Those of us who are actively involved in the gospel of Christ have become accustomed to its demands. We direct music, give talks, run whole organizations with secretaries and counselors. We volunteer countless hours in service, clean our church houses, and willingly pay tithes and offerings regularly. Can you name any other organization on earth that requires so much of its members? I can’t name one.
To be an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an “all in” kind of experience. When we go to church on Sunday we don’t just sit in our pew and listen to the paid clergy discharge their commitments to the congregation by preaching and offering up the sacrament. We are personally involved in all aspects of what it takes to keep a congregation running.
Think how strange an experience this must be for someone coming in from the outside. Instead of the minister alone visiting all the members of the congregation, the members themselves visit each other and report back to the Bishop on the needs of their assigned families.
When someone gets baptized it takes some time for them to begin to feel that all these demands are “normal.” For some people it may be many years before they begin to feel comfortable. How easily can someone new to this level of involvement be scared away or hurt into estrangement from the ward.
It is natural for anyone experiencing something new to have a honeymoon period where everything appears rosy. But that always fades, and the stark realities of expectation and demands shake the very foundation of a person’s fledgling faith. This is why fellowshipping the new convert is so important. They need someone who can help to love them past their disappointments and disenchantments and assist them in becoming firmly grounded in their new testimony.
We have probably all known or currently know people who firmly believe they are doing good when they chastise someone for not doing things the way they feel they ought to be done in the church. Almost every ward has at least one such person. Unfortunately these uncharitable corrections tend to do more harm than good. The people to whom the dressing down is directed already feel overwhelmed by the level of perceived demands, and inadequate in their ability to fulfill their calling.
This places a great responsibility on the shoulders of the long-time members of the Church to be especially sensitive to the needs of those who are new or are returning to activity in the Church. To those who are returning to activity, unkind words may have been what drove them away in the first place.
The importance of the individual
When Christ taught he may have been addressing large crowds, but the doctrine he gave was for the individual. When revelations are given to the prophet, the directions may be for the members of the global church, but the instructions have to be applied by individuals and for individuals. And the blessings from compliance or neglect are felt by individuals.
Even the Atonement of Christ, which covered all of humanity, was a suffering for each individual, and the blessings and salvation that comes from honoring His sacrifice are only felt on an individual basis.
As much as we may feel minuscule as part of a church of millions of people, we need to remember that the whole plan of salvation is designed to save each of us on an individual basis. As President Hinckley said, “We must never lose sight of the fact that the individual is the important thing.”
With our focus on the individual, it is important that we not lump new converts or returning members into social groups. Each is an individual, and each one has special needs and abilities. The principles of the gospel may be the same for every person, but their application is flexible enough to be individually administered.
The long efforts of the missionaries and the cost of their service, the separation from old relationships and the trauma associated with all of this make it imperative that these precious souls be welcomed, reassured, helped in their times of weakness, given responsibility under which they may grow strong, and encouraged and thanked for all they do.
The last part of that sentence really caught my attention. We are all given responsibilities in the Church. There is usually too much that needs to be done not to have every willing soul have at least one calling. And it is true that callings help people grow stronger in their faith. But what about being encouraged and thanked?
As a new convert, even of four or five years, would the Savior criticize or be critical or demeaning to them if they made a mistake or made a poor judgment call in the performance of their duty? Wouldn’t he, instead, be comforting, supportive, loving, and grateful for the efforts they were making to fulfill their calling? Doesn’t Jesus do all that needs to be done with love at the center of it all? There is power in doing things out of genuine love.
I challenge you, my brothers and sisters, that if you do not know what it is like [to be a new member of the Church], you try to imagine what it is like. It can be terribly lonely. It can be disappointing. It can be frightening. We of this Church are far more different from the world than we are prone to think we are.
[Converts] come into the Church with enthusiasm for what they have found. We must immediately build on that enthusiasm. … Listen to them, guide them, answer their questions, and be there to help in all circumstances and in all conditions.
Friendship doesn’t come with an expiration date or a release date. A friend is there whenever there is a need. That is what makes someone a friend. Those coming back into activity or who are truly new to the gospel of Christ and the Church culture will run into brick walls in the most unanticipated places and ways. Anything could be a hurdle to be gotten past for a fledgling testimony. Like a parent with a toddler who is just beginning to walk, danger lurks in many unexpected places. We must be there to help pick them up and offer comfort when they experience frustrations with being new members of the Church.
When we befriend new members a big part of our help will be needed in fulfilling their new callings. Remember that no other church in the world expects what we expect from our members. Many will find these new expectations to be overwhelming and daunting to fulfill. They may not even know how to pray in public, let alone how to teach a class about doctrines.
Having taught Gospel Principles (Gospel Essentials) for more than a decade, I know that there comes a time when the new member begins to feel like they are ready for the next step. I can tell by their answers and a growing sense of restlessness that they are preparing to leave the class and move into Gospel Doctrine. Some make the transition relatively quickly, but some may need to stay in the class for two or three repetitions of the whole manual before they feel like they can make the change comfortably.
Many who return to activity in the Church are reluctant to do so, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how. They aren’t sure they will be accepted. They may feel conspicuous about their own absence for so long. There are many reasons for a person who has been away to be reluctant to return.
I lived in a stake where the Stake President was released and became our High Priest Group Leader. He had grown up with many of those who were inactive in our ward. He went to their homes and made a personal plea for them to return to activity. Four of those brethren returned to Church activity, bringing their families with them. What a blessing it was for them.
And not only was their return a blessing to their families but what a blessing to the ward! They were received with open arms by the members of our ward. They were challenged all along the way, being asked to give talks and to serve in various organizations.
One of these good brothers no sooner was able to take his wife to the temple, but he discovered he had cancer and died within two months of getting sealed to his wife and children. The other three have since gone on to become high priests and members of Bishoprics in student wards, served time on high councils, and have been a joy and blessing in the local ward, having become some of the most faithful and stalwart members of our ward. All it took was a sincere invitation to return to the fold, followed by love, callings, and nurturing in the good word of God.