In 2006, there were more than 272,800 convert baptisms in the Church. A year later, I wonder how many are still active? As President Hinckley has said,
“…it will do no good for you to baptize someone and have that individual fall away from the Church shortly thereafter. What have you accomplished? You may have labored long and hard, you may have fasted and prayed as you taught a particular individual the gospel. But if he does not remain active in the Church, all of your labor has been in vain. The whole process counts for nothing. Any investigator worthy of baptism becomes a convert worthy of saving.” Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 104
But is there a rush to baptism? Are numbers and statistics overriding common sense when it comes to making sure that new converts understand what membership in the Church means? Do we seek quantity over quality of the converts coming into the church?
About 1 ½ years after I was baptized into the Church, I was called to be a Seventies President and Ward Mission Leader. I was ordained to the office of Seventy and was the leader for missionary work in my ward. That subsequently changed under President Benson and Ward Mission Leaders were no longer made Seventies but remained Elders (or they might be already be High Priests). That office of the Priesthood was discontinued as was Stake Seventies Quorums.
As a relatively new convert, I was enthusiastic about the challenge of missionary work, but I was very naïve about the whole process of leading the missionary work as well as a quorum of priesthood holders and, participating in ward and stake leadership meetings.
I had my eyes opened to the fact that sometimes the Church seems to preach quantity of new converts over the quality of new converts. Together with the full-time missionaries, we set goals for numbers of baptism with less thought to the retention of those converts.We’ve heard the stories of the “baseball baptisms” of England as well as John Dehlin’s story of his mission. I experienced some of that on a very much smaller scale.
Our ward boundaries consisted of the downtown area of our city. Missionaries tended to have an easier time finding people to talk to and teach in the lower income areas of downtown. But the question always entered my mind, “would this person fully embrace the gospel and be an asset to the ward or just ultimately be a liability or burden? “ Now, it is important to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and hope that they will accept the message of the gospel, feel the spirit and be converted.
But, you know as well as I, this isn’t always the case. The Missionaries, in their zeal to convert and bring people unto Christ are also expected to meet certain goals set for them by their Mission President. Number of discussions per week, number of contacts, and number of baptisms are just the tip of the goal-oriented environment. The other big challenge was getting people to attend church enough times so that members could meet with them, get to know them and fellowship them. Investigators were only required to attend church one or two times before being baptized. In some cases, they would attend church in the morning and be baptized that evening. How much fellowshipping could go on in under those circumstances? It is my experience that ward members love to meet and work with new converts if given the chance.
Here is one example of what happens when the rush to baptism occurs.
We had one lady from downtown tracted out by two of the Seventies/Stake Missionaries in my group. She seemed very interested and took the lessons in a very short time. She attended Church and was declared ready for baptism. My informal talks with her led me to believe otherwise. She did not have a very good grasp of the gospel, the restoration or what was expected of her as a member. Thus, when it came time for an interview for baptism (at that time I ,as a Ward Mission Leader, would interview for baptism), I told the full time elders and my seventies that I thought the Mission President should interview her because she had “issues.” I was sure she would not pass the interview.
Well, to my surprise, she did and we baptized her. The following week, the same two brothers who found her and taught her were assigned as Home Teachers. They went to her place to give the first of the transition lessons. As she came to the door, she opened it a crack and showing them a long knife, said “If you ever come back here, I’ll kill you!” So, we never saw her again after that. But she remained on the rolls of the church.
I have been in discussions with investigators that won’t read the scriptures, won’t pray, and won’t come to church. Yet we continue to go after them. On the other hand, I have been involved with investigators who are “golden.” That is, they participate fully in the discussions, ask good questions, come to church every Sunday, read the scriptures, and pray during the lesson and in private. They integrate well into the ward and after baptism, go on to have a very successful, rewarding experience. Sometimes, they take much longer to join, thus giving them more time to get to know what is expected of them as a member and allowing the ward members to know them and assist them in the transition.
Please don’t misread what I am saying here. I know that converts are the life blood of the Church. President Spencer W. Kimball stated, “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) It is exciting for a ward to have new converts come into its midst and embrace the gospel. It is a great experience to fellowship them, answer their questions and watch them grow. But it is very frustrating and disappointing that, in spite of our best efforts, they fall away. Now, they have their agency to make that choice, but it is a tragedy for those involved.
On the other hand, there are those who come into the church, having associated only with the missionaries and once the missionaries are transferred, the new member feels abandoned and does not have a reason to continue to attend.
President Hinckley is his address on missionary work stated this:
“I have said before, and I repeat it, that every new convert needs three things:
- A friend in the Church to whom he can constantly turn, who will walk beside him, who will answer his questions, who will understand his problems.
- An assignment. Activity is the genius of this Church. It is the process by which we grow. Faith and love for the Lord are like the muscle of my arm. If I use them, they grow stronger. If I put them in a sling, they become weaker. Every convert deserves a responsibility. The bishop may feel that he is not qualified for responsibility. Take a chance on him. Think of the risk the Lord took when He called you.Of course the new convert will not know everything. He likely will make some mistakes. So what? We all make mistakes. The important thing is the growth that will come of activity.
- Every convert must be “nourished by the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4). It is imperative that he or she become affiliated with a priesthood quorum or the Relief Society, the Young Women, the Young Men, the Sunday School, or the Primary. He or she must be encouraged to come to sacrament meeting to partake of the sacrament, to renew the covenants made at the time of baptism. “(Ensign, May 1999, 104)
So, what am I saying?
I think we need to ensure that new converts are more integrated into the ward, with a friend or friends to guide them and a better understanding of the Gospel and what is expected of them. There is so much to absorb and learn in a short period of time. Just the lingo itself is daunting. What if we required them to attend church for one month, two months or maybe even three months prior to baptism?
I know that some will say there is a risk that we may lose some if we require them to attend church too many times before baptism and confirmation. But, how much better would our retention rate be, if these new members were more integrated and better prepared? It is not a question of keeping people out of the church, but of doing a better job keeping them in.