“Preach My Gospel” and the Ripple Effect

KC Kern missionary, Mormon 19 Comments

Preach My Gospel CoverIn 2004, the Church released the long-anticipated “Preach My Gospel” manual, replacing the six discussion manuals and the pink “Missionary Guide.” This was a major development that dramatically changed processes and procedures for full time missionaries. With it, there were many shifts in emphasis and priority, the authorized Missionary Library was altered, and in many aspects, the way missionaries study and obtain information was reformed.I think it is crucial that we understand the role that this manual will have in the Church’s future leaders. In about 10-15 years, the local leadership of the church will be filled with a wave of people who served, studied, and learned using “Preach My Gospel” as their guide. In 50 years, the same will go for the General Authorities. “Preach My Gospel” will have set the groundwork that will influence their interpretation and implementations of policy and doctrine, their concept of the place and purpose of the gospel and the Church, and their ideas of what the “right” ways to do things are.

I am keenly aware of the before-and-after contrast, because I was on my mission (around hump day) when “Preach My Gospel” was introduced. I had spent the first half of my mission on the old-school discussions, and I completed the last half with “Preach My Gospel.” The new system was a welcome change. The old one was comprised of 6 rigid “discussions,” which you recited to investigators, with specific scripture references planted throughout the sequence. The terrible irony was that these were last thing you would every call a discussion…in fact even the church vernacular adopted the verbs “teach” a discussion (for missionaries), or “hear”/”take” the discussions for investigators, since there really was no “discussing” going on at all. “Preach My Gospel” got back down to earth, and simply called them “lessons.”

The original discussions were written in first person, much like a movie script. There were notes by the text with “stage directions” of sorts, prompting the Missionary to share a scripture or ask a question. The new lessons are not scripts, but rather a summaries of the doctrines, principles and teachings that are to be covered and taught to the investigator. The missionaries are specificially instructed to:

“Teach the message of the restored gospel in such a way as to allow the Spirit to direct both the missionaries and those being taught. It is essential to learn the concepts of the lessons, but these should not be taught by rote presentation. The missionary should feel free to use his own words as prompted by the Spirit. He should not give a memorized recitation, but speak from the heart in his own terms. He may depart from the order of the lessons, giving that which he is inspired to do, according to the interest and needs of the investigator.” (pp. 29-30)

This was huge for us missionaries. Having in many ways come on our missions expecting to simply receive instructions and obediently carry them out, we were now being given responsibilities to 1) learn and become well-versed in the subject matter we were teachings and 2) convey that information in a custom, genuine, and human way, not by simply reciting what we had read, but by mixing and matching ideas, concepts, and principles, to create an engaging and meaningful learning and spiritual experience for those we were teaching.

Each lesson, and each chapter for that matter, in “Preach My Gospel” is full of additional scripture references and other starting points for study. I could tell that collectively, as a mission, our study was become more meaningful and driven, and was more focused on the scriptures, but constantly with the human element in mind.

That right there is what I feel the single most important change was in the whole process: the human element. I feel that that will also have the most significant impact in the future wave of Church leaders.

Whereas before, the authorized agents of the church (missionaries) would present the message as almost a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, now “Preach My Gospel” emphasizes the need for these same authorized agents to customize and tailor their message in an effort to reach out in love and understanding, carefully considering the needs and circumstances of others. I wonder how this ideology will play out when these missionaries raised on “Preach My Gospel” become Bishops and Stake Presidents. My feeling is that it will prove to be very positive and uplifting for all involved.

There are many other elements of “Preach My Gospel” (besides the lesson plans) that bring similar positive changes. Some of these include:

I think the change in focus and tone found in “Preach My Gospel” is doing many positive things in the mission field now. I predict that the principles, elements, and emphases embodied in “Preach My Gospel” with have a sweeping influence on the future church. The only question then, how will this influence be manifest? If “Preach My Gospel” is in fact an accurate barometer, then what’s the forecast? Any thoughts?

