President Ezra Taft Benson told of an experience he had when he was serving as a counselor in a stake presidency:
“At a stake presidency meeting in Boise, Idaho, years ago, we were trying to select a president for the weakest and smallest elders quorum in the stake. Our clerk had brought a list of all the elders of that quorum, and on the list was the name of a man whom I had known for some years. He came from a strong Latter-day Saint family, but he wasn’t doing much in the Church.
“If the bishop made a call to do some work on the chapel, he would usually respond, and if the elders wanted to play softball, you would sometimes find him out playing with them. He did have leadership ability; he was president of a service club and was doing a fine job.
“I said to the stake president, ‘Would you authorize me to go out and meet this man and challenge him to square his life with the standards of the Church and take the leadership of his quorum? I know there is some hazard in it, but he has the ability.’
“The stake president said, ‘You go ahead, and the Lord bless you.’
“… I went to this man’s home. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he opened the door and saw a member of his stake presidency standing there. He hesitantly invited me in; his wife was preparing dinner, and I could smell the aroma of coffee coming from the kitchen. I asked him to have his wife join us, and when we were seated, I told him why I had come. ‘I’m not going to ask you for your answer today,’ I told him. ‘All I want you to do is to promise me that you will think about it, pray about it, think about it in terms of what it will mean to your family, and then I’ll be back to see you next week. If you decide not to accept, we’ll go on loving you,’ I added.
“The next Sunday, as soon as he opened the door I saw there had been a change. He was glad to see me, and he quickly invited me in and called to his wife to join us. He said, ‘Brother Benson, we have done as you said. We’ve thought about it and we’ve prayed about it, and we’ve decided to accept the call. If you brethren have that much confidence in me, I’m willing to square my life with the standards of the Church, a thing I should have done long ago.’
“He also said, ‘I haven’t had any coffee since you were here last week, and I’m not going to have any more.’
“He was set apart as elders quorum president, and attendance in his quorum began going up—and it kept going up. He went out, put his arm around the less-active elders, and brought them in. A few months later I moved from the stake.
“Years passed, and one day on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, a man came up to me, extended his hand, and said, ‘Brother Benson, you don’t remember me, do you?’
“‘Yes, I do,’ I said, ‘but I don’t remember your name.’
“He said, ‘Do you remember coming to the home of a delinquent elder in Boise seven years ago?’ And then, of course, it all came back to me. Then he said, ‘Brother Benson, I’ll never live long enough to thank you for coming to my home that Sunday afternoon. I am now a bishop. I used to think I was happy, but I didn’t know what real happiness was.’”1
Having been inspired by this experience and others, President Benson encouraged faithful Latter-day Saints to reach out to members of the Church who lived “apart from the Church and the influence of the gospel.”2 In the April 1984 general conference, he said: “We are pleased with the activation of many of our brethren and sisters. We encourage priesthood and auxiliary leaders to continue this great effort.”3 That same week, he spoke to a group of priesthood leaders about the need to fellowship men in the Church who have not yet been ordained elders:
“My heart goes out to those men, heads of families. … I don’t believe we have a greater challenge in the Church today than to activate those men and bring them to the point where they can take their families to the house of the Lord and have opened to them the richest blessings known to men and women in this world and in the world to come.
“Brethren, our hope and prayer is that you will see this activation effort as more than just a temporary program. We hope that when this period of our Church history is recorded, it will be said that this marked a time when many wandering and lost souls were reclaimed by the Church of God.”4
The purpose of the Lord’s church is to further the progress of every son and daughter of God toward the ultimate blessings of eternal life. …
I wish to discuss our mission to perfect the Saints, particularly the challenge of activating those who have separated themselves from full activity in the Church. These members, who are our brothers and sisters, at present live apart from the Church and the influence of the gospel.
In this group of less-active members are many non-attenders who may be indifferent and non-caring. Also included are those who are temporarily lost because we do not know their whereabouts. Some of these are new converts who apparently did not receive the nurturing attention and teachings that would have caused them to be “fellow citizens with the Saints.” (See Eph. 2:19.) Many are single adults.
To all such individuals, we, as members of the Church and followers of the Lord, must extend and renew our love and heartfelt invitation to come back. “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.” (Ensign, March 1986, p. 88.)
The challenge before us is great. … We must exercise great faith, energy, and commitment if we are to reach these brothers and sisters. But we must do it. The Lord expects us to do it. And we will!5
Now is the time to apply the Savior’s teaching of the good shepherd to the challenge before us of retrieving lost sheep and wayward lambs.
“How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
“And if [it] so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.” (Matt. 18:12–13.)
In Jesus’ time, the Palestinian shepherd knew each of his sheep. The sheep knew his voice and trusted him. They would not follow a stranger. Thus, when called, the sheep would come to him. (See John 10:1–5, 14.)
At night, the shepherds would lead their sheep to a corral or a sheepfold. High walls surrounded the sheepfold, and thorns were placed on top of the walls to prevent wild animals and thieves from climbing over. Sometimes, however, a wild animal driven by hunger would leap over the walls into the midst of the sheep, frightening and threatening them.
Such a situation separated the true shepherd—one who loved his sheep—from the hireling who worked only for pay out of duty. The true shepherd was willing to give his life for the sheep. He would go in among the sheep and fight for their welfare. The hireling, on the other hand, valued his own personal safety above the sheep and would usually flee from the danger.
