“Inactivity: Helping Starts with Knowing Why,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 35
What Latter-day Saint has not thrilled to the deeply moving story of someone’s baptism into the Church, or felt the dynamism and strength each new convert brings? Yet there are hundreds of thousands who, though baptized, are not converted—who over the years have removed themselves from the gospel’s exalting power.
They may have been blessed, baptized, confirmed, ordained, and even endowed; but they constitute a group that wanders forty years in the wilderness and falls short of the promised land. These people never feel the saving strengths of the Church because they missed the way or, for any number of other reasons, exercised their agency in another direction.
We have an obligation to these wanderers. The Savior gave us the example of the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, and, in this dispensation, admonishes: “Let every man esteem his brother as himself.” (D&C 38:24.) The challenge is clear and lies heavily upon us.
We should talk about an inactive member of the Church as if he were in the next room—because that is precisely where he is. Who among us does not painfully wish that someone would touch the heart and life of a loved one who has withdrawn from Church activity?
That healing touch is actually a process—both external and internal. I would like to focus on the power and responsibility of the priesthood home teacher and the Relief Society visiting teacher in this process. This does not mean that the family’s role is less important, but sometimes the family is simply too close; and an outside influence can be vital if the home or visiting teacher has built a relationship of trust and confidence for those times when personal crises may precipitate change.
We must dispel the idea that the home or visiting teacher is a message bringer, or even a skilled teacher. In reality they are home guardians. It is this person who, with patient concern, creates the climate where he can ask the crucial question: Why is this person inactive? He may need the spirit of discernment to distinguish between the alleged and the real cause of inactivity; he will need the Lord’s help as he instills hope and helps his brother set a course of return. A visiting teacher has the same role.
How may they do this?
1. The home teacher presents himself, not as a model of perfection, but as a source of help.
2. He helps his brother pinpoint the difficulty and frankly teaches him the need for activity in the Church. He tells of the Church’s need for every individual and how essential each person is to the perfection of the Lord’s plan of salvation.
3. Fully aware that involvement brings self-confidence and commitment, he explores with the quorum or Relief Society presidency ways in which the inactive member can assume appropriate responsibilities.
4. He mobilizes the fellowshipping resources of the quorum or Relief Society to make the inactive member feel at home at church and around Church members.
5. To instill hope, the home teacher encourages goal setting. He meets the inactive member at the gate in the morning, bolstering his courage to set aside tobacco for another day. He shares his personal testimony that a toehold on self-mastery is within reach.
6. He is a model of patience, recognizing that change is gradual. For over twenty years, one Church member yearned for the activation of a friend. Prayer, fasting, and loving tact met at a successful moment.
7. Continued fellowshipping after activation is the joyous reward and continued responsibility of the visiting or home teacher.
How can you tell the right moment to approach the subject of reactivation? The Holy Ghost, as always, is the most infallible guide; but be aware that a sudden turn of events—business failure, illness, even death—may provide the catalyst for change within a person. Alert home teachers or loved ones can provide loving support and encourage introspection during such experiences.
Sometimes, apparently for no reason, the feeling that life is bleakly unfulfilling may prompt serious self-evaluation and, usually, at least a temporary resolution to change. For instance, a young inactive husband awakened his wife in the early morning hours after a dream of standing in front of the temple with her. It made him want to marry her there. Learning of this resolution, a dedicated home teacher helped them reach their goal.
None of the steps in this process are easy, but one is particularly sensitive and crucial: understanding the reason for inactivity. It may help to review some common reasons, for an alleged cause of inactivity may not be the real cause. For example, the inactive brother or sister may say that a Church leader hurt his feelings, when the real reason might lie in a gradually acquired habit of smoking or gossiping.
Inactivity often follows as a consequence of such unrepented transgressions as pride, theft, or adultery. Carried to a certain point, sin becomes tragically easier than righteousness. Someone who wants to “live it up” while he is young may sincerely insist that he’ll come back when he’s older, ignoring the likelihood that when he’s far down the road he may not have enough fuel and determination to return.
Then, too, many inactive members have never seen the eternal view of man’s existence, and thus overvalue immediate pleasures. Moreover, they may not have felt or recognized spiritual experiences in their own lives. How inspiring a home teacher or visiting teacher could be if he would share his own experience and find ways to invite spirituality. A home teacher could, for instance, encourage an inactive father to bless his sick children. The importance of fulfilling this spiritual lack cannot be overemphasized. Until spiritual experience seals one’s testimony, he remains “baptized but not converted.”
