By Eric Johnson
This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011).
For many years, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have practiced what they call “friendshipping.” This coined word describes the attitude that Mormons are told to have in their relationships with less active members or those who have no connection whatsoever to the LDS Church. By going out of their way to do kind gestures, Mormons hope to present a positive image of their church and possibly entice friends and neighbors to enter into the missionary lessons. In addition, many Christians are pressured to join the LDS Church when they become involved in romantic relationships with Mormons. While Mormons apparently can date outside their faith as long as their partners are pure and wholesome, they are not supposed to marry nonmembers. Thus, the Christian boyfriend or girlfriend is typically required to join the LDS Church before the relationship can head to the next step, which could be a Mormon temple wedding ceremony. While Christians certainly can and should have friendships with those from other religions, including Mormons, they also need to understand the potential pitfalls when others are trying to convert them to their faith.
My friend and I backed the rented moving truck into the driveway of our family’s new home in Sandy, Utah, a short drive from the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in Salt Lake City. It was 2:00 A.M. on a Sunday, much too late to begin unloading the twenty-seven-foot, packed-to-the-gills truck. We decided to get some sleep, knowing that some friends were scheduled to come by that afternoon to help.
Sunday is a sacred day for members of the LDS Church; Mormons are not supposed to work or recreate on the “Sabbath.” Since more than two-thirds of Utah’s population is LDS, many stores and restaurants throughout the state are closed on Sunday. Because our friends’ schedules did not allow for them to help later in the week and the truck was due back, we hoped our new Mormon neighbors (which, it turns out, includes almost everyone on the block) would understand why we had to work on Sunday.
That afternoon, as the back door to the truck rolled open and we began the backbreaking process of unloading, my next-door neighbor—sporting jeans and a T-shirt with a pair of work gloves on his hands—appeared from around the corner. “Need a hand?” he asked. I knew that he was a faithful Latter-day Saint who had been very friendly to me during my purchase of the home. “Imagine,” I thought to myself, “this man is willing to forego his day of rest to help me move.” In one way, I was duly impressed. But I wondered if “friendshipping” was his main motivation. Regardless, he was one of the hardest workers of the afternoon, sweating profusely and refusing to take a break.
KIND ACTS AND GETTING A FOOT IN THE DOOR
In the 2005 LDS-genre movie Mobsters and Mormons, a New Jersey “goodfella” and his family are secretly relocated to Utah as part of the Witness Protection Program. The comedy comes as the rough-edged Italian informant—now with the assumed name of George Cheeseman—learns to adapt to the culture that feels to him like Disneyland on steroids. Soon after the Cheesemans move into their home, most of the Mormon families from the neighborhood bend over backwards to welcome the brash newcomers with visits and gifts of baked goods. In addition, it doesn’t take them long to invite this Catholic family to Mormon Church services and activities.
Louise, the local neighborhood gossip, decides she isn’t a fan of these uncouth people, so she warns Kate Jaynes, the wife of the local LDS Church leader, not to be so outgoing to them. “We are setting a standard,” Kate ends up sarcastically responding to her complaining neighbor. “We had the Cheesemans over for dinner. It’s called friendshipping. You know what? You should try it sometime.”
“Friendshipping” is an LDS-coined word that emphasizes the building of relationships with non-Mormon friends and neighbors. It is certainly not a strategy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that is more likely to knock on our doors, but who will shun their own neighbors and refuse to participate in neighborhood social activities.
According to Sandra Tanner, the founder of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City, Mormons have found success through friendshipping.
