselyted to. But they might learn to respect you as a friend — and that could later have further consequences. Get the Missionary Department off our backs! I’m sick of all that judgemental belly-aching about missionary work.

        • trytoseeitmyway

          “… usually the ward and stake leaders who are always pressuring us.”

          Luke 22:32. Matt. 28:19. Mark 16:15. Want more? Are you sure it is just those oddball ward and stake leaders?

          I mean, you poor little thing. Feeling “pressured” and all. You figure that ‘[p]eople do not want to be proselyted to.” (Fabulous grammar, there, by the way.) But where do you think converts come from, then, hmm? Oh yes, I know, not your concern. You just want to show up, sometimes, maybe, and not be asked to do anything. Matt. 16:24.

          It’s *your* belly-aching that is making me sick, friend.

          • Sorry you’re sick, friend.

            Someone needs to reread Doctrine & Covenants 121:34-43luke

          • trytoseeitmyway

            Ken Dahl, thanks for the chastisement. I will certainly take that into consideration. But, on the merits (you know, rather than just randomly criticizing my tone) what is your view of someone who says that “belly-aching” about missionary work makes him sick? Do you say, good for you? That seems to be Jana’s approach – why should anyone be asked to warn his neighbor? D&C 88:81. Why should anyone be asked to preach the Gospel? Matt. 28:19. Mark 16:15. There is a view being expressed here that obedience to these instructions is somehow unseemly and that generalized friendliness is all that is to be asked of anyone. Is that your view too?

            I think Section 121 lets me express my feelings about whiners. You’re welcome to disagree of course.

  4. Jana, You understate your influence. I was moved by your preface to your
    The Book of Mormon: Annotated Selections, where you recount your testimony of the Book of Mormon. I have made a copy of your account (hopefully without violating any copyright laws or your sense of propriety) and shared it with numerous friends and also with my ward during a fifth Sunday lesson, where others were similarly moved. I heartily agree with your sentiments about befriending all within our immediate reach without ulterior if charitable motives , but in my opinion, you have been a powerful missionary for the Book of Mormon and thereby the Restored Gospel. While disagreeing with your views from time to time, I genuinely admire you and count it a blessing that you are a fellow member.

  5. If this is the first time you’ve heard the message “be friends with people whether or not they want to become Mormons” in church, you’re an oddity. It’s pretty standard, and I would think it would be known unsaid anywhere outside of Utah valley, since you don’t have much choice whether or not to only have Mormon friends.

  6. The Easter Bunny

    This is the bind that works-oriented, convert-oriented churches get into.

    When a Mormon does something good, is it because they really want to be good, or just because they’re hoping to win points with the invisible man in the sky?

    When a Mormon approaches me and wants to “be friends” is it because he/she is really interested in me, as a person, or because their Stake President gave them an assignment to go out and be friends with someone?

    And has anyone commented on how weird (really, really, *really* weird) it is that a religious leader feels they need to tell their flock to “be friends” with non-members in the first place? The fact that the Stake President felt compelled to even *say* such a thing is the most revealing part of the story.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      Duwayne Anderson, I bet. The Easter Bunny thing is like a fingerprint. So, anyway, when Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” your take on that is to comment that it is “weird” that the Savior “found it necessary” to do so. That’s what you think is “the most revealing part of the story,” right? The answer is, it is far from weird but rather expected for religious leaders to express moral principles and to offer advice for daily living. I mean, people like Emmanuel Kant look at Mark 12:31 and find a categorical moral imperative, but you just think it’s “weird.” Of the two of you(Emmanuel Kant vs. The Easter Bunny), which one is the more shallow, would you say?

      • The Easter Bunny

        Loving your neighbor is harder than just being friends, so I can understand why Jesus would feel the need to tell people to *love* their neighbors.

        But being friendly isn’t nearly like loving. I just find it weird that being friends is so (apparently) hard for Mormons that they have to be given specific instruction on the matter.

        • trytoseeitmyway

          There’s nothing “apparently” about it. You’re first drawing an unwarranted inference (namely, that in Jans’s stake president’s opinion his congregants needed to be told to be friendly because in his opinion they would not do so without being instructed – something that I am sure he would contradict if asked) from a third party’s (Jana’s) account of something he said while speaking in a specific context and making a particular distinction *about* love and kindness and generosity toward others (which you find to be “hard” to do); and then you’re generalizing that unwarranted inference to Mormons as a group (“being friends is so apparently hard for Mormons”). The intellectual rigor there is non-existent. Unsurprisingly.

          Wait. Intellectual rigor? Even fairness, reasonableness or some semblance of courtesy toward your former co-religionists is absent.

          • The Easter Bunny

            I think you protest too much. This is obviously a sore point for you. Since it’s so important that others see it your way, I’ll concede. It’s all just a bunch of coincidences, Mormons love to be friends with non-Mormons, without any strings attached. None at all.

