Sharing the Gospel Rewards Program

Rewards programs are all around us. Use your credit card, get frequent flier miles. Stay at a hotel, earn travel points. Buy 10 pizzas, get the next one free. If we want more converts, why not create a rewards program for sharing the Gospel? Not just eternal or psychic rewards, but immediate, tangible, worldly rewards.

10 converts = Trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center
50 converts = Dinner with President Hinckley

It would work, wouldn’t it?

I think not. And if you have been following the Creative Commons & BzzAgent kerfuffle, you will understand why. Last week Creative Commons announced a partnership with BzzAgent, a word-of-mouth marketing firm in Boston. The goal of the partnership was to generate “real, honest Word-of-Mouth Bzz.” Instead, they got a lot of backlash from Creative Commons evangelists who felt betrayed. Today Creative Commons and BzzAgent announced that they were ending the partnership.

In my view, the lesson of this short-lived partnership is that some products simply ought not to be sold via financial incentives. Those who promote the Creative Commons feel they are part of a movement, and they resented the idea that people would need to be paid to promote the movement. I feel the same way about the Gospel.

When I was a missionary, I often felt like a salesman, and I even heard instructors in the MTC refer to principles of salesmanship when teaching missionaries. Moreover, the Church uses very sophisticated marketing techniques to disseminate information. In the end, however, “selling” the Gospel is different from selling most other products because we ultimately have no selfish interest in convincing others to “buy.” We promote the Gospel out of a sincere desire to see other people share our joy. “Authenticity” is the buzzword of the day, and it aptly describes the missionary ideal.

46 comments for “Sharing the Gospel Rewards Program

  1. Unfortunately, this is not hypothetical. During the infamous “baseball baptism” in the early 1960s incentives were offered to missionaries that led to scads of bogus baptisms and sundry other abuses. According to Greg Prince’s new bio of David O. McKay, Elder Delbert Stapely was concerned that “some of the mission presidents {are} suggesting that if a boy converted so many people, he could shake hands with President McKay” (245).

  2. Hey! I was a baseball baptism way back in 1961! I’m still here! Glad to think my missionary might have gotten a reward. (As an interesting aside I heard recently that the retention rate for ‘baseball baptisms’ wasn’t any lower than for other baptisms). On the Saturday I was baptised aged 14 (only one from my family), I was one of 13 young kids baptized – I’m the only one who stayed active.

  3. ukann: It would be interesting to see whether anyone has compared the retention rate for baseball baptisms with other retention rates. But isn’t Gordon’s point that the ends don’t justify the means. Suppose we discovered that we could convert millions by declaring holy war and that the retention rate would be the same as (or better than) the rate we now experience. It surely wouldn’t follow that missionary work by holy war is good. Even though I’m glad you were converted and stuck with it, I think it would have been better if you’d been converted in a better way. Perhaps it would have made no difference to you, but it might have made a difference for some of those who did not remain, and it probably would have made a difference to the souls of the missionaries doing the work.

  4. Writing of the time between 1961 and 1973, when the missionary force grew dramatically, Allen and Leonard say this: “Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm for making record numbers of baptisms, a few mission presidents promoted their goals in ways that encouraged missionaries to baptize people before they were truly converted. In some instances young boys were given the chance to participate on athletic teams but told they must be baptized in order to join. Such so-called “baseball baptisms” not only resulted in poor publicity but also created unnecessary problems for branches that were suddenly made responsible for new “converts” who really did not know what the Church was all about.” (James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., p.610)

    Speaking of President Kimball’s supervision of the British missions in the late 60s, Edward and Andrew Kimball wrote: “The low statistics resulted partly from the ‘baseball baptisms’ of the early 1960s, when large numbers of young people were converted superficially through athletics and other youth activities. Aggressive missionary efforts had persuaded them to join the Church even without their families and without adequate understanding of the gospel or of the commitment they were making. The local leaders, long frustrated by the depressing effect of the large number of inactive members this had produced, now committed themselves to make individual contacts. Elder Kimball felt there would be substantial salvage if they carried through. Ultimately the Church would remove from its records the names of those ‘baseball’ converts who proved belligerent or who could not be found. (Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., Spencer W. Kimball: Twelfth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p.372)

    Similar things have happened from time to time in other places, using a number of variations on the basic practice. It seems to be a temptation against which the Church has to fight continually.

