Before the sons of Mosiah embarked on their mission to the Lamanites, they took the time to prepare. Alma 17:2 says, "they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God." I think the key word here is diligently. They did not take a crash course in Gospel Doctrine, rather they faithfully, persistently and diligently studied the scriptures until they were confident in their understanding of the scriptures.
During this time of scripture study, they also prayed and fasted much. As they studied, prayed and fasted, they gained the spirit of prophecy so that when they taught the Lamanites, they "taught with the power and authority of God." (Alma 17:3)
Do we diligently study the scriptures? Do we fast and pray regularly? If we were called upon to give a talk or teach a lesson or testify to an investigator, would we feel prepared and comfortable (Alma 17:10) in the gospel teachings?
Patience in Missionary Work
After much preparation, the sons of Mosiah were given this counsel by the Lord: "Go forth among the Lamanites, they brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls." (Alma 17:11)
This scripture is so valuable because it gives any missionary comfort. The Lord promises that if we are patient and if we're an example, then we will be the means of saving many souls. What a small price to pay for such a magnificent reward. Having patience in missionary work is critical to overall success. Many times we planted seeds which we knew we would never see the fruit. Other times, we were able to harvest the fruit after the people had been prepared for many years.
In Alma 17:13, it talks about how they all left each other. They "separated themselves and departed one from another, trusting in the Lord that they should meet again at the close of their harvest." Just before I left the MTC, my cousins and I met together. We went outside away from the dorms. All 3 of us knelt down and joined hands to pray. I don't remember if one of us prayed or if all 3 of us prayed, but it was a touching moment. After we finished the prayer, one of the night guards caught us because we weren't supposed to be outside that late. So we went inside and what happened there, I shall never forget. We all hugged and we began to cry – hard. We cried for a while, then we reassured ourselves that we would see each other again – and go do some water-skiing. It was a very touching experience and I imagine it was similar to what the sons of Mosiah went through.
It was fairly common in the mission field (at least in the mission in which I served) to somewhat sit back and observe things before jumping in. This initial time was a time to get your feet wet and get a feel for the people in an area. It was a time when you felt that you didn't have much of an impact. This practice was quite common at the beginning of my mission when my confidence wasn't too strong. But as I learned the ropes and became more senior, "sitting back" vanished. Baptism by fire was more practical and it made life more interesting.
Ammon did not ever sit back. If he sat back at all, it was a mere three days (see Alma 17:26). After some introductions, a marriage proposal and a new job assignment, Ammon jumped right in. After three days of work, Ammon's first opportunity to "win the hearts" of his co-workers (Alma 17:29) was presented before him when the king's flocks were scattered.
Service Wins Hearts
After all that spiritual preparation he had gone through, Ammon's first thought was not to preach to them a sermon on "restoration" (Alma 41:1-4) (although it would have been an appropriate subject in light of the situation), rather his first desire was to win their hearts … to serve them so that they might believe his words when he did get to the sermon. Sermons might convince the mind, but service wins the heart. We can study all we want, but until we get out and serve, we won't convince anyone to repent and change for the better.
I once heard an analogy that is related to this topic. A good way to change hearts is to think of everyone as having an emotional bank account in their heart. Every time you are presented an opportunity to serve someone, you jump at it. Every time you serve, someone is borrowing from your account. Every time you do something for someone be it temporal or emotional or spiritual, that other person is taking out a loan and you are the banker. Eventually an opportunity will be presented before you to change one of these people's hearts. When that time comes, because you've served them so many times and you've served them so well, their heart will be open … you can "collect" on that loan and their hearts will change or they will be willing to change.
Personally, this is something I need to work on a bit more. I feel so stretched for time that I think I have to hoard any extra time for either myself or for my family. I need to get out and serve more when opportunities arise. I need to be more like Ammon in this regard.
My wife is a great example of service. Despite managing a house full of children (myself included), she still finds time to do her visiting teaching and make meals for other people and watch others' children and run kids to school for them and so on and so on. And I'm not just being biased because she is my wife. Others have taken note that she lives an abundant life because she manages her own family while serving others. Whenever she is sick or out of town on Sundays, there are at least two or three people asking about her at church.
As President Monson noted in his October 2006 General Conference talk, "it's the service that counts." (Thomas S. Monson, “How Firm a Foundation,” Ensign, Nov 2006, 62, 67–68) As much as we need to study and develop our own testimonies, the most important aspect of our testimony is serving. President Monson also said in that same talk, "Who learns and learns but never knows, Is like the one who plows and plows but never sows."