Jesus used this common illustration of His day to declare that He was the Good Shepherd, the True Shepherd. Because of His love for His brothers and sisters, He would willingly and voluntarily lay down His life for them. (See John 10:11–18.)
Eventually the Good Shepherd did give His life for the sheep—for you and me, for us all.
The symbolism of the good shepherd is not without significant parallel in the Church today. The sheep need to be led by watchful shepherds. Too many are wandering. Some are being enticed away by momentary distractions. Others have become completely lost.
We realize, as in times past, that some of the sheep will rebel and are “as a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd.” (Mosiah 8:21.) But most of our problems stem from lack of loving and attentive shepherding, and more shepherds must be developed.
With a shepherd’s care, our new members, those newly born into the gospel, must be nurtured by attentive friendshipping as they increase in gospel knowledge and begin living new standards. Such attention will help ensure that they will not return to old habits.
With a shepherd’s loving care, our young people, our young lambs, will not be as inclined to wander. And if they do, the crook of the shepherd’s staff—a loving arm and an understanding heart—will help retrieve them.
With a shepherd’s care, many of those who are now independent of the flock can still be reclaimed. Many who have married outside the Church and have assumed the life-styles of the world may respond to an invitation to return to the fold.6
There are no new solutions to this old problem of sheep straying elsewhere for food. The charge Jesus gave to Peter, which He emphasized by repeating it three times, is the proven solution: “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep.” (See John 21:15–17.)
The answer, then, is found in prayerfully shepherding and feeding the flock—in other words, personal watchcare. There must be real, heartfelt concern by a true and loving shepherd, not just the shallow concern that a hireling might show.
As we discuss the concept of a true shepherd, we recognize that the Lord has given this responsibility to priesthood holders. But sisters also have callings of “shepherding” in the charitable and loving service they render to one another, and to others. Thus, we must all learn to be true shepherds. We must manifest the same love to others that the Good Shepherd has for all of us. Each soul is precious to Him. His invitation beckons every member—every son and daughter of God.
“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. …
“Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; …
“Yea, come unto me and bring forth works of righteousness.” (Alma 5:33–35.)
None are denied His invitation. All are welcome who will receive His gracious invitation to partake of His gospel. The sheep—some distracted, some indifferent, some preoccupied—must be found and loved back into activity. Every priesthood and auxiliary resource must be used to assist in this effort.
This challenge will never be met until stake, ward, quorum, and auxiliary leaders and faithful members everywhere exercise their will and faith to bring the less active back into full activity in the Church.
As you earnestly strive to accomplish this worthy goal, we urge you to give renewed emphasis to effective priesthood home teaching and effective Relief Society visiting teaching. Home teaching and visiting teaching are inspired programs. They are designed to reach each member of the Church each month, both the active and the less active. Please give home teaching and visiting teaching an increased emphasis.7
Our prayers today must be of the same intensity and concern as were the prayers of Alma as he sought to reclaim the wandering Zoramites who had strayed from the Lord:
“O Lord, wilt thou grant unto us that we may have success in bringing them again unto thee in Christ.
“Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren; therefore, give unto us, O Lord, power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee.” (Alma 31:34–35; italics added.) …
The principles to activate souls do not change. They are:
1. The lost or less active must be found and contacted.
2. Loving concern must be demonstrated. They must feel of our love.
3. They must be taught the gospel. They must feel the power of the Holy Ghost through the teachers.
4. They must be included in our fellowship.
5. They must have meaningful Church responsibilities.
In the words of the Book of Mormon, we are to “continue to minister.” (3 Ne. 18:32.)
We are particularly concerned that new converts be integrated into full fellowship in the Church. They must be welcomed with opened arms.
Let us be united in our efforts to bring the less active back into full activity in the Church. In doing so, we will all be more fitly joined together in accomplishing the mission of the Church—to bring the gospel, with all of its blessings and ordinances, more fully into the lives of all Church members. The Church “hath need of every member” (D&C 84:110), and every member has need of the gospel, the Church, and all its ordinances.
May we all seek the blessings of the Lord to strengthen us and give us the necessary power and influence we will need as we work together in this great labor of love.8
What are your feelings as you think about family members or friends who “live apart from the Church and the influence of the gospel”? What can we do to reach out to them? (See section 1.)
Ponder President Benson’s teachings about the differences between a hireling and a shepherd (see section 2). What can we do to be better shepherds?
President Benson reminded us that people need “real, heartfelt concern from a true and loving shepherd” (section 3). How can we develop heartfelt concern for others? As you ponder this question, think about your service as a home teacher or visiting teacher.
What do you think it means to “continue to minister”? (3 Nephi 18:32). Consider the five principles President Benson shared to help us serve those who need to return to Church activity (see section 4). In what ways can each of these principles help someone receive the blessings of the gospel?
“Reading, studying, and pondering are not the same. We read words and we may get ideas. We study and we may discover patterns and connections in scripture. But when we ponder, we invite revelation by the Spirit. Pondering, to me, is the thinking and the praying I do after reading and studying in the scriptures carefully” (Henry B. Eyring, “Serve with the Spirit,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 60).