Being Active in the Gospel vs. Being Active in the Church

David Heap has graciously agreed to hang out with us this week. He describes himself thusly: “David Heap is a Phoenix lawyer,
married, with four adult children.”

President Boyd K. Packer has distinguished between being “active in the church” and “active in the gospel”:

“Once in a stake meeting, I noticed a larger than usual number of older members, most of them widows. I mentioned to the stake president how impressive they were.

“The president replied, ‘Yes, but they are not active in the Church,’ meaning they did not serve as leaders or teachers. He spoke as though they were a burden.

“I repeated his words, ‘Not active in the Church?’ and asked, ‘Are they active in the gospel?’ He did not quite understand the difference at first.”

Boyd K. Packer, “The Golden Years,” Ensign, May 2003, 82

I believe that, in the eternal scheme of things, it may be more important to be active in the gospel than active in the Church. Of course, in many cases, being active in the gospel is reflected by our also being active in the Church.

I think one can be active in the gospel without being active in the Church, even when the lack of Church activity is not caused by age or infirmity. Persons under Church discipline can be active in the gospel, as can children whose parents prevent them from attending or being baptized. Some may stay away from Church for a variety of reasons, including having taken offense, disillusionment or boredom, but in their daily interactions with others they may model the highest teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. I expect many such individuals, whom we may rarely see at Church, will one day hear the Savior say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

I would take this further. Just as the Lamanites were “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not,” 3 Nephi 9:20, I think many people who do not purport to be “active” in religious life actually are active in the gospel without knowing they are.

What do you think? What are some ways to be active in the gospel without being active in the Church? What are some ways to be active in the gospel while being disengaged or disaffected from the Church? Or being a member of a different faith tradition? Or of no faith at all?

Note: As many know, Elder Ronald Poelman delivered a wonderful address 26 years ago on a related, but different issue—i.e., the distinctions and the relationship of the Church and the gospel, which he then revised (the revised version is the official one in the Ensign). Both versions are found here, and both are worth reading. I would prefer, though, that this thread not be used to focus on or argue which version is more correct or the circumstances of the revision.

Bookmark Being Active in the Gospel vs. Being Active in the Church


  1. observer says:

    In theory I think you can be active in the Gospel and not active in the Church. You can certainly be active in Church and not active in the Gospel. But in these modern times with immorality and all sorts of distractions being constantly shoved in your face, I would find it very difficult in practice to remain active in the Gospel (fully) and not active in Church. At least I find that to be the case for myself.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Hi David, it’s good to see you around here. Thanks for your gest posts, you definitely class up this joint.

    What do you do when you don’t have to do something? I have spent some time without a calling before, sometimes for months at a time. It was nice. I tried to make a point of showing up for all the work assignments and moving projects and helping all I could. In my opinion, callings are overrated.

  3. My mother is not LDS, and one of the most active people in the Gospel I know, so I definitely believe this is true.

    AS to President Packer’s point, there are a great many people who live the Gospel in their lives, but it is frustrating to leadership that they are unavailable to meaningfully hold callings due to life situations (Age, Health, Work, etc.) and we sometimes, focusing to much on the functional needs of the community, can lose the big picture. However, I still think willingness to give church service is extremely important, and is a key indicator of a persons commitment to the Gospel, despite it’s many flaws.

  4. Jason Grygla says:

    You seem to be very well read and on point- very impressive. The one sticking point I personally can’t avoid feeling in being active in the Gospel, which requires me to be active in the church organisation also is the means to partake of the covenants which are only offered through the administrative channels. I wonder if God sets it up that way on purpose so we have to interact with all of our human weaknesses and be refined together through it… It would certainly be easier to just have a personal relationship with God and call it good- but he seems to make me carry it over into my personal relationships with others through the Church we belong to. Keep up the great work!

  5. Rameumptom says:

    On the other side of things, I’ve noted that some are busy doing Church work, when we need to be busy in the Lord’s work.
    How many people we see in the Church, who think that because they go to a dozen meetings in a week, that they’ve accomplished something?
    Member missionary work often does not get done, because we are so busy working with members and member programs that we do not get a chance to meet and befriend non-LDS.
    Also, often we end up administering the policies of the Church, rather than ministering the gospel according to the needs of those around us.

  6. I’m currently reading Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition (the classic primer on Mormon history from 1890 – 1930).

    Alexander tells how sacrament meeting attendance was quite low in 19th century Utah, and by 1913 attendance still averaged just 14.5%. Apparently, in that era one could be a faithful Mormon without attending meetings, because there was little separation between the church and the secular community. Settling new communities, building church enterprises, and serving secular community needs were all seen as part of church service. Attendance at worship services was often secondary to these. People’s lives were tied to the church even if they didn’t go to sacrament meeting every Sunday.

