Saturday, March 12, 2016

Where I Went Wrong On My Mission

Previously: How Long Before The Church Collapses?

Backpacks and helmets hadn't yet been invented in my day.
Every time I taught the first discussion on my mission, I was unwittingly propagating a false teaching -though it might be more accurate to say I taught a false conclusion derived from a true teaching.

When I went out in 1973, I was already twenty-one years old and in the first group of missionaries to teach what became known as "the flipchart discussions." These newly streamlined discussions replaced the former flannel board lessons, and were based on a newly revised script carefully written by a committee of experts at Church HQ.

One of the elective classes I had taken in college was a course in Modern Salesmanship, and because of that training I recognized these new missionary discussions encapsulated the sales technique known as "The ABC's of Successful Selling:" Always Be Closing.

Actual missionary training footage smuggled out of the MTC.

The product we missionaries were selling, of course, was membership in the church. But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I don't wish to give the impression I am against anyone being baptized. I'm not. I recognize baptism as essential to God's plan. But we were selling baptism to the investigators in order to get them to buy into something else- something less desirable, and definitely not what God had intended as part of His restored church.

The first discussion required us to memorize Joseph Smith's testimony regarding his epiphany with God the Father and Jesus Christ, which we recited to our contact verbatim.  That was all well and good, and in most instances the spirit in the room would be strong as we related the story to our investigators. I believed Joseph Smith's testimony then, and I still do.

But here's where the false teaching came in: After relating Joseph Smith's story, either I or my companion would bear testimony of Joseph's experience. Then, following the script we had memorized, one of us would say "I testify, Mr. Brown, that ever since that day the Lord has had a prophet on the earth to guide us and teach us His will."

It was decades before I realized that was not the proper lesson I should have taken from young Joseph's experience.  And it certainly wasn't the lesson I should have been sharing with investigators.

The real takeaway I should have gotten from Joseph Smith's experience is that if a person has questions he needs answered from the Lord, he need only ask the Lord directly; that if a person asks in faith, nothing wavering, it is possible to get those questions answered directly from the Lord.  No need for a preacher, pastor, or other religious authority to act as intermediary between man and God.  The great takeaway from Joseph Smith's experience is that we can all go directly to God for answers, and if we depend on Him alone, He will answer us.

However... The modern idea that some type of intermediary was necessary for the orderly management of the church was a notion that fit very nicely into the late 20th century narrative that determined individual free agency should be subordinated for the greater good. Therefore, the flock must be led in all things by men who held special authority to do the leading.   Never mind that no Church president, from Brigham Young forward, has ever been anointed by the Lord to that purpose. The church was blessed to be led in these latter days by Divine Leaders -that was the teaching my Church's managers wanted to convey to those newly coming aboard, so that was the line I faithfully regurgitated as I labored to bring them in.

At the time, I fully embraced the techniques inherent in these scripted missionary lessons. In fact, I admired the way they were structured.  On every page opposite the script we memorized, we were provided answers to possible objections the investigator might raise.  Anyone with experience in sales understands that skillfully overcoming objections is the very secret to closing a sale, as taught by master salesman Elmer Letterman in his classic instructional presentation, "The Sale Begins When The Customer Says No."
I  actually own this record. It's pretty good.
I knew that the apostles leading the Church at the time all sat on the board of directors of Beneficial Life Insurance Company, one of the Church's most profitable holdings, so I deduced my missionary lessons were inspired by the same script insurance salesmen were taught to follow, only they were selling a different product.  I thought the whole program was inspired. No reason we can't adapt proven techniques to saving souls, is there?

Except the gospel of Christ is not a product you should be trying to sell. You can introduce people to the gospel, but it's not a product you can manipulate them into buying. You can, however, sell people on something else, and that is what the leaders of the Church were getting me to do for them.  And it worked.

Well, half the time it worked. Some of the people I sold to were enthusiastic about the product for awhile, but eventually they stopped using it.

Going About It Backwards
In one of my earliest posts, which I titled The Worst Testimony You Can Possibly Have, I repeated a story Thomas Hyans told in general conference in October of 1982:
"There’s an ancient oriental legend that tells the story of a jeweler who had a precious pearl he wanted to sell. In order to place this pearl in the proper setting, he conceived the idea of building a special box of the finest woods to contain the pearl. He sought these woods and had them brought to him, and they were polished to a high brilliance. He then reinforced the corners of this box with elegant brass hinges and added a red velvet interior. As a final step, he scented that red velvet with perfume, then placed in that setting this precious pearl. 
"The pearl was then placed in the store window of the jeweler, and after a short period of time, a rich man came by. He was attracted by what he saw and sat down with the jeweler to negotiate a purchase. The jeweler soon realized that the man was negotiating for the box rather than the pearl. You see, the man was so overcome by the beauty of the exterior that he failed to see the pearl of great price."

You get the analogy. The pearl represents the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the box represents the institutional Church which originally served as a container and delivery system for the gospel.  But if we were to retell that story today, it might be more accurate to say that the jeweler had kept the pearl in that box so long that he actually forgot about the pearl inside. And when a customer came along who had actually heard about the pearl, the jeweler tried to sell him the box.

I've recently heard a similar analogy, just as apt: investigators are offered a beautifully wrapped gourmet bar of chocolate.  But when the giver unwraps the bar for his guest, he discards the chocolate and hands the investigator the impressive-looking wrapper.

Of course the wrapper is important; it tells us that the thing inside that wrapper is sweet, rich, and delicious.  But our missionaries today are trained to celebrate the wrapper instead of the sweet, delicious interior treat. If you stuff enough paper wrappers down people's throats enough times, folks are going to run the other way when they see you coming.

This is why we can't retain converts. I hadn't understood that my role as a missionary was to help bring people to Christ.  I thought my job was to bring people into the church.

I was very good at introducing people to the gospel on my mission. While visiting with them in their homes the spirit often witnessed very strongly that the good news I was sharing with them was true. Then they would be baptized and start attending our Sunday meetings, and I would be transferred to another area.  Before long my converts began to wonder what had happened to those beautiful, sweet feelings they experienced while with the missionaries. Where did that go?  Why did they not receive similar edification while at church? And where were those once common healings, miracles, and visitations from angels that were experienced by the early Saints, and which our scriptures promised should continue?

What the heck happened to the promises of the Restoration?

What happened was that the promise of the Restoration has been gradually supplanted in this church by an authoritarian pseudo-religion that emphasizes hierarchical authority over the word of God, and obedience to leaders over the pure love of Christ. In short, the converts instinctively understood they had been victims of a classic bait and switch. They were sold the box instead of the pearl; a paper wrapper in place of the candy.

And so, within an average of nine months, the typical Mormon convert has moved on.

What Is Really Wrong With The Church?
I recently came across an interesting little analysis that originated at the New Order Mormon forum, written by someone who goes by the name "LostInMiddleMormonism." That forum was begun by members who hoped to be able to adapt to the Church on their own terms, but today there are many there who have given up on the religion entirely. I therefore don't know if the author rejects Mormonism out of hand, or if, like me and many others, he sees validity in the core fundamentals yet recognizes that the institutional Church has run aground.  Regardless, I think this person has perfectly zeroed in on the problem the Church now faces in gaining and retaining converts, and I also think the author is right: the corporate Church will never recognize the problem is systemic to the organization. Because rather than focus on the pure gospel message, the product the Church is selling today is...the Church itself.

And surprise! Nobody wants that product.

Here is that analysis:
I believe I could help the Church out considerably with their missionary work endeavors, but I fear they are not really interested in real improvement.However, for all of our friends in the Church office building that are reading this, I shall offer some feedback, without even charging for the consulting provided.Let us start by talking about what the problems in missionary work are not:
  • 1. It is NOT a lack of missionaries out in the "mission field"
  • 2. It is NOT a lack of money and resources devoted to the program
  • 3. It is NOT that the members are "slacking" or unmotivated
  • 4. It is NOT that the missionaries are "unworthy"
  • 5. It is NOT that the missionaries need to work harder
  • 6. It is NOT that there needs to be a new program
  • 7. It is NOT a problem with the approach
  • 8. It is NOT a problem of language or communication
  • 9. It is NOT that members don't have non-member friends
  • 10. Nor is it that the members are scared to talk to their friends about the church.
Here it is in a nut shell: The problem is the product. The problem is that the members wouldn't wish the Church on their worst enemies, let alone their friends. 
Most members -even the active ones- do not leave church on Sunday feeling measurably better than when they went in. They are not "uplifted". They are frustrated, saddened, and upset. Nearly everything is done half-assed. 
The Elder's Quorum President is only doing his calling because he was guilted into it. The Cub Master doesn't want to be in scouts, but feels obligated because his son is in the program. The Relief Society President is trying to be a funeral organizer, guidance counselor, principal, mother, wife, and welfare consultant all rolled into one and wonders why she isn't "good enough." The Young Women have a budget that wouldn't run a lemonade stand, and the idea of a fun ward activity is a potluck dinner in a smelly gymnasium that hasn't been cleaned effectively because the members are supposed to do that too, in their spare time. 
The home teachers and visiting teachers (aka all the adults in the ward) are spending three evenings a month chasing down people that don't want to be visited. Not to mention the lies that they are forced to tell themselves in order to fit into this supposed ward family. They can't tell the truth that they find the temple weird, that they support gay marriage, or that they really don't want to spend two years of their life pushing religion on people that are perfectly happy without it for fear of being labeled a social pariah. 
The problem is most ethical and moral human beings wouldn't wish the Church on anyone. They intrinsically recognize that the Church is to religion what McDonalds is to a fine dining experience. It is bland, it is cheap, and it is barely functional. The average member, even if they don't recognize it consciously, understands the truism that "what is good in Mormonism is not unique, and what is unique is not very good." When individuals do "share the gospel", what happens? Research your own experience and that of your friends. Someone posts a pro LDS thought to Twitter or Facebook. Who likes it? Other members! That's it! No one else, and the majority of those members only "like" it because they feel obligated to. 
Give the average member the choice of attending the temple or a recently released movie (such as Star Wars), and most will pick the latter every time. This is especially true if they aren't trying to demonstrate to the questioner how righteous they are. 
Why is this? Because they get more fulfillment out of the movie at the local Cine-mark than they do from the movie at the International House of Handshakes. Give members a choice of an early summer boat trip on the first Saturday of April or watching conference and what will most pick? Why? 
The problem isn't the sales force, folks! The problem is that the product does not work as advertised. If the membership of the church was actually getting out of their church experience what they say they are getting out of it, then you wouldn't be able to stop them from dragging their friends in the door. And more importantly, their friends would quickly recognize it. Why does everyone have an iphone or a droid in their pocket? Because those things work. Because they add value to their lives. Because there is a real and measurable benefit. 
Why is the missionary program stagnant? Because it doesn't deliver what it promises. 
And so my friends in the Church Office Building, until you fix this very fundamental problem, it won't matter what you do with the missionary effort or what cool new program you try. Until you fix that flaw, anything else is doomed to failure. And to make matters worse, putting this repeatedly on the members only exacerbates the problem.
Preach My Gospel - And ONLY My Gospel
We tend to refer to "the gospel" as a catch-all term to describe every teaching, precept, ethos, credo, and dogma that combine to make up what we call "Mormonism." But the true gospel is actually much more concise.  In 3 Nephi 27, Jesus described His gospel succinctly:
"Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil."
That, brothers and sisters, is the gospel of Christ in a nutshell. The prophet Joseph Smith echoed those words of Jesus when he wrote:
"The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it." (History of the Church, 3:30)
(It's worth noting that when Brother Joseph spoke here of the testimony of the apostles and prophets, he was not referring to the men who would one day occupy the red chairs in the conference center, but to the ancient apostles and prophets who were actually able to testify of having known the Savior.)

