The Ammon Approach: Redefining Missionary Work

AndrewLDS, missionary, missions, Mormon, mormon, Mormons 49 Comments

MissionariesWhen it comes to Church growth, the Church sets high expectations for itself. Likening the Church to that scriptural stone that rolls forth to fill the whole earth, Church members may expect to see exponential Church growth, with significant year-over-year gains in the number of convert baptisms. However, over the past several years, the number of annual convert baptisms has actually dipped and plateaued somewhat, corresponding in part with a decrease in the number of full-time missionaries. Moreover, retention of new converts remains a challenge, as we are often reminded by Church leaders. In this situation, it is natural for Mormons to consider possible ways to improve the Church’s missionary program to increase the number of genuine converts to the Church.

The mission in which my stake is located is currently testing a pilot program that hearkens back to a familiar Book of Mormon story about a man named Ammon who wanted to build a bridge between two long estranged peoples, one of which was completely unfamiliar with the Gospel. Setting aside the direct proselytizing approach to missionary work, Ammon embarked on a mission of simple Christian service that inspired thousands who were previously considered the most unlikely potential converts to join the Church. If every stake and ward in the Church were to adopt Ammon’s approach to missionary work by conducting a wide-spread campaign of consistent, meaningful, no-strings-attached community service, could the Church experience the same miraculous growth that occurred in Ammon’s day?

Let me begin by saying that I strongly dislike the term “missionary work” because of the limitations and connotations it implies. To me, the term “missionary work” misleadingly suggests it is an activity relegated to full-time missionaries, and calling it “work” makes it sound like a chore that one must set aside time to perform out of a sense of duty, separate and apart from one’s natural daily routine. And I think each of us has probably seen what missionary work looks like when motivated by a sense of compulsion to fulfill a duty. It feels forced, unnatural, calculated, and tainted with unspoken ulterior motives. Worst of all, duty-based missionary work lacks the power and influence of genuine love, which ought to be the motivation behind all our actions. Accordingly, I generally try to avoid the term “missionary work” and prefer using other terms like “sharing the Gospel.”

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter what we call missionary work. What really matters is how we do missionary work. And unless and until we do it the right way, our message will ring hollow to others. So, what is the right way to do missionary work?

Paradoxically, the right way to do missionary work may be to forget about our doing missionary work altogether, much like we are told we need to lose our life to find it. As Elder Ballard has pointed out, the best way for Church members to do missionary work is to simply live the Gospel more completely and genuinely. If we truly live the Gospel, we won’t need to go hunting for converts because they will be drawn to us naturally:

Our homes can be gospel-sharing homes as people we know and love come into our homes and experience the gospel firsthand in both word and action. We can share the gospel without holding a formal discussion. Our families can be our lesson, and the spirit that emanates from our homes can be our message. . . .

Creating a gospel-sharing home does not mean that we are going to have to dedicate large amounts of time to meeting and cultivating friends with whom to share the gospel. These friends will come naturally into our lives . . . . (M. Russell Ballard, “Creating a Gospel-Sharing Home,” Ensign, May 2006, 84–87.)

Moreover, Elder Ballard points out that creating more open, Gospel-centered homes is something we should do simply because it is a good thing to do, and regardless of whether it draws others into the Church:

A gospel-sharing home is not defined by whether or not people join the Church as a result of our contact with them. . . . At the very least, we have a rewarding relationship with someone from another faith, and we can continue to enjoy their friendship. (Id.)

As members of the Church, there are countless ways we can improve our efforts to reach out and serve the communities in which we live, and I am excited to be participating in a new program that provides Church members an additional opportunity to do just that. The mission in which my stake is located is currently testing a pilot program of providing English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that are open to the public, free of charge, and without any religious conditions. Full-time missionaries and local members teach a practical language curriculum that focuses on helping immigrants navigate their way through common experiences: buying food and clothing, renting housing, going to the doctor, etc.

I am currently teaching one of these ESL classes at my church building every Friday night to a wonderful group of immigrants, most of whom are Iranians. They are kind and intelligent people with impressive backgrounds; one is a former doctor, another an engineer, another an accountant. They are a segment of my local community that, were it not for this ESL program, I probably would not have had an opportunity to ever meet or interact with. And were it not for this ESL program, many of these immigrants probably would never have heard of Mormons, much less had any reason to enter a Mormon church building. In a few short weeks, we have begun building bridges of understanding, both literally and figuratively, between immigrants and native members of our community, and between those of other faiths and our own.

