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Imitate Me: Missionary Methods of Sinners and Saints, Part Three


In Part One of this series, the issue of counterfeit methods caused me to pause and ask how we know our methods truly have a biblical basis. Ultimately, we must have more faith in our God, the true worker, than our own methods and strategies. In Part Two, the question of whether or not we actually communicate when we share the gospel was asked. Sharing the good news amounts to more than repeating certain words and phrases. We have to explain what we mean. Now let’s turn to examine what kind of motivations lie behind our methods.

If you examine people’s actions, they often reveal what they truly treasure. And if you examine their methods, you will discover something about their goals and motivations.

Looking Under the Surface

You can also learn a lot about people’s motivations just by asking them the right questions. I asked the Mormon missionaries about their experience growing up. They talked about the catechism classes they attended during regular high school hours, their Bible studies, and how important this time as a missionary was for them.

They called themselves “Elder ‘So-and-So'”, even though they were barely into adulthood, having just graduated high school. Talking with them and comparing them to other Mormons I have heard of, it became apparent their missionary service was a sort of rite of passage or trial by fire to gain acceptance within their home communities.

If you pay even minimal attention to Mormon theology, a long-term aim for all their good works is to be counted worthy of a place in the highest heaven, which they call the celestial heaven. Jesus helps us along, they claim, as we work to make ourselves holy. As one of their Elders, J. Devn Cornish recently put it: “None of us will ever be 'good enough,' save through the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ, but because God respects our agency, we also cannot be saved without our trying. That is how the balance between grace and works.”

Yet I suspect their more immediate motivation lay in that first desire for acceptance among their peers and community. Acceptance goes something like this: if you serve your duty on a mission, you will return with acclaim similar to that of a wartime hero.

Indeed, this sort of missionary service is actually expected in some sense if you are a young Mormon man. Although their service is voluntary and self-funded, the regular exhortation and expectation they receive takes on the flavor of conscription. Thomas S. Monson, the LDS president, said, “We encourage all young men who are worthy and who are physically able and mentally capable to respond to the call to serve. Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men.”

Perhaps a third motivation is the actual numerical results of ministry. It’s possible to spin the desire for ministry success in an altruistic light; they like to say their missionary service is for the good of humankind. For many, it’s likely to assume that the real force of this motivation lies in how success is a way to gain acceptance before man or God.

The way I see it, then, the Mormons I’ve encountered have been motivated firstly by a desire for acceptance, secondly by a desire to be judged righteous before God, and thirdly by a desire for ministry success, which is really a means to accomplish the first two goals. I have not seen true affection for God, but actions and methodology that ultimately reflect the self-serving affections of unregenerate hearts.

Not So Fast

However, before we exclaim, “Aha!” we must be careful. Are we certain that our actions and methodologies do not reflect the very same things?

Sometimes, I think we are motivated in the same ways the Mormons are. It’s pretty easy to get caught up with numbers and statistics to the point that people stop looking like people. Everything revolves around the strategy and what produces effectiveness. Perhaps we are just trying to ease a bad conscience before God, who we think of as a harsh taskmaster. We become worried about what our peers and supervisors and people back home think about our ministry efforts. We begin tallying up how many shares, decisions, and baptisms we had last month like the confirmed kill count of a World War II sniper.

I think we have a different model we should imitate. Paul didn’t want the acclaim of men. When Paul thought of what messy disciples the Corinthians were becoming, he was actually glad he hadn’t baptized many of them (1 Corinthians 1:14)! And Paul definitely knew some who were preaching out of selfish ambition (Philippians 1:17).

I readily confess that at different times and places I have experienced every one of these false motivations. I have hoped to gain the glory that comes from man (John 12:43). I have tried to earn God’s favor by my own offerings, as if God needed something from me—as if I could make God my debtor (Psalm 50:12). And I acutely remember the bitterness that comes from an inordinate focus on numbers in ministry. I once felt obliged in a newsletter to confess this:

What could be more detrimental to my sharing the good news than believing my standing derives from something other than the cross? What I initially conceived of as an attempt to offer something tangible to lift up in prayer, I now admit sprung from the darkest corner of my own heart. I resolve not to treasure results I tie to my own image rather than the Most High Beauty.

The Tail Doesn’t Wag the Dog

The problem with heart motives is that they do not stay hidden in the heart, but they affect everything that we do, no matter how many guardrails we erect and strategies we produce. The point is that our methods always flow out of our motivations. Our motivations are not formed by our methodology.

In salvation, God redeems our motives and changes our hearts so that we may love Christ. It is no longer simply a heaven we desire but God himself. As believers, what motivates us is not a sense of debt, but a sense of gratitude. We are motivated to share the gospel for the sake of the church and to please our Father. We know that our grace filled efforts do please our Father and that even our failures are covered by the blood of Christ.



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