Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reflections on Mass Baptisms in Mission Fields Throughout the World

The issue of mass baptisms can be controversial as different sides line up on the matter. Some mission presidents and general authorities are in to a more charismatic approach and others want a slower more qualitative approach. I personally am somewhere in the middle. I enjoy seeing large numbers brought in but I want to retain more than are actually staying in the Church.

I have been a member of the LDS Church since I was 18 years old. A year after joining the Church I went on a mission and served under M. Russell Ballard who was a very dynamic mission president from 1974 until 1977. Under his leadership they created two stakes in the Toronto area which were the first two since Thomas S. Monson had been mission president back in 1961. We struggled every month to break 100 baptisms which was supposed to be the number that could break Satan's hold on that part of the Lord's vineyard. I became converted at that time to an exuberant style of missionary work.

When I was a missionary and I baptized seven people in a two week period near the middle of my mission. It was very intoxicating to go in to the homes of investigators who I had taught one or two lessons and say to them "How wonderful it is to be with you before we leave we would like to set the date to your baptism in to Christ's true church. Then we would have to get the Spirit, identify that what they were feeling was the Spirit and ask for a commitment. Unbelievably I was never turned down once. My mission president asked me a hard hitting question when I was bragging about my success of using Alvin R. Dyer's the Challenge right after the baptisms, he said: "Where will they be in twenty years? Will most of them even be members of the church." From that time until now I think about the qualitative nature of baptisms. It really threw a wet blanket on me but I got his point and even though I only had half as many baptisms the rest of my mission. I made sure they were well taught.

When I went to work in the Library at BYU--Hawaii I taught a couple of religion classes which included Book of Mormon and Missionary Preparation. The missionaries assigned to the campus came to my office in the Library quite a bit to talk with me. I shared how I had baptized eight people in one month just by using The Challenge. One of the missionaries came back three times to my office and begged me to share it with him. I went and copied the chapter out of Dyer's book and stressed how to do it since he was so adamant. He was serving at the time under Elder Yoshihiko Kukuchi. This particular elder was a good looking kid who has a very pleasing personality. He caught on fire on end up with nearly 1,000 baptisms. He was made a traveling assistant that went throughout the field training other elders. It revitalized that particular mission field.

In 1996 I moved to Calexico, California which is the place where Hartman Rector's missionaries baptized hundreds of people when he was president of the Calfornia San Diego Mission. An older member told me that they used his pool and that missionaries would teach some of the people all the lessons in his home in a few hours then go out in his backyard and baptize them. In that ward I served as a high priest group leader and for a while as the membership clerk. We had two thousand members on the records of the ward that no one had any clue where they were. Our bishop worked hard to clean them up assigning our missionaries forty or fifty every couple of weeks to check on. We played a little game where we would ship them to Mexico to the Mexicali stakes since people were constantly moving back and forth across the border which was five blocks from the chapel.

When I first arrived in Calexico the missionaries referred to Calexico as the rock since very few people were ever baptized there. I shared the Challenge with a zone leader who caught on fire and had 78 baptisms. His personality was very intense and nothing like the other elder I shared it with from Hawaii. He would share with me stories of testifying and asking complete strangers to be baptized including one tire technician who had worked on the missionaries' car. He was indiscriminately challenging people on the streets. His whole zone became challenging and testifying missionaries in his mold. His zone became the leader in his mission. His mission president thought he got a little carried away and eventually dropped him to a senior companion. The elder brought it on by being confrontational with his mission president who wasn't enamored of his results. I was kind of sorry for him since I appreciated his spirit of wanting to bring as many people as he could in to the church. He got in to trouble when he offered to go around as a traveling trainer like the other elder who I had told him about.

I am a strong proponent of finding, teaching, and baptizing. I have never been one to put the brakes on successful mission presidents and missionaries. Or should you even put the brakes on them? I would have to admit that is why I am not a leader because I wouldn't know at which point to slow someone down and how to do it without offending them. I learned years ago in reading something Marion G. Romney said that it doesn't matter whether you are born in the church or converted the Church only retains 18% of its members. In terms of the recent success in the West Indies Mission putting that in perspective which would you rather have 1,200 an average in most missions or 2,800. In the first scenario about one stake is created in the second about two stakes. The fascinating thing is that it helped create the first stake in that area of the church. Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen as a few years will tell us how many are retained. I think a large batch of leaders will emerge so it is a trade-off.

The proponents of qualitative baptisms suggest we create more detractors of the church by baptizing and losing this people. All I know is that it is a complex conundrum. I will never have to worry about being a mission president or general authority so I can sit back on the sidelines and throw in my two cents worth. And you my readers can debate it.

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