Although we haven’t attempted to impose our beliefs on any of these ESL class members, some of them have naturally become curious about who we are and what motivates us to help them. For example, five of our ESL class members (four Iranians and one Russian), showed up at our Sunday Church meetings just a few weeks into the ESL program. One such member of the class, an Iranian who is now taking the missionary discussions, showed up at our ESL class the other night and, without prompting, expressed his newfound faith. “I love Jesus,” he said, as he proudly displayed a crucifix necklace and ring he had recently purchased.

To me, this new ESL program is a welcome outward extension of the generous donations of time, talents, and energy that Mormons are so good at giving each other. We Mormons have a wonderful volunteer spirit, and an admirable organizational system. However, all too often, our volunteerism and organizational efforts at the local level are directed inward. Although we see admirable exceptions to this general rule when natural disasters strike, after the rubble has been cleared, too often we return to focusing our regular service efforts on our fellow Mormons.

I have long been feeling the need to serve those outside my faith by doing something more than paying taxes and marking the “Humanitarian Aid” check box when making a monetary contribution to the Church. It is always good to give money to a good cause, but there is something about providing community service personally that truly nourishes the soul. So it is my hope that this new ESL program is just one of many forthcoming efforts by the Church and its membership to reach out and serve our local communities in significant and sustained ways.

In closing, I look forward to a day when the word “Mormons” readily comes to mind whenever anyone in the world is asked: “Who feeds the hungry? Who shelters the homeless? Who clothes the naked? Who helps cure the sick? Who visits the imprisoned?” Hopefully, one day people in every community where Mormons are found will answer those questions in a way similar to a gentleman I once heard giving thanks after his community had been devastated by a hurricane:

I’d like to thank two churches in particular for all their efforts in helping clean up and rebuild our community.

One of those churches is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And the other is the Mormons.

So, what are your thoughts about this topic? I’d love to get your views on any or all of the following questions:

1. If every able stake and ward in the Church were to implement a Church-led “Ammon approach” of continual, meaningful community service, do you think the number of genuine converts to the Church would naturally increase, or would it just draw limited resources away from other efforts that bring converts into the Church and reduce convert baptisms?

2. Considering that nothing is currently preventing individual Church members from volunteering to serve in their communities, is there really a need for the Church to help organize and staff such community service efforts, or is community service something that Church members can do (and are already doing) on their own in sufficient numbers?

3. Considering that there are already numerous government agencies and private charitable organizations that address humanitarian problems, is it more appropriate for the Church to focus on those activities that only the Church is qualified and capable of doing, i.e., serving its members spiritually and spreading its Gospel message?

4. Considering how much time Mormons already dedicate to Church service, do Church members even have the time or resources to add regular community service to their already busy schedules? In other words, is a Church-led community service program something that would overburden Church members, or would it give them the spiritual nourishment they are seeking?

5. Is a Church-led program of continual, meaningful community service the elusive answer to the persistent question of how to turn every Church member into a “member missionary”?

Comments 49

  1. Andrew, you are correct that LIVING the gospel will make the greatest difference in missionary work. Service is the key to cultivating that Spirit which will invite others to join us. I’ll try to address your five questions a little later.

  2. Honestly this is one of those areas where the Church is caught in some regards. We want to be known for doing good works without having to actually tell anyone about it. In other words, I think that there is some very real concern about being seen as hypocrites (even though that is not the correct term, necessarily) for wanting to tout our own good works.

    I think that what happens, all too often, is that Elder’s Quorum presidents are unwilling to take on ambitious projects that require long-term commitments or substantial effort, ditto for other quorums. I think that we should though. In my last ward we did an activity as a ward that involved something of this nature, and it was quite fun, went quickly, and was good for the community. Honestly I think that doing this on a regular basis would be a good idea.

    What I also think happens is this: individual members are known for helping to other individuals with whom they associate, but that doesn’t translage to community awareness. At the same time, the church itself is known to various governments as being quite helpful and for providing assistance, but this is rarely communicated to their people. Thus community awareness remains low. Occasionally stakes are capable of doing good things together, and this is great, but it also does little to help the outlying wards. It takes an unusually dedicated bishop, EQ president, RS president and HP group leader, all working together, in order for a ward to make this kind of leap. Yet I agree that this would do more for missionary work than almost anything else that could be done. Go out, serve the community, and when the opportunity to discuss why, we say, because we believe it is the right thing to do, why don’t you come and see what else we believe.

    Responses, I think, would be good.

    As a note, my current ward did do a rather large community service project for Martin Luther King Jr Day. Which I thought was rather unusual but I really liked the idea. Overall I thought it was a nice way to raise community awareness.

  3. 1. I actually do believe it would lead to a net gain in converts, even if the baptismal gross was down. Personally, and maybe heretically, I think commitment to Christ-like service is better for people than baptism.

