Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

On a midnight hike in the Rocky Mountains, there was much murmuring among the scores of teenage girls who could not imagine why their leaders would force them to tramp uphill in the dark and in the cold–until someone gave the command: “Stop! Look up!” A collective gasp rang out through the pines as the girls discovered a sky absolutely brimming with stars. Far from city lights, at high altitude, the young hikers were dazzled by the view. I was one of those star-struck girls, feeling a closeness with God as I studied His shimmering handiwork in the night sky.  

This experience, among others, helps me understand why many people prefer to worship God in nature, finding it easier to connect with Him in the splendor of mountain peaks than in a brick and mortar chapel, surrounded by fussy toddlers and imperfect people. I get that. I have hiked through red rock canyons where the silence was so profound that I could hear the whoosh of wings when a raven soared over my head. The beauty of that moment brought tears, and reverence for my Creator. Many of my most spiritual encounters have occurred in wildflower meadows, along wooded pathways, and on oceanside cliffs.

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There is no substitute for private spiritual practices. These moments of personal worship are essential for establishing a connection to God. Yet there is second element of worship that is too often underappreciated. As prophets learned in the past, we may have a lofty experience with a burning bush in the mountains, but at some point, one must come down among the people. Active participation in organized religion is the hands-on laboratory where we develop–through commitment, sacrifice, and personal interaction–Christlike attributes which significantly strengthen our relationship with Deity.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “The Church is the creation of Him in whom our spirituality is centered–Jesus Christ. It is worth pausing to consider why He chooses to use a church…to carry out His and His Father’s work… God’s ultimate purpose is our progress… That requires more than simply being nice or feeling spiritual. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism of water and of the Spirit, and enduring in faith to the end. One cannot fully achieve this in isolation, so a major reason the Lord has a church is to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another.” (1)

During the unusual church adaptations of 2020, I have had sweet experiences with “home church,” and occasionally enjoyed a break from some of my church-related responsibilities. Yet, I have also missed my callings and my congregation, and what they demand of me. While there are many ways we benefit by participating in an organized religion, here I highlight only three:

Blessing #1: We find opportunities to develop Christlike attributes as we are pushed out of our comfort zone.

As Latter-day Saints we don’t choose a congregation that fits our needs. Rather, we’re assigned a congregation based on our geographic area. We may interact with people we wouldn’t normally be drawn to. And that is the beauty of it: we’re pushed out of our comfort zone. As we serve alongside members of our church group, we’re likely to make some important discoveries. We may make some unexpected friendships. Our lives are enriched as we mingle with people whose stories are different than our own; our empathy increases. 

We will never learn to stop judging people until we interact with others who have different backgrounds, personalities, and opinions, and begin to see them as worthwhile individuals with feelings as valid as our own. Can we be Christlike in our reaction to the class member who turns the Sunday School discussion into a political debate? Will we respond kindly to the sister with an abrasive personality, or the brother with a differing viewpoint on a doctrinal matter? Sometimes it’s harder to love and be patient with our fellow church members precisely because we expect Christlike behavior from people who claim to follow Jesus Christ, yet we all fall short of this ideal. We must remember that it is our oneness with the Savior which allows us to be one with each other. (2)

Elder Christofferson teaches that “In the Church we not only learn divine doctrine; we also experience its application…the members of the Church minister to one another in the reality of day-to-day life. All of us are imperfect; we may offend and be offended. We often test one another with our personal idiosyncrasies…we have to go beyond concepts and exalted words and have a real “hands-on” experience as we learn to “live together in love.” (3)

Blessing #2: We are numbered, remembered, and watched over.

