Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons or LDS) are taught that they have a responsibility to “share the gospel”1 with those around them. It’s #2 in the top four of the Church’s official mission2.
Unfortunately, this mandate has been a major factor in creating a tense culture in Utah, where about half of the population identifies as Mormon.
A Sacred Obligation
Every Mormon has an obligation3 to “share the gospel”. This means that they must do their best to convert their friends, family… the whole world, really.
Mormons are told that those they don’t at least try to convert in this life will find them in the next to say, condemningly, “You knew and didn’t share it with me?!”4
When I was a Mormon, I felt intense pressure to share the gospel and I felt guilty when I let an opportunity slip by5. That guilt only compounded when I did have the courage to “share the gospel” but then the recipient was offended6.
It wasn’t a healthy way of being.
The Effect of This Doctrine
I know of more than a few painful stories, where someone who wasn’t Mormon was hurt when they discovered that their Mormon friend’s friendship was less important than their duty to share the gospel. (Friendship isn’t often a topic of Mormons sermons except in the context of converting friends. Neither is friendship part of the three-fold mission of the Church.)
Convincing people that they must try and convert their neighbors, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, etc. gets people to justify awkward, inappropriate, and offensive behavior. Here are just a few examples:
Example #1: Bait & Switch
A few years ago I had a business meeting with a leader of a nearby, Utah community. I discovered that she wasn’t from Utah and isn’t Mormon, so I asked her what it’s like being non-Mormon in Utah.
“Well, it was great at first,” she said. “People came to our door and gave us treats. They shoveled our walks. But when we made it clear that we didn’t want to join their religion all of that stopped.” She seemed hurt about it.
What she originally perceived as a wonderful example of neighborliness just turned out to be bait-and-switch. What her neighbors really wanted was to do their duty and see if she was “white already to harvest”7 so that they could be the ones to bring her soul to heaven8.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare occurrence.
When I was in college at the University of Utah and a devout Mormon, a friend of mine who was the LDSSA9 president at the time, decided to record interviews of non-Mormon students on campus. He compiled it into a video and showed it to all of the Mormon’s attending the Mormon Institute of Religion. For me it was eye opening to hear story after story similar to the community leader’s mentioned above.
Example #2: Salvation Before Friendship
While I was on my two-year Mormon mission in a foreign country, a close friend of mine was baptized into the Mormon church. But by the time I returned home, she had “fallen away”.
We got together a few times after I got home and our friendship quickly picked up where we had left off. But being determined to be a great member-missionary10, I decided to write her a long letter bearing my testimony the way I had been trained to do as a missionary. I also included several Mormon pamphlets. I did it in a letter because I was too nervous to confront her on it in-person.
I was really nervous to send it to her but I had been taught that that feeling was not of God11 so I sent it anyway. I thought that maybe the Spirit would confirm my words to her and she would decide to be Mormon again.
But only a few days later, I realized that what I had done was selfish. I was thinking of what I perceived as my own duty — not of my friendship with her. I was also judging her and her lifestyle to be beneath mine.
The fear I felt before mailing the letter came from the rational part of my brain. It was telling me that what I was planning wasn’t kind. The pious, dogmatic part of my brain overcame and I sent the letter against my better judgment.
After coming to my senses, I immediately called my friend on the phone and apologized profusely. She was used to lame, passive assaults like that from Mormon “friends” by then and she graciously forgave me. I’m not sure I would have done the same.
My wife, who also grew up in Utah, says that a close non-Mormon friend of hers from high school also received multiple letters like mine from believing “friends” while they were abroad on their Mormon missions. My wife told me that he felt betrayed.
He has since left Utah vowing never to return.
Example #3: Dang — Now I Gotta Do It
As a Mormon living in Utah, my excuse for never converting anyone after my mission was, “I’m a Mormon, living in Utah”. In other words, almost everyone I knew was Mormon or already knew about Mormonism.
But during the summer before my last year in college, I accepted an internship in a city where Mormons are few and far between. During that internship I made one close friend. We regularly had lunch together. He was a kind, soft-spoken, gentleman, maybe in his 50s. While others seemed to keep their distance from me (maybe because of my piety toward Mormonism) he didn’t seem to mind at all.
It was great to have a friend… but it was also a problem. I no longer had an excuse. I now had a non-Mormon friend, so I now had an obligation to share the gospel with him. I was terrified. How could I do it without making it weird? I had no idea, but if I were to avoid eternal regret for having missed the moment, I would have to do it.
So, I bought a Book of Mormon, placed my testimony of its truth inside and kept it in my car hoping for an easy moment to give it to him.