Comments

comments

Comments 19

  1. It would be interesting to note how retention levels changes. I have been fascinated with retention since I read an online book called the Law of the Harvest. http://www.cumorah.com/lawoftheharvest.html. The authors laments the sales-oriented pitching that came to the missionary discussions in the 60’s, its corresponding rise in baptisms and deline in retention. Whereas in the pre McKay times, missionary work wasn’t as emphasized, baptisms weren’t nearly the number they are now, retention was somewhere in the 70% range. Now it’s 40% in the US, 10% everywhere else. The author applauds the new efforts with Preach My Gospel, and I wonder if it will have:

    1) A slow and steady change in retention, and
    2) A decline in inactivity rates due to sin or Priesthood rigidity

    The main element of the Law of the Harvest was to point out that missionary work used to be a long, hard, slog. People would often beg for baptism in the first 100 years of the Church, and the missionaries would send them away to carefully consider, study, and pray about it before ultimately joining. Contrast that with the two-week turnaround that we always hear about. You see someone who quits smoking, fornication, drinking coffee and alcohol, pays tithing, attends church for two weeks, and viola! they are a member in good standing. Witness the aforementioned attrition rates. In contrast, see an active temple endowed member have the same struggles with one of the check-card temple recommend questions, and its a year or two before they can be back at status quo with the Priesthood leadership. They are told to “scrub their hearts clean.” What’s the difference? The member had made covenants, the non-member had not. How does that change the difficulty of keeping commandments? We all have the same temptations. In the early days of the church, and hopefully in the future with the efforts of Preach my Gospel, perhaps we’ll see judgments that are person-specific and not blanket and rote edicts that do not reflect individual circumstances.

  2. I too have been impressed with the approach taken in Preach My Gospel–I was in the MTC when the purple Missionary Guide came out (my wife calls it “The Purple Book from Hell”) with its dialogues and communication techniques which always seemed a bit manipulative and insincere. The new one is much more open-ended and spirit-oriented. It also preserves the agency of the contact in making him or her much more an agent in the conversion process. It wasn’t really so long ago that much of the responsibility for the results of conversion was placed on the missionary and his or her expertise in “selling” the gospel. Hopefully this will finally put an end to the emphasis on quantity at the expense of quality as well as the baseball/dodgeball/beachball baptisms that we have seen in the past.

  3. 1 and most importantly) You will have missionaries who have internalized the doctrine and principles…The most important part of going on a mission and future leadership.

    2) Teaches responsibility of self…..I always hated having such a rigid canon on the mission. The best time of my mission was when “Preach My Gospel” came out…and my mission president also let us decide which “good books” to read.

    3) In terms of forecast…I dont know if it will make much difference to the missionaries that I had known on my mission that were passionate. The apathetic missionaries who couldnt be bothered to learn the discussions will really have to step it up I think.

    Thanks for the post KC….what years were you out on your mission and where did you serve?

  4. Post
    Author
  5. Interesting points about Preach my Gospel. Preach my Gospel came out just as my son was leaving on a mission, so he was introduced to it in the MTC. He loved it, and I think for him, it made a big difference. He would have had a tough time with pre-planned discussions. In my ward, Preach my Gospel is being used as the manual for Young Men, and also as a guide for home teaching lessons.

  6. You make me wish I had served my mission a few years later. Our mission president set up an award system for those who could memorize all six discussions in German. It took an awfully long time to do, and while it helped my language skills somewhat, I probably could have found better use for the study time. I know someone who worked on Preach My Gospel so I will have to ask him more about it now that my curiosity is piqued.

  7. I see that you have quoted David Stewart who makes a few good general points about retention on his site. I too waded through his book. I think you have distilled a couple of cogent points on retention. Your post makes a valuable contribution in that you are correct to point to the influence Preach My Gospel will have as a missionary program. I knew Richard Lloyd Anderson who came up with the Anderson Plan that was used for many years. I served under Russell Ballard when we used the Rainbow Discussions that many current leaders came up under. You are correct to point out that it will be influential in shaping the lives of the missionaries who use it. The part about the Spirit though has been in play in missionary work throughout the last thirty years in one form or another. Nice contribution to the body of knowledge on missionary programs.

  8. Moving away from memorizing “on message” lines is a big first step in a much-needed retooling.

    I haven’t encountered it yet. The place I meet LDS missionaries is at the Mormon historic sites operated by the LDS church. If anything in my observation, the level of wrote memorization at the sites seems to have gotten worse in the past decade. I was visiting LDS Kirtland and memorized talk designed to recall or evoke spiritual experiences was injected into every room of every building. There was a scripture to read and a spiritual lesson to take away from Newell K. Whitney’s wood shed — but, of course, the fact that the whole thing was scripted and memorized meant that the experience lacked authenticity.