    2. While there is nothing preventing them, the culture generally promotes an “I gave at the office (church)” attitude. Faithful LDS see temple work as greater charity work than helping homeless people get jobs, etc. Without the Church’s official stamp of approval on a community service activity, most people will not bother.

    3. Its a matter of priority, which is admittedly subjective. I think for the most part, the church does see it the way you described. There are already organizations handling some things, so they will concentrate on what no one else can, namely utilizing the keys of the priesthood.

    4. I think there is a certain chunk of “church service” that is a waste of time compared to more impact-ful service we could do in our communities. I also think the massive amount of time Mormons supposedly dedicate to the church is borne by a small percentage of active folks. The majority of people tend to look for the least work they can do. We even joke openly about avoiding phone calls from bishopric members for fear of getting a calling or giving a talk, along with other such scenarios. Bottom line on this one is that the church could pull it off, and it would be wonderful, but they would have to drop a lot of other programs to free people up for it.

    5. There are already opportunities here and there for people to engage in service, and when we do the blessings are abundant. There is an immediate reward for loving your fellow man. People are always glad they did it, after its done. Yet, somehow this does not last and there is always a huge struggle to find volunteers for service projects.

    How often are we motivated to do good by a desire to assuage guilt, rather than a desire to simply do some good? Probably a lot more than we want to admit. Dang. More guilt. Better find some service to cover that. 😉

  4. I like to think of the Church as a tool box: it’s full of programs, doctrines, healing, faith, and other ways that we can use to go about obeying Christ’s two great commandments to love God and His children. If we look at service from the viewpoint of our neighbor-to-be-served’s immediate need instead of from the viewpoint of first-doctrines-my-neighbor-needs-to-accept, the whole thing becomes natural and mutually edifying. Anyway, because all truth is part of one whole, any part can lead to the rest.
    BTW, the number of annual convert baptisms dropped for about six years while the number of full-time missionaries continued to increase. Convert baptisms stabilized and began to increase again concurrently with Pres. Hinckley’s statement in 10/2002 GenCon, “We must raise the bar on the worthiness and qualifications of those who go into the world as ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here are some numbers:
    (Year: # convert baptisms/Avg of begining and ending # of missionaries for year/Convert baptisms per missionary)
    1995: 304k/48k/6.3
    1996: 321k/51k/6.3
    1997: 318k/55k/5.8
    1998: 299k/57k/5.2
    1999: 306k/58k/5.3
    2000: 274k/60k/4.6
    2001: 293k/61k/4.8
    2002: 283k/61k/4.6 (SLC Olympics)
    2003: 243k/59k/4.1 (Raise the Bar)
    2004: 241k/54k/4.5
    2005: 243k/52k/4.7
    2006: 273k/53k/5.2

  5. Ben (#2), I think you’re on to something with your observation that our hesitance to “show off” our good works to others often prevents others from recognizing how much service Mormons are giving their communities on an individual basis. I know my wife volunteers all over the place, but I doubt anyone links her service to the Church.

    On the other hand, we are told to let our lights shine to the world, and that light is supposed to be our good works. So it seems to me there shouldn’t be a problem with making our service efforts more known to others. We just shouldn’t allow our service efforts to be motivated by the desire to be seen.

    Clay (#4),good points. About your comment that “commitment to Christ-like service is better for people than baptism,” it occurs to me that baptism is intended to be exactly that: a commitment to Christ-like service. Unfortunately, we tend to lose sight of that fact. We are all too often guilty of not heeding Nephi’s admonition in 2 Ne. 31 to not rest after being baptized. Baptism is supposed to be just a gate to a long road of Christian service. But too often, we’re all just hanging around just inside the gate, patting ourselves and each other on the back for being inside the gate, rather than walking the long road of Christian service.

  6. This reminds me of the previous incarnation of the Ammon project in the early 1990s. This was more missionary-focused program where certain rules and proselyting expectations were relaxed to encourage the missionaries to be more involved in the local community. I know that it was implemented in some of the Japan missions, but was stamped out again by the mid-1990s.

    The surviving program in Japan was the free ESL classes taught by the missionaries, which were open to community and held at the church. The program worked well in general, but the mission office would often ask us to interview each class member periodically and invite them to hear the discussions or come to church. This was sometimes awkward, but it seemed to be true that more converts came from the ESL classes than from any other single source.