That moment never came. There was never a time when it was natural for me to drop, “Say, what do you think about Jesus?” or something like that. It’s just not natural. So I procrastinated until the very last moment.
As I remember it, I waited until he was pulling away in his car on my very last day. I think I even held out my hand to stop his car and said something like, “Wait, I have something for you”. I raced back to my car, picked up the Book of Mormon, raced back to his car, and handed it to him. I awkwardly, and nervously stumbled through some sort of lame pitch.
He seemed disappointed and told me that he had a Book of Mormon at home (probably from another diligent Mormon “friend”) and didn’t need another. We parted, and he said something like, “Well, you gotta defend your religion.”
I’m certain that I damaged his impression of me as well as his understanding of our friendship over the past 3 months, but at least I had done my duty and wouldn’t be filled with guilt every time I thought about him in the future!
Example #4: Conversion by Powerpoint
A former neighbor of mine, who was a devout and deeply believing Mormon, once told a cringe-worthy story from the pulpit.
He’d recently taken a trip with his wife to visit a long-time friend who lived in another state. He sobbed as he told us about his thoughts and feelings leading up to the trip. He knew that he had to share the gospel with this friend, but he didn’t know how. He couldn’t live with himself knowing that his friend would one day come to him after this life and say, “Bob, you had the true gospel and didn’t share it with me? Why?”
He was rightly nervous about this because he knew that the stakes were high. He must have known that becoming a missionary to his friend would threaten their friendship. But at the same time, he had an obligation to do it. He was given a great gift. His friend was not. His friend’s salvation hung in the balance. Eternity was in play.
So, my neighbor decided to do it. He and his wife fasted and prayed for inspiration.
They ended up putting together a missionary presentation, and when the time came, they invited their friends into their hotel room to discuss “something”.
As you can imagine, it didn’t go well. As soon as my neighbor’s friend realized what was going on, he stopped the discussion saying, “Bob, this isn’t me” and left.
My neighbor was crushed, but the next day, his friend called to say that everything was okay — they were still friends.
Ironically, my neighbor thanked God and He had softened his friend’s heart enough to remain friends. (Personally, I think more credit goes to his friend.)
Example #5: Hot and Cold Missionary Work
I left the Mormon Church about six years ago and my wife remained a faithful and believing member for many years afterward. I attended Sacrament Meeting with my family during all that time, but the ward members knew that I was no longer a believer.
I could tell that this was very uncomfortable for most people in our ward. Most of them just avoided me. Few talked to me and some never even looked at me. Not one person asked what had changed for me. This made for some awkward hallway encounters:
This was difficult and super-entertaining at the same time12.
Anyway, my reason for bringing this up is that one time our Stake President started a missionary initiative called “export our talents” or something like that. The idea was that our stake was so strong in the gospel that we needed to export our gifts to those who weren’t so blessed. The Stake Presidency challenged every member to pray and think of someone who wasn’t a member, or who wasn’t active and to ask God what specifically they should do to share the gospel. Each member was to have a person in mind with something specific to do on a specific day.
I remember being in that meeting and literally thinking “Oh, $#!7! Here it comes.” We lived in a neighborhood that was about 95% Mormon so there weren’t that many people to choose from. I knew that I was about to be swarmed.
Sure enough, the day came, and neighbors who never talked to me suddenly knew my name and said “Hi”. People just happened to stop by. I had never been so popular. Most of it was nice — not too awkward.
The trouble was that it all went back to normal the very next day. They didn’t really want to get to know me. They were just doing their duty.
That’s just not nice. No one wants a fake friend.
Example #6: Street Corner Criers
Placing the burden of “proclaiming the gospel to everyone” upon people can give them a perpetual feeling of guilt because it’s an impossible task. You can never do enough.
(Maybe this helps explain Utah’s prescription drug epidemic and suicide problem. Personally, I lived with this feeling of guilt so long and had become so accustomed to it that I hardly noticed it anymore.)
This mandate can also prompt people to do some very strange things to fulfill their duty. For example, I have a friend who may never have felt embarrassed about anything in his life. He’s also, a gung-ho Mormon. This has lead him to do strange things like approach strangers in the street or on buses about Mormonism for the first time. In my experience, sometimes people do accept invitations like those, but of course, they’re usually desperate or there’s something wrong with them.
Many who aren’t Mormon in Utah complain of the division and poor relations between Mormons and the rest of the community.
My wife and I are currently moving from one Utah neighborhood to another. We were hoping to possibly find a place where the division between Mormons and non-Mormons is minimal. So, as we looked for homes we also knocked on several doors to try and get a sense of the vibe in the community. When we met someone who wasn’t Mormon, we asked them what it was like. Almost without exception the responses were something like, “Fine. We haven’t had any trouble.” or “No problems at all. They do their thing and we do our thing.”
