“Catching the Vision of Missionary Work,” Ensign, Dec. 2003, 20
We have seen a ward come alive with missionary work,” Bishop Gary M. Stout of the Fair Oaks Third Ward in California said as he reported to the stake president on ward members’ efforts. Ward members had shared in an effort to double the results of their missionary labors, as President Gordon B. Hinckley has challenged the Church to do.1 When our ward tried to respond to President Hinckley’s challenge, I was serving as ward mission leader and witnessed firsthand the blessings that come when we follow the counsel of Church leaders. I also caught a glimpse of what the prophets have foretold regarding the great harvest of souls to take place in this last dispensation.
It began one Saturday evening when our stake presidency held a meeting with all of the bishops and ward mission leaders in the stake and their wives. The purpose was to convey President Hinckley’s vision of missionary work, urge us to set specific goals, and motivate us to achieve them. The following day, Bishop Stout and his counselors discussed how to implement the instructions we had received.
Recalled Bishop Stout, “One of my wise counselors, Brother Ruggles, spoke up and told about a college roommate he’d had who spent so much time preparing to study that he never really got down to studying.” The bishopric decided to hold a special combined meeting of the priesthood, Relief Society, and youth on the fifth Sunday of that same month, and this meeting would reflect a specific missionary effort. This was not to be just another training meeting on why or how we should share the gospel; this was to be an opportunity to actually do it. The Apostle James, who so powerfully taught that faith is alive only when accompanied by action, said it this way: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
“We first agreed as a bishopric to invite our nonmember friends, coworkers, and family members,” explained Bishop Stout. “We challenged the ward council to do likewise. I made a challenge to the ward members in sacrament meeting to be bold and invite their friends, family, and coworkers to come and join us for a special program concerning the family.”
In the few weeks leading up to the special meeting, ward members worked diligently to prepare for the event. Although I am sure many of us felt a brief moment of hesitation, almost immediately a confident enthusiasm began to spread among members. This was primarily because of the obvious commitment and excitement of the bishopric. Each of them exuded an infectious desire to make this meeting a success. They even wore little tags with the words “BE BOLD.”
In every Church meeting and nearly every prayer, we received reminders about the fifth-Sunday meeting and our challenge to invite our friends. Priesthood and auxiliary leaders helped the bishopric prayerfully establish objectives and plan an agenda for the meeting itself. As ward mission leader, I worked with the ward and full-time missionaries to plan ways to get people there. Prayerfully we set a goal for the number of investigators we wanted to bring to the meeting.
I thought back to my mission, when a visiting Apostle and my mission president instructed us to commit to specific actions and ask for specific blessings when approaching Heavenly Father, rather than praying in vague generalities. At the time my companion and I were serving in a struggling branch with declining attendance. After only 13 people showed up to our Sunday meetings, we prayed and asked Heavenly Father to help us bring 30 people to sacrament meeting the next week. Fifteen minutes before that sacrament meeting ended, a family of four we had baptized sat down on the front row, making a total of 30 in attendance. At that moment, the Spirit acknowledged to me that this was a specific answer to our specific prayer.
Applying this principle to our special fifth-Sunday meeting, the full-time and ward missionaries decided on a specific request. Ordinarily, we would have felt that having more than two or three investigators in church was a very successful Sunday. However, the bishopric had talked about having as many as 20, 30, or 40 in attendance, so we prayerfully set a goal to have at least 30 investigators attend the special meeting. We committed to pray daily for the Spirit to motivate our fellow ward members to open their mouths and invite their friends, neighbors, and family members. Of course we discussed some of the people we would invite. We also pledged to come to the meeting fasting with this purpose in mind. Finally, we visited families in the ward to help them determine specific individuals and families they could invite to the meeting.
The most exciting thing that occurred in those three weeks was that people actually did it—they opened their mouths. They simply explained to their friends that we were having a special meeting about families and asked them to come. To their joy and, in some cases, shock, many people said yes. This was fuel for the fire. Within a short time many ward members discovered that it is not so hard after all to share with their friends something that is so important to them. They also discovered that when we do what the Lord has commanded us, He opens the way for us to succeed (see 1 Ne. 3:7). Perhaps most important, they discovered that sharing the gospel is enjoyable.
When the fifth Sunday of the month finally came, a near-tangible energy was felt in the congregation during sacrament meeting and Sunday School. And when the time for our special meeting arrived, the ward reaped the fruit of its labor. Into the chapel walked active members of the Church with friends who were not members or were less active. As I greeted people at the door, I appreciated seeing the joyful expressions on the faces of ward members who introduced their guests.
The program was beautiful. Without a doubt, the Lord magnified the efforts of all who sang, spoke, and testified about the plan of salvation and the role of the family within the plan. And while we are accustomed to uplifting talks and musical performances, it seemed those who participated felt an increased focus and sense of purpose as they shared their testimonies in word and song. From the tears in the eyes of many of our visitors, I could tell they too felt the influence of the Holy Spirit.