            Feel better? Okay. Take a deep breath and try to relax.

        • Isn’t being told to love thy neighbor the same as being told to be friends with your neighbor the same as thou shalt not steal and any other reminder or commandment? Some things are easier to do than others for different people. I happen to hate people and there are a lot of members and non-members that both hate and love people. The human experience is quite diverse and none of us are perfect and need to be taught over and over. Gosh, glad you made it to perfection. I’m still a work in progress.

        • I don’t think that being friends is hard for Mormons but I do think sometimes we need to be reminded to reach outside our bubble (so to speak). I can only speak to my own experience but for me being Mormon is a huge time commitment and I find myself spending a lot of time with those of my same faith. A lot of my social needs are met through my church commitments. I live in an area with a lot of Mormons and I can see how it might appear to some of our neighbors that we are exclusive. I really do think it is unintentional, yet hurtful still the same. Unfortunately we need to be reminded to reach out.

        • I suppose Jesus could have said, “Try to befriend your neighbor if you can’t love your neighbor”. Perhaps that’s in the new release just hitting bookstores, “Mormonism for Dummies”.

    • Jana Riess

      Steve: If I attributed that quotation incorrectly, please accept my apologies and provide a link here in the comments to the proper attribution. There have been a number of sayings attributed to Francis that turned out to be legend rather than fact, including the beautiful “Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.” I was not aware that this quotation (which I obtained from a book, not the Internet — not that books aren’t also full of errors) was disputed.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        I plugged the quote into Google and the first thing that came up was the debunking of it: http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-misquoting-francis-of-assisi/

        • trytoseeitmyway

          Steve, I agree with you. There are so many purported quotations ostensibly by famous historical figures which gain credibility through repetition, even though there is not a factual basis for them. The only way to protect our cultural and intellectual history is to call attention to the apocryphal nature of the supposed quotation whenever it pops up. Or, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

  7. It’s fun to read the mostly good-natured comments on this blog. This is in contrast to many religion blogs I read. So kudos to all of you. I get Jana’s point and I agree. The stake president was dead right about this. I actually avoid mentioning the church to my neighbors and friends. It’s not because I don’t want to share the gospel (because I do), but because I want them to know that I’m their friend and that I care about them. If they ask me questions, I’m more than happy to answer. If they don’t ask me questions, I assume they’re not interested. One thing I’ve come to understand over the years is that being a member of the Mormon church is not for everyone. We’d like to think it is, but it really isn’t. Those who are truly interested will self-select, and that’s really the way it should be. Until then, I’m happy to just be friends with people and try to obey the second great commandment.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        Jana, I’m puzzled. When you read scriptures such as Luke 22:32, Matt. 28:19 and Mark 16:15, do you say to yourself, well, they don’t really *mean* that. When the disciples in the years following the Savior’s death and resurrection were being persecuted and even executed for taking those words seriously, would your advice have been, oh, c’mon, guys, just be friendly to people and don’t try to *tell* them anything! It’s one thing to flunk sainthood – hey, me too! – but quite another to treat our duties to our brothers and sisters (D&C 88:1) so dismissively.

  8. Hello Jana-
    Your reference to St. Francis makes me wonder. How do Mormons view Catholic saints? It seems the LDS must view them in someway lacking. And does the LDS church practice baptism of the dead for Catholic saints? (And God forbid that question stirs up any controversy! As a Catholic, these things just occurred to me.)
    Thanks,
    Eric

    • trytoseeitmyway

      What an interesting question. I don’t think that there is any Mormon “view” of Catholic saints, as such. That is to say, I think that Mormons are as willing as anyone to consider the qualities that were thought to warrant beatification in any case, and to regard the saint well as a disciple of Jesus Christ on those grounds. On the other hand, Mormons (maybe in this context I should say, “Latter-day Saints!”) would likely be among the skeptics in terms of the requirement of miracles because (here’s the bad news) at the end of the day Mormons believe that in or shortly after the First Century, Christ’s Church fell into apostasy and the authority of the priesthood was taken from the Earth, not to return until the Restoration of the Church by the hands of Joseph Smith in about 1829. I recognize that this LDS idea is very much contrary to Catholic teaching to the effect that Jesus delivered the keys to Peter and that pontiffs of the Roman Catholic Church have held and administered them in an unbroken line thereafter. This is the single biggest (I suspect) disagreement between Catholics and Mormons.

      To get back to your question, Mormons might respectfully doubt in any particular that a Catholic saint would have had the priesthood authority to perform miracles, but that would not mean that Heavenly Father could not have worked miracles through any of his children, with or without priesthood authority. We just might not take the conclusion reached in the beatification process for granted, if you see what I’m saying. At the same time, we know that there are many beatified saints (surely St. Francis among them) who had many great and wise and spiritually affirming things to say, from which we can all learn. I hope that this response is helpful.