Unfortunately, in most Utah neighborhoods, I think that’s about the best we can hope for — mutual cordiality, but no real time spent together.
This division in Utah neighborhoods is commonplace. It’s the natural result of the Mormon doctrine of missionary work and it won’t change unless the doctrine changes — which may happen, it’ll just take a long time.
- “The Lord has declared that missionary work is the responsibility of all who follow Him” (lds.org — cited on 9/10/2018)
- “The three-fold mission of the Church was to perfect the saints, proclaim the gospel, and redeem the dead”mormonwiki.com — cited on 9/10/2018
- “This imperative duty, we are told, is owed to God, to angels, to our wives, to our children, to widows, to the fatherless, to all the rising generation, and to all the pure in heart. What is this duty? To establish truth, to make public the facts concerning the Church and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why should this be done? Why publish truth? To combat the powers of the evil one and to overcome that satanic spirit which oppresses and enslaves men.” (https://speeches.byu.edu — cited on 9/10/2018)
- “…at some moment in the world to come, everyone you will ever meet will know what you know now …I suppose that I will meet him, that he will look into my eyes, and that I will see in them the question: ‘Hal, you knew. Why didn’t you tell me?’” (lds.org — cited on 9/10/2018)
- Henry B. Eyring once said in General Conference, “Years ago I worked for a man in California. He hired me, he was kind to me, he seemed to regard me highly. I may have been the only Latter-day Saint he ever knew well. I don’t know all the reasons I found to wait for a better moment to talk with him about the gospel. I just remember my feeling of sorrow when I learned, after he had retired and I lived far away… …Now, I don’t know how the crowds will be handled in the world to come. But I suppose that I will meet him, that he will look into my eyes, and that I will see in them the question: ‘Hal, you knew. Why didn’t you tell me?’” (lds.org — cited on 9/10/2018)
- The LDS Church teaches that if you share the gospel in the right way, people won’t be offended. So, when people are offended it’s because you didn’t do it right — it’s your fault. M. Russel Ballard once said, “Some members say, ‘I’m afraid to share the gospel because I might offend someone.’ Experience has shown that people are not offended when the sharing is motivated by the spirit of love and concern. How could anyone be offended when we say something like this: ‘I love the way my church helps me’ and then add whatever the Spirit directs.” (lds.org — cited on 9/10/2018)
- There’s a chapter of Mormon scripture that’s often cited as a type of missionary anthem. Verse 4 goes like this: “For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul;” (D&C 4:4 — cited on 9/10/2018)
- “And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (D&C 18:15-16)
- LDSSA used to stand for Latter-day Saint Student Association. I’m not sure if they still use that acronym.
- This general conference talk is probably a good resource for the Mormon concept of member-missionary work: lds.org (cited on 9/10/2018)
- Gordon B. Hinckley once gave a talk on this subject: lds.org (cited on 9/10/2018)
- I actually got a lot out of my years of attending Sacrament Meeting with my family as a non-believing member. It was fascinating to observe everything with new eyes. I was annoyed and a little hurt by how I was treated, but even that was super interesting.
In my old neighborhood, where I was a married mormon woman when I moved in but over time became divorced because of my decision to leave the church, I remember a time after a Stake Conference where there was an unusual upsurge of interest in me by my neighbors. There must have been a similar talk from the Stake President to reactivate neighbors with the gospel. Suddenly, neighbors who pointedly ignored me when I waved at them on the street were knocking on my door. They sent ‘gifts’, mowed my lawn (unasked), weeded (also unasked), brought cookies. Then, the cards… Read more »
Ugh. I’m not surprised to hear that you were treated that way, but I’m so sorry to hear it. I can literally feel your pain. I think it hurts more to have fake/assigned friends than to have no friends at all. It’s no fun to find out that someone you cared about was only pretending to care about you as a means to their end. I think that the reason this happens can be defined well by the discipline of Organizational Behavior. The individuals of an organization act according to how they are incentivized. The doctrine, structure, and programs of… Read more »
I think this one of the difficult realities of Mormonism – conditional relationships. Despite all the talk about charity, Christ’s example, etc, it is impossible to have true friendships when the pressure to “bring souls to Christ” is always in the back of your mind. Any honest relationship with a non-member is laced with guilt, making it hard to sustain. Despite all the talk about the sanctity of the family, one of the hardest lessons of my life was learning how conditional those family bonds were when everyone I was close to abandoned me after I came out as LGBT… Read more »
I’m so sorry to hear that, Rebecca. You’re not alone. I know that that doesn’t quite make up for losing your family, but I hope you know that there are just as many people who are ready to embrace you!