As I counted the visitors scattered throughout the pews, I once again felt the Spirit confirm that Heavenly Father had heard and answered our specific, faithful plea. According to our best determination, 36 people who were not members and 19 less-active members had joined us for the meeting!
That was more than two years ago. With the passage of time, I recognize more and more blessings that have stemmed, directly and indirectly, from that exciting experience. First, several of the investigators present in the meeting have joined the Church. For example, Nate Pennington, along with his wife, Cathy, a less-active member of our ward, began attending other meetings and activities from time to time. As a result of sustained fellowship and specific prayer, roughly a year and a half after that meeting Nate joined the Church.
Equally important, a number of the less-active Saints who returned to church that day have remained faithful and now hold callings. Sister Carolyn Danford, in particular, who had not attended church for three decades, has hardly missed a Sunday service since that day. Despite her reserved nature, she now participates in class discussions and enjoys full fellowship within the ward.
While not all our guests immediately began investigating the gospel in earnest, several are still on the gradual path leading to that point. For instance, one promising family has agreed to participate in a family history project in our area. This is another opportunity for them to interact with the Church and cultivate the seeds that were planted in their hearts. Another entire family is scheduled to receive the missionary discussions in the home of the friends who brought them to church last year, and I am confident many others will yet seek further knowledge about the gospel.
A few months after the meeting, our ward conducted another such Sunday activity with similar results. Although not every Church function bears so much fruit, we routinely enjoy the company of new friends. Less-active members and some who are not members come to nearly every ward activity, from barbecues and dances to firesides and baptismal services. Our ward is making a habit of boldly approaching those who are not already included in our great ward family.
Under the inspired direction of their priesthood leaders, ward members have helped develop a ward finding list. This is a master list of 100 names of friends, neighbors, and family members we feel might embrace the gospel someday. Some of them still may require much more preparation, but we have committed to think about these special people, pray for them, and seek revelation to know how to help lead them step-by-step to eternal life. With this goal in mind, more ward members are approaching me for suggestions as to which less-active members they can invite to our meetings or how to approach certain neighbors about the gospel. More and more, the focus of ward members has turned outward. And as my own family can testify regarding friends of other faiths, the Lord is answering our prayers, both by opening their hearts and showing us how to proceed.
While we are grateful for current success, I believe the greatest effects of that special meeting remain to be seen. The people who attended that first meeting represented only a fraction of those invited. But among those who declined that first invitation, many expressed a desire to join us in the future. In every case our friends now have a greater understanding of who we are as Latter-day Saints and know that we are anxious to share with them the spiritual treasures we have. Our confidence as members has grown from exercising faith and witnessing the Lord’s blessings. By responding to a call, we may have benefited as much as the guests we invited to church. I feel certain the ripples caused by one bishop’s bold challenge will continue to touch many lives as we build on this momentum.
The Lord has said to each of us, “And thou must open thy mouth at all times, declaring my gospel with the sound of rejoicing” (D&C 28:16). President Hinckley has pointed out that we have tremendous opportunities to reach others.2 Those of us who have already embraced the gospel have a great privilege and responsibility to share it. The words of our California Sacramento Mission motto express this opportunity well: “Now is the time. This is the place. We are the ones.” We just need to be bold in declaring the good news of the gospel.
“It started something for our whole family,” says Cathy Pennington. “I had not been active for a long time. This meeting helped me realize that living the gospel was something I needed to be doing, something our whole family needed to be doing.”
Cathy’s husband, Nate, who was not a member, agreed to bring his family to the special fifth-Sunday meeting after they were invited by one of the ward members. Nate was impressed by the message and touched by the Spirit. “The meeting really sparked my interest,” he says. “I knew it was time that I needed to look into the gospel. I needed to make some important choices for my life. And we needed to make some important choices as a family.”
Nate and Cathy began attending other Church meetings and activities. They also began the missionary discussions in their home. Nate accepted the invitation to be baptized and became a member of the Church on 23 February 2002. “This ward has been extremely open and friendly to me and my family,” says Nate. “They are true examples of people with Christlike love. And the bishop has been tremendous.”
Six months later, Nate had the blessing of baptizing his son, Matthew. “It was really a great experience for both of us,” says Nate. “It was a wonderful moment to share with my son.” Cathy speaks of Matthew’s baptism as a fulfillment even beyond her greatest hopes. “To have Nate worthy to hold the priesthood and then to have him baptize Matthew was extraordinary, something I could hardly have ever hoped for.”
Now Cathy is serving with the Young Women, and Nate is serving with the Young Men of the Fair Oaks Third Ward. After finishing the temple preparation course, Nate and Cathy, along with their two children, Matthew and Emma, received the sealing ordinance in the temple on 15 March 2003.
“Last year  there were approximately 300,000 convert baptisms throughout the Church. … It is wonderful. But it is not enough. I am not being unrealistic when I say that with concerted effort, with recognition of the duty which falls upon each of us as members of the Church, and with sincere prayer to the Lord for help, we could double that number” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 105).