How to Help Nonmembers in Your Own Family
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“How to Help Nonmembers in Your Own Family,” Ensign, Oct. 1977, 63

Special Issue: You, the Missionary!

How to Help Nonmembers in Your Own Family

It seems that those of us in the Church with nonmember spouses keep coming back to the same basic question: “What must I do to get my husband (or wife) interested in the Church?” We think that if we could only get the answer—the “right” answer—it would change our lives.

But first we have to ask ourselves a few questions.

A crucial starting question is, “Why isn’t my spouse interested in the gospel way of life?” That question is important because the success of the treatment depends upon the accuracy of the diagnosis. This diagnosis should be carried out patiently, slowly, prayerfully, and completely. Time is invaluable in gaining perspective and insight. If you have a trusted friend or officer in the Church, you might discuss your attempt to determine the spiritual needs of your spouse with him. At any rate, following considerable thought and after the Holy Spirit confirms the accuracy of your evaluation, you are ready to help your spouse better see what the gospel could mean in his (or her) life.

Here are some other questions you might consider: Would the Church interfere with his recreational life? Is he afraid of losing his friends? Does he have habits that he feels he cannot break? Has he had bad experiences with some Church members? Does he know so little about Church doctrine or Church worship he would feel bored or embarrassed in a meeting? There are many other questions that could be asked, but these are a start. I emphasize again, you must determine what is lacking and what can be done to help him recognize his spiritual need, or create in him a desire for the gospel way of life.

After you have determined what the needs of your spouse are, write them down so that through prayer, meditation, reading, and counseling, you can draw up a plan for action. It has been well said that a goal not written down generally turns out to be only a wish.

“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (D&C 9:8.)

Now to your plan: In carrying out any program, be patient. Whatever you do, do it gradually, step by small step. Pressure of any kind should be kept at a minimum. The persistence of personality and character patterns in human beings forcefully dictates the need for a patient and gradual approach. I can assure you that trying to hastily remove any factors that block change sets up emotional shock waves that create more stress and disorganization than most people can handle.

The emotional bonds that tie people together in marriage are very strong. These bonds of love thrive in an atmosphere of respect and acceptance of each other as worthwhile persons. For one spouse to ask the other to make the personality and character changes Church membership may require can create feelings of resentment and unworthiness. Fear of offending or hurting a spouse by asking him to make those changes is a major obstacle to converting a spouse to the gospel. Let’s look at a situation that illustrates such a reaction.

Henry Mackay had married into a family that was proud of its service and loyalty to the Church. Every time Henry met with his in-laws, he sensed that they felt their daughter had let them down by marrying a nonmember. As time went on, he became more and more defensive. He began to stay away from traditional family gatherings. Gradually he started to notice shortcomings and faults in members of Marie’s family. He even directed some resentment toward his wife.

A very sensitive and perceptive girl, she quickly became aware of what was happening. She loved her husband; he was a loyal and devoted companion; and she felt he would someday join the Church and be a strong member. While Henry was out of town during a family anniversary party, she went into action. She brought the situation up for discussion and pled with her family to accept her husband as an honorable man, a child of God who had not had the opportunity to learn about and participate in the gospel plan. She suggested they dwell on the strong points of his personality and character. The family agreed to show warmth, acceptance, and appreciation.

Henry’s response was most gratifying. Feeling accepted, he began to warm up to his wife’s family and increasingly integrated his life with its members. Eventually he justified his wife’s confidence and became an active member of the Church.

Gospel principles are most readily accepted when they are presented in an atmosphere of love and concern. Charity—the pure love of Christ—is the universal solvent of hardened attitudes and beliefs. True love promotes concern and respect for others in our day-to-day activities and relationships with them. Every effort should be made to radiate cheerfulness and faith in the success of the husband or wife within the marriage relationship. Wives and husbands should do all they can to help each other fulfill their God-given roles. Compliments, words of encouragement, acknowledgments of progress, be they ever so little, are powerful aids in helping spouses draw together in their religious outlook on life. It is especially important to help the father assume the leadership role in family councils, family home evenings, recreational, and vacation activities. All these efforts and adjustments promote love, open-mindedness, and the desire for an eternal family unit.

I cannot voice this truth often enough—attitudes and beliefs are based on how one feels toward a life situation. It’s not uncommon for people to have the attitude, “I don’t care how much you know (or how right you or your church are) until I know how much you care about me.” If we can make people feel we are sensitive to them, concerned for their welfare, and supportive of their good efforts to be worthwhile persons, they will be far more inclined to open their hearts to our efforts to help them see how the gospel can make their lives even happier.

While I was a mission president I asked hundreds of converts why they joined the Church. Countless times the answer was, “Well, there was this friend.” Nonmembers generally accept the gospel because they have been accepted by those who have already embraced it. People are generally converted to people before they are converted to principles. As I pointed out earlier, the first conversion must be to the spouse. Then comes the need for a new friendship circle within the Church fold. Until we recognize this central truth about human nature, we will face serious obstacles in our efforts—people find it most difficult to be without a friendship circle.

Your assistance in the creation of a new friendship circle should be carried out gradually and on a person-to-person basis, at least at first. Large groups and crowds may make some people uncomfortable, so they try to avoid them. This may or may not be the case with your spouse. You will have to evaluate that. Often, those who shy away from taking part in Church services are more timid than irreligious. Therefore, introduction to new people and activities should be gradual. Small gatherings in the home, backyard, or on recreational trips may be best at first. Later, a person who is not a member may feel comfortable in a larger recreational activity, helping on a building project or welfare project, at a Relief Society or priesthood social. A special effort should be made to suggest involvement in a sports or recreational activity in which the spouse already has definite skills or interests.

In many situations children probably have a stronger and deeper influence over parents than anyone else. Some years ago I was involved in a pilot program in a seminary in southern Idaho. The participating students learned one or two of the missionary discussions and then presented them to their parents in their homes. Some of these children had inactive or nonmember parents and wanted their parents to be active and to be sealed in the temple. The intensity of their desires, as they gave the discussions, simply melted the hearts of some of the parents until their interest and desire to become involved in Church service and activity was fully awakened. The president of the stake in which the pilot program was carried out personally reported that it was more effective than any of the programs used previously in activating members and creating a desire in fathers to receive or advance in the priesthood. Truly a child can lead them, and should be given opportunity to participate in the effort to bring family nonmembers into the Church.

A successful business firm had the following observation prominently displayed in all its offices: “To sell John Brown what John Brown buys, you’ve got to see things through John Brown’s eyes.” This summarizes what I have been trying to suggest as the most productive way to help a nonmember spouse become interested in the gospel. This approach avoids the common ego conflict that so often dooms the effort to failure because people just naturally find it easier to accept the gospel and become an eternal family unit when they love and need each other—now. This love creates a viable need and desire for the gospel in one’s life and is largely the answer to the plea, “How can I get my husband, wife, or child interested in joining the Church?”

A loving, exemplary, and loyal family relationship is the best spiritual compass, leading us back to our heavenly home and Parents. But through it all, remember to love and enjoy the good things of your home and spouse—don’t ever lose sight of all the good traits and virtues your spouse has. They earned your love in the beginning of your relationship—and a continual fostering and enjoyment of them will provide the happiest background for any future development.

  • Ernest Eberhard, Jr., retired seminary and Church youth curriculum director, was released last year as president of the Utah Salt Lake City Mission. He resides in the Centerville Sixth Ward, Centerville Utah Stake.

Photography by Eldon Linschoten