In Defense of Tracting


Missionary methodology is one of those things in the Church that people have strangely strong opinions on. For my part, on a meta-level I recognize that 

Context matters

What works in one location (and time) might not work in another.  

Missionary strategy is complex

Because of #1, figuring out optimal missionary strategy is hard, and I have no desire to expend mental energy trying to figure it out now that I’m a civilian. If there was some blatant error in how it was being done I’d have no compunction saying something, but as far as I can tell the people whose mantle it is are doing the best they can, and I have no reason to think that I would do it any better. 

There is no magic pill

Greenie mythology holds that if a missionary is righteous enough or if they follow the five steps of successful blah blah then they too could become a Dan Jones 2.0, but the fact is that Dan Jones-level success has as much to do with the mission field’s society as much as the missionary.

Missionaries are for missionary work

While it’s become popular to suggest that all missionaries should be humanitarian missionaries, my prior here is that missionary work is primarily for converting people to the Church. While there’s a hypothesis going around that humanitarian work focused missionaries would actually yield more converts, I’d have to see some hard nosed evidence that a primarily humanitarian approach yields more conversions than direct proselytizing before I’d buy it. I think the Salvation Army is great (the old Guys and Dolls movie is on my children’s required watching list because the Salvation Army character is such an inspiring religious character), and they may have some people joining them because of their humanitarian reputation, but probably not as many as the direct proselytizing faiths. (Of course, I’m not suggesting what the optimum mix is for their particular mission—not my place—just making a statement about the connection between humanitarian work and converts). 

Missionary work is often a schlog, and the optimal approach is often a matter of choosing the least inefficient among inefficient options. While I generally refrain from getting into the missionary methodology fights for the reasons above, I do think it has become fashionable to disparage tracting as a method when there are good reasons to retain it in the missionary repertoire.  

  • Volume/quality trade-off

English lessons, going through the ward list, etc. are often valuable methods. They require much more energy per contact, but their conversion rate is much higher. However, tracting has the benefit of volume. When you tract out a neighborhood you can contact a lot of people. 

  • Flexibility 

The more productive methods often require having scheduling or logistical ducks in a row. If a dinner appointment falls through you can’t just do an impromptu English lesson on the street, but you can always knock doors. Tracting was a nice way to fill in the cracks leftover after the more productive methods are used. 

  • Diminishing returns for other options

It’s become a truism that working with the members is more efficient (I suspect this philosophy has its intellectual genealogical roots in the religious-growth-through-networks work of Rodney Stark, my adviser from my Baylor postdoc days). It might be true that member referrals are much, much more effective, but in the discussion of missionary’s time there’s the divisor of how much the missionary contributed to that referral. In these discussions it’s sort of implied that the multiplier is 1, when it’s below 1. Again, that’s not to disparage member, missionary work, just to point out that it’s not a magical pill. There are drawbacks with that approach too such such as the fact that the confidence of the members is probably only weakly a function of how much time missionaries spend with members. Matter of fact, it might be a U-shaped relationship, with missionaries dropping by too much being counterproductive. Depending on the locale, I suspect you can easily max out English lessons, going through the ward lists, and all the other productive things and still have time left over. 

  • Fresh blood

This is the argument that is fairly unique to me, but if we follow through with the conversion-through-networks paradigm, then it has a lot of similarities with other network diffusion models such as pandemics, including the concept of network burnout. At some point everybody who is susceptible to conversion in a network has converted. New network clusters are only reachable through non-connected people. Because people cluster in their networks, people outside the network have more non-redundant ties, and people converted through cold calling are actually more valuable in terms of non-redundant ties than people converted through networks. 

In the early Church, there’s a good chance that the early Church would have stalled out for a while numerically if it had just disseminated through the networks of the original founding families, but the unconnected conversion of Parley P. Pratt led to the conversion of Sidney Rigdon and the huge cluster that was attached to him. 

Of course, tracting is one of many possible strategies, each with their own trade-offs, and I don’t presume to know what the optimum mix is. I’m just saying that tracting had a place in it even though it had become popular to disparage it.

15 comments for “In Defense of Tracting

  1. Another advantage: offsetting missionary bias. The missionaries I worked with were always trying to talk to cute young families on the street, but very few of our converts actually matched that profile. I kind of liked tracting because we never knew who was going to answer a door, and we often ended up talking to people we wouldn’t have encountered or approached otherwise.

  2. The fresh blood factor was one that I started thinking about as I began reading. Missionaries shouldn’t feel they have no power to act on their own and are completely dependent on others to start things. That path leads to “Every member a missionary; every missionary a haranguer.” Those called specifically to missionary service have to lay aside for a while all that teaching trying to get ordinary church members to do something, anything, to communicate the gospel.

