Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Worth of a Convert

My favorite interactions have been with those who had recently entered the waters of baptism for membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The conversations have been pure and unsullied by the life-long membership discussion of questionable doctrinal speculation. Not only that, but the faith they exhibit is often superior to many members- including my own. It is true that strong faith can also be easily shattered by things they might not have the experience dealing with. But, when they have become solid in what they believe, it is a joy to watch and listen to them in their lives. They are, after all, the backbone of the Church regardless of what life-long members might bring to the table.

It is with great sadness that I hear so often the lack of success in retaining them. There have been many reasons and excuses for this. Probably the one reason I find to be the most disturbing is the lack of fellowship - nay, lack of attention - given to those fine seedlings ready to bloom. There is no excuse for that, but too many converts (later in life) I have spoken with each have expressed disappointment at how they have been treated. It often is summed up as "second class citizens" looked on with suspicion. When asked suspicion of what, they often say it has to do with trusting their spiritual and theological capabilities. About this time my blood starts boiling! Sure they are just starting out. There is no question about that. But, that is the perfect time to learn from them, teach them in areas they need strengthening, and generally expressing appreciation for what they bring to the fellowship of Saints.

To honor them, I have collected some quotes that I hope will increase their faith and change life-long members' attitudes:

"I plead with you; … I ask of you, each of you, to become a part of this great effort. Every convert is precious. Every convert is a son or daughter of God. Every convert is a great and serious responsibility.

[Converts] come into the Church with enthusiasm for what they have found. We must immediately build on that enthusiasm. … Listen to them, guide them, answer their questions, and be there to help in all circumstances and in all conditions. … I invite every member to reach out in friendship and love for those who come into the Church as converts."
-- Gordon B. Hinckley, “Words of the Prophet: Reach Out,” New Era, Feb. 2003, 4

"With the increase of missionary work throughout the world, there must be a comparable increase in the effort to make every convert feel at home in his or her ward or branch. Enough people will come into the Church this year to constitute more than 100 new average-size stakes. Unfortunately, with this acceleration in conversions, we are neglecting some of these new members. I am hopeful that a great effort will go forward throughout the Church, throughout the world, to retain every convert who comes into the Church.

This is serious business. There is no point in doing missionary work unless we hold on to the fruits of that effort. The two must be inseparable."
-- Gordon B. Hinckley, “Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 49

"We have not yet significantly increased our effectiveness in fellowshipping new converts so that they invariably continue to grow in the gospel, to serve in the Church, and to receive the blessings of the temple.

Among those converts who fall away, the attrition is steepest in the two months after baptism. When a convert is baptized, there is no time to lose. Fellowshipping efforts must begin well before baptism and must increase in intensity in the months following baptism.

Our experience has shown that members can have a powerful influence in this process in three critically important ways:

1. Modeling gospel living by providing practical, persuasive examples of the joy we receive from living the gospel.

2. Teaching the gospel informally by explaining Latter-day Saint doctrines and practices, answering questions, and helping investigators and new members resolve concerns.

3. Helping investigators and converts become fully integrated into the community of Saints.

When members see themselves as gospel nurturers, as the prophet has invited us all to be, we will be well along toward our goal."
-- Dallin H. Oaks, “The Role of Members in Conversion,” Ensign, Mar. 2003, 52

"We then began to observe that in some wards we visited in the United States as well as in Latin America, if we had been investigators or new members, we would not have felt very welcome. The Apostle Paul taught the Ephesians, 'Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God' (Eph. 2:19). And yet, on occasion we felt like 'strangers and foreigners' in the very Church of Jesus Christ to which we belonged.

These experiences helped us become aware of the discomfort that newcomers might occasionally feel in coming to our chapels, and these made us conscious of the need we all have to improve what we call our fellowshipping skills. We have occasionally observed wards in Latin America, Spain, and in the United States where humble new converts to the Church have not been received with open arms or warm abrazos, and so we have all seen a need to improve our retention of new converts . . .

