By BRADY McCOMBS / AP
April 6, 2019

(SALT LAKE CITY) — Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints delivered spiritual guidance aimed at strengthening members’ faith amid a world of temptation and immorality during the opening session of a church conference Saturday in Utah.

Church members are bracing for more changes during the two-day conference because church President Russell M. Nelson has made a flurry of moves in his first year at the helm, including the surprising repeal of policies that banned baptisms for children of gay parents and labeled people in same-sex marriages as sinners eligible for expulsion.

But speeches given during Saturday morning’s opening session inside the religion’s 20,000-seat conference center auditorium instead focused exclusively on recommendations for how church members can become stronger spiritually. Nelson has not yet spoken. Four more sessions are planned through Sunday.

Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian-born member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, cited Nelson’s recent remarks about a world with “rampant immorality and addictive pornography” as he told members to root their families in the teachings of Christ and never reject family members or friends who stray from the correct path.

“If that happens with your dear ones, fill your hearts with compassion, run to them, fall on their neck, and kiss them, like the father of the prodigal son did,” Soares said. “Keep living a worthy life, be a good example to them of what you believe, and draw close to our savior Jesus Christ.”

Becky Craven, a member of the Young Women General Presidency, dovetailed on Soares’ speech by instructing members not to fall victim to temptation and be diligent following the faith’s teachings. Craven advised members to make sure they don’t let modern fashion prevent them from dressing modestly, especially in worship settings.

“As a covenant people, we are not meant to blend in with the rest of the world,” Craven said. “We have been called a peculiar people – what a compliment. As the influences of the world increasingly embrace the evil, we must strive with all diligence to stay firmly on the path that leads us safely to the savior.”

The Utah-based faith teaches abstinence from alcohol, instructs members to wait until marriage to engage in sexual relations and encourages a modest dress code. The faith opposes same-sex relationships. The religion, widely known as the Mormon church, also asks members to avoid coffee and hot drinks as part of its health code.

The conference brings about 100,000 people to Salt Lake City to watch five sessions in person and millions more watch live broadcasts and livestreams.

Dieter Uchtdorf, a longtime member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, issued a plea for members to openly discuss their faith with others in ways that feels normal and natural and embrace the proselytizing component of the faith. He said church members can share their faith through an act of kindness or by posting testimonials on social media.

Uchtdorf encouraged members to talk about the new shortened Sunday worship schedule, from three hours to two, or explain the faith’s push for use of the full name that emphasizes the faith’s belief it is the “Church of Jesus Christ.” The religion is trying to end the use of previously accepted shorthand names “Mormon” and “LDS.”

Church membership growth has decreased in recent years and the number of convert baptisms in 2017 reached the lowest level in 30 years.

Uchtdorf advised members not to get discouraged by people who don’t immediately accept an invitation to join, suggesting patience is key.

“If we interact with people with the sole expectation that they soon will don a white jumpsuit and ask for directions to the nearest baptismal font, we’re doing it wrong,” said Uchtdorf, referring to a baptismal ceremony for new members. “Some who come and see will, perhaps, never join the church; some will at a later time. That is their choice. But that doesn’t change our love for them.”

Nelson, 94, ascended to the presidency in January 2018 after nearly three decades in a governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve that helps the president lead the faith.

He has already launched a campaign calling on people to stop using the shorthand names “Mormon” and “LDS,” severed the faith’s ties with the Boy Scouts of America after a century, revised how leaders handle closed-door interviews with young people and changed rules to allow missionaries to speak with their families more often.

Church leaders don’t always announce new initiatives or make church news at the conference, but Nelson’s busy tenure so far has members and onlookers on high alert.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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