Note: Before Sandra Tanner joined the team of contributors and wrote her chapter on sharing with missionaries at the door, Bill McKeever had written a similar chapter before he was reassigned. We thought you would like to see another take on dealing with missionaries at your door.
When Mormon missionaries visit their homes, too many Christians choose to ignore them—or worse, treat them rudely. But if these encounters are considered evangelistic opportunities and not something to be dreaded, Christians can have positive faith-based conversations that leave the young men or women at the door with something to think about.
Missionaries are people too
The doorbell rings. You stealthily peek out the window and see two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—they always travel in pairs—wanting to share their gospel message. What would you do?
For some, the immediate reaction is to pretend nobody is home. Others might think that a stern rebuke or slamming the door in the missionaries’ faces will teach them a lesson. But what would Jesus have us do? If we have a biblical love for the missionary, would we not want to behave with their best interests in mind? Should we not strive for an encounter that leaves the missionary pondering what you said, as well as remembering you as a professing Christian who had a genuine concern for them as a person of worth? Indeed, Christians should behave in accordance with the faith they claim; at the very least, this could be a clear opportunity to share biblical truth with them.
A Divine Opportunity
Many find talking to Mormon missionaries to be a bit intimidating. After all, the male missionaries’ badges state clearly that they are “elders” in their church. Christians with a Protestant background are accustomed to the title of “elder” being given to mature believers who carry weighty responsibilities, such as teaching, preaching, and even exhorting and admonishing believers. Often, believers are not familiar with who these young men are, and it is important to know their role.
Elders in the LDS Church who show up at your doorstep are at least 18 years of age. Meanwhile, female missionaries are called “sisters” and can volunteer for the mission field beginning at the age of 19. The elders serve for two years while the sisters dedicate eighteen months to doing their church’s work. Each will likely profess a firm belief that their church is true, although a deep knowledge of the Bible and Mormonism is not a prerequisite for their roles. I have personally spoken to missionaries who admitted they read the Book of Mormon for the first time just prior to leaving on their mission. I’ve also spoken to missionaries who had never read the New Testament, much less the entire Bible. With this in mind, I refrain from assuming that missionaries are being deceptive if they give a wrong answer or no answer at all. It is prudent to always give the missionary the benefit of the doubt.
Consider it a providential act of God’s grace when missionaries call. These are young people who need the gospel and they rang your doorbell! Plus, they came ready to discuss religious issues. Is there any dedicated Christian who could ask for anything more?
Still, some have appealed to 2 John 10 to say it’s not biblical to invite the missionaries into Christian homes. Of course, those who don’t feel comfortable are not obligated to invite them inside. I have had many positive discussions on my front porch, on the lawn, and even in my garage. But 2 John 10 should not be used as a reason to not share the Gospel of grace; this passage is referencing homes that doubled as places of worship in the ancient world (see Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15). In this context, the apostle John was warning fellow believers to be on the lookout for false teachers who might cause confusion when the church gathered for worship and instruction. If John received a visit to his home in Ephesus from those representing the local temple of Diana, I believe he would have cherished the opportunity to share the Gospel with them.
Every believer is different. Some are willing to have the missionaries come inside the home for a conversation, even offering a drink of water (remember, they don’t drink coffee) or a snack to eat. Others have even been willing to invite the missionaries to their table for a meal. Your witness through hospitality can go a long way.
After answering the door and learning each other’s names, you can navigate a constructive conversation by following these guidelines:
Be honest from the beginning
The missionaries may ask, “Are you familiar with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” As a Christian, it is important for you to be straightforward. If you have read the Book of Mormon or do know some of their teachings, just say so. Especially if you live in a state with a high LDS population, they will appreciate that you try to understand what your neighbors believe. In my experience, this response has always been well-received, as most people appreciate it when others express a genuine curiosity in what they personally believe.
Have a basic understanding of the LDS religion
While it’s not necessary to be an expert on the history and doctrines of Mormonism, it helps to have at least a basic working knowledge of this religion. It’s important to know what Mormons mean when they use words like Godhead, Jesus Christ, salvation, scripture, and heaven. Sadly, many Christians do not realize the differences in the way words are interpreted and do not understand how Christian and LDS theologies are different. When in doubt, ask the question, “What do you mean by that?” to get a true sense of the Mormon’s belief rather than assuming what is meant. Understand that the young missionaries may not have a clear understanding of what the Bible says or what Christianity teaches.