  5. Jim – you’re absolutely right. Perhaps a little background on how I came to be baptised. The missionaries tracted out my aunt and were returning to show a filmstrip. She asked if I would like to come along and I did. After showing the filmstrip they invited me to come along to a local school hall that they had hired to have a ‘games’ night. This was in the winter months and I went for several weeks and enjoyed games with lots of other kids. If the weather was warmer we went and played baseball in the park. Nothing was ever mentioned about any gospel teaching. Several weeks later they announced that they couldn’t have the school hall any longer, we could go to a youth night at church instead (Mutual). I began attending Mutual, going along an hour earlier than the start, where they taught me the discussions. My mother was very anti the church and I was told in no uncertain terms that she would never let me join the church and that if the missionaries ever called at my home she would swear at them and send them packing (and boy, did she have a mouth on her – every other word was a four letter expletive, and that was just in normal conversation!). My father had passed away 3 years earlier. However the missionaries kept asking me if they could call on her to have her sign the consent for baptism form and I kept refusing. Eventually I turned up to Mutual one night and they were there waving this white form – signed! I was appalled – what did she say? what did she do? They said she was as polite and cooperative as anything – and that Saturday I turned up with 13 others to be baptised – no-one there from my family and only my new church friends for support.

    I am so grateful for those young lads and their perseverence. Bless them all.

    To get back on topic – I guess if the elders that first night showing the filmstrip, had invited me to Mutual straight off, I would have gone, there would have been no need for the ‘baseball’ side of things. I can confirm it did leave a lot of problems for the church organisation in England, as they sought to ‘tidy up’ their records. As a matter of fact some time later I learned a cousin – Michael – had been baptised. He took the permission form to his dad and said “the elders said that unless you sign this I can’t play baseball any more”. My uncle signed it without looking, thinking it was a permission slip to let him play baseball! I don’t think Mike had had much in the way of gospel teaching, and I certainly never remember seeing him at church and he would have been in the same small branch as me. So you’re right, I was an exception (and I personally know of a few more in my Stake), and the ends don’t justify the means.

  6. I could go into details about my own mission, but instead let’s discuss Rio North, circa 1994-95. The mission president used mission funds to purchase cars for the missionaries. At the time each mission in Brazil was allowed a car for the office and a car for the president. How were these cars used? They were given to the highest baptizing missionaries from the previous month. The “logic” being that those missionaries were working harder, so they deserved a car, and also that a car would make them more efficient, and since they were the highest baptizing missionaries they would baptize even more with a car.

    This of course worked in a way, since many missionaries were scrambling each month to earn a car, and those with cars were scrambling to keep them. There were lots of baptisms.

    Then things started to get strange. Missionaries would come in to confess a sin and the mission president would give them a choice. Leave now and repent at home, or baptize 20 people in the next month and be forgiven! Not unpredictably, this caused high baptizing missionaries to feel that they could get away with all sorts of stuff. Again, lots and lots of baptisms.

    You can guess how miserable the sincere missionaries were. You can also guess the type of people that loved it.

    Things got much worse, but I’ll stop there.

    If your motivation for missionary work isn’t love of the people you are serving but a trip to Hawaii, I guess you’ll get your reward. And if you throw enough mud against the wall, maybe some of it will stick.

    I know what we heard in the MTC about this type of thing: almost nothing. One teacher mentioned some things but said that he’d risk getting fired if he told us any more than that.

    I what people told be prior to my mission about this stuff: nada.

    It seems to me that there should be some discussion of this sort of crap and the history of it at some point before sending people off into the field. Instead discussion of potential problem situtations is banned.

    I have no idea what mission president training is like, but I would guess that it doesn’t spend much time on “bad ideas of the past that you’ll come up with” either.

  7. I always thought that a good incentive for missionaries would be for the baptizing elder to receive 1% of tithing paid of all the people they baptized. Might of made a difference in where I tracted.

  8. I what people told be prior to my mission about this stuff: nada.

    You simply can’t make this stuff up!

