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The Tracting Pull

Rusty - April 7, 2011

The Church has discontinued tracting in the United States. Or at least so goes the rumor.

If true, it wouldn’t surprise me. I mean, it’s always been far, far down the list of effective ways of finding people to teach and I imagine it’s only gotten worse over time. Missionaries hate doing it and people hate it being done to them. It’s embarrassing, awkward and dreaded. But the worst part about it? The baptisms that have come from it. Seriously. Those very, very, very few successes have lead to more bad missionary work, in terms of quantity, than any bad mission president or program.

Let me explain: Think of all of the inspirational missionary stories you’ve heard. What percentage of them involved tracting in some form? (“We were about to turn in but decided to knock just ONE MORE DOOR…” or “…we knocked on the door and out came a guy holding a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Jack in the other…” or “…the blisters on my knuckles taught me the importance of hard work…” Etc.) Okay, do you want to know what percentage of converts are a result of tracting? Yeah, so do I, but I know it’s much, much smaller than the stories would indicate. But that doesn’t matter to the missionary who is told that the most important thing they can do is WORK HARD!! And if that means blistering their knuckles on strangers’ doors, well then, they’re going to do it. So now you have mission presidents directing their missionaries to tract when they don’t have appointments and missionaries who want to work hard and have a spiritual experience. They know the stories. So they tract.

I know there are many folks who were found through tracting. And I’m glad we have them. I actually have one of those Ensign-worthy stories from my mission that was a result of tracting. But have you ever thought about the value of that time being spent doing something else? The second half of my mission I probably tracted a total of 20 hours (in the whole year, not per week). And I baptized probably 3-times as many people. Why? My theory is because I worked exclusively with members. Active members, ex-members, less active members, whatever. Nothing on the schedule in the morning? Let’s go visit the Torres family. Not to ask for referrals but perhaps to talk about some nonsense or maybe do some act of service or whatever. The important thing was that we were present and that they knew us. Which they all did, everyone in the wards knew us well enough that missionary work was constantly top-of-mind. And we got referrals. Lots of them. Imagine if we spent that time talking to strangers. Sure, we probably would have found some people. But I guarantee we wouldn’t have found as many as we did working with members.

I’m not saying that every mission could or should have the same dynamic as mine. But there isn’t a country in the world where tracting is more effective than working with members.


  1. Let me explain: Think of all of the inspirational missionary stories you’ve heard. What percentage of them involved tracting in some form? (“We were about to turn in but decided to knock just ONE MORE DOOR…”

    heh, we actually had one of those on my mission. The husband later became the district president… :)

    But out of the 14 people I baptized on my mission in Romania, those three were the only ones that came from tracting. Every other one came from referrals.

    Comment by Dan — April 7, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

  2. I agree with you on the waste of time blind tracting. There is a successful form of tracting,and my family was blessed by it.I had been inactive for 14 years,that would make me 28 years old.I had married a fine protestant girl and we just had a baby girl.It was the Friday after thanksgiving and the day after having a long talk with my aunt about some church doctrine . I had the day off but my wife was working.Late in the afternoon as I was holding my daughter ,i looked at her and said are you a angel from God to help us make a decision .That decision was that my wife and I had been trying on finding a church we could agree on.A knock came at the door and there were two Mormon missionaries,I could hardly keep from laughing. I invited them in,then I accused them of being sent by one of my family . They assured me that they had not been sent,but that they were on there way home when they were impressed to knock on one more door.long story short,,,one year latter me and my wife were sealed and our daughter was sealed to us.If the holy ghost ask you to knock then you knock.

    Comment by marv thompson — April 7, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

  3. I doubt your rumor (I sure haven’t heard it), but I would rejoice were it true. For me the main issue is one of goodwill. We lose so much of it when we harass people at their doors. We should cede that schtick to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If we can’t think of anything better to do with missionary time, we need to think harder.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — April 7, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  4. Tracting is lazy missionary work. It requires no real preparation or thought, and you get credit for working hard if you do it. But it’s not working hard, it’s just killing time. As a missionary tool, it ranks just above sleeping in effectiveness.

    I’m glad to see it go away as a missionary tool, because it sucks for both missionaries and those they contact. Missionaries should learn to do more effective things instead of just tracting along whenever you have nothing else to do.

    I actually had a baptism from tracting on my mission and another who was baptized after I left, but it’s still mostly a waste of time.

    Comment by MCQ — April 7, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

  5. Not to one-up Dan, but when *I* was in Romania, we weren’t even allowed to do tracting. In fact, it was five months in before we could even do street boarding or street contacting.

