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Clayton Christensen

Try a ‘Front-Line’ Approach in Sharing the Gospel

I thought I would start by going back in my own life. When I was a young man, just barely married, I was serving as a counselor to our bishop in the Cambridge First Ward in the Boston Stake. And I was magnifying my calling as best I could. We had a massive ward that took over about half of Boston at the time. I was studying the scriptures every day, I was praying diligently, and yet as time passed, I just felt the Spirit in my life less and less, especially when I compared with how I felt the Spirit on almost a minute-by-minute basis as a missionary. And I just didn’t feel it. So I decided I’d better double down and spend more of my time trying to magnify my calling and reading the scriptures and praying more diligently. And yet, I just couldn’t seem to stop that slide. And I didn’t know what to do.
As President Richards mentioned, I got a position in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which caused me then to go down to Washington, and we rented a place where we had new neighbors. And when I took the bus into work, I was sitting next to people that I’d never met before. And I realized that in Boston, pretty much everybody that I’d worked with and lived with, I’d invited to learn about our gospel. Some had joined our Church; many had not, but in Washington, everybody I met I hadn’t invited yet if they would like to learn about the gospel. And so several of them then said, “Yes, I would like to know more.”
I remember, before a colleague and her boyfriend were going to come for their first missionary lesson, we were trying to clean up our home. And all of a sudden, a warm and wonderful spirit came into our home and just went deeply into my heart, and I realized that the Spirit had come back into my life. When I was sleeping, I was having dreams of spiritual things, and when I was walking to catch the bus, I just started to sing the hymns of Zion. And I had not felt like this since when I was a missionary. And I realized a way to frame, I think, what had happened. Just imagine that you were a general, and you’re in a war against a bitter enemy. And you just have a few of the state-of-the-art weapons that you can give to your soldiers. Who are the soldiers that you would give the best weapons to? Well, you wouldn’t give them to the ones who were driving the trucks in the supply chain or the people who were fixing dinner in the kitchen. You would give the best to the soldiers who were right on the front line, engaged day-to-day in direct conflict with the enemy.
And I realized what I had done in my life, is I had geographically repositioned myself. My calling as a member of the bishopric was behind the lines, administrative in character. And I had geographically repositioned myself right on the front lines, in direct battle with Satan in the war over the souls of the children of men. And when I put myself right on the front line, God gave me His best weapon, which was His Spirit. And that’s why the Spirit had come back into my life.
It was such a distinct difference in how I felt every day, to have the Spirit with me, that I just decided that I would call myself on a mission, which I did. And I’ve never released myself. And I hope that, at the end of our talks today, that I will have inspired some of you to go home and call yourself on a mission, and spend your life serving our Heavenly Father. I think it’s quite easy for members of the Church to sense that we’re in a way with Satan, and it’s scary. And we think that if we just retreat from the front line, and seek safety in the core of the Church, spending our time with other members of the Church, we somehow think that we will be protected against what Satan wants to do.
Paradoxically, I think it is just the opposite. We have the greatest strength when we go right out there to the front line and try to bring people into the gospel of Jesus Christ, because we have the Spirit that helps us live righteous lives.
So I thought I’d just share with you three things that I have learned about how to be a missionary in the kingdom of God. I think it’s relevant, because as best I can tell, when you walk down the streets of Salt Lake City, looking at people who are roughly your age, about 70 percent of the people that you watch or you see are not active members of this Church, or are not yet members of the Church. There was a time when we thought this was the core of Zion and Boston was the mission field. And what’s happened is that the mission field has come to Salt Lake City. There are thousands and thousands of people who you need to bring into the kingdom here.
So the first thing I would like you to learn from me is that you actually cannot judge who is interested in the Church. I learned this when I finished my work at BYU. As President Richards mentioned, I got a scholarship to go to Oxford University in England, and I guess I was there two weeks, and the missionaries knocked on my door and said, “Our mission president has a program that we want to present to you.” And so they laid out this spreadsheet on my table, and it showed on the top there were 12 columns, steps in this process. And step number one was to ask them to go to some social thing with you. And step number two was to go back and send them a thank-you note, and step three was something, and so on. Step six was to give them a copy of the Book of Mormon, after you have invited them to come to church with you. And then there were a bunch of other things, and step eleven was they get baptized, and step 12 was they live happily ever after.
What they wanted us to do was list on the left-hand side 12 people who we knew who we thought might be interested in learning about the Church. And I really wanted to be a good missionary, so I took this, and I wrote down the people who I thought might be interested. And I rank-ordered them. So the top guy’s name was Ken Brown. And if BYU’s movie studio tried to find somebody as an actor who was the quintessential Mormon, it would be Ken Brown. He just looked the part. And then as you got down to number 12, this was a pretty marginal kind of guy, but I had to have 12.
