Zelophehad’s Daughters

Tracting: Is It Worth Doing?

Posted by Ziff

We tracted a lot in my mission. It was the activity we defaulted to if we had nothing else to do, and we frequently had nothing else to do. But nobody I ever met through tracting was ever baptized. I’m sure this is at least partly a reflection on my (lack of) skill as a missionary. But I’ve also wondered if tracting is worth doing at all, even if it’s highly skilled missionaries doing it.

I’m skeptical of the value of tracting in general not only because of my own experience with it, but because in my mission I served in the wake of some nominally successful tracters. I saw time and again that the people they had baptized after tracting them out had pretty much zero knowledge of or interest in the Church. I suspect that missionaries with strong, forceful personalities were able to persuade and cajole these people into discussions, some church attendance, and even baptism, when in reality they had no idea what they were signing up for. Then when those missionaries left, the people they had baptized, having no other real connection to the Church, abruptly quit attending.

If my suspicions are correct, certainly that’s an argument against having missionaries push people too hard to get baptized when they’re not really committed to the Church. But that’s tangential to my major question, which is this: If the best tracting has to offer is the chance to baptize people who leave the Church almost as soon as they’ve joined, what’s the value of doing it?

To answer this question, I’ve made a lists of possible benefits and costs of tracting. One caveat: I served in the United States, and I doubt these points apply straightforwardly to other areas of the world.

Potential benefits of tracting:

  1. When missionaries tract, they meet, teach, and baptize people who may not have been found, taught, and baptized in any other way.
  2. When we members see missionaries tracting, we are reminded that we should be doing missionary work too.
  3. When missionaries have bad experiences while tracting–being yelled at, condemned to hell, and chased by dogs–it makes them more certain that what they are doing is right.
  4. Even when not directly gaining converts, tracting missionaries are good for PR, just by being there to introduce people to the Church.
  5. Tracting is aversive, so it motivates missionaries to work harder to find people to teach so they can tract less.
  6. Missionaries learn important life skills by tracting. Not just how to be better salespeople, but also how to strike up a conversation with a stranger and how not to be hurt by rejection.

#3 worked to some degree for me. I’ve never been more certain that I was right and others were wrong than when those others were yelling in my face that Mormons were servants of the devil. It probably helped that the anti-Mormon arguments I heard were not the most sophisticated. For example: “The Biiiible says you can’t add to or take away from the Biiiible and you Mormons are going to hell because you added to the Biiiible!” I think such arguments made me more sure I was in the right because they were so easy to refute, at least in my head. I think there was probably also a process of cognitive dissonance reduction going on: if I was suffering through all that condemnation, I must be really convinced what I was doing was right.

I had some experiences in line with #4. Quite a few people we met while tracting, while not interested in hearing our formal discussions, had questions about Mormons that they wanted to ask. I always felt like time spent answering their questions about our beliefs or practices was worthwhile, even though it didn’t lead to anything tangible immediately. When we got to talk to people in circumstances like that, I almost always felt like people were surprised that we weren’t as crazy as they had previously thought. I liked to imagine that they might share what we said with other people: “Well I was talking to some Mormon boys the other day and they said that in fact they do use the regular Bible along with their Mormon Bible.” Of course I have no way of knowing if that actually happened.

Although #5 did not work for me–I wasn’t very good at avoiding tracting by teaching a lot, but it is the case that I wanted to avoid it–it did seem like my mission was run with this principle in mind. Many of my mission leaders appeared to relish telling the rest of us to go out and tract a lot, not just so we could find more people to teach, but to punish us for not teaching more people already.

Potential costs of tracting:

  1. New converts found through tracting tend to be less well integrated into their wards or branches than new converts found in other ways, and therefore less likely to stay active in the Church. The cost to the ward or branch is that limited resources (e.g., home and visiting teachers) are stretched further. The cost to the convert is having made the baptismal covenant and not keeping it.
  2. When we members see missionaries tracting, we feel like they’re getting the missionary work done, so we slack off in our participation.
  3. When missionaries have bad experiences while tracting, they feel beaten down and discouraged, and they don’t teach as well when they get the opportunity.
  4. While tracting, missionaries argue with people, tell them off, and generally make the Church look bad.
  5. Tracting is so overwhelming, especially in big blocks of time, that missionaries just don’t do it at all (for example, see the third paragraph of this comment by Christopher Bigelow).
  6. Opportunity cost: When missionaries are tracting, they’re not doing other potentially more effective things.

Several of these are parallel to the potential benefits, and I don’t know which should be weighted more, the cost or the benefit. For example, when members see missionaries out tracting, are we more or less motivated to do missionary work ourselves (#2 on each list)?

I guess #1 is the cost that initially got me to thinking about the issue. Even if tracting leads to people being baptized, my experience was that the people rarely if ever stayed active, so their Church membership did neither them nor anyone around them any good.

