The Forgotten Missionary Work
By Clark L. and Kathryn H. Kidd

When most of us think of missionary work, we think of elders in name tags and white shirts, riding their bicycles two by two ? or pairs of lady missionaries, wearing sensible shoes.  The idea of every member being a missionary may seem puzzling to those with limited social or vocational contacts or to those who only associate with people who are other members of the Church.

However, some of the best missionary experiences you’ll ever have could come without ever contacting a person who is not already a Latter-day Saint or leaving the confines of your own ward.  If you can be the person who inspires a person to come back to church after falling away, or whose example can help keep a marginally active person from leaving, your reward will be just as great.  After all, the Savior himself told us that his lost sheep hold a place dear to the Shepherd’s heart.

If you look at your ward roster, you may be able to put faces with half of the names. The other half are just names on a sheet of paper ? people who haven’t darkened the door of the ward meetinghouse for so many years that nobody even remembers who they are. 

One of our ward members is a former Primary president who walked away from church about ten years ago and never came back.  One of the names on our ward roster belongs to a former Relief Society president whose face has not been seen in church for the eighteen years we’ve lived in our ward.  What stories are behind the names we don’t know?  Ours is a transient ward, and there’s nobody who can tell us who these people are.

When members fall away from the Church, they do so for a reason.  Some of them have sinned and aren’t ready to reconcile those sins.  Some have found doctrinal “discrepancies” and choose to let their intellect rule over spiritual promptings.  Others have been offended ? and it’s so easy to stay away for a week or two, waiting to get the apology that never comes.  Some people take a little vacation, seeing if they’ll be missed.  If the rest of us are so caught up in our own lives or so polite that we decide not to “bother” the departed members, they may never come back.

Although our column is usually directed toward activities committee chairmen, you don’t have to lead the activities committee ? or hold any leadership position, for that matter ? to minister to the forgotten Saints among you.  The people whose souls you’ll save won’t care about your title.  All they’ll care about is that you found them and brought them back.  Your missionary work, done within the confines of your own ward boundaries, could influence generations of potential Latter-day Saints.

Choosing Your Targets

Every ward has inactive members, and those members exhibit all degrees of receptiveness to contract from church members.  Some people are so hostile and angry that the mere appearance of a ward member may generate threats of a lawsuit (the 21st Century version of meeting you at the door with a shotgun).  Others have been waiting for a friendly overture for years, and will be delighted to see anyone at the door who may represent a renewed tie with the Church.  Still others run hot and cold, with their receptiveness to your advances depending on factors that no sentient human being can interpret.  One day they’ll greet you with open arms.  The next day, they won’t return your calls.

But no matter who they are, they all have a few things in common:

  • People who have been in the Church ? even if they were only active as children ? have a basic understanding of our core beliefs.  Reconverting them will not be as long a process as converting a new member because they already understand that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate personages, that Latter-day Saints follow the law of tithing, why temples are so important to us, and the rest of the doctrines that set us apart as members of the Church.
  • People who have been in the Church understand ? at least to some degree, depending on how long they were active ? the commitments that are expected of Latter-day Saints.  They do not suffer the culture shock that converts face when they learn of the heavy commitments of time, the dietary restrictions, our Sabbath day observance, and other facets of cultural Mormonism.
  • People who have been in the Church and who then fall away are under a greater condemnation than people who have never learned about the Church at all (Alma 34:31-35; Doctrine and Covenants 137:7-9).  Thus, if anything it is more important to reclaim these lost souls in this life than it is to go looking for new ones.  People who don’t get a chance in this life to accept the gospel will have their chance in the next life.  People who have already been baptized, but who have fallen away for any reason, probably won’t have another opportunity.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be missionaries whenever we find the chance.  Indeed, without the efforts of committed missionaries somewhere along the line, none of us would be Latter-day Saints today.  But if you find yourself in a Mormon community, with Mormon friends and family, or in any other circumstance that would limit your access to people who are not of our faith, all is not lost.  There are lost sheep that need reclaiming, and if you are the one who brings them back your reward will be great.

How to Bring Them Back

People may be compared to lost sheep, but human beings have a lot more diversity than sheep do.  There are dozens, if not hundreds of reasons why people find themselves sliding away from church activity.  By the same token, there is any number of ways that could be effective in enticing them back. 