    But as the church has grown outside the Intermountain West, it has taken on a more limited role as just one religious institution within larger secular communities. Now, service in the community is seen as a noble but separate endeavor; one needs to be active in the church organization itself to be seen as “active.” I suppose that this is because work in social charities, local goverment, etc. does not tie us the the LDS church community quite the same as attendance at local LDS meetings does.

  7. Is there a churchwide definition of active? Given all of the differing criteria for active I have been given from my local leadership I don’t even know what it means.

  8. I think of this situation in the following terms: Commitment to Church vs. Commitment to Christ.

    There are some people who are committed to the Church, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They come to church, they are probably active and probably serve in the church. However, this is not the thing that is most important. When we are committed to the Church only, we can find ourselves in situations where our faith is shaken by people, new ward boundaries, new rules from the prophet (ie – no farewells, homecomings, …), etc. This may or may not happen, but the Church isn’t the sure foundation.

    Commitment to Christ is what will keep us grounded in the gospel no matter what happens to us in our lives. I also think that commitment to Christ will probably lead us to live very active church lives (as we believe that we need to serve God and also renew our covenants on a weekly basis). It seems to me that when we are commited to Christ, we are probably also commited to the Church.

  9. For most people I think, being active in the gospel means one is also active in the church, although there are exceptions to this. For instance, military service or other temporary separation from “civilization” could mean one is not active in church for a time.

    Certain career choices may also make one less active in church. My husband is a professional organist, which means he will probably never attend another Stake Conference again in his working life. He also switches wards yearly, and usually skips EQ & Sunday School due to Sunday afternoon exhaustion.

    I think his career choice makes him very active in the gospel, however. He brings the spirit to a lot of Protestants every week through music, and serves people regularly though donating extra time to help people learn their music. It’s a hard act, though, because we’re taught that church activity = faith, obedience, commitment, goodness, etc. Mormon culture makes you feel like you’re either all in or all out, so it can be hard to walk that line.

  10. Even when I’ve felt at my lowest, my most disconnected from my ward (there have been times), the one selfish thing I’ve kept for me was to take the sacrament. I wouldn’t feel that I could fully participate in the gospel and the atonement if I werent’ at least doing that.

    (So yes, it would to the casual observer that I’m active and engaged, because I’m going at least to one meeting. But that’s because *I* want to partake in that ordinance, for me, and I’m doing what it takes to do *that*. The sacrament ordinance, for me, has nothing to do with any other internecine ward politics, etc.)

  11. @9 –

    vFor most people I think, being active in the gospel means one is also active in the church.

    Mormon culture makes you feel like you’re either all in or all out, so it can be hard to walk that line.

    I found found that in my multiple stake missionary callings (dating that service, I know), that many new members do not join the Church burdened with that thought, and that’s one thing they run up against when they would hit church “culture”.

    We’re taught to do all we can and not to run faster than we have strength, and I’d rather have someone committed to the gospel taking a break from Church, than the other way around.

    A brother in our ward was at a Cub Scout meeting recently, and he hadn’t been to Church for awhile. Since he often works, I asked him how he was doing and that I hadn’t seen him lately. He commented that he was just need to take a little break. I encouraged him to do what I said in # 10 — just come and take the sacrament, and leave after that. Since then I’ve seen him in Church twice, just for sacrament meeting, and then he goes home.

    (We have the sort of relationship where I can suggest that.)

  12. David, have you read Eugene England’s “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel”? It might help put some of these questions in perspective for you.

  13. Molly Bennion says:

    Many of our older members are not physically able to take on the Church jobs we can offer. Sometimes their health alternates from good to terrible to good and they cannot be relied upon for a regular calling. But they could offer a wealth of wisdom and counsel if we would structure changes in the system. We could offer consultant and ad hoc types of callings to our presidencies, resource callings to ask a retired business person to mentor a job applicant or entrepreneur or to tutor a student. The student would have to go to the tutor, but the benefits to both could be great. I would give these callings a dignified title, no set guidelines of how many or what types of duties and let the Bishop use as few or as many as he deemed wise.
    The more we learn of old age, the more we know purpose and social interaction are critical to maintaining physical health.

  14. I would say that, in my experience, an average member is more likely to be active in the gospel, as you define it, while a leader is more likely to be active in the church.

  15. All this makes me think of the parable of the Ten Virgins. All ten are active in the church, but five are active in the gospel in addition to church activity. The result being they had the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and therefore were admitted to the wedding.