    Back to the topic: we suffered for three years in this mission with a mission president who suggested that keeping the rules was for those not sufficiently in tune with the Spirit to know what the real boundaries were, who encouraged almost immediate challenges for baptism and then baptism if a spark of interest were shown, and who left the wards and branches filled with names on rolls but no bodies in the seats. I don’t know what kinds of incentives were offered to the missionaries, but the results continue to be a burden nearly eight years later.

  9. I what people told be prior to my mission about this stuff: nada.

    No doubt I needed to drink some Passover Coke this morning before posting. I am shocked, shocked that I could write something so incoherent. In any case, this is what my fingers were supposed to type:

    I know what people told me prior to my mission about this stuff: nada.

    Now to grab a glass of the good stuff.

  10. Most mission have a “certificate” program for missionaries who memorize certain scriptures, the discussions, etc.

    In my mission, it was based on baptisms. Plus, those who baptized X number in a given month (it ranged from 2 to 10) would get perks like being allowed to watch movies on P-day or take the evening of P-day off (rather than do missionary work as the handbook said).

    Of course, our prez was a millionarie insurance salesman who did Zone conferences on how to retire wealthy, rather than how to teach the gospel. And of course, he shut down the Lao program (which I was in) because we weren’t baptizing in the same numbers as the english missionaries.

    Of course, I could go into how Lao baptisms by missionaires in the 70s and 80s were a greater travesty than the “Baseball baptisms” and have resulted in 95% (or more) inactivity, but those baptisms were more based on cultural misunderstandings and less on rewards (though there were the social rewards of missionaries who could claim Ammon like feats of 200-300 baptisms – never mind almost none of their converts stayed active beyond a week or two after they left).

  11. random John –

    I knew several missionaries who had them in their missions – in most, you memorize a dozen scriptures and some discussions and get a bronze level, memorize a few more and get a silver level, etc. etc. up to a Gold or Platinum level.

    One mission had a bizarre level scheme that had the following levels: Vaughn J. Featherstone, BH Robets, John Widstoe, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith. Another had Telestial, Terrestial, Celestial. Another had Human, Angel, Archangel, Godly. Another mission had levels titled in such ways as “Defender of the Truth”- “Righteous Proclaimer of the Gospel” – “Faithful Servant” and “Good and True Endurer to the End” —– Etc. Etc. Etc. In each case, the missionaries got certificates and/or stickers to add to their certificates.

    Not that it meant a whole lot, but I assumed (since I saw over two dozen examples of these from various foreign and domestic missions) that it was a widespread practice.

    But we all know what happens when we assume.

  12. We had a multi-level certification program in our mission, although the details have faded (Ryan, do you remember details?). It was based on memorizing discussions and scriptures, writing talks, learning Portuguese history and language, and similar tasks–not on any proselyting activity. I thought it was a reasonably motivating program–at least it appealed to the task and achivement oriented, like me. And our president would participate, too, by staging scripture/discussion memorization competitions between himself and different districts, etc, showing us that he was alsoworking on these things.

  13. This just goes to show that the old canard: “The Church must be true, or the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago” should be amended to read “mission presidents” in place of “missionaries”. Thankfully, this doesn’t include all of them, including the two I served under, the current president in the mission where I live now, my father and a whole host of others.

  14. We had a long internal discussion about the phenomenon of problem baptisms several weeks ago. I may write more on it later. I can say, at least, that this problem was not confined to the 60s and 70s.

  15. To what extent is seeing others experience joy still a selfish interest?

    There may not be any tangible benefits, but there are certain psychic and spiritual rewards.

    I think it all hinges on the primary motive of the actor/teacher/missionary. Is it about the Church gaining a convert or the convert gaining a Church?

    I know I am basically restating what Gordon said, but I would like to understand better the role that “blessings to the missionary” plays in our doing of missionary work.

  16. My mission had the Golden Eagle program, which was simply a gold lapel pin earned when you knew all six discussions (and the accompanying scriptures) in both English and German, ver batim. It made sense to me, and still does. Or, at least, it would — if the missionaries still had to learn the discussions the way we had to back in the day.

