“My quorum is filled with fantastic people,” the elders quorum president says. “But the Church just doesn’t seem to be very important to some of them.” He shakes his head thoughtfully. “I just wish there were some way we could reach them.”
This leader’s concern is echoed throughout the Church. Every ward and every branch has its inactive members—and every ward and branch has leaders who wish they knew a way to make a difference in the lives of their inactive brothers and sisters.
Nor is this concern a modern one. Jesus spoke of the lost sheep, the lost silver coin, the lost son—all of which had been part of the fold, the purse, the family. That which once belonged had become lost. Along with those parables, the Savior gave a charge, in the form of a question:
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? …
“Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?” (Luke 15:4, 8; see entire chapter.)
Our assignment is clear. And with it, the Lord has given us the means of fulfilling it: home teaching. As Elder Harold B. Lee said in 1964, “Missionary work is but home teaching to those who are not now members of the Church, and home teaching is nothing more or less than missionary work to Church members.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1964, p. 1078.)
In a masterful discourse on the “work of reactivation,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell stated that “activation requires conversion”—just as missionary work to nonmembers requires conversion. He then noted that there are ways to teach people besides regular quorum and Sunday School classes:
“Surveys indicate 30 percent of those invited to attend seminars will attend! Of the remainder, experience shows that eight out of ten, properly approached, will permit priesthood leaders to go into their homes to teach them. Brethren, in view of such realities, what are we afraid of?
“These encouraging statistics suggest how important it is not to stand by and wring our hands but to do something! The reason, frankly, brethren, that so little is happening is that so little is being tried. An experienced woodcarver was asked how one begins to be a woodcarver. He said bluntly, ‘Start making some chips.’ Brethren, let’s start making some chips!” (Ensign, May 1982, p. 37.)
The challenge is great, but some leaders and their home teachers are really making chips! By stepping up their efforts with the members in their charge, they’re making progress in ways they never before thought possible.
In one area encompassing several stakes, quorum leaders and home teachers visited more than 500 homes of inactive members, most of whom had earlier refused an invitation to attend a temple preparation seminar. “Could these good home teachers come to your home once a week to teach you the gospel?” the leaders asked. “We won’t pressure you or ask you to do anything. We’ll just explain the principles of the gospel, and you and your family can make your own decisions.”
The answer? In 80 percent of the homes, the family accepted the proposal. That’s 400 families who were now receiving the benefits of the missionary-work aspect of home teaching! And the success stories have been numerous:
• One inactive elder’s business took him out of town six nights a week. He was usually home only on Saturday night and during the day on Sunday. Yet when he was approached to see if he would accept weekly teaching in his home, he accepted. After the first Saturday-night lesson, he decided to attend church the next day. He now serves in his elders quorum presidency.
• In another family the father was an alcoholic. He accepted the home teachers into his home on a weekly basis, and gradually his wife and children became active. Even though the man is still a prospective elder, he’s made great strides. And his oldest son, who was reactivated through the teaching, is now a full-time missionary!
• One young couple acknowledged that they should go to the temple, but they weren’t yet willing to attend the temple preparation seminars. They did allow their home teachers to come by weekly to teach them, however. Now the young man says, “I wasn’t rebellious. But I didn’t quite understand the gospel.” At one point he commented to his home teachers: “I know you have families and are busy. We appreciate your coming. We need your teaching.”
A common thread runs through these successes, as well as the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of others that could be shared. The basic idea is that we don’t teach the family everything we’d like them to hear; rather, we start by teaching them what they’re ready and able to hear.
The distinction is a critical one. If we teach beyond a family’s capacity to hear and accept, we might well create a negative situation. The family may become defensive, tune us out, or ask us to stop teaching. The message doesn’t get through, the Spirit has no opportunity to testify to the hearts of the people, and the opportunity is lost.
Here are the basic steps to making home teaching work when approaching inactive members:
1. Pray for the Spirit in preparing and delivering your lessons. No other single factor is as important as having the Spirit testify to those you teach. It is “by the power of the Holy Ghost” that we “may know the truth of all things.” (Moro. 10:50.)
2. Make sure the family knows you’re going to use a no-pressure teaching approach. When you initially approach the family at the door to see if they’ll let you teach them, tell them your teaching won’t involve any pressure. Later, you may be moved by the Spirit to challenge them to make some commitments, but that will be later—if and when the time is right, and when the Spirit inspires you to do so. For now, they need to be assured that they won’t be subjected to high-pressure tactics. The door approach might go something like this:
“Brother Brown, we’ve come tonight with an idea we think you might be interested in. My companion and I would like to come to your home on a weekly basis to teach you more about the gospel. Our teaching approach doesn’t involve any pressure or expectations. We’ll just tell you about the principles of the gospel, and then you can decide for yourselves what you’ll do with them.”
One quorum leader says he’s almost never been turned down when he uses that approach. “First, I make sure that I talk to both the husband and wife,” he says. “If both aren’t there, I don’t even bring it up, but tell the one who’s home that I’ll visit again later.
“Second, I avoid giving them an easy way to say no. I once visited a man who had requested no home teachers. I asked him if home teachers could come by each week to teach his family. Before I was even finished with my sentence, I could tell he was going to say no. So I didn’t ask for an answer. I just said, ‘Why don’t you think this over, and I’ll be back next week.’
“The next week when I returned—I think he was surprised to see me. I told him a little bit about the first lesson. But again I could tell he was going to turn me down. So I didn’t give him a chance. I told him to think about it some more, and I’d be back a week later.