I saw some of #4 in my mission. Several missionaries I served with were quite good at proof-texting argument and I saw them get into some quite heated arguments with people. I suspect that these arguments left people feeling more negative toward the Church than they did before we visited, but it’s also possible that their feelings weren’t changed at all given that it’s the people who disliked the Church who were interested in arguing to begin with. I typically didn’t participate in these arguments, although not because of any particular humility or self-restraint on my part. I was just too conflict-avoidant. But in my heart, I was a total self-righteous know-it-all who wanted to argue with everyone.

#6 is an issue that never occurred to me while I was on my mission, but in retrospect, I think it’s clearly the biggest cost of tracting. In other words, while I think it’s good to ask the question “Is tracting a net positive; is it better than doing nothing?”, I think a far more important question is “Is tracting worth doing given all the other good things missionaries could be doing instead?”

If not tracting, what?

The obvious question this raises is what other activities missionaries might fill their time with when they’re not teaching. One alternative is to do more service; this has often been suggested in previous bloggernacle discussions–for recent examples see Andrew Ainsworth’s post “The Ammon Approach” or comments by Antonio Parr or Just for Quix. Serving more may actually yield more success in finding people to teach than proselyting directly. But even if it doesn’t, as JH outlines in this excellent comment, why not focus on serving simply for the good that service brings about, without worrying about making sure it increases baptism statistics? (I realize that we typically separate missionary work and service, but if the ultimate goal of missionary work is to help people be happier, aren’t they just different means to the same end?)

Really, I think that the answer to the question of what else missionaries could do depends on the result of the whole cost/benefit analysis of tracting. If you conclude that tracting is more successful at driving people away than converting them (a position taken, for example, by Mudphud and Gary in separate threads at BCC), then missionaries could do pretty much anything, or nothing at all, and be more effective than when tracting. They can nap in their apartment or study or hang out with members and it’s better because they’re not driving people away from the Church by annoying them when knocking on their doors. This position might be called the strong anti-tracting hypothesis: tracting is a failure even when we don’t consider opportunity cost.

I lean more toward what might be called a weak anti-tracting hypothesis, which says that tracting may be a net positive for missionary work, but there are other activities that are better. (In addition to service, I would suggest pretty much any kind of meeting or activity with active members, as they’ll be more likely to introduce their friends to missionaries they know, any kind of meeting with less active members, and more study.) I suspect that tracting is a net positive because I doubt my experience that converts found through tracting all leave the Church is universal, and because I do think that simple contact with the missionaries may bring about more interest in the Church in the long run, even if not right away. I have little doubt, though, that there are people who are further alienated every time missionaries knock on their door or who are forever turned away from the Church when missionaries argue with them.

You could also define pro-tracting hypotheses that mirror the anti-tracting hypotheses I’ve outlined. I’m not clear on exactly what these might be, but a weak version might say something like that tracting may be only a small net positive, but it should be done until some other missionary activity is shown to be more effective. A strong version might say that tracting is a large net positive and should be done at the expense of all other missionary activities other than teaching.

Why is tracting unproductive?

One more question lurks behind this whole discussion: why is tracting unproductive? There are several broad social trends I can think of that have probably reduced the effectiveness of tracting in the US certainly since World War II, and perhaps noticeably even in the last couple of decades. I don’t know anything about the history of LDS missionary work, but I wonder if perhaps tracting became a norm at a time when it was still more effective. Then because of these trends, it has become less and less effective with time.

  1. Households size has been declining. Households having only one adult are more likely to be empty during the day when most tracting is done, making missionaries knock more doors before finding anyone at home.
  2. Women have been participating more in the paid labor force. To the degree that this is separate from #1 (i.e., that it’s married women working more for pay and not just single women) this makes for even more empty houses during the day.
  3. Fraudsters have come to dominate the door-to-door solicitation business. (I am indebted to Eve for this insight, but please don’t blame her if I’ve misapplied it.) I suspect that legitimate businesses have moved away from the door-to-door sales approach as cars have proliferated, making it easier for us to go to stores to shop. For fraudsters, though, the approach remains attractive because it’s easier and less traceable than setting up a storefront.
  4. Increasing urbanization means that Americans are more likely to live among strangers, perhaps making us more suspicious about opening the door to people we don’t know.
  5. More people live in places that ban tracting. Gated communities deny physical access, and apartment complexes typically have rules that prohibit it.

Regarding #3, the point about legitimate businesses rarely going door-to-door hit home to me recently when I read my kids Caps for Sale. In this book, a cap peddler has his inventory stolen off his head by some monkeys while he sleeps. When I started the story, reading that this peddler wasn’t like an ordinary peddler, carrying his wares on his back, my kids wanted to know what a peddler was. The book was first published in (I think) 1941, a time when I would guess most American kids had direct experience with peddlers. But now they don’t. I certainly don’t either, and I’m a generation removed from being a kid. I don’t recall anyone coming to my door selling anything I thought was legitimate except for Girl Scouts with their cookies.

Questions

This post is just my speculation based on my narrow experience. I would love to hear from you about tracting. How effective has tracting been that you’ve seen, either as a missionary or as a member? What benefits and/or costs of tracting have I missed? Or what of the ones I’ve listed do you think are more or less important? If you agree with me that tracting has become less effective, why has this happened? How does any of this apply outside the United States?