    Comment by Wm Morris — April 7, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

  6. Well…My mother and father were a product of tracting. My mother joined the church a few months later. My father was an inactive member. But they didn’t have the programs they have now to reach out to part member families back then. I am so grateful 38 years later…for those Elders, and I was the ONE LAST DOOR…before their dinner appointment.

    Comment by Ordinary Mom — April 7, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

  7. I think that in this day and age, there’s just something about coming to the door that turns people off. There was probably a time when this wasn’t the case. When my mission president was a missionary himself in the 1950s Midwest he said often people would invite them in, feed them, etc., and THEN ask why they were going door-to-door. I can’t imagine anyone doing that today.

    Comment by Bryan H. — April 7, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  8. WM Morris,

    When were you there?

    Comment by Dan — April 7, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

  9. There are a lot of areas now where tracting is just not possible, either because it’s too dangerous or because of gated communities or gated properties. We need to come up with new ways to reach people.

    Comment by MCQ — April 8, 2011 @ 2:23 am

  10. I’m grateful for tracting….its how my family met the missionaries and was brought into the Church, which we had never heard of prior to that first contact.

    Comment by Tom O. — April 8, 2011 @ 3:53 am

  11. Although I agree that tracting is not the best use of time for a missionary, and agree more should be done to encourage other forms of proselyting, I can see some benefits to that kind of effort. I do think tracting can help people experience rejection and gain confidence in speaking to people who might initially be antagonistic.

    Moreover, that JW’s still tract and have far more success with it indicates that perhaps we are just doing it wrong.

    Comment by Aaron R. — April 8, 2011 @ 4:21 am

  12. I agree with #7. I think tracting is *mostly* a waste of time nowadays because it is such a dated practice; the culture is different now than when tracting was much more effective.

    My first area on my mission we tracted 6-7 hours a day. That’s just how our mission president encouraged us to work. Thankfully, we moved away from that. Combined with street contacting, I think these forms of “finding” cause more harm than good because they reinforce the stereotype of Mormons being pushy and overbearing. Of course working through members will always be the most effective, but I also found nonconventional approaches like setting up a lemonade stand near a busy part especially productive.

    And I live with the same paradox that the OP and several commenters have mentioned: I was privileged to see a family baptized (and later sealed) result from tracting, but I still firmly believe that tracting should be let go.

    Comment by Ben Park — April 8, 2011 @ 4:28 am

  13. Rusty–what happens when greater exposure to members actually convinces the members NOT to refer their friends to THESE particular missionaries? Clearly, you have social skills, but so many missionaries do not.

    While I agree that housing is “hard” work rather than “smart” work, I am wary of missionaries spending substantially more time hanging out with members. That looks plain lazy to me, which only means I have not often seen it done right. If it is to be done, I would favor short visits with more families over long visits with a few.

    I was tracted by some JWs a few years ago. It was a fascinating experience. They looked just like…us and never told me what church they were from, just shared a spiritual message with me, and a Watchtower. I love those.

    House-to-house contacting is certainly a different beast than it once was in the US–it now feels downright invasive to have a stranger show up at your front door.

    Comment by ESO — April 8, 2011 @ 6:36 am

  14. Marv, Ordinary Mom and Tom O,
    Again, I’m thrilled for you to have joined the Church. Do any of you think there would have been any chance you would have found it otherwise? Perhaps not. Part of the problem is that when people talk about “effective” tracting, whatever that means, they essentially are looking for missionaries to “knock on more doors of people looking for the Gospel” which is absurd on its face. OF COURSE that would be great, but mathematics are just not in its favor.

    Well, I hate to say it, but the missionaries better learn some social skills. Chances are slim that I’m going to refer my friend to missionaries I don’t feel comfortable with. And you’re right, of course, that it’s a fine line. I knew/know plenty of missionaries who just go to certain members’ homes and hang out and call it missionary work. But you’re also right that short visits with more families is the way to go.

    Comment by Rusty — April 8, 2011 @ 7:01 am

  15. Combined with street contacting, I think these forms of “finding” cause more harm than good because they reinforce the stereotype of Mormons being pushy and overbearing. Of course working through members will always be the most effective…

    Though it’s easy to be pushy and overbearing here too. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of missionaries under the impression that they are the first to call you to repentance, ask for a referral or try to baptize your non-member spouse. The fruit isn’t hanging that low.

    Comment by Peter LLC — April 8, 2011 @ 7:02 am

  16. I found that I had better success tracting when I wasn’t being pushy–I took the first “no,” thanked them for their time, and went to the next house.