“The next week the same thing happened. I was beginning to think I’d never make any progress. But the following week he didn’t wait for me to come. He called me!
“After we started teaching him, his wife came up to me with tears in her eyes. ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen Mac interested in the Church,’ she said.”
3. The next step in home teaching inactive members is to avoid the “recognition and attack” method of teaching. If you recognize that a family has a particular problem with gospel living, don’t attack that problem. Avoid it for the time being. Most people already know what they’re doing wrong. The home teacher can strengthen them by not attacking their practices, but instead concentrating on other areas and letting the Spirit witness to them.
For example, one prospective elder refused to come to church because he smoked. “I didn’t feel the Church was that important,” he says. But he and his wife decided to let their home teachers come by every week to teach them. There was no mention of smoking until the husband himself brought up the subject several weeks later. After three months they attended the temple preparation seminar, and now they attend church every week. He still struggles with his smoking, but he’s accepted a call to be a home teacher. He now understands that “the Church is ‘for the perfecting of the Saints’ (Eph. 4:12)” and “not a well-provisioned rest home for the already perfected.” (Neal A. Maxwell, Ensign, May 1982, p. 38.)
4. Avoid question-form teaching. Many inactive members are uncomfortable answering gospel questions. Instead, the teacher can present the material in a lecture mode (a lot of visual aids will enliven the lesson), while encouraging the family to ask as many questions as they like.
5. Always let the father preside in the home. He has the authority in his home to select who should say the opening and closing prayers. When he’s ready, he’ll call on himself. Until he does, the home teachers should let him exercise his authority to call on other people.
6. Never teach beyond a family’s willingness to receive. A teacher who is sensitive to the Spirit, as well as to the needs of the family he’s teaching, can tell when a family is responding negatively to the message. One thing that will help is to stick to the basics. Some home teachers have found that it helps to start with a few foundational lessons, such as the plan of salvation, the atonement of Jesus Christ, how revelation comes, the laws God gives and the blessings that come with obedience, the apostasy and restoration of the gospel, and the Book of Mormon. Many basic lesson materials may be found in the temple preparation seminar lesson manual, the Gospel Principles manual, and the Gospel Essentials class manual.
7. Don’t try to push the family into commitments. Joseph Smith said, “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” Home teachers can take the same approach with their inactive families by simply teaching and testifying. Later, as the family grows and progresses, the home teacher may be prompted by the Holy Ghost to suggest that they set some goals—but the nature of those goals should usually be left to the family to decide.
A prospective elder in Utah was afraid to go to church because he didn’t want to be called on to pray or answer questions. After two months of being taught the gospel in their home, he and his wife accepted an invitation to attend the temple preparation seminar. Shortly afterward, they made church attendance their goal, despite the man’s fears. It was their decision, arising out of their progress in learning the gospel. He’s now been ordained an elder, and he and his wife have been sealed in the temple.
8. Follow the Lord’s counsel to his servants as found in Doctrine and Covenants 4:6 [D&C 4:6]. “Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.”
The home teacher who follows these guidelines will find himself more concerned with the needs of the family than with statistics or other such concerns. He’ll be tolerant of a slow rate of change. He’ll be willing to become involved in a labor of love and sacrifice, recognizing that impatience and quick commitment won’t bring the lasting results he seeks.
9. Finally, remember that more important than any material the home teacher presents is the feeling the family has when he’s there. Rapport is more important than information.
One couple who were having marital problems agreed to let their home teachers come by to teach every week. As the teachers came week after week, gradually the husband and wife were able to become more and more reconciled. The wife explained later, “When the home teachers are here, my husband is the neatest man in the world. I hope they can keep coming for the next forty years!”
The beauty of home teaching in this way is that it meets the family right at the point where they’re living. One man wanted to hear nothing at all about the beliefs of the Church, having been deeply hurt by another Church member years before. “They’re all hypocrites,” he said.
The quorum leader who was visiting neither agreed nor disagreed. Instead, he said, “I’ve seen some things in my life that weren’t fair and equitable too. It’s too bad things are like that sometimes.”
The man was surprised at the leader’s response. He invited the visitors into his home to talk about it.
“We listened with real intent until he had exhausted his bitterness,” the leader said. “Then we talked about the Savior’s all-encompassing love and forgiveness, being careful not to refer to specific Church members’ actions. We explained that he had a great opportunity to develop the capacity to forgive. When we prepared to leave, we asked if we could come again and discuss the gospel. He told us we were welcome to come to his home any time.”
The home teachers have since visited that home many times, and have witnessed a complete change of attitude in the man.
Not all instances of home teachers doing missionary work among inactive members have ended in dramatic success. But the remarkable thing is that these teaching opportunities seldom just end: once families agree to enter the teaching process, they almost never choose to discontinue it, and whether they become active or not, they will make advancements in their lives.
Effective home teachers can make a difference in people’s lives. By teaching a person and his family the gospel, the family will gain more “divine data” on which to base life’s decisions. The teaching process can bring the Spirit of God into the hearts and homes of those involved. And the family will feel more loved and accepted than they ever have before.
Furthermore, the teaching can have tremendous impact on the home teachers as well. “There may be problems and trials,” said one home teacher. “But if you hang in there and let the family know you’re going to stick with them, they’ll progress. To home teach your families effectively takes time and effort. But when you get in and get committed to it, you can really see the Spirit directing the work. I’m not exaggerating when I say my work as a home teacher has literally changed my life. I’m becoming the kind of person I’d always hoped I could be.”