44 Responses to “Tracting: Is It Worth Doing?”

  1. 1.

    I served a mission in Spain about ten years ago, and we spent most of our time tracting or contacting people on the street (generally in plazas or in parks). I generally felt like tracting was pretty ineffective, for most of the reasons you listed. We generally found that people were not home, with the exception of the elderly or nannies. Some of the hired help were receptive to our message, but many of them were illegal immigrants and for a variety of reasons unable to continue with discussions (many were virtually slaves and only had a few free hours each week and wouldn’t be able to attend church). Also, with both street contacting and tracting, I found that the cold approach would generally start people off on an antagonistic note. Most people don’t want to be surprised suddenly with a religious discussion while at home or going about their business in public. We had a bit more success with a large display board that we’d set up on busy weekends in the park, because then people would wander by to look at it and ask questions. We mostly did tracting and contacting because there wasn’t much else to do. We rarely had teaching appointments and our opportunities for service were limited for a variety of reasons. Endless tracting without good results is demoralizing and I knew many missionaries who chose to use their time doing other things not related to missionary work.

  2. 2.

    I served a mission in Montreal Canada in 1981-83. I taught 4 families who were baptized, and all of them were found through tracting. (One was a lost inactive member whose children were all unbaptized.)
    However, I very much agree with you about the ineffectiveness of tracting. I am an advocate of service missions. I think we need to be much more creative about teaching missionaries to live in communities and become part of them and get to know the families. One set of missionaries we had in Canada stayed in an area practically their whole missions and coached a youth basketball team. Another Zone put on a musical about Mormons, utilizing members and non-members in the cast. I and many other missionaries, I’m sure, have taught English lessons. I think tracting in small amounts is useful, but should be limited. I think it would be cool if mission presidents and members could help missionaries discover ways to become active in the communities and find a presence other than the annoying people knocking at doors.

  3. 3.

    I was surprised when I served a mini-mission in Berlin that they don’t tract, and now that I work with the missionaries a lot here at home in Leipzig, I see that no one really tracts. They find people in the street as they walk along. There are several problems with this. A. Normal people don’t want to talk to strangers on the street, so a lot of crazy people are contacted who end up stalking the sisters and such. B. People who don’t leave their neighborhoods or small towns will probably never be contacted. I am guilty as is everyone else, but the real solution is in what Elder Bednar said during last conference, that missionaries are full-time teachers and the members are full-time finders. Sunday, our stake president said that when people ask how our weekend was, we should tell what we learned at church. I’ve learned in the last few weeks, it’s actually easier to share the gospel with those we know, and we don’t need to be afraid about being bold. All the times we think that the missionaries are baptizing people too fast, we need to remember that prophets in the Book of Mormon preached and then immediately baptized whoever believed.

  4. 4.

    Tracting was the only way we found this one family in Romania. The father is now the district president, and the mother had, for a while—I don’t know if she still does it now—been the leader of the Institute, and their daughter went to BYU to get an accounting degree. My companion and I felt the need to go to a particular apartment block. Tracting was the only way we could get into that building and into their home. We didn’t know which door specifically, we just knew the street. We felt it was urgent and important. We knocked on their door, and they were quite cold with us, having bad experiences with JW’s previously. But we persisted and they agreed to read the Book of Mormon. They told us to come back in a month. One month later, we knocked on their door again. This time, they warmly invited us in. Apparently they had prayed not two weeks before we knocked on their door to find the truth. And they felt they found it with the Book of Mormon.

  5. 5.

    I think I agree with you that we need to find an alternative to tracting as the default missionary activity. And I find your comments regarding the shifting cultural norms interesting. As a missionary, when tracting I sometimes thought of the early missionaries going door to door in places where there were no members. I felt like I was doing the same thing, except that times are different now, in the ways that you noted. Dan, I don’t meen to discredit your experience, but it is noteworthy that your positive experience happened when you were inspired to tract a particular place. No one is suggesting we not tract when we feel inspired to do so. The suggestion is that we do away with it as the default activity. Still, I’m sure there are other experiences where success occurs without inspiration. In that case, the question is whether it is worth it considering the opportunity cost, and the likely negative affect of annoying a lot of people when they are just trying to go about their lives.

    So the question then, is what is the alternative? Service seems like an attractive option. I like the ideas of the missionaries being known as the “people you can count on when the community needs help” instead of “the poeple who annoy you when you are just trying to eat dinner with your family.” But I think there are problems. For one thing, you don’t want the missionaries to be taken advantage of. Also, meaningful service opportunities, while they always exist, are sometimes hard to find. It would take a lot of organizational effort by the church to make sure the missionaries are doing worth-while things.