Concerning those who were baptized into the church, the prophet Moroni wrote: “…they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith. And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls. And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus.” (Moroni 6:4-6)

Elder Stephen W. Owen observes, “…some of these blessings of gathering relate to our Sunday meetings: we gather to fast and pray together and to partake of the sacrament. But most of what Moroni described is much broader than a weekly meeting or class. To “be remembered and nourished,” “to keep [each other] in the right way,” to look after “the welfare of [our] souls,” we need more than a “hi” and a handshake in the hallway from fellow Saints on Sunday.” (4)

When my daughter, Sarah, served as a missionary in the Philippines, one of her biggest responsibilities was to go searching for members of the church who had become less active, many of whom had no phone, or no mailing address if they lived on one of many dirt paths in remote areas of the island. I love the thought of missionaries being sent out to find those church members who are “dear to the heart of the Shepherd.” (5)

Last March, I learned firsthand how wonderful it is to be remembered by the church. I was traveling outside of the United States when the first international COVID restrictions were imposed. That Sunday, March 15th, was the first week that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cancelled Sabbath meetings. After a nearly sleepless night, due to multiple flight cancelations, I woke up to an email from my Relief Society president, another from my Bishop, and a video message from my prophet. What an encouraging way to start the Sabbath day–I felt God’s love through each of these messages. What a comfort to feel that sweet connection while I was physically separated from my family and congregation.

Blessing #3: Our personal strengths and weaknesses are revealed as we fulfill church callings and assignments.

Church members who fulfill responsibilities often find their weaknesses and strengths revealed. For example: I failed spectacularly as a 24-year-old YW camp director, discovering the difference between enjoying camp as an attendee and actually having the leadership skills to pull off a major week-long event for a group of teenage girls. I also learned a valuable lesson from the marvelous Young Women leader who recognized that I was floundering, and offered generous assistance without criticizing me or taking over my job. Later, as a 31-year-old stake music chairman, I discovered that I enjoyed arranging music and the tight sheet music budget could be stretched if I arranged hymns for stake and ward choirs myself.

Those who faithfully serve in the church organization may develop a talent for teaching and leading the youth, for organizing and overseeing activities, for leading effective gospel discussions, or for working with young children. We may even be blessed with special spiritual gifts to assist us in doing God’s work. Everything we learn in our church callings increases our capacity to fulfill future assignments. I agree with Elder Christofferson,“We need these callings, and we need to serve.” (6)

The following personal experience illustrates the progression we sometimes go through as we work in the church: On the first Sunday of 2011, I was seated on a cold metal chair, surrounded by a squirming pack of young children who were strangers to me. I knew if I could just keep my tears from spilling over, I might survive sharing time. Though my body was in the Primary room, my heart was 40 feet down the hall with the Relief Society sisters I knew and loved so well after serving in the presidency for the previous three years.

Fast forward: on the first Sunday of 2014, I was seated on a padded folding chair, surrounded by women of all ages. I knew if I could just keep my tears from spilling over, I might survive the well-prepared lesson. Though my body was in the Relief Society room, my heart was 40 feet down the hall with the Primary children I knew and loved so well after serving with them for the previous three years.

Though I got off to a rocky start in Primary, I was genuinely sorry to give up my class when it was time to be released.  Teaching the basic principles of the gospel and preparing children for baptism was a beautiful review for me, adding unexpected depth to my testimony. Those bright, energetic children taught me more than I can say, and the love that I have for each of them feels like a taste of the love Heavenly Father must have for each of us. How I treasure the blessings–the growth–my church membership and callings have gifted me.

When we desire to worship the Lord, by all means let us go to our mountain, our lake, or our quiet corner and connect with God on a deep, spiritual level, reveling in the peace of those moments. But let us not discount the immeasurable value of our organized religion. Let us be numbered, remembered, and watched over. Let us develop our gifts as we share in the responsibilities of a religious community. Come, let us worship God with other imperfect believers, as Jesus designed, and dare to rub shoulders with people who may shave off some of our rough edges. It is likely we will return the favor.

Notes:

  1. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Why the Church, October 2015 General Conference, emphasis added.
  2. Elder Quentin L. Cook, Hearts Knit in Righteousness and Unity, October 2020 General Conference. “Their oneness with the Savior made them one with each other.”
  3. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Why the Church, October 2015 General Conference.
  4. Elder Stephen W. Owen, Strength and Safety Through Gathering, October 23, 2018, BYU Devotional.
  5. Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd, Hymns, #221, text by Mary B. Wingate.
  6. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Why the Church, October 2015 General Conference.