A question is an inoffensive way to clarify and learn what the missionaries believe. Never use accusatory language to tell the missionaries what they believe, even if you’ve studied the official LDS teaching. Thus, avoid beginning sentences with “You believe…” Instead, ask questions like these:
- Didn’t Joseph Smith say…?
- Didn’t Brigham Young teach…?
- Is it true that the Book of Mormon says….?
- Please correct me if I am wrong, but is it true that…?
Even after four decades of studying Mormonism, I still ask questions like these. This attitude shows vulnerability on my part and allows the missionary to commit himself or herself on a given topic. I will also ask, “Do you think it honors God for someone to believe in something that is false?” I’ve never had a Mormon disagree. This becomes helpful later in the conversation when biblical passages or questionable elements of Mormon history may come up.
Look up scriptural references
It is a given when missionaries are at a door that they will have a printed or electronic copy of their scriptures, including the King James Version of the Bible, in their possession. When discussing a certain scriptural passage, it is helpful to have them look it up and read it aloud. This will help everyone to understand what the passage says.
Dealing with the Apostasy of Christianity
At some point, the subject of the “Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”(i.e. Mormonism) will come up as well as the complete “apostasy” of Christianity and its authority. An LDS missionary church manual instructs, “Investigators must understand that a universal apostasy occurred following the death of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. If there had been no apostasy, there would be no need of a Restoration.”
The missionaries might defend this position by referencing 1 Timothy 4:1, although the apostle Paul says that only some will depart from the faith. Mormons are taught that all authority was lost due to this apostasy. Because Mormons are taught that the Bible has been corrupted, they believe that Christianity’s creeds are based on false doctrines.
Ask the missionaries which doctrines were changed. The first one mentioned is often the nature of God. Christians have historically believed in a God of Spirit who was always God (Jn. 4:24; Ps. 90:2). In contrast, Mormonism teaches that God is a glorified, perfected human being with a body of flesh and bones (D&C 130:22). Church founder Joseph Smith taught, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” In that same message, he added, “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.”
The official account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is found in the Mormon scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price. According to Joseph Smith – History 1:5-20, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him when he was 14 years old. Missionaries are told to “memorize Joseph Smith’s description of seeing the Father and the Son” and to be ready to describe this event, known as the “First Vision,” in their own words.
Smith claimed that a religious revival took place in the area of Palmyra, New York, in the spring of 1820. In Smith’s account, “great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties” (1:5), including Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Confused by their “war of words and tumults of opinions” (1:10), Smith decided to ask God which of all the churches were true and which he should join (1:13). He went out into the woods and prayed to God for an answer. In this encounter, Smith said God the Father and Jesus Christ stood “above [him] in the air” (1:17).
When he inquired “which of all the sects was right,” Smith said he was told that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong.” He expressed surprise by such a statement “for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong” (1:18). Then he wrote that the “Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” and the leaders of the churches “were all corrupt” (1:19). Though the missionaries are well-acquainted with this story as found in modern editions of their scripture, they may not know that the “religious excitement” that Smith described did not happen in the spring of 1820, but rather in 1824.
No records corroborate Smith’s claim that “great multitudes” were added to the participating churches in 1820, though several hundred did become church members because of the 1824 revival. Furthermore, when Smith first wrote about his divine encounter in his 1832 diary, he failed to mention the appearance of God the Father. He instead said he prayed to God because he was unsure of his own personal forgiveness before being answered by “the Lord.”
In this handwritten account, Smith claimed he was “in the 16th year of my age,” making the date 1822, not 1820. He also said in this account that by “[s]earching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come to the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament…” (spelling and grammar in original). These and other contradictions made by Smith over the years have led many to conclude this event was fabricated by Smith, especially since he never spoke of this event around the time that it allegedly took place.
Dealing with the Issue of Salvation
Historical anomalies like these in Mormon history have caused many to leave Mormonism. But unless the evangelist has these documents in place, it is easy for the missionary to assume the information is wrong or out of context. For this reason, I personally like to move the conversation toward the subject of the missionary’s personal forgiveness. Without an assurance of God’s forgiveness of sins, any claim to being “Christian” becomes somewhat presumptuous. Matthew 1:21 makes it clear that Jesus came to “save His people from their sins.” Thus, the Bible does not teach it is possible for a person to be an “unforgiven Christian.”
