Try a thought experiment. Pretend that you are a researcher finding out how members of the Church view themselves. They do not know you are LDS, you interview them on a Wednesday or Thursday in a neutral setting, and there is no hint of religion in your purpose.

You ask them to fill in the blank in this statement: I am a _____________. They may write as many self labels as they wish.

How long do you think it will take an active member, in the middle of the week, to spontaneously say, “I am a Mormon”? Probably not long; I’d say within the first five or so mentions.

Now, how long do you think it will take that active member to say, “I am a missionary” or “I am a member missionary” or some such variation? All of the people I have discussed this with felt that the label would not come up in the top 30 or 40 mentions. Perhaps never. None said it would come up quickly. We all agreed: Most members do not view themselves as missionaries.

Think what that means. If members cannot visualize themselves as missionaries, why should we expect them to act like missionaries?

Why should that be? We all love a gospel discussion. We love to answer a friend’s questions about the Church. So why isn’t it happening more frequently?

I submit it is because of the way we have labeled the desired activity. The label is hindering us.

An Uncomfortable Image

Let’s face it. The term “missionary work” is not a warm and inviting comfy-cozy. The connotations of that term for too many of our members include work, effort, assertiveness, push the envelope, on the hunt, and get outside your comfort zone … even intrusion. Because of that, it’s much easier for the member to flag off: “I’m busy with my elders quorum calling” or “I teach Primary,” and the attitude “let someone else do it” takes hold.

When you think about it, missionary work is a method. But the goal is to spread the gospel. So why focus on a particular method if it obscures sight of the larger goal? Why do we push members to do missionary work, when asking them to help spread the gospel might be more productive?

Back to the thought experiment. Isn’t there a better, more comprehensive word to put in that blank – a word that members can identify with and visualize themselves as being? A word that covers the activities of missionary work but without the taint?

Wouldn’t a re-labeling – a swerve in our journey – actually move us faster toward our goal? I firmly believe it would and it will.

The Swerve

The member of my stake’s high council in charge of missionary work (oops, habit) stepped himself through this thought experiment and came up with what I think is the best word to place in that blank: friend. I…am…a…friend.

Pretty simple, wouldn’t you say? While only a small percentage of members actively try to do “missionary work,” all of us can easily visualize ourselves as friends. And being a friend is a prerequisite for effectively spreading the gospel.

My stake presidency caught the vision and instituted an “Every Member A Friend” program. Members in the Orange California Stake now carry a reminder card that states:

Every Member A Friend

I Will …

  • Build true friendships by loving, serving, and spending time with others
  • Invite friends into my home
  • Invite friends to give service with me
  • Invite friends to Church or activities with me
  • Invite friends to learn more about the Gospel of Jesus Christ

I will make friendshipping and inviting a part of my everyday life.

Of the five steps, we come to grief when we put points 4 and 5 ahead of points 1, 2, and 3. If we focus with sincerity on the first three points, however, the final two evolve naturally and comfortably.

Changing “Every member a missionary” to “Every member a friend” will unleash the talents and creativity of members who presently do not or cannot see themselves as missionaries.

I’m sure President McKay, who coined the original phrase, would understand.

* * *

Gary Lawrence, pollster and author, is writing a new book: “The Relocated War in Heaven.”