President Howard W. Hunter shared a profound truth that focusing on having a better relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ can work better than focusing on a specific issue such as Church inactivity—
While I was serving as a stake president in the Los Angeles area, my counselors and I asked our bishops to carefully select four or five couples who wanted to further their progress in the Church. Some were less active, others new converts but they were motivated to spiritually progress. We got them together in a stake class and taught them the gospel. Rather than emphasizing the temple, we stressed a better relationship with our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our careful selection process assured success, and the majority of these couples did become active and go to the temple.
Let me share an experience or two. 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 was still 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. Today all of their family is active in the Church.
—President Howard W. Hunter
President Hunter’s story might bring to mind a simple, oft repeated quote from President Thomas S. Monson: “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.” What can possibly be more loving than encouraging someone to improve their relationship with the Savior before focusing on anything else.
Because part of improving one’s relationship with Christ is giving up sins, keeping commandments, and going to Church, one might wonder how a person can improve their relationship with Christ without doing these things.
Part of the answer lies in the importance of the moment. The moment a person starts turning their thoughts to Heavenly Father and Christ, and wondering what They’re really all about, the relationship with Them improves. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught in April 2013 that “the very moment you begin to seek your Heavenly Father, in that moment, the hope of His light will begin to awaken, enliven, and ennoble your soul.”
Elder Uchtdorf bore witness of this again in general conference 3 years later, saying, “the moment we choose to incline our hearts to our beloved Savior and set foot upon the path of discipleship, something miraculous happens. The love of God fills our hearts, the light of truth fills our minds, we start to lose the desire to sin, and we do not want to walk any longer in darkness.”
The very moment we desire a closer relationship with Heavenly Father and Christ, we are closer to them, before we even have our next thought or feeling.
The other beautiful, tender, and merciful truth about improving our relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ is direction. If one is far away from Christ, and they pivot around and look in His direction, they are standing in the exact same spot, but everything is different.
Elder Dale G. Renlund explained it this way—
Whatever our current direction or distance to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, we can choose to turn toward Them and draw closer to Them. They will help us…
… The closer we are to Jesus Christ in the thoughts and intents of our hearts, the more we appreciate His innocent suffering, the more grateful we are for grace and forgiveness, and the more we want to repent and become like Him. Our absolute distance from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ is important, but the direction we are heading is even more crucial.
—Elder Dale G. Renlund
We can’t know exactly the spiritual process that the people in President Hunter’s story went through, but a likely first step in improving one’s relationship with Heaven Father and Jesus Christ is simply thinking about them more. Wondering what we don’t know about them, wondering what it would be like to be closer. A next step might be to talk to Heavenly Father in prayer. It follows that one would need to begin to read the scriptures and listen to some general conference talks in order to expand our knowledge of the nature and expectations of God.
The story from President Howard W. Hunter is an excerpt is from Chapter 7 (pp. 136-137) of his biography, available at Deseret Book. A longer account, along with additional thoughts on reaching out to inactive members, was published in the Sept 1986 Ensign article, “Make Us Thy True Undershepherds”.