You might ask, “If I were to join your church, what would I have to do to receive the forgiveness of my sins?” You will probably be told that the first requirement is to repent of your sins. That sounds very biblical, but repentance in Mormonism goes far beyond confession and a heartfelt desire to refrain from committing that sin again. According to Harold B. Lee, Mormonism’s eleventh president:
In one sentence, repentance means turning from that which we have done wrong in the sight of the Lord and never repeating that mistake again. Then we can have the miracle of forgiveness.
For repentance to be “true” in Mormonism, the contrite Mormon must never repeat that sin ever again. One approved church manual states, “Our Father in heaven does not sin, and He does not allow people who sin to live with Him. To live with Him, we must repent of our sins. To repent means to feel sorry for our sins and stop doing them.” Ask the missionaries for their definition of repentance. Most likely their description will be very similar to the church manual. Then ask if they have “stopped doing” their sins. Most likely they will admit that this is impossible.
One time two very sincere and polite female missionaries came to my house. Since I was alone at the time, I did not feel it was appropriate to invite them inside, so we spoke at the door. They invited me to a musical presentation depicting Christ as the Savior at one of their local chapels. I asked the young ladies what was required in order for Jesus to be their savior [or really anybody’s savior]. One told me that I needed to repent of my sins. When I asked how they defined repentance, she said, “Confess and forsake.” I asked, “How many sins must I forsake?” “All of them,” she replied. To which I asked, “And how are you doing at that?”
She looked at me and said, “I’m trying.” I commended her for her effort to be the best example should she could possibly be. Yet, I added, the word “trying” is usually used in the context of failure, to which she agreed. The conversation continued:
Me: “Don’t you also have to keep commandments?”
Me: “How many commandments must you keep?”
Missionary: “All of them.”
Me: “How are you doing at that?”
Missionary: “I’m trying.
We smiled at each other. I think she knew we had already been down this road. I then proceeded to recap what she had told me to make sure I understood her correctly.
Let me see if I understand what you are saying. In order for Jesus to be your Savior, you must repent of your sins, all of them, and never repeat those sins again. It is wonderful that you are trying to do this in your life, but you have not accomplished this. Since that is the case, can I assume that Jesus is not your savior, right now?
I admit that I left her in an awkward position, but I wanted her and her companion to see the dilemma that their church doctrine had placed them in.Having admitted she was not living out the necessary requirements, she said she felt comfort in the fact that Heavenly Father loved her. Yet Doctrine and Covenants 1:31 states, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” I asked this sincere young lady, “If the Mormon God is true to His word, why should He overlook your sins?”
Finishing the Conversation with a Positive Tone
Another time, I had two young male missionaries in my front room. When the conversation came to a close, I asked if I could end our time with a word of prayer. They agreed and I prayed. I then thanked them for stopping by, expressing the pleasure I had talking with them, and reached out to shake the hand of one of them. Instead, he hugged me. His companion did the same. This is not the usual response I receive after talking about sensitive spiritual issues, but their gesture told me they did not view me as an enemy.
When speaking to missionaries, I want to depart cordially. I have no idea what kind of work the Holy Spirit does in the hearts of those He sends my way but I do hope I represented my Savior properly. A major concern I have is that they understand why I, as a Christian who loves the Bible, has difficulty accepting their truth claims. I want my difficulties with Mormonism to become their difficulties with Mormonism. I also hope that despite our doctrinal differences, they can see that I won’t let those disagreements hinder my genuine compassion for them as people.
I believe that it is possible to have a fruitful encounter with Mormon missionaries at the doorstep. The concerned Christian may never know how much of an impact was made just by having a polite interaction with these very dedicated young men and women.
Bill McKeever is the founder and director of Mormonism Research Ministry, which is based in the Salt Lake City area. He is the editor of the book In Their Own Words: A Collection of Mormon Quotations (Morris Publishing, 2016) as well as the co-author (with Eric Johnson) of Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013) and Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2015). He and his wife Tammy live in Sandy, Utah.
 Preach My Gospel (Salt Lake City: UT, Intellectual Reserve Inc., 2004), 36.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 345.
 Preach My Gospel, 38.
 For more on this topic, see “Do the First Vision Accounts Coincide” by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson at www.mrm.org/first-vision-stories.
 Harold B. Lee, Ye Are the Light of the World: Selected Sermons and Writings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City (UT): Deseret Book Co., 1974), 321.
 Gospel Fundamentals (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002), 67.
 For more on this way of thinking, see Keith Walker’s chapter on The Impossible Gospel.