I have often said that the modern missionary system advocated by the LDS Church is an ingenious idea. Though the popular slogan “every member a missionary” calls on all members to actively proclaim the Mormon faith, tens of thousands of men and women serve full-time positions in a short-term capacity. Most are young people in their late teens and early twenties.
Despite the fact that the total number of Mormon missionaries have significantly decreased in recent years, the Mormons still have more missionaries in the field than all Protestant churches combined. From a young age members are encouraged to give two years of their lives serving their church (female missionary terms are 18 months), and the positive peer pressure from fellow members make this program a relative success.
The young age of the average missionary can work to their advantage. Because most people don’t expect a whole lot of in-depth knowledge from young men who can barely shave, this generally gets them (and the church that they represent) off the hook when hard questions about their faith cannot be answered. I have personally found that most of the missionaries with whom I have spoken have a commendable amount of zeal but a very limited knowledge of Mormon history and doctrine. I think it is fair to say that the great majority of the full-time missionaries currently serving the LDS Church would probably fit that description.
Still, many Christians find themselves intimidated when two young men show up on their doorstep wanting to discuss religious issues. I’ll never forget the time I was doing a Q&A session following one of my presentations when a woman in the crowd explained that she had a great desire to speak to the Mormon missionaries when they came to her door; however, she felt so inadequate talking with an “elder.” Every male Mormon missionary wears a black badge identifying himself as an elder (females missionaries have the title of “Sister”).
I suppose such a label could be intimidating. After all, within a Christian context, an elder is usually someone who has been a Christian for a fair amount of time. If this calling was based on New Testament requirements, we would expect a reasonable amount of Bible knowledge as well. This, however, is not true in a Mormon context. Elder status is based more on the age of the individual and has really nothing to do with how much knowledge the person may have regarding the complexities of his faith.
It may surprise you that a deep understanding of Mormonism is not always necessary to have a positive dialogue. The best ingredient is having a firm grasp of what you as a Christian believe. Couple this with an understanding of how Mormons define terms and a willingness to show them that you have a sincere interest in their eternal welfare, and you can expect a challenging exchange. A few personal questions, mixed with gentleness and respect, can go a long way.
We shouldn’t feel it is necessary to pretend like we are not at home when the missionaries are making their rounds in the neighborhood. Look at it instead as a providential appointment. God in His sovereignty has sent them your way. What a grand opportunity!
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