  9. Post
    Author

    John H., thats a good point. I think the strategies of Preach My Gospel will have a much harder time becoming incorporated into the tactics of the “tour-guide” missionaries. Come to think of it, my experiences in Temple Square, Palmyra, and the Washington D.C. visitors centers involved obviously canned dialog as we went from room to room. Sadly, I think a tour guide will always be a tour guide.

    However, I do believe that the PMG effect is more present in the run-of-the-mill missionaries, who go out and meet people, try to connect to them, reach out to them, and share the gospel with them. The tour guides don’t get the benefits of really meeting the people, understanding their needs, and connecting with them personally–all of which are crucial elements to successfully pulling of the kinds of things that PMG advocates.

  10. Over the past year or so, my wife and I have read through parts of Preach My Gospel for FHE. I too wish that I had served a few years later.

    One would think that missionary work were this alchemy, if you read the old Missionary Guide or heard missionaries of my generation (late 90s-early 00s) speak. You put complete obedience and hard work into the pot and poof! You have your golden investigator.

    Besides being simplistic, that mind-set also fosters a solipsism or self-focus that I really don’t think is in harmony with the Gospel. Preach My Gospel however, seems to do the opposite: it acknowledges that “success” isn’t guaranteed; it acknowledges that missionary work involves the agency of other people; it prompts the missionary to ask, “how can I bless the lives of others?” rather than, “how can I teach more/baptize more people?” A subtle difference, but an important one, nonetheless.

    I must admit that I envy missionaries who had the blessing of using Preach My Gospel. I think KC is right that it will have far-reaching consequences on those who used it, and also on those who were taught by it.

  11. Amen! This post is right on the money.

    Elder Scott in April 05 GC said “Probably the greatest benefit of Preach My Gospel will be seen in the lives of returned missionaries, who will be stronger parents, more able Church leaders, and better professionals because of the growth that comes from understanding and applying its inspired content.” My forecast is that a whole generation of leaders who have applied the gospel and ditched the memorization route, and have been taught to develop Christlike attributes, thinking about how they can improve and help others come to Jesus, means our future leaders will be more empathetic, more loving and frankly more effective instruments because they’ve learned how to follow the Spirit in a different way. I served with Preach My Gospel and it rocked my socks off. I think about it all the time and it has really affected me in the last year or two as an RS teacher, Sunday School teacher and even as a visiting teacher.

    A brief tangent about incorporating Preach My Gospel into “tour guide” missions: My mission included the historical sites in Palmyra and Preach My Gospel principles were emphasized like crazy. I guess a lot has changed in the last few years. We were specifically asked NOT to memorize anything (except scriptures and of course the first vision) and the goal was to insert Preach My Gospel principles into “tours” whenever possible. We were trained on a lot of the facts (mostly just to answer random questions as they came up) and we did have suggested bulletpoints to cover, but only VERY basic ones (e.g., at the Joseph Smith Farm, talk about (1) Joseph’s family was prepared (2) Study led him to pray/God answers prayers (3) The First Vision (4) Receiving the plates (5) The Book of Mormon testifies of Jesus Christ).

    I was encouraged to carry my scriptures with me on tours and share whatever scriptures I wanted to along the way, ask the visitors any questions I felt prompted to, bring up any gospel principle, etc., tailored to the needs of the person or family, take as much or as little time as they had, etc. So, sometimes I’d end up talking to a family with 6 kids about family home evening and how the gospel blesses families (a principle from lesson 1 of Preach My Gospel) and other times I’d spend an hour with a less-active alcoholic talking about the lost pages and how repentance is possible and God still loves us when we mess up. Those that have had “canned” experiences at different sites in the past, I hope you’ll notice changes on your next visit, because rote memorization is being de-emphasized everywhere.

  12. Post
    Author

    Bonz, thanks for the great insight. I didn’t realize that emphasis had changed so greatly in the historic site missions also. I can only see good coming of this.

  13. Were missionaries really simply reciting the discussions previously? We taught 20-30 discussions a week in my mission and in my experience they were never recitations. The missionaries used the discussions as a foundation and taught the principles in them but recitation useless unless you were just learning the language and needed it as a crutch.

