When asked by the media about those who had drifted from the faith, President Thomas S. Monson had three words: "Don't give up."

He sounded like a man with a life preserver calling to a struggling swimmer.

In a sense, he was.

Keeping people afloat in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint is called "retention," but it's less about "retaining" people on the rolls than it is helping them retain some spiritual sense of life.

Late President Gordon B. Hinckley once told the Quorum of the Twelve, "Brethren, when my life is finished and the final services are concluding, I am going to rise up as I go by, look each of you in the eye and say, 'How are we doing on retention?"'

Retention has become a real focus. For you don't need an abacus to know many members have left the building.

What happened to them?

My thinking is this.

In the early days, the church had to keep moving or die. The Saints kept an eye single to Zion as they trudged across the plains. If they stopped to mourn or weep, the weather and wilderness would do them in. Dozens were buried in shallow graves.

Once in Utah, that same impulse continued. Now Zion was a heavenly goal, not a physical one. But that same drive pushed the Saints forward. And if you fell by the way, the heavenly wagon train kept moving on. The hymn "Have I Done Any Good?" let us know "The world has no use for a drone."

But the words of that hymn have been changed now. And so has the thinking behind the push to Zion. As the church has grown more anchored and the outside world become less threatening, leaders are asking members to pause in their trek to minister to those who fell by the way — the doubters and dissenters, the tired and tempest-tossed.

Members are being asked not only to stop and smell the roses, but also to cultivate, water and care for the roses. To nurture them.

The dangers are different now. Mortal lives are no longer so much at risk, but spiritual lives are. And that means less "pushing" and more "lifting." The word "active" today is not so much about "action" — teaching, attending, contributing. It's more about being "active" the way electric wires are active. It's about the spark, the current within. It's about the inner — not outer — life. It's about what's in the heart, not what's on the list of things to do today. It's how we should look at all people.

I'm grateful for the new focus on retention. It gives people like me a chance to go back and make amends for being so self-concerned and distracted in the past.

For, in the end, isn't that how the path to heaven is really laid out? It's not a long trek we have to endure, but a circular route that keeps looping back to search for the lost, the discouraged and the disappointed.

"We have such an obligation to those who are baptized into the church," President Hinckley said. "We cannot neglect them. We cannot leave them to stand alone. They need us ... and it is our great blessing and opportunity to afford that help."

In other words, for those people out there hunkered down in some chilly, internal Martin's Cove, "Don't give up."

Warm blankets and food are on the way.

Jerry Johnston is a Deseret Morning News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com