The December 1985 message of the First Presidency to the membership of the Church included a significant invitation that read in part:
“To those who have ceased activity and to those who have become critical, we say, ‘Come back. Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.’
“We are confident that many have longed to return, but have felt awkward about doing so. We assure you that you will find open arms to receive you and willing hands to assist you.” (Ensign, March 1986, p. 88.)
I think all of us were impressed by this magnanimous appeal akin to what the prophet Alma stated in the Book of Mormon regarding an invitation that was extended by the Lord. He said:
“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.
“Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely;
“Yea, come unto me and bring forth works of righteousness.” (Alma 5:33–35.) Each of us should read and reread the parable of the lost sheep found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, commencing with the fourth verse:
“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?
“And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
“And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
“I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4–7.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith significantly altered one verse in the Joseph Smith Translation. It reads: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the wilderness after that which is lost, until he find it?” (JST, Luke 15:4; italics added.)
That translation suggests that the shepherd leave his secure flock and go out into the wilderness—that is, go out into the world after him who is lost. Lost from what? Lost from the flock where there is protection and security. I hope the message of that parable will be impressed on each of us who has priesthood responsibility.
When President Benson was President of the Quorum of the Twelve, he made a great appeal to priesthood leaders in an address titled “A Call to the Priesthood: ‘Feed My Sheep.’” I think it would be well for us to reread his message. It should be reviewed frequently by every priesthood leader. In this address, President Benson asked:
“Shepherds—stake presidents, bishops, quorum leaders:
“Do you leave the ninety and nine and search after the lost one?
“Do you call and appoint advisers and others who can reach impressionable youth and visit them on their ‘own ground’?
“Have you fully implemented the youth program, and are you using this program to meet the individual needs of the youth?
“Are you watchful over the young singles, the divorced, and those with special needs?
“Do you carefully and spiritually prepare those who enter military service?
“Are you especially attentive to young men between the transition period from Aaronic Priesthood to Melchizedek Priesthood?
“Bishops, do you make sure they come under the care of their new shepherd, the quorum president?
“Do you provide significant Church-service opportunities for our returned missionaries so these young men and women do not drift into inactivity because they do not have occasion to serve as they have been doing? …
“Do you use visiting teachers to augment home teaching?
“Are you teaching fathers their duties?
“Do you have temple preparation seminars to encourage prospective elders to prepare for the Melchizedek Priesthood and the temple?
“Do you have older prospective elders assigned to the high priests and invited to join those with whom they would feel most comfortable?
“Are younger prospective elders invited to participate with the elders quorums?
“Some leaders say that some men are past hope, but, as the angel told Abraham, nothing is impossible with the Lord! (See Gen. 18:14.) One brother who was regarded by some as a hopeless case tearfully exclaimed to the temple worker at the sealing altar, ‘I don’t know why I waited so long for this blessing!’”
“In a recent Saturday evening meeting of leaders I heard a determined brother state, ‘I’ve sure had a time with the devil since I started to become active. Prior to that time, I just went along with him.’
“Are we helping the one who needs help because he has started on the way back to full activity?” (Ensign, May 1983, p. 45.)
A study of those questions will give a priesthood leader an agenda for activation possibilities in every ward and stake of Zion.
Over the years the Church has made some monumental efforts to recover those who are less active because of their preoccupation with the world, neglect by Church leaders, and willful rebellion. Some of those efforts have been designated with names such as “Project Temple,” “Senior Aaronic Program,” “Temple Seminar,” and “activation programs.” And all to what end? It is to save the souls of our brothers and sisters and see that they have the ordinances of exaltation.
While I was serving as a stake president in the Los Angeles area, my counselors and I asked our bishops to carefully select four or five couples who wanted to further their progress in the Church. Some were less active, others new converts—but they were motivated to spiritually progress. We got them together in a stake class and taught them the gospel. Rather than emphasizing the temple, we stressed a better relationship with our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our careful selection process assured success, and the majority of these couples did become active and go to the temple.
Let me share an experience or two. We had a brother in one of the wards who didn’t attend any meetings. His wife was not a member. She was somewhat hostile, so we could not send home teachers to the home. The bishop approached this brother by telling him that the brother had a relationship with the Savior he needed to expand and enlarge. The brother explained to the bishop the problem with his nonmember wife, so the bishop talked to her, emphasizing the same approach—a relationship with the Lord that needed to be expanded. She still was not receptive but was happy to learn that Latter-day Saints believed in Christ, and consequently dropped some of her defenses.
Success did not come immediately, but those who visited the home kept stressing the couple’s relationship with the Lord. In time she became friendly, and finally consented to come with her husband to the stake class taught by members of the high council. We stressed the covenant one makes at baptism and other covenants. Eventually she became a member of the Church and he became a productive priesthood leader. Today all of their family is active in the Church.
I am impressed by a statement on the title page of the Book of Mormon that describes one of the purposes of that sacred book: “That they [the House of Israel in the latter days] may know the covenants of the Lord.” (Italics added.) That was the emphasis we as a stake presidency felt impressed to make to those less active. We tried to appeal to them on the basis of the importance of the covenants they had made with the Lord; then we taught them the importance of the covenant of baptism and additional covenants that they could make which would unite them as an eternal family.
Another example. My ward bishop assigned me as a ward teacher to a brother who boasted he was the oldest deacon in the Church. Home teaching was ward teaching in those days. His problem was that he loved to play golf on Sunday. It was discouraging to meet month after month with him and his wife and see no apparent progress. But finally, the right word was said to him and it struck a responsive chord. The word was covenant. We asked him, “What does the covenant of baptism mean to you?” His expression changed, and for the first time we saw a serious side to him. Eventually he came to our classes, gave up golf, and took his wife to the temple. He is now deceased, but she is very active as a temple worker.
Now the question. What should we do to help those who have lost their way in the wilderness?
Because of what the Master has said about leaving the ninety-nine and going into the wilderness to seek the one that is lost, and because of the invitation of the First Presidency to those who have ceased activity or have been critical to “come back,” we invite you to become involved in saving souls. Reach out to the less active and realize the joy that will come to you and those you help if you and they will take part in extending invitations to come back and feast at the table of the Lord.
The Lord, our Good Shepherd, expects us to be his undershepherds and recover those who are struggling or are lost. We can’t tell you how to do it, but as you become involved and seek inspiration, success will result from efforts in your areas, regions, stakes, and wards. Some stakes have responded to previous pleadings and have had remarkable success.
The words of a familiar hymn contain the Savior’s appeal to us:
Hark! he is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today:
“Will you not seek for my lost ones,
Off from my shelter astray?”
And that hymn, sung often, indicates what our response should be:
“Make us thy true undershepherds;
Give us a love that is deep.
Send us out into the desert,
Seeking thy wandering sheep.”
(Hymns, 1985, no. 221.)
If we do this, eternal blessings will come to us.