  7. I decided to write a response to your dislike of the term missionary work on my blog. I researched what some of the General Authorities said about it and decided to entitle a blog putting the work back in to missionary work. I think you have some good ideas in this post above about serving others. Preach My Gospel: A guide to missionary service is a more politically correct term. Notice they stress service rather than work. I am still not sure we should totally take the work out of missionary service when on a full-time mission. I agree it is more useful in member missionary work to use member missionary service. I think the two terms are interchangeable. This looks like a useful and worthwhile program that you are piloting. Thank for sharing this post it is helpful and thoughtful.

  8. Andrew,

    I loved this post because service was the most meaningful part of my full-time mission. Working in soup kitchens and assisting folks with degenerative diseases in Red Cross homes was where I learned what little I have today of the qualities of love and compassion. I certainly didn’t learn those from tracting or street contacting in cold northern European cities.

    I also think it gets at one of the strengths of Mormonism which we should focus on, and which your quote from the hurricane survivor gets at: we are all about service. Or at least should be. My post on Mormonism as family alluded to this in the Daryl Chase story at the U of Arizona (LDS students being willing to build houses for migrant workers).

    To answer your questions:

    1. I think the number of converts in absolute numbers would increase in the U.S. if the Ammon program were to be implemented as a member-driven program. Missionary-driven programs will not have the permanence necessary to drive growth, as they are vulnerable to too many transfers of both missionaries and mission presidents.

    2. The Church asks so much of the active members I know in terms of callings, time in meetings, and financial sacrifice that I think it is necessary for the institution to refocus its priorities for most Church members to be able to do more, at least those of us who work for a living and are not retired or independently wealthy.

    3. There are so many unmet needs which each unit of the Church could meet that your question brings to mind James’ admonition of what pure religion is: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. How is this not spiritual?

    4. The Church should cut back on the core program as it now exists to accommodate service as you are describing. Right now service is shoehorned into youth programs on an occasional basis, competing for our time with home and visiting teaching, which in the main don’t do what they’re supposed to anyway. Not to mention the other callings we have. Oh yeah, and families. Some of us try to spend time with those people 🙂

    5. YES! You don’t know how many members, even those less active, would show up for meaningful service opportunities. So much of our current Church program is based on “talking” and some “reading” and alienates those who want to put their shoulder to the wheel.

  9. Lief (#6)

    I hadn’t heard of that ESL program you experienced in Japan. Was it missionary-run or member-run? I assume it was missionary-run since you were in Japan. It seems a missionary-provided English class offered in a non-English speaking country would be less successful than language classes offered by local church members to immigrants living in their communities. I’d be interested in hearing anything else you know about the Ammon project you experienced in the mid-90’s. For example, was it a project performed by missionaries alone, or by members as well? How many hours a week were dedicated to service as opposed to proselyting?

    Dr. B (#7), I’ll have to check out your post. Good to hear at least one person out there doesn’t think “work” is a four-letter word.

    John N. (#8), amen and amen, particularly about the need for community service programs needing to be performed by members, rather than just missionaries. And if we’re looking for places to cut back, I’ve attended a meeting or two in my day that seemed, well, to be an inefficient use of our time.

    I also agree about the joy of community service I experienced on my mission. When I was a missionary, the white handbook encouraged us to perform 4 hours of community service per week. I wonder what would happen if every member of every ward gave 2-3 hours once a month for a stake-wide community service project. Call it Service Saturday. And the whole family can come, so nobody has to leave their family at home to serve.

  10. Something I have noticed with regards to community service or giving to charities outside the LDS church and members, is that there seems to be an attitude of “I give to the church, and I serve in my church and that is enough”. I think if the church wanted it’s memebers to get involved outside the doors of thier ward, it would take a big effort by the church, both to change the mindset and allow the members the extra time outside of church callings.

  11. Well… Working 40 to 60 service hours a week was sometimes done in my mission. We referred to it as “Ammonizing” a district.

    It was most commonly used when opening or reopening an area, and might go on for a month or so.

    I think the concern I have is that while service is Christ-like and an effective means of teaching the gospel it does not encapsulate the whole of what it means to be Christ like.

    Christ both served and proclaimed the gospel.

    We need to do both.

    I think as a people we do need to reach more out towards other members of the community instead of focusing on church service only. However, too often these calls to do so contain an implied “deemphasis” on direct missionary action. What we really need is a change in ourselves, so that sharing the gospel- or providing service- are natural elements of our life, rather than program driven.

    As for the duplication of government services- considering President Ezra Taft Benson’s teachings on the moral difference and effectiveness between government programs and volunteer service, I think it should be clear that we should be actively competing with the government and try to provide people in need with alternatives to government aid.

