No More Awkward Missionary Moments

I used to think that if I cared about something (like the gospel) and really wanted others to appreciate it, I needed to focus my energies in always figuring out ways to bring it up more…and with just the right words and in just the right moments.  Always on the look-out for an ‘opening,’ life was a strategy game – played with the passenger next to me on an airplane flight, with friends or a neighbor down the street.

While leading to an occasional nice moment, one thing always troubled me:  nothing seemed to be sticking.  These hard-won moments of sharing were usually met by something supremely polite:  “Hmmm…how interesting.  Thanks for sharing that.  I appreciate it.  Have a great day.”

Little sense of relevance, or why it matters to them.  And no discernible impact.

When I arrived at the University of Illinois’ psychology doctoral program, one thing was clear – this kind of evangelical posturing would not be well received. So I swallowed hard – and started to listen.

For the next two years, I focused on trying to hear out more deeply the experiences and thoughts of my classmates and professors – feminist, gay, lesbian, progressive.  What followed in my life would change me in ways I wouldn’t have imagined…three examples:

(1) At lunch with a feminist classmate, I asked her to help me understand why she was pro-choice.  She went on to share surprising stories, feelings and experiences that had led to her conviction.  My own beliefs were unchanged – but something else had changed.  For the first time, I really had a sense of why she believed as she did.

(2) Walking across the campus with an atheist friend, I decided to ask her why she came to believe what she did.  For the next hour, I heard of her heart-wrenching abuse at the hands of religious elders as a child – and how it had impacted her feelings about religion.

(3) I was assigned as a home-teacher to a “post-Mormon” law student who refused to meet with any Mormon. With nothing to lose, I penned an e-mail to him one day – asking him if he’d be willing to have lunch and just share his story with me sometime.  I assured him that this wasn’t “step 2 in a 5 step process” – but instead reflected genuine interest in hearing him out.  He e-mailed back within a day:  “I believe what you told me…how does Monday work?”

It all started to click:  ‘hey, there’s another way of doing this whole conversation thing…a way not only less awkward – but also more enjoyable and powerful. The post-Mormon lunch meeting, for instance, turned into one of the most heart-felt explorations of the Spirit that I’ve ever had – and not because I was trying to find-a-way-to-make-sure-I-could-tell-this-guy-about-the-Spirit…quite the contrary.  I had given up any agenda – and just asked him to let me get to know him.  And yet in the natural course of that inquiry, things of the heart came up -from both of us…there was no way around it.

So there you have it:  No burden.  No pressure.  No fear …in exchange about the very things we’re supposedly not supposed to discuss in polite conversation!  When we left the meeting, this man and I had each been taught profoundly – by the experience of being together and by the insights and feelings it confirmed.

But is something like that really worth our time?  LDS scholar Robert Millet has been practicing deep, mutual listening with an evangelical pastor in Salt Lake City, Greg Johnson (see Youtube summary of their work).  Some of his colleagues at BYU have raised critiques of this kind of work – isn’t it somewhat of a waste of time, a distraction from what we should be doing?  Why would we spend time hearing others out so deeply when WE’RE the ones they should be listening to, right?

It’s this attitude, of course, that has contributed to “missionary work” feeling like a turn-off to innumerable neighbors and associates around us.  No one likes a ‘know-it-all’…even if that person happens to be right. And perhaps that’s one reason prophets are teaching us a better way.

  • “Get to know your neighbors. Learn about their families, their work, their views. Get together with them, if they are willing, and do so without being pushy and without any ulterior motives. Friendship should never be offered as a means to an end; it can and should be an end unto itself” (Elder Ballard, October 2001, The Doctrine of Inclusion).
  • “Perhaps even more important than speaking is listening….Be genuine. Reach out sincerely. Ask these friends what matters most to them. What do they cherish, and what do they hold dear? And then listen. If the setting is right you might ask what their fears are, what they yearn for” (Elder Holland, April 2001, Witnesses Unto Me).

I, for one, am sold: sold on the idea that I didn’t have to ‘sell’ ideas anymore…fallen hopelessly in love with a better way.  Over the last 5 years, I’ve enjoyed a hundred different dialogues – in small groups and one-on-one – with neighbors, random friends, and seat mates on the airplane.  I’ve published a research article and a book on the subject with Phil Neisser (State University of New York) – featured on NPR’s This American Life the week before the Obama-Romney vote.

What has all this experience taught me?  That I had it exactly upside down at the beginning:  that when I really want others to appreciate something that I care about, I don’t need to focus my energy in figuring out how to bring up just the right words in just the right moment. 

Gone is that burden.  And gone is the burden of finding exactly the ‘right person’ to share the gospel with.  The right person is the person I happen to be with in that moment:  democrat or republican?  religious or not?  gay or straight?

Doesn’t matter.  Because the good news of redemption is for everyone – especially those that seem particularly lost.  Everywhere I turn, there are precious individuals with rich lives, deep pain and almost without exception, a craving for someone else to understand what they are experiencing.  When you offer them that gift, miracles happen….with two people walking away with insights, uplift and “rejoicing together” (D&C 50:22).

And why is that?  I believe it’s because in that moment of mutual openness, God has reached down and taught both those people – and in ways no one else could.   This is the God, after all, who listens attentively to our words anytime we need.  And it is also this same God who sent His Son to experience all hell…so He could understand us perfectly….so He could save us.

As we seek to help God in His work of salvation, maybe we can take a cue from His own efforts with us:  start with listening.  Real listening…of hearts, experiences, dreams and fears.  Ask questions – and listen some more…pretty soon, there will be something you have to say.  You won’t be able to contain yourself…

The God I worship loves listening, loves questions, and loves dialogue.

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