    Wandering a bit, this also brings to mind the frequently voiced idea that missionaries should not have goals to bring converts to baptism, since being baptized is not the missionaries’ decision. Someone looking for a job doesn’t get to make hiring decisions either, but he will engage his job-seeking efforts with the aim of having job offers being extended to him. The aim of bringing people to baptism is a good thing to keep in mind in choosing what work to do and evaluating how worthwhile it is.

  3. One time the missionaries knocked on our door, asking for referrals. If we’d had any, we would have already passed them on. I wonder if they bothered knocking on the rest of the doors in the apartment complex.

    The best family I found on my mission came from street contacting, which for its inefficiencies, was more efficient in Italy than it would be in the United States for the most part. That said, tracting gives missionaries the opportunity to bear testimony at every door. It allows for much more seed-planting than any other method.

  4. I’m surprised that nobody mentions the issue of safety in regards to tracting. Knocking on random doors in random neighborhoods can have disastrous consequences. God does not automatically protect missionaries from physical or verbal violence or accusations of trespassing or harassment (or from annoyed people posting footage from security cameras online). I have also experienced over-zealous missionaries tracting out a neighborhood before a dinner appointment with members and those irritated neighbors taking it out on the members (my parents, in this case) and losing all goodwill towards the Church that my parents had quietly and kindly tried to build up.

  5. Here in Texas we still see success with tracting. We have multiple active members of our ward who have been baptized and gained testimonies through missionaries tracting in the last couple of years. Though in other areas of the world/US, I would imagine that the method is far from useful today as most people “out there” are not anywhere near ready to hear the Gospel or accept any message that would completely uproot their life.

  6. Good points, Stephen. I’ve also heard from someone acting as the public face of the Church internationally that the organizations he talks to appreciate the fact that when the Church shows up with humanitarian aid, there’s no ulterior aim of proselytization, and when the Church sends missionaries, it’s entirely clear why they’re there.

  7. Sorry that I “posted and ghosted” (family reunion).

    sba: Very good point. I have fond, spiritual memories of tracting trailer parks in Las Vegas while waiting for my visa, even though hardly anyone would have looked in place in an LDS ward.

    John Mansfield: it’s for that reason that I’ve always been a little skittish about using baptisms as a metric, even though I still think the pros outweigh the cons.

    John Taber: I’ve also thought about that. I’m assuming that doors around member’s houses have been knocked a disproportionate number of times, and missionaries should take that into consideration.

    NYAnn: I’m sympathetic to the idea that tracters should tread softly in order to not poison the well for member missionary work. Security is a concern and I’m glad that the white handbook addresses it, but they are adults, so I don’t think tracting should be done away with because of security concerns.

    Helaman: Same thing when I was in Texas.

    Jonathan Green: I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s a good point. By differentiating between proselytizing and humanitarian work it helps keep both spheres a little more pure, of course that’s not to say that there can’t be some very subtle utilization of humanitarian work for spreading the gospel.

  8. My point was that they probably didn’t tract out the rest of the complex, rather were going from member’s door to member’s door, looking for referrals. It didn’t seem very efficient to me.

  9. John Taber, I also served in Italy and nearly all the baptisms in our mission were from tracting. Also, when you are in an area where a ward can be 2 hours across with only 120 active members (consolidation of branches to make a stake), there really was not much more to do than to tract or do street contacting. I preferred tracting because I was out getting exercise, going up and down stairs and walking around the town. I also enjoyed meeting all kinds of new people in their own home. While it was discouraging that few were interested in actual lessons, my dad had encouraged me to focus on heloing them just get one step closer to God. Sharing a scripture, offering a prayer, inviting them to go to their own church if they hadn’t attended were easy ways to help me feel successful.

    In my last city, I was with a companion who had only been out 2 months. There were no members in the city, so we tracted alot. One day, he asked me why I was willing to keep going out, day after day, and keep tracting. The only answer I had was that I promised the Lord 2 years of my life. He sent me to Italy where that meant tracting because there were no other real options to keep busy. At least when I meet God, I can say I did my part, even if nobody listens to what I have to share. I still feel that way and get frustrated when I hear our elders complain that they don’t have enough work to do because we are not giving them referals. If they want to work, they can tract. Our missionaries have been doing it since Samuel Smith went on his mission.

  10. We had dinner with our elders a few Sundays ago. While they do teach and baptize regularly, they did ask us for suggestions on where in the ward they could tract.

  11. I was in the “tracting” era of missions. Tract, teach, eat, sleep, repeat. I believe I planted lots of seeds for future missionaries to harvest. Met lots of very nice people and had some very interesting experiences while tracting. We made it fun since the majority of our time was spent doing it.