“The LDS Church has long realized that simply going door-to-door is one of the least efficient means of finding potential converts,” she said. “They try to involve the local church member in supplying names of friends and relatives for missionary contact. Often the church member will invite someone over for dinner, along with the LDS missionaries, as a means of introducing the person to Mormonism.”1
Indeed, Mormon leaders encourage their members to go beyond the comfort of their own homes to engage with nonmembers. Many assume that the Mormon Church’s best tactics to entice potential converts are through direct contact with two of the church’s 52,000 missionaries as well as media campaigns. Yet the results of these two methods are less than impressive. Only two to three percent of those who initially became connected to the church through missionary efforts ever get baptized; just one to two percent of those contacted through a media campaign join the LDS Church. However, twenty to thirty percent of those whose first contact came through a relationship with current members end up getting baptized!2
While using friendships to try to make converts is certainly not new or unique to the Mormon Church, the current idea of Mormon friendshipping began in the 1970s when President Spencer W. Kimball encouraged LDS families to reach out to others in an evangelistic way. “With your family, prayerfully select one or two families to friendship,” he said. “Decide whom of your relatives or friends you will introduce to the Church. Perhaps you could plan a family home evening with them….Then, when these families show interest, arrange through your ward or branch mission leader to invite them and the missionaries into your home to share the message of the restoration. If you will follow this simple procedure, you will bring a number of fine families into the Church.”3
One church manual provides a four-step list to “sharing the Gospel effectively”:
“1. Prayerfully select a family. 2. Friendship the family. 3. Introduce the family to the Church. 4. Invite the family to meet with the missionaries.”4 Under this final step, the manual gives a sample monologue on how to convince the neighbors to meet the missionaries: “One way of asking friends if they would like to know about the Church is to say: ‘We enjoy being your neighbors. Would you and your family join us in a family home evening tomorrow night at seven o’clock? Two young men from our Church will give a presentation on how our Church began.”5
The manual records one convert’s real-life story to prove the point:
“Shortly after we moved to a new neighborhood, I was out working in my garden when one of my neighbors offered me a huge armful of tomatoes she had just picked. This was just the beginning of what was to be a forever friendship. In the months that followed, [our neighbors] proved to be the best friends….we had ever met. They were not afraid to be too friendly and took our family in just as though we were their own family.”6
The efforts proved to be successful. “We were always invited to Church activities but never pressured to go,” the convert continued. “When we did decide to go, our neighbors’ sweet, dependable daughter came over to babysit for us—and sometimes even refused to be paid for it. After I had had a hard day at home, my friend would ask me to come to Relief Society with her…we knew in our hearts that we wanted a more complete life like theirs.”7
This model has continued into the twenty-first century. President Gordon Hinckley told a gathering at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, “The process of bringing people into the Church is not the responsibility alone of the missionaries,” he said. “They succeed best when members become the source from which new investigators are found.”8 Speaking to a group of new mission presidents at the Provo Missionary Training Center, Apostle Dallin Oaks said:
“Members simply must take a more active role in our missionary efforts at every stage: friendshipping those who are not of our faith; sharing Church materials; sharing feelings about the gospel; inviting friends to Church activities, service projects, and meetings; giving the missionaries referrals to visit our friends; inviting those friends to be taught the gospel in our homes; and fellowshipping and strengthening new converts.”9
Young Mormons are especially encouraged to make friends and then introduce the Mormon gospel to them. In one Mormon youth magazine, writer Pat Graham utilized an LDS scriptural verse10 to explain how to friendship:
“President Spencer W. Kimball said that ‘usually we must warm our neighbors before we can warn them properly’ and that we should friendship and fellowship, ‘not scold and scare them.’ How can you show love to your nonmember friends and neighbors? Little kindnesses will help friends feel good about our Church. They will ‘warm’ up to the idea of learning more about the teachings of the Church.”11
The idea of getting friends to become involved in church activities is continually promoted. The official LDS Church Web site includes a section for youth with an explanation of how friendshipping should take place: “Invite your nonmember friends to Church activities where they can learn about your standards and the principles of the gospel. Include them in your midweek activities and your Sunday meetings. Help them feel welcome and wanted. Many nonmembers have come into the Church through friends who have involved them in Church activities.”12 In a Sunday school manual written specifically to LDS “young women,” the stated objective for one lesson reads: “Each young woman will extend friendship to young women of her own age and encourage them to take part in Church activities and meetings.” For the lesson application, the girls are instructed this way: “Invite the young women to choose a person that they, as a class, would like to reactivate or introduce to the gospel. Have them develop a plan to do this.”13
For those who move to a predominantly LDS community, friendshipping will not always look the same as it did in Mobsters and Mormons. Russ East, the director of Utah Partnerships for Christ, has lived in Utah for seven years. He says that he has excellent LDS neighbors; his wife regularly plays Bunco with the ladies in the neighborhood, and his daughter even babysits their children. While there is much interaction, he says, “I have not sensed much in their desire to send the missionaries our way or to get us into the LDS Church.”14 Bill McKeever, who is the head of Mormonism Research Ministry, hasn’t been friendshipped in his six years living in Utah but does not have any problem with the concept. “If the Mormons really believe they have truth and feel I am in error, I hope they would want to persuade me to their way of thinking.”15
Yet McKeever points out that Christians who have Mormon friends or neighbors should be grounded in the fundamentals of Christianity in order to understand the differences between the faiths. Since the terminology can be so very similar but with quite different meanings, this is often a difficult undertaking. It’s also hard to stand up for truth when personal relationships are at stake because nobody wants to look argumentative with friends or neighbors. If relationships hinge on a person having to join a church that rejects historic biblical teachings, however, then Christian believers need to take a stand.
