just listening

For years I have maintained that we scare off many potential investigators with our used-car-salesman tactics.

That is, we treat curiositators – the curious dipping their toes into the water – as if they were investigators ready to do a let’s-get-all-wet cannonball into the gospel pool.

Proof of this is the drop-off between missionary first-time visits and second-time visits. I don’t know the actual statistics of how often people invite the missionaries to return, but from what I have observed, it has to be a lousy percentage.

Hmmm, maybe if they had a more enjoyable experience …

Interest is Dynamic, Not Static

A big reason for the one-and-out pattern is the baptismal challenge on the first visit: “If you come to know that these things are true, will you be baptized?” Comes right out of the blue, unexpected and rather blatant, especially for the person who is merely curious and wants to feel us out before deciding whether to learn more.

(BTW, did you men ever ask a girl on the first date, “If you come to love me, will you marry me?” Didn’t think so.)

Now don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a place for the baptismal invitation and commitment. But I believe it should happen later in the minuet, not at the beginning.

When I have suggested this to mission presidents as well as missionaries, I get the same answer: “Well, we have to be sure they are interested so we don’t waste our time.”

Aha, there it is. If the “get with the program” approach doesn’t work, claim that you are gauging the likelihood that the person could become a serious investigator.

Trouble is, reaction to an early baptismal challenge is a poor measure. What missionaries really need is a question that accurately reveals potential interest, not a person’s yes-or-no current state of mind. And does it in a way that is gentle, inoffensive, and interesting.

Well, folks, you’re in luck because I happen to know a profession that can help.

The Question Question

Every day, we pollsters craft questions so the answers will clearly reveal a person’s opinions, attitudes, values, hopes, needs, fears, and beliefs. “Operationalizing the variable” is the pointy-headed phrase from academia. Every word must be just right.

So please believe me when I say that a baptismal challenge on the first visit is a clumsy way to measure interest. (I would flunk the student who dared to submit it in a Questionnaire 101 class.) Not only is it not accurate – someone who turns down the invitation could still be interested if given the right setting – but it is not the kindest way to treat people who are at least willing to listen to us once.

Here is the wording I use to measure interest; I call it the Question Question:

“Let’s say our Savior Jesus Christ were visiting you here in your home. What questions would you ask Him?”

The questions one would ask are windows on the soul:

  • If the person says he would ask which church is true, he is an investigator in embryo. (Remind you of a certain story?)
  • If he says he would ask what the Savior wants him to do, he is a seeker of truth, knows intuitively that grace comes not through lip service, and will logically assess our message.
  • If he says he would ask a doctrinal question, he is signaling his concerns as well as his interests, and your response to his curiosity must be reassuring as well as informational.  
  • If he says he would ask a question about current events, you might explain a related gospel principle with a bent toward the here and now.
  • But if he says he wouldn’t ask any questions, then talk about weather or sports because that person is not ready.

That is what happened a couple of weeks ago when I went with the missionaries to visit an “interested” couple. Although their obsequious sweetness blipped my radar that they wanted to lull us into a bible bash (which turned out to be the case), I corrected some distortions and then posed the Question Question. Sure enough, the man replied: “I wouldn’t ask Him any questions; everything I need to know is right here in the bible.”

The party broke up fast.

If a person is not willing to ask the Savior Himself any questions, why should we think he is ready to hear answers from any of us?

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In short, many people who do have questions for the Savior have been turned off by an inappropriately timed baptismal invitation. Try the Question Question instead. It’s safe, doesn’t offend, and provides a true measure of the person’s level of interest. You don’t have to be pushy to find out what you need to know

And if the person gives a reasonable answer, make the ensuing discussion an enjoyable experience. You may even be invited back.


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Gary Lawrence is a public opinion pollster and author whose most recent book – “Mormons Believe … What?!” – answers 24 common misperceptions about the Church. Available at all LDS bookstores, at Amazon.com and at parameterfoundation.org.