    That was the extent of it, thankfully, and while there were some other things wrong with the Frankfurt Mission in the late 80s, there was nothing as horrifying as the things I am reading here. Holy Toledo! I fear for what would have happened to me if I had been in a mission like that.

  17. I had imagined this to be a post about member missionary work, but the underlying principle is the same. I suspect that most mission presidents use techniques for motivating people that have proven effective in their prior careers. My main point is that “selling” the Gospel should be different than selling insurance.

  18. Ivan,

    This is something that is totally new to me. My mission certainly didn’t have anything of the sort. None of my brothers ever mentioned anything similar. Mormon roommates never brought it up.

    Honestly such a thing probably would have annoyed me.

    Will you permit me a follow-up question? Have you retired wealthy?

  19. random John –

    all of his suggestions actually require that you make money and have some left over. Me – I’m still survivng off college loans, scholarships and credit cards to finance my education. Get back to me in 50 years and then I’ll know.

  20. Doc-K, you write: “and while there were some other things wrong with the Frankfurt Mission in the late 80s, there was nothing as horrifying as the things I am reading here.”

    That wasn’t what I heard in the early 90’s.

  21. Jonathan,

    Your comment illustrates a strange phenomenon among missionaries (and mission presidents). In my experience, missionaries and mission presidents often cohere around the idea that “we are doing things the right way, not the way they used to be done.” Of course, in some instances, this is actually true, but I suspect that in most instances the way things used to be done are just different, not worse, and that the episodic failures of the past have been magnified until they come to be perceived as the old standard operating procedures.

  22. I can’t say that any incentive program would have produced wonders in my mission. We had an average of 1 baptism per companionship per year, probably also why they shut down the mission a few years back. We did have the certificate program. The “Shield” and the “Crown” for memorizing the first 3 and then all 6 discussions respectively. Not that any of those made for better converts who would stay with the church, let alone missionaries. In fact, both people that I taught who were baptized have since left the church.

  23. My mission president would award books (that he had written) to missionaries who had baptized a high number of people in a given month, but it wasn’t a set number. It was relative to the rest of the zone.
    As far as motivation, we were told that anyone who isn’t baptized would be damned, and so we had better care about how we worked as missionaries (not a verbatim quote). While there were firm, numeric goals for baptisms, to my knowledge the biggest tangible award that a missionary ever got were books by Joseph McConkie signed by Joseph McConkie. Given that his background was in church history and church theology, that probably ruled out tips on how to retire rich. ;-{)>

  24. Gordon, in most cases I would agree with you. I think most missionaries’ understanding of the actual history of the mission in which they serve is completely unreliable, and the institutional memory of missions is very short. The pre-historic realm of legend and myth seems to begin as recently as a year before one’s own arrival, certainly no later than two or three years before.

    In this case, however, I saw documentary evidence.

    Michael, I feel your pain (90-92 for me; weren’t you somewhat later?) But MDS was also a missionary there in 95-96 or so, and he speaks quite highly of the retention rate for the mission at the time. I agree that earing one’s “Crown of Excellence” probably had little influence on it, positive or negative.

  25. Re: certificate programs- at least the ones described by Ivan and Melissa weren’t based on the number of baptisms, which I believe are not necessarily in the control of any one individual. But scripture snd discussion mastery are in an individual’s power, and hence rewardable.

  26. Jordan,

    I assume that you went to a low baptizing mission then, am I correct?

  27. I don’t know if 70-100 souls/year mission-wide qualifies as “low” or not, but I do know that it was difficult finding people in my German mission who were willing to be baptized.

  28. Jordan –

    if only it had been so in my mission. IIRC, In my mission you had to memorize half a dozen scriptures scriputres, 2 discussions, etc. AND have 2 baptisms for the bronze level. This doubled for each level. So for the Silver level we had to have 12 sciptures memorized and 4 discussions (the ones from previous levels counted towards the higher level ones). For the Platinum level you had to have baptized 16 people, memorized 48 scriptures and 12 discussions (the main 6 plus the New member discussions). [Or something along those lines – my memory is fuzzy and my missionary journals are packed away in Alaska]. But though I memorized everything, I had no baptisms and thus got no certificates. I recall that part very well.