  12. Andrew,

    The Ammon Project in Japan (I think it was tried experimentally in some other missions as well) was mostly a missionary-level activity, but certainly involved the members as well. Mainly, it gave the missionaries more freedom to pursue service projects (and perhaps even play sports with members of the community) on days other than P-Day. By the time I arrived there as a missionary, though, there had been a change away from the Ammon Project and we were asked never to speak of it, so I didn’t get to experience it firsthand.

    The ESL classes offered by missionaries in Japan are called “eikaiwa” and are an extremely popular mainstay of the missionary program there. I’m not sure what you mean by whether the program is more or less successful than U.S.-based ESL classes run by members, but we routinely had 10-12 people coming to the classes at the church and it was probably the #1 source of new converts.

    I understand that the point of your post is to introduce the new Ammon Project, but I wanted to make you aware of its predecessor, which was used experimentally in only some missions and had more of a missionary focus.

  13. Lief (#13), thanks for the additional info. I am curious about why the Ammon Project would have been discontinued in Japan, but it sounds like you might not have been informed about the reasons. I wonder if giving the full-time missionaries increased flexibility to do community service, rather than proseletyzing, was so appealing to the missionaries that they ended up neglecting their traditional proseletyzing efforts. To avoid any concerns about that, perhaps a member-based Ammon approach is what we need.

    Also, just to be clear, the pilot program I’m currently involved in is not called the “Ammon Approach” or “Ammon Project.” That’s just a title that came to mind . . . perhaps subliminally from the type of short-lived, missionary-based projects you heard about occurring in the 90’s.

  14. Cicero (#12), good observation about Christ doing both service and preaching. As I taught the New Testament to my Primary boys last year, I was struck by how much of the Four Gospels are about what Jesus DID for others (e.g., healings, miracles, etc.), as opposed to SAID to others. So I think you point is well-taken.

    I wonder, do you think the percentage of service we Church members provide our fellow man, versus the amount of talking or preaching we provide, is in roughly the same proportion as Christ’s example?

  15. n closing, I look forward to a day when the word “Mormons” readily comes to mind whenever anyone in the world is asked: “Who feeds the hungry? Who shelters the homeless? Who clothes the naked? Who helps cure the sick? Who visits the imprisoned?”

    Who is the real person behind the new Salvation Army Center 😉

    I’ve a good friend, an LDS widow a block away from me, who has been a pivotal force for good in Plano for a long time. She has done all of those things and more.

  16. “Christ both served and proclaimed the gospel.”

    From my understanding of Jesus’ ministry, He often served people without preaching to them. At least the preaching part was not recorded. It seemed that He took certain times to preach to groups, and other times He served and healed people without making demands of them. In cases where the recipient of His service actually asked what they should do next, He would of course tell them, but He seemed to do a lot of unconditional service.

  17. Andrew #15: “I wonder, do you think the percentage of service we Church members provide our fellow man, versus the amount of talking or preaching we provide, is in roughly the same proportion as Christ’s example?”

    An interesting question.

    The more I think about the more I’d have to say that the is yes- that it is similar in ratio. However, I can not say it is so in amounts.

    In other words, for those outside our faith, we both fail to serve them as much as we should, and we fail to preach to them as much as we should.

    For those inside our faith I think we do better on both counts.

    So I think the main obstacle is not so much a lack of love as it’s a feeling of fear. As Mormons we fear those who are not Mormons will not correctly understand our actions/words, so instead we do and say nothing.

    Of course… according to the Bible, fear and love are opposites. So maybe it is a lack of love after all.

  18. Stephen (#16), I know many of those folks as well; my wife is one of them. However, do people in the community know and recognize this good sister as being a Mormon? I’m getting at what Ben (#2) said about Mormons often serving in our communities, but in a more anonymous capacity, i.e., we just serve without announcing to the world we’re Mormons. The upside is that community service is performed. The downside is that the community fails to recognize how the individual provider of that service is a Mormon and was inspired by Mormonism to do what he/she does for the community.

    I think if our communities were more aware of the fact that those many Church members who silently and cheerfully perform volunteer service are Mormons, then perhaps there would be less of a public backlash against Mormons and Mormonism say, when they run for president.

    In other words, isn’t community service by Mormons, and recognized as such, the ultimate win-win? The community receives free service, and the Church’s light is able to shine, helping people recognize that Mormons are a people who truly love their neighbors and put that love into action.

  19. Heather B (#11), the apathy you’ve noticed might be a geographical or even just a ward/stake phenomenon. Members of my ward (in the Los Angeles area) contribute services every week to an inter-faith food pantry and the stake is currently orchestrating service to a downtown homeless shelter. We also always participate in an annual health fair, beach clean-ups and other community services as they arise, and I know of at least three people in my ward who have donated huge amounts of money for community causes, including paying for a pool for the local YMCA. I’m sure there are congregations out there less vigilant & giving — I mean, please, my ward’s still full of “personal-time-tightwads”– but that doesn’t mean that attitude’s the rule.