      With regard to vicarious baptism … I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to consider that question! But it is important to clarify that “the LDS church” doesn’t practice baptism of the dead “for,” or not for, any particular category of human ancestors. Instead, individual members are encouraged to baptize (1 Cor. 15:29) their own ancestors. Typically this would not include Catholic saints as such, but it certainly could do so, depending on the lineage of members of the (LDS) Church engaged in temple baptisms. There is not – repeat not – any organized, church-sanctioned effort to baptize RCC saints. I emphasize that because in the past some presumably well meaning members of our Church have made a point of engaging in vicarious baptism on behalf of Holocaust victims, much to the chagrin and even outrage of Holocaust survivors and others. The Church entered into a formal agreement with the Simon Weisenthal Center to the effect that the Church would not seek to engage in this practice as a matter of policy and would discourage individual members from doing so without permission. The Church has then backed that up by advising members that they can be subject to Church discipline – including excommunication – if they do so.

      If it happened that some Mormons were similarly engaged in an effort to research the family lineage of RCC saints for the purpose of vicarious baptism, I suspect that Catholic leaders and others would be similarly offended, and a similar instruction would be issued. That would be too bad in a way; the whole purpose of baptism for the dead is simply to extend the blessings of the baptismal ordinance to someone who had no opportunity to meet that requirement through the authority of the priesthood in mortal life but the choice to accept the blessing, or not, is always within the free will of the (now deceased) recipient. In other words, it is intended as an unmixed benefit without presuming anything about the will or beliefs of the departed individual. Nevertheless, our Church regards it as important to treat the beliefs and sensibilities of others with respect and, as I said, discourages vicarious baptism outside of one’s own family line for that reason.

      Before I was baptized for my non-LDS dad years after his death, I first needed to ask my non-LDS mom for her consent. She said, “OK, if I can baptize Joseph Smith.” I said, “Sure, mom, you can do that.” But it was a precious experience for me and, now having lost my mother too in the years since then, it was even more precious for me to witness the baptism of my wife on my mother’s behalf, and then for us to participate in the sealing of my parents to each other, “for time and all eternity,” and for me to be sealed to them (and by extension my wife and children and grandchildren as well) for the same eternity.

      Sometimes my dear wife wonders if eternity with me might be just a tad too long, but I am sure that I will be easier to live with by then. :-)

      I hope this was helpful to you.

      • Thank you. Yours is a very thorough and illuminating explanation. As you said “but that would not mean that Heavenly Father could not have worked miracles through any of his children[.]” This is my thought re: Joseph Smith. As a happy Catholic I do not taken him for a prophet but I admire the good that has come out of the LDS.

  9. I have (praise the Lord) been an ex-Mormon for many years, But I still remember the old “Every member a missionary” program. After reading Jana’s article I thought I’d go back and re-read some of the Conference Talks on that subject. Here’s what ELDER RICHARD G. SCOTT Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said (Nov. 1997):

    “Simultaneously with doctrinal conversion there must be a social transition. Friends, habits, customs, and traditions not in harmony with the life of a Latter-day Saint are abandoned, replaced by new friends and activities that support a new life….This social transition requires careful nurturing and help to teach new patterns of life, to introduce new friends, and to assist the new converts to be obedient and begin to serve in the Church.”

    I think that people who deny the social isolation of Mormons are in denial. The idea of only associating with other Mormons [e.g., "Friends, habits, customs, and traditions [in] harmony with the life of a Latter-day Saint”] is actively taught and promoted by church leaders. Not everyone *obeys* this council, but the council *is* taught.

    On the other hand, the church still wants its members to make converts. So, after telling Mormons to only associate with good Mormon friends, they (the church) need to tell them to go out and be [artificially] friends with non-Mormons in an attempt to make converts.

    In my opinion, the suspicion is well deserved that when a Mormon is trying to be friendly, they’re probably really just trying to make a convert. Thus the need to dial it back, a bit, with the “soft sell.”

    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      Some peoe ho join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been from some pretty rough neighborhoods and families. They are escaping abuse, violence, abuse of drugs and alcohol. For their own sake, they need to create new social networks.

      There are other new Latter-day Saints whose families are hostile toward Mormonism for religious reasons or because they have distorted understanding of what Mormons are like. People who have been excommunicated from their families need a new supportive social network, and the other Mormons are obligated to help provide that.

      The Church does not tell people they have to abandon their relatives or friends who are not Mormon. The majority of converts not only maintain those ties, they actively share their beliefs with them. That is, in fact, the most significant way people decide to lern more about Mormonism and eventually become Mormons themselves.

      One of the reasons Mormons don’t have as many non-Mormon friends is because an expanding sphere of conversion turns many of them into Mormons.

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