    I would love to see the church open soup kitchens and feed the homeless once a day while they listen to a spiritual uplifting message about the church/God.

    I would love the church to reinvent missionary work and make changes, big changes.

    When I was bishop I told my ward to stop trying to convert their neighbors and just be genuine friends. We typically dont have close non-member friends as members. I think this would help missionary work. Non-member neighbors know the drill in high member areas. We are only nice because we are trying to convert them. I would love to see a push in the wards for beer night. Find out your neighbors fav beverage and have them over to chat. No church stuff, just chat and a cool one. I may try that soon.

    Maybe the harvest is winding down too. Convert #s seem to be pretty low. That may have little to do with us but it just might be the new norm moving forward. I think God is okay with the outcome of our effort and is not disappointed in the stats.

    Until then, go knock those doors!

  12. I think we can do a lot more to make the church attractive to potential converts. Not attractive in a progressive, change the doctrine way or a “let’s play rock music in church” way but in terms of filling our buildings with interesting, weird and proactive community activities.

    We have these huge buildings which sit unused most of the time, why not do stuff in them?

  13. The most effective techniques frequently call for having your logistical or schedule ducks in a row. Although you can’t just teach English to strangers on the street if a dinner reservation is canceled, you can always go door-to-door. Tracing was a good way to fill in the gaps that remained after using the more effective techniques.

  14. Tracting: the leaven in the loaf – the opportunity to lift a stranger, to bring life and light to fellow travellers negotiating the journey – yes Gilgamesh!

    We met so many wonderful people. For some there was a flash of light that flared, for others it was a fading moment; the Church’s home delivery service arrived even when they hadn’t made a call, though some had – that silent prayer, that hope, and there we were.

    The Church grew its profile through tracting, through daily ministering on the world’s doorstop (there go those Mormons, they would say). We prayed to be guided to those parts of our area that might on that very day benefit from our visit, it was our calling, right? – don’t take that away.

    My parents were tracted and taught and never wavered – they’re gone now – thank you elders for coming to that small country town on the other side of the world where there wasn’t even a branch of the Church. They weren’t recruited by friends – they knew their friends loved them – there was no dissonance risk over a decision that involved one’s relationship with God and one’s neighbour – just a knock at the door and the Saviour’s spirit-filled invitation, no pressure, just a quiet reassuring manner.

    I have always felt saddened by those who apply productivity metrics to this divine work – where it is devalued as a less effective enterprise; I always thought they either have never done it, or never caught the spirit of it – no dusty roads for them, just a chariot ride to Emmaus or a cosy dinner and conversation by a warm fire.

    And just so you know, the work was not without its challenges – and I don’t mean barking dogs or harassing individuals. Remember when they wanted us to sell BoMs because people would value it more, so we packed our bags and bikes with them – I couldn’t bring myself to do it – would rather spend my own money, and give them the gift; remember those gold covered BoM’s with etchings of reformed Egyptian on the cover, we had something there didn’t we – or did we.

    Now I’m not having a go at other ways of doing this work, but if you’re out of battery or you cant get signal just remember, any spirit-led conversation will do it: just bring the “record of heaven” – the Comforter; the peaceable thing of immortal glory; the truth of all things – you always need that – and, I might add, a good heart, a second pair of shoes, and a raincoat if its wet out.

  15. Late to the conversation here. I would like to reframe your initial premise: “my prior here is that missionary work is primarily for converting people to the Church.” If we take a broader perspective and say, “The purpose of missionary work is to bring people to Christ,” then rendering humanitarian aid is squarely within that enlarged focus. Some people will immediately recognize the importance of saving ordinances that can only be obtained from Church membership; however, in my view, focusing exclusively or even just primarily on baptism tends to engender mistrust among many more individuals that missionaries encounter. I agree with @REC911 that Church members are too insular and should be more engaged with their neighbors and other organizations within their communities. Reaching out in this way can help build and expand networks. I believe that Church leadership is pushing the lay membership in this direction. For example, instead of sponsoring scout troops directly, they can encourage members to enroll their kids in community scout troops. Let’s be more active participants in events hosted by our friends of other faiths — or secular organizations. Let’s organize and invite others to our own events. On my mission, also in Italy, I knocked on the door of a Catholic soup kitchen and volunteered to serve meals. Soon several missionaries were working alonside nuns most evenings to feed the destitute of our city. I’d like to think that this cooperative effort helped everyone come a little closer to Christ. I’m not opposed to tracting, but I think we need to focus on doing good, even if that doesn’t result in baptising a new convert.

Comments are closed.