    But, even more importantly, are scheduling concerns. While there are some opportunities for spontaneous service, most service takes planning and scheduling. But most missionaries don’t know exactly when holes will occur in their schedule until the day before (or the day of). So in order to do service, you’d have to schedule it, which means less time available to schedule appointments with investigators. Even if only 10% of the missionaries time is spent teaching, if 50% is booked up with service, it becomes more difficult to coordinate the missionaries schedule with the investigator (who is likely busy as well). The inevitable question is: which is more important: keeping your service commitment, or teaching the investigator. What good is it if the missionaries become known as the “people you can count on” if they can only be counted on if they don’t happen to find someone to teach during that time.

    Sorry for the long comment, and to raise more questions that answers.

  6. 6.

    an argument against having missionaries push people too hard to get baptized when they’re not really committed to the Church.

    I think that is not an “aside” but the core of the difference between effective tracting and mistaken tracting (or contacting as we called it).

    I did a lot of it on my mission, and found 3-4 really golden people that way.

    My companion and I felt the need to go to a particular apartment block. Tracting was the only way we could get into that building and into their home. We didn’t know which door specifically, we just knew the street.

    I had two experiences that fit that perfectly, and both of them came as a result of a real commitment to being out, trying. Tracting is an easy way to work hard and seek the Spirit and to be open to that type of prompting.

  7. 7.

    I got the distinct impression in Japan that we were alienating more people than we were attracting.

    But that may have been more due to the culture.

  8. 8.

    Ziff,
    I don’t really see it as an either-or. Sure, tracting isn’t the most productive but, like you posit, it allows missionaries to reach people they wouldn’t otherwise get. As a missionary in Brazil, ’95-’97, about half the people I baptized I found tracting.

    Another benefit: it allows more flexibility to missionaries. I knew people on my mission who could spend hours hanging out with members, having fun, and building relationships, which would sometimes lead to referrals. I wasn’t so good at that–I felt at the time like that was goofing off; I preferred to be out knocking doors. Which would have put me in a horrible bind if I weren’t allowed to be doing that.

    (On the other side now, I’ve had missionaries in my ward with whom I’ve been horribily unimpressed by their interpersonal skills. If I saw them less, or if I saw them tracting rather than sitting at my dinner table and not talking about missionary work, I might be more likely to introduce them to my friends.)

  9. 9.

    Looking back, I’m disgusted with myself. We tracted a lot, but we weren’t honest about it. We pretended to be conducting a questionaire about family life. We asked all kinds of leading questions, like Do you think families are important? Do you think that family members should set aside time regularly to spend with each other? And so on. Talk about fraudulent practices, and it was totally useless.

    My mission leaders didn’t talk about tracting as a punitive measure, like we should do more of it just for being poor missionaries. I think the attitude was that tracting is a character building experience, so the more of it you do, the better, like eating lima beans and broccolli.

  10. 10.

    Looking at it practically, I think some view tracting as a cure for “Idle hands are the devil’s tools” syndrome. Give 19-year-old guys too much free time is asking for trouble, or so the thinking goes.

  11. 11.

    My parents were tracted out and as a result of their conversion they have served faithfully in the church for the nearly 40 years since (my dad is a bishop now). It can be very worth it.

    I baptized a family we tracted out on my mission too. But as with any sales job — cold calling is not a particularly efficient finding method.

  12. 12.

    I baptized an average number for my mission, and all of them were found through tracting. Personally I think it can be quite effective – depending on the area. I went to Georgia on my mission.

    It is kind of a brute force way to invite, and serves it’s prupose fairly well. I do not think missionaries should only do this, but it should be in the mix of activities that they do.

  13. 13.

    For me, tracting was a modestly effective way of contacting people to teach. I was even privileged to be a participant in one of those singularly remarkable conversion experiences. That was in Argentina twenty-odd years ago. That was a place where few homes had telephones, so unexpected visistors at the doorstep were a routine part of life, and people seemed to generally enjoy the existence of other people, even strangers. Much contacting happened by just dropping in on people we knew and striking up conversation with other guests who were visiting too. Contacting seems a much tougher fit with modern America where so many feel a need to hole up in a private cul-de-sac.

    Whatever the method, missionaries need some proselyting activity that isn’t dependent on the wards they serve in. Otherwise it’s “Every member a missionary, and every missionary a haranguer,” and that seems about as demoralizing as endless tracting. It’s fine to tell the members that it’s their job to find contacts for the missionaries to teach because we all need to worry about doing our part, but I hope the missionaries don’t take too seriously the exhortations directed at members. Missionaries merely as teaching resources, standing by until someone else gets the ball rolling, is an underwhelming concept.

  14. 14.

    Great post. Personally I’m pretty strongly anti-tracting, pro-service. But then my first MP was anti-tracting. My second tried to bring tracting back to some extent, but the missionaries didn’t really take to it very well at that point.

    An issue that should be on the table is the tremendous loss of goodwill the Church absorbs from the process of tracting. The vast majority consider it socially intrusive and don’t appreciate it. This leads to widespread negative feelings about the Church. In my view, whatever positives exist do not outweight the very substantial negatives.

  15. 15.

