First of all, before I find myself pelted with tomatoes (or perhaps Books of Mormon) by an army of RMs, let me clarify that I don’t think that sharing something which you’ve found life-changing, something which you think could have tremendous potential benefits for others, is a bad thing to do; in fact, quite the contrary. Nonetheless, I am troubled by much of our discourse about missionary work. I keep coming back to the question of whether it’s morally acceptable to enter into a relationship with another human being with a view towards using that relationship to accomplish some other end (even a laudable one), rather than seeing the relationship as an end in and of itself.
I’m actually less bothered by the work performed by full-time, clearly identifiable missionaries. There’s a certain straightforwardness to it; they’re not hiding the fact that they’re out to convert you. But when it comes to that more nebulous realm of “member missionary work,” things get murky and at least potentially duplicitous. When I act friendly or loving to people, when I engage in service, it is because I’m hoping to thereby implicitly advertise my faith? And if so, can I truly be said to be practicing charity?
Likewise, viewing people as “potential converts” raises a host of problems. If that’s the lens through which I’m relating to someone, am I going to be open to the possibility that I could genuinely learn something from her experience and beliefs, or am I going to be preoccupied with the ways in which I think my answers can fix his problems? Am I going to share the variety of my life experiences, including the struggles and the dark times, or am I going to censor out bits which I fear might not be sufficiently faith-promoting?
I find that when I discuss LDS teachings with non-members (which happens fairly often, given that many of my friends and acquaintances are fellow theology students and quite interested in religion), I sometimes feel like I have to bend over backward to ensure that they know that I’m not only talking about the subject as part of an agenda to convert them, that I’m genuinely interested in their beliefs as well. Because of our reputation for proselytizing, it at times seems that the very fact that I’m a Mormon means that my motives are already suspect in any religious conversation. It’s an awkward position to be in.
I wonder whether there’s a certain paradoxical element to missionary work, in that you can’t directly pursue the goal without damaging the integrity of the process. In other words, it doesn’t work to befriend someone in hopes of converting them, because such a friendship is already of dubious authenticity. In a nutshell, I’d prefer to see missionary work as something which enriches relationships, rather than view relationships as a useful tool for furthering missionary work.