  29. Jordan,

    I agree that in relatively low baptizing mission an individual might have very little control over the number of people they have the opportunity to baptize. In other situations though, it seems that large numbers follow certain people. This didn’t have any correlation with how well they memorized various things as far as I could tell. It also didn’t correlate with the personal righteousness of the missionary in some cases. But the same people were consistantly high baptizers month after month.

  30. Programs like that seem more to push the missionaries to get good numbers so the Mission President will look good when he reports his numbers to SLC. So being the mission pres with the highest numbers is a stepping stone to a GA calling, the issue of “new mebers” falling away is counted against the wards. Not him. So for the president it is a win-win situation.

  31. When I was going to school in England from 89-91, our tiny branch to which about 40 souls came every week, had a roster with hundreds of names on it. Many of these people had been baptised in the early 1960s and had never been to church. The resulting percentages kept us from getting a building of our own until we finally got permission to remove some of the names from the rolls.

  32. Gunner: What you say is often said, but there doesn’t seem to be much truth to it. The ranks of the GAs don’t seem to be filled with former mission presidents whose missions baptized large numbers.

    There may be mission presidents who believe that being a mission president is a stepping-stone to becoming a GA, but they ought to look more carefully at the Quorum of the Twelve and the Quorums of the 70s. If they did they would realize that, given the number of mission presidents in the world and the rapid rate at which they turn over, their chances are slim to none even if the President were choosing new GAs solely from among former mission presidents and based solely on the number of baptisms during the mission president’s term.

  33. Every missionary in the Korean, Pusan mission had to “pass off” the discussions before she or he could study something more interesting in the mornings. We only had this program because Korean was so ghastly hard that it took the average new missionary 4-5 months to pass off all six discussions. The only incentive was the ability to study something more interesting than the discussions in the mornings.

  34. I always thought that a good incentive for missionaries would be for the baptizing elder to receive 1% of tithing paid of all the people they baptized.

    To really fit in with LDS thinking, you also need to include the concept of a downline: you also would get a certain percentage of the tithing from the people converted by your convert.

    Once you get, oh, 3 or 4 significant sets of downlines, then you get to break off and start your own church, and declare yourself a prophet.

  35. No, Mark N., you would still be part of the One True Church, but after attaining certain levels, you would get additional Wives.

  36. Since LDS retention has been in the news again….

    …I thought I would resurrect this thread a bit.

    While I am super duper grateful that people are writing about this problem, it pains me sincerely and deeply to know that they are failing to report 2 of the most critical aspects of this issue/story. Namely: Bogus Baptisms, and Stake Closures.

    1. Bogus Baptisms: For the past 45 years, the church has repeated the cycle of: a) calling businessmen as mission presidents, b) employing sales techniques to obtain large quantities of baptisms, and c) focusing on the most impoverished areas of each mission (usually small children or single mothers) to find those who are most “susceptible” to these practices. Over time, this phenomenon has motivated many missionaries to perform what I will call (for lack of creativity) “bogus baptisms”, where nothing close to what an LDS leader would call a “conversion” ever takes place. Some examples that I’ve personally experienced or learned about firsthand from returned missionaries include:

    * “Soccer Baptisms” in Guatemala: Please click here ( to read the letter I sent Elder Oaks after returning home from my mission. He personally called me upon receiving this letter, and I have saved all the correspondence with him that demonstrates his awareness and sensitivities to these issues–and would be more than happy to share as proof to my story. It is because I know first-hand that Elder Oaks knows about these practices, but has never chosen to publicly (at least within the church) address them–that I feel like this story needs to be more broadly covered.

    * “Baseball Baptisms” in England: See the above-thread on this blog entry for more details here

    * “Cheeseburger Baptisms” in North Caronlina: Where elders would offer cheeseburgers to young children in N.C. slums to obtain baptisms

    * “Beach Party Baptisms” in Chile, Vina del Mar: This was THE highest baptizing mission in the Church in the 1980’s. Just do some investigative journalism. We’re talking over 1000 baptisms per month for a mission of around 200 missionaries.