  16. I start off my day with readings from the BoM, D&C, and the Bible and end my days with the Scriptures. I try to go to church every sunday but my parents limit my attendance, as well as going to FHE at members’ houses and discussions with missionaries. I’d love to be more active, but being a minor and in a religious (Unification Church) household, it’s not that possible at the movement.

    I consider myself pretty active in the Gospel, considering all things.

  17. Thanks for your welcome and your thoughtful comments.

    I believe activity in the Church should be a subset of activity in the gospel. We should strive to fit Church activity into our lives as an important component of gospel activity, rather than the other way around. As Catania says in 8, our commitment to Jesus will hopefully lead us to Church activity. I think that this way, under Jared’s interpretation of the parable of the 10 virgins (in 15), we can be spiritually ready for the Master as both active in the Church and the gospel.

    Church activity can help provide experiences difficult to replicate elsewhere, in particular learning to “practice” the gospel in our dealings with other imperfect humans, as Jason notes in 4. I think this is also a point Eugene England makes in his wonderful essay to which Huston refers in 12.

    Church activity can strengthen us for our trials and tempations, as observer notes in 1. And, as queuno points out in 10-11, Church activity (and even partial activity) can be a means of bringing us blessings of personal communion with God’s spirit through participation in the Sacrament.

    Along the lines Rameumpton suggests in 5, when we say that Mormonism is a “way of life,” sometimes I fear we mean that Church activity is all-consuming, with little time for unassigned gospel activity (including the type described in Matthew 25:31-40 (see Ronan’s post on February 24)) Tom (in 14) may be correct when he observes that this may be particularly true when we are in demanding leadership positions.

    I think it is important for all who are willing to have a sense of contributing to our faith community, and I endorse Molly’s call (in 13) for creativity in providing opportunities for those who may not currently be in position for regular callings, in particular those who have had a wealth of experience and have great wisdom.

    CE (in 6) is right that the concept of Church activity has changed over the years. It is unfortunate that our current concept of Church activity includes so much “inactivity”, sitting still (more or less) for three hours on Sunday and listening to repetitive lessons or talks. I have heard of a couple of units in Africa that included a recess period during primary (until higher leaders put a stop to it). I personally think a recess period during the block would be a great idea Churchwide, not just for primary, but for the adults as well (at least the high priests).

    Jerry (in 7), I do not have a particular definition in mind of what it means to be active in the Church. What do you think it means, or should mean?

  18. And thanks to Mark (in 2), Matt W (in 3), Emily (in 9) and Hye Sung (in 16) for examples of being active in the gospel without being active in the Church (or during a period between callings). And to queuno (in 10 and 11) for thoughts about taking an occasional break from full or overly consuming Church activity while continuing in gospel activity.

  19. Well, I just read “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” and I find it poorly reasoned.

    Ignoring what I consider to be the poor logic of the piece, isn’t it true that various prophets, including Joseph Smith, have put great emphasis on direct revelation?

    My impression is that some people actually get direct revelation. And not all of them are members of the Church.

  20. I think that one reason that you can be active in the gospel but not in the church is that church service is not, according to gospel teaching, our highest priority in life. Our families and our own basic needs come first. I think that’s why, in this story, the widows who were attending meetings but not helping to run the ward were described as “active in the gospel”. Presumably they were keeping their coventants the best they could.

  21. Presumably they were keeping their covenants the best they could.

    My take on covenants is very different. We’ve all seen “B-movies” where some parent makes some promise to a child that then must to be broken…and we understand such trade-offs as part of growing up.

    I would be surprised if God did not have at least as much understanding. I don’t think he see’s covenants that same way that we do.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    “Well, I just read “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” and I find it poorly reasoned. ”


    I just read “War and Peace” and found it a bit superficial.

  23. I think we usually go by the standard of activity in the church to judge whether one is “active” or not, simply because it’s easier to count the number of people attending a church meeting than it is to determine whether each of those people has a personal testimony of Christ. As others have pointed out, the two categories are not mutually exclusive, although in my opinion it’s better to be active in the gospel and not-so-active in the church than it is to be active in the church and not-so-active in the gospel.

  24. #22 Steve,
    I’m confused by your post. (But then, I remember someone saying you are Canadian…is it that Canadian humor?) Are you disagreeing about the article being poorly reasoned? I guess I have trouble discerning irony vs. sarcasm vs. exaggeration in this kind of forum.

    I thought about listing the logic/inference problems with the piece, but thought that wasn’t really constructive — especially since my point was really about the often tenuous connection between being close to God and any specific activity.