    I helped baptize 23 people in Australia. 15 of these were from member referalls, meeting people through service projects, looking up inactive members, etc. 5 were from street contacting in a large mall in Adelaide. We rented a small space on the second floor of the mall, then brought people up for a shortened version of the first discussion. The remaining three were from tracting.

    My first mission president said we would be blessed for tracting because it was s difficult. we weren’t allowed to do activities that he saw as a distraction from tracting like referalls, inactives and service projects. My second mission president said if something wasn’t working, perhaps we should try something else, which is what led to the variety of ways to meet people.

    Obviously the second mission president’s way was more successful for me, but I would tell myself it was a blessing for all the months of fruitless tracting. Of course now I think tracting was a huge waste of time, and think the first mission president was probably just too dumb to think diverse ways for us to use our time.

  16. 16.

    An issue that should be on the table is the tremendous loss of goodwill the Church absorbs from the process of tracting. The vast majority consider it socially intrusive and don’t appreciate it. This leads to widespread negative feelings about the Church. In my view, whatever positives exist do not outweight the very substantial negatives

    I can’t count how many times we’d knock on a door only to have someone scream “You JW’s were just here, why won’t you leave us alone!”.

  17. 17.

    Other Benefits of Tracting:

    1. Gives missionaries a reason to go out when they have nothing to do.

    2. Great productive excuse to go sight seeing.

    3. It’s a good way to get out in the culture and meet new people.

    4. It’s a good way to find new places to eat.

    5. Missionaries typically believe God blesses them for their efforts, and tracting is something simple they can do to to show effort.

    I didn’t go tracting very much in my mission. I actually went 13 months without tracting at all. (due to member referalls, working with less actives, and following up on previous contacts of former missionaries)

  18. 18.

    Also

    The vast majority consider it socially intrusive and don’t appreciate it.

    This is not true.

  19. 19.

    I think tracting can be like a refiners fire for the missionaries–it is humbling (when it doesn’t make us mad). Also, it is reported on the weekly report and frankly, an easy measurement of who is “working.”

    I also agree that tracting is best done purposefully–when/where directed by the spirit–otherwise it can seem like a big waste of time.

    I have been appalled by some of the “service” missionaries in my area and my own siblings do: they seem to act as handymen/women for members. Sister so and so needs help cleaning; we cut the lawn for Brother x; helped the Smiths move. This is lazy service! And bad finding.

    I was recently tracted by some JWs and was VERY interested to note their clean-cut appearance (suits and ties–I would guess that people on my street thought they were talking to Mormons) and the fact that they wanted to share a spiritual message but NEVER told me what Church they were from. Mormons usually don’t get past the Church’s name!

  20. 20.

    Are you saying the vast majority appreciate you knocking on their door? I find that hard to believe.

  21. 21.

    Yeah, Matt W. I thought it a simple truism. Where did you serve where the vast majority didn’t view missionaries knocking on their door as an intrusion? Wherever it was, it was an anomaly. And if most residents hate to have missionaries come knocking on their doors here in the US, it’s even worse in many foreign countries, where the culture is even less forgiving of strangers invading one’s personal space.

  22. 22.

    I doubt there’s any place on Earth where everybody appreciates the intrusion of missionaries knocking at the door, but Brazilians are considerably less annoyed than Americans, from what I gather. Tracting wasn’t super effective in Brazil but it wasn’t a steady stream of angry and annoyed people, either. Even many of those who had no interest in being taught were happy to shoot the breeze.

    Street contacting is another thing that wasn’t so bad in Brazil but would suck to do in the States. I remember a scene in the PBS documentary on the Church where missionaries were street contacting in a downtown area of a big city and the people were openly hostile. I felt so bad for those elders. We encountered openly hostile and obviously annoyed people on the streets in Brazil, but again, it wasn’t usually too unpleasant for us or, apparently, for them. So overall, I’m not sure that street contacting and tracting does too much to decrease public goodwill toward the Church in places like Brazil where the culture is more open, but I’m sure that in the States and in Europe it does.

  23. 23.

    I generally agree with almost everything Ziff says, and I hated tracting, and swore I’d never do it again … but …

    1. when I once badmouthed tracting in a church meeting here I got an angry response as half of the ward council had met missionaries through being tracted. Fair enough.

    2. our current MP basically forbade tracting when he arrived, blaming it (probably rightly so) for the terrible regard in which the church is held. After a year, Elder Ballard told the missionaries they ought to tract two hours an evening. The missionaries I’ve talked to tract 5-10 hours a week. There’s no denying the ‘pep’ it has given the missionary work.

    I would say its a terrible default missionary activity, and the idea of it as a test of faith stinks … let’s walk on hot coals or pass snakes around instead.

  24. 24.

    Kevin,
    In Brazil, to the best of my knowledge, the vast majority of people didn’t view tracting as an intrusion. That’s not to say that the vast majority liked it–I don’t think I could quantify. But people were generally (note the generally–there certainly were exceptions) very pleasant when I knocked on their door and would generally at least talk to me through the gate for a couple minutes. However, I do think that regional and cultural views play into it: I don’t think tracting was so well-regarded in my wife’s European mission, I’m sure there are parts of Brazil where it wouldn’t go over so well, and I can’t imagine how missionaries here in Manhattan knock doors (if they do) (actually, scratch that: I’ve heard that some do, I’ve heard how, and I’m not a big fan of the way it’s done here).