    There was a week or two where the JWs were tracting near where we were. We had great success by introducing ourselves by saying “We aren’t JWs,” until we got to the house where the family said, “Yes, but we are” and slammed the door in my face.

    Comment by CS Eric — April 8, 2011 @ 7:14 am

  17. Rusty, not sure where you heard the rumor, but our own Brooklyn missionaries have hinted at it to me.

    My mission in Utah was a good case study for this issue. We really had no choice but to work with the members. We would hit the pavement when we had nothing better to do and keep running into members…(of course). The result – above average baptisms, above average retention and missionaries stripped of the savior complex. Of the various people I saw baptized – I physically immersed only one. They always had their friend do it – the one who introduced them to the Church. I don’t think Utahns are necessarily better at sharing the gospel, there’s just more of them per capita. I felt like we always had home-court advantage.

    For those who may never meet a Mormon to learn about the gospel, I think giving away free stuff via TV is a much better option than tracting.

    Comment by CJ Douglass — April 8, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  18. I hate to bring up the term principle and practice again but I am forced to by some of the comments here.Tracting is a practice and not an effective one.The principle is to bring our brothers and sisters to the gospel and what ever practice that will do that should be used.Tracting is for those who do not find a better way of reaching contacts.We members should never invite missionaries into our homes for dinner or any other reason unless that visit includes a non member contact or discussion of a non member contact.When i served as ward mission leader we tracted with the missionaries and that inspired my group to find better ways to make non member contacts.Tracting is a tool,it should never be removed from our tool box but should be used with prayer and as a last resort.

    Comment by marv thompson — April 8, 2011 @ 9:32 am

  19. Rusty,

    To the question of whether my family would have ended up in the Church without first meeting the missionaries through tracting, while it’s an impossible question to answer I think after much reflection that the answer is a strong “no”.

    This was October 1985, I was seven years old, my parents were in the middle of a divorce. We lived in an ethnic (read: Italian & Irish) working-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey, where I went to Catholic school and was encouraged to think about becoming a priest. There was virtually no Church presence in the area (the local ward was centered in the next county over, in an area that our family never frequented). Upon joining the Church, we learned that we were the only members in our particular town. It was several years before another member family, from Hong Kong (with whom our family became very close), moved in a couple of blocks away — all through High School my sister and I were the only members in school (technically my sister wasn’t even a member, as she wasn’t baptized until shortly before we moved out of the area).

    So, I am fairly certain that I would have had no contact with the Church until much, much later in life — and who knows what kind of position I would have put myself into vis a vis being receptive to the Gospel. Elders Casperson and Hoffheins of Provo Utah making the choice to tract down our street that day is probably the most important event of my life (together with all the choices that stemmed from that event).

    Of course, that is all subject to the caveat that the Lord could or would have put the path into the Kingdom before me in any event….but again, that is impossible to know.

    So, consequently, I’m a fan of tracting….of course, it should be done the right way.

    Comment by Tom O. — April 8, 2011 @ 9:51 am

  20. Tom o hit it out of the park,the right way is with the right attitude and the holy ghost leading.

    Comment by marv thompson — April 8, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  21. Rusty enjoyed this post,hope you would consider a post about missionary programs that were successful that did not come from tracting.I would be glad to share great ideas with my ward ,not just work with members but detailed programs that are inspired.

    Comment by marv thompson — April 8, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  22. Agree 100% on everything ever. Tracting is stupid, usually lazy, ineffective work.

    Comment by Bret — April 8, 2011 @ 11:51 pm

  23. Dan:

    I served in ’92 and ’93.

    Comment by Wm Morris — April 9, 2011 @ 5:45 am

  24. Wm Morris,

    Nice… I was there in 95-97. They allowed us to tract starting in December 1995.

    Comment by Dan — April 9, 2011 @ 7:15 am

  25. I think this bit is relevant to the discussion:


    Comment by CJ Douglass — April 9, 2011 @ 8:10 am

  26. As far as looking for The Lord’s Elect in the Bible Belt, tracting contributed a small percentage to my baptisms (I think a couple even remained active). As far as entertainment went, though, it contributed the lion’s share. Through knocking on doors, I’ve met hookers, bikers, a Wiccan, a published anti-Mormon authority, night shift girls looking for company, a moonshiner and an army private who flushed his contraband because he thought we were CID. Unfortunately, I don’t think many seeds were planted during those encounters.

    Regarding the current status of tracting, the policy’s dissolution may be regional. The local Elders informed me they’re still told to tract when nothing else is scheduled. They added that they didn’t think tracting would completely end anytime soon because it works well in the Spanish-speaking and Korean (and I suspect other) communities.