    * “Gravestone Baptisms” in countless places: Just ask any missionary, and they will confirm of some missionaries going to grave stones to cull names off of tombstones to achieve baptismal quotas

    * “Theatre Baptisms” in Brazil: My brother in law, who worked in the mission office in Sao Paulo, told me of an entire mission being closed in the 80s due to “theatre baptisms”, where missionaries would put on religious plays for an entire neighborhood (usually impoverished), and then baptize all that had been “inspired” by the play.

    * For other, less-substantiated stories (but still plausble based on my experience), check out

    I want you all to know that I sincerely love the Church–but these types of baptisms are extremely destructive–not just to the church, but to the missionaries who get sucked into performing them, as well as the local church communities where they occur. Perhaps their biggest negative impact is listed as my 2nd point below…..

    2. Stake Closures and Wars Between Mission Presidents and Bishops/Stake Presidents: I have it confirmed from several independent sources that Elder Holland has closed over 30 stakes during his time in Chile. Apparently, this is one of the main reasons he’s there (and, I presume, Oaks in the Philippines). I have been told that many stakes have been closed in Brazil and the Philippines as well. In some cases, there were wards where only 4 people were attending….and instances of 3 stakes being collapsed into 1 stake, etc. Mission presidents and stake presidents/bishops were (metaphorically speaking) at war with each other over this dynamic…because the mission presidents were being pressured to obtain baptismal goals, while the local leaders were under intense pressure to increase activity rates–these goals being mutually exclusive.

    Now….how the church continues to grow the # of stakes year over year (with the exception of a few years back, where we actually declined in # of stakes), while collapsing so many stakes, would be a phenomenally interesting story to pursue…but I digress. :)

    At the Sunstone symposium last week, Jan Shipps referred to this retention issue in her talk, so I went up afterwards to discuss these thoughts with her. Not only did she openly acknowledge them and treat this as “old news” (including baseball baptisms, and the like), but she told me that she considers this to be the “single biggest issue confronting the church today”.

    I don’t fault the church for not openly acknowledging this pattern with the membership, and future missionaries/mission presidents (and thus helping to curb the problem). Quite frankly, it is far too incredibly painful and embarassing to do so openly. However….someday this story will be brought to light by a courageous journalist, and it will become big news in major publications/programming (NYT, New Yorker, Frontline, etc). While it may seem like I wish the church ill….the truth is the opposite. I am committed to this church, and feel strongly that these practices are strangling the church, and that they must be openly known and openly discussed before the church can move beyond them. In other words, “Those that fail to learn the lessons of history are forced to repeat them.”

    Mormon Stories

  37. Mormon Stories,

    It may be, that even though your stories are true, the issue just isn’t getting any “traction.” Apparently the Church is aware of the problem, since you say in another post that Elder Oaks apologized to you. And they are doing something about it–collapsing stakes and wards.

    It seems like the best that could be done would be for stories like yours to be used as cautionary tales for new mission presidents. It also would not hurt for offending mission presidents to have some kind of action taken against them, too. The nature of most church discipline is that there isn’t much publicity, unless the member makes it public.

    There are a lot of issues I wish the brethren would address, too. I have pretty much been told to shut up and color–the brethren know what their priorities are, and my priorities are not theirs. It is a shame, too, because there are a lot of people who are unnecessarily getting hurt. Your account of the end of your mission shows that you are one of those who got hurt who really didn’t deserve it. I admire you for trying to make this bad situation better.

  38. Mormon Stories
    It sounds like the apostles do care about the mistakes that have been made. Elder Oaks calling you personally and getting the facts from you sounds like he wasn’t trying to ignore it, but find out more about the situation. Now that he is aware of it, he can help prevent future problems of the same sort by training mission presidents about what is unacceptable.

  39. Okay, Mr. Stories —

    We’ve discussed retention in other contexts, and will probably do so in the future. However, it is not appropriate to try to turn the comments section of a months-old post into a personal soapbox. Your comment is a laundry list of allegations and apparent axe-grinding, most of which is only indirectly related to the original post and comments. In addition, you’ve tried “bumping” your comment to attract extra attention to it.

    Retention is a serious issue, and I would not be surprised if it were discussed in detail in a future post or posts. However, the tone and amount of unsubstantiated material in your comment suggests that it is not what we would like to see as the table-setter for the issue.

    I’m temporarily closing comments on this thread.

Comments are closed.