The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 18, 2003
Armed only with scriptures, certainty and zeal, 19th-century Mormon missionaries fanned out across the globe seeking converts to the new faith.
They spoke however and wherever they felt moved — on soapboxes in public squares, in debates about Christian doctrine with Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, or when passing out theological pamphlets on street corners.
For the past 50 years, though, missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have used a more systematic, even scripted, approach to teaching people about their beliefs.
Now the church is returning to a more personal, individualized approach.
They will no longer memorize a set of six standard missionary “discussions,” (or detailed description of LDS beliefs), but rather focus on key scriptures that will help explain and define Mormon teachings.
These changes were announced at a Jan. 12 meeting for all employees at the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo. They have been tested at several English-speaking missions in the United States and England during the past year and will be implemented throughout the 60,000-strong missionary corps in the coming weeks.
LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills declined to elaborate further, but an article produced by church-owned Brigham Young University’s news service described the meeting and proposed changes outlined in detail by three LDS apostles, Elders Boyd K. Packer, M. Russell Ballard and Richard G. Scott.
Packer said that the teaching methods will change from “structure-based” to “principle-based,” according to the article written by Todd Hollingshead, a BYU staff reporter.
John Pingree, who was an LDS mission president in Mexico City from 1998 to 2000 and now is second counselor in the Salt Lake City mission presidency, explained how it will work.
Missionaries will memorize scriptures and principles, using basically the same materials they always have, but will not teach them verbatim to their contacts. Instead, they will create a specific outline for each person or family, based on their needs.
“It will be customized teaching for every individual,” Pingree says. “It puts more responsibility on the teacher to prepare before they glibly go through the plan.”
In some areas of the world, memorization will still be essential as missionaries learn a new language. Once they have command of the language, they will be able to tailor the message to each new contact.
Pingree sees these changes as a big step forward.
“The really good missionaries will really shine and those who are less creative can just follow the lesson plan as outlined,” Pingree says. “It will give them a chance to teach by the [Holy] Spirit, who will whisper to them.”
John-Charles Duffy, who has made an extensive study of the missionary system, sees these changes as the logical next step in the evolution of the missionary discussions.
The initial effort in 1953 was to standardize missionary discussions, ensuring that all missionaries taught the church’s essential beliefs in the same way to every person. In several revisions of the system in ensuing decades, the lessons became increasingly routinized.
By 1986, the church scaled back some of the memorization and urged missionaries to be less formal and to draw on their own faith and stories.
Duffy also welcomes the changes.
“The Socratic method they used was artificial and manipulative,” he says. “Emphasizing teaching by the Spirit seems like a good thing. You are not just reading a script. You are trying to speak to people heart to heart.”
Teaching methods loosened over years
The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 18, 2003
The LDS Church’s first standardized method of teaching Mormon principles to potential converts was developed by three missionaries in 1953, according to John-Charles Duffy, a researcher who has studied the history of the missionary system.
It was known as “A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel” and carefully built a case for the Mormon belief system, including descriptions of the nature of God, Jesus Christ, salvation, authority, the church’s founding by Joseph Smith in 1830, the Book of Mormon, its health code and moral prohibitions (no sex outside of marriage) and eternal families.
It also included suggested responses to questions that might be posed to them.
By 1961, the program was changed to “A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators,” which enhanced the pattern, including a detailed description of what to say in every situation. It created a hypothetical dialogue with an invented character named “Mr. Brown.”
The 1973 version, “A Uniform System for Teaching Families,” had long chunks of text for missionaries to learn verbatim.
“The amount of memorization was huge,” says Duffy. “It also introduced a new element — the flip chart.”
The most recent discussions, instituted in 1986, scaled back the memorization and asked missionaries to insert their own stories and affirmations of faith.
“These discussions could be used anywhere,” he says. “They had a more universal focus, and didn’t expect that the contact was already Christian.”