Relief Society Lesson Ch. 12: Come Back and Feast at the Table of the Lord
Ready to teach a sensitive subject? This lesson can be.
I hope the resources, quotes, and thoughts here help you create a lesson that’s sensitive to Relief Society members at varying levels of activity and stages of faith.
(I included a LOT, so only take what you need.)
I’m writing as someone who is spiritually active, searching, praying—but who could be seen as inactive by members of my ward. Though I do go to church, I deliberately do not attend every single week (for my own spiritual health’s sake). Some people in my ward are concerned about me and I’m grateful for their kind intentions. After reading through this lesson, I’m also reminded that they may be bringing certain assumptions to our interactions that I’ve had myself.
If you haven’t been on the other side of reactivation, I’m excited for you to look at another perspective going into this lesson.
President Howard W. Hunter invites people to come back
From the manual:
“To those who have transgressed or been offended, we say, come back. To those who are hurt and struggling and afraid, we say, let us stand with you and dry your tears. To those who are confused and assailed by error on every side, we say, come to the God of all truth and the Church of continuing revelation. Come back. Stand with us. Carry on. Be believing. All is well, and all will be well. Feast at the table laid before you in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strive to follow the Good Shepherd who has provided it. Have hope, exert faith, receive—and give—charity, the pure love of Christ.”
—President Howard W. Hunter, Ensign, July 1994
When a ward or branch centers on Christ and His pure love, when individual people’s well being (and not bureaucracy) are the focus, this church offers immense strength and light to its members.
However, Christlike reactivation efforts can be sidetracked by those first two words: transgressed and offended.
Growing up, I was taught that if someone left the church, they either had sinned and didn’t want to repent, or their weak testimony had caved when someone at church said something rude.
These are dangerous, pre-emptive judgments that keep us from actually reaching out and asking, What’s going on in your life? They create an environment of closed judgment instead of understanding and honest inquiry.
“Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.”
—President Deiter F. Uchtdorf, General Conference, October 2013
Let’s consider the possibility that people have many reasons for leaving, each of them individual and valid and worth understanding. Let’s consider that leaving may actually be part of someone’s legitimate spiritual journey.
“When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realizes that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going—provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents—the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him than it ever was before.” —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Before you make assumptions about why someone left, ask questions, listen honestly.
Often, people who are considering leaving or who have left are engaged in a wrestle of faith and identity. Hearing someone authentically reach out to say, I really want to understand where you’re coming from, could be a massive gift.
And if they don’t want to talk, respect boundaries. (Mormons can struggle with this.)
President Hunter focuses on covenants
“My ward bishop assigned me as a ward teacher to a brother who boasted he was the oldest deacon in the Church. Home teaching was ward teaching in those days. His problem was that he loved to play golf on Sunday. It was discouraging to meet month after month with him and his wife and see no apparent progress. But finally, the right word was said to him and it struck a responsive chord. The word was covenant. We asked him, ‘What does the covenant of baptism mean to you?’ His expression changed, and for the first time we saw a serious side to him. Eventually he came to our classes, gave up golf, and took his wife to the temple.”
—Howard W. Hunter, Ensign, Sep. 1986
I’ve sometimes heard the term covenant used in a way that stands in for looking like a stereotypical Mormon. I believe it’s important to be accurate in our language. You could focus on temple or baptismal covenants in your lesson. With all the tasks expected of members of Mormon communities, coming back to the basic and heartfelt commitments of baptism can be useful.
The Mormon baptismal covenant is discussed in Mosiah 18:8-10. (Also in D&C 20:37)
- Desire to come into the fold of God
- Willing to bear one another’s burdens (that they may be light)
- Willing to mourn with those that mourn
- Willing to comfort those that need comfort
- Willing to stand as witnesses of God
- Serve God and keep his commandments
You could ask the class:
What does your baptismal covenant mean to you? How can you better live up to your baptismal covenant in the way you reach out to fellow church members?
President Hunter talks about the fruits of fellowship
“To those who have ceased activity and to those who have become critical, we say, ‘Come back. Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.’” —Howard W. Hunter, Ensign, March 1986
A question you could ask your class regarding this quote:
What are the fruits of fellowship?
Here’s my personal experience. You can obviously share your own in your lesson.
I recently read a book about adult development and faith by a man named Thomas Wirthlin McConkie. (Could he have a more Mormon name?) In his book, he discusses adult development as it relates to participation in the LDS community. I found it useful and reassuring.
The first stage he covers is characterized by conformity, hierarchy, and responsibility to the collective—things I had been seeing as blind and rigid obedience. And they can be.
He makes clear that while every developmental stage has drawbacks, it also has gifts. When you expand your experience to include another stage, you don’t want to leave behind the gifts of the other stages. Your life is richer if you draw from the strengths of all the stages you pass through.
