The ‘familiar face’ and ‘familiar soul’ of general conference

Back in the Conference Center auditorium. General authorities and general officers on the rostrum, joining the full membership of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Live music from the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. And an in-person audience.

For the first time in two COVID-19 pandemic-hounded years, the general conference sessions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoyed their traditional visual backdrop.

“Familiar faces in familiar places” is the headline phrase I used in a Church News summary of the Oct. 2 first session at the Conference Center.

Being there in person for the Saturday morning session, I dutifully reported all the pertinent details — a halved Tabernacle Choir positioned at appropriate social distances; key leaders and those offering the messages and the prayers in the session seated behind the First Presidency and Twelve; and the in-person congregation in the lower level of the closed-to-the-public, 21,000-seat Conference Center comprised of only several hundred people, including other general authorities and general officers and a limited number of family and guests.

A familiar face, indeed — that’s how I viewed the welcoming sight inside the Conference Center auditorium at the start of the Saturday morning session, organ pipes, rostrum seats, massive monitors and a collection of leaders, choir members and a (albeit small) congregation.

I snagged a quick smartphone photo of the view from the back before retreating to the media room to observe the proceedings.

Attendees are seated during the 191st General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.
Attendees are seated during the 191st General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

And then I contemplated — a familiar face? The October 2021 general conference was more than just a return to comfortable confines and reassuring appearances.

General conference isn’t “conference” because of the setting or because of the aesthetics and environment.

Rather, “conference is conference” because of the messages and the meaning.

Conference is conference because of the teachings and testimonies of the Father and the Son from prophets, seers and revelators, along with general authorities and general officers of the Church.

Conference is conference because of the doctrine taught, the invitations extended and the blessings promised.

Read more: What did President Nelson teach during October 2021 general conference?

And conference is conference because of the promptings and witnesses and confirmations coming from the Holy Ghost.

General conference this time was not simply “a familiar face.”

No, altering the human analogy, October 2021 general conference proved to be “a familiar soul.”

And for me, that “soul” has grown to be a part of me — first as a youngster, watching Saturday sessions rebroadcast on Sundays in Iowa and having local members write letters of appreciation to the TV stations thanking them in hopes they would continue using public-service time to provide whatever general conference coverage possible.

Then as a teen, conference included sitting on hard wood pews in Colorado, first trying to focus on listening to the closed-circuit audio broadcasts of the priesthood session piped into the chapel and then later having a visual component added as general conference transitioned to being televised via satellite transmission.

That soul grew for my first in-person attendance at general conference — attending a priesthood session at the Salt Lake Tabernacle as a Brigham Young University freshman and having personally impacting words seared by the Spirit into my memory for decades to come.

For a missionary serving in Venezuela in a predigital era, that soul had to be fed in a different way, as we were without any radio or television broadcast of general conference. Instead, we looked forward to receiving copies of the Ensign magazine and Church News with conference summaries and full-text addresses to study through the coming six months.

For a father, conference meant gathering our family in Utah, enjoying greater access to television, radio and internet options. I remember having conference on the television in the family room and simultaneously on radios in bedrooms and other rooms, with music and the spoken messages resonating throughout the house (sometimes awkwardly so because of different timings of broadcast delays).

It also meant taking family members, friends and relatives to the Conference Center when tickets to attend were available through our ward.

And now, conference means a lot of preparation, reporting, coverage and conveying with the Church News via web, app and print channels.

Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles greets members in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City before the Sunday afternoon session of the 191st Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 3, 2021.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles greets members in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City before the Sunday afternoon session of the 191st Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 3, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

A familiar face versus a familiar soul, I thought about how Latter-day Saints and their friends throughout the world participate in general conference — not just in October 2021, but in the recent past and near future.

Like me at different times, some are able to attend in person, view and/or listen via electronic media, or be relegated to print summaries and subsequent conversations and meeting messages.

Just like interpersonal interactions, a face can be seen in person or via videoconferencing and other digital means. But not everyone will have access to this familiar face of October 2021 general conference. Because of limited circumstances or schedules, some will have to rely on the internet and printed materials — or word of mouth from others — for the texts, anecdotes, instruction and the invitations to act.

One didn’t have to be present in the Conference Center to feel that familiar soul of general conference. That familiar soul will resonate from Temple Square throughout the world in coming weeks and months, as we study and ponder the messages and as we listen to them referenced and repeated in sacrament meeting talks and Sunday meeting discussions.

Yes, October 2021 general conference was more than returning to a familiar face. In fact, it was reuniting once again with a familiar soul.