Over the past few years, we've seen several significant changes to Church programs. After a period of extra emphasis on keeping the sabbath day holy, our meeting schedule was shortened, enabling those who had followed the council to upgrade their sabbath observance more time to do so.
Our Melchizedek Priesthood quorums were consolidated and home and visiting teaching were renamed and refocused so that we could minister more effectively.
Our curriculum was overhauled and synchronized across all of our classes, and emphasis was shifted to home centered gospel learning, supported by the programs of the Church.
Our old youth programs have been replaced with a program of setting and achieving goals as guided by the Holy Ghost.
All of these changes have a common theme and purpose: an increased emphasis on our personal responsibility, and with it, greater opportunity, to become more like Jesus Christ.
Being active in the Church has never been our end goal. It has always been a means to an end. The end goal is, ultimately, eternal life. In Moses 1:39 Jesus says, "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."
And what is eternal life? Jesus, in his Intercessory Prayer on the evening of the Last Supper said, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3)
So, to gain eternal life, we need to come to know God and Jesus Christ. And how do we do that? King Benjamin asked, "For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger to him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?" (Mosiah 5:13) So, one thing we need to do to know God, is to serve him.
And how do we serve him? Jesus said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40) One of the main ways we serve God, and thus come to know him, is by ministering to each other.
Another way we come to know God is illustrated in the words of Mormon. After exhorting the people to seek to be filled with the love of God, he said, "...that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is..." (Moroni 7:48) So, we will be able to see him as he is, or know him, to the degree that we have become like him.
Our ultimate goal of receiving eternal life is essentially synonymous with becoming like Christ. But it is possible to be active in the Church without becoming like Christ – to attend sacrament meeting, Sunday School, priesthood meeting, relief society, our Wednesday evening activities, visit those we've been assigned to minister to, hold down a calling, pay our tithing, and all sorts of other things, and still not be Christ-like. The recent changes we have seen to our church programs emphasize the importance of not simply checking all the right boxes, but of working toward the real goal of becoming like Jesus.
We don't just attend church meetings – we dedicate the entire sabbath day to the Lord.
We don't just visit a few members on the last day of every month – we minister to their needs.
We don't just sit in class and play on our phones while someone else talks about the gospel – we study the gospel and share what we've learned.
And as we see in the new youth program, we don't just study and learn about the gospel, we apply it in our lives so that it can change us to become more like Jesus Christ.
When Abinidi was teaching King Noah and his wicked priests, he asked them whether they thought that salvation came by obeying the law of Moses, which they did. He taught them that, "it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet; but … salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses." (Mosiah 13:27-28)
So, if keeping the law, which we can compare to being active in the Church, is not what brings salvation, then what was the point of having the law, or what is the point of being active in the Church? In Galatians (3:24), we read that, "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ..." We still have a schoolmaster – we still need to be active members of Christ's church – but the lesson plan has been updated to help us learn and apply his teachings more effectively.
One of the goals of the new lesson plan is to help us avoid simply being attenders of church, and instead, become disciples of Jesus Christ.
When I think of what it means to be a disciple, I imagine someone who has chosen to follow a wise teacher. That teacher shares knowledge and wisdom with the disciple, and the disciple seeks to achieve similar knowledge and wisdom by listening to and emulating the life of the teacher.
This leads me also to think of the word "worship." When someone "worships" a celebrity, for example, they may hang pictures of them on their walls, learn every detail they can about them, dress like them, talk like them, act like them, and think about them all the time.
Now, we don't have to wear the kinds of clothes that were common in the Middle East 2000 years ago, but do we worship Jesus Christ as well as some people worship celebrities? Do we think about him, seek to know everything we can about him, and try to emulate him in our everyday lives? Do we just attend his church, or are we truly his disciples?
When Peter first began to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, part of his introduction of Jesus was to say that he, "went about doing good." (Acts 10:38) As his disciples, we should emulate him by going about doing good. And as this was one of the things central to Jesus' everyday life, as we become like him, the impulse to do good will come quickly and frequently to our minds in every circumstance.
What does it mean to go about doing good? This brings us back to one of the recent changes in our church programs. It means ministering. Often it can be as simple as speaking a kind word, showing a little patience, remembering something about someone that is important to them, making time for someone, or setting a good example. It means that we pay attention to the needs of others, and we help.
This doesn't mean that every time we see a need, we drop everything. We have responsibilities and needs ourselves that will not always allow us to do that. But consider the parable of the Good Samaritan.
"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee." (Luke 10:30-35)
There will be times when, if we are to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, we will be called on to sacrifice like the Good Samaritan did. Clearly, it was not convenient for him. It took time and money. He may have had to give up something else he was planning to do. But because he had a Christ-like nature, he made the choice to sacrifice in order to minister. Certainly in this instance he went about doing good.
One of the main keys to becoming the kind of person who goes about doing good is to develop charity. Jesus said that the first great commandment is to love God, and the second is to love thy neighbor – in fact, he said that everything else hung on those two commandments. If we keep these commandments, I can't imagine how we could be restrained from ministering.
Speaking of the central importance of love, Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians (13:1-3), wrote, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."
And in 1 John (4:8), we read that, "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." Without charity, we cannot know God, and thus without charity, we cannot have eternal life.
So how do we gain the gift of charity? Returning to what I read from Mormon earlier, "...pray unto the Father will all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ;" Pray for it, and follow Christ, and you will receive it. And when we are filled with the love of Christ, we will go about doing good.
One of the challenges we sometimes face when trying to become more like Jesus is that it can be difficult to figure out how to be ourselves and to be like him at the same time.
It's important to recognize, first of all, that becoming Christ-like doesn't mean losing our individuality. We don't all have to end up liking the same colors, food, and music; having the same hobbies; doing the same jobs; or having the same sense of humor. There are many ways that we can be different while still being Christ-like in the ways that are necessary to gain eternal life.
But there may also be things that currently feel central to our sense of self that are simply incompatible with going about doing good.
We can have a sense of humor, but can we be sarcastic – can we amuse ourselves at others' expense – and go about doing good? We can have a little swagger, but can we be prideful or crude and go about doing good? We need to take proper care of ourselves, but can we be self-centered and go about doing good? We need to manage our time, but can we be impatient and go about doing good?
When we recognize things about ourselves that are incompatible with emulating Jesus Christ, we should be like the father of Lamoni who, when he was converted, prayed to God saying, "I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day." He was willing to give up those parts of himself in order to have eternal life.
But can we really change deeply ingrained habits, the way we feel about things, things that seem to be part of our nature? Can we overcome fears, let go of anger, purify thoughts, discover joy in hard work and service and associating with people who maybe we don't quite click with right now? Can we really become like Jesus in ways that currently seem completely foreign to us?
It is my testimony that the answer is a resounding, "yes!" I've often heard that people don't really change. But it is my testimony that people do change every day. It may be that some changes are like what Jesus said about a camel passing through the eye of a needle, "With men this is impossible;" But Jesus went on to say that, "with God all things are possible."
Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, every change that is required for us to become like him is possible. Some changes may not come in this life. But if this is the case for us, let it be because that's God's timetable, and not because we chose not to exercise faith in Jesus' power to change us, or gave up trying to become more like him.
The purpose of the Church is to bring people to Christ and to help us become like him. And the programs of the Church have been updated to help each of us to become more like Christ in our every day lives. Let us be his disciples, always seeking to love and minister to others as he loves and ministers to us.