  20. I like this idea a great deal. Getting members off their duff for just about anything other than a ward activity with food is a challenge sometimes. Most wards it is a few who do all the work both in and out of the church.

    To me, this is a much more preferable method than getting pistol-whipped by the missionaries for referrals. After all, it is our faith in action.

  21. Andrew et al.:

    I am unimpressed with the PR approach to Christian service. It may be a pareto improvement (everyone’s better off), but I think it fails to meet Jesus’ mandates about “letting thy right hand know.”

    I think we should do more service (specifically, I should do more service). I don’t think we should worry about who knows about it.

  22. This is an interesting discussion, and certianly something worthwhile to ponder upon. I believe that the vast majority of time people KNOW who we are, and they are quietly watching us. As soon as we walk out the door, or blog online, send an email, open our mouth…somebody is watching and listening. We have the power to be a powerful influence for good or ill just by our daily choices. As for the “work” and “preaching” aspect, I think that the comments made here about how overwhelmed we already feel with work and family responsibilities is a viable concern and one that the Church leadership is greatly concerned about. “The greatest work we will ever do is within the walls of our own homes”.

    From my life experience, members of our church are eager and willing to serve when they have a conviction that the call comes from the Lord – whether through direct personal inspiration, or through an inspired decision of church leadership. When that calling comes, it seems that the time and means necessary are always provided by the Lord as we move forward with faith. If it is just another “program” for a new program’s sake, without inspiration for a specific area and congregation, then it will be a burden and unsuccessful.

    From my own missionary experiences, the happiest memories I have are the times that I have served others with no “ulterior motive” other than making a day better for another human being. All of my life I have had people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs placed in my path to befriend. I believe very strongly that the Lord does this for each of us as our personal calling. Our relationships are not by coinsidence, but by design. Being a friend to each of those individuals is an attainable goal. I take that stewardship very seriously, and I am thankful to the Lord for knowing my limits, and for giving me some challenges. When we have true friendships, our conversations naturally turn to our beliefs. Opportunities to bear simple testimony, or invite a friend to church events arise easily. The true joy as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ is to be able to have long-term friendships with many people who enrich our lives, and vise versa.

    It is not our responsibility to feel guiltly if someone does not accept the gospel message at this time. Guilt comes from the adversary to discourage us from doing what we are ALREADY successfully doing! None of us will ever convert anyone. No “program” will ever convert anyone. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. The Lord uses us to prepare other’s hearts to feel the Spirit. It happens quietly while we just go about living our lives to the best of our ability. President Hinckley’s advice was always wise and achieveable – “Stand a little bit taller. Be a little bit kinder…” When one person does this alone, we feel powerless. When 15 million people are giving just a little bit extra each day, the Lord can move mountains.

  23. David T. (#20), sounds like your stake is really on the ball with this concept already. From what you can tell, is your stake’s active participation in community service a source of converts to the church as well?

    Chris W. (#22), If you are unimpressed with what you call the “PR approach to Christian service” (which I don’t think is a fair characterization of my post if you read it carefully), what do you advocate? More of the same? I hear where you’re coming from about not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, but how do you reconcile that concept with another important concept gave us in that same Sermon on the Mount:

    Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

    Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

    Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16.)

    I’m not sure if Jesus’ admonition to “shine before men, that they may see your good works” is what you would call a “PR approach to Christian service”. But it seems to me that if Jesus admonished us to “shine before men, that they may see your good works,” then complying with that guidance through Church-organized community service shouldn’t be frowned upon or pooh-poohed.

    I wonder if the way to reconcile the left hand-right hand counsel and the let others see your good works counsel lies in the fact that the former counsel was given with respect to giving alms–i.e., monetary donations (perhaps the modern equivalent of fast offerings), which would not necessarily apply to community service, which seems to be exactly what Jesus was admonishing us to “shine before men, that they may see your good works.”

  24. Great post, Andrew. While not articulated quite this way, I have had similar thoughts.

    1. Absolutely. Rather than “drawing away” from precious resources, I think focusing on service is a smart way to reallocate those resources to where they could be better used. Too often poor beleagured ward missionaries are left trying to force themselves into the homes of the same inactive & part-members families month after month. It can be a demoralizing process for all involved. Serving, however, provides psychic satisfaction and allows us to actually extend ourselves in a more meaningful fashion.