So I started with Ken, and we went out and did something, I think, in London. And he was very delighted that I wanted to be his friend, so he invited me to do something, and I invited him, and I thought this was just going, just great. We came to number five—I invited him to come to church, because I had to give the sacrament meeting talk in the Oxford Ward. And he said, “Sure, I’d love to listen to you talk.” And after we went to my place, where we had lunch, and I gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon. And I said, “Ken, if you have any interest, I would love to talk to you about what a great church ours is.”
And he very awkwardly put it down and he said, “You know, I was raised an Episcopalian, and here I am in another country, and I just really enjoy the Church of England. So thanks, but no thanks.” And it was just very awkward. So after lunch he left, and I went to the wall where I had put this chart, where he could not have seen it. And I looked at all of the other 11 people, and how much time it took to get Ken to the point where I could give him a Book of Mormon. I had just been called as the ward Young Mens president, which is very demanding … I thought, “I can’t keep up my friendship with Ken and do all of this with all of these other people.” So I erased him off the list, and started to do this with number 2. And we went through all of that until he said, “I’m not interested.” Number 3: “I’m not interested.” We got all of the way to 12, and none of them were interested.
So I took the chart off my wall, and I said, “You know, some people are good missionaries. I’m not. But I tried.”
A couple of months later, two missionaries—we had new missionaries then—knocked on my door, and said, “We have a program from our mission president.”
And they laid this out, and I said, “Been there; done that. Maybe it worked for somebody, but it didn’t work for me.”
And these missionaries were very insistent. “Surely there’s somebody you know who wasn’t on your last list, that we could visit.”
And I said, “Well, yeah. There’s a guy named Charlie Hunter. He’s from Nova Scotia. He has my scholarship. He is probably the world’s highest consumer of Guinness Ale, and he hates religion. But you want to visit him, take my … ” You know.
So they said, “All right.” They came back an hour later saying, “Holy cow. We had the best first discussion with Charlie Hunter. He asked, ‘Do you know Clay Christensen’ and we said ‘Yeah. Would you like to have the next lesson with him?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’”
And so he goes through all the discussions and just became truly converted to the Lord. And I look back on that, and what I realized is that I would never have picked Charlie Hunter out of a police lineup as somebody who had any interest at all. And I realized that actually, I can’t predict who will be interested and who will not. In fact, God said that we’re not supposed to judge other people. But rather, my job is I just need to invite them. Some will be interested; a lot of them won’t. But I cannot predict in advance who will be interested.
And I just invite you, those of you who have lived in places where people are joining the Church in your wards, to what these people looked like when they made connection with the Mormon Church and compare what they looked like then with what the gospel has done to the way they look now. And it really is true that in living here with all of these people who need to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ, you cannot predict who will be interested. You have to invite everybody you meet.
And this is the second thing I’d like you to remember. When you have an opportunity and you’re talking to somebody, and they don’t look like a Mormon, how can I tell if they might be interested? About a year ago, I met a guy through a strange set of situations. He was about my age, he was raised in Minneapolis, he’d gone to Cal-Tech in Pasadena, and then came to Harvard to go to the Harvard Business School. And when I talk to people, I always use Mormon words in my conversation, so they know I’m a Mormon. And so he picked up that really quick. He said, “Oh, you’re a Mormon?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “You know, I don’t know much about your church, but I haven’t been to church for nearly 30 years.”
I said, “Why?”
He said, “Well, the churches that I went to could never answer any of my questions, and I just decided that I need to answer the questions and religion can’t do it, so I’ve been focused on science. Science isn’t doing a very good job either, incidentally.”
I said, “You know what would be fun for me, is could we just set a time to have lunch together, and I would like you to bring to that meeting a list of questions. And I don’t want you to have picky little questions about the Mormon Church, per se; I want you to list big questions—questions that you couldn’t get answers to that have caused you never to go to church again. And I’d like to just talk with you about your questions and understand why these are important to you. And,” I said, “if you wouldn’t mind, we have a couple of missionaries for our church that I might want to invite to have lunch with us, in case they could help me to give our answers to the questions.”
And he said, “Yeah. This would be kind of fun.”
So when we met for lunch, he pulls out four copies of this list of 19 questions. And these were very interesting questions, like “Why in the world do all of the churches baptize people? What is the meaning of baptism, and why does God want you to be baptized?”
And he said, “Why does it make God angry when people baptize infants? I just have a sense that it makes God angry.” Very thoughtful questions.
So we started at the beginning, and the wonderful missionaries put together answers to these questions. And I remember when they finished the first questions, I saw Steven pull out a pencil and click that off the list.
And I said, “Why did you click that off?”
And he said, “They answered my question.” And he said, “Why can the Mormon Church answer these questions?”
