What We Can Learn from Mormons (and Derwin Gray!)

A book that I read almost a decade ago has had a lasting impact on my understanding of religion, the early history of Christianity, and how and why people choose which religious tradition to follow.  The book’s title is The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark, the Co-Director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.  I really can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Interestingly, writing Rise began a journey for Dr. Stark that would lead him to study Christianity more and more.  And after some time devoted to looking into Christian history specifically, to paraphrase his own words, he found one day that he himself was a Christian!  Dr. Stark has written many other books as well, including another one about early Christianity that I love called Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.

I wanted to introduce you to Dr. Stark and his work for one reason: He shared something in Rise about Mormons that changed the way that I have thought about evangelism.  He begins his book by discussing, from a sociological perspective, how people convert from one religious tradition to another.  In that line of thinking, he shared the following paragraph:

“Data based on records kept by a Mormon mission president give powerful support to this proposition [that people convert based on established social networks],  When missionaries make cold calls, knock on the doors of strangers, this eventually leads to a conversion once out of a thousand calls.  However, when missionaries make their first contact with a person in the home of a Mormon friend or relative of that person, this results in conversion 50 percent of the time” (Rise, 18).

Did you catch that?  The Mormons, who are famous for their data collecting, say when their missionaries go up to a stranger to share the “good news,” that works once out of a thousand times!  But when they take advantage of the existing social networks of their rank-and-file members, it works 50 percent of the time!  That’s just amazing!

Maybe you’re like me and you grew up in the church and were taught how to do cold-call evangelism.  You may still remember your parts of the rehearsed “if you died tonight” conversation or maybe you’re been trained in Evangelism Explosion.  Well, according to Dr. Stark, these methods simply aren’t all that successful.  We’d be better served to look into our circles of friends and family to find potential new followers of Jesus.

But how do we do this?  How do we live our lives in such a way that our friends and family will be interested in following Jesus?  In other words, how can we be more missional?

Derwin Gray is helpful here.  At the church where he is the pastor followers of Jesus who are missional, whom they call “Transformers”, are marked by five characteristics.  The last of these is what he calls “Inviting.”  Just to be clear, Derwin doesn’t mean that they invite people to church!  Instead, what he means is that missional followers of Jesus live an inviting life, the kind of life that leads other people to ask them what they are all about.

Naturally this idea of the inviting life leads to some obvious questions: Is my life inviting?  As I do life among my friends and family do I look more like Jesus (communal, sacrificial, and giving) or a standard American (individualistic, conumeristic, and materialistic)?  How can I shift my life to be more and more inviting?  How can I better use my life and my circles of influence to participate in the making of new disciples?

I don’t have all the answers.  Heck, I’m just starting out on this journey myself!  But here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. We need to have a missional posture: It’s important to view ourselves as missionaries in our neighborhood.  This subtle shift can change everything!
  2. We need to focus on relationships: As Evangelicals we sometimes get fixated on having a conversation with someone that ends with them praying the sinners prayer and we miss the fact that it’s relationships that matter!  Look at how Jesus led people into discipleship — he didn’t reason them in; he was their friend and lived life with them, slowly revealing himself to them.
  3. We must be intentional: Living an attractive life, an inviting life, isn’t just going to happen.  We have to strategize!  That means that we need to purposefully place ourselves in places where we can begin and deepen relationships with people who don’t follow Jesus yet.
  4. We can’t be judgmental: If we want to be inviting to those who don’t follow Jesus yet, the fastest way to throw a monkey wrench into the whole situation is by being judgmental!  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5.12 are helpful here: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?”  I’m pretty sure that we Evangelicals tend to skip that little gem!
  5. We need to think incarnationally: Jesus came to earth and lived among us and made disciples.  Then, as he was leaving his disciples he asked them to make disciples of all the nations.  How though?  Well, follow Jesus’ example.  Invite people into your life and let them live life with you.  There’s a danger here though and Tim Keller captured it well in a video that was played during Exponential West.  To paraphrase, he said, “If we aren’t living holy lives, then discipleship will be impossible.”  So, if we want to make disciples, new ones or deepening old ones, then we must make every effort, with the power of the Spirit, to live followable lives.
  6. We should build belonging before believing: Historically Evangelicals have done just the opposite; we have called people to believe, then, once they do, we enter into relationship with them.  That’s simply not the picture we get from Jesus’ life.  He created space for people to belong and gave them time to grow into believing.

There are a thousand other ways to be more missional but these six are a start!

What are some other ways that we can be more missional as followers of Jesus?  Let me know in the comments below!