I desire to outline why baptism should not be our only focus as we bring souls to Christ. To help illustrate, I’d like to share briefly a story about my great-grandfather Ola Par Helquist.
My mother’s grandfather joined the Church as a young man in Sweden. His family name was Svensen. However, because of rejection and subsequent tensions caused by the baptism, Ola Par Svensen was asked by family members (his parents were deceased) to leave. A young schoolteacher and his family, though not members of the Church, were kind to him. They also provided food, clothing, and shelter. Their family name was Helquist. Because of the continued mistreatment he received from his own family, Ola Par Svensen changed his name to Helquist. In time, he immigrated with other Church members to the United States.
The early Saints were commanded to gather together, first in the eastern United States and then in the western United States. This migration was an enormous sacrifice, generally forced on the Saints by their persecutors, just as with my great-grandfather. Even after the Saints were established in the Rocky Mountains, new converts still left their homelands in Europe or in other parts of North America and gathered to Zion.
In that period of the Church’s history, joining the Church was the first step of a major life change. It was generally expected of those who accepted the missionaries’ teachings that they leave their homes and gather with the body of Saints. For most Church members, the decision to be baptized was the beginning—not the end—of a lifelong effort to understand God’s will and bring their lives into compliance with it. These Saints followed their consciences by gathering to the body of the Church. The blessings Heavenly Father had in store for those early members began, rather than ended, with baptism.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 348).
The first saving ordinance is baptism. Thus, with baptism, to use the Prophet Joseph Smith’s metaphor, we step onto the ladder. Once on the ladder, there are more steps to take. Climbing the ladder requires many things: the saving grace of our Savior, our own faith and repentance and good works, and the assistance of the priesthood (see D&C 84:19–22). In particular, our own good actions are aided by additional enabling power that comes through priesthood ordinances: first baptism, and eventually the temple endowment and sealing. In effect, we are helped up the ladder by the grace of Christ “after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). There is no other way (see 2 Ne. 31:21).
Of course, this journey up the ladder was not destined to be traveled alone: we have others to assist us. The righteous family unit is destined to last forever. Heavenly Father’s life, our modern prophets teach us, is family life (see “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102). Unfortunately, as with my great-grandfather, this does not mean our earthly family life is always heavenly, since some reject gospel teachings. The gospel of Jesus Christ may bring changes to our old habits and relationships (see Matt. 10:34; Matt. 12:46–50). Indeed, believing in Christ and joining His Church has always required a substantial change of life, a sacrifice, a commitment. This was true not just in our dispensation but in earlier times as well. One of the most impressive descriptions of giving up worldly access and power for the gospel’s sake is found in the book of Hebrews:
“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter;
“Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season;
“Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward.
“By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:24–27; emphasis added).
Happily, joining the Church in our day generally does not mean abandoning one’s home and moving to a desert colony, nor does it require giving up a pharaoh’s treasure. But for every member of the Church, there will be sacrifices to be made and trials to be endured before we come to know Christ. Just as with my great-grandfather, climbing the gospel ladder toward exaltation will require more than a casual commitment to the gospel, more than a few visits to Church on Sunday, more than a passing familiarity with the scriptures as we endure faithfully to the end.
Sometimes we forget this long-term component of growth and learning as we bring the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. It is easy to focus on baptism as the goal and to forget that following baptism there is sometimes a difficult journey that the new member will need to make. Prophets both ancient and modern have stressed that baptism is not enough to redeem souls. Rather, baptism is the gate to a long path (see 2 Ne. 31:17).
President Gordon B. Hinckley has stressed how essential it is that new members’ involvement not end at the baptismal font. “The challenge now is greater than it has ever been because the number of converts is greater than we have ever before known. … I plead with you, … I ask of you, each of you, to become a part of this great effort. Every convert is precious. Every convert is a son or daughter of God. Every convert is a great and serious responsibility. … In my view nothing is of greater importance” (“Converts and Young Men,” Ensign, May 1997, 48).
Some new members do not find it easy to adjust socially or to find new friends in the Church. Some find themselves culturally distanced from other members. Some have felt guilty or embarrassed because they have returned to old practices—or are struggling to give them up. Some have not fully understood the lifestyle change away from sin and the lifelong nature of the commitments they made at baptism. Regardless of the reason, Jesus made it clear that it is not the will of our Father in Heaven that one of His children chooses to join with the flock but then drifts away (see Matt. 18:12–14).
If we better understand the nature of the baptismal covenant, we should be better able to teach this understanding to new members and to find ways to assist them as they join with the body of the Saints. When we have faith in Jesus Christ, repent of our sins, and wish to join with the community of Saints, we demonstrate our commitment through the act of baptism. With this ordinance we make covenants with God. These covenants are explicitly stated in modern-day revelation. In particular, we covenant to serve Jesus until the end of our lives, as clearly stated in the following two passages:
“And again by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism—All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church” (D&C 20:37; emphasis added).
“And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world” (Mosiah 18:13; emphasis added).
Our baptism might be compared to the promises made in marriage. Simply taking the wedding vows does not constitute a good marriage, nor does it demonstrate the partners’ devotion to each other. Rather, it is carrying out those vows, day after day, year after year, that makes a real marriage. Just as we see the promises at the wedding altar as a joyous first step on the long journey, we understand that the ordinance of baptism is not an end in itself. Our goal then as parents, members, or missionaries should not be simply to lead people to the waters of baptism but to help each person experience a mighty change of heart (see Alma 5:14) and then to help them act on that change of heart over the long term.
This message was made clear by Nephi when writing about the necessity of baptism. After a beautiful and moving explanation of why Jesus needed to be baptized and why we too must be baptized, Nephi describes baptism as the entrance of the path leading to God.
“For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water. …
“And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son. …
“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
“And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Ne. 31:17–21).
Nephi understood that conversion is evidenced by more than a willingness to enter the waters of baptism. The prophets tell each of us who have taken upon us baptism that we must individually “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philip. 2:12; Morm. 9:27). Although these responsibilities lie with each individual, as a community of worshipers we can have a great influence on the people around us who are also striving to do the same thing.
Provide a nurturing environment. Jesus compared new members receiving the word with the experience of seeds falling into various types of soil (see Matt. 13:3–23; Mark 4:3–20). As members of the Church, we have the opportunity to shape the soil in which the new seedlings, or converts, try to grow. We can help provide either a nourishing or a hostile environment. In describing a nourishing environment, President Hinckley has stated that each new member “needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God’” (Ensign, May 1997, 47). Each member can help in these three things. If we seek specific guidance and counsel from our Heavenly Father through prayer, He will bless us to know how to direct our efforts toward nourishing our new-member friends.
Another important aspect to providing a nurturing environment for new members is to give them a sense of safety, love, and acceptance when they come to church. In particular, we must take care to avoid offending others even if this causes us discomfort. Jesus taught that it would be better to perish than to offend one of the “little ones,” a caution that can also apply to new converts (see Matt. 18:14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2). The Apostle Paul indicates that new converts, who generally lack in gospel knowledge, can be offended by the otherwise harmless actions of those with greater knowledge, leading weaker new members to fall away. He taught that we should avoid such words and actions, even if our information is correct (see 1 Cor. 8:8–13). For example, it might be correct to point out that a new convert has made a mistake, but to do so publicly or in a way that causes unnecessary pain may harm a fragile, young soul. The way a new member prays or dresses or speaks may be different from our traditions or teachings, but correcting such differences should be undertaken only by a loving leader if done at all and only with the benefit and needs of the new member utmost in mind.
Share the vision of the Church. Sometimes, simply helping a new member feel that he or she is part of the larger community can make a difference. Learning that the Church has a stable presence worldwide can be reassuring and strengthening. During April 1997, Yuri Kurashov, a recent convert to the Church and a native of Vladivostok, Russia, left his country for the first time for a business trip to Tokyo. Brother Kurashov came to see the Tokyo Temple, and as he viewed the temple, it was as if his heart and mind could hardly take in the sight before his eyes.
After he was speechless for some minutes, the tears began to roll down his cheeks, and he said: “I had no idea a place such as this ever existed. Now suddenly, I have a new vision for my family. I can see what blessings the Church can truly be for my people. I had no idea there were temples on earth today until I was taught by the missionaries. Now I have great hope for my family and my people.”
Brother Kurashov’s enlarged view of the community he had joined clearly strengthened him and increased his love for the gospel. He and his family are continuing to understand the scriptures and the revelations through the Lord’s living prophet. Through the care of missionaries and members of the growing branch he now presides over, Yuri and his family have been fed and “nourished by the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4).
Prepare new members well. First, Church leaders have a responsibility to see that each new convert understands the baptismal commitments before those commitments are made. Even for those people with a strong Christian background, some of the commitments—attending church each week, abstaining from sexual relations outside of marriage, paying tithing, or refraining from tobacco and alcohol use—may present tremendous challenges. We can be important partners with the missionaries in helping investigators understand these principles. New members should not experience any surprises after baptism about what is expected of them as members of the Lord’s Church.
Second, we can share our own experiences of how we have met the challenges of living these commandments and the blessings we have seen as a result.
Third, we can bear our testimony. By doing so, we may benefit as much as the new members, for as President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “A testimony is found in the bearing of it” (“The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 54).
Fourth, we should pray for new converts in public and in private, because “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man [or woman] availeth much” (James 5:16).
Labor for lasting conversion. Jesus taught His disciples that they should spend their time working for converts who would remain: “I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). One of the best ways to do this is to do as Jesus did and truly love the people around us, to lose our own egos and selfishness in the service of the Father. It is important that in our missionary efforts we remember that God tells us His “work” and “glory” is not only to bring souls—His children—to baptism but to bring about their “immortality and eternal life” (Moses 1:39). Keeping this divine injunction in mind will help us as we focus on convert retention, as President Hinckley has asked us to.
In the solemn preparation for the Second Coming of the Lord and the ushering in of the Millennium, the Good Shepherd is gathering His sheep from the four quarters of the earth, for “in him they shall find pasture” (1 Ne. 22:25). We can play a role in gathering His sheep and keeping them in the safety of the Church. The revelations are clear in explaining that the Church is a refuge from the challenges of our day: “The gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, may be for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth” (D&C 115:6).
When Lehi said, “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), he was referring in part to the great joy one finds when living in full compliance with the commandments and enjoying the blessed companionship of the Holy Ghost. Joy is the reward! In Alma 26:5–7 we read about gathering the sheaves, which could represent members, safely into the garners, which could represent temples, so they will be safe during the storms of the last days. As faithful workers in the Lord’s kingdom, let us make certain that these newest members, precious sheaves of the Lord’s harvest, are well looked after, safe within the Lord’s Church, and protected from the enemy who seeks to destroy them.