    2. Since its not currently happening with any discernable frequency (at least as far as I can tell), I say the answer is yes, the Church should prompt ward members come up with their own ideas for community service. That nudge would likely be enough to get the ball rolling. Despite the best of intentions, we often get so caught up in our Church jobs that we lose sight of other, equally valuable service opportunities.

    3. No. While feeding our own sheep should definitely remain a priority, that doesn’t mean it should be done to the exclusion of helping others outside our faith. We are already involved in this effort to some degree — RS members prepare humanitarian kits for delivery in foriegn lands, etc. We need to see more of this focused on our own local friends and neighbors. My PBS station just rebroadcast “The Mormons.” Once again, I was nearly brought to tears by the words of a Hurrican Katrina survivor who spoke of the willingness of Mormons, all of whom were strangers to him, to get their hands dirty to help him out. He said, “they got into my heart. No Mormon will ever come to my door without being invited in.” Missionaries had been to his house plenty of times, and been rejected out of hand. It was not until they quit worrying about doing “Missionary Work,” and focused on performing Christlike service that he stopped to listen to their message.

    4. It certainly could. I remember being an EQP — the idea of leading or participating in an additional service effort would not have been a welcome idea. It’s all about a smart reallocation of resources. Find and qualified people outside the big leadership positions to organize and spearhead the effort. I truly believe that, even if there murmuring in some quarters at the outset, members would jump at the chance to get involved in such work. That’s where the richest blessings can be found. When’s the last time you heard someone get up and bear their testimony about the spirit they felt in a monthly PEC meeting?

    5. Your guess is as good as mine, but I think it’s worth a shot.

  25. One of the problems we run into is reflected in your first question. We are interested in Christ-like service, but especially if it gives us a chance to increase our membership. Would an emphasis on community service with-no-strings-attached (really no strings) not be good in and of itself? I think people in general are hesitant if we offer our service because we have such a reputation for trying to convert people. That is distancing. It reinforces their need to have their guard up.

    That being said, I think it would be fantastic for our church if we started receiving more callings that had to do with participating in the community (especially service oriented participation). I think this is something that Claudia Bushman talked about in the Mormon Stories podcast that John Dehlin did with her.

    I think if we did service just to do service, without looking for the, “would you like to hear more. . .” moment, we would be better situated to understand those around us, something we aren’t always the best at.

    Other service ideas I would love to see the church implement:

    Service-only missions for trained doctors/nurses/paramedics to places where they are needed. Think of how much good we could do for the world if all our doctors took out a year and did this!

    Service-only missions for a larger percentage of young people. Whether it’s building houses, digging wells, assisting those aforementioned medical experts, I echo some of the earlier comments about learning charity, love, and what it is to serve through this kind of service much more fully than I ever would knocking doors in France.

    Callings as representatives of the church in various civic areas, whether it’s to volunteer at soup kitchens, habitat for humanity, clothing drives, etc. These jobs are left to the auxilary leaders, when there should be a willing, capable person coordinating our efforts in order to maximize them.

    I guess I’m saying, the idea of us being a service oriented church doesn’t need to equate to more baptisms for it to be a great thing. I think we as members would be better believers in Christ for it, even if our numbers continued to decline.

  26. Andrew,

    I call it the PR approach because many in the thread (including you in comment 19) advocate either increasing service or increasing exposure of existing service in order to improve the church’s image.

    I agree with your interpretation of Matthew 5 – it’s hard to interpret it as anything else, I think. I think that delineating things into “giving alms” or “doing good works” is far too fine a line for completely opposing prescriptions. For me, I’m going to have to say that the scriptures are contradictory on this one (especially since the correct translation from Matthew 6:1 appears to be righteousness instead of almsgiving).

    You could make the argument that the difference is the intent: if you’re trying to glorify God, it’s cool. If you’re trying to glorify yourself, not so much. But I don’t think this fits with the PR approach, either (I know, you object to the term).

  27. Andrew (#24),

    I’m not aware of any conversions due to the stake’s community service, but who knows where they seeds blow? Conversion never seems to come up. Mostly it’s about living the religion and the pleasure we get to serve. I know it sounds hokey, but that’s pretty much it. Also making friends of our neighbors. Personally, I like the camaraderie.

  28. Folks, thought you might be interested in some interesting reading on the Church website about this topic. The LDS Newsroom featured an article on Nov. 9, 2007 entitled “Publicizing Good Works.” Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention:

    “While visiting Church headquarters in Salt Lake City a few months ago, a group of journalists from Haiti offered an interesting suggestion: They asked the Church to do a better job of publicizing its humanitarian efforts. . . .

