Monday, July 1, 2013
Dealing with Mormon Missionaries...the Christian Way
If you're a Christian, and you think things like right belief are important, you might invite them in, and start a conversation about all the differences between your theological traditions.
Often, in fact, this last is recommended by those in the business of "anti-cult" ministry, who see things like visits from Mormon missionaries as opportunities for "reverse evangelism," if you will. One needn't look too hard to find all sorts of recommendations on how to handle such encounters. Things like "What to say to Mormons when they come to your door," or "10 questions to ask Mormons," or "3 Bible verses to bring up with Mormon missionaries."
The assumption, of course, is that the proper way to approach the situation is to get into a doctrinal dispute. Sure, these folks will sometimes recommend that you be polite or tactful or do it in "love," but the goal is the same: do everything you can to make the missionaries doubt their faith, and move towards your own.
I used to think this way, too. In fact, I relished any opportunity to engage in theological tit-for-tat with someone of another doctrinal persuasion, confident as I was of my argumentative skills. I once even chased down a pair of Mormon missionaries to set up a time to talk. During the conversation, which lasted several hours, I actually made one of them cry. I later bragged about it. It makes me sick to think about.
This just isn't the way that Jesus approached people He was trying to win. If they cried around Him, it was because they saw that He didn't judge them (Luke 7:36-50), or because of their own failure to merit His affection (Luke 22:61-62). It was always related to His overwhelming love. It was never because He had cornered them on some subtle theological point.*
I am told that one of the main reasons the Mormon church has such a large and organized missionary base, and why missionaries are sent at the age they are (most are about 20), is for the personal spiritual growth of the missionaries themselves. This is not to say that the church isn't really interested in expansion, merely that they recognize that everyone's faith must be tested, and that an extended period of wrestling with and sharing one's faith at a formative time of life is extremely effective at solidifying one's convictions.
In light of this, I suggest that the most Christian means of response ("Christian" does, after all, mean "like Jesus") to Mormon missionaries (and others) is to meet them on their own terms. Instead of picking a fight, or trying to get them to backpedal, or to admit to some shady piece of their religious history, we might try helping them along in their endeavor. We could get on board with their own church's goal of personal spiritual formation, and seek to minister to these missionaries. After all, there are probably plenty of other hard-nosed evangelicals trying to make life difficult for them. Why not be a source of comfort and encouragement instead? I suspect that this will go much farther toward bringing them closer to Jesus than any argument.
What's more, you can't have it both ways. It is tempting to think that we can still confront their errant beliefs while being compassionate and tender. And in some contexts, we surely can. But so long as we make what they believe our primary concern, rather than Who they know, we betray our true motives. We prove by our conduct that we are more concerned with whether they agree with us than with what's actually important to them, and might have potential to make them more Christlike.
Imagine how these encounters could be transformed if our perspective was, "How can I serve these people?" "How can I encourage them in the things we do agree on?" "How can I assist them in what must be a trying period of life?" "How can I pray for them?" "How can I learn from them?"
Give it a shot, and see if God doesn't show up and do something cool. I wish I had.
* Though He was not afraid to do this as well. The catch, however, is that it was always with those who already claimed to know God, and always with the purpose of moving them towards a more genuine relationship with Him. Thus, in His frequent disputes with the religious leaders, He often cornered them both with their desire to remain consistent within their own theological assumptions (Matt. 22:41-46), and with His ability to cut through their false motives to the root of their issue (Luke 10:25-37). The Pharisees are not analogous to Mormons because the Pharisees were the "keepers of the law," the interpreters of what counted as "orthodox." It is very likely that their theology and Jesus' were actually quite similar. Their problem was in sacrificing the "spirit" of the law for its form. A more accurate contemporary comparison would be to evangelicals, and particularly the "anti-cult" folks themselves. The Pharisees were the "heresy hunters" of their day. Significantly, whoever the heretical groups of the time were, we don't find Jesus engaging them on doctrinal matters.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Generic License.