    All that to say, I don’t think it’s universally panned. But I do think mileage may vary.

  25. 25.

    Wow! Thanks for your many interesting responses.

    Regarding the question of application across different places, could it be as simple as that wealthier people are less receptive and poorer people are more? Or generally, in the developed world, it’s worse but in the developing world it’s better? This simple model seems like it might (generally) account for these responses:

    Developed world
    Spain (FoxyJ) thumbs down
    Canada (BiV) mixed?
    Germany (Michelle Glauser) thumbs down
    Japan (Seth R.) thumbs down
    Georgia (Eric Nielson) thumbs up
    Australia (jjohnsen) thumbs down
    Texas (Ziff) thumbs down

    Developing world
    Brazil (Sam B.) thumbs up; (Tom) mixed
    Romania (Dan) thumbs up
    Argentina (John Mansfield) mixed/thumbs up

    Just say so if I’ve incorrectly summarized your response. :)

  26. 26.

    Thanks for pointing out cases where tracting has worked, Dan, Geoff J, and Stephen. I’m not trying to discount those when I talk about weighing costs and benefits. But I do think that it can be easy to overstate the benefits particularly in comparison with opportunity costs because benefits lend themselves to vivid anecdotes but opportunity costs do not.

    So it’s easy for us to remember a story about how a family was baptized through tracting and generalize from that about the value of tracting. But if some other activity would have resulted in two families being baptized, this isn’t at all vivid because we don’t know them. Their baptism is an imagined counterfactual. I’m not saying that I know that the opportunity cost is higher than the benefit; I’m just saying that the fact that it doesn’t lend itself to anecdote makes the opportunity cost easy to overlook.

  27. 27.

    Mike L., Sam B., and Matt W., thanks for raising the point that tracting is more flexible in scheduling than almost anything else missionaries do. That’s a point in its favor I hadn’t thought of.

    Mike L. and ESO, you also raise good points about the possibility of service being unproductive too. I guess when I said “service” I was imagining some Platonic ideal where missionaries would be out in the world and be seen for their good works so that others would glorify their Father which is in heaven. But I can see that it wouldn’t necessarily work out that way if missionaries were just asked to “do more service.”

    Jonathan, I think you also make a good point about tracting being a good way to keep missionaries busy and out of trouble. I don’t know if any leaders who ask missionaries to tract think of it in as many words, but I can definitely see it being a concern that missionaries have too much unstructured time in which they can get into trouble.

  28. 28.

    Mark IV, you touched on tracting as a character-building experience (although it sounds like you didn’t endorse that use of it :) ). And Matt W., you noted (among other things) that tracting is a simple way to show missionary effort. With #6 in the first list, I was trying to get at the same class of possible benefits, that is, where tracting benefits the missionary rather than being directly useful as a missionary effort. I kind of wonder if in general explanations like these have sprung up as tracting has become less effective (in the US anyway) in actually gaining converts. It’s like organizational dissonance reduction: it’s no longer (as) effective, but we keep doing it, so there must be some other reason. That’s it! It’s to build character! This may not be the entire explanation but I think it’s at least a contributor.

    Norbert, I like your idea that we should do coal walking or snake handling instead if we want to test our faith.

    Kevin and Michelle, I’m glad to hear that there are mission presidents who aren’t enthusiastic about tracting. (Here’s a comment from a discussion at Mormon Matters describing another mission where they don’t tract, although it’s probably a special case since it’s in Utah.) I don’t think tracting should be given up completely. From my experience, though, I just wondered whether missionary work might be more effective if it were done less, if it weren’t the default activity all the time.

    Stephen, thinking about your success with tracting (in the US?) and Geoff, about your parents’ experience with being tracted out (in the US, I assume), I wonder if this doesn’t also relate to changing effectiveness over time. Stephen, I think I served a mission about a generation removed from you (early ’90s), which was also clearly a long time after your parents were baptized, Geoff. When I mentioned this post to my wife, she pointed out that the parents of one of our friends in the ward were baptized after being tracted out, but again, quite a few years ago. Another reason that’s occurred to me that tracting might have become less effective over time in the US is that fewer and fewer people are introduced to the Church by tracting. The vast majority of Americans have at least heard of Mormons, even if their knowledge of us is scant and riddled with error. So it’s unlikely now for missionaries to tract someone out and have the person evaluate their presentation on the Church on its merits; typically they’ll already have their suspicions about what we’re about before the missionaries get there. This might make tracting more difficult.