  25. David H, of course the expected thing to say is, “of course you can be active in the Gospel without being active in the Church.” And that is certainly true for some people. Obviously, there are probably literally billions of very good people who don’t go to our Church, and very many of them will get a “well done” comment from the Savior. It is also true that any attempt to judge the church activity of others is rife with problems — you don’t know their situations and are not capable of judging them (nor should you try in many circumstances).

    Nonetheless, we must ask why we have the home teaching program and why even from Joseph Smith’s day the purpose of the home teaching program has been to encouraging people to be active in the Church (as well as in the Gospel). It seems obvious to me that there are many reasons: taking the Sacrament is crucial to understanding the Atonement; fellowshipping with your fellow Saints is important to learning how to work within God’s structure of an eternal Church; being active offers many more opportunities for service that you might not know about if you were inactive; being active offers you the opportunity to help others inside the Church and be a teacher to the young or to new members; being active means knowing about stake temple days and helps remind you to get a temple recommend and go to the temple regularly. I could go on.

    Our bishops and stake presidents constantly urge us to be active — interestingly one of the stake themes this year in my stake is encouraging members to go to Church more often and make sure they take the Sacrament regularly.

    So, while I am sure there are many, many worthy people who are active in the Gospel without being active in Church, it seems to me it is possible to do both and we should try to do both.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    “My take on covenants is very different. We’ve all seen “B-movies” where some parent makes some promise to a child that then must to be broken…and we understand such trade-offs as part of growing up.

    “I would be surprised if God did not have at least as much understanding. I don’t think he see’s covenants that same way that we do.”

    In this analogy, are we the parents who break superficial promises and God is the child? Or is God the parent who breaks a promise?

  27. Hye Sung,
    Sounds like you are doing a great job.

  28. Mamallama says:

    The scripture comes to my mind in this discussion, “Where much is given, much is required.” I would guess that the opposite applies as well. “Where not as much is given, not as much is required.”

    The Lord knows what is in our heart…why we do or don’t do the things we do and don’t do in our lives. He knows those items, issues or circumstances that restrict us from accomplishing what we desire to in our hearts.
    There are many with physical, emotional, social or other restrictions that keep them from being “active” in the church.

    I think each individual needs to ask himself am I doing all that I am able to do, to live the gospel in my personal circumstance? For some, that requires both activity in the gospel and activity in the church. For others it does not. And of course there are many varying levels of activity in the spectrum of it all.

    I believe that we will be surprised at how many the Lord will say “Well done thou good and faithful servant” to…that it won’t just be members of the LDS church….but will include those of many faiths…… those who strived to live good lives, who did the best they could, who were “active” in the gospel in their hearts according to their “GIVEN” circumstances.

    I just hope to live in a way to be among them.

  29. My wife has been unable to attend meetings regularly because of health issues the last 2-3 years. She was all excited last Sunday because she felt up to going for the first time in quite a while. She had just finished her makeup when she heard that friends of ours had had their three young children diagnosed with RSV, and the baby was being admitted to the hospital that morning. My wife took off her skirt, put on a pair of jeans and tennis shoes, and spent Sunday babysitting the two kids who were still well enough to stay at home.

    She’s not been able to be active in the Church, but her level of Gospel activity puts me to shame.

  30. #26 John,

    are we the parents who break superficial promises and God is the child? Or is God the parent who breaks a promise?

    I guess that I’m arguing that it is more mature to view “covenants” as something that, at some point, may no longer be in the best interest of all concerned. At that point, those involved in the covenant would want to be “mature” enough to simply no longer consider it binding.

    So, in my analogy, God would have the wisdom to know when a covenant is no longer binding — it is not a matter of breaking a covenant or ignoring covenant — it is a matter of maturity about covenants. (I am not saying we should ignore covenants. I’m just saying that our view of them may be oversimplified and child-like.)

  31. Concerned says:

    I wish people would not assume so much. As a parent of a special needs child most Sundays I leave around 11:00 so my child can have a chance to attend a bit Primary. Most people assume we are either offended with someone or just “less” active when we do not make it. When we try to explain, they just don’t get it so we do not say anything anymore. Same applies when is time to accept a calling.

    It always amazes me how people link callings to spirituality and sitting your butt in a chair every Sunday as being “active”. And if you don’t make it to the Christmas dinner…then oh well, you’re going out of darkness.

  32. Heavenly Father will judge each of us perfectly. And as others have said:

    “For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.” D&C 82:3

    What does it mean to have “much given”?

    In my opinion it would certainly include all those who have been baptized, raised in the church, and have felt the Spirit of the Lord (there are many others, but I will only mention this group).

    The question then becomes: what is the most important objective before each of those who have been blessed so abundantly?

