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:
- When missionaries tract, they meet, teach, and baptize people who may not have been found, taught, and baptized in any other way.
- When we members see missionaries tracting, we are reminded that we should be doing missionary work too.
- 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.
- Even when not directly gaining converts, tracting missionaries are good for PR, just by being there to introduce people to the Church.
- Tracting is aversive, so it motivates missionaries to work harder to find people to teach so they can tract less.
- 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:
- 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.
- When we members see missionaries tracting, we feel like they’re getting the missionary work done, so we slack off in our participation.
- 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.
- While tracting, missionaries argue with people, tell them off, and generally make the Church look bad.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
- 26 May 2008