One researcher studying Mormon missionaries estimates that in the thousands of contacts a single member makes in a given year, he or she will convert only about four to seven people.
Every year about 30,000 men and women between the ages and 18 and 21 pass through a well-manicured collection of low buildings that adjoin the Provo campus of Brigham Young University. The Missionary Training Center of The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) lies at the base of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and runs what is perhaps one of the largest missionary training schools on the globe. The specific goal of the center is to prepare recruits to proselytize for converts in the United States and overseas. These intending missionaries spend up to twelve weeks honing their foreign language skills, studying The Book of Mormon and The Bible, and getting ready for the rigors of 10-hour days trying to ingratiate themselves to strangers in distant locales. It’s all part of the church’s tradition of encouraging young members to give up two years to find new converts.
This massive effort at persuasive outreach is a huge change from the mid-nineteenth century, when small groups of followers of Joseph Smith escaped the east and Midwest in their own Diaspora. Though they eventually settled in the geographic isolation of Utah hoping to be left alone, the LDS Church is now among the largest five denominations in the United States, and one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
All male Mormons over 18 are asked to serve on a mission, and about half do. Women who are at least 21 can also join the ranks, but in smaller numbers. After they leave the center individuals are assigned a partner who will be their constant companion for the duration of the mission. Young men in white button-down white shirts, pressed slacks and conservative haircuts easily stand out from their surroundings. They may end up in Baltimore, Manila, or Sao Paulo. But they look like they could have just walked out of the pages of your grandparent’s high school yearbook.
Missionaries call potential converts “investigators,” in recognition of the likely fact that conversion is not necessarily a sudden thing. They are people who seem at least willing to listen, often at bus stops, or on street corners and front yards. The logic is that the more they learn, the more willing they may be to explore the church be attending services or meetings.
The Student Manual at the Missionary Training Center sees the task of winning converts in terms of the expected biblical admonitions to go out and serve as witnesses for the faith. In this frame of reference, missionaries often think of themselves as “sharing” or “teaching” the two primary works in the Mormon canon, with the hope that some of these scriptures will be prophetic or provide moral clarity. The church also emphasizes the classic persuasion idea that you should somehow physically embody what you advocate, a principle that echoes back to ancient rhetorics that urged persuaders to show in their own demeanor the values that they espouse. New missionaries are taught to be positive and always courteous, and to approach every person as a potential new friend. This is not an effort that owes much to the irony or cynicism that flows through much of the rest of American life. Earnestness is the order of the day. They also talk up the importance of family, and especially try to communicate with the unambiguous certainty of a committed believer.
Many new recruits are initially shy. Most who openly write about their experiences are positive about the experience. But a reader of these accounts sometimes gets a sense that many of the church’s volunteers don’t see themselves as natural persuaders. Some appear to struggle to find the confidence to approach people in settings far different than the prosperous Rocky Mountain enclave that is the center of the LDS church. What do you say to an impoverished mother of seven in a rundown section of Columbus Ohio? One resident, Star Calley, feels the awkwardness of the moment, but invites Jonathan Hoy and Taylor Nielsen to sit on her porch and talk. She worries about raising her kids in the neighborhood. The missionaries listen, sympathize, and then ask her to pray with them.1 After they leave, she admits she was just trying to be nice, noting that “it must take a lot of courage to do what they do, for all the good it does.” For their part, they hope they can come by again, perhaps building on a first encounter to offer more reassurance that her family will be better off within the local LDS community.
The Manual also offers a range of more secular advice about how to maximize success. As a general rule, it urges missionaries to follow what is by now an axiom of political persuasion: look for people who have recently been buffeted by reversals or unwanted change. “People who are experiencing significant changes in their lives—such as births, deaths, or moving into new homes—are often ready to learn about the restored gospel and make new friendships.”2 It also reminds recruits to find a way to be brief and effective. What can be offered to someone waiting for a bus, or a person who is willing to give up just a few minutes? The promise of eternal salvation is, of course, the primary message. But there are other inducements that open doors as well, such as helping someone do a simple household repair, or offering to help a family research its own history through the vast genealogical resources of the LDS church.
One researcher studying Mormon missionaries estimates that in the thousands of contacts a single member makes in a given year, he or she will convert only about four to seven people.3 That can amount to a “success” rate of one percent or less. Jonathan Hoy went through the experience and remembers even fewer, but still found his limited success worth the effort. In 2007 Hoy recalls the nearly 10,000 people he probably talked to during a 22 month stint in Ohio and Greece. He especially remembers a young woman in Athens who converted after spending time studying various “restored” scriptures from The Book of Mormon. “I saw it change her life,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going.”4
What is sometimes missed in the seemingly low rates of conversion is the crucial role that this rite of passage has on the missionaries themselves. In the important process self persuasion sometimes the greatest effect a message has is actually on the persuader. If these missionaries come back with limited success in turning large numbers toward the church, it is nearly certain that they have become committed activists for their faith, carrying some of that fervor into their relationships with others.
Adapted from Gary C. Woodward and Robert E. Denton Jr., Persuasion and Influence in American Life, Seventh Edition, (Waveland, 2014).
1 Josh Jarman, “God’s Salesmen,” The Columbus Dispatch, Friday July 6, 2007, p. 3B.
2 Missionary Preparation, Student Manual (Salt Lake: Church of the Latter Day Saints, 2005), 99.
3 Gustav Niebuhr, “Youthful Optimism Powers Mormon Missionary Engine,” New York Times, May 23, 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/23/us/youthful-optimism-powers-mormon-missionary-engine.html, August 10, 2010.