Coming Back

By Don L. Searle

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

    Many active Latter-day Saints long to help less-active friends or family members enjoy the full blessings of the gospel. The experiences of those closest to the activation process suggest that we can reach out to our less-active brothers and sisters more effectively if we know more about them and their needs.

    Often, what we 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 helping them feel included. We may be trying to reeducate them about the gospel when we should be trying to rebuild 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.

    Why Do Members Become Less Active?

    While many Church members may experience a period in their lives when they become less active, the majority retain their belief in the gospel and 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 and that the Church was right. I knew that no matter what, the Lord loved me and cared about me. I think that’s what made the difference.” Like this brother, many less-active members retain a basic knowledge of gospel truths and identify themselves 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 lives. Other less-active members lack confidence—in their own ability to live the gospel, in other members because of their visible shortcomings, or in God because they feel he has somehow failed them. Some lack a sense of their own self-worth or feel that others look down at 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 focused too strongly on personal ambitions and have little time for Church activity. For example, a man whose work requires him to spend much time away from home said that because his family is so important, he frequently chooses to spend his limited free time on Sunday with his family at a recreation area rather than in Church meetings.

    The Role of Friends

    Among less-active members, there are many who can be lovingly brought back—who, in fact, want to come back. But active members may not realize this because many of them do not know these less-active members very well. Active members most frequently find their closest friends among those they associate with in Church meetings and activities. As a result, some less-active members conclude that they are being shut out.

    Loving friendship is vital in bringing people back. One successful home teacher, formerly less active himself, deliberately spends time getting to know the people he home teaches because he remembers the days when he wondered, Does this person care about me? Another home teacher commented: “We sometimes think, 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 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 necessary in bringing back less-active members. 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 respond quickly. Second, they bring personal warmth born of love. And third, they bring a willingness to share and draw lessons from their own struggles and experiences.

    Stumbling Blocks

    With the help of loving friends, less-active members can overcome several common stumbling blocks.

    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 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 basic 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. Many less-active members 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, 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 Latter-day Saint 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 can withstand,” one man commented. “I’m afraid I would fail if I were ever severely tested.”

    Some have let tragedy or hardship decrease their faith in God. One woman recalled a long period of struggle after her baby died. Why, she asked, would God give her a precious child, 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 believe 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 are often expressed by less-active members who feel shut out and alone. They point out that the Savior’s admonition to love others 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 are resolved once they begin coming to church again. But that’s not necessarily true. Less-active members often mistakenly believe they must be nearly perfect before they can be fully active in the Church. This belief may be the reason less-active members sometimes participate in temple preparation classes but do not go 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 less-active members believe they can accept sacred covenants successfully. Strengthening their confidence, their testimonies, and their desires to attend church is far more effective than teaching them formal gospel lessons.

    Unlike investigators, less-active members tend to be put off by formal, abstract teaching. Informal gospel discussions are preferable. These allow them to get answers from friends without the embarrassment of showing strangers how much they may not know. Heart-to-heart talks between friends can clarify misconceptions and provide elaboration on doctrines less-active members do not understand. These discussions are especially beneficial if they recognize that their quorum president, visiting teacher, friend, or neighbor—whoever the person involved with them may be—handles his or her own challenges in life through obedience to gospel principles. Some of those who are most effective in helping others back to activity were once less active themselves and feel deep empathy for those struggling with 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 that many less-active members have 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 member who has been successful in activating others explained. “I just follow the promptings when I am talking.”

    Members should prepare themselves to receive spiritual direction when they reach out to their less-active brothers and sisters, another successful member commented. If they prepare, “the Spirit will help them develop the necessary skills. They will be able to say the right things and make the right decisions.”

    Many who have helped others back to activity pray regularly about the families they are trying to help. But praying with them may be even more important. Not only does prayer invoke the power of heaven, it also teaches the family and invites the influence of the Spirit.

    Not every less-active member can or will be activated. But many are waiting only to be asked back. Whatever the result in terms of activation, those who 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?

    Experience has revealed eight key factors in helping less-active Latter-day Saints participate fully in gospel ordinances and opportunities.

    1. Positive experiences with active Church members are critical. True friendship often resolves negative feelings toward the Church and other members.

    2. People are most likely to respond to those they trust. Newly activated members say they respond best to members who are willing to make sacrifices for them and accept rather than judge them. It is important for them to sense that an active member’s efforts are genuine and not merely the fulfillment of duty.

    3. The three most important attributes a member seeking to help others back into activity can have are sharing, friendliness, and commitment. Here, sharing means a willingness to discuss one’s own experiences. Friendliness means having a friendly, trusting attitude. Commitment means consistency in visiting and fulfilling promises.

    4. Members helping others become active feel a responsibility for them. They care about their spiritual lives.

    5. There are four distinct aspects of reactivation: (a) Determining why an individual is not participating fully in the Church; (b) helping the less-active person learn to overcome problems through obedience to gospel principles; (c) helping the person become accepted and involved in the community of Latter-day Saints; and (d) helping the less-active member sense that the Lord accepts and forgives him or her of repented sins. Priesthood leaders often must be involved in this aspect of activation.

    6. Less-active members need help from active members in interpreting their experiences in terms of the gospel.

    7. Activation often involves re-introducing less-active members to spiritual experiences. 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. Building people’s confidence in their own ability to improve is an important part of activation.

    Photography by Steve Bunderson