. . . Let us pay more attention to those who are new to our congregations. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught: 'For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? … And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?' " (Matt. 5:46–47).
-- Carl B. Pratt, “Care for New Converts,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 11

"The message is the same for us today. The Church will always be a church filled with converts. Whether the place be Salt Lake City, or Sao Paulo, Los Angeles or London, Tokyo or Turino, Italy, it is the Lord’s plan that there be converts among us, brothers and sisters newly brought into the fold of Christ through the efforts of their loving friends and neighbors. Let us fellowship and love each other in the true spirit of the gospel."
-- Spencer W. Kimball, “Always a Convert Church: Some Lessons to Learn and Apply This Year,” Ensign, Sept. 1975, 2

"If there were no converts, the Church would shrivel and die on the vine."
-- Spencer W. Kimball, “When the World Will Be Converted,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, 3

16 And now, my beloved brethren, I know by this that unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved.

17 Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.

18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.

19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to esave.

20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life

-- 2 Nephi 31:16-20

There are some things we members can do to help retain the converts and help them grow. My own thoughts include:

Not just fellowship, but become friends. Get to know those who walk through the doors and not just a handshake. A friendly smile is the start and not the finish of a lasting relationship. Even if friendship might not be possible, sometimes people are simply not compatible, at least be open to them and have "little" conversations. There is nothing greater than having someone know your name even when you don't spend much time with them.

Share the gospel with them in both directions. When talking about LDS theology or history, don't make them become a sounding board. Make sure you include them in the discussion, in and outside of the class, by asking them what they think. You will come away surprised, as I have many times by converts, how much knowledge can be gained from fresh perspectives. There is a great surge of spiritual awakening when a convert points out something that life-long members have been blinded by rote and tradition. On the other hand, the convert often gains that much more of a testimony as they learn of doctrine from those who have studied it for a while.

Share with them sources available to all members. That includes books and magazines of LDS interest, an understanding of how the Church organization works, and a helping hand. Aside from getting to know people, having a grasp of Church culture can be challenging. This is no different from any other instance when a major change has just occurred in life. Remember, they came from somewhere that was probably not like what they now find themselves. Lots of them are still in those places, physically and metaphorically, and need help either integrating or crossing the bridge. Once you know them better, help them find ways to stay the course of faith. They will help you do the same as they grow from a seedling to a tree of strength.

Thank you converts for continuing to remind me of how precious the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, and how far I still have to go in my own journey of faith.


Anonymous said...

I joined the church and was married soon afterwards to a lifetime member. For various reasons, I learned we were fundamentally incompatible and we divorced just over a year later.

When the family was at our apartment packing up her belongings, I overheard my wife's sister and her husband. She said "why did this happen? Why did they split up a temple marriage?"

He then said "Well, what do you expect? He's only a convert..."

Jettboy said...

I am not a big fan of divorce, especially ones that started out in a Temple. However, that is the kind of comment that makes me wince. I just don't get that kind of attitude in members. Part of the reason for me writing this is my confusion as to the mixed message sent. We want to teach you, baptise you, but don't particularly want you.

If I ever heard anyone disparage any converts, I might say some un-Christlike things. Some of the best members I have known were converts, and a few best friends.

Jeff said...

Jettboy said: "Part of the reason for me writing this is my confusion as to the mixed message sent. We want to teach you, baptise you, but don't particularly want you."

I have faced this first hand. Part of the problem for me, was that the train of spiritual growth and the employment of common sense in conjunction with faith seems to derail as soon as you are part of the fold.

I too have done the Temple marriage to a life-long member thing, and done the divorce thing. I've been put through disciplinary councils up the wazoo about all sorts of doctrinal issues. I feel the "we don't particularly want you" attitude that was mentioned... I think maybe the missionaries should make sure they only baptize the ones they want to keep. Its perhaps a bit like going fishing, either unhook them and throw them back or have them for dinner, don't kill them and then throw them away.