And so we described how the gospel had been restored, and he said, “Huh. Can we meet again to go after question number two?”
The reason I say that is, if I had attempted to tell Steven Elliott, “I want to have lunch, and I want to tell you everything you need to know in order to … that I think you need to know,” we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. And if I had said, “The guy has not been in church for 30 years; he’s not religious,” I would have missed it.
And I decided that I want to define whether someone is religious or not by whether they have questions. That’s my definition of a religious person. There are a lot of people who have a lot of answers and no questions, and I don’t bother with them. But when I have an opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ now, I always ask, “When we come together, would you please bring the questions that you have not been able to get answers to?” And I just bet you, you guys, that if you pick up the average person on the street that doesn’t look like they’re a Mormon, and are not committed to this church or any other church, and you find a way to sit down and ask them, “Do you have any questions about religion that you just haven’t been able to get satisfying answers to?” I bet you that most of the people that you have that conversation with have really interesting questions on their mind, which then gives you an opportunity to help teach them what they want to know. Because if you try to teach people, most people will learn when they’re ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. And by asking, “Do you have questions?” I’ve learned that it has been a wonderful experience.
So two things: You can’t predict, and teach them what they want to know, not what we think they should know.
And then the third one is to invite them to serve with you as you work in the kingdom of God. Let me give you four quick stories. I was raised in the Rose Park portion of Salt Lake. My dad was a home teacher to a man in our ward named Phillip Strong, who just hated this church. He had been inadvertently baptized when he was eight, but he had nothing to do with the Church. And he was so antagonistic that I think my dad took me along—I was six years old—for safety. But we’d knock on the guy’s door, he would come out on the porch and command my dad to get off his property, and if he ever comes back he’s going to call the police. So my dad would leave, but my faithful dad, the next month would knock on Phillip’s door and get ordered off.
Well, November came along, and a really strong storm came through Salt Lake, and it was driving wind. It blew off a big chunk of the roof of Welfare Square. Because we were quite close to that, one of the members of our ward worked there. [He] called my dad up, who was in our bishopric, and he said, “You’ve got to get about 10 people over here as quick as you can, because the rain is coming down onto the food.” And so my dad went door to door, asked people. A number of them said they would do it, and then we came to Phillip Strong’s house. And Phillip—my dad didn’t go there initially, but then he came back and he said, “I’ve got to ask Phillip.”
So when Phillip came out, he went like this, and my dad said, “Phillip, I hope know you never go to church, but I need your help.” And he explained what had happened at Welfare Square. He said, “I’ve got a bunch of men who are willing to go and work to fix it, but you’re the only roofer in the whole neighborhood, and we need you to come and organize the project and tell everybody what to do and how to do it.”
And Phillip said, “All right, I’ll go.” And they went there, got there about six o’clock after the sun had set. They had to go up three stories in the air on this roof, and the wind and the rain were still blowing in a fierce way, and very quickly they were soaked. And my dad was working next to Phil, and every time my dad put a tack through the tar paper, he thought, “I’m just putting another nail in the spiritual coffin of Phillip Strong, because after this miserable experience, he will never be interested in this church.”
Anyway, working until about 11 o’clock, they got the project done. As they were walking back to their cars, Phillip came up to my dad, stuck his arm around my dad, and said, “You know, I haven’t felt this good in 20 years.” Two weeks later, he came to church, and they just raised an extraordinary family that was an unmitigated blessing to all of us who lived there.
All of the time that our approach was, “Phillip Strong, you need the Church,” it just didn’t connect. But when we said, “We need your help,” he was just delighted to be able to do it.
Second: I was a home teacher to an elderly woman in Boston named Julia. One of the reasons why you don’t ever want to come to Boston is because of July. This particular Saturday it was 99 percent humidity and 104 degrees. It was a miserable day. And I decided that I’d better go and make sure Julia was okay. When I went in, I said, “Julia, something is dying in your house. Whatever it is, we’ve got to get this out of here.” And we followed the odor down to the basement, and there was a fridge. And I opened it up, and oh my gosh. What had happened is that six months earlier, the son who lived in Florida had sent her a case of grapefruit. And she put it in there, and then she heard on the TV that if you had an extra appliance that you weren’t using, unplug it so you don’t waste electricity. And she forgot that there was stuff in it, and unplugged it. It was moldy, rotted into the walls of the fridge. I said, “Julia, we’ve got to get this baby out of here.”
So I went home and called all the way down the list of elders in my ward, and nobody was around. And then I remembered I had a neighbor named Don, a very wealthy man. And I had tried over and over again to get him to be interested in the Church. He said every time, “I’m a Catholic.” So this time, I called Don up and explained the situation and said, “Is there any way you could help me get this fridge out?”
