This interview was conducted by Larry Hiller and Adam C. Olson.
How missionaries are learning to teach more effectively than ever—and how we can help: A conversation with two members of the Missionary Executive Council—Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Charles Didier of the Presidency of the Seventy.
There have been some changes in the way missionaries teach investigators. Could you give an overview of those changes?
Richard G. Scott and Charles Didier, “Teaching from the Heart,” Liahona, June 2004, 8
Elder Richard G. Scott: There has been a transition from presenting the gospel message by rote memorization to what has been defined as teaching by the Spirit. Missionaries are being taught to fill their minds and hearts with the basic doctrine, with supporting scriptures, and with relevant experiences from their own lives. Those become resource material upon which they can call as they identify through the Spirit the need of a particular investigator family or individual.
As missionaries have begun to make these adjustments in their teaching, it is thrilling to see how they develop and how they study personally and as companionships. Now their message is more understandable to those who are honest in heart and want to understand.
Have there been changes in the lessons themselves?
Elder Scott: There has been some change in the content of the first discussion. It makes the story of Joseph Smith more understandable in the context of how Father in Heaven reveals truth to His children through prophets.
Elder Charles Didier: We help people understand that Joseph Smith is not an anomaly in the history of mankind. The Lord has repeatedly taught the plan of salvation through prophets. And mankind has also consistently rejected the prophets or gone astray from the message. That’s why you have restorations. Joseph Smith was a foreordained prophet who restored—this time for the last time—the fulness of the gospel so that we might know how to return to the presence of our Heavenly Father.
Have there been any other changes in how the gospel is taught by the missionaries?
Elder Didier: The curriculum has not changed. The missionaries still have the same six discussions, which present the gospel in a logical progression. We ask them to teach the doctrine that is found in the discussions. They start the first discussion by teaching the message of the Restoration. But when prompted by the Spirit, they can teach the third discussion before the second or the fourth before the third. That doesn’t matter, as long as they teach all the doctrine.
Every investigator is different. So the missionaries prepare outlines to plan how they are going to teach an investigator according to his or her needs. The outline helps the missionaries conceive the presentation in their own minds. If the presentation is well conceived, it is clear, and then the words will come easily as missionaries teach by the Spirit.
Elder Scott: When missionaries do this consistently over a period of time, not only are they going to be more effective missionaries, but they will eventually be better husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, because the reality of the magnificent message becomes a part of their very being.
What are the implications of all this for teaching and training missionaries?
Elder Scott: The best place for that training to occur is in the home. If I were a parent today with children in my home, I’d make sure they understood the pattern that started with Adam, where a prophet is called of the Lord, teaching the fulness of the gospel with authority. I’d teach them about the cycle of apostasy and of restoration of truth that has continued until the final dispensation. I’d make sure they understood what happened through the Prophet Joseph Smith, how it was so very important that the Father and the Son personally came and taught Joseph Smith, and how he was called to be the prophet of the Restoration.
That, taught in the home and understood, with ancillary help from priesthood and auxiliary classes and from seminary and institute, will prepare a missionary like nothing else. You don’t have to have special courses as long as they understand the importance of living the principles and teaching them. Missionaries who have paid tithing, for example, can bear witness of the promised blessings that the Lord gives for obedience. A missionary who has lived a righteous life can bear powerful witness because he has had spiritual experiences in his life. Such experiences are conditioned upon worthiness and faith in the Savior.
How has the formal training of missionaries changed?
Elder Didier: In the Missionary Training Centers, missionaries called to teach in their own language are being taught how to prepare a discussion outline, how to start teaching with their own words, and how to teach by the Spirit. For those who have been called to teach in a foreign language, there’s a slightly different approach, because if you learn a foreign language you need to memorize certain things. You need the vocabulary, you need to memorize the grammar rules, and so on. They start to practice the language so that when they arrive in the field they’ll be ready, in addition to that, to teach a discussion in their own words. Learning to teach the gospel in a new language does take more time.
Elder Scott: In some ways it is a fundamental shift from what was being done before. The missionaries are learning the content of the discussions in their native language while they are learning to teach in an acquired language. That means that when they get to the mission field, a companion is much more important to help them in their continued study of a language and to help them learn to teach the message they have learned.
As they prepare themselves, what should potential missionaries focus on being or becoming?
Elder Scott: Worthy—so that the Spirit can guide them. And they will have learned the basic message of the Restoration. They will have read the Book of Mormon to gain a witness of Jesus Christ and His Atonement and how significant He is in the life of each individual. And to the degree that they learn those things, they’re going to be further advanced than those who come to the Missionary Training Center just beginning to learn.
In the Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting held on 11 January 2003, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “We simply cannot permit those who have not qualified themselves as to worthiness to go into the world to speak the glad tidings of the gospel.” Specifically, what do prospective missionaries need to know about worthiness to be prepared to serve?
Elder Scott: They need to stay as far away from the boundaries of sin as they can. That gives them the greatest happiness as they’re preparing. It assures them the greatest capacity to be led by the Spirit and to be the examples they need to be in the mission field.
Almost any young person can recite the “Rs” of repentance or some other way of describing it. What they really need to do, though, is understand the gravity with which the Lord views some transgressions and not commit them.
Elder Didier: I wish we could teach the youth how to avoid the need for major repentance. Prevention is better than redemption. We need to teach them to have a spirit of love for the Lord and His commandments. If they have that, we don’t need to establish barriers where we tell them, “If you go over that, you cannot serve.”
We’ve talked about what parents can do in the home to prepare our young men for missions—especially the need to teach fundamentals. Do you have additional suggestions?
Elder Didier: The teen years are a time when parental influence begins to diminish and peers and trusted adults grow in influence. That’s why participation in the Aaronic Priesthood program is so important. Youth leaders can supplement the teachings and examples of parents, and the quorum can provide a positive peer influence.
Elder Scott: Another wonderful preparation is for young men approaching missionary age to go out and have experiences with missionaries. They see how missionaries teach and testify. In particular, if they begin to do some testifying or teaching of truth, either with missionaries or in their own quorum meetings—more than standing in a testimony meeting and bearing that kind of testimony, but teaching gospel truths—they will feel the guidance of the Spirit.
Elder Didier: There are so many different ways to do missionary work. Write a letter; share a Church video; give pass-along cards to friends. Youth can fellowship or help in the activation process. If the youth can start participating in missionary work now, then when they go into the mission field they will have so much the advantage because they have done it before.
What results have you seen from the changes in how missionaries teach?
Elder Scott: The world is getting worse, but our capacity to teach the gospel is improving. President Hinckley has been so personally dedicated to increasing the number of truly converted individuals and retaining them. It’s exciting to see the missionaries catch that vision. We have missionaries for whom the gospel message is such a part of their very beings that at a corner bus stop they can give a one-and-a-half-minute overview, a five-minute overview. They are much better equipped to begin with individuals at whatever level they are on and to introduce them to the magnificent message of the Restoration. Communicating truth is facilitated when there isn’t a memorized dialogue.
Now, what about all of us ordinary members? How do we participate in the missionary effort?
Elder Didier: Everyone can do something. We don’t have to be involved in teaching per se. If we have the desire and we pray about it, we can receive inspiration on how to help prepare a child for a mission or how to share the Book of Mormon with a neighbor. We can share Church videos. Let’s each find the best way according to our best possibilities.
Elder Scott: Members can participate in the conversion process by finding investigators, by being there as friends during the conversion process, and by bearing testimony at critical points. But after baptism, converts need strength to move from the world they’ve been in into a new environment. And that’s probably where members can most easily serve in missionary work. It’s not difficult for members who understand what the need is and who seek guidance from the Lord to respond to it, whether it’s inviting new members to their home or sitting next to them in sacrament meeting or helping them better understand who we are and how we live.
Elder Didier: I’m here today first of all because a missionary became my friend. But missionaries were replaced all the time. There comes a time when you would like to have a stable friend, and I had to look within the Church.
Elder Scott: We could change our mindsets from “missionary work is something I have to do” to “missionary work is something I get to do.” Once you begin, it’s exciting. It’s stimulating. It’s not a burden; it’s a thrilling experience.
“Missionary work is the lifeblood of the Church. It is the principal means by which it grows. It is because of this service that the Church has reached its present size in 172 years.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, 11 Jan. 2003, 17.
“Missionary work is more than two young men giving a memorized presentation to investigators. It is more than baptizing. It is a fourfold endeavor that concerns the missionaries, yes, and also ward members, bishops, the ward mission leader, and the entire Church organization. This fourfold effort includes (1) finding investigators, (2) teaching by the Spirit, (3) baptizing worthy converts, and (4) strengthening new and less-active members.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, 11 Jan. 2003, 18.
An Attitude of Neighborliness
“Let us cultivate within our people a constant awareness of opportunities to reach out to others. Let neighborliness, an outreach with love toward others, become the attitude of our people wherever they are across the entire world.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, 11 Jan. 2003, 19.
A Call to Those Who Are Worthy
“Missionary work is not a rite of passage in the Church. It is a call extended by the President of the Church to those who are worthy and able to accomplish it. … It demands that those who serve as missionaries be worthy in every respect. … I am confident that raising the bar on eligibility will cause our young people, particularly our young men, to practice self-discipline, to live above the low standards of the world, to avoid transgression and take the high road in all their activities.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, 11 Jan. 2003, 17.