    I would be fascinated to know if the Church has done studies on the effectiveness of different ways of finding people to teach, particularly over time. I know of one such study that was reported to us when I was a missionary; I remember they told us that media referrals–people calling to get Books of Mormon or videos after seeing TV ads–were really great and we should treat them like gold. But it didn’t sound like the study was all that rigorous. They had found out how interested people were by calling and asking them. I would be more convinced if they had harder numbers like counts of convert baptisms. Anyway, I know if such data exist, we’re not going to get to see them, but has anyone heard reports like I did from such studies? Is my baseless assertion that tracting has declined in effectiveness over time (at least in the US) supported?

  29. 29.

    Ziff,

    I’ll add a data point for you. In my mission, I served both in suburban neighborhoods and in the inner city. We tracted in the suburbs when we didn’t have better things to do. I never tracted in the inner city because almost everyone would invite us in, listen to a first discussion, and then never keep a future appointment. They just wanted to shoot the breeze and were noncommittal about going any further. Tracting in the inner city was a waste of time.

  30. 30.

    “I would be fascinated to know if the Church has done studies on the effectiveness of different ways of finding people to teach, particularly over time.”

    Yes. Member referrals are the best source, everywhere.

    Actually, it should be those who come to church with members and express the desire to know more. I wish all the members would stop worrying about teaching the Gospel and just ask people to worship with us – no matter if we think they are “ready” or not to join the Church. Our Spanish branch excels at this; our English wards not so much.

    As to the post, tracting shouldn’t occur at all; the missionaries should be teaching people who have been introduced to them by the members.

    Now that the ideal is out of the way:

    I think tracting should occur about 1-2 hours per day, generally in the evenings when there is no teaching appointment. Also, I want my teenage son to tract with the missionaries occasionally, because I want him to see the difficulty of being a missionary and choose to do it with his eyes wide open – in case he gets to an area where these isn’t much else available. I don’t want him leaving with a romanticized view of missionary life.

    The most solid conversions I saw on my mission in Japan were all member referrals or came from tracting.

  31. 31.

    Just from my personal (and limited) experience, I had four baptisms in Japan. One was from tracting, three were self-referals to the free english conversation classes we taught each week. And if I was going to try and be funny, I’d say that all of them were because I was just such an awesome missionary. But I’m not going to try to be funny, so I won’t even mention it.

  32. 32.

    Tracting is what brought my mom and five children into the church. We had no other contact with the church and were not familiar with Mormons. Fifty years later we are all still active. We have raised our chldren in the gospel and now they are raising our grandchildren in the church.

    Our missionaries were sincere, prayful and listened to the spirit. They were not tracking our street that day but were impressed to knock on our door.

    When my sons were on missions, tracting was their least favorite missionay activity. I feel that tracting can be a tool when missionaries prepare themselves and seek the spirit for guidance. My heart swells with gratitude when I think of the missionaries who followed the spirit that day.

  33. 33.

    No doubt someone thought of our missionaries out in the streets when they included characters in the 2005 movie Millions. A delightful English flick about a boy who discovers a bag full of cash and decides to give the money away — including some to the hrd-working missionaries down the street. They were doing God’s work, and since the boy believed the money came from God why not help the missionaries. What they bought with the cash is hilarious.
    BTW: tracting can be a good form of exercise; you can get to know your comp better as you learn to communicate with each other; you meet some interesting people.
    I agree with the service concept being better use of missionary time, when they are not actually teaching lessons. However, in days of yore tracting is how Samuel Smith et al started spreading the gospel.

  34. 34.

    I think the most common theme here is that while tracting does serve a purpose, it is not the most effective way to find, teach, and prepare others for the conversionary process necessary for them to not only get baptized, but continue faithful to the end. There have been some studies done on this, one of which is referenced in the exceptional article by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in March 2003 Ensign, “The Role of Members in Conversion.” He indicates that only 2-3 % of those found by missionaries get baptized, while 20-30% of investigators found through members get baptized-a huge difference.

    While finding will always be a challenge, members really need to get on the bandwagon, and missionaries would do well to help teach members how to share the gospel, live it, and provide the necessary example and opportunity for friends and family to grow comfortable enough to desire to hear about the gospel. Ultimately, it is still up to the investigator, but the burden is on us.

  35. 35.

    I’ve been thinking about your post and my own experiences. As a missionary in Ohio I would say our best success came from member referrals. Retention and fellowshipping are much more likely to happen. However, I had some great experiences tracting. Here are some pros:

    -As mentioned by yourself and others, tracting provided a great way to debunk myths with people who may never have otherwise bothered to ask those questions.

    -Tracting was a good way to allow people a glimpse into our non-freakdom (though missionaries are freaks among their peers)

    -Part way through my mission we were given the directive to focus on tracting around less-active members. Active members neighborhoods were regularly tracted, but less-active members were generally tracted around if there was time. We made it a habit and one of the most powerful baptisms I saw came this way, so I have a tender spot in my heart for this counsel.

    -Tracting gives missionaries great practice at thinking on their feet. This can really come in handy in the middle of a discussion.

    -I truly believe in the planting of seeds. We taught many people through tracting we would not have taught otherwise. While they weren’t baptized the experience was positive and gives a greater chance for a positive experience the next time they come in contact with the church.