And he said, “Sure. I’d like to help.” So he showed up there, and I hadn’t cased it out very well, but this fridge was about 250 pounds, made out of cast iron. And we had to take the door off, and then her home was over 100 years old, so there was this rickety stair that had two right-hand turns. And we had to take the handles off, and it took us two hours to get this thing out.
And we had it on the second level, just getting the sweat off, and Don said, “So, Clay, tell me about the Mormon Church.”
And I said, “Frankly, Don, this is the Mormon Church.” And then I described how I was her home teacher and I did all of this stuff for her. And we had home teachers, and I described all the things they had done for me.
And Don said, “That’s incredible. I love to help other people, but I go to Mass on Sunday. I just sit there. I have no idea if there is anybody there needing my help. Nobody there knows if I need help. Could you just promise me, Clay, that if you Mormons ever do anything for anybody, would you call me up? Because I love to do this kind of stuff.”
And so we did. And just a few weeks afterward, I said, “If you ever want to learn more about our church, let me know. I’d love to talk to you about it.”
And he said, “You know, I never feel good, in my heart, as I feel when I help you guys.” And he felt the Spirit by serving with us in the Church. I learned an important lesson, and that is, we as members in the Church, when we serve in the Church, we feel the Spirit that comes from doing the will of our Father. And that opportunity to feel the Spirit isn’t limited only to people who have been baptized in the Church, because everybody else is a child of God also, and God loves to have them feel the same Spirit that we feel when we give them an opportunity to serve with us.
Third story, and then I’ll quit. There’s a friend named Nancy who lives in a ward in Connecticut. Nancy teaches the 9-year-olds in Primary, and they’re big enough that they are just jumping off the walls. And it’s all she can do to keep order. She was looking ahead and noticed that the week after next it was a lesson on the Good Samaritan. And she thought, “My friend Susan has no interest in religion. But she is the best good Samaritan I have ever known.” So she called Susan up, and Nancy explained that she teaches this lesson every Sunday to these 9-year-olds, and the week after next it’s on the Good Samaritan. [She said,] “Susan, frankly I have never met anybody who is such a wonderful Samaritan as you. Is there any way that you could come and teach this lesson for me, because it’s really got to sink into these kids.”
And Susan said, “I’ve never taught 9-year-olds before, but geez, if you think I can help, I’d love to.”
So they set a time, Susan came over, and they planned together how they would teach this lesson on the Good Samaritan. And Nancy had all kinds of experiences from having done that herself, that she could add to the teaching plan. And then, when that was finalized, Nancy said, “Now there’s one other thing, Susan, that you’ve got to be aware of. In our church, after we give a talk or teach a lesson, we typically end by giving our testimony. What we mean by testimony is, we describe the feelings that we have and the belief that we have, that the things that we were talking about are true. And so when we come to the end of the lesson, I’m going to give my testimony about the truth of what we’re going to talk about. And Susan, if you feel like you’d like to do that, I’d love to then have you give your testimony to these kids.”
And she said, “Well, let me think about it.”
They gave a wonderful lesson to those kids. Nancy gave her testimony to the kids. And then Susan stood up and gave her testimony that the things that they had taught were true. And as she did so, she started to cry. When the kids were gone, and they were putting the furniture back in the right place, Susan said, “Nancy, I never lose my emotions. That never happens to me. Why did I cry?”
And Nancy said, “Susan, it’s because whenever you say something in a testimony that is true, the Spirit of God comes into your heart and tells you that what you said is true. And it has such a powerful impact that it causes your emotions to do what they did.”
And Susan said, “Can I tell you, I’ve never had an experience like this before. If you ever need anybody to help you teach these kids, would you call me?”
And again, when people—when we think that they need the Church, almost all of them decide they don’t need the Church. That’s why they don’t come. But instead, what we say is, “Could you please help me, because I have this to do,” and invite them to join with us to serve the Lord in the true Church, they will feel the Spirit just as we feel the Spirit.
My oldest son, Matt, is a first counselor in the Cambridge Second Ward bishopric in Boston. When he calls people to serve in callings in the ward, he always calls them to two positions. The first one is the normal calling, and the second one is “You are called so that, over the next year, I want you to bring two nonmember friends to come and serve with you in this assignment.” And oh, my goodness, the impact that has had on the spirit of the ward, and the number of people they are finding to build the kingdom is just extraordinary. So all of you are members of young single adult wards. I invite you to invite others to join with you in serving the kingdom of God in your wards. And I promise you that they will feel the same Spirit that you feel as you serve our Heavenly Father.
Can I give you my testimony, that every time I take somebody who has never met Jesus before, and I take them as far as I can to introduce them to Jesus, my own testimony that Jesus Christ lives grows. And I want you to know that I know more surely than anything else in this world, that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of Israel, that He lives, that He knows our names, and loves us in ways that we cannot conceive. And I bear you this testimony, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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