Coming Back

Less-active members talk about why they don’t come to church—and what would reach them.

Many active Latter-day Saints long to help less-active loved ones or friends fully enjoy gospel blessings. But the experiences of those closest to the activation process suggest that we could reach out to less-active brothers and sisters more effectively if we knew more about them and their spiritual and emotional needs.

Often, what we want to give to less-active Latter-day Saints is far different from what they want and need. We may, for example, be trying to convert them all over again when we should be concentrating on making them part of our circles of love. We may be aiming at reeducating them about the gospel when we should be focusing on rebuilding their confidence in their own ability to live its principles.

These conclusions are drawn from the experiences of less-active members and of people who are deeply committed to helping less-active members come back. Some of the “activators” whose experiences contribute to this article have been specially called to this position by priesthood leaders, some are home or visiting teachers, and some are simply individuals reaching out to others. So that members throughout the Church may benefit from their insights, many of these less-active members and activators will be quoted here, but not by name.

Why Do They Drop Out?

While a significant number of Church members may experience a period in their lives when they become less active, the majority eventually return to full activity. One man, who had wandered away from gospel teachings when he was young, recalled: “Always in the back of my mind I knew that what I was doing was wrong, that the Church was right, and that the Lord still loved and cared about me. No matter what I did, he still loved me and cared about me. I think that’s what made the difference.” Like him, many less-active members retain their knowledge of basic truths, in addition to a fairly firm identity in their own minds as Latter-day Saints.

Why, then, aren’t they fully active?

Many believe that the Church is true and that it is led by a living prophet, but they may question the ability of organized religion to improve their own lives. Other less-active members may lack confidence—in their own ability to live the gospel, in other members because of visible shortcomings, or in God because they feel he has somehow let them down. Some lack a sense of their own self-worth or feel that others denigrate them. One woman said, for example, “I smoke and I listen to [members] talk about all these awful people who smoke. I can’t come to church because I’m no good in those people’s eyes.”

Less-active Latter-day Saints may fear being rejected by family or friends if they change their lives. Or they may be oriented too strongly toward personal ambitions and have little time for church. For example, a man who spends much time away from home in his work said that because his family is so important, he frequently chooses to spend his limited free time associating with them at a recreation area on Sunday rather than in Church meetings.

The Role of Friends

Among less-active members, there are many who can be lovingly won back—who, in fact, want to come back. But active members may not realize this because many of them hardly know the less-actives. Active members most frequently find their friends among those with whom they associate in church meetings and activities. As a result, some less-actives conclude that they are being shut out because they do not fit the accepted pattern of Church activity.

Loving friendship is vital in winning people back. One successful activator, formerly less active himself, deliberately spends time getting to know the people he home teaches because he remembers the days when he asked in his heart, “Does this person care about me?” Another activator commented: “We sometimes walk in there thinking, ‘Here I am living the gospel. I’m going to go in and help you who are not living it.’ That attitude will almost always fail. If we go in there and realize that these are strong and able, valuable, wonderful people who are going to bless our lives, then all of a sudden we find ourselves in partnership with them.”

Genuine friends offer three things that are necessary in winning back the less-active. First, they bring a level of commitment that builds confidence and trust; they do not give up and abandon the friendship if the less-active person does not change quickly. Second, they bring personal warmth born of love. And third, they bring a willingness to disclose their own struggles and experiences from which lessons may be drawn.

Stumbling Blocks

There are several common stumbling blocks that less-active members can overcome with the help of loving friends.

Fear. Many less-active members are afraid to go back to church for fear they won’t “fit in.” They fear that other members will know of their less-than-exemplary past and decline to associate with them. They fear that they will appear ignorant in gospel discussions and do not want to betray ignorance by asking elementary questions. They fear that a Word of Wisdom problem will be all-too-obvious. (One woman recalled being self-conscious in a Church meeting, feeling that others avoided sitting by her because they could smell cigarette smoke on her clothing.) They fear that the inevitable reminders of their own problems, in lessons and talks, will be painful. When a divorced woman returned to church after a long absence, for example, she found the sacrament meeting program on eternal families a poignant contrast to her own recent difficulties.

Other less-active members fear becoming fully active and then being overwhelmed by a calling; some deliberately resist activity to avoid this possibility. Still others fear they will fail again in living Latter-day Saint standards. One man said, “Right now my testimony is probably 45 percent of what it could be. I’m trying to stay right about in the middle. I don’t want to get super-active again, and I’m still afraid of setting myself up for something I’m not ready for.”

Lack of faith. Sometimes less-active members express faith in God and in common Christian concepts but lack faith in specific LDS doctrines and principles. Others know or believe the Church and its doctrines to be true but feel their own testimonies are weak. “I don’t know how much my testimony could stand up to,” one man commented. “I’m afraid that I would fail if I were ever severely tested.”

Some have let tragedy or hardship sap their faith in God. One woman recalled a long period of struggle after her baby died. Why, she asked, would God give her something so precious as a child and then take it away?

Frequently, less-active members express lack of faith in active Latter-day Saints. “I’ve never doubted the basic doctrines of the Church, but I have doubted the people in it,” one man said.

Some less-active Latter-day Saints voice the opinion that active members are hypocritical. They reason this way: “I’m not what I ought to be, but I’m about as good as anyone else. Going to church doesn’t seem to make anyone a better person, and all those people who go every Sunday don’t appear to be any better than I am. They’re just pretending that they are. I’m more honest; I don’t pretend to be better than anyone else.” These feelings about hypocrisy are often expressed by less-actives who see themselves as shut out and shunned. They point out the Savior’s admonition that our love is to be extended not only to those with whom we are comfortable, but to everyone. (See Matt. 5:46–47.)

Perfection First?

Active members sometimes feel that the problems of less-active members have been resolved once they have begun coming to Church meetings again. But that’s not true. Less-active members often struggle with the feeling that they must be nearly perfect before they can be fully active in the Church and that their own deficiencies must be cured before they can come all the way back. This may be the reason that less-active members sometimes participate in temple preparation classes, then do not follow through by going to the temple. They still do not feel ready. One reactivated man who later became a bishop took temple preparation classes with his wife seven times before both felt ready and worthy to go to the temple!

It is important that the less-actives feel the touch of the Lord’s Spirit and gain confidence that they are prepared to take on sacred covenants. An activator may be more effective if he or she concentrates on helping strengthen their confidence, their testimonies, and their desire to attend meetings rather than on teaching formal gospel lessons.

Unlike investigators, less-active members tend to be put off by formalized, abstract teaching. Informal gospel discussions are preferable. These allow the less-actives to get answers from friends without the embarrassment of showing strangers how much they do not know. Heart-to-heart talks between friends can clarify misconceptions and provide elaboration on doctrines the less-actives do not understand. These discussions are especially beneficial if the less-active members realize that their quorum president, visiting teacher, friend, or neighbor—whoever the activator may be—handles his or her own tough challenges in life through obedience to gospel principles. Some of the most effective activators were once less-active themselves and feel deep empathy for the struggles of those who are not participating fully in the gospel.

The Touch of the Spirit

Activation is the work of the Spirit. So powerful is the influence of the Spirit of the Lord in activation that many less-active members have been moved to come back on their own. Active members who choose to help guide their brothers and sisters through the activation process find that the Spirit of the Lord is their most powerful ally. “The Spirit accomplishes it,” one successful activator explained. “I just follow the promptings when I am talking.”

Members should prepare themselves to receive this kind of direction when they reach out to their less-active brothers and sisters, another successful activator commented. If they prepare, “the Spirit will help them develop the necessary skills. It will fine-tune them just like a musical instrument. They will be able to say the right things and make the right decisions.”

Many activators pray regularly about the families they are trying to help. But praying with them may be even more important than praying for them, say those who are experienced in helping others come back. Not only does prayer invoke the power of heaven in a home, it also teaches the family and helps create an atmosphere conducive to the influence of the Spirit.

Not every less-active member can or will be activated. But many are only waiting to be invited back. Whatever the result in terms of activation, those who will lovingly help reintroduce others to the influence of the Spirit have everything to gain. They will almost always gain friends. In many cases, these will become eternal friends, treasuring their memories of those who helped them rediscover everlasting gospel blessings.

What Leads to Activation?

Experiences of activators suggest that there are eight key factors in helping less-active Latter-day Saints participate fully in gospel ordinances and opportunities.

  1. 1.

    Positive experiences with active Church members are vital. Through friendship, negative feelings toward the Church and other members can be resolved.

  2. 2.

    People are most likely to respond to those they trust. Activated members say they strongly identify with activators who are willing to make sacrifices for them and accept them rather than judge them. It is important for the less-active to sense that an activator’s efforts are genuine and not merely the fulfillment of duty.

  3. 3.

    The three most important attributes of a successful activator are disclosure, warmth, and commitment. Disclosure means that the activator is willing to discuss his or her own life and experiences. Warmth connotes a friendly, trusting attitude. Commitment means consistency in visiting and willingness to fulfill promises.

  4. 4.

    Successful activators feel a moral responsibility for the people they activate. They care about others’ spiritual lives.

  5. 5.

    Activators need to be involved in the four distinct processes of reactivation: (1) Diagnosis—helping determine why an individual is not participating more fully in the Church; (2) Problem resolution—helping the less-active person learn to overcome problems through obedience to gospel principles; (3) Social integration—helping the person become accepted and involved in the community of Latter-day Saints; (4) Forgiveness and self-acceptance—helping less-active members sense that the Lord accepts them and forgives them of their mistakes. Bishops often must be involved in this part of the process.

  6. 6.

    Activators play a key role in helping less-active members interpret their own experiences and challenges in terms of the gospel.

  7. 7.

    Activation involves reintroduction to spiritual things with which less-active members may have had limited experience. These members need to be placed in situations where they can feel the Spirit of the Lord and understand how it can lead them to truth.

  8. 8.

    Building people’s confidence in their own ability to change and become righteous is an important part of activation.

[illustrations] Illustrated by George Pettingill