If you find yourself thinking of those nameless people on your ward roster, and being impelled to do something about it, there are ways you can help.  Look over the list and choose the ones whose names are calling to you.  Then determine, through prayer and inspiration, what you can do to help the persons you have chosen to help.  Here are a few of the more obvious avenues: 

  1. Sometimes you can help things just by making sure a person’s name doesn’t get lost in the membership department.  For example, we know one person who hasn’t been to church in more than a decade, but who just by happenstance married a man who had long ago been baptized.  The husband’s name was not on the records of our ward.  It took more than a year of nagging before Clark was finally successful in getting this man’s membership records transferred to our ward, but he was ultimately successful.  Now that this member is no longer lost, he will continue to have home teachers assigned to him even if his marriage dissolves or he moves away.  Eventually one of his home teachers could make a difference.
  1. If you are a home or visiting teacher who wants missionary opportunities, ask your Relief Society president or quorum leader to assign you to a route that includes people who are inactive.  Your leader will be more than happy to grant this request! 

If you choose this route, be advised that it is absolutely vital that you be persistent in your visits.  We once got assigned to visit a marginally active man and had a nice visit with him and his family.  When we knocked on his door the following month, he almost fell to the ground in shock.  He said we were the first home teachers he had ever had who come twice in a row.  His attitude improved greatly as we continued to visit him over the next few years.

  1. Do your best to determine ? tactfully! ? why the person fell away in the first place.  The reason may have to be addressed before the person will return.  Sometimes, the cause is a simple one.  Sister Jones may be worried about slipping on the ice.  Brother Carpenter may not have anyone to drive him to Sunday meetings. 

Other times, the reason may be a little more serious.  In any case, however, the reason for inactivity may have to be addressed before the person returns to church again.

  1. If the person you are targeting is a neighbor, find ways to interact with him.  Our ward’s weekly play group was started by a woman who wanted an excuse to interact with her neighbor once a week.  We also have a monthly ward game night for adults, which appeals to singles as well as to others who may feel as though they are out of the mainstream.  Be as creative as you need to be.  You can deliver flowers in the summer, shovel walks in the winter, and drop off homemade treats in between.  When the family goes on vacation, you can volunteer to water the plants or feed the goldfish.  When you’re on vacation, you can send postcards to children or even to the family pets.  As long as you’re doing what you’re doing because you’re genuinely concerned about the person, rather than that you just want a notch on your belt, your compassion will not go unrewarded.
  1. Look for ways to involve the people you are fellowshipping in ward activities.  Does she get bored staying at home, so that she may be a good candidate for your book group?  Does he have an interest in sports so that the stake golf tournament could catch his attention?  Does the family have children who may be interested in the hike or the joust or whatever other party you have planned?  Don’t forget to invite your friends to participate in ward activities or even rites of passage, such as your children’s baptisms.
  1. If you are in a position of leadership where you may be able to solicit the help of someone you’re fellowshipping, go for it.  Some people just want to feel useful ? even if all they’re doing is filling a place on the activities committee or teaching a class in Enrichment or sending out birthday cards on behalf of the Relief Society presidency.   
  1. Don’t forget fasting and prayer, or the temple prayer rolls.  These can be invaluable tools in helping you get inspiration to help you in your quest.
  1. Be persistent.  As long as the person continues to allow contact with you, you’re doing some good ? even though you may never see it.  We have home taught a woman, long inactive, who would never answer the phone or the door.  Our record was seven visits and four phone calls in one month before she finally called us back (she never did answer the door).  But when she moved she told us she wanted to stay in the ward “where my home teachers are.”  She keeps telling us that one of these days she’s coming back to church.
  1. People are often willing to make major changes in their lives when they move.  Ward leaders should realize how important it is to visit those who have recently moved into the ward.  Sometimes those who have been inactive in a previous ward will have strong desire to turn over a new leaf in their new ward.

  2. It’s a lot easier to keep people in church than it is to bring them back after they’ve left. Look around you on Sundays and during weekday church activities for people who are lonely and who may need a friend. Say hello to new ward members, but don’t forget the ones who have been in the ward for years and may feel forgotten. Sending notes to people who have spoken in church or who may need a lift could keep someone in church who feels unappreciated and who otherwise may drift away. Your smallest kindness may be a lifeline to these marginalized members.

Sometimes the fruits of your labors are long in coming, but they will come. The man who was so surprised when we visited him two months in a row was eventually called to serve on his stake high council. Last we heard, he and his whole family were active in the Church.

We’d like to hear your suggestions for reactivating members or keeping members active. Send your comments to [email protected].