    That’s about all I’ve got right now. As I said, the best success came through members and we had some great wards that kept us very busy. I feel guilty when I think about how willing those members were to open their mouths and how much I don’t make that a focus now.

  36. 36.

    sol, what part of Ohio?

  37. 37.

    I love tracting! There is nothing like preaching the gospel to everyone you come across! It is a way to lift your voice like a trump (D&C 29:4), it is a way to testify to all, giving them the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel (and saving yourself) (D&C 88:81-82), and it is exciting. You never know what is behind each door you knock. I loved tracting while in Portugal, and about half of the converts I saw enter the waters of baptism were tracted into. Nothing like knockin’ doors.

  38. 38.

    I served in Massachusetts in 2000. My companions and I scheduled most things including tracting. We had three baptisms that resulted from tracting. I think those three baptisms were worth all the hours of fruitless tracting we did and even the few doors that were slammed in our faces. It also helped me learn to not be so shy and open my mouth to share my testimony. That was not something I ever did before my mission. I never talked about religion before, I was too afraid and shy to. Tracting got me over that quickly and I had to learn to use everything I had learned, believed, and had been taught in a few moments. I grew and learned from it. I served the spanish people on my mission and definately was grateful I did. Most of the spanish people opened their homes to us, even if it was to just to give us a glass of water in the 100+ heat. We made lots of friends and I feel spread good feelings about the church. My goal was to show these people how much God loved them and we had meaningful conversations about the gospel even when they didn’t result in return appointments. I think every way of contacting people is important and can be meaningful, even tracting. I think it is important for missionaries to be aware of the Spirit while doing anything and not just fall back on tracting because there is nothing else to do.

  39. 39.

    I served in Kansas in the early 90’s. We did not tract in my mission, though street-contacting (we called it GQ’ing) was encouraged.

    I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do believe that tracting is not very effective, and in a way I am glad I didn’t have to do it (I think I tracted maybe 2 hours my entire mission). On the other hand, ours was an extremely “rebellious” mission, and I think that the humility and self-discipline that comes from tracting would have been a huge benefit to most of the missionaries.

    Street contacting has its pros and cons. I think it’s easier to strike up a casual conversation when someone is out working in their yard or on their porch, and then the conversation can turn to religion. But on the other hand, the amount of people available to talk to is much more limited through street contacting, especially since anybody who sees you coming down the road is going to go inside their house to avoid you.

    We most definitely had greater success in inner-city type neighborhoods as far as meeting and talking to people and being invited to give discussions. But like someone said above, I think it was mainly that people were lonely and wanted someone to talk to. There was little actual commitment. If someone got baptized, they generally did not remain active very long. With that said, I do believe that some of these people we taught truly did feel of the Spirit and were interested in our teachings. They partly did not have the history of commitment to anything to stay active, and they partly were not welcome and fellowshipped by ward members who did not feel anything in common with them and were honestly afraid to go into many of these neighborhoods.

    People who were middle class and above were less likely to entertain a visit or even a conversation with the missionaries, yet if they did progess to be taught and baptized, they were far more committed. Again, was it that they were used to hard work and effort, goal-setting and taking life more seriously, or was it that (tracted or not) they were simply better fellowshipped? I think it’s a mix of the two.

  40. 40.

    Although I believe tracting is not generally the very most productive use of a missionary’s time, it is way more productive than sittig in the apartment or sight-seeing. During my US mission, we tracted quite a bit and baptized some wonderful people that way.

  41. 41.

    i served in france, and tracting was the least effective way to find people. i saw zero baptisms on my mission. one lady got baptized after i left her area, so i don’t know if it counted or not. people frequently would not open their doors. they had bells on their gates, and we would have to speak loud enough to their door. they would confuse us with JW’s all the time. we taught english classes, we did service, and a few other random type things. we did find one family from tracting. typically, french people aren’t terribly receptive. and the members are willing to help with missionary work, but not always willing to refer anyone. that said, i loved my mission and often wish i could still be a missionary. life was easy then…..

  42. 42.

    Late to the conversation, but all the people I taught and were baptized on my mission were found through tracting–every single one.

  43. 43.

    I’ve actually seen the hard data, what you would call the yield statistics.

    My mission was in the 70s, but I see our missionaries tracting now. Honestly, the ones that work hard at it seem to be more successful all the way around.

    Should it be the preferred course of action? No. But as a way to refine yourself when there is nothing else to do? Yes.

    I had one area where we had the first baptism in the area in five years, the first in the district in several. We got that one by tracting, though it was a miracle. As the worst area in the mission the area had been a dumping ground of sorts and the missionaries were not well regarded.

    About seven months in the area (I spent nine there) attitudes started to change towards us. We got the first dinner invitations offered in years. In a large part it was the steady tracting that we did, day in day out, that changed perceptions about us.

  44. 44.

    […] In light of last week’s “Hastening the Work of Salvation” broadcast and the reduced emphasis on tracting it suggests, this post from 2008 might be relevant again. You can read the original post and discussion here. […]

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