A couple of days ago, Bob Caswell reposted at BCC a wonderful old post of his, dealing primarily with the complications of missionary work in an area (in this case, Bulgaria) where there are significant racial, social, and economic factors which get in the way of preaching the gospel to everyone equally. In the comments following that post, Gary made an observation which has been made many times before, but which probably cannot be repeated too often:
This issue forces us to think about what baptism really means. If baptism is simply a saving ordinance performed for people who profess faith in Christ and are willing to make a commitment to become his disciple (think Alma at the waters of Mormon), then there is no reason to deny baptism to anyone because of their race or their perceived weaknesses. In fact, denial of baptism to such a person would be unthinkable. However, that is not how we see baptism. For us, it also entails membership into our “club.” Since the existing members have obligations to new members, we think we have to be somewhat selective. We want people who will build up the organization. We donâ€™t want people who will subsequently prove to be a burden, so we sometimes try to screen out those who are likely to become burdensome. To some extent, the Word of Wisdom and the commitment to pay tithing fulfill that function. If people are willing to give up money, coffee, smokes and booze, that is a sign that they are serious and will be contributors to our community. But should we think this way? The people who are too weak to contribute do not go away. The gypsies, the mentally ill, the poor and the otherwise dysfunctional are still with us. By denying them admittance to the church do we really relieve ourselves of the burden to care for them, or do we just keep them invisible? Are we really made stronger by screening out the weak, or are we just deceiving ourselves? When we screen out people because they will be high maintenance, we are subordinating the saving ordinance aspect of baptism to our goal of building the organization.
The reason this cannot be repeated too often is because any serious thought about missionary work cannot allow itself to forget the near-total irreconciability between efforts involved in building or maintaining a community and those involved in participating in a univeralist project. That’s not to say that Gary’s point can’t be disputed; it can. What if salvation and membership in the organization are identical, after all? I think that’s correct doctrine, but as a prescription for what missionary work must involve I think it’s too easy. Proselytizing with an eye on “the organization” is going to be concerned with building and maintaining an identity, and specifically the process by which an individual chooses to abandon their old one and adopt a new one; proselytizing with an aim to the “saving ordinance” alone is going to be concerned primarily with preserving an intention, a call to everyone that ought to supercede any or every socially constructed concern. I just don’t believe it is possible to talk and work both ways simultaneously. Missionaries are going to be turned loose as baptizing crusaders, or they’re going to be weighed down with the onerous realities of administrating to the newly (and too-quickly) baptized, or they’ll swing back and forth depending on the situation. But both ends of the stick cannot, I think, be grasped simultaneously, at least by mortal creatures like ourselves. (That is, I can see my way clear to an understanding of their unity on a particular ontological level, but not everyday practice.)
I thought about this while listening to our local mission president at stake conference last Sunday. I know nothing about the man or his agenda; I’d like to give him the benefit of every doubt, and have no doubt he is a worthy, faithful, and well-meaning man. But it was rather remarkable to hear him repeat exactly the warnings about rapid baptism, poor retention, and the costs of inactivity that have been much discussed in the church lately (thanks in no small part to the work of our own Wilfried Decoo), and then in practically the next sentence fall into the usual universalist aspirations: you know, if every member would commit to introducing the missionaries to one of their neighbors each month, baptisms would triple overnight or some such thing. It did not seem inconsistent to him to want the saving ordinance of baptism to be delivered to as many people as possible, while at the same time want to see the members do a much better job than we’re currently doing at taking care of all the people which the missionaries deliver to us (“because,” as this good church leader put it, “missionaries get transferred, so it’s important that you all be there to take care of those they baptize”). And maybe it isn’t crazy to assume that between miracles, good old-fashioned hard work and priesthood power, as all sorts of creative new plans and strategies and technologies fresh from Salt Lake City, these two wholly opposite approaches can be brought together. But allow me express my doubts. Taking (spiritual) care of one’s own, and on the other hand refusing to see any distinction between one’s own (spiritual) needs and the (spiritual) needs of every other person, whether rich or poor, committed or flakey, far or near, prestigious or ignominious, are both tremendous goods. The former is a “tending” desire; it is an attempt to construct good lives out of available human material, both material and emotional. The latter is an “intending” desire; it is the experience of goodness in exactly its own boundlessness, its own refusal to be constrained by material. Both are worth choosing, or even going back and forth between as appropriate; every theory of social or economic life is going to include aspects of both. But it does neither approach any good to pretend that, in embracing one, you aren’t turning away from, at least temporarily, the other.
For my part, in the church at least, I prefer “tending.” I’ve written before about some reforms I’d like to see instituted in the missionary program, and I stand by them. Don’t transfer missionaries, but make them a part of the structure of a congregation; make prospective members attend all church meetings for two or three months straight before baptism, as well as demonstrate sustained commitment to the scriptures and the commandments; and so on and so forth. But more than any of that, I’d like to figure out a way to teach an awareness of this dichotomy, of the difference between tearing through a field ready to harvest and the limited and limiting work of gardening. It’s a hard thing, as Wilfried noted in a recent comment, for a missionary to be able to say “no” to another ordinance performed, another statistic gained; maybe an understanding of these very distinct roles and readings of missionary work would help.
Years ago, a friend of mine (who comments somewhat frequently here at T&S) told me a story about his mission, which involved a couple of elders in a van, a dozen or so migrant workers picked up on street corners, some food and quick lessons at the church building, and a bunch of baptisms before nightfall. Everyone has heard such stories; some of us have lived them. What struck me so powerfully about this story is that my friend defended this form of missionary work; he didn’t see any good reason to assume that the Spirit isn’t just as capable of converting the heart of any of those baptized that day as it might the heart of someone dyed-in-wool Mormon who has spent 40 years sitting bored to tears in the pews. And the thing is, he’s right of course. If we really want to be radical about it, really want to be on fire about it, it makes perfect sense to sense to baptize any and every person we can lay our hands on. It’s just extending salvation (or at least the possibility of such) after all. I wouldn’t ever do that, and probably couldn’t ever feel good about others doing that, but that doesn’t stop me from somehow admiring it. It is a good thing, sometimes at least, to embrace pure, interventionary, liberating intentionality: to be a tool, a scythe, a holy weapon, a gift. Sometimes we shouldn’t worry about tending to the long run, since–to adapt the quote of another great interventionist–in the long run we’re all dead, and God will judge us all, so why not cram what we can in before that great and dreadful day? I don’t condemn those who make that decision, since we probably all will in one context or another at some point. But I do question those who don’t recognize that in cramming the harvest in the chances are pretty good we’ll end up trampling part of the garden and losing some of the crop, just as I wonder about those who want us to make sure the field is properly tended without at the same time acknowledging that doing so will sometimes (or maybe more than just somethimes) probably mean closing the garden gate.