I recently taught a lesson about President Gordon B. Hinckley, the prophet who coined the phrase that every new convert needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with “the good word of God” (Moroni. 6:4). Keeping the newly baptized was so dear to his heart that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once reported, “With a twinkle in his eye and a hand smacking the table in front of him, [President Hinckley] said to the Twelve recently, ‘Brethren, when my life is finished and the final services are concluding, I am going to rise up as I go by, look each of you in the eye, and say, “How are we doing on retention?”’
And for years, we’ve all heard this admonition, to make sure new members have a calling, some friends, and plenty of opportunity to learn and grow. Yet we watch with heavy hearts as many of the once-enthusiastic who were thrilled to find the truth, slip from our grasp into complete inactivity.
I recently spent some time pondering this problem. This time, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a new member. And many of us have speculated about whether we’d have the courage and the humility to join as an adult, had we not been born into the church. Some think they would, others doubt it. We’ll never actually know, but this time I tried very hard to imagine it.
We would all like it to be an easy transition. And for many, it is. There are countless new converts who experience only heartwarming support; their loved ones still love them back, and even celebrate “the new you.”
But it’s not always such an easy move. Joining this church can be a huge undertaking, as dramatic as leaving one’s homeland, as severe as leaving one’s family. Indeed, many members, including my paternal grandmother, did both. Yes, it’s wonderful to learn that Christ’s original church is actually upon the earth again, that we have living prophets today, that the Plan of Salvation is even more exciting than they ever imagined. But hard choices still have to be made, often with tremendous courage.
Think of the changes people agree to make. For some, giving up their old lifestyle is huge—they often have to change their entire circle of friends. If your old socializing involved drinking, you may find you are not as welcome, as an abstainer. The same could happen with a circle of friends who are Sunday recreationists, gamblers, drug users, wine or coffee enthusiasts, the list is endless. Yes, you may still want to be friends with them, but they may turn from you. It could even be because they’re misinformed about our church’s beliefs, and cannot bring themselves to associate with a Latter-day Saint.
New converts may encounter a change in language usage. There’s often a change to more modest clothing. Bad and even addictive habits such as smoking, must be conquered. Perhaps new moral standards must be adopted, different movies chosen to watch. More of your time is now devoted to meetings, lesson preparation, and other church responsibilities.
Of course, these are all positive changes, along with the focus on family time, scripture study, and service to others. But change—even change for the better—is difficult and requires discipline and dedication.
Sometimes the hardest part of becoming LDS is standing up to criticism and ridicule. It could come in the form of a chilly reception from co-workers, to outright challenges from your neighbors, even to family members who may go so far as to disown you.
As I sat and imagined the life I might have had without the gospel, and the possible changes I’d have to make, it gave me a much deeper and pronounced respect for adult converts who’ve taken that leap of faith, who’ve made sacrifices and given up relationships and even their livelihood in some cases.
It’s easy for those of us who’ve grown up with the gospel to accept tithing, one-piece swimsuits, temple attendance, and not shopping on Sundays, to name just a few of our distinctions. But imagine embracing the entire culture in one swoop. It’s mind boggling.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that President Hinckley was absolutely right, especially about his first point– the importance of having friends in this new faith. How does anyone manage to stay firmly planted without one? In fact, you need several. You need someone you can trust, someone you can ask, “Are we not supposed to talk during Sacrament?” or any of a dozen other things that weren’t covered in the missionary lessons.
They need someone who accepts them as they struggle to fit in. (And don’t we all have a long way to grow, and appreciate acceptance of who we are right now?) They need someone who lights up when they enter the room, who makes them feel they belong and they matter. They need someone to laugh with. They need someone to hold them when they’re hurting. They need an abundance of love.
Yes, a calling is vital, and ensures the new convert will attend, even on those hard days when everything is going wrong and it would be easier to stay home. And yes, nurturing with the good word of God is essential, just as it is for all of us. New converts think there’s a mountain of knowledge to acquire—and they think the rest of us have already absorbed it. They don’t realize we see that same mountain and feel just as inept at times. They need reminding that we’re all on the same ladder, and it’s not a race.
But most of all they need love and genuine friendship. That is where we can do the most good, and see the most success in retaining those precious converts. Instead of thinking, “Well, the Smiths fellowshipped them; that’s who their friends will be,” maybe we should simply try to be that sincere friend for everyone who enters the waters of baptism. Can you really have too many, especially when you’re grappling with all of these monumental changes?
Look to the scriptures for examples of how to increase retention. What made the difference, when Ammon preached to the people of King Lamoni, and it really took hold and created a huge, faithful following? In Alma 21:23 it says, “…And he did exhort them daily, with all diligence; and they gave heed unto his word, and they were zealous for keeping the commandments of God.” I hope the word, “daily” popped out for you. We must give constant care and nurturing to those who are new in the gospel.
If I were a new adult convert, I think what would make me stay is knowing I had a friend I’d be seeing more than just once a week on Sunday. Yes, the reason we attend Sacrament meeting is to renew our baptismal covenants, and we should come because we have a testimony. But, especially when we’re brand new, we need a genuine friend. We need to see that smile, that welcoming face that reminds us we’re where we belong. We need someone strong to lean on when we weaken. And that person needs to be more than just an acquaintance, but someone who treats us like a real brother or sister. It’s that loving connection that makes all the difference.