    Two New Testament scriptures seem to be somewhat in conflict regarding the issue. In the Beatitudes, Jesus taught that we should do our “alms … in secret.” Yet in another Bible scripture, Jesus tells his followers to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

    Faced with the dilemma between publicizing the good works and results of its worldwide humanitarian efforts on the one hand and appearing self-promotional on the other, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attempts to find a balance and walk that fine line.”

    Based on that quote, Chris W., I’d say we were both on the right track.

    You folks might also be interested in a Church Humanitarian Service website I just found as well, located at,7133,1325-1,00.html

  29. Andrew (.32), this is exactly what I was trying to get at with my initial response. I think that the majority of members, however, tend to err on the side of ‘alms in secret’, hoping that the church will go for letting the light shine before men. Honestly, I think the other approach may be more workable–individual wards letting their light shine–by showing up as a group, with t-shirts and all that, and saying, “Hi, we’re the Mormons that live here in your community, and we’re here to help.” You then help and leave. When you show up the next time someone needs help, do the same thing, and it becomes a pattern of never asking for recognition, but always making sure that people KNOW who you are, then it becomes a matter of quiet shining, which I think is appropriate in the gospel context.

    I think making it clear that you are actually from the church and that you are organized together, and that you don’t mind working along side anyone else that is there, then you make inroads. It becomes clear that the gospel is doing something right. That’s what I think.

  30. I think that people and communities WANT to recognize people and organizations that do good things. It has multiple purposes. It encourages others to participate, it helps those being recognized to know that their work is appreciated and encourages them to do it more.

    There is a difference between identifying yourself and bragging about what you do. Any good done from that recognition is icing on the cake. It should not be sought out, but it is ok form folks to know if Mormons are helping them.

    I think the example sited above from “The Mormons” is the ideal outcome. Potential converts are self-selecting, not necessarily by any act of ours.

  31. I find that the older I get, the more I prefer letting individuals (or people close the problem) doing the work. It does take much for an organization with apparently large wealth to distribute same, but for people to get out and work with people in the community is soul changing.

    I think that self-selecting converts will allow the church to feel more latitude owning up to the controversial aspects of their religion – and save people like me the heart ache of feeling misled. People don’t mind ‘odd’, as long as they know that you are ‘good’.

  32. “I think that self-selecting converts will allow the church to feel more latitude owning up to the controversial aspects of their religion – and save people like me the heart ache of feeling misled.”

    Now that is an “odd” comment for this topic.

  33. Ben (33) and Jeff (34),

    Great points. I have to think God’s #1 priority is that the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the homeless be sheltered, etc., and that his concern over whether our motives are 100% pure is a secondary consideration at best. I feel sure he doesn’t want concerns over absolute purity of motive to hold us back from helping the less fortunate.

    So when Mormons respond negatively to the idea of getting out and serving in our communities to show that we love our neighbors, arguing that it’s an impure motive to want others to recognize our good works, I wonder whether that’s really just another excuse for inaction hiding behind a thin veil of “righteousness.”

  34. Andrew,

    So when is the first Mormon Matters service Saturday? Or we could make it a Bloggernacle project… 🙂

    We could all show up with T-Shirts and that…

  35. I served in the Japan, Fukuoka Mission under the “Ammon Project” 1994-1996. The Ammon Project in Japan failed, I think, for a few reasons:

    1. The mission president who researched and developed the concept at Church HQ (Cyril I.A. Figuerres) went home and his successor just didn’t have as much expertise in the program.

    2. The missionaries became rather undisciplined and started to take too many liberties with the flexibilities and increased leeway the program allowed them.

    3. When the Ammon Project was implemented, our mission president was reporting directly to Neal A. Maxwell. Asia Area President Sorenson was pretty-much cut out of the loop. As a result, he never really got on board. It was common knowledge in our mission that he intensely disliked the Ammon Project and wanted the whole program deep-sixed. Once Figuerres went home, my second MP had a very difficult time selling his ideas and projects with the Asia Area Presidency. We got almost zero support from Tokyo for what we were doing.

  36. Seth R (40), thanks for that information. Sounds like another case for member-based (rather than missionary-based) Ammon projects. The only support needed would be that of the local Stake Presidency and Bishoprics.

    When researching the Church’s humanitarian service website (see comment #32 above for the link), I saw that the Church has some excellent options and suggestions for wards and stakes that want to do humanitarian service. They can gather and create packets of humanitarian goods that can be dropped off at the nearest Bishop’s Storehouse for distribution. Sounds like a great option for any stakes and wards interested in humanitarian service projects.

  37. Andrew,
    Nice thoughts. They reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ comment in “Mere Christianity” about our motivations for action: “Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.” Once that first faint gleam of Heaven is inside us, Ammonizing becomes part of our nature.
    Thanks for your good postings.


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