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As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are often asked questions about our faith. These questions are an important chance to share our beliefs but unfortunately we can sometimes squander these missionary opportunities. For example, when I ask my students to respond to the common question, “Are Mormons Christian?” they typically just stare at me and say “yes,” confused at why anyone would wonder about such a thing.
While that answer is accurate and correct, it is actually not a very good answer. It is not a very good answer because it doesn’t really address what people are often wondering. When we answer questions like this with a simple “yes” or “no” we miss an opportunity to really respond to the concern they have and get to the real heart of the issue.
Answer the Question They Should Have Asked
A classic story told by President Boyd K. Packer teaches us a lesson. When he and President Henry D. Moyle (then a counselor in the First Presidency) were traveling on a Church assignment they had a chance to be interviewed by a local radio station. The interviewer asked President Moyle many tough, even antagonistic questions, but he responded simply and persuasively to each one. Impressed by this, President Packer asked him about it after the interview and learned a great lesson. President Packer explained:
The interview lasted for over thirty minutes. Later, as we were returning to the car, I said, “President Moyle, that was marvelous, just marvelous. How did you do it?”
President Moyle said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “All those antagonistic questions he asked you; it was just marvelous the way you handled them. He was so antagonistic and bitter and yet the interview itself was successful.”
I have never forgotten his answer. He said, “… If he doesn’t ask the right questions, I give answers to questions he should have asked.”
That short statement from President Moyle held great wisdom, and on a number of occasions I have been rescued in difficult situations by referring back in my mind to his comment.” (President Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently, p.62-63)
What a great lesson for us to learn! When answering questions about our beliefs, we need to answer the question they should have asked. This does not mean that we sidestep the issue or avoid the question, it means the opposite. Answering the question they should have asked means instead of answering with a superficial “yes” or “no,” we try to discern the real question they have and answer it by explaining our basic beliefs on the matter. Not that we should overwhelm them with information they don’t want, but that we should sincerely and openly try to respond to their real question or concern.
For example, when we are asked if Mormons are Christian, many already know that our Church proclaims a belief in Christ and so a simple “yes” does not really respond to the concern. The reason they are asking the question is probably because they have heard that we are different. And so, the question they really want to know may be something more like this: Do you “Mormons” believe in Christ and if so, how are you different from other Christian churches?
That is a great question. That is the question they should have asked. And that is the question we need to answer to all the world.
So, how do we respond? I have noticed that many good members of the Church are sometimes intimidated by missionary opportunities because they simply don’t know what to say. There are so many things we believe and so many things we can share, that they just don’t know where to begin. As a missionary in the MTC, I learned a simple pattern that has helped me many times to respond to questions about our Church. It is this:
“The message of the Restoration centers in the idea that it is not common ground we seek in sharing the gospel. There is nothing common about our message. The way we answer questions about our faith ought to be by finding the quickest and most direct route to the Sacred Grove. That is our ground. It is sacred ground. It is where the heavens are opened and the God of heaven speaks. It is where testimonies are born and the greatest truths of heaven are unveiled. It is of this sacred ground that we say, here we stand” (Joseph F. McConkie, Here We Stand, 6; quoted in Mathews, Open Your Mouth, 7).
Answer Questions with the First Vision
The pattern this teaches us is simple. If you don’t know where to begin, start at the beginning by sharing the First Vision. By taking the quickest and most direct route to the Sacred Grove, we quickly introduce others to where all the beliefs of our Church first began to be revealed. By establishing early the principle of modern revelation we help others understand not only what we believe, but also why we believe it. Everything we believe grows out of modern revelation beginning with the First Vision.
Elder Dale G. Renlund has provided a beautiful example of this pattern in action when he shared the following experience:
My wife and I once visited a university in Athens, Greece. As part of that visit, we were taken on a sightseeing tour. While we were actually inside the Parthenon, our hostess, a graduate student in archaeology, said, “Next, I would like to take you to my favorite coffee house in all of Athens.”
My wife said that we would love to go with her, but she said, “Please don’t be offended if we don’t drink the coffee.”
Our hostess asked, “You don’t drink coffee?”
“No,” we answered.
“Why not?” she asked.
