I’ve thought about writing on this topic for some time now. I am an evangelical who has lived in Utah for almost five years, four of which I’ve spent at BYU, and I’ve been involved in a wide array of exchanges with Latter-day Saints over this period. I spend a lot of time thinking about my varied and many motivations (what they are what they should be) in talking with Mormons and about things I think evangelicals could improve upon in our conversations with Latter-day Saints specifically and non-evangelicals in general. Significantly less often (usually after I’ve had a frustrating encounter), but often enough that I have strong feelings on the subject, I think about the how I wish Mormons would interact with me. It’s the latter that I want to write about, and I comment on the former only to preface what follows with the admission that I think evangelicals (myself included) have a long, long way to go in loving our Mormon neighbors as Jesus would have us love them, and that I don’t believe any practices I take issue with on the Mormon side of interfaith dialogues are unique to Mormons.
I should clarify that my thoughts on this subject are directed toward non-missionary Latter-day Saints. While I feel strongly about what follows and believe it has broad implications, I realize that missionaries have different roles within Latter-day Saint culture than most members do, and that’s another post for another day.
I can only think of two things that really bother me about the evangelism practices of some Latter-day Saints and three things I think are really effective. Maybe I’ll think of more later and write another post. I’m really interested in LDS reactions to this, especially the first two…
Things that are not effective for me:
- Bearing your testimony. I am reluctant to write about this topic, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I dislike it when Latter-day Saints bear their testimonies to me, and I have yet to speak to a non-Mormon about this who feels differently (I’m sure there are some out there, but I don’t think my experience is rare). Testimony-bearing is a conversation-ender. There’s just nowhere to go from there. And to be honest, it often feels to me like it’s used as a trump card, as a last word in a debate I didn’t even know I was having. I usually walk away from conversations in which that has taken place feeling manipulated, bulldozed, and disheartened. Of the many times people have borne me their testimonies, only one experience was not completely negative, and that was when a professor of mine asked (a courtesy for which I was very appreciative) if she could bear me her testimony, and I said yes. Usually when people bear their testimonies to me, it feels like they and I are suddenly standing on uneven ground. I feel forced into the position of being told what’s true. The testimony-bearer becomes the teacher and I become the student. They do so knowing that I believe differently, and I imagine that their desire is that I will feel the Spirit while they’re speaking and have an experience like they have had. But when that doesn’t happen, where are we supposed to go from there? Can we have conversations without this element being introduced, without our roles being so rigidly defined by only one member of a two-person relationship?
- Telling me that I wouldn’t lose anything I believed if I joined the LDS Church; I would just get more truth in addition to what I already have. Many a well-meaning Latter-day Saint has expressed this to me. As best as I can tell, it is a distortion of a (great) quote from Joseph Smith (which I am going to distort myself, because I can’t find it): “Bring what truth you have and let us add unto it.” [Correction: the quote is from Gordon B. Hinckley; see aquinas's comment below for context.] Being on the receiving end of the comment “You wouldn’t lose anything…” is frustrating, as it takes but a moment of real reflection to realize that I would lose some beliefs that are very precious to me if I were to join the LDS Church. That’s not necessarily a valid reason not to join; it just makes the statement untrue. I cannot be Mormon and believe that God is a Trinity, I cannot be Mormon and believe that the one true church is the invisible body of all the redeemed regardless of official church affiliation or lack thereof, I cannot be Mormon and believe that God has faithfully sustained all the truth his Church needed throughout the centuries, and I cannot be Mormon and believe that God created from nothing everything in existence outside Himself. I would lose some things that are close to the core of what makes God so beautiful to me, beliefs that it would be almost physically painful for me to part ways with. To imply that my transition to Mormonism would be either easy or loss-less is to reveal an understanding of my faith that is a very weak caricature of its reality. Also, presenting Mormonism in this light is counter to the way Jesus presents the cost of accepting the gospel. If Mormonism is the Way, and it costs me everything to join the church, then so be it. Though I believe salvation is free, it cannot be said of Christianity that it costs us nothing; it costs us everything. If the Latter-day Saint gospel is the pearl of great price, I’ll sell everything I have to get it. A Jesus-following people should expect no less.
Things I think are very effective:
- Following the Spirit. I admire the tendency within the Latter-day Saint tradition of people receiving promptings and following them. This is a beautiful aspect of LDS faith, and something that seems to be conspicuously missing from the somewhat formulaic way in which some Latter-day Saints interact with non-Latter-day Saints whom they’d like to see convert. (The irony of my accusing non-evangelicals of employing formulaic conversion techniques is not lost on me…we may be chief of all sinners in this area.)
- Expecting that I can offer you insight into the Christian life that you do not already have. In Acts chapter ten, God used Cornelius, a Gentile, to teach Peter, a Jew. Even if I’m working from an understanding of Christianity that is missing some of the fundamentals, I may deeply understand the truth I do have, and I am a person to whom God is revealing himself differently than how he’s revealing himself to you. People who understand this are usually the most effective ambassadors of their faith traditions that I know, because they are seekers themselves.
- Genuinely desiring to know and understand me. Latter-day Saints have a very robust sense of calling and duty to evangelize the world, and I think that’s admirable. But every time I’ve become more endeared to Mormonism over the past few years, it has been because of people who have shelved their overt desires to see me join the church and who have rather tried earnestly to understand me. These are people who value my experience for what it is, not for how they can use it. This is compelling. This is attractive. Love me so well that I can’t help but wonder what could create in someone so beautiful a heart, and you won’t have to convince me that your faith is life-giving. I’ll beat down your door with questions about it.