    Comment by David T. — April 10, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  27. All of my baptisms came from tracting. I served in an area with very few members. I think a lot of missionaries do. You can’t just expect potential converts to come your way.
    Most missionaries I just don’t like very much. I don’t want them coming over all the time. My wife doesn’t much like them coming around when I am gone either.

    Most of this comes down to where you are serving, how many members are around, local customs etc.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 10, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  28. Missionaries still tracting here in Philly.

    Comment by Rob — April 10, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

  29. Bull snot to those who say tracting is lazy! While it may list far, far down on the effectiveness scale, tracting as a missionary shows the Lord you are willing to try anything to find his sheep. And some of the funniest moments on the mission happen when tracting. I do think the missionaries should work the hardest at member referrals, but sometimes that will not fill up your entire calendar for the week. And tracting makes a great time to talk about random stuff with you companion between the homes.

    Comment by Jacob M — April 14, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

  30. Bull snot to those who say tracting is lazy!

    Jacob M, your comment actually made me think. Having served in an increasingly secular and atheistic Europe where people tend to be more reserved generally, we spent most of my time knocking doors and street contacting, and 90% of the baptisms in our mission came as a result of these activities.

    Tracting was especially hard for me since I am quiet and shy, but after two years I was pretty good at it because I constantly analyzed what I was doing, thinking of new approaches, new questions, trying to figure out why certain situations were more uncomfortable than others and how to get around that (for example, I couldn’t figure out why I hated talking to people at bus stops so much until I realized that it’s because they don’t have an easy out. At the door, they can just close it to end the conversation. They can’t very well walk away from the bus stop. Solution: give them a reasonable way out conversationally and respect their answer).

    Anyways, I am left to wonder what would happened if we would have applied so much creative energy to member work, service projects, etc. Probably would have had more success. We never did though, because we could always knock door.

    Comment by Bryan H. — April 14, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

  31. Bryan H – Your response makes me think, as well. It seems to me that you are saying that the laziness of tracting is more of an intellectual or creative laziness, and with that, I’m mostly in agreement. Of course, if us as regular members of the church did a better job at missionary work, the missionaries wouldn’t need to tract. Part of the problem, too, is that we are sending a bunch of young, relatively naive, and not well-schooled in critical reasoning men and women out there. They might not always be the most creative thinkers in approaching problems. As to how we get around that, I guess that’s where the mission presidency is so vital, but I think also the suggestion that missionaries need to be better prepared seems wise, if we can figure out how to do it.

    Comment by Jacob M — April 15, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  32. A simple question: from whence did this rumor spring? Internet rumors are notoriously unreliable. Is there a source, or just “I heard it from a friend”?

    In this day and age of instant verifiability, any rumor should be chalked up to “wishful thinking” until it can be verified (which should take all of about 10 minutes of google-ing).

    Comment by BedfordFalls — April 21, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  33. I’m not sure if congratulations are in order or not for being cited in USA Today, but it is noteworthy. It is always a bit comical when Peggy Fletcher Stack dresses up her web browsing with a phone call or two and gets it published as a newspaper article.

    Comment by John Mansfield — April 22, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  34. For those who don’t know what John is talking about, you can read about it here.

    Comment by MCQ — April 22, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  35. Rusty: you’re a Mormon media mogul. Nice work!

    Comment by Travis — April 25, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  36. Nice post, Rusty. I totally agree. In fact, if it’s true that tracting is being discontinued in the US, I would feel validated because that’s what I argued for (using pretty much the same arguments you have–great minds think alike!) a few years ago.

    Comment by Ziff — April 26, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

  37. If there is not something more productive to be done, then tracting is a reasonable way to spend time. I have people coming to our door about once per week (gated community) selling something, inviting to something, girl scout cookies, and yes, occasionally, the missionaries. They are neither offensive or negative, simply doing their part to share a message important to them. I feel the same about any of the evangelical groups. They are doing their best to share the message that they feel is most important. No need to be angry about tracting. And, to really examine your first point:
    1. I am sure there were times in your day, even during your 2nd year that you could not find any members to visit with. Wandering from one home to another of people not home is not always an effective use of time.
    2. Your math says 20% of your baptisms came from tracting. So that sounds like it was “effective” even if not “most effective use” all the time.
    I fully agree that tracting is not generally the most effective use of time, but we also have members who have returned to activity because a missionary knocked on their door at the right time.

    Comment by Kevin — June 13, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

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