In the past three years, almost a million new converts have joined the Church. So great has been the conversion rate that in some areas, nearly all the members are coverts.
Many of these converts have found that even with the spiritual assurances of conversion, a journey into a new faith can be challenging, to say the least.As they are baptized into a new faith, converts also come into a "gospel culture." In this gospel culture, they encounter strict standards, strange words, and high expectations.
They meet new people, go new places, and receive frightening responsibilities. Such requests as praying in public or speaking in Church or teaching a Sunday School class that are almost routine for experienced members can be terrifying to a new member.
In an effort to help strengthen new members, the First Presidency addressed a letter on May 15, 1997, to all Church members:
"We are deeply concerned about many of our brothers and sisters of all ages who have received a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ but have not felt the sustaining warmth of fellowship among the Saints," the letter stated.
"Too many are not receiving the blessings of the priesthood and the covenant promises of the temple."
The letter continued: "Every member needs three things - a friend, a responsibility and spiritual nourishment through gospel study. All members are responsible to fellowship those who are new and help them feel the strength of the gospel. Each new member should feel the the influence of loving and caring friends within the Church. The personal influence of Church members is one of the most powerful factors in helping new members achieve an enduring conversion and continued activity in the Church."
In the letter, the First Presidency emphasized the personal responsibility of all members.
"This is a work for everyone. We ask each member, please help us in this undertaking. Your friendly ways are needed. Your sense of responsibility is needed.
"Priesthood quorum and auxiliary leaders should include new members in the planning and carrying out of activities, giving them opportunities to work with and serve one with another. Our constant, unwavering objective must be to assist our Heavenly Father in His work and glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."
The letter is signed by President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust.
The following instructional items from various handbooks and missionary materials were included with the letter.
"Members are to welcome and extend the hand of fellowship to investigators and new members, providing the loving relationships that help them make the social transition to new friends and new patterns of life," according to instructions included with the letter.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve commented in the October 1980 general conference about the importance of offering friendship to new converts:
"When all these individuals have come from so great a distance, surely we can go a second mile in friendshipping and fellowshiping them! If with quiet heroism they can make their way across the border into belief, surely we can cross a crowded foyer to extend the hand of fellowship. Has it been so long that we have forgotten our first anxious day at a new school or our timidity in a new neighborhood? In the city of Zion, there are constantly new kids on the block!"
As part of the friendshipping, missionaries are to introduce investigators to the bishop or branch president. Members are to accompany the investigators to Church each week and offer to help with transportation if needed, and invite the investigators to receive the missionary discussions in their homes.
Occasionally, investigators will need extra help, such as in overcoming long-term addictions or other problems. Caring members can offer support to investigators and new members by helping them fulfill their commitments. Representatives of quorums and auxiliaries are to make special efforts to invite new members into their classes and activities and circles of friendship. They also attend the services where investigators are baptized.
Members should also expand their circles of friendship to include new members and provide them with ample opportunities to socialize with Latter-day Saints.
"New members are to be called and trained to serve in Church positions as soon as possible after they join the Church," according to the instructional materials. Male members should receive the Aaronic Priesthood within a reasonable period, and "be taught the importance of the priesthood and be sustained by a vote of the members in sacrament meeting. Male converts who are 16 or older are ordained to be priests."
Regarding this, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve observed, "One major concern of the General Authorities is the lack of retention in full fellowship of some new converts and those who are less-active in the Church. If ward councils are functioning as they should, every new convert will be fellowshiped, will have home teachers or visiting teachers, and will receive an appropriate calling within days after baptism. The less-active will receive callings that assure them that they are needed and loved by the ward members." (April 1994 general conference.)
"Following baptism, stake or full-time missionaries and home teachers go to the new member's home and begin teaching the Discussions for New Members. All six discussions should be completed within the first month or two," according to the instructional materials.
Stake or full-time missionaries also attend the Sunday School gospel principles class with investigators and new members. "New members are encouraged to continue to read the Book of Mormon, have personal and family prayers, to hold family home evenings, attend all Church meetings, to pay their tithing, to observe the Word of Wisdom, to fulfill all other commitments they made in the waters of baptism, and to prepare for the blessings of the temple," the instructional materials indicate.
Instructing members, Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve said, "For all those you serve, wherever they may be in the tests of life, the way you nurture will be much the same. You will love them. You will encourage them as they choose to be humble. You will present the word of God to them in the way most likely to lead to their choosing to exercise enough faith to repent and thus see that there is more that God would have them do. And that will help them endure in faith." (October 1995 conference.)
Home teachers and visiting teachers are to make effective visits to help new members. Full-time missionaries are authorized to help new members retain their activity, and to encourage less-active members to full participation. The work of activation and strengthening new members is coordinated by the ward mission leader.