Some who do catch the eternal vision may let other things distract their attention. Weekend recreation or even extra work may take their toll. One of the oddest excuses for taking a Sunday family outing is the Church’s increasing emphasis upon family togetherness!
Others feel “entitled” to inactivity because they have served diligently for years and now feel they may “rest.” Even those who may not have the physical strength of their former years obviously have numerous ways of rendering light but useful service to the Church that will continually feed their relationship with their Heavenly Father. Proper balance is essential for the new convert as well, who may feel overwhelmed at being given more invitations for service than he can successfully accept.
Many have been offended or felt misunderstood. One youth, when asked to wear a necktie while passing the sacrament, interpreted the request as an insult. Even a bishop’s well-meant suggestion that a person refrain from going to the temple until his life could be set in order might be offensive to the oversensitive.
But the inactive brother’s sensitivities are, sadly, often reinforced by unforgiving active members, who refuse to let the principle of repentance operate in another person’s life, thus driving him deeper into inactivity. They see reactivation as hypocrisy: “I knew the oak tree before it was converted into an altar.”
Others are inactive because they remember hearing the gospel preached in their homes but never saw it practiced. They may resent having had religion “crammed down their throats” and, trying to spare their children the same negative experience, overreact. The result is an irreligious home.
Also among us are those who try to intellectualize the religious experience. They enjoy the ideas in the gospel, but their commitment stops with leading “a Christian life.” They forget that at the core of religion lie symbols, ordinances, and the incommunicable process of personal revelation.
A common variation of intellectualizing is the tendency to regard oneself as a doctrinal authority. Knowledge is not an unworthy aspiration; but taken alone, it obscures the fact that practice as well as knowledge forms the heart of religion. Such persons are usually paragons of pride, closed, and unteachable. Some conclude that living the gospel commandments literally is for the weak and insecure. Such persons forget that Christ himself was most obedient among our Father’s sons.
Many inactive members lack self-confidence and for that reason do not participate in Church-related programs. They may be sensitive about their education, appearance, income, or wardrobe. One woman, attending church for the first time with dentures, was dreadfully embarrassed when her own sister exclaimed, “You really look buck-toothed.” One man told his younger brother that he looked silly standing before a congregation perspiring nervously. For years, no one knew the actual causes of their inactivity in the Church until a trusted home teacher was concerned enough to ask.
Many live in areas where the Church is not well established and is even less understood. Intense family and social pressures may strain their convictions and religious practice.
Because of our doctrinal emphasis upon marriage, family, and home, some never-married or divorced members may become dejected and feel excluded, despite Special Interest programs geared to meet the needs of the single adult, the divorcee, and the widowed in the Church.
Subtle cultural differences may make continued activity difficult. For instance, our theology stresses self-mastery, personal success, and financial independence. Such qualities are not stressed in all homes and areas of the world. To expect new members to acquire these characteristics in a short time is unfair and disastrous. Thrift, cleanliness, work, and child-rearing skills must be learned through methodical effort as well as faith, fasting, and prayer.
Just as men become evil and fall by degrees so do they become righteous and succeed by degrees. Unless we help our brothers and sisters over the hurdles of personal and material improvement, they may never reach the spiritual hurdles. Here again, nothing can replace sincere concern and effort by home and visiting teachers.
In sum, living the gospel of Jesus Christ, by nature of its great promises, requires uncommon devotion and willingness to take the high risk of living by faith. As a home or visiting teacher, you may not know that fear of making an ultimate commitment. Perhaps none of these reasons for inactivity could be a cause for your own inactivity—and it is true that faithful living may put us in a position where we feel that no one or nothing could make us leave the Church. But, unfortunately, none of us can be sure that we are not even now doing or saying something that may confuse or hurt a weaker member, excluding him from the circle of fuller activity.
This loving concern is the responsibility of each of us, as family members and as brothers and sisters in the gospel. But it is the special charge of every home and visiting teacher to ascertain the reasons for another’s inactivity, to encourage, inspire, and then prayerfully bring back the wanderer in the wilderness—our brother.