Two of the gifts of that rigid first stage can be community and commitment to show up and help one of your own. I have seen this in action with a particular couple in my ward.
They not only voiced concern for us when our church attendance diminished, they’ve also shown up to help us in surprising and concrete ways. In some circumstances, I might suspect an agenda, but this couple is so earnest and genuinely kind that their kindness feels uplifting. I have no idea what stage of faith they’re in and don’t presume to know, but they express some of the most beautiful aspects of this first stage, of belonging to a community and inviting others into it.
President Hunter refers to lost sheep
After making reference to Luke 15:4-6, President Hunter invites members:
“Reach out to the less active and realize the joy that will come to you and those you help if you and they will take part in extending invitations to come back and feast at the table of the Lord.” —President Hunter, Ensign, Sep 1986
There is something beautiful about reaching out to someone and saying, “We want you here.”
A question I would ask the class:
When you’re reaching out, how do you know that your priority is the one soul, and not just a stronger flock by returning a sheep to it?
I’ve heard more than one story from the pulpit that describes the change wrought in someone by the degrees by which they conformed: one week, they had cut their hair, another week, they came to church in a white shirt. These are not the goals of reaching out. The Lord looketh on the heart.
“Some (members of the church) are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.
Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.” —Joseph B. Wirthlin, General Conference, April 2008
Stories of reactivation in the manual
“Let me share [another] experience. … We had a brother in one of the wards who didn’t attend any meetings. His wife was not a member. She was somewhat hostile, so we could not send home teachers to the home. The bishop approached this brother by telling him that the brother had a relationship with the Savior he needed to expand and enlarge. The brother explained to the bishop the problem with his nonmember wife, so the bishop talked to her, emphasizing the same approach—a relationship with the Lord that needed to be expanded. She still was not receptive but was happy to learn that Latter-day Saints believed in Christ, and consequently dropped some of her defenses.
Success did not come immediately, but those who visited the home kept stressing the couple’s relationship with the Lord. In time she became friendly, and finally consented to come with her husband to the stake class taught by members of the high council. We stressed the covenant one makes at baptism and other covenants. Eventually she became a member of the Church and he became a productive priesthood leader.”
—President Hunter, Ensign, Sep 1986
This is a narrative I’ve heard in many talks and lessons: someone resisted and resisted the gospel until finally, they came around. It is the most common resolution to the outreach stories we tell. And in the case of this couple, this narrative seems to be a supportive outcome for them.
But sometimes, that particular resolution doesn’t come. Sometimes non-member spouses do not eventually join the church. And we can be Christlike by learning to love others, independent of their personal journey.
If you’d like to consider another perspective, read this beautiful essay by a friend and writer whose husband has not joined the church: Puddles of Blossoms.
President Hunter adds perspective to reactivation efforts
“Over the years the Church has made some monumental efforts to recover those who are less active. … And all to what end? It is to save the souls of our brothers and sisters and see that they have the ordinances of exaltation… The whole purpose of the Church operating smoothly at the local level is to qualify individuals to return to the presence of God. That can only be done by their receiving the ordinances and making covenants in the temple.” —President Hunter, Ensign, Sep 1986
The eternal perspective that we consistently refer to in the church can be a beautiful tool to frame our lives. But it can also create a lot of pressure.
One of the kind people who has reached out to our family got heated while talking about the church with my husband. He realized that he was taking responsibility for what happened to us—eternally. He saw the conversation rippling out into the eternities and it stressed him out. That’s a big burden for one person! He wisely recognized the pressure he was putting on himself and stepped back from it.
We can be kind and active disciples of Christ, but other people’s salvation does not depend on us. It depends on Christ. And Christ said the two greatest commandments are to love.
“When we ask ourselves, ‘What shall we do?’ let’s ponder this question: ‘What does the Savior do continually?’ He nurtures. He creates. He encourages growth and goodness. Women and sisters, we can do these things!” —Neill F. Marriott, Second Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, General Conference, April 2016
“Let us value everyone’s contributions. Let us not exclude a sister, whatever her life choices and whatever her circumstances. Let us express trust that she used both study and prayer in making her decisions, and provide a supportive environment in which she can carry out those decisions, evaluate them for their success, and modify them if necessary. If change is necessary or desirable, it will be easier in a nurturing, supportive atmosphere.” —Chieko N. Okazaki, First Counselor, Relief Society General Presidency, General Conference, October 1994
“Keep in mind the purpose: to invite all to come unto Christ.”
—President Hunter, The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter
If we know what Christ said, learn about what he prioritized, read about how he approached people labeled sinners, we can become more like him and more able to reach our sisters and brothers in need.