    When we’re baptized we are offered the opportunity to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Unless we diligently seek to receive this gift and are born again, we are “still born”. This is what happened to the ten virgins (#15 above). Five were born again, having received the Holy Ghost, and five were “still born”. Remember the language of the parable: wise and unwise, not wicked and righteous, good or evil.

    Five were valiant in the testimony of Jesus, and five were not valiant.

    The most important task we have is to fulfill our baptism covenant and acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost–the First Comforter. Then we can begin to contemplate the offer to receive the Second Comforter.

    The Lord is no respecter of persons. All are alike in His eyes. Our birth status, educational status, church calling status, and whatever other status we care to examine is not going to be a vicarious means to gain the status of being born again by fire and the Holy Ghost. There is only one path to this blessing and all of us of high or low “status” will travel this path naked of the things of this world if we hope to acquire the blessing that comes with the remission of sins.

  33. Here are two things affecting my physically visible activity for the eyes of the natural menkind the last 2 1/2 years that have been both annoying and amusing. We moved to a small town that unfortunately has a lot of less-magnified minds. I had a very difficult pregnancy that had an annoying side effect that not only made you run to throw up but was such an overwhelming strong spasm that it had the same dangerous occurence at the other end simultaneously! Obviously, the fifty mile round trip to the ward was very often not a smart thing to do. I am smart, I didn’t do it. There is only one, yes 1 public restroom and that is 22 miles of the 25 to get there to the church bldg. The complementary component that overlapped and continued after the birth of #6 baby was a period of 1 year of unemployment from salaried work for my husband. Believing the words of Pres. J Rueben Clark–that the difference between happiness and misery can be greatly affected by the lack of just $1.00–that also curtailed all unnecessary activities, weekday, Saturday, all of it. We “left the reservation” only to take him to the airport (5-6 hour trips depending which one of two) for interviews and sporadic contract work and visiting and home teaching. We kept paying tithing, attended the temple often, OFTEN and that is a 6 hour round trip. We have morning and evening prayers and scriptures 99.8% of the time, FHE about 85-90%, took our teens to temple often as well for our deceased. I know percentages because about the early mid 1990’s I got hold of Thomas S. Monson’s “When performance is measured, performance is increased”, I started measuring and it increased and stablized.

    Just when the Lord knew I was over the close proximity to private restrooms–he assigned my husband to a stake calling that required tons of long drives to other units. Try imagining even fewer restrooms per mile, on average….

    We have one car… So the children and I could go with him or not go to church at all at our ward. Bearing one another’s burdens covenant didn’t prompt anyone to buy a shuttle bus to help us be able to go….

    We went with him. The people at our ward made all sorts of speculations, most quite rude and indiscreet. The real fun was the stupid behavior from various leaders and members of the other church units–almost like we were spies, very, very interesting reaction as these units were ….statistically challenged in many of the way the Church measures activity. That early 1900’s sacrament attendance rate quote someone put out above would be an improvement to these guys and the tithing–and therefore where their heart is looks about the same. In the exact month our cash, our home equity cash stolen back from ourselves and enslaving ourselves again to a bank, and the warranty on our car ran out–the Lord sent a windows of heaven deal with several offers at once. One which would require weekday travel quite often which would rack up hotel rewards points which enable a large family to afford to go to the temple often and his weekends are still clear for “natural man visible Church Activity”.

    The Lord knows who is active in the Gospel and active in His Kingdom, which is the Church. Some of us here on earth being a little deaf–he communicates this to some of his servants through information available from the clerk’s office and I bet some tracking of those nifty bar codes that get scanned at the place where after all the practice sessions are done– Jesus himself will meet us sometime.

    For sisters, brothers, whoever who unnecessarily get hung up on the pants and skirt thing–please remember this:
    Heavenly Father, Savior and Messiah Jesus Christ and Angel Moroni all showed upwearing very close to ankle length….. gowns!
    Hem length apparently does matter;)

  34. I remembered that in the biography about Camilla Kimball she had the same “unwelcoming” attitude actually verbalized very indiscreetly when she was traveling with her apostle husband on trips for his calling and amusedly decided I wasprivileged to suffer the same affliction as one of the Gospel elect.

    Often Christ didn’t get the welcome wagon, red carpet treatment either….are any of us greater than He?

    Is it not pride that has us all imagining all our still-only-potential future celestial glory ought to be bowed down and worshiped by our fellow beings when we appear at our ward?

    If you aren’t contagious and you aren’t spending yourself into a pit to get there–please attend your Sabbath day meetings as often as “oft” can mean for you. It may at least keep hellacious thoughts from arising in the less magnified minds in your ward!

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