Although the doctrines of the LDS Church get the lion’s share of attention from the critical or curious, oftentimes what makes the Church stand out as different are its unique programs. Sometimes these programs will give a person a better feel for who Mormons are than will a discussion of doctrines because, after all is said and done, Christian discipleship is defined more by what we do than what we think. The next few posts on this blog will deal with some of these programs.
Home teaching is a strange place to start, because it is one of the most neglected programs in the Church. I can’t count the number of meetings I’ve attended where the men in the Church have been encouraged, cajoled, begged or guilted into home teaching. For most of my life, I was one of guys in the room who avoided eye contact whenever the subject came up. Fortunately, over recent years I’ve repented a bit, mostly because of a good companion who gently finds a way to get me out the door and on the road.
Some version of home teaching has been around since 1850, but the current concept was adopted by the Church in 1963 (honestly, I don’t know this stuff, but Mr. Google knows all). It grows out of the responsibility of priesthood holders (especially the office of “teacher”) to “watch over the Church,” as expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants. The essence of the program is that pairs of priesthood holders are assigned a group of families in the ward (congregation) who they are to visit once a month. The purpose of the visit is to share a gospel message, identify any needs of the family, and assist the family where necessary. Home teachers are to make other visits as may be necessary under the circumstances. The effect is to delegate the responsibility for caring for the ward away from priesthood leadership and to draw members closer together.
The women have a similar program called “visiting teaching,” which is geared towards visiting the women in the ward in particular and making sure that they are cared for. The main difference between the programs is that home teaching is about service to the family as a whole, while visiting teaching focuses on the wives and moms. (The other significant difference is that the women tend to meet their visiting teaching obligations much more frequently than the men take care of their home teaching assignments).
I grew up without much of a testimony of home teaching. Although I was confirmed a member of the Church by our home teacher shortly after my family joined the Church, that was the only home teacher I remember having over a period of…well, about three decades. Occasionally someone would show up, apologize for not coming before, and then disappear like a dissident in Stalinist Russia. In the last 10 years or so, we have had a few faithful home teachers that brought a wonderful spirit into our home and made a real effort to serve.
But, as with most things, I gained a testimony of home teaching the only way you can: By doing it. Several years ago I was assigned as the junior companion to a good friend who has a way of making most things bearable. For the first year or so, I sat through our visits like a wolf caught in a trap, wondering if it would be worth it to chew through my leg in order to get out. As with most home teaching routes, ours was a mix of people who either seemed to be doing fine without us, or less active members who really didn’t want us there. What was the point?
I didn’t begin to understand the importance of the program until one of these families, an older couple, started facing some real crises. Serious health problems began visiting them, which ultimately led to the death of the husband. In the months leading up to his death, my companion and I had some fantastic spiritual experiences as we contemplated ways to serve better. There were moments along the way that were so sacred that I hesitate to share them. We saw the husband give a blessing to his wife, the first he had given in decades, with his son assisting. We gave this good man his final blessing in the hours before his death, and I spoke at his funeral. We stood with the wife through some extraordinary difficulties, doing nothing grand or heroic, but just being there. As a result, I developed a better relationship with their son, someone I knew, but not well. I got close to their grandson and was able to provide some counsel to him when he struggled with the decision of whether to serve a mission. I found myself caring about and being involved in the lives of a family that I never had really known before.
That, I am convinced, is what home teaching is designed to do. It involves the “dirty” work of actually being in people’s homes, caring enough to identify needs, and trying to meet those needs where you can. It is a simple form of discipleship: Being where the Lord would be, trying to do what He would do.
My experiences aren’t exceptional. Despite the low participation in home teaching, those men I know who have done it dutifully have felt the same way about their service to the families under their stewardship. If you measure the inspiration of a program by the results of those who participate in it, then I cannot argue that home teaching is anything other than an inspired program.