Today our missionaries are provided with a phonebook-sized manual titled Preach My Gospel. But here's a question: is that manual concerned mostly with the simple gospel of Christ, or it it filled to the brim with appendages to the gospel?

I'd say there's much more detritus in that manual masquerading as gospel than what might be found in the legitimate appendages to it.  If that manual contained mostly appendages to the gospel, it would be one thing.  At the very least we could call it helpful filler.  But recently author Rob Smith published a book showing countless instances where the modern LDS Church has adopted teachings that were never revealed by God, but are instead the doctrines of men. Those aren't appendages to the gospel, they're outright fabrications swinging from the appendages.

And Daymon Smith put out a five volume treatise proving that much of what we embrace today as essentially "Mormon" was actually born of 19th century Protestant thought that was folded into our religion by some of the earliest converts to the church. Over a century and a half later, many of these false teachings have supplanted the pure precepts found in the Book of Mormon. How can a teaching to be essentially "Mormon" if it contradicts the Book of Mormon?

Jesus had somewhat to say about those who would tweak His gospel message to suit their own purposes:
"If it so be that the church is built upon my gospel then will the Father show forth his own works in it. But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return." (3 Nephi 27:10-11)
Question: Is the father currently "showing forth His works" in this church?

I think that question can be answered by looking at what was happening in the church during the time when it was led by a true prophet of God, and comparing that period to the Church today.


This Month's Announcements:

Please Don't Be Mad

Occasionally I will come across an email from a reader that is very old, and that I did not see when it was first sent.  Actually, this happens a lot, and fewer things haunt my sleep more than the thought that someone who wrote me with a question might think I was too busy or too stuck-up to reply.  So please know that like most of you, I am drowning in emails, almost all of them commercial in nature, and of such quantity that sometimes I don't even bother checking my email box for weeks at a time, after which time I usually give up trying to catch up with it all and let the whole bunch of 'em slide into oblivion.  So please know that if you sent me an email, I didn't ignore you; I simply didn't see you there among the reeds.

If you have written me and not received a response within a couple of weeks, please give me a nudge and try again.  You'll actually have better luck if you leave a private note to me on Facebook letting me know there is something waiting for me in my email inbox.  Just let me know what name to search for.  But please be aware my Facebook message box gets crowded too, so there's still a chance you could get lost in there as well.  Lengthier messages are best sent via email ( while shorter notes are fine if sent through Facebook, including notifications that there is something waiting for me in my email box.  Although I have ignored untold thousands of emails, I rarely delete, so yours is probably still lurking even if it's years old.  Be advised, though: If you are hoping for a lengthy reply, it may take me a bit longer for me to get back to you because I am lazy as hell.

Another Free Book!
The proprietor of the remarkable LDS blog The Perfect Day has compiled all his posts so far into a book that is available free in formats that you can download for reading on your Kindle, Nook, or other device; it's even available on pdf.  This is a good way to catch up on some incredibly cogent thinking, so get it now and get it HERE.