As I was formulating a response, my wife said, “The short answer is this: In 1820, a young man by the name of Joseph Smith went into a grove in upstate New York to pray. He wanted to know which church he should join. There he saw God, our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. Joseph was told he should join none of the churches. But he was told that through him, the Church Jesus had established while He was on the earth would be restored. The restoration would be through a process of revelation. And it is through revelation that we know that we shouldn’t drink coffee. My husband will now explain it to you further.”
How do we really explain ourselves? How do we explain anything that we do or believe if we do not go back to the Sacred Grove and establish the principle of revelation, that God reveals His will to prophets in this day and age? We obey because we have understood through the Holy Ghost something of eternal import. The reason you and I observe the Word of Wisdom, obey the law of chastity, and keep other commandments is because of revelation. (Facebook post from March 1, 2016, quoted in Mathews, Open Your Mouth, 50-51)
As this beautiful story illustrates, when we start with the First Vision we quickly introduce others to the principle of modern revelation which is the real source of all our differences and the answer to nearly all their questions. With the foundation of modern revelation laid through the First Vision, it is easy to address any question they might have from coffee to Sabbath day worship to temple work. It all grows out of revelation starting with the First Vision.
Not only that, but the First Vision itself can answer many questions people have about us. For example, the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” As discussed earlier, probably what they really want to know is, “Do you Mormons believe in Christ, and if so, how are you different from other Christian churches?” Consider for a moment how the First Vision perfectly responds to both components of this question.
With a little reflection, it becomes clear that the First Vision powerfully illustrates our belief in Christ for it was the resurrected Christ who appeared to Joseph Smith and it was the true Church of Jesus Christ that Joseph was searching for. It seems a little strange to accuse Joseph Smith of not being Christian when he was the first person to see Christ in over a thousand years!
But the story of the First Vision does more than assert our common belief in Christ, it also effectively shows how we are different from other Christian churches. The First Vision reveals that there had been an apostasy and that the true Christian Church was lost from the earth and needed to be restored (JS-H 1:19). This distinguishes our Church from all others (D&C 1:30). In addition, the First Vision reveals two other distinctive beliefs that further separate us from traditional Christianity and are often the very reasons many do not accept us as Christian. These beliefs are our view of the Godhead and continuing revelation.
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has explained, “One thing we would not like anyone to wonder about … is whether or not we are ‘Christians.’ By and large any controversy in this matter has swirled around two doctrinal issues—our view of the Godhead and our belief in the principle of continuing revelation leading to an open scriptural canon” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, CR Oct. 2007). Interestingly, both our view of the Godhead and belief in continuing revelation grow out of the First Vision where Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared as two separate beings and spoke by revelation to Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:25).
Thus by sharing the First Vision, we powerfully respond to the question of whether we are Christian by openly addressing the real issues that make some question that in the first place. We show that while we do share a belief in Christ with traditional Christianity, we are also different. While these differences may cause some to exclude us from being considered Christian, we believe these differences are what make us more than just another Christian church. These truths are why the Lord has called this “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). Being clear about these differences may prevent some from accepting us, but they will inspire others to join us!
When we are asked probing questions about our Church, we must do more than superficially answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” We must take advantage of these missionary opportunities by trying to discern what they really want to know and then openly sharing what we believe in a simple and compelling way. One way to do this is by sharing the First Vision. When we share the First Vision, we introduce others to modern revelation in an inspiring way, allowing us then to address almost any question they have.
A friend of mine once had an experience that I think powerfully summarizes the message I am trying to convey. As a Seminary and Institute teacher for the Church, he had been asked by local Christian clergy to explain the beliefs of our Church. As he stood before this group he said, “I can describe all that we believe as a church in a single word.” He then wrote the word “Christ” on the board. Discerning that was not all that they wanted, he continued: “But that isn’t what you really want to know is it? What you want to know is what separates my Church from all other churches who also claim a belief in Christ. Again, I can describe all our differences in a single word.” He then wrote the word “revelation” on the board and shared the story of the First Vision. May we all have the discernment to understand what people are really asking and the courage to share our beliefs on the matter starting with the First Vision!
To learn more on this subject, check out Mark A. Mathews’s book Open Your Mouth: What to Say When Sharing the Gospel.