On June 24, 2019, President M. Russell Ballard, acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke to outgoing mission presidents and their companions at the Missionary Training Center. He gave insightful instruction regarding how missionaries are to invite people to baptism. His primary counsel suggested that anytime a missionary extends an invitation to someone they are teaching, especially for baptism, it should be “Spirit-led.”
While the idea of following the Spirit while performing missionary work isn’t new, a few of his comments following his introduction made some waves by encouraging us to reconsider how we approach missionary work—particularly in inviting to baptism. Traditionally, missions throughout the world have preached the importance of an invitation to baptism very early on in the teaching process—perhaps the first lesson, or even first contact—but President Ballard instructed that this is not the standard we should set.
It was never our intention to invite people to be baptized before they had learned something about the gospel, felt the Holy Ghost, and had been properly prepared to accept a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
“Our retention rates will dramatically increase when people desire to be baptized because of the spiritual experiences they are having rather than feeling pressured into being baptized by our missionaries.”
While there are definitely circumstances in which a missionary may feel inspired by the Spirit to invite an individual to baptism shortly following their introduction, President Ballard’s caution that we not “push people down the path” is exciting. There are many who have served missions who felt a certain pressure to invite early to baptism, often to the detriment of their investigator’s spiritual journey.
In light of the recent address given by President Ballard, we asked a few returned missionaries affiliated with Third Hour about their mission experience in regard to the baptismal invitation and the instruction they received on giving it. We also surveyed how they feel President Ballard’s comments will help missionaries feel more comfortable and “Spirit-led” in navigating such an important element of missionary work and the Gospel as a whole.
Here’s what they had to say:
Erin Stokes—New Mexico
We were told to make an invitation to baptism in the first lesson we had with any individual. I trained three sisters and with each one, I would set that expectation, but it was definitely a situation as a trainer where I didn’t practice what I preached. I felt like a rebel sister because I never liked asking in the first lesson. When I was with other companions I would either let them invite in the first lesson (because they felt the need to be more obedient than I did) or I would ask in another way like, “If you find the things we teach you to be true, would you be baptized?” or wait until a later lesson where I felt more comfortable with the person. I didn’t like being a disobedient missionary so I always tried to get over my personal feelings but every time I invited in a first lesson it always felt forced and awkward, even with the people who eventually were baptized.
I don’t think it’s bad to invite early on in teaching someone but I would say it shouldn’t be something that is given a set lesson. Maybe set a mission goal to bring it up early, followed closely by an invitation, but not to make it a rule.
Rules were very important in my mission (2010-2012, Mexico), and we had no shortage of them. I can’t pinpoint when the “baptism invitation in the first lesson” became a thing, but it certainly did become a thing. And I did not like it. It gave the clear expectation that ultimately, all we cared about was getting that person baptized. But missionary work is (or should be) so much more than that. I found the practice to be manipulative towards the missionaries, and in turn, towards those the missionaries would teach.
In my mission, we made it a goal to always introduce the Spirit to our friends of the Church in the first meeting or lesson. We would teach them who the Spirit is, why He is important, and how one might be able to recognize His influence.
“If you do this at the beginning of your teaching, your friend will be prepared to recognize the confirmatory revelation that comes from God through the Holy Ghost and will be better prepared to act upon it. Only when you have taught someone how to access the heavens, to communicate through the Holy Ghost who will reveal the truth of all things (Moroni 10:5) – only then will they truly know where to find the truth.”
Whenever your friends feel the Holy Ghost (and you will know this by the same power) it is your commission to preach repentance by simply inviting. You should always be prepared to extend an invitation. The Holy Ghost will prompt you, which invitation is appropriate at that moment to help them come one step closer to God.
Always make sure your friends do not look to you as the only source of truth but turn their gaze heavenwards. Make them independent in their quest for truth early on, so they can pray to the Father directly and then recognize when He answers them. This will lift them out of ignorance and make them truly free to act and not be acted upon (2 Nephi 2).
Erik Parry—Marshall Islands/Kiribati
As a missionary, I recognized the importance of extending baptismal invitations—it’s one of the key saving ordinances in the Gospel, and can set an individual on the covenant path which can lead to temple ordinances and eventual exaltation. I admit that sometimes it was very difficult for me to feel comfortable extending a baptismal invitation after the first contact or lesson, but if I really felt I should I tried to follow that prompting. I’m grateful for President Ballard’s counsel emphasizing Spirit-led invitations, as I did feel that each individual you teach may be most ready to receive a baptismal invitation at entirely different times. I strongly believe that not everyone is ready to hear a baptismal invitation when you first meet them on the street, or tract into their house.
My mission president encouraged us to invite everyone to baptism, regardless if we had just met them while contacting on the street or if we were teaching them a formal lesson. I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of bringing up baptism at such an early stage but due to the encouragement, I tried to be obedient, though I wasn’t very successful in my effort.
During many companionship inventories, I’d be accused of not inviting to baptism during the first lesson and would be told that my faith was lacking if I wasn’t willing to speak up about baptism. I felt guilty during the beginning months of my mission for this uncomfortable feeling but eventually decided that if I continued working as hard as I could and dedicated myself to the work, that God would direct me when the right time would be to invite to baptism.
In my mission, we were instructed to invite to baptism early and often. I liked it. It never occurred to me that such a practice would inhibit the Spirit of God. I think the instruction given by President Ballard is terrific because the Spirit whispers that it is true that we cannot do the work of the Lord outside of His power or program.
When I served back in 2013-2014, we were told to extend the baptismal invite on the first lesson, which is when I almost always gave it. I typically did a soft invite — “If you come to know these things were true, would you be willing to follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized by someone holding the priesthood authority of God?” unless I felt otherwise prompted. But we were ALWAYS encouraged to extend the baptismal invite on the first lesson.
Preach My Gospel says in the first lesson, “As directed by the Spirit, during this or any other lesson, do not hesitate to invite people to be baptized and confirmed,” which is where I think the idea that you need to extend it then comes from — but I think it’s important to note that it says “As directed by the Spirit.” I think that’s the best advice any missionary could take away from PMG: everything you do should be directed by the Spirit, and when it comes to the baptismal invitation, issue it when you feel the Spirit is prompting you to. If that’s in the first lesson, that’s fine — but if it’s not until later, that’s fine too and it doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith because you’re not inviting someone to be baptized in your first meeting, which is kind of how I always felt. The Spirit knows these people better than we ever will and we need to follow its guidance on how to teach people and when to invite them to baptism.
Missionary Work is Evolving
We belong to the living Church. As such, we believe that Heavenly Father directs his leaders to give inspired counsel on how certain improvements can be made to enhance the effectiveness of different purposes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strives to fulfill. Considering the earlier years of the Church until the present day, missionary work is a prime example. There have been both official changes and helpful corrections in relation to missionary work over the years which have helped us know how to best gather the Lord’s children who are prepared to receive His Gospel.
President Ballard’s admonition to give Spirit-led baptismal invitations is a recent example of inspired counsel which will help missionaries better follow the Spirit and teach to the needs of an individual, as opposed to being overly concerned with an arbitrary goal or standard that has been set for them.