Yesterday, my friends Cary and Meg invited me to join them at dinner with a couple of Mormon (LDS)* missionaries. They were both in their young twenties (and I suddenly felt old, at 26, for the first time). I thought I’d share my experiences, for two reasons: to help prepare Catholics for Mormons who come knocking, and to get us to think more seriously about our own call to Evangelize. Today, I wanted to talk about what to expect; tomorrow, I want to focus on how to respond to Mormon arguments, and which arguments you might consider making on your own.
I. How Mormon Evangelization Works
I think as Catholics, there’s a lot there that Mormons do in their missions which we could learn from, particularly about the role of laity in the New Evangelization. Here are the basics, both from what I’ve observed and what they described. Mormon missions last two years (for men) or eighteen months (for women), and they don’t get to choose where you’re sent. Most missionaries are young men, ages 19-21. Women may also be missionaries, but must be at least 21, and it’s much less common. Nearly every religiously-active young man becomes a missionary
: “approximately 30 percent of all 19-year-old Mormon men in the United States serve, while between 80 percent to 90 percent of those from active LDS families go. At BYU, for example, there are virtually no 19-year-old men.
” As the above stats show, the Mormon missionaries are some of the best Mormonism has to offer. There are a surprising number of nominal or religiously lax Mormons, but they’re not the ones likely to knock on your doors.
That said, the missionaries still have a lot to learn. And counter-intuitively, that’s why they’re there. As Catholics, our natural tendency would be to worry about sending half-prepared young people out to Evangelize, worried that they’re spread inaccurate information (and that does happen with the Mormon missionaries). But by being put in a position where they’re questioned and challenged about their faith, most of the half-prepared Mormons come back with a better grasp of what their church teaches.
That said, Mormons aren’t sent out completely unarmed. First, there’s the Missionary Training Center
in Utah, which prepares them for the challenges and realities of two years as a missionary, from language skills (if necessary) to learning the basics they’ll need. Second, missionaries are sent in two-man teams, with a clear senior and junior missionary. Last night was no different. One guy was meek and a little nervous seeming. He was from a small town in Idaho, and while he was on month five of his two year mission, he had only been in the D.C. area since last Thursday. The other guy was (I think) nearing the end of his two year stint, and was a charming and outgoing, talking during dinner about his desire to be a coach, and how much he enjoys surfing. When tough questions would come up, if the junior guy would start to fumble it, the senior guy would step in to help.
II. The Best Weapon in the Arsenal
What all three of us Catholics were surprised about was that they were in no hurry to discuss theology. After hearing their personal testimonies, it made sense. While the senior missionary had grown up Mormon, the junior had converted at eleven (from nothing in particular) after he began going to an LDS church with his grandma. That is, he wasn’t persuaded by some dogma or apologetic argument. He just found a loving community, and came to trust them, and what they taught.
I have no doubt that this is exactly how a lot of Mormon conversions happen. You have someone, maybe they go to Mass every Sunday and slip out after without talking to anyone. Despite going there for years, they’re relatively anonymous, and in any case, don’t see the other parishioners except on Sunday morning. Then a couple of Mormons meet with them, and simply act Christian towards them. They don’t persuade them (at first), they simply witness through their conduct. Perhaps they’ll do a few meals together and get to know one another, and one day, the missionaries will probably invite this person to their church, where the same thing happens: they find a welcoming community.
By the time hard questions of dogma come up, it’s a battle between logic and emotions, which looks like a battle between the head and the heart. Missionaries know to constantly emphasize two points: (1) just pray on it, and (2) look for the fruits. If those are the only two ways you’re seeking truth, it’s easy to come away with the impression that God must want you to be Mormon, and that the LDS church must be God’s Church, since it bears such good fruit.
III. Watch out for Proof-Texts
Finally, Mormons, like nearly everyone else, have a few proof-texts which they rely heavily upon. If you’re not familiar, a “proof-text” is a passage from Scripture used to prove a particular doctrine. The term is often negative, suggesting that the verse or passage is being taken out of context. For example, Evangelicals use 1 Timothy 2:5 as a proof text, to say that since Jesus is our “One Mediator,” they say there’s no room for a Catholic priesthood, or we shouldn’t pray to Saints, etc. Of course, in context, the verse doesn’t actually support these claims
. Mormonism is no different. One of the proof-texts is Amos 8:9-12, which they claim is an Old Testament prophesy of a Great Apostasy in which the Church would disappear from the Earth. Out of context, it sort of sounds like that:
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.
People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.”
But in context, we discover a couple things fatal to the Mormon interpretation:
- God’s talking about Israel in exile, how she will be shaken and humbled, but then restored (read Amos 9 for the context). That is, in context, this isn’t some passage about the New Testament Church falling away at all. It’s God punishing the Israelites, who have been chasing after pagan gods (Amos 8:14).
- He also promises that a remnant will remain (Amos 9:8). So regardless of whether it’s about Old Testament Israel or the New Testament Church, it’s not a total apostasy.
- The people is Amos 8 are viewed as thirsting after “the words of the LORD,” and unable to find them. But Mormonism believes that the Church, even after the alleged Apostasy, honored and faithfully preserved every Old and New Testament Book. As an offshoot of Protestantism, they use the King James Version (meaning that they reject the Deuterocanon), but my point is that they don’t actually think that the post-Apostolic Christians were left searching for the “the words of the LORD,” and unable to find it. They think we had it all along.
So the passage which might have seemed, on the surface, to be a really surefire proof of a Great Apostasy turns out to fall apart on closer inspection. Of course, unless you happen to know the Book of Amos really well (and I admittedly don’t), you’re not going to know the context of the passage. So what do you do? Write it down, and look it up. Look for Catholic Scriptural commentaries (particularly what the Church Fathers said on these passages), ask an apologist, and so on.
For example, you might not have thought about this angle, but Origen taught that the Amos 8 prophesy was brought to complete fulfillment with Christ. That interpretation makes some sense. After all, God promises, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping.” And what do we see at the death of Christ? Darkness over the land, starting at noon (Luke 23:44), and mourning and weeping (Luke 23:26-27) on Passover (John 18:39). This marks the transition point from when God’s revelation is revealed through Israel, and when His revelation is revealed through His Church. The first-century Jews would have expected that God would continue to provide new and ongoing revelation, more and more Books of the Old Testament. But He doesn’t. They suddenly find themselves in a famine, hungering for more Scripture, but not finding it. Is Origen’s interpretation right? Maybe. But it’s certainly a lot stronger than the idea that this was about the New Testament Church going into a total Apostasy.
So this, more or less, is what to expect if you get visited by Mormon missionaries. Expect a few convincing-sounding passages to support controversial doctrines, but as part of an overall outreach that focuses more on Goodness than Truth. Tomorrow, I’ll go into the details of the arguments Cary, Megan and I raised, to give you a sense for things you might want to say (or not say) if you find yourself in this position.
*I know that there’s some controversy over the preferred nomenclature (“LDS” v. “Mormon”). Since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints owns both LDS.org and Mormon.org, I don’t think either is viewed as particularly offensive.
UPDATE: Part II is now posted. Enjoy!