    Perhaps memorization and recitation played a bigger role in which teaching moments were few and far between. It is probably hard to become proficient at the discussions if you rarely taught a 4th, 5th, or 6th and perhaps taught one 1st discussion a week.

  14. Post
    Author

    I think more so than recitations, the problem was the paradigm of discussion/principle. I do recall that each discussion comprised of 6 or 7 “principles” or sub-topics. This essentially turned the gospel into 1.1, 3.2, 4.5-6, etc… There was also a strong emphasis on starting at 1.1, and sequentially progressing through the discussion. In meetings with the Ward Mission Leader, he would ask what discussion is an investigator on, and a higher number somehow gave the illusioned impression of a more progressed investigator, and if there were at level 6.6, then fill the tank, they’re getting baptized!

    This of course was a grossly inaccurate and deeply flawed method for accounting for spiritual progress. The new lessons, while still structured, did not emphasize a numeric sequence, and brought in the idea of “teaching someone the Gospel” rather than “teaching someone the Discussions.”

    So, while in the old system (particularly among the more experienced missionaries) there was admittedly very little actual recitation, there was a robotic and systematic approach to dispensing the gospel message. No one would have dared teach 4.1 unless 3.7 was successfully delivered first. The example of recitation I think illustrates the overall issue of the rigidity of the system that often led to overlooking the types of things that the investigator is most concerned with, and that would be most beneficial to address.

  15. arJ, yes, from my observation nearly everyone in my mission was more or less reciting the 6 discussions from memory when teaching investigators. This was probably just due to institutional inertia rather than to any deficit on the part of the missionaries but it surely must have seemed unnatural to the people who invited us into their homes. Missionaries who had the discussions memorized word-for-word could pull it off as a real discussion because they could rehearse the text of the discussion and ask real questions of the investigator and have a real discussion (this presumed spoken fluency in the language which wasn’t a priority for many American 19 year olds); missionaries who did not have the discussions memorized or who had very poor language skills literally read the lessons out loud from the little booklets to the investigators. I suppose it must have occured to some of the missionaries who could speak the language and had the discussions memorized word for word to simply drop the word for word approach and paraphrase the information in the discussions but I doubt that many did so. I think we were very conscious of conveying the exact message in the particular discussion like somehow if a sentence or paragraph were missed the investigator would not have been taught enough or adequately for baptism. Of course that’s silly but missionaries are young and most do need guidance in such things. So it sounds like the concept behind Preach My Gospel is positive and helpful although I am still in the air about the booklet itself. I think it probably does but I haven’t looked at it in tons of detail although I was pleasantly surprised when we would occasionally open it for a lesson when I was young men’s president.

  16. In my mission (Washington Tacoma 97-99) we were basically doing some of the things missionaries are now….I really wish we had “Preach My Gospel”.

    After leaving the MTC I never used the “Purple Dragon”, as we called it, once. And while we memorized the discussions, we were asked to do so for content…our MP wanted us to deliver the message in our own words and style.

    Did any of you have a similar experience in the late 90s or early 00s? I think we thought it was fairly common in some missions that missionaries weren’t delivering the lessons word for word anymore but to learn the content and put it in your own words. I also remember hearing rumors even then that they were working on some type of new missionary lesson program in salt lake to this effect…sound familiar to anyone else?

  17. Pingback: Rebranding the church (a charitable view) « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  18. Sorry to post on such an old post.  I ran into it and had to comment on the following statement.


    The old one was comprised of 6 rigid “discussions,” which you recited to investigators, with specific scripture references planted throughout the sequence.”
    Really, it depended on the Mission President whether or not the old 6 discussions were rigid.  We were taught in the MTC and through the study guide to use the discussions as a guide – not reciting them word for word.  There were several scripture references that were listed for missionaries to use as they wanted or were directed by the spirit to use.  This was the intent of the 6 discussions.  Some mission presidents, frankly, used them wrong in requiring missionaries to memorize them and recite word for word.  I had two mission presidents and neither had us memorize them.  They had us use them as outlines to have an orderly discussion with principle building upon principle.  The scripture references were specific, of course, because would vague have been better?

    I think the 6 discussions were well put together and if used right would have accomplished much.  It is when mission presidents chose to make them like the ones they used “in the old days” is when they did not work so well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *