Members Are the Key


M. Russell Ballard
From a satellite broadcast on conversion and retention given at the Provo (Utah) Missionary Training Center, 29 August 1999.
You and I must do everything we can to see that every member of the Church is completely fellowshipped and enjoying all the blessings the gospel has to offer.

I desire to give some counsel on how to improve member-missionary work in our stakes and wards. (References to stakes and wards also apply to missions, districts, and branches.) Because all of you have some influence in building and strengthening your local units, I would like you to envision the future of your ward and stake. Look out two or three years from now. What do you want your ward and stake to be like? Would you like to see some of your less-active friends and relatives serving as Sunday School teachers or in the elders quorum or Relief Society presidency? What will today’s recent converts be doing? What about your nonmember friends and neighbors? Can you envision any of them worshiping with you at sacrament meeting and the great joy you will feel as you participate with them and the ward members?

What the future will look like in your ward and stake will depend on the effectiveness of your combined efforts in making the Church a spiritually enriching, robust community of Saints. No one wants to envision a future in which the hours you spend planning, coordinating, working, and following through result in many people being baptized but only a few of them living as dedicated, joyful Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, we are not doing all that the Lord expects of us. You and I must do everything we can to see that every member of the Church is completely fellowshipped and enjoying all the blessings the gospel has to offer.

President Gordon B. Hinckley has reminded you and me of our responsibility to be coworkers with the Lord in bringing about His plans for the Church. In a satellite broadcast President Hinckley said:

“The Lord has laid upon us a mandate to teach the gospel to every creature. This will take the very best efforts of every missionary—full-time and stake. It will take the very best efforts of every bishop, of every bishop’s counselor, of every member of the ward council. It will take the very best interests of every stake president and his council, and particularly the Member Missionary Coordinating Councils” (“Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, 1999, 107). It will take the best efforts of every member.

In nearly every talk, President Hinckley calls upon us to do more in helping new members and the less active. In Maracaibo, Venezuela, he said: “I plead with you … that you will put your arms around those who come into the Church and be friends to them and make them feel welcome and comfort them and we will see wonderful results. The Lord will bless you to aid in this great process of retention of converts.

“You know what it has been like. Most of you here are converts to the Church. You know something of the loneliness that you felt when you came into this Church. Now will you please accept that challenge to warm up and be friendly to every man, woman and child who is baptized into the Church? It all depends on you” (“President Hinckley Urges More Missionary Effort in Venezuela,” Church News, 14 Aug. 1999, 7).

Brothers and sisters, President Hinckley cannot say it more clearly! We must listen to what he is teaching us. It is time for us to wake up and do what our prophet is asking us to do!

You cannot establish the Church in your own area unless you produce real growth—that is, not just growth on paper or in the number of membership records in your ward or stake. Real growth entails increasing the number of participating, dedicated Latter-day Saints.

Without a true and effective partnership between leaders, members, and stake and full-time missionaries, growth will be a function of who the missionaries can find by themselves and who by themselves are able to remain active and faithful. Experience shows, brothers and sisters, that when missionaries find and baptize converts without member support and involvement, such converts usually struggle mightily to maintain their tender faith and to become integrated into the community of Saints.

Making It Happen

How can you help bring about real growth and build the Church in your local area? We have volumes of research in the Church that show it doesn’t happen very efficiently by missionaries knocking on doors, delivering media products, and teaching those they can find by themselves. Yes, many baptisms can and do result. The missionaries are wonderful at fostering a marvelous awakening in the hearts of many of those who let them teach them. But does that bring about the real growth of the Church? Ofttimes not, because those brought in without member support are less likely to progress as faithful Latter-day Saints.

So how can you effectively bring about the growth of the Church? The blueprint is in the 19 June 1998 First Presidency document entitled “Proclaiming the Gospel and Establishing the Church.” This document emphasizes a balanced effort. It states, “As leaders, members, and full-time missionaries work together in conversion, retention, and activation, new members will more fully enjoy the blessings of the gospel and the Church will be established more firmly.”

What does this mean? It means you will not successfully build up the Church in your ward or stake unless you hold a steady and deliberate course of simultaneously increasing your (1) convert baptisms, (2) convert retention, and (3) activation of less-active members. If you do not focus on accomplishing all three of these enabling goals simultaneously, you will certainly not achieve the end goal of establishing or building up the kingdom of God.

The missionaries are an important resource for accomplishing these goals. But, brothers and sisters, you are the essential and critical key to real growth. When, as members, you participate successfully in conversion, retention, and activation in a balanced effort, you will make an extraordinary contribution to the growth of the Church in your area. I can absolutely promise you that!

The Key: Members

You may be wondering how critical members are to Church growth. What I am going to share with you is the result of extensive research that we have done.

Currently, of all investigators participating in a first discussion in the United States and Canada, only one in 10 is member-referred. In other words, only one in 10 of those beginning investigation is found through member efforts. But among those who progress through the discussions and get baptized, more than half are found through the members. Member referrals are dramatically more likely than other types of investigators to be baptized—about 10 times more likely, according to our latest research!

Why do members have such a powerful effect? Our research has shown that members need to fulfill three critical roles or functions in order to support conversion, retention, and activation. They are (1) modeling, (2) informal teaching, and (3) integrating. Let me elaborate.

  1. 1.

    Modeling. Members model what it truly means to be a Latter-day Saint. Members’ example of the gospel in action has a powerful effect because it makes the restored gospel become much more relevant, meaningful, convincing, and desirable to those observing them. For example, nonmembers who observe your lifestyle and behavior learn a great deal about your impressive Christian values and are inspired by the fruits of the gospel exhibited in your life. Therefore, every member should radiate the joy, the confidence, and the warmth of being a part of the true Church of Jesus Christ.

  2. 2.

    Informal teaching. Members informally teach the significance and power of the restored gospel by offering their insights, sharing their personal experiences, and answering questions. Some of the most memorable and powerful teaching moments occur when members share what the gospel has meant to them and their families. Also, when nonmembers or less-active members have questions or concerns, they often feel most comfortable sharing them with trusted member friends.

  3. 3.

    Integrating. Members help others develop close relationships with ward members. They do this, for example, by taking them to Church meetings and activities and helping them feel a part of the ward family. I don’t think members raised in the Church can fully appreciate the overwhelming challenges new members face when they try, without the help of member friends, to fit in and become fully active in the Church. It takes attentive friends to make new members feel comfortable and welcomed at church—to make them feel like “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19)—to make them feel like they belong to the body of the Saints.

Have you ever moved to another ward? In many cases it can take a long time before you develop close relationships with other members of your ward, before you feel like a fully fellowshipped member. How much more difficult it must be for new converts! Brothers and sisters, we must follow President Hinckley’s counsel and put our arms around all who come to the ward.

You can see how member involvement is vital to convert retention and in bringing less-active members back into full activity. President Hinckley has said that every new member needs “a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God’” (“Converts and Young Men,” Ensign, May 1997, 47). Full-time missionaries are invaluable in this, but the friendship of other members, including stake missionaries, is also needed.

Here’s where the ward council comes in. The ward council is critical to making sure converts and recently activated members are properly nurtured. It is in the ward council that the various organizations in the ward become involved in this process.

However, assigned friendships, if they do not develop into real friendships, rarely can be powerful influences for good. Therefore, the work of the ward council in caring for these converts and recently activated members must be more than just making sure proper assignments are made. The assignments are a means to an end—that of effectively watching over one another. The ward council must also focus on that end and do all they can to make sure that the assignments have their desired effects in the lives of these precious souls. Capture the vision that the Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, Young Men, elders quorums, and high priests groups can become the most powerful friendshipping resource we have in the Church. Reach out early to those being taught and reactivated, and love them into the Church through your organization.

Brothers and sisters, I hope you are getting this point: Member-missionary work is powerful and essential to establishing and building up the Church. But our current level of member-missionary work is inadequate. We can and must do better. In the United States, only about 35 percent of active members consistently do member-missionary work.

Moreover, over the past decade, member participation in missionary work has declined. President Hinckley has described a cross section of the U.S. and Canadian investigator pool in 1987 as being 42 percent member-referred. Ten years later that figure declined to 20 percent. This also represents a decrease in the actual number of member referrals. President Hinckley has said that this downward trend must be reversed (see Ensign, May 1999, 107).

The Importance of Councils

May I share a few suggestions with you who belong to a ward or stake council.

Are you using the ward and stake councils effectively as they were intended? Don’t let them become meaningless exercises in organizational bureaucracy. The way some leaders conduct council meetings, you would think they really believe in a fourteenth article of faith:

“We believe in meetings—all that have been held, all that are now scheduled—and we believe there will yet be held many great and important meetings. We have endured many meetings and hope to be able to endure all meetings. If there is a meeting, we seek after it.”

We hope you do not have a fourteenth article of faith operating in your wards.

Putting all humor aside, brothers and sisters, please don’t waste your time. Your council meetings need to be more than an opportunity for calendaring and coordinating, for giving and receiving reports. They should be a setting for discussing how you can bring the blessings of the gospel into the lives of others. You should use them for sharing your challenges and brainstorming solutions. That takes more than passive attendance on the part of council members. Each of you must actively work together in creative and inspired ways.

There is no greater friendshipping tool in the Church than a caring Relief Society president watching over those who have been recently baptized or reactivated. That is also true of all of the elders quorum and auxiliary leaders. All members of the ward council have a vital role in member-missionary work.

A Great Joy

My beloved brothers and sisters, may God bless you that you may be filled with the great enthusiasm that is demonstrated by our prophet. My humble prayer is that you will find it a great joy to follow him and do what he is asking us to do. I bear witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that this is His Church we are responsible for. I promise you that with His love and direction we can accomplish all we need to do to enhance and improve the conversion, the retention, and the activation of His precious children.

To Stake Presidencies

Lead by example. It is hard to inspire those you lead to nurture nonmembers, recent converts, and less-active members if you are not doing it yourself.

In your council meetings with your bishoprics, ask for their ideas for member participation in missionary work. What has worked well in one ward might be helpful in another. Be prepared to share these ideas and successful experiences with other stake presidents and your area leaders at the Member-Missionary Coordinating Council.

Work with your bishops individually to clarify their real-growth goals for their wards and their plans for accomplishing them.

Discuss with the full-time mission president how his missionaries can best be of use in your stake.

Provide inspired leadership to the stake mission presidency and the stake missionaries.

To Bishoprics

Envision the future you want for your ward and how you will accomplish it. What are your real-growth goals? Decide what balance of efforts will best generate real growth in your particular ward. How can you most effectively mobilize the full-time missionaries, the stake missionaries, and your members to accomplish these goals? Use your ward council to discuss and develop these goals and strategies. When you plan and implement activities, always think about whether these activities optimize opportunities for members to model the gospel, to informally teach, and to socially integrate investigators, new members, and less-active members. Ward activities can be wonderful settings for members to perform these valuable functions in a natural, comfortable way.

Use your Convert Baptism Checklist wisely. Too many bishops use it merely to check off whether an event has occurred or an assignment has been made. While that is important, it is even more important to use it to discuss each convert’s quality of experience as a new member of the Church. Do they have friends at church? Are they having positive experiences in a calling? Are they truly being nourished by the good word of God? If not, what can your council members do to support their development as active Latter-day Saints? Invite other auxiliary members to attend as necessary so that they too can participate in fulfilling the needs of those still growing into full activity. This should be possible in every ward. In fact, less than 3 percent of wards in the United States and Canada receive on average more than a couple of converts each month. That means 97 percent of these wards can do much, much more in conversion, retention, and activation.

To Stake Mission Presidencies and Stake Missionaries

Do you know what stake mission leaders and stake missionaries spend more time doing than anything else? Our research shows it is attending meetings, planning, and coordinating. These are good things to do, but sometimes we spend too much time reporting what we have done or planning what we will do. In contrast, stake mission leaders and stake missionaries invest considerably less time in what makes the most difference: personally interacting with their nonmember and less-active member friends and recent converts. This is the best way you can model the joys of the gospel.

Stake missionaries, some of the most important work you will do among your own nonmember and less-active acquaintances will be to reach out and to love them. Let them feel your love of the gospel and the Church. Let them experience the joy you feel from living the life of a disciple. Invite them to be a part of your wonderful experiences in the Church.

As you work with the full-time missionaries, make your contribution a personal, meaningful one. Do more than be present at their lessons with investigators or converts. Take an active role in finding out how you can best participate. What topics will be discussed? What experiences and insights do you have that might contribute to the spiritual growth of this person?

As you work with new converts, develop a real relationship with them and gain their trust. Let them know that you are available as a resource to them to answer their questions, to support them in their challenges to live an LDS lifestyle, and to help them in any other way. Facilitate their integration into the ward by inviting them to activities and introducing them to others.

Work with ward members to determine how they can best involve their nonmember and less-active friends and relatives. Help them feel the joy of going beyond feeding the missionaries, driving the missionaries to appointments, or merely sitting in on a missionary discussion. Help them participate in the change that comes over people when they embrace Jesus Christ and open their hearts to His love. Help members lighten up when interacting with nonmembers and less-active members. Research shows that often members are far more uptight and uncomfortable than nonmembers in gospel-related interactions. Show them how to relax and enjoy those wonderful experiences and how to emanate the joy they have and the love they feel for their Heavenly Father. When guided by the Spirit, they can create many opportunities for modeling, informally teaching, and integrating in natural, comfortable, and even spontaneous ways.

Work closely and coordinate with the full-time missionaries toward accomplishing a truly balanced effort. Be with them in correlation meetings so that this effort is one work—that of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of God’s children (see Moses 1:39).

[photos] Electronic composition by Patric Gerber and Scott Welty; photography by Steve Bunderson, except as noted; most photography posed by models

[photo] Inset, bottom right: Photo by Welden C. Andersen

[photos] Left: Photo by Janet Thomas; Above: Photo by Craig Dimond