Though some Christians in his neighborhood felt that Mormons practicing their “Welcome Neighbor” program were merely offering conditional friendships, Mormon author Darl Anderson believes it shouldn’t be this way. “I learned that our expressions of friendship need to show more sincerity and consistency if we want them to be correctly understood,” he wrote. “Many of our non-Mormon neighbors sincerely feel that every Mormon gesture toward them is devious…We need more communication as friends to know and do what they want for their benefit—not for our personal or selfish desires.”16
On the opposite end, while Christians ought to desire evangelistic opportunities, attempting to make friendships merely to win neighbors to Christ is also suspect. What will happen to this relationship if the other person continually rejects the Christian faith? Should this really be considered “friendship”?
THE MISSION FIELD OF DATING
Former LDS President Spencer W. Kimball was very clear in 1969 when he admonished his followers not to date nonmembers. He wrote, “Clearly, right marriage begins with right dating….Do not take the chance of dating nonmembers, or members who are untrained and faithless. A girl may say, ‘Oh, I do not intend to marry this person. It is just a ‘fun date.’ But one cannot afford to take a chance on falling in love with someone who may never accept the gospel.”17
Kimball told his members to not date until they were at least sixteen years old.18While this rule appears to be followed by most Mormon youth throughout the United States, the idea of dating only those in the church is no longer emphasized. Rather, it seems that high moral behavior is the main requirement. In an article titled “Dating FAQs” published recently in an LDS youth publication, the question was asked, “Should I date someone who is not LDS?” The answer? “Possibly, but don’t date anyone (LDS or not) who, because of low standards, will drag you down.”19
This idea is echoed on the official LDS Web site, which says Mormons should only date “those who have high standards, who respect your standards, and in whose company you can maintain the standards of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”20 Speaking to youth, current LDS prophet Thomas S. Monson stated,
“Begin to prepare for a temple marriage as well as for a mission. Proper dating is a part of that preparation….Because dating is a preparation for marriage, ‘date only those who have high standards.’”21
Many local LDS congregations host weekend dances and other social events where their young people are encouraged to invite nonmember friends. With hormones raging, many nonmembers end up becoming attracted to the wholesome Latter-day Saints whom they meet. In the past few months, I have counseled two former Christian high school teenage male students, each of whom had independently become romantically involved with Mormons. They both were encouraged to participate in the missionary lessons and join the LDS Church if they hoped to take their relationships to the next level. Granted, it was the choice of these young men to date outside their faith, but they ended up getting pressured to convert to Mormonism. Neither one had even thought about cajoling the girls to leave Mormonism for Christianity. Despite the fact that they both recognized the falsehoods of Mormonism, they desperately wanted to continue their relationships but didn’t know how, unless they became Mormons.
This “missionary dating” tactic is common. Sandra Tanner believes the problem is especially prevalent with those attending college. “I often get calls from Christian parents who are deeply concerned about their son or daughter because they have started to date a Mormon at college and have gotten involved in the LDS college social group,” she said. “Often the person has joined the LDS Church without even telling the parents, informing them on their next school break. By that time, the person is often in a serious relationship that will lead to a temple wedding, which the parents will not be allowed to witness.”22 Bill McKeever adds, “I have seen far too many cases of Christian young people rejecting their faith in order to win the ‘love’ of a Mormon.”23
At a recent talk that we gave at a Christian church, two families—one LDS, the other Christian—attended together. Their twenty-year-old college-aged children—the girl is LDS, the boy a Christian—had been dating for several years and were getting more serious in their relationship. In fact, the only college that the boy had applied and been accepted to was LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. The Christian parents were distraught with their boy’s choices, as it certainly appeared that he was moving much closer to Mormonism than she was to evangelical Christianity. Going to one meeting on the topic of Mormonism probably wasn’t going to change the way things were already headed.
It would appear that the advice that Spencer Kimball gave to his people more than four decades ago remains wise. “Mixed faith” marriages are a recipe for disaster, to both the couple and the children. Utilizing the concept of 2 Corinthians 6:14 when speaking to Christian missions teams visiting Utah, Russ East says, “I always send home the message that God does not approve when two oxen are unequally yoked.”24
With the dynamics that can occur between a boy and a girl, this is probably the most dangerous of situations. Love can be very emotional, and when the differences between the two religions are minimized (“We’re ‘Christian’ too!” many Mormons will argue) and ignorant young lovers become confused, the results can be disastrous. Rarely do we hear stories of Mormons becoming Christians in order to save a relationship. Instead, we hear far too often how Christians are becoming Mormons because their relationship with another human means more to them than their relationship with God.
In addition, “missionary dating” is neither biblical nor ethical and should not be a practice of faithful Christians. While the Bible does say that believers should be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves,” using “love” in an attempt to change the faith of those they’re dating is certainly a wrong application of this passage. The end does not justify the means. As Bill McKeever puts it, “A Christian who manipulates a Mormon’s emotions for the sole purpose of conversion places his integrity in a precarious situation.”25
It is self-centered as well. If dating is to be considered the first step to courtship, which leads to engagement and ultimately marriage, then a biblically sound Christian has no business getting romantically involved with an unbeliever, even if it’s “just” dating. The risk is high and the fallout ultimately will end up hurting both parties.
THE INTRINSIC VALUE OF NEIGHBORLINESS
In the short time that my family has resided in Utah, our neighbor is turning out to be one of the best we’ve ever had. He has encouraged my wife in her new business venture. He made sure that we were welcomed to the neighborhood’s Fourth of July party.26 He spent three hours with me one sultry July morning fixing my house’s swamp cooler and helped me repair a lawnmower. And, though he knows I’m not LDS, he has not yet mentioned Mormonism or asked about having my family meet the missionaries.
Have we been targeted for “friendshipping”? An invitation to a local Mormon ward’s barbeque was taped to our front door just two days after moving in. Perhaps he put it there, though I don’t think so. Either way, I’m sure he would love to see our family become members of his church. At the same time, wouldn’t I like to see his family come to know the true Jesus as described in the Bible? Christians certainly should be cautious when entering into friendships with those from other religions. Still, I will do my part to continue this relationship and pray that I, in turn, will “love (my) neighbor as (my)self,” as Jesus said in Matthew 22:39, and be the best neighbor this man has ever known.
- Personal e-mail, July 21, 2010.
- Ensign, March 2003, 54.
- Sharing the Gospel through Priesthood Missionary Service filmstrip, 1975.
- Lesson 9, Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part B, 1996, 81–85.
- Ibid, 85.
- Ibid, 79.
- “Feed the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 104. From a satellite broadcast given at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on February 21, 1999.
- “The Role of Members in Conversion,” Ensign, March 2003, 55, based on his talk on June 20, 2000.
- Doctrines and Covenants 88:81 says, “It becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.”
- “Sharing Time: Friendshipping with Love,” Friend, February 1986, 42.
- Young Women Manual 1 Lesson 20, http://www.lds-youngwomen.com/taxonomy/term/6763/friendshipping.
- Personal e-mail, July 21, 2010.
- Soft Answers to Hard Feelings (Orem, UT: Granite Publishing, 1998), 80.
- The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Publisher’s Press, 1986), 241–42.
- “The Marriage Decision,” Ensign, February 1975, 2–6.
- “Dating FAQs,” New Era, April 2010, 20–32.
- “Preparation Brings Blessings,” Liahona, May 2010, 64.
- Personal e-mail, July 21, 2010.
- Personal e-mail, July 22, 2010.
- Because July 4, 2010, landed on a Sunday, this year’s festivities were actually held on July 3. Most secular